A Double Bassist's Guide to Refining Performance Practices

A Double Bassist's Guide to Refining Performance Practices

by Murray Grodner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253010162
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 08/14/2013
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 10.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Murray Grodner is Professor Emeritus at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

Read an Excerpt

A Double Bassist's Guide to Refining Performance Practices

By Murray Grodner

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Murray Grodner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01020-9


Part 1

Critical Analysis of Physical Performance Techniques

Use of Self

In reading this book you will find the phrase "use of self" employed a number of times. I was asked by a reader of the original manuscript to clarify the meaning and reason for use of this phrase.

You may be familiar with the Alexander Technique. I took several lessons from various teachers of this philosophy of physical behavior. Initially, the Alexander teacher "maneuvered" head, neck and shoulders, and said little, leaving me wondering what I was supposed to take with me from the lesson. For a long time I was never quite sure what I was supposed to learn from the experience. Sometime later I found an Alexander teacher who was more verbal. I brought a bass to one lesson and we explored physical challenges presented by the double bass, experimenting with various positions suggested by the Alexander teacher. It became obvious that there really is not a perfect solution for physically dealing with the size of our instrument. There is only the most appropriate physical adaptation to an instrument the size and shape of the double bass. As time went by, I believe I found the answer to the goal of the Alexander teacher and my investigation of the possibility of physical positioning for playing double bass. It is the same goal that teachers of double bass should constantly be working toward: making the best use of self. Although I am not positive, I believe this might also be one of the goals of the Alexander system. If not, unquestionably the premise to make "best use of self" is. This goal is essential for the most successful fulfillment of our physical and musical aspirations.

The question now becomes, what is the best use of self? Who determines that? We play a large instrument that challenges us to find the most comfortable manner in which to maneuver on it and extract meaningful sounds. Our teachers' intent is to help us achieve these goals, but there is still the question, is our success really being achieved through best "use of self"? Are all teachers successful in teaching and making best "use of self"? Are we as teachers passing on what we have learned from experience by exploring how to translate our knowledge, or are we primarily leaning on what we learned from our teachers, without further questioning or enlarging on that information? Making best "use of self" requires translating musical thoughts and efforts through positive physical and intellectual application. Such is the goal of this book.

As you will find when reading on, I attempt to analyze and organize all aspects involved with positive performance, providing reasoning for the solutions suggested to hopefully make best "use of self."

The last chapter, written by Chris Gale, a physical therapist, results from awareness that proper "use of self" alone does not prevent physical abuse resulting from years of using the physical self to play double bass. We are not alone in experiencing this problem. The violinist and violist are even more subject to abusive behavior resulting from their required playing posture. The flutist is physically unbalanced by having to constantly hold his or her arms up shifted to the right. Even the clarinetist suffers from discomfort of the thumb that is placed below the metal thumb support. The only performers that seem to be less physically abused are the percussionists. Their abuse, however, can be damage to their hearing that results from the volume and percussive "explosions" required for performing on that family of instruments.

Although there may not be a perfect physical means of performing on our instrument, it is possible and essential for us to make best "use of self" physically, technically, musically, and intellectually.

Toward Creating a More Competent Bassist

(A guide for identifying, analyzing and resolving musical performance challenges, including treatises on the various aspects of the ever-evolving musician.)

It is interesting to note that, besides professional musicians, many doctors and individuals in some of the other sciences play an orchestral instrument. There are doctors' orchestras in several American cities. I had quite talented students who were practicing physicians, and I have performed chamber music with groups made up of only doctors. They were musically very competent and dedicated, providing me with a musical experience in many ways equal to performing with similar ensembles of fine professional musicians.

It is believed that the part(s) of the brain used by musicians and certain members of the sciences are closely related. A good doctor has to be very analytical and innovative in order to deal with the variety of symptoms and types of individuals that confront him or her for their medical needs. No one dies if a musician errs in performance, but it would enhance our abilities to perform and teach if we were as analytical in our musical creativity and solution of performance problems as are competent physicians in diagnoses based on physical symptoms.

This book is an effort to encourage one to make more conscious use of the part of the brain we seem to share with those in the sciences, resulting in more analytical problem solving for musical performance.

Tendencies of both teachers and players are to associate playing with the hands rather than the totality of integrated behavior between the mind, body, legs, arms, and hands. Have you considered that left hand is an initiator of motion (only) when fingering in a single position, while the right hand is never an initiator?

Staying aware of bowing will make you realize that the arm moves the hand before the hand ever flexes, and the hand primarily responds to the arm's motions. The fingers of the right hand respond to the tug on the hand (that is being moved by the arm) and to the resistance met by the bow being pressed against and pulled across the string. In this process, weight/pressure and direction are provided by the arm.

Even before all of these movements occur, there should be an automatic preparation of balancing the body, anticipating the leverage required to move the bow arm with proper energy for producing sound and rhythms. There also needs to be an anticipation of the role and response of the hand to the motion of the arm and the rhythmic requirements of musical notation.

All of this occurs more automatically or instinctively through practice and training, if one is properly instructed for necessary comprehension to evolve. It doesn't seem very complicated, does it? Then why do so many string players play as if all great technical feats result from primarily focusing on hands and fingers? Without the arms, the hands can go nowhere. We shift with the arm. We vibrate with the arm. We bow primarily with our arms. Unnecessary tension results from improper focus on what is mechanically responsible for the various aspects of our physical performance. Perceiving the hands as responsible for what only the arms can (should) do creates improper focus. This results in frustrations for finding solutions to performance problems and creates mental and physical tensions.

A large portion of this book will deal with proper balancing, shaping and motion, as well as assigning specific responsibility to the main body parts used in the various aspects of physical performance. Too much muscular tension and disoriented mental concepts exist; that can be helped by analytical observations, recommended corrections, and other musical suggestions included in this treatise. Start this journey by thinking of the above references to the mechanics of a properly initiated bow stroke.

Practice Habits

Using practice time most fruitfully means organization of the practice period plus being aurally very aware and intellectually analytical.

Time and again I have heard "I have practiced this passage at least one hundred times and when I come back to it again, I may still make the same mistakes. Why?" Note the part of this statement that says "the same mistakes." It should be obvious that there is a problem in the passage that remains unsolved, or one would not continue to have a result that causes the "same mistakes." Learning by repetition will work for passages that contain technical problems that have already been resolved by the player, consciously or instinctively. However, not being able to master a passage will be due to either the limitations of a player's level of performance or one's lack of having learned or recognized the technique that could avoid the stumbling. The problem is likely one of the many left-hand or bowing techniques not yet not learned or mastered. Basically, you can't play the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony no. 7, if you haven't learned to master the recurring bowing:


One may not successfully play the arpeggiated passages in Heldenleben without recognizing the tendency of the left hand to rush the first triplet of the arpeggio and/or the B-flat sixteenth before resolution note E-flat. These notes are not firmly executed by both bow and fingers because we are so anxious about getting to where we are going. We actually don't allow enough time to properly articulate bow and left hand so that these notes can be clearly heard. The problem in the Beethoven, as I already mentioned, is not having resolved the bowing problem, while in Heldenleben it is lack of clarity due to not knowing how to take the time to allow the arpeggios to sound clearly. Unaware repetitive practicing of these problem passages may make them sound better, but not recognizing or resolving their inherent problems will more likely end in a result that is not fully controlled or aurally satisfying.

Proper use of practice time means learning how to control playing through analyzing problems and identifying the techniques that need correction. Isolate the technical problem(s) and create a brief exercise that allows analytical practicing to correct the technical flaw in your execution of this type of passage. This approach means using materials to develop the left hand and bow arm. It requires building a vocabulary of behavior that includes as many learned techniques as one can resolve, before encountering these challenges in a solo or orchestra work. Learning how to identify and solve technical difficulties will be discussed in depth, starting with the following section and continuing through the multiple pages that follow.

The Left Arm and Hand


The left-hand thumb: Why should it be very modestly curved and not "straight"?

Place your left hand on the neck of the bass in your usual playing position. Press down normally on string and back of neck. Now straighten (unbend) the thumb's first joint as far as it can go, to the point at which it locks. Note (feel) the tension at the first joint of the thumb and the area of the web, between your thumb and 1st finger. Now very, very modestly allow the first joint of the thumb to unlock and curve (bend) slightly. Notice the difference in tension in the thumb joint and web area. The flat area (pad of thumb) should still be retaining contact with back of the neck of bass. It should not be placed so that only the very tip of thumb is in contact with neck. If one plays on tip of thumb rather than the flat (pad) of the thumb, other fingers will be somewhat pulled away from the strings. Placing the tip of thumb (relatively pointing) on the back of the neck decreases the access of the other fingers to the area of the strings and can be a source of unnecessary tension. Experiment with these positions of the thumb, noting the effect on tension and comfort. Remain very conscious of the effect the position and shape of the thumb have on access to the string and comfort of the 1st through 4th fingers. Done properly, the above recommendations should relax unnecessary tension and provide maximum access to the playing area of string.

Another important practice is allowing the thumb to move (rotate sparingly) across the back of the neck, when moving from string to string. This is especially necessary when moving to a string other than the immediately adjoining string. Finding a balance place on the neck for playing on adjoining strings is easily done. Adjusting the thumb for hand rotation to a string farther away helps retain the strongest and most maneuverable position for the hand/fingers. This also diminishes tension caused by unnecessarily reaching over to other than adjoining string. Any change to recommended physical practices will become habit over time through constant awareness and physical reinforcement.

At this point, it needs to be stated that there are at least two major kinds of tension. One is the type caused by the normal tendon and muscular support needed to hold us upright, to walk. or to do most other physical activities. Without the automatic muscular (supportive) tension required for daily activity, we would collapse into a sack of flesh and bones. Our concern, however, is only with excess or unnecessary tension caused by improper usage of body parts, or mental perceptions that cause improper usage. There is supportive tension in everything we do, including playing a musical instrument, but we must not make performing more difficult by creating situations that cause unneeded or excess tension.

Much has been said about left-hand thumb support for fingers and where the thumb should be placed in relation to the other fingers. There are, however, too many varied hand shapes (structures and sizes) for one formula to work for all hands. Some hands will not comfortably or properly allow the thumb to be placed opposite the 2nd finger, as is so often prescribed. Some hands are suppler than others, and there are also varied hand configurations. Opposite the 2nd finger is a good thumb placement, when you have a hand structure friendly to this configuration. In all cases, I would encourage that thumb placement be at least opposite or preferably somewhat below the 1st finger (if hand placement opposite 2nd finger is not realistic for your particular hand configuration). The role of the thumb, as much as possible, is to balance and support the hand for use of the other fingers. A comfortable vibrato also very much depends on positive thumb placement.

For playing cello or bass, it would be great to have the thumb grow in a place that would balance the whole hand. This would mean the thumb would grow out of the area of the hand just opposite the 2nd and 3rd fingers. It is the balance of the hand that we are trying to achieve with the best possible placement of the thumb. To complicate matters, balance for the 4th finger ideally requires different thumb support than does the 1st or 2nd finger. When vibrating in slow passages, some relocation of the thumb to favor the finger being used for vibrato may allow for more comfort and flexibility. This practice is not always possible and will be governed by the tempo and length of notes being played.

At this point, it is necessary to mention that all fingers used in performing on the string should be arched. There is considerable excess tension in the use of flat (non-arched) fingers. All one has to do to demonstrate this is to press the string down with arched fingers (playing on meaty pads just below fingertips). Then try playing with straight, "locked" finger joints. Feel the increased tension in the uncurved finger joints. This excess tension causes the physically reactive behavior to be less agile and slower in response.

Note that musically, finger function is quite related to percussion sticks and mallets. In rapid passages, the fingers will drum on the string very rhythmically. Thus it is logical in warm-up practice period to have a few (short) simple rhythmic finger exercises. Trill practice can be a part of this process. Note the rhythm of your fingers in these exercises, but do not exaggerate by pounding too hard, as this can cause the fingers to be lifted too high. The higher the finger is lifted, the longer it takes to go up and down between notes; therefore, monitor how high fingers have to be lifted to achieve the rhythmic pulsation of the fingers. Fingers should not have to be lifted very much in order for them drum rhythmically on the string. (See "Trill, Finger, and Shifting Exercises," p. 77).


Excerpted from A Double Bassist's Guide to Refining Performance Practices by Murray Grodner. Copyright © 2013 Murray Grodner. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

IA. Critical Analysis of Physical Performance Techniques
IB. Perfecting Techniques Employing Exercises and Orchestral Excerpts
II: Informative Essays for Double Bassists
III. Analytical Phrasing and Bowing for Solo Works
IV. Physical Therapies for Physical Abuses Related to Playing Double Bass

What People are Saying About This

Principal Bass, Boston Symphony Orchestra - Edwin Barker

Murray Grodner’s book is a comprehensive and well-organized guide that is packed with common sense information. It reads easily and establishes a nice balance between printed musical excerpts and cogent verbal explanations. The essay section is especially enlightening and contains authoritative advice on many aspects of classical bass performance. A Double Bassist’s Guide to Refining Performance Practices is eminently sensible and informative, and serves as an excellent resource for classical bassists.

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