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!