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Getting the Most from the Basses

Jason Heath | January 2019

    The double bass is a mysterious instrument for many ensemble directors. Simple fixes that work for other instrumental sections seem to have no effect on bass sections. Although the bass shares much in common with its violin, viola, and cello cousins, there are several notable differences. 
    The bass is tuned in fourths instead of fifths, having evolved from the gamba family of instruments rather than the violin family. The bass is also inconsistent in terms of shape and size, and there are a wider variety of accepted postures and techniques than in the other bowed string instruments.
    Bass sizing is also nonstandardized. Standard-sized basses are referred to as 3⁄4 size, larger basses are called 7⁄8 size, and full-size basses aren’t actually manufactured. These sizes also are quite non-standardized between instrument makers, with one maker’s 3⁄4 bass resembling another maker’s 5⁄8 or 7⁄8. String lengths on professional basses can vary from 39" to 44", and bass shapes and patterns can vary widely as well.
    Bass players also use two different types of bows: French and German. These bows are different in shape, and they are held in distinctly different ways. Bass rosin is also much stickier than violin, viola, and cello rosin, and a different method is used to apply it.

Diagnosing and Solving Common Problems

    Here are some of the most common problems and practical methods of diagnosing and solving them.

Bassists Are Out of Tune
    Diagnosing the roots of bass section pitch problems can be challenging, but there are some likely causes of any poor intonation.
    No tape. In the early stages of development, tapes are tremendously helpful for showing where fingers need to go and getting the bass section to coalesce around a given pitch. Young bassists playing without tapes are likely to be out of tune.
    Action too high. Bass string height should be at or near the following measurements:

    G string: 6 mm
    D string: 7 mm
    A string: 8 mm
    E string: 9 mm

    Measure these string heights, and if they differ greatly from the above numbers, schedule an appointment with a school music dealer or a local violin shop. It will transform the bass section.
    Fingers not fully depressing the string. If students land on the tapes and the pitch is still off, they are probably not depressing the string all the way down to the fingerboard. The primary cause of this is overly high action, but students might not be keeping their fingers curved enough. Flat fingers are squishier and come with a tendency not to get the string all the way down to the fingerboard.
    For notes played with the fourth finger, it is important to understand that all four fingers are used to play a fourth finger note, not the fourth finger alone. For bass players, the third and fourth fingers work as a unit, and both of those fingers are kept close together and used simultaneously.
    Poor left hand posture. The left hand should be squared on the bass, with the second finger perpendicular to the string, the first finger angled slightly backward, and the third and fourth fingers together as a unit and angling slightly forward. To get a squared left hand position, make sure that there’s a good space between the first and second fingers and that the second, third, and fourth fingers are kept together as a unit. The distance from the first and second fingers should be the same as the distance from second to fourth finger. 
    A good technique for developing this position is to put a Pop’s rosin container (or a Kolstein/Carlson rosin container for smaller hands) between the first and second fingers. The left hand cannot help but move into good alignment when using this technique, and it is a memorable physical re­min­der for the student.
    The bass is too big for the student. It is almost always better to err on the side of having a student on an instrument that is slightly too small rather than slightly too large. Playing on a string length that is too long will cause all sorts of bad habits in a student. 
    To see if a string length will work for students, have them put their hand in first position with their first finger on the first tape and their fourth finger on the second tape. If they cannot reach this interval without strain, they need to be on a shorter string length.
    Even if the string length is correct, the bass itself might be too big for them. To check for this, see if the student can play between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge without strain and also keep their left hand in first position. The first finger of their hand should be no higher than their chin.

Open Strings Are Out of Tune
    The pitch center of the open strings is difficult to hear on basses; even professional bassists struggle with tuning their open strings. A big part of the challenge is how low these pitches are. Magnify this problem with a room filled with other instruments tuning, and it is easy to see why bass players struggle so much with tuning their open strings. Although intermediate and ad­vanced bassists learn to tune with their third position harmonics, teaching this technique in a mixed-instrument classroom can be difficult, and learning how to listen and adjust with these harmonics can be overwhelming for the average bass student not taking private lessons. Trying to enforce this method of tuning can result in students giving up and settling for out-of-tune strings. It is dangerously easy for bass players to give up and stop paying close attention to the sounds coming out of their instrument, choosing instead to saw away on strings that are a whole step or more away from the correct pitch.
    The most effective tuning method for tuning basses in a school orchestra or band setting is using an electronic tuner that clips to the bridge. Using a smartphone tuning app can work in quiet situations, but the low pitches of bass strings can confuse tuning apps. Keep clip-on electronic tuners near the bass racks, and get students in the habit of using one at the beginning of class every day.

Crooked Bows
    It is common to see bass players using extremely crooked bow angles. This kind of bowing produces a poor-quality sound and makes it nearly impossible to do anything sophisticated with the bow. There are a whole host of factors that might can cause this unhelpful drifting. 
    Bow hold. For French bow players, it is easy for the frog to slip down toward the palm of the hand. This lazy sort of bow hold is difficult to correct once it is established, so keeping on top of student bow holds is especially important during the first few years of playing.
    To remedy a droopy French bow hold, have students keep their pinky on the dot on the frog. Students should also keep the right hand squared just like the left hand, with good spacing between first finger and second fingers, and second, third, and fourth fingers together as a unit.
    Switching to a German bow might help break bad habits in French bow players. However, because of the underhand grip and longer stick on a German bow, there is even more of a tendency for German bow players to struggle with a crooked bow. While switching to German bow can indeed serve as a hard reset for French bow players with problematic bow holds, the bassist might end up trading one problem for another.
    Endpin is too low. The endpin should be high enough for students to play with a straight bow from frog to tip on all four strings. For both standing and seated bassists, adjust the endpin height so that the bridge connects with the student’s right-hand fingers.
    Endpin is too high. While less common than low endpins, having the endpin too far out can cause all sorts of problems for both standing and seated bassists. Many students raise the endpin in a misguided attempt to bring the instrument closer to them. Having the endpin too far out changes the center of gravity of the instrument, puts more weight on the bassist, and causes bassists to use a hold that is too horizontal, which forces the bassist to reach back too far with the left hand and too far forward with the right hand.
    Not following through in the upper half of the bow. Most bass students can play with a straight bow in the lower half of the bow. However, they often struggle with continuing the bow stroke into the upper half of the bow. On the bass, down bows begin as a whole arm motion. Approximately halfway through, the forearm takes over and finishes the bow stroke. This process is reversed for up bow, with the forearm initiating the stroke and the entire arm completing the up bow. It can be helpful to physically guide a student’s bow to demonstrate this arm motion. For the bow to remain straight using all the bow, there’s really only one path that the arm can take. This arm motion is similar for both French and German bow; it is only the bow hold that varies between the two.
    Not engaging the back in the bow stroke. Although the forearm changes motion in the upper half of the bow, the whole bow stroke is controlled by the larger muscle groups in the upper arm and back. Thinking of bass bowing as a pendulum using the whole arm, with the motion coming from the back, is beneficial for developing bow technique. Use a mirror to show students the body mechanics required for the bow to travel in a straight path. 
    Bass is angled too wide. Finding the right angle for holding the bass can be tricky, and the sweet spot can vary greatly depending on the shape of the instrument and whether the student is standing or sitting. 
    When standing, the right rear edge of the instrument should connect with the pocket that’s formed where the left hip bone meets the abdominal cavity. The student should be able to balance the bass without it falling forward or backward. Both feet should remain flat on the floor, and the left leg should not be used to support the bass.
    When sitting, the left leg should be elevated, typically on a stool rung, but a guitar footstool or yoga block can also be used. The right leg should run alongside the right rib of the lower bout.
    It is common for bassists, either standing or sitting, to fall into a cello posture, with the instrument rotated out and pointed straight ahead. While this stance can work for more advanced players depending on their stance and on the shape and the size of their instrument, this makes playing with a straight bow challenging, and it can lead to physical strain.

Drooping Left Arms
    Focusing on a good, squared left hand shape greatly helps with drooping left arms. Keeping the forearm perpendicular to the neck is critical. This goes hand-in-hand with a squared left hand, and introducing both concepts at the same time can help to develop them both.
    As is the case with so many aspects of bass playing, having students observe themselves in a mirror is a great way for them to develop an awareness of how their left arm is working. Practicing a good left hand shape and left arm alignment away from the bass can help greatly to develop an ergonomic, well-aligned left arm and avoid that drooping left elbow.

Collapsing Fingers
    Left hand fingers collapse for many reasons. Some are directly related to instrument setup; these include the string action being too high, the nut being too high, fingerboard warping, an overly stiff brand of strings, the bass being too big for student, and strings that are too old. Other reasons are because of bad posture or alignment and include a misaligned left arm, not enough space between the neck and palm, the thumb not centered in the back of the neck, and a drooping left arm.
    Bad setup promotes bad technique, as students attempt to use whatever means possible to get the string fully depressed. Having a qualified luthier set your basses up with action as low as possible will work wonders. Be sure to also have the luthier confirm that the nut is not too high. Also, think about changing old strings out for lighter gauge strings. Good habits are much easier to cultivate with basses that are set up well and are easy to play. 

    There are three main reasons why bass sections drag.
    The bass is slower to speak. Lower pitched, larger instruments take longer for the sound to get going. Bass sections are notorious for playing late, and the request that is frequently made is for them to anticipate, or to play on the front edge of the beat. While this is a valid request for a bass section, learning to play on the front edge of the beat is a more sophisticated concept, and asking this of younger students rarely helps. If anything, it makes them mistrust their own hearing.
    As with so many bass section problems, the answer lies in good setup. Check that the bass players have fresh rosin and that they are applying it at the beginning of rehearsal. Keep a washcloth or two on the bass rack and get students into the habit of wiping down the fingerboard, strings, and body to prevent rosin and finger grease from building up. Also be sure that the bass bows are getting annual rehairs and that strings are replaced every two years if possible.
    Distance from ensemble. Basses are, for good reason, put in the back of the ensemble. Keeping the basses as close to the rest of the ensemble as possible helps greatly with dragging. This can be difficult when sharing a room with multiple ensembles. These rooms are often set up for the largest ensemble (often not the orchestra). If not addressed, it is easy to find the other three string sections in a close formation, with 10-15 feet between them and the basses. This will not help with dragging.
    Fuzzy articulation. Even if the bass section is playing in time, they might sound late because of a lack of clarity in their articulations. Bass strings are quite thick – like bridge cables – and they take more weight to achieve a comparable  articulation. All the items outlined for remedying slower speaking basses will also help with fuzzy articulation.

Bow Strokes Do Not Match the Rest of the Strings
    Bassists can be slower to develop bow strokes. Some of this might be because teachers are uncomfortable with bass mechanics, but it can also be a result of subpar gear or some of the bow arm deficiencies previously described.
    Getting crisp articulation involves sinking enough weight into the string from the arm and back and pulling the string with the weight of the bow before releasing the string into its vibrating pattern. This weight application and release has parallels to an archer pulling back an arrow and releasing it, and also to a jazz bass pizzicato. Draw comparisons with an arco catch-and-release martelé stroke and using a bow and arrow can be a helpful visualization.
    After releasing the weight to get the note going, the student should ride the wave of the spinning string. It should feel like moving the arm underwater in a swimming pool. Have students pantomime this motion while visualizing how this resistance feels; it can help them develop this follow-through.

Bassists Do Not Cut Off with the Rest of the Ensemble
    There are three primary reasons why the bass section is not be cutting off with the rest of the ensemble.
    Distance. At their traditional spot in the back of the ensemble, bassists have a difficult time hearing the other sections. They are unlikely able to hear the exact cutoff point of the second violins, and they might not be able to see the cello section leader very well to watch this player for bow cutoffs.
    Bass strings ring longer. Bass strings are like elephants – slow to get going and slow to stop. Bassists need to learn to mute their strings with the left hand during rests.
    Not watching. It is easy to zone out back in the bass section. Keeping bassists engaged in the rehearsal will prevent wandering minds.

Simple Strategies for Better-Sounding Bass Sections

    The following nine tips will help bass sections sounding good and eliminate costly repairs down the road.

Have Fresh Rosin Available
    This is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to make bass sections sound better and to increase the quality of their bass playing experience.

Get the Basses as Close as Possible
    Make sure that there is no extra space between the bass section and the rest of the ensemble. Also, try putting the bass section in different areas from time to time. While most ensembles seat the basses behind the cellos, putting the bass section behind the first violins or even stretched across the back of the ensemble can have a dramatic effect on the cohesiveness of the ensemble and how the students listen across sections.
    Consider experimenting with arranging the basses into four small sections, with one all the way to the left, one all the way to the right, and the other two distributed along the back. This is an excellent way to get bassists to function with more independence. They also spread the bass sound across the entire ensemble and can help the group to play better.

Get Bass Stools
    Many bassists choose to stand when playing, but nearly every bassist appreciates having the option to sit down. Despite the best efforts of the director, there are inevitably going to be long stretches of inactivity for the bass section during rehearsal while directors need time to woodshed tricky first violin passages, and all bassists appreciate the opportunity to sit down while this is happening. In addition, many left-hand techniques are easier to execute while sitting, and giving the students the option to either stand or sit allows the student to find the option that works best for them.

Make Sure Endpins Work Properly
    Playing on a bass with an unreliable endpin is an annoying experience. Some endpin mechanisms slowly slip, so the student’s bass gets progressively lower to the ground. Older endpin mechanisms may suddenly let go, resulting in the bass dropping all the way to the floor. This is startling (especially during a performance), and it can result in damage to the instrument. Fixes are often inexpensive, such as replacing the endpin screw, so stay on top of failing endpin mechanisms and get them checked regularly to prevent startling disasters.

Give the Bassists Space to Bow
    Space can be at a premium in rehearsal rooms, and while the section should be near the other strings, avoid cramming the bassists too close together. This is dangerous for many reasons. First, students may end up bowing either the music stand or their neighbor. Many a hole has been poked in bass ribs because of this. Also, there is a danger of knocking over a stand with the bow and having it fall on a nearby instrument or student.
    Being too close together also makes it difficult for students to put down their bass during rehearsal. Going to the bathroom, getting a tuner, or grabbing a pencil becomes an acrobatic act, and the likelihood of stepping on a bass or knocking something over is much greater.
    Being crammed together also makes students feel claustrophobic and worried about using too much bow when playing. This decreases their enjoyment of playing. 

Have French and German Bows
    About half of all bassists play French bow, while the other half plays German bow. Even if a director currently has all French or all German bow students, this might change over the years. Switching students from French bow to German bow or vice versa can also help to fix some technical struggles.

Change Bass Strings
    Bass strings are expensive, and because they almost never break, it is easy to let years go by without changing strings. Even though they do not break, they start to sound bad, become difficult to play, and lose their pitch stability over time. Try to change bass strings every two years at a minimum.

Clear a Path
    Even if there is enough space for bassists to play, getting from the bass rack to the bass section is often a logistical challenge. Because the basses are in the back, it is easy to let stand racks, chair racks, amps, cymbal stands, and other rehearsal room gear pile up between the bass storage and the area in which they will be playing.
    Make sure that there is a clear path through the rehearsal room. If there isn’t, the bass section will clear a path themselves, but it might be by bulldozing through these obstacles with their basses!

Keep the Basses Humidified
    Maintaining a consistent level of humidity is crucial for string instruments. Ideally, storage and rehearsal spaces for string instruments should be kept between 40% and 60% humidity. Too dry, and cracks, open seams, and even sound posts breaching the top in extreme conditions are dangers. Too humid, and instruments start falling apart as the wood expands, glue loosens, and structures weaken.
    In addition to keeping instruments in a reasonable humidity range, avoid any sudden change in humidity. Communicate with facilities managers and keep an eye out for any scheduled heat or air conditioning shut offs. Cost-savings measures like that might not be a big deal in the rest of the school, but they can be disastrous for string instruments. Conveying the potential costs of thousands of dollars of damage to instruments can be a good way to illustrate the importance of this.

Schedule Regular Luthier Visits
    Directors often wait until problems become catastrophic before bringing in school instruments to local luthiers. At a minimum, have a qualified luthier look at basses every two years. Inevitably, fingerboards need minor dressing, bridges need adjustment, and seams and cracks are starting to open up. Being diligent about the health of the double basses is bound to save time, money, and headache in the long run.