Friday, March 21, 2008

Musings on Gearheads, Part II

Writings relating to gear and setup in the bass world are usually of two categories. One is the standard "Here's what I like" variety. In this sort of article or blog post, the writer basically lists what equipment they use and describe why they like it. This question is often also asked in interviews of bassists. I'm not a big fan of these, and here's why: I'm not that person, I'm not playing that bass, and I may not be making the kind of music that that person wants to make. Some bass player telling me they use two Flexocor Originals and two Eudoxas with their Kolstein All-Weather Rosin tell me virtually nothing about what sort of equipment I should be using when I play on my bass and bow. The only solid value this information has to me is in aggregate; if I see everyone trying out a new string or rosin that might mean it works well enough for enough people that I should try it out. Otherwise, it's not very helpful. Even if I know how this bassist sounds and like it, there's no guarantee that my bass would make the same sound with those strings and rosin.

The other variety of gearhead writing is of the review/advocacy type. Someone reviews or tries out some new stuff and comments on it. This has many of the same problems as the "Here's what I like" category in that I can't understand what that equipment would do for me. Plus, this sort of writing can be colored by bias or conflict of interest if the person has a relationship with the maker of the product.

The writing I want to see about bass gear would:

- try to achieve some sort of objectivity in its presentation of what gear does; and
- try to describe how gear would react to certain types of basses, especially student level instruments that are readily available. That way I could understand how the gear might work on my bass, since I can readily compare my bass to the readily available "control" instrument.

I try not to complain about something unless I can contribute in some way to improving the situation, but in this case I have to confess to not being able to do much to improve the quality of bass gear writing. I simply lack the passion for the topic, and the thought of sitting down and writing something meaningful about what a certain set of strings does for me makes my insides shrivel up. It's tough enough for me to sit down and write something (that doesn't suck) about things I am passionate about. So, consider this a shout into the void of cyberspace: Where are you, person who could blog meaningfully about strings and other gear? Why do you remain silent while generations of bassists ache to hear your mighty voice? Come forth and save us from crappy strings! Recital Blogging

I'm doing a multipart series at about what we can all do to help create new music for our instrument. Check it out if you'd like here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Jeff Weisner Bass Recital: New Music for Bass by Peabody Composers

Peabody Writes for Bass
A Recital of New Music for and with Bass by Peabody Composers

Jeffrey Weisner, Double Bass

with fellow Peabody double bass faculty Paul Johnson and Michael Formanek, and Peabody students Kyle Augustine and Lee Philip

McGregor Boyle: Yahanney Inlet (world premiere)
Evan Rogers: bass quartet no. 1 (world premiere)
David Witmer: Bass Quartet (world premiere)
Michael Hersch: Caelum Dedecoratum (East Coast Premiere)

Friday, April 11, 2008, 8:00 pm
Griswold Hall, Peabody Conservatory

I'm excited by how this project has come together, and I'm looking forward to being able to share this new music, created by the compositional community at Peabody. I'm doing some posting about the larger topic of new music for bass right now at, so check it out if you're interested.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Student Recital Mania!

Yes, it's that time of year again... As the year draws to a close, Peabody bass students are preparing their graduate recitals. There will be great bass playing, some cool music that you may not have ever heard before, and lovely receptions afterwards. Come on down and check them out!

Angela Hamilton
Sunday, March 30, 3:30 pm, Cohen-Davison Family Theatre

Bach - Cello suite No. 1
Bottesini - Romanza Patetica
Lancen - Concerto pour Contrebasse et Cordes
Misek - Sonata in d minor op. 6

Kyle Augustine
Sunday, April 13, 2:00 pm, Cohen-Davison Family Theatre

Bach - Cello Suite no. 3
Faure - Elegy
Proto - Caprice
Vanhal - Concerto in D

Lee Philip
Sunday, April 20, 6:30 pm, Griswold Hall

Bach - Cello Suite No. 1
Bottesini - Concerto no. 2
Henze - Serenade
Mozart - Per Questa Bella Mano

Monday, March 10, 2008

Peabsters Write Blogs

The things one can find out trolling the internet... Casey Middaugh, BM '07, student of Paul, went off to study at the Guildhall School in London last year. It turns out she's been blogging it the whole time!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Doing the Lab Work

by JW

One of the struggles of being a young bass player is that we're so popular. I don't mean this in a personal sense (although I do of course find bassists to be an altogether superior group of human beings in every way!). Rather, I mean that there are always too few bass players around to meet the needs of your average school, youth, or community orchestra. In most youth orchestras, there are as many violin players as in most professional orchestras, while there are often only three or four bass players. What this means is that we are always being asked to play in virtually everything. And most of us want to say yes in reply - after all, if you're into playing, you want to play!

As a result, most student bassists end up playing some very difficult music very, VERY early in their studies of the instrument. Within my first year of bass lessons, I was in a youth orchestra that was playing Beethoven's 8th Symphony! For those of you who haven't played it, that is an incredibly tough bass part - I still find elements of it challenging today when I play it in the NSO. I shudder to think what I sounded like back then..

These experiences can be inspiring and fun, but what they are not is good for our playing. Let's compare the above story to the average violinist's studies. The odds are good that any violin student playing Beethoven in a youth orchestra has probably had many years of lessons, and played in lots of ensembles where the music was a lot less challenging. These experiences have laid a foundation of good technique and ensemble skills that help prepare them for the challenges of difficult orchestral music. The student bassist, on the other hand, often has comparatively little experience playing the bass, either alone or in an ensemble of any kind.

So what does the bassist do in these situations? They get by, with a combination of creativity, selective faking, and other coping techniques. They often have to try to play stuff that they just aren't ready to play yet, and in the process they can inadvertently teach themselves some very poor technique. I have had many students who have had to break bad habits that they learned by playing music that was far too difficult for their technical level.

What's the solution? There are many possible ones. The best one by far is to build integrated teaching methods, like the Suzuki Method or George Vance's method, which help students have playing opportunities that better match their technical progress. Another is to simply learn to say no when asked to play in groups that you're not ready for. This is a tough thing to do - as I said, we all want to play, and the temptation to play music you're not yet ready for is a strong one.

I think that one of the best ways we can keep our technical progress going strong and not have it be derailed is to make sure that, when we practice, we use awareness and intelligence and not let bad habits creep into our work. With my students, I use a special regimen of scales and bowing exercises that I call the "Lab Work." When they are doing the lab work, I explain that they need to focus on doing everything well - maintaining accurate intonation, observing the positions of their hands and bodies, using their bow efficiently and in a relaxed manner, and listening attentively to their sound. By doing everything "right" during this portion of their work, they counteract any counterproductive habits they might acquire in the rough-and-tumble of the real performing world and strengthen their technique so that, when some challenging orchestral passage is suddenly thrust upon them, they can better know how to deal with it in a way that doesn't teach them a bad habit.

When you're out there in your youth orchestra and you start to feel like you're in a little over your head, remember good technique and find a way to play that keeps your good playing habits from being lost in the shuffle!