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.