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Elements of Double Bass Shifting

Sidney A. King | April 2015


   For double bassists, shifting is a way of life. While other string players have their earliest experiences in the comfortable confines of first position, young bassists are introduced to shifts right off the bat. Consider that the most commonly used method books introduce violinists to their first shifts late in the second or even third volume, while bassists must begin shifting in the first few pages of volume one. This is like an acrobat going straight from the swing set to the flying trapeze.
    Because of the instrument’s size, players are limited to one whole step between first and fourth fingers before having to change strings or shift to a different position. This makes shifting skills essential, and to succeed on the instrument, a player must develop these skills as securely as possible as early as possible. There are many ways to approach teaching these skills. Here are some ideas that have worked for me through many years of teaching.

Left Hand Shape
    Start with establishing the basic left hand shape. The hand should form a C (like the C on a Chicago Cubs baseball cap). Be sure that the fingers are curved.

The hand should be placed on the fingerboard in a manner that does not promote any clutching between the fingers and the thumb. Instead, the fingers should stop the string primarily through the use of arm weight. The thumb should gently touch the back of the neck and be positioned somewhere behind the first or second finger. The elbow should be relaxed and not held high, allowing the forearm and wrist to form a straight line.

The Importance of Arm Weight
    Understanding the use of arm weight is one of the most important factors in developing good shifting technique. While maintaining a good C-shaped configuration, place the left hand on the fingerboard at the crook of the neck with all four fingers down. Allow the rest of the left arm to relax all the way through the shoulder. This creates a hanging sensation, as if you are hanging from a ledge, which allows the hand to remain in a strong shape without becoming rigid.

    The opposite approach, clutching the neck with the left hand, will have the immediate adverse effect of diminishing smooth, successful shifting.

Standing vs. Sitting
    Left hand clutching is a common problem for students who stand to play. These students often resort to holding the instrument in place by clutching the neck with the left hand. Of course, some of the finest bassists in the world stand while playing, but my experience is that many young players are able to understand the concepts of left arm weight and hanging from the fingerboard more easily when seated on a stool to play.
    For this reason, I usually start all of my young students seated. A standard 29" stool easily found in hardware stores works just fine (and for shorter students, it may be necessary to shorten the legs of the stool). Have the student sit on the front edge of the stool with the right foot placed firmly on the floor and the knee bent slightly outward. The left foot should be placed on one of the rungs of the stool.

The instrument then fits securely alongside the right leg and is supported by the left knee, which should contact the instrument behind the seam where the back and rib join.

    In this configuration, the instrument stays in place and is a stable platform for the left hand to move freely up and down the fingerboard. This configuration provides stability and security similar to how a violinist uses a shoulder rest to help ensure left hand freedom.

Take the Thumb With You
    Consider the following figure played up the G string.

Note that at the point of the shift, the hand should move as a unit, keeping its shape. Many young players will want to leave their thumbs in the relative security of first position while the rest of the fingers struggle up to the target note. This tendency, however, creates an awkward hand shape and undermines the relaxed configuration that arm weight allows.
    Exercise: Have the student place the left hand in first position with all four fingers down (fourth finger on B natural on the G string). Release any tension in the thumb and gently touch the back of the neck to create the hanging sensation. Next, the student should smoothly slide the hand as a unit down the fingerboard until the thumb encounters the crook of the neck (the fourth finger should be on or near an E natural). Reaffirm the hanging sensation and the position of the thumb behind the first or second finger, then smoothly slide the hand as a unit back to first position. Be sure to take the thumb with you. An added benefit of this exercise is that the thumb detects reference points such as the crook of the neck to aid in shifting accuracy.

Shifting into Thumb Position
    As the player shifts further up the strings, it becomes necessary to adjust the left hand shape as the base of the hand encounters the shoulder of the instrument. At this point, the left hand should be slightly pronated, allowing the fingers to point more down along the axis of the fingerboard.

From here, the shorter fourth finger is generally not used anymore and the elbow is raised just enough to bring the inside of the wrist up off of the instrument’s shoulder. The thumb should be brought up onto the fingerboard. It is important to develop a smooth, unified motion of raising the elbow, hand pronation, and thumb placement when shifting through this range. The same unified motion in reverse should be used when shifting back towards the scroll out of thumb position.
    Exercise: Place the left hand on the G string with the proper shape and the fourth finger on E natural. Now, slowly slide the hand to an A natural (up a perfect fourth) with the third finger on the same string to play the following figure:

    Pay particular attention to having a smooth coordination between raising the elbow and pronating the hand. The elbow should not be raised excessively; unnecessary tension should be avoided. Now practice sliding back to the E natural with fourth finger with the elbow and pronation motions reversed. When shifting back, pay particular attention to letting the elbow fall into the position where the weight of the arm is responsible for stopping the note.

Shifting in Thumb Position
    Some popular method books introduce thumb position early, requiring students to play traditional folk songs in this range during the first stages of development. Thumb position should not be feared by students (or teachers). Shifting in thumb position follows the same basic concepts outlined above. In this case however, the left hand shape should be formed to help the player navigate to the end of the fingerboard and beyond. The fingers should point down the fingerboard with the hand slightly pronated and the knuckles raised.

    As noted, the fourth finger is not generally used in thumb position. The thumb helps to hold the string down. Left arm weight should still be the means by which the string is stopped, and the thumb should always move with the rest of the hand when shifting.

Lead with the Fingers
    It is important to remember to lead with the fingers when shifting in thumb position. Keep the fingers pointed down the fingerboard. A common problem is the tendency to supinate or roll the hand over so that the base of the hand leads and the fingers roll up towards the palm and end up pointing back up the fingerboard. Instead, maintain a proper hand shape and avoid any rolling motion in order to achieve more consistent accuracy.
    Exercise: Place the left hand on the G string with the proper shape and all figures down, including the thumb. Relax the arm and reaffirm the hanging sensation. Next, play the following figure, smoothly sliding the hand towards the end of the fingerboard, paying particular attention not to roll (supinate) the hand forward while ascending:

    Keep the thumb a steady distance from the first finger, usually a whole step. Once the end of the fingerboard is reached, reverse direction and slide back towards the scroll, still maintaining the right hand shape, amount of pronation, and space between the thumb and first finger.

Bassists in the twenty-first century are called on to play many musical roles, from being a sensitive and accomplished collaborator in an ensemble to being the featured artist in non-traditional soloistic roles.
Mastering the technique of shifting is not only an essential skill, but it also opens up a new world of musical possibilities on the instrument. Limitations of range and accuracy cease to be a barrier, and full advantage can be taken of the lyrical and sonorous qualities of this instrument in any musical situation.      l