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!

1 comment:

Matt Heller said...

This is great advice for any player -- no matter how proficient you are, you're going to run into some passage that makes you freak out, sooner or later! I find it helpful to consciously relax my shoulders, take a deep breath, and get a clear intention of what I want to do.

Then I fake mercilessly.