Sunday, December 23, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Mock Day Part II: How it Happens

OK, my blood sugar has stabilized a bit and I'm ready to report in more depth on Mock Day. I think that some may not have any idea what happens at a conservatory mock audition of this type, so I'll cover the proceedings in some detail.

The auditions took place in the acoustically and visually lovely Griswold Hall, pictured above. We sat at a table on the left in front of the seats - not on stage.

THE LIST: As stated before, the list of repertoire for this semester's orchestra class was:

Beethoven 9th
Strauss: Don Juan
Bach: 2nd Orchestral Suite, "Double" and "Badinerie"
Mozart: Sym. No. 35
Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, 1st mvt.
Mahler: Sym. No. 1, 3rd mvt.
Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kije, bass solos

(For the entire two-year curriculum, see here.)

From this list, the following excerpts were chosen for the short list (mentioned in the previous post):

- 1st mvt., Letter H to six after letter I
- 4th mvt. Recitatives complete and Allegro Assai for 24 bars
- 4th mvt. letter K to letter M
- 4th mvt. 8 before letter O to letter O

- Bass I, 1st mvt. bars 38-56

Mahler and Prokofiev complete
- Strauss:
- A to four after B
- F to G
- Ten before Q to S

Bach: complete, no repeats

- 1st mvt. beginning to B
- 4th mvt. complete

From this short list, the students actually played the following, in this order:

Beethoven Recitatives
Strauss: A to four after B
Mozart 35: 1st mvt., beginning to 16 after A
Beethoven: 4th mvt, K to M
Bach: complete excerpts
Strauss: F to G
Beethoven: 1st mvt. letter H to six after letter I
Mozart: 4th mvt. 10 after D to E
Strauss: Ten before Q to S
Bartok: complete excerpt
Prokofiev: complete excerpt

We selected both the short list and the actual playing list based on several factors. The first is of course to simply choose enough material for a manageable practice and audition schedule. The second is to choose excerpts that show a wide variety of musical and technical skills. The third is to focus on excerpts that are asked most in actual orchestra auditions.

Each student signs up for a 20-minute time slot. The audition is held behind a screen, although given our intimate knowledge of the playing of our students this doesn't really ensure anonymity. The more important function of the screen is to give the students the experience of playing for a committee that they can't see. We had a set of screens set up around the table where we were sitting - it would have been way too much trouble to try and screen the entire stage area. They were not allowed to speak to us during the audition and instead relayed all questions through a proctor.

We videotaped everyone's audition, and each student will be able to view their audition on their own password-protected Peabody website.

In the next post, I'll cover how we grade and judge the auditions, and what the students get out of them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mock Day Part I

Mock Day for Fall 2007 is history! Lots of great bass playing was heard, and more than one cookie was eaten by your hardworking bloggers here at PBDB. The cookies themselves were courtesy of Peabody senior Angela Hamilton, and were characterized by their uniform deliciousness. For the record, no special consideration was given to her in return for these cookies, other than our gratitude and an A+ (JUST KIDDING - about the A+ part).

I’ll have further thoughts on this day when I recover from my insulin coma, including stuff about actual music and bass playing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

'Twas the Night Before...

by JW

It’s the eve of a big Peabody bass holiday – Mock Day. Tomorrow, our students will do their mock auditions, which function as the final exam of their orchestra excerpts class. Peabody runs its orchestra excerpts class on a two year curriculum, which you can see here. As the end of each semester approaches, we take this large list and produce the dreaded “short list,” a somewhat smaller list of specific sections that may appear on the mock auditions. (The name is a bit misleading as the short list can be pretty long.) The students are all working hard on the short list, preparing for the auditions tomorrow. After the auditions we have a departmental meeting to cover any items we need to address over the break, and to say goodbye to everyone before they leave on winter break.

I like Mock Day because it reminds me of the orchestra placement auditions that all the students did for us at the beginning of the semester. While these two events aren’t related, they both are a chance for the three of us (no Mike for these) to hear all the classical bass students playing the same music in sequence. It provides a great snapshot of where everyone is and what sort of progress folks have made over the semester. When we get together in May for juries and Spring mock auditions, I can place those beside tomorrow’s auditions to again see everyone’s progress as we head into the summer vacation.

I’ll let you know how it goes after tomorrow…. In the meantime, Happy Mock Day Eve and sleep well.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Peter Lloyd Master Class

For those of you in our neighborhood, Northwestern University faculty and former Minnesota Orchestra principal bass Peter Lloyd will be giving two master classes tomorrow, Sunday the 9th at Peabody. The first will begin at 5:30 and focus on orchestral excerpts; the second will begin at 7:45 and will focus on solo material. Both classes are in East Hall and all are invited. Please contact us if you need any more information or directions to school.

Friday, December 7, 2007

How to Humidify

As I write this post, the temperature is hovering around freezing here in Washington DC, where I live. A delightful freezing rain and sleet mixture is falling - Washington is famous for its "wintry mix" and today is a classic example. But fear not! I'm toasty warm here in my house. My radiators are working great and the place is nice and warm. Unfortunately, these radiators are also reducing the relative humidity in my home, taking air already dried out by cold temperatures and making it even drier by heating it up. That air in turn dries out the wood that my basses are made of, and that can make weak spots in the wood fibers stretch out and crack...

Everyone who plays a string instrument has to deal with the issue of keeping it adequately humidified. At Peabody, we bassists have some institutional help. In the rooms with bass lockers, we have large room humidifiers which keep the humidity at a safe level (around 40-45%). We also have a good system in place for keeping them filled and working. But when any of us takes our bass out to rehearse or play a concert, he or she moves it through various halls and rooms that don't have humidity control. To try to keep the instrument humidified, we should use a device to keep the interiors of our basses as close to optimal humidity as we can.

Unfortunately, our options are not great. Many bassists use the Dampit or a similar brand of sponge humidifier. In my experience, these have several problems. For one, they need to be very thoroughly squeezed out before you put them into your bass, because otherwise the water in them can drip out the bottom of the Dampit onto your bass interior (not a good thing). This means that you also have to re-wet them quite frequently, which can be a hassle. And most importantly, I feel that the overall impact a single Dampit has on the interior of a bass is pretty negligible. Take a look a the Dampit of a violin, and compare its size to the violin's size. Then imagine how large a bass Dampit would have to be to be the equivalent size - enormous! I just don't think there is enough surface area on a bass Dampit to adequately moisten such a large space as the interior of a bass. Even if you use many Dampits - I've used up to eight at one time - they still probably don't suffice to raise the humidity meaningfully. It is true that I've never actually inserted a hygrometer into a bass using Dampits to check on the humidity, so perhaps I'm mistaken and they work better than I think. But I'm skeptical that they are all that effective.

That said, what other options do we have? Not many. Our basses will probably have to spend time in dry environments, unless we're one of the lucky few living in a climate without any extremes of hot dry weather or wintry cold. I took some advice from my friend and bass colleague Jason Phillips and made my own bass humidifiers from his model. I think that they have more surface area overall and release more water then Dampits, plus they extend further into the bass. Here's the recipe:

Jason Phillips' Bass Humidifiers

2 large kitchen sponges
2 plastic Ziploc-type bags. I used to use a type that was sold as "breathable" and had lots of teeny holes in them to allow air to circulate. These must have not been very commercially successful, since I haven't seen them in stores for awhile. If you can find them, buy them and give some to bassists everywhere... If not, follow the instructions below.
4-6 feet of nylon fishing line, available at any sporting goods store
1 safety pin

Tie the line fairly tightly around each sponge, then moisten the sponges and squeeze them out enough to that they won't drip into your bass. If you don't have the breathable bags, poke lots of holes into your plastic bags with the safety pin. Then slip the bags over the sponges, and insert the sponges into your f-holes. The nylon line should rest on the bridge.

I use two of these on my bass when it's going to be out of its humidified room for awhile, and I think that they produce more water vapor than do a bunch of Dampits. Plus, the sponges are further inside the body of the bass, so more of the humidity stays inside the instrument rather than going out the f-holes. And, once inside the bass, you can barely see them!

All that said, none of these devices are a substitute for keeping your bass in a well-humidified room as much of the time as you can. Most importantly, don't expose your instrument to sudden extremes of temperature and humidity.

None of these solutions are fantastic in themselves. So, do any PBDB readers have some good suggestions on keeping your bass humidified? Post a comment and let the rest of us know!

Sadly, the best news I can offer about humidification is this: The reason the seams of our instruments are sealed with hide glue, rather than a stronger type of glue, is that the seams are designed to pop open when the top is stressed by humidity changes. Without this feature, the wood of the top itself would crack much more frequently. So, when your seams open up in the winter, be happy - it could be your top cracking instead.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Questions from a Young Bassist - Part II

by MF

Q: How important is bow technique?

A: Bow technique- Very important if the student wishes to explore all of the facets that double bass playing has to offer. Learning to play with the bow is an indispensable part of building a strong technical foundation whether or not the student wishes to play “jazz” with the bow. It’s better to begin early to develop bow technique, rather than waiting until one’s ability to make a living depends on it.

Q: How important is knowledge of theory, and what are the most important 
 theory concepts for a bass player to understand?

A: Theory- Jazz musicians USE theory constantly in a way that many classical musicians do not. We have to constantly make decisions about music based on limited or ambiguous information. Being able to quickly transpose a tune to a new key, set up a pedal to underpin a set of chord changes, analyze a set of chord substitutions or ii-V cycles, and recognize chord qualities and alterations is extremely important for any musician and is absolutely essential for a modern jazz bassist. We need to develop a practical, accessible, and useable understanding of theory. This also pertains to understanding Rhythm: the ability to count bars, keeping track of song forms, sub-divide the beat differently based on the individual needs of the music. Jazz theory, as well as knowledge of functional harmony and counterpoint is the basis of a good theoretical foundation. 

Q: Can you suggest some general ideas for practicing? How much time should 
be devoted to things like technique and intonation vs. mastering 

A: General ideas for practicing: Practice the difficult parts-not the ones that sound good! Look for the points that give you the most difficulty and work our way outward from that point (i.e. if you’re practicing a C Major scale, and the hardest part for you is shifting from your 4th finger on a B to your 1st finger on a C, just practice that shift over and over, listening very carefully to the pitch and the speed with which you’re able to adjust your intonation, work outward by one scale degree in each direction- A,B,C,D, and practice getting to and from the difficult shift point, and keep working outward until you can play the whole scale smoothly and in tune. Also be diligent about keeping a steady tempo, and not practicing faster than you can play the most difficult part, and gradually increase the tempo from there. When practicing chord changes and tunes use the same basic principals- work outward from the most difficult points in the tune-don’t play all your slick stu
ff on the 3 bars of the easy chord and rest through the tricky turnaround bar going to the new key. Practice playing through the tricky turnaround bar and then resting through the 3 easy bars! As far as the amount of time you spend on technique vs. the amount of time you spend on tunes depends on your specific goals at the time. Put it in terms of developing, and maintaining good fundamental skills in all aspects of bass playing: technique, sound production, time, tune knowledge, intonation, theory, etc.- and put in the time that’s necessary to get and keep those skills in good shape and available to you. Also, tune learning can, and sometimes should be done away from the bass. It can be a good chance to practice Piano, or even singing. Learning the lyrics to standard tunes, and being able to sing them is a great way to learn the tune “right” and to learn it the way that you may end up playing it with a vocalist, perhaps in an unusual tempo, or a difficult key. It’s better to
 learn a few tunes really well, than to know a lot of tunes halfway. It doesn’t cut it to say “I think I know that one?” or “Where does the bridge go on that one?” It’s much better to say that yes, you know it, or no, you don’t, and be able to say it with confidence. One more thing on practicing: I’ve found that when practicing scales on the bass it’s much more beneficial to practice the scale descending first, and then ascending. Often times the scale is played well ascending, and then glossed over for the more difficult descent. If you reverse that process you don’t get to the easier ascending scale until you’ve gotten reasonably competent on the descending scale.

Q: How does a bass player practice keeping perfect time? How 
practicing intonation?

A: Perfect time- Metronome exercises such as, metronome beat on beats 2&4, or beats 1&3, or eventually only on beat 4, or beat 1, or on the and of 4, or the and of 1, or later on the 3rd triplet of 8th note triplets. Also start thinking in terms of rhythmic phrases (4 bars, 8 bars, etc.) rather than beat to beat. It helps develop a stronger sense of time when one can understand the context in which it is to be applied. Example: It’s difficult to adjust your stride while you’re walking through a dark room- you’d walk tentatively, step by step. Once the lights are turned on you can adjust your stride so that you will get to the other side of the room in a fairly even number of steps. It’s similar to playing a musical phrase that you know is 4 measures long at quarter note = 132. No matter how straight or broken up you play, or the drummer plays all over it, the amount of time that those 4 bars take are the same. Perfect intonation-The practicing concepts discussed in my response to question (9) should help.

Q: Are there any method books or other resources you particularly 

A: I’m never that into method books as a sole source of information. There are a few that I’ve used and gotten some things from in the past. The F. Simandl Bass Method Books 1&2-Good for fundamental bass skills, a little rigid, and tends to be more applicable to Orchestral bass technique. The Ray Brown Bass Method- Some nice things, Rufus Reid’s The Evolving Bassist-some good ideas and concepts, The Improviser’s Bass Book by Chuck Sher has some good things, The Contemporary Contrabass by Burt Turetzky is a great book on all aspects of contemporary bass playing but is out of print and difficult to find, Other books that are interesting are The Theory Book by Mark Levine, and the Jazz Piano Book also by Mark Levine. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Bow Angles

by JH

The bow traveling in a straight line, perpendicular to the string is an excellent point of departure. We practice for hours looking in the mirror trying to achieve this. As we become more advanced, we may realize that what appears to be perpendicular in the mirror, sometimes is not. Because the fingerboard is an arc, and the nut is narrower that the bridge, the strings are more like lines on the outside of a cone. One way that you might compare the perpendicular angles on the different strings is to take four letter or legal size pages (preferably from the recycle bin). Fold each leaf exactly in half. Wrap them around each successive string at the same distance from the bridge so that the fold is in full contact with each string. The difference in the angles may appear small, but imagine extending each perpendicular line another foot or so past the end of the paper, about where your frog would be if you were playing at the tip.

The perpendicular bow makes the best sound on single notes of one dynamic. The players whose bows travel the straightest on these notes are those with the most flexible grips. French bow players: Hold the bow with your thumb and one finger. Play several long tones up and down bow. German bow players: Hold the bow with your thumb over the stick and no fingers on the bow. Draw several long bows up and down. The point is that if you hold the bow in only two places, it will always find a perpendicular path.

As we shift up and down the string, and when we change dynamics and colors, we need to move the bow to and from the bridge. This is not accomplished by scraping a perpendicular bow to and from the bridge. This is accomplished by changing the bow angle so that the bow naturally moves in the desired direction. (Holding the bow in at least three points is required).

Try this: On any note, start at the frog, letting the tip drop from perpendicular. Maintain this angle while pulling a down bow. If the bow speed is not excessive and the angle not too great, the sound will not break and should result in a crescendo and change of color. Try an up bow with the same angle.(Diminuendo)

Starting at the frog near the bridge with the tip high, pull the down bow in such a way that the tip is near the fingerboard at the end of the bow. (Diminuendo) Try the up bow with this same angle. (Crescendo)

Some of our bow strokes use some arcing motion. (The tip starting low on the down bow, finishing with the tip high; the tip starting high on the up bow and finishing low, usually shorter notes played near the frog). The most important aspect of these strokes is that the hair only contacts one point on the string throughout the stroke.

Practice well.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Let Me Introduce Myself...

by MF

Before I start posting a lot of specific things about the bass, and spewing forth all of my opinions and philosophies, I thought that I should first introduce myself to this blog community. My name is Michael Formanek, and I am the jazz bass teacher at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve been here since 2001, and a full-time member of the faculty since 2003. One of the main reasons for being here is for the opportunities to interact and collaborate with members of other departments at Peabody. From the time I started here the members of the Double Bass faculty have been extremely welcoming, and enthusiastic about the possibilities open to us and to our students. For that I am very grateful, because this is not always the case.

I am honored to be in the company of great bassists and educators like Paul Johnson, John Hood, and Jeffrey Weisner at Peabody, and in this blog. Let me make one thing very clear, though. I am not a “classical” musician, and I don’t pretend to be. I am a jazz musician and an improviser, which as I hope that I will help you to discover, are not necessarily the same thing. Having said that I will add that I have studied the bass “classically”, and I have a great love for much of the composed music of the past 300 or so years. I’ve even tried to play some of it, with varying degrees of success. I also play music that at times is very closely related to classical music, and in some cases even utilizes the themes and the harmonies of composers such as Mahler, Bach, or Mozart, such as in performance with the pianist, Uri Caine. I will discuss these situations at length in later posts. Other musical settings that I sometimes find myself in might be closer to contemporary chamber music, than to what you may think of as jazz. Here it is only the definitions that get in the way of the music. If we use the labels only as a general point of reference, rather than a way of defining what it is we do, we keep all possibilities open to us at all times.

In the past thirty-three, or so, years I’ve played jazz of pretty much every era, or style, in many cases with some of the very best musicians that represent them. If you want to find out which musicians I’ve played with there are various bios around the web that will tell you that, but suffice it to say that I’ve been extremely fortunate, and very lucky to have had so many great opportunities to perform, create, and record music at a very high level.

No matter how much the specifics of each situation may vary, the constants are always the same: time, sound, pitch, function, rhythm, and feel, not necessarily in that order. In fact, as far as I’m concerned they all hold equal value, and at various times one may, and sometimes must be sacrificed for another depending on the perceived needs of the music. Notice that I mention time, rhythm and feel. To a jazz musician these are three different but related things, not to be reduced to something as simple as just rhythm. This is, of course, a very subjective thing, but it’s something that all musicians have to come to terms with a one point or another. In other words, your musical priorities may not be the same as the people you’re playing with, the composer, or the listener. Deciding which elements to be completely inflexible about, and which may be compromised if necessary is an important step to becoming a good bass player, period – in jazz, classical, bluegrass, hip-hop, klezmer, or whatever. Everyone has their own idea about what a bass player should sound like, and what they should play like. The art is to balance that information with how you want to sound and play.

I’m going to leave off here for now, but I plan to elaborate much more about specific aspects of jazz bass playing in my subsequent posts. Please feel free to respond and let me know what kinds of things might be interesting to hear about.

Questions from a Young Bassist - Part I

by MF

Q: What qualities do you listen for when hearing a young bass 
 player for 
 the first time?

A: The qualities that I listen for in a young bass player are: Time feel, Sound, Ears, Good technical foundation, Desire and Enthusiasm (Yes, you can hear that!), and a Sense of listening history, Jazz vocabulary, and context. I’m less concerned about whether the student executes everything flawlessly, but more whether or not the student has more than a superficial understanding of what it means to be a jazz bassist. I’d rather hear a solid “no-frills” approach to playing, especially in more functional playing or “comping”. Too many specific stylistic nuances which may seem hip often times alert me of things that I will need to help the student to “unlearn” before we can begin building a solid foundation as a jazz bassist. This includes various devices such as slides, pull-offs, very wide vibratos, excessive triplet fills, etc. Not that you shouldn’t use them, but be conscious not to overuse them to the extent that they obscure whatever content is being displayed. These are 
very personal preferences and I should also say that some other bass teachers may want to hear everything in your “trick bag”. It helps to know something about the people you’re auditioning for.

Q: Could you provide a short list of tunes that I should 
learning to play?

A: Short list of tunes- Well, here’s a very short list: Blues-Major and Minor (all keys), I Got Rhythm (all keys), All the Things You Are, Stella By Starlight, Four, Just Friends, Honeysuckle Rose (Scrapple from the Apple), Confirmation, So What, Like Someone in Love, What is This Thing Called Love, Body and Soul, Out of Nowhere, I’ll Remember April.

Q: What do you ask potential students to do in an audition?

A: In an audition I would most likely ask a potential student to play: 2 or 3 tunes, melody, bass line, comping (walking), solo on song form. I might ask the student to do various specific things on the tunes like: play in “2” for the 1st chorus, walk the 2nd chorus, solo the 3rd chorus, walk the first half or the 4th chorus, and go back into “2” for the bridge and last “A” of the 4th chorus, for example. That might be an extreme example, but I would be looking for how well the student can follow musical directions and execute them. Besides that I’d ask for some scales (Major, modes of the major scale, Minor scales (Melodic minor, we use the jazz form, which is the ascending form in both directions, Harmonic Minor, Pure Minor), I might ask to hear a technical study, such as one from Simandl book 1, or similar if you had something prepared along those lines. Then I would ask you to sight read some various excerpts: some basic chord charts or lead sheets, and something with writ
ten lines, solo parts, or a combination of all of these. If the student is also auditioning on the electric bass I’d also ask to hear some examples of the student’s abilities on that instrument. I would generally ask to hear something more “groove” oriented, or something more commonly related to the electric bass. If the student was auditioning only on electric bass I would ask for all of the above examples in addition to the more “typical” electric bass ones.

Q: Who do you feel are the best bass players to listen to and 

A: The best bass players to listen to and emulate: too long to list here, but a starting place would be: Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Scott Lafaro, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Jaco Pastorius, James Jamerson,

Q: Who do you feel are the best NON-bass players to listen to?

A: The best Non-Bass players to listen to: Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, Red Garland, Sam Rivers, Joe Henderson, Paul Bley, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jim Hall, Max Roach, Lennie Tristano, Lee Morgan, Ornette Coleman, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk.

Q: Could you list your "desert island recordings"?

A: “Desert Island” recordings: Miles Davis Quintet Live at the Plugged Nickel (Box set), Bill Evans- Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Portrait in Jazz with Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian, Miles Davis- Kind of Blue, Chick Corea-Now he Sings, Now he Sobs, Ornette Coleman-The Shape of Jazz to Come, Charles Mingus- Mingus Ah Um, John Coltrane- Crescent, Ballads, and A Love Supreme, Duke Ellington’s Blanton-Webster Band recordings, and the Far East Suite, Miles Davis/Gil Evans Complete box set, Miles Davis the Complete Quintet recordings, Miles Davis-Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, Sonny Rollins-The Bridge, and Live at the Village Vanguard volumes 1 and 2, Ornette Coleman- the Complete Science Fiction sessions, Don Cherry-Complete Communion, Albert Ayler- Spiritual Unity, Cecil Taylor-Unit Structures, Tony Williams- Spring, Dave Holland-Conference of the Birds, Tim Berne-Fractured Fairy Tales, and Science Friction, Louis Armstrong Hot 5’s and Hot 7’s, I guess that’
s kind of big for a “desert island” list, but that’s what comes to mind.

Welcome Mike!

by JW

We at PBDB are happy to welcome Peabody jazz bass faculty Michael Formanek to the blog. Mike is an important part of Peabody Bassland, and we're glad he'll be contributing some posts here. Mike is one of the major engines behind Peabody's fantastic Jazz Department, and I'm looking forward to learning from his many years of experience and teaching.

Having him here also illustrates an important principle we try to live by here: Trying to build and maintain connections between players in these two primary styles of acoustic bass. The basic issues that good jazz and good classical players have to look at to grow as musicians are much more similar than they are different. We all have to master our technical basics, develop a good sound, and learn how to make musically effective phrases. The Peabody jazz and classical bass programs have always been on good terms with each other, and we have had often had students doing work in both areas simultaneously. We hope to continue to move towards even closer collaboration in the future and Mike's presence here certainly symbolizes that.

Mike's first posts come from a letter he wrote to a prospective student asking about his teaching approach. These points are great for anyone considering serious jazz study.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Exchange Goes Two Ways

by JW

Thanks to Lee Philip for his post from Singapore. We should have also pointed out that we at Peabody have enjoyed meeting Emily Koh from Yong Siew Toh Conservatory this semester - she is Lee's "exchange" for the semester. We haven't had a chance to see her in bass classes because she is a composition major, but she's been playing in orchestra and is a talented bassist. She is also a blogger and we encourage everyone to check out Rantings of a Kontrabassist. She's been blogging a lot longer than us here so thanks Emily for leading the way!

by JW

Via the omnipresent Jason Heath, I just discovered this wonderful blog by psychoanalyst Mike Jolkovski examining the psychology of musical groups and of musicians in general. This topic fascinates me and I definitely plan to keep reading this blog. Check out especially this post comparing entrepreneurs and musicians, and this Venn diagram, which pretty much says it all.

I especially like this bit about musicians:

They need to march to a different drummer — in some cases, a whole different rhythm section – but they also have a deep need for affirmation that can make them painfully insecure, and afraid when they do get success and applause that it’s really all b.s., that they have fooled everybody.

I think almost every musician out there can identify with the moment after the recital or audition when people are showering you with praise and you have to force yourself to smile and say thanks, thinking all along, "Who are these people? Didn't they hear the eighth notes in bar 19 and the intonation lapses in the cadenza???"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Guest Blog: On Exchange in Singapore

Hi, I’m Lee Philip, a 4th year double bassist at Peabody. I’m the lucky guest-blogger here because I’m writing from Singapore, where I’m studying as an exchange student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. The Singapore exchange is a new feature at Peabody this year, and they intend to continue offering it for the next several years. It turns out, they are offering their students the potential to have a really great experience out here.

So, here I am in Singapore. Yes, it’s really hot. It’s been a good place to spend a semester though - there’s a wide variety of food, much cheaper than you’ll find anywhere in the US, and it’s a great school. No, they do not allow gum; it’s kind of weird - something about the King sitting on some chewed gum, throwing a temper tantrum and banning it forever. It keeps the city really clean, though. Singapore is the cleanest and safest city I’ve ever seen.

I originally decided to come study here because I’d heard interesting things about the conservatory here a few times, and when this opportunity was suggested to me, I thought it’d be good for me. A semester in Singapore, a country known for its strict laws and firm work ethic, almost seemed like the ideal opportunity to prepare for a busy Spring semester that will include my senior recital, several auditions, and a performance of the 2nd Bottesini Concerto on the Karr/Koussevitzky bass. So, I got the go-ahead from my teacher and “the exchange committee” and I made arrangements to go.

I mostly expected to do my own thing here: stay out of people’s way, get good grades, and practice. I spent last summer in Japan as part of the Pacific Music Festival, so I did have some experience in a foreign culture. However, I was concerned about the fact that I didn’t know much about the kind of musical instruction I’d be getting out here. Like I said, the exchange program is brand new this year; a pianist and I make up the first group of students Peabody has sent to Yong Siew Toh for a semester, so it was hard to gauge what type of instruction we would be getting. It wasn’t until I had gotten settled and spent some time here that I realized that this exchange program, the Singapore exchange, is really a unique opportunity for Peabody students to become acquainted with the growing classical music scene in Asia.

While most people know that Asian musicians have been establishing themselves as leaders in classical music as soloists or as principals of major US and European orchestras, I was not aware and would not have expected that at some point, Asia might end up becoming the center of the classical music industry. Asian countries seem to be pushing a lot of money toward the arts, and many Western musicians are moving East to take advantage of it. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s starting salary is comparable to that of a 2nd tier US orchestra, and the cost of living is much lower. Within the last 6-7 years, Singapore has opened up the Esplanade Complex (the $350M home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra) and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (offers full tuition room and board to almost all of its 200 students).

In August, I asked my teacher here, Guennadi Mouzyka principal bass of the Singapore Symphony, about subbing with his orchestra. He kindly set up an audition for me with the music director, and last week I was hired to play an all-Strauss program with Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu. It was my first professional orchestra experience and a great one: I played the 4th part of Also Sprach Zarathustra on a boomy 5-string Pollman. While I was there, I was offered at least one more concert with them (I was disappointed to have to turn that down), and 2 weeks ago I was offered a two-week gig with the Bangkok Opera playing “Die Walkure” (I was very disappointed to have to turn that one down). That isn’t enough work to just pick up and move out to Asia, but it’s nice to know that there are jobs to be had and money to be made over here.

I know that, at first, studying Western classical music in Singapore might sound like as good of an idea as asking Paris Hilton for tips on running for president, but really, it’s a solid opportunity for which I’m thankful I’ve taken advantage. This is my last week here.. aside from my last two finals, I’m going to try to squeeze in my first game of cricket and one last Chinese steamboat chili hot-pot buffet. I’ll back in Peabody Bassland on Thursday. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving from PBDB

by JW

As the three of us prepare to celebrate (American) Thanksgiving, we want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to all our readers, wherever they may hail from. We've been having a lot of fun getting the blog rolling this year, and we're certainly thankful to all of you for reading our thoughts, posting the occasional comment, or hitting us with a link. With each delicious forkful of mashed potatoes, we'll think of you...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tune That Bass

by JW

I’m often surprised by the lackadaisical and unfocused way that some bassists tune their basses before playing. We all devote enormous amounts of time to training our ears, minds, and bodies so that we can play in tune. If our instrument is not well in tune, we make our task of good intonation much more difficult. Why spend countless hours learning the proper spacing and placement of the left hand when you’re not going to tune the open string to the right pitch?

The bass is more difficult to tune than the other string instruments for a variety of reasons, some technical and some situational.

- The interval of the perfect fourth doesn’t occur in the overtone series. Therefore, it is more difficult to hear on its own than perfect fifths.
- Because of this, we often choose to tune using harmonics. This method assumes that our strings are in good condition, and that the pitches of the harmonics don’t activate any wolf tones on our bass. Often, one or both of these assumptions is mistaken and we need to fix these problems by installing new strings or using wolf eliminators. If we don’t, then our harmonics can be inaccurate and our tuning will be also.
- The bass is not a very loud instrument, and especially in an orchestral context it can be very hard to hear oneself well enough to accurately tune. If we are surrounded by other bassists, it can be even more difficult as we try to pick out our sound amidst all the bass playing around us.
- The way we draw the bow across the string can affect the pitch in subtle ways, especially when we tune with harmonics. If we put a lot of weight into the string as we tune, the bow can bend the string sufficiently to alter the pitch. Try it and see for yourself: Play the “A” harmonic on the D string with a fast light bow and with a slow, heavy, “pressed” bow. This often connects to the issue of our volume; people tuning onstage during orchestra will play their harmonics far too loudly in order to hear themselves, thus distorting the pitch.

For all these reasons, I choose to always check my tuning with an electronic tuner. At the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, we have two high-quality strobe tuners offstage that many NSO members use to check their intonation before going on to rehearse or play a concert. I also have a small tuner like this one that I use whenever I play to check my tuning. They are not expensive, quite accurate, and can also be purchased with a contact microphone that clips to your bass. This can be very useful for tuning in noisy environments (like onstage at an orchestra rehearsal!). They can also be calibrated for different “A’s,” from A435 to A445, so that you can set it precisely to whatever “A” your group uses – the NSO tunes to A442, for example, but when I’m playing with a piano I need to tune to A440.

If I’m in a quiet area, I check each open string with the tuner, drawing a relaxed, mezzo piano sound so as not to distort the pitch of the string. Every member of my bass section in the NSO uses a tuner in this way before we go onstage, and we all agree that it helps our intonation.

When I’m playing with a group that I’m not that familiar with, I often go to the oboe player (or whichever instrument will be giving the “A” at the beginning of rehearsal) and ask them to play the “A” into my tuner so I can see exactly where their pitch center will be. I then set my tuner to that pitch and tune my bass.

After we’ve played awhile, the action of our hands on the string and the vibration of the instrument can cause our strings to go out of tune. I frequently recheck my intonation with the tuner during a practice session.

One final piece of advice regarding tuning: Once I’ve tuned with the tuner, I play all my tuning harmonics, noting if any of them seem false or off pitch. This way, if I don’t have my tuner or need for some reason to tune without it, I can know which harmonics I can trust and which ones I need to “tweak” a bit to get the open string in tune.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Great German Bow Guide

by JW

Bob Oppelt, the principal bass of my orchestra (National Symphony Orchestra), has been building himself a great website with some interesting thoughts and insights about playing bass and being an orchestral musician. I especially wanted to point readers of this blog to this fantastic set of photos he took of himself demonstrating various German bow grips and commenting on what he considers their strengths and weaknesses. It's a great example of a way to use a website to inform and provide resources for students and teachers. Bravo Bob!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Sharps and Flats

by JH

While a student at the Interlochen Arts Academy, I attended a guest master class given by Bernard Linden, then a violist in the New York Philharmonic. His daughter Louise was a student at the Academy. In that class, he inspired a journey for me that continues today, that of understanding tonality and intonation. Mr. Linden demonstrated that he would practice the intonation of a passage by determining an appropriate reference tone for the tonality, and then compare the notes in the passage to this tone.

It was many years later that I started to realize that notes even spelled the same way on the page may need intonation adjustment according to the tonality. Even more recently I became aware of the illustrations of Zarlino in the Groves Dictionary, explaining that not all whole steps are the same size and that not all half steps are the same size. Many errors of intonation involve playing sharps too sharp, and flats too flat.

Try these things, preferably with two or more players:

1. Most important for these activities is that the basses (or other instruments) are tuned accurately. I suggest for two players, agreeing on pitch for the open D string. Then one player finds the D on the G string which they both agree is in tune. The D on the G string is sustained while the other player tunes his or her G string until both are satisfied. After the G strings are settled, one person plays the open D while the other finds the A which is one fifth above, and both agree that it is correct. The A is sustained while the other player adjusts his or her A string. After the A strings are settled, find the E which is a fifth above open A. Sustain this E so the other person’s E string can be tuned. Hopefully the instruments are well in tune now.

2. Have one person play his open A while the other finds the E on the D string. Sustain this E while the first person finds the B on the G string which matches. Silently hold this B while the other person finds the B on the G string which matches the open D. After both B’s are found, compare. Are they the same? Which is higher?

3. One person finds the F# on the G string which matches the open D; the other find the E flat on the D string which matches the open G. Are they in tune with each other?

4. Find a G# which is in tune with the open E; find an A flat which is in tune with the E flat which is in tune with the G string. Are the G# and A flat the same note?

I could go on for a long time with other examples, but it will be more meaningful for you to discover some of this on your own. Good luck.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

And now a word from our lawyers

by JW

It occurred to me today that I should clarify a few things about the blog.

- While it is a collaborative effort, we each post on our own and are responsible only for the content of our own posts. No post by any one of us should be considered the opinions of anyone but the writer (always credited by initials at the top of each post).

- This blog is not affiliated in any way with the Peabody Conservatory or Johns Hopkins University, and it doesn't necessarily reflect their views. To see our official, Peabody-sponsored site please go here.

- Peabody also has a fantastic jazz bass teacher, Michael Formanek. We hope to have him post here in the near future. His absence here thus far should not imply that we don't consider him an important part of the Peabody bass community.

Thanks and back to our show!

UPDATE: Item 3 is no longer applicable now that Mike is part of PBDB.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Music School $$$ - Finding the Balance

by JW

No one doing any bass blogging can escape the influence of our acknowledged master, Jason Heath. His bass blog is the best and most comprehensive around, a clearinghouse of all that is noteworthy in bass on the Internet. His posts describing life as a freelancer and teacher, and his comments of the business of music in general, are thought-provoking, informative, and often hilarious. Jason has been kind enough to mention this blog on his site, and even to give us a few compliments. Combined with “Contrabass Conversations,” his excellent and informative series of podcasts, he is a one-man bass media empire. All this, and he is a full time performer and teacher. Does the guy ever take a nap?

A post of Jason’s that I’ve thought of quite often is this one from May 2007 on rethinking performance degrees. I had just started teaching at Peabody in 2006, and I was already thinking about many of the issues he touches on in this post when I first read it. As prospective students contacted me about Peabody, I felt increasing anxiety about the financial burden a Peabody student must take on vs. the employment prospects in music. No matter how talented and hardworking a student is, no matter how big a scholarship they receive, they are signing on for a profession where it can take many years to achieve any kind of financial security. Jason’s post offers some solutions, but for someone like me it offers mostly challenges.

Doctors, dentists, lawyers, MBA students, nurses – all these professional degrees require their students to take on lots of debt. But in each of these fields, work of some kind is readily available upon graduation. I’m not saying that every lawyer gets some fantastic job right out of school, or that people in these professions don’t face sacrifice and financial struggle in their career. The difference is that for any lawyer or doctor, there is a clear path out of debt after school, even if it features long work hours and drudgery. In music, you can face long hours and drudgery and get paid nothing. Even if you graduate from college with no school-related debt at all, you face the following major costs:

- traveling to and from auditions or competitions
- purchasing and maintaining your instrument(s) and bow(s)
- general travel expenses, either for car ownership and maintenance or for taking mass transit

All these expenses have a few things in common. They are all costs that either aren’t issues at all for non-musicians, or tend to be higher for musicians than non-musicians. They all are large – especially instrument costs! And unlike for student loans, there is no federally subsidized loan system waiting to help you buy a bass or attend an audition. On the contrary, it is very difficult to get a loan for an instrument, and they tend to have very high interest rates.

So what does this mean? Am I telling everyone they shouldn’t go to music school? Not at all. Music school is an almost universal prerequisite for success in our field. The percentage of working professional musicians who didn’t go to a major music school is incredibly low, mainly because there is no substitute for the four years of focused instruction and practice that a music major gets. Just as important as the actual coursework and lessons are the lessons you learn from your community of fellow music students as they work towards the same goals you have.

However, I’m less of a Polyanna on this subject than I once was. For every music student, there is a level of financial burden that is simply unwise. Exactly what that number is varies for each person, and it is determined by a complicated equation that takes into consideration your family’s income, your talent, your drive to succeed, and your ability to be smart with your money. I can’t tell you what that level is for you, but I can tell you that there is one, and I encourage all music students to consider what it is before they make the financial commitment to a music education.

The most important thing that facing the high costs of music education teaches us is: don’t waste it! Work hard while at school and absorb all you can. After you leave the college setting it gets harder and harder to stay focused on your musical work as the ugly realities of adult life begin to intrude on us. Having four or two years to become the best performer and musician you can be is a great gift – use them wisely and they’ll pay you back later.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Student Bows – What to Look for

by JW

Many bass students worry about getting a good instrument, but I see more students whose progress is hampered by their bows than by their basses. When you are working on developing your technique and mastering bow strokes, a bow that is poorly balanced or too stiff can make progress difficult at best. Even worse, many students with inferior bows wind up internalizing bad habits as a result of compensating for their bows’ faults. With an excellent bow you can make a pretty bad bass sound good; with a bad bow you can make even a great bass sound pretty bad! I advise all my students to invest more of their instrument dollars in a good bow than in a good bass. I think of this as good news. After all, the most expensive bows in the world are still less than even moderately priced basses!

Here’s a few pointers I give to students when bow shopping:

- While you want to find a bow that draws a great tone, it’s even more important that you find a bow that is well balanced. When you’re learning how to use the bow, and especially when learning spiccato strokes, a bow that is tip-heavy or has too much material in the stick can result in problems. Balance the stick of the bow on your index finger. Most good bows balance a couple of inches past the end of the frog. If they balance somewhere else, that can often be a sign of trouble.

- Try lots of bows – including ones that may be well beyond your price range. The only way to understand what you are looking for in a bow is to see what an excellent bow feels like. (The same applies to basses, by the way.)

- Let your teacher (or another experienced player) try out a bow before you buy it, if at all possible. This is especially true if you are still developing your off the string technique; it may be difficult for you to accurately judge the balance of a bow.

- Carbon fiber bows are getting better and better, and are a great alternative for many students. One benefit of these bows ties in with my first point: they are all balanced the same way, and should all react very reliably to your movements. Several of my students have had good results with the Robertson carbon fiber bows, and Carbows are also quite nice. Plus, they make great spare bows if you someday purchase a high quality wood bow.

I hope these points are helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any interesting bow shopping ideas, stories, or concepts. I’m always looking to learn more about where to find good bows…

Happy shopping!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Some Basic Warm-Ups

by JH

The cooler weather is upon us, and with this, we need to warm up well to prevent injury. Many people have a regimen of whole body stretching which they employ before they touch the bass. I will only deal here with the warm-up that involves the bass.
The first thing that I do when I sit down with the bass is shifting exercises. I typically begin on the E string, shifting between the two positions [F1-F#2-G4] and [G#1-A2-A#4]. Then I shift between [F1…] and [A#1…] positions. Next [F1…] to [C1…]. Next [F1…] to [D# 1…]. And finally [F1…] to [f1 (thumb pos.)…]

Then I move to the A string and do a similar set of exercises, usually starting on the B with the first finger. Then a few shifts on the D string.

After the shifting exercises, I often move to some measured trill exercises. It is helpful to use the metronome. Again starting on the E string with the first finger on F or F#, I trill from 1st to 2nd , 1st to 4th, 2nd to 1st , 2nd to 4th , 4th to 1st , and 4th to 2nd . I use a few bowings; each note separate, two slurred, four slurred, alternating two slurred and two separate. After completing the E string trills, I move to the A string C or C#, moving the metronome a little faster, going through the same finger and bowing patterns. Then the D string, faster and higher position. Finally the G string, again faster and higher position.

After doing all of that, my right hand might be a bit fatigued, so I practice some long tones on open strings. Ira Gold gave a class for us at Peabody last year, and suggested a good way to approach long tones. Set the metronome to 60 (one beat per second). Start with one beat per bow, increasing one beat in each successive stroke, to twenty or more beats per stroke.

By this time, the hands should be ready for the work at hand. If I am practicing at home, I usually continue to scales and arpeggios. If I am at work, I might spend a little time with double stop thirds in low positions with cross-string slurs before looking at the music for the day.

Warm up well to keep your hands healthy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Orchestra Auditions: the SATs of Music?

by JW

I have a theory to describe orchestral auditions – more of an analogy, actually. Some have called my analogy cynical and bitter, but I truly think they’re mistaken. On the contrary, my analogy was born from the desire to make auditions a more positive experience for myself, my friends and my students. Here it is, expressed in the classic old-school SAT analogy format:

Winning auditions:being a good musician::getting a 1600 on the SAT: being smart

That is, winning an audition bears the same relationship to good musicianship as acing the SAT bears to being intelligent. What am I saying by this? That any professional orchestral audition is a standardized test. (Please note that I really mean only professional orchestra auditions; other auditions, such as for schools, are not as standardized and are ultimately testing for very different things. More on this another day....) All aspects of an audition are standardized for all applicants: The date of the test, the material to be tested (the repertoire), and the grading system for each applicant (the committee). Few things in the otherwise highly subjective world of the performing arts are as carefully designed to be as objective as possible.

We all know that the relationship between the SAT and intelligence is a complex and debatable one. Most people who do well on the SAT are intelligent, but not all otherwise intelligent people do well on the SAT. While the SAT may accurately measure certain aspects of intelligence, such as close reading, it doesn’t measure others, such as creativity and interactive problem-solving skills. This isn’t the fault of the SAT; it wasn’t designed to test those skills. Nor is it that colleges don’t think those other skills are important. Rather, it’s simply difficult to create a standardized test for those skills that isn’t either impractical or not sufficiently standardized to be fair. So colleges do standardized testing for the skills that can be tested for using that methodology, and try to find other ways to test for these other skills.

Love it or hate it, the SAT is an important part of any college application and it does play a role in our college choices. So, even if our intelligence isn’t the sort that the SAT focuses on, we need to try to do the best we can on it. If we struggle with it, we can study for it, or even take specialized courses to get better at it.

Orchestral auditions are similar. They test well for many key skills that any serious orchestral musician needs to do their job, such as consistency of rhythm and intonation, mastery of technical elements, and knowledge of certain difficult passages of repertoire. They test less well or not at all for many other key skills, most notably ensemble skills, musical flexibility, and the ability to communicate effectively with colleagues. Is this because orchestras don’t think these skills are important? I don’t think so. Many orchestral musicians (and those hoping to be orchestral musicians!) openly long for a hiring system that would test for these skills. And the tenure system in most orchestras exists precisely to see if the newly hired musician has all these other skills. However, like with the SAT, testing every applicant for ensemble and interpersonal skills would require orchestras to either have each person play with the orchestra in rehearsal (impractical) or invite a smaller number of applicants to audition (unfair). So the audition system is inherently limited by what aspects of musicianship it can accurately show.

There is one key difference between the SAT and auditions. The SAT is a part of a total package that a college applicant submits. If you don’t do so well on the SAT, you can hope your excellent essay and fabulous recommendation letters will carry you through. Auditions are the entire gateway to orchestral employment in most cases. To have any chance to have your other skills demonstrated, you first have to do well on the skills that are tested on in auditions. Is this a good thing? No, but it is understandable given that orchestras have decided to make auditions above all a fair and impartial process. If you want impartiality above all, then you force orchestras to emphasize those skills that can be tested in an unbiased, standardized way.

So what can we do about this? Throw up our hands in despair? Get bitter and blame the system? Not only are these options corrosive to our well-being as musicians, they also don’t change anything. Orchestras are unlikely to change the system in the foreseeable future (although I think they probably should – a topic for another day…), and there are plenty of talented applicants who will take the audition should you decide to boycott in protest.

I think our solution for audition frustrations are the same as our solutions for SAT frustrations:

- Remind ourselves that just because we struggle with auditions doesn’t mean that we are necessarily untalented or bad musicians
- Remember that, like any standardized test, auditions overemphasize certain important skills while underemphasizing others.
- Work not only at becoming better musicians overall, but also at becoming good “test-takers” through focusing on the particular skills that auditions test for.
- Persevere and realize you’re not alone!

So work hard, have fun and good auditioning to all.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On controlling pitch on open strings and improving resonance on some troublesome notes.

by JH

There is nothing like the resonance of an open string, our longest string length stopped securely at both ends. In the orchestra, we use many open strings, even for long sustained notes. Not all players tune in exactly the same way, or sometimes excessive humidity or dryness can cause the pitch of open strings to change during performance. Sometimes another section or solo wind player is not in tune with your open string. The pitch of an open string can be influenced by fingering a note or notes on other strings that are in the harmonic series or cancel some unwanted resonance.

Try this:

With another player, tune your A strings so that they are close, but not exactly in tune with each other. One of you will play the A without any left hand fingers touching, and the other will finger both the A on the G string and the E on the D string while playing the open A. Move these fingers up and/or down until the two open strings blend.

Also experiment with playing the open A while fingering the C on the G string with the A on the D string. This is particularly useful for an A minor, as at the end of the first and last movements of Bottesini’s 2nd Concerto.

For the open D string, try fingering a D on the G string or A string.

For the E string, there are many possibilities, but the most effective may be to finger both the E on the D string, and the B on the G string.

There are some notes that do not ring well on the bass, or cause some confusing sympathetic vibrations.

Probably the most notorious is the low A flat. One of the things which cause the pitch to not be clear on this note is that it causes the A and G strings to vibrate slightly. This is easily remedied by lightly touching both the A and G strings while playing the low A flat. Sometimes further clarity can be brought by fingering the low A flat with the first finger and holding down the A flat on the D string with the fourth finger.

E flat on the D string is improved by dampening the E and A strings. E flat on the A string is improved by dampening the E and D strings. E flat on the G string is helped by dampening all of the other strings.

Low B flats sound clearer when the E string does not vibrate.

A flat on the D string needs the A and G strings dampened.

B flats on D or G string sound better with the A and E strings dampened.

Good luck in your pursuit of pitch clarity and resonance.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Most Important Class

There is a class that every music student takes. Doing well in this class, and doing extra credit work in this class, is one of the best things any music student can do for their future success. Yet most students avoid this class, endlessly complain about it, and often do anything they can to get out of it. And sadly, many music schools don’t do nearly enough to emphasize this class and make it easy and comfortable to attend.

What is it? Sight singing and ear training.

Often held at hideously early hours, taught by bored and beleaguered doctoral students, squirreled away in the dark windowless spaces of the music building, freshmen in every music program sit and try to sing, their gravelly voices damaged from the previous night’s revelries. Why is it so despised? Part of it is exactly what I mention above: almost any class held under the grim conditions of sight singing would be hard to love. So attention music school deans everywhere – hold sight singing classes later in the day, in rooms with windows!

The other part of why we seem to hate it so has to do with us. Most instrumentalists just don’t like to sing. Having put in so much time and effort trying to make a pleasant sound come out of our instruments, we generally don’t want to have to put them down and listen to what comes out of our mouths when we sing. And worse, in sight singing class we’re having to sing in front of others, and our performance (at least the intonation aspects thereof) is being analyzed and graded. That activates all of our performance anxieties, but we don’t have our instrumental talents to shield and protect us from them.

There’s no denying it: singing is scary, and most of us don’t have lovely voices that everyone is dying to hear at 8:30 in the morning. But none of that changes the fact that learning to sing in tune leads to being able to hear and play in tune. Ultimately, our intonation has to come from our brains – from our ability to accurately hear and adjust our pitch to what is happening around us. Unlike our instruments, our singing voices are wired directly into our brain. Singing is a natural activity that all humans engage in from almost the beginning of our lives. When we work on our intonation with our voices, we are training our minds at a much deeper and more basic level than when we adjust the spacing of our fingers or practice our scales. Singing in tune builds a foundation of good pitch sense that makes our work with our instruments much more effective.

So go to sight singing class! Pay attention in it. If it seems too easy for you, ask the instructor for more difficult exercises. Do extra work on your own. We can all benefit from it.

A friend of mine graduated from a prominent conservatory and had an excellent teacher, but I would have given him a low chance of career success upon graduation. His intonation was terrible – his pitch center would drift all over the place. This person now has an excellent career and is constantly in demand to play with top professional orchestras. What made the difference? He got some ear training CD’s and listened to them (while singing along) in his car whenever he was driving anywhere. He did this for years, and ultimately overcame his pitch problems – not through practicing, but through ear-training.

I’ll be posting more on this topic in the future. Until then, good ear-training to all.....

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Some thoughts on pizzicato

by JH

I notice that even in my orchestra, the upper string players rarely if ever vary the color of their pizzicato. The bassists are very active in their use of different right hand placements for different lengths and colors of notes. Try these at home.

1. For the softest notes with the softest attack, find the middle of the stopped string length with the fullest flesh on the string, and release the string slowly with a large muscle. Great for piano and pianissimo.

2. For medium dynamics, find a point one-third away from either end of the stopped string length. If a harder attack is desired use less flesh and smaller muscles for the release of the string.

3. Loud dynamics require moving to a point at least one-quarter to one-sixth of the stopped string length from either end of the string. We often play pizzicato closer to the left hand than to the bridge. This seems to minimize accidental snapping of the string against the fingerboard.

4. Short notes of any dynamic are more easily executed toward either end of the string. The area of rosin toward the end of the fingerboard often is good for very short and very soft pizzicato, if the right hand finger remains on top of the string, only allowing the rosin to grip the finger.

Students often have a very weak and percussive pizzicato. Experiment with using more flesh and more whole arm weight in your pizz. Be sensitive to the speed of the release. Good luck.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Shopping for a Music School, Part IV: Putting it Together

After figuring out what you want and doing all this research, what then? Where do you apply? How do you know which factors to balance against the other? Based on my own experiences and on many discussions with students and teachers, I feel like the most important factors are:

- Private teacher. Obviously, after all is said and done, this remains a top factor. If you see a great teacher in action and make a good connection with him or her, and they have a good national reputation in your area of interest, you should do whatever you can to get into their studio. Remember, the most important factor to consider is whether you can get what you need from them to achieve your goals in music.

- Money. It’s hard for most students to look at this issue honestly - it’s not very pleasant to deal with. The reality is that music is a tough field, and unlike other professional fields like medicine and law, it may take a long time before you have a career that enables you to pay off your student loans and still survive. I generally discourage students from leaving music school with enormous debt if at all possible. If your parents don’t have the resources to cover your top school choice, it’s usually unwise for you to take on most of the debt yourself in loans. It’s much harder to truly devote yourself to music post-graduation while maintaining a full time non-music job. Try not to create a financial situation that will make a desk job essential for your financial survival after you graduate. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take on any debt, but that you should do everything possible to keep that debt from crippling you if you graduate and need time to establish a career.

- Program focus. What makes elite colleges like the Ivy League desirable is not primarily the instructors, but rather the intensity and focus of the students at these institutions. Likewise, in a conservatory you want to be surrounded by people who are working hard towards the same basic goals that you are. Not only will this help you learn from your colleagues, it will also help you stay on your practice regimen when the going gets rough. People who do things in groups generally succeed more than those who go it alone (see Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers).

- Location and atmosphere. This is a vague category, but it’s often overlooked. If you thrive in a competitive atmosphere, consider schools that have that feel. If you hate cold weather, don’t to go the Northern Maine Conservatory! You will need to work hard every day to achieve your goals and should find a school conducive to that.

Lots of things I’ve mentioned in this series may seem basic or obvious to a lot of readers, but I’ve seen students ignore many of them and not get the college experience they were hoping for. Doing some homework can help you choose among the many music programs out there. We have an excellent program at Peabody and we love to talk about it with anyone who’s interested, but we don’t want anyone going here who isn’t going to feel challenged and satisfied by what we can provide them. Thinking about these questions can help you better know the answer to that question.

That's it for this series. I hope that it's helped some of you look at the school application process in new ways. Now, it's your turn.... Offer up some comments! Did I miss anything? Have I changed your life forever? Am I a complete idiot? Let me know.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

We Play Bass Too

Amidst all the musings and deep thoughts, we manage to get a little bass playing in as well. Here are a couple of upcoming events for those in the area:

Sunday, October 7 (tomorrow!) at 7:30 pm in Griswold Hall at Peabody, our first Departmental Recital of the year. Hear Peabody bassists play music by Bach, Telemann, Bottesini, Dragonetti, Faure, and Hindemith. Free to all.

Tuesday, October 9 at 8:00 pm in Friedberg Hall, The Peabody Trio performs a concert of new music. Jeff will be joining them in a performance of "Voices of Angels," a work for piano quintet by Australian composer Brett Dean. Tickets required; call the Peabody Box Office at 410-549-8100 ext. 2.

We hope to see you there!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Shopping for a Music School, Part III: Orchestra and Chamber Music

by JW

As a music performance student, you’ll probably spend more of your “work” time practicing and working on your private teacher’s assignments than on anything else. The thing you’re likely to spend the second largest block of time on is your orchestra or other ensemble classes. School orchestras are often misunderstood. Students often see their orchestra requirement as:

- a “gig,” something they need to do to appease the school and earn their scholarship. When you’re grinding through a boring opera rehearsal it can certainly seem that way.

- An activity, something they enjoy and do primarily for their own musical enjoyment. We all want orchestra to be fun, but it probably won’t be all the time.

- A PR organization, presenting concerts to encourage community involvement in the school, get in the local paper, and entertain the trustees.

Parents and school administrators can also see orchestra as one or more of these things, although they may assign them different values than students. For example, to a college administrator, the school orchestra is indeed sometimes a PR organization or scholarship requirement. That's fine, but that has to do with the orchestra's role is satisfying their needs, not yours.

The thing I encourage all prospective (and current!) music students to remember is that your school ensemble is a class. Playing in a large ensemble requires developing specialized skills – figuring out how to find and agree on tempo with 100 other musicians in an instant, learning which notes on the bassoon tend to be sharp, learning how to hear and adjust your pitch while everyone is playing fortissimo, and many others. Your school ensemble should help you acquire these skills, and hopefully the conductor should focus his rehearsal time not only on learning the music in front of you, but on teaching you how to learn the music in front of you. Sadly, some college orchestra programs fall short in this area; finding those that don’t can mean the difference between a great orchestra experience in school and an OK one.

If you can work it out, go see a rehearsal of the orchestra or other ensembles at the schools you are interested in. Try to contact students and ask them about the orchestra experience at the school. Try to see if the orchestra is something that you can see as a learning experience, and not just a place to play through orchestral rep.

Many of these same principles apply to chamber music. Almost all schools have a chamber music requirement for undergraduate and graduate students, and that program should also ideally be a learning experience for you. Inquire about it as well. How many coachings do you get with the faculty? Who are they and what is the experience of working with them like? All these questions can help you glean some important nuggets of information as you consider your choices.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Awesome Power of the Intertubes

by JW

Truly the Internet is mighty! This morning over coffee I finally made successful Ichat Video contact with Peabody bass student Mr. Lee Philip, who was just preparing for a night on the town, that town being Singapore, where he is spending the semester at our sister school, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. As his tiny, grainy image appeared on my screen, I thought, "Yes! Finally this damn thing is gonna do what it's supposed to!" Then we discovered that, while Lee could also see me, he could not hear me at all, resulting in our having the immensely pleasurable experience of watching each other type IMs to each other on opposite sides of the world. I could hear Lee, so I was treated to the gentle click of fingers on keyboard. We're going to try again with Skype and see if we have better luck.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


by JW

I get inspired by music from all sorts of places. I have long been a big fan of Bjork, the Icelandic singer/songwriter, so when I learned of Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra I knew I had to check it out. This big band plays original arrangements of Bjork songs and has made appearances all over the place. So, I hauled myself down to Annapolis on Sunday night after a long day at Peabody to hear them do a set before a small but appreciative crowd...

The show was a lot of fun, with some great playing from the band. The arrangements were a mixed bag, but it was really fun to hear Bjork in this context. If you like Bjork, or even if you aren’t sure if you do, check ‘em out!

The thing that truly inspired me about the concert was seeing someone being truly creative with the material and really finding some great musical ideas in it beyond what I already had experienced. I knew all the Bjork originals that the band used quite well, but hearing these arrangements opened up some great elements of these songs that I had never really considered. Their version of “Joga” from “Homogenic,” for example, opens up the richness of the harmonies, and the intensity of the horn sound gave the music an energy that the more sedate, dreamy string sound on the original doesn’t have.

As a classical musician, I play a lot of the same music over and over. In fact, a core value of a lot of classical performances is precisely how exactly they reproduce what we “expect” from the music. Lots of classical ensembles and players aim for precisely this, resulting in a string of unmemorable and repetitive symphonies and concerti squeezed out of the classical toothpaste tube. As a teacher, I teach a lot of the same material over and over as well, which is not a bad thing; there’s a lot of music that we need to learn as bass players to function professionally, and there are certain pieces that are great teaching tools for certain key concepts. Also, when we’re at a stage in our development where we are focusing on our technical work, we often need to favor consistency over variety in our sound and style!

It can be all too easy to slip into habitual and unimaginative playing of repertoire standards. I need to remember to dig a layer down and find some new stuff to explore. The music I play is some of the greatest in history, and there’s plenty of stuff to work with. Even when the music is not my favorite, I still need to do the work to find some good ideas in there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Harmonics and the Bow

by JH

A favorite topic of mine is about harmonics. Harmonics are where science and nature meet music. We are lucky as string players and especially as bass player that we are able to see the harmonic divisions occurring. Harmonics help us organize fingering systems. Harmonics also can help us to determine optimal bow placement.
1. The note that is two octaves above any open string is at a point which is one- quarter of the string length away from the bridge. Bowing an open string at this point creates a very pure soft sound since the string is vibrating mostly in one, two, and four parts.
2. Another fairly pure sound is created by bowing at the point which is one-sixth of the string length away from the bridge, the place of the harmonic which is two octave and a fifth above the open string. Bowing the string at this point causes the string to vibrate mostly in one, two, three and six parts.
3. Another pure yet brighter sound is created by bowing the open string at the point which is at the three octave harmonic, or one-eighth of the total string length away from the bridge.
Obviously if a note is stopped, the string length is shorter, and the fractions of that stopped string length are smaller. To maintain a consistent sound, the bow needs to travel nearer and further from the bridge, in order to stay at the two octave, two octave and fifth, or three octave mark above the stopped string length. The sound in #1 above is appropriate for an excerpt such as the opening of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. #2 is good for fuller dynamics when a fast bow is desired. #3 is good for strong dynamics and requires a slower bow. This is good placement for an excerpt such as #9 in Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben”.
There are other bow placements that work for other sounds, but knowing these three sounds is basic. Maybe next time I will share some ideas about how this relates to right hand placement for pizzicato. Practice well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Shopping for a Music School, Part II: Researching Teachers

It is a truism heard by most music school applicants at some point: “Don’t worry about the school, just get the best teacher.” It’s a statement with a lot of truth to it. Music performance is an art that stubbornly resists efforts to turn it into a classroom subject. It is such a complex and all-encompassing discipline that it has to be taught in a one-to-one setting. Your studio instructor will be the center of your musical education, and to be successful you need to find one who will guide and support you.

What do I think we need to look for in a teacher?

- Successful and satisfied former and current students. Talk to current and former students of the teacher. Did they come to that teacher looking for the same things you are looking for? Do they feel they got those things? What are that teacher’s students doing after they leave him or her? Are they things you want to do eventually?
- A teacher who comes from good teaching. No one is (or should be) a carbon copy of his or her own teacher. And some wonderful teachers and players can come from a less-than-fantastic teacher themselves. However, we are all influenced by our teachers, and your future teacher probably was influenced by theirs. Who were they? What was their philosophy and style?
- A teacher who will be dedicated to your goals. Many good teachers will give us good advice and explain good technical and musical concepts to us, but not every teacher will stick with us as we go through to hard work of internalizing and perfecting those concepts. Is the teacher interested in their students’ goals, and do they individualize their approach for each student?
- A teacher you can trust and respect. For all of us, there are times in our learning process that we need to simply take what our teachers say on faith. Often it will take months or even years of work before we can fully internalize and understand a concept that we are taught. If we harbor doubts about the basic trustworthiness of our teacher, it makes that faith difficult to maintain, and hampers our growth.
- A teacher you like. You’ll be spending a lot of time alone with your teacher, and you’ll enjoy the process of learning more if you don’t grimace at the thought of spending an hour alone in a small room with them! This isn’t absolutely essential, and music lore is full of stories of the famous, cruel teacher and his terrorized students, who all adored him. I’m not sure all those stories are accurate, but even if they are, they don’t constitute the majority in my opinion. It certainly doesn’t hurt to like your teacher!

Which brings us to Prof Weisner’s Second Rule:

When it comes to teachers, test drive and check the ratings before you buy.

As much as possible, I encourage music school applicants to have at least one trial lesson before applying to a particular teacher’s studio. Many teachers are busy people and this can be difficult to do, but do your best to make it happen. In conjunction or separately from the lesson, have an extensive discussion/interview with the teacher. If they are too busy for a phone conversation, email can be a great method here. Based on your thoughts about your goals and issues, ask the teacher what he thinks about them and how he might help you work on them. I often recommend writing down a list of questions for the teacher before you speak with them so that you are sure that you’ve covered all your questions. You should also try to contact current and former students of the teacher and ask similar questions. I recommend trying to talk to more than one former or current student, and not placing too much weight on any one student’s opinion. Every teacher has certain students that they had a special bond with, and others that just didn’t ever work out well. Some of that may be the teacher’s doing, some may be the student’s, and some may just be other life circumstances unrelated to either person. By speaking to a group of students, you can hopefully get a more balanced perspective on their teacher.

Some of this may sound a little nosey or inappropriate; I don’t think it is at all. You and your parents are making an important choice for your future and you need to understand your options as thoroughly as you can. I’ve heard more than a few horror stories of students who graduated from a particular school bitter and unhappy about their experience after they made a teacher choice without meeting or learning about them. While there are no guarantees in life, there are more and less informed decisions and you owe yourself an informed one on this important topic. You have every right to know what you can and can’t expect to get from a teacher.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shopping for a music school - Intro and Part I

by JW

Around this time of year, we start getting calls and emails from bass students who are interested in Peabody. They have often heard about the school either by reputation or through an alumnus or current student. Or they may know of a particular faculty member in which they are interested. They often want to meet with one of more of us for a lesson or just to discuss their options.

A lot of these students aren’t really sure of what they are looking for in a school. This is understandable. While high schools have lots of resources available to help students seeking a traditional academic degree, the student who wants to pursue a serious career in music performance is often pretty much on his or her own. Many guidance and college counselors don’t know what is involved in selecting a teacher or program, and sometimes even offer actively unhelpful advice. Parents, assuming they support their child’s musical passions at all, are often not musicians themselves and don’t always have a lot of experience to draw on. If you are a serious music student interested in a performance career and looking to attend a top music program, both generally and for your instrument or voice, you are often have to do a lot of your own heavy lifting when it comes to researching your school choices. Even your music teachers, who can usually offer the most support and help in your search, may not have the breadth of knowledge you ideally need.

I’m going to be posting intermittently over the next few weeks on this topic. As someone who went through this process myself when I was a student, and now participates in it on the other side at Peabody, I hope to offer some ideas that can minimize the stress and confusion and help you focus on what options really work for your needs.

I’m not going to focus much on the issues that all college applicants have in common, such as:

- Large vs. small schools
- Regional preferences
- Academic requirements
- Affordability and financial aid issues
- Applications and essays etc.

There are plenty of resources available for learning about these topics and music students should certainly consider them seriously when choosing a school. I will instead take a look at the issues of musical curriculum and learning that your average college guide won’t mention. I’m going to use bassists as an example when necessary because that’s who’s most likely to be reading this site, but most of these ideas apply to all music performance applicants.

Part I: What do you want?

Saying “I want to be a musician” can mean a lot of things when it comes to the choices we make in life. Choosing a musical career path means dedicating oneself to a lot of hard work, personal discipline, and sacrifice. It also usually means some disappointment and frustration, no matter what area of music you’re in. The number of musicians who have built a successful and happy career without going through some periods of struggle and difficulty is unfortunately pretty small.

There’s lots of talk in the music world these days about how today’s performers need to be more ready to work in a multifaceted and increasingly complex job market. The hot buzzwords of the day are “diverse” and “adaptable.” There is a lot of truth to these statements! Jason Heath’s excellent blog series “Musician Without an Expense Account” offers some very interesting perspectives on this topic. (I don’t agree with everything he says in this series, but that’s a topic for another day….) The number of full-time symphonic jobs is certainly not getting much larger, and the competition for them is only getting tougher. The same is true for full-time teaching positions at colleges and universities.

However, this diversity approach can neglect one key truth: while you may have to be able to do more things to be a full time musician, you still have to be able to do what you needed to do back in the “old days” when orchestra jobs were more plentiful – play well. If today’s young musicians have to play (and teach) all styles of music and run a website/company/teaching studio as well, they are going to have to be even stronger players than past generations were. Which leads us to Prof Weisner’s First Rule for Prospective College Musicians:

Look for a school that will best help you build the core skills you need to play the types the music you want to play professionally.

Attaining the technical standards expected of musicians today requires a lot of work. A classical bassist needs at a minimum:
- excellent intonation
- solid rhythm
- a command of all bow strokes
- an appealing and flexible vibrato
- and an ability to understand (and perform well in) a wide range of musical styles

Jazz players also need great improvisatory skills, plus an even greater command of pizzicato techniques.

Look at this list. Where do you see your strengths and weaknesses? What does your teacher tell you every week that you need to work on? Be honest with yourself – before you can pick the right school you need to know what you need! I am always impressed by applicants to Peabody who honestly tell me what their problem areas are when I ask them at their audition (and I almost always do). They usually have solid, realistic long-term goals and are mature enough to achieve them.

Putting in some time to understanding what you want is one of the best investments you can make in your education. Many schools (including some of the most prestigious and well-known ones) may not in the end be the best environment for you to grow in. Being able to ask the right questions as you research schools and teachers will bring you the answers you need.

In Part II we'll look at private teachers and how to find ones that will work for you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Year Begins - Seating Auditions

by JW

The first official event of the year for the bass department is seating auditions for the two Peabody orchestras. All the students receive the required list of excerpts over the summer and play them, along with a solo, for the faculty, the orchestra conductor, and the chamber music coordinator. After everyone has played, we consult together and work out assignments for orchestra seatings.

Auditions are seldom fun for most folks, but it's a good way to start the year on many levels. It lets us see what all the students have been doing bass-wise on their summer vacation. Some students have been at various music festivals and camps, while others may have just stayed home and practiced. In any event, it's always fun for me to see the progress various students have made. Sometimes, getting away from school and its constant workload and pressures is just what a student needs to make a huge leap forward.

I also like starting the year with an audition because it says: back to work, everyone! Auditioning well is a key part of what we are teaching here, so why not begin the year by reminding ourselves of what that experience is all about?

Afterwards, we have a department meeting in Bassland. We cover various items of business and take a department photo. You'll see it up soon somewhere on the front page of the Peabody bass department website ( Then, Paul Johnson asks THE QUESTION. It is always interesting, sometimes mysterious, and occasionally downright disturbing. I cannot reveal this year's version here - it is a secret only for the initiates. THE QUESTION itself changes every year, but it always begins the year for us at Peabody, and no one can ask it but Paul....

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Hello and welcome to PBDB! This blog is, to our knowledge, the first group blog by the entire bass faculty of a music school. We’re making history! (Well, bass blog history, anyway.) We hope to use this space to share our thoughts, experiences, and views on a wide range of subjects related to bass playing, learning, and teaching. We’ll also be posting about what’s going on bass-wise here at Peabody. And, given our natures, I wouldn’t be surprised to se a few posts on some random topics only marginally related to music. We’ll also be having some student guest bloggers from time to time.

Our goal in starting this blog is sort of twofold. From our direction going out, we want to share what we do and think about here in Baltimore, and share it with folks. But we also hope to get some flow from the outside in as well, hearing from you about what we write, or just sharing your thoughts and questions with us. Conservatory faculty traditionally have a stuffy and sort of unapproachable quality – that classic ivory tower feel. Perhaps we can use this blog to demystify ourselves a bit and let you all see what we’re about.

We will each blog under our own names, although certain posts of a more informational nature can be assumed to be from all of us. Mr. Weisner, who already spends way too much time online reading blogs, will be the “lead” poster and will do most of the maintenance work.

We already have some good material lined up for the blog. Mr Weisner will be posting a multipart series about what applicants should look for in a music school, which is a hot topic for a lot of people this time of year. Lee Philip, a senior at Peabody and a student of Mr. Hood’s, is spending this semester at Peabody’s sister school, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. He will be guest blogging about his experiences here. Mr. Johnson has promised some interesting thoughts on some books he’s read that have applications to our musical lives. Plus, I suspect some photo and video content may appear on the site fairly soon.

We should mention at this point that Peabody has an excellent website at where you can learn a lot about the school and about us. Our departmental site, found under “strings,” has lots of general info about our program. Mr. Weisner briefly blogged on that site, but he is closing that effort down to focus on PBDB.

Enjoy and thanks for checking us out.