Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Double bass socialism Part II: Equipment Fixes for Cheap

by JW

In my last post I looked at the systemic problem: Having great instruments and bows can help you become a better player, but to have the income to afford those instruments, most folks have to already be great players (or independently wealthy). So, what is the young or not-so-young bassist of modest means to do? Over the years, I’ve tried to notice the little things that folks do to their basses to improve the sound and playability of their instruments. Some of these were shown to me by my own teachers, some by my professional colleagues in the NSO and elsewhere, some by random bassists I have met in my travels, and others by various repairpersons and luthiers. All these things are relatively inexpensive things that can improve the equipment that you already have. None of them are going to magically transform your Chinese bass into a priceless old Italian instrument, but they can help, and sometimes by a surprising margin. These fixes don’t all work for everyone, but it’s likely that at least a few of them might help you.

Please note that, by “relatively inexpensive,” I don’t necessarily mean super-cheap – some of the items I mention could cost hundreds of dollars. However, compared to the cost of upgrading your bow or bass, they’re all pretty affordable. I have ranked them in rough order from cheapest to most expensive.

1. Go Balls Out – No, I didn’t name it that! “Balls Out” is shorthand for flipping the ball ends of your strings (the ends that fit into the tailpiece) around so that, instead of being behind the tailpiece, they are on the outside of the tailpiece. This makes the angle of the strings over the bridge sharper, which changes the pressure exerted by the strings on the top of the bass and can have an effect on the sound. My string gurus and advisors recommend only doing this to the upper three strings, for reasons a bit too arcane to go into here (it has to do with relative string tensions – I barely understand it myself).

2. Good Rosin – I often see students with horrifyingly old, dried-out rosin cakes. No matter what sort of rosin you use, if the surface of that rosin is getting dry and powdery, or cracking off in small pieces, then it’s probably time to invest in a new cake. This is especially true with Pop’s and other lighter, softer rosins.

3. Protect your Rosin – To prevent problem #2, keep your rosin in a plastic case with an airtight seal. Some rosins are sold in plastic cases, but many are sold in cardboard cases that can let the rosin get too dry. Put these rosins in a small plastic container with a snap-on lid – I use a small size Gladware container myself. I’ve seen similar size containers at stores like The Container Store.

4. Lead Tape – If your bow doesn’t bounce well or get the sound you want, it might just need a little weight added at the tip or frog for better balance. A great way to do this is to use some of the lead-lined tape that tennis players use to adjust the weight of their rackets. It’s adhesive-backed and can be cut to precisely the right size and shape. (If you use it on your frog, you might want to cover it with adhesive tape so that your hand won’t be rubbing up against lead all day…) Experiment with your teacher to find the right amount and location. It’s inexpensive and sold in tennis shops and sporting goods stores, and you won’t need much.

5. Close those Seams and Cracks – Lots of basses can pop open here and there. Some instruments have certain seams that open on a regular basis. Gluing these seams shut can improve instrument resonance, as can of course fixing any cracks.

6. Basic Setup Issues – how long has it really been since you had your soundpost checked by your trusted luthier or shop? Soundposts and bridges can migrate quite a lot on some instruments, and we need to keep them in line. Make sure that your soundpost is the correct length as well, and that it’s in good, firm contact with the top and bottom of your bass.

7. The Endpin – The materials, size, and shape of your endpin can have a surprisingly large impact on the sound of some basses. The first, and less “invasive” option, is to replace your steel or other metal endpin with a carbon-fiber endpin. There are several types of these endpins, most of which are designed to fit the 10 mm Goetz-style endpin housings. They come in different densities and lengths. Find a shop that carries them and try one out to see its effect on your bass. I find that they can be especially helpful with basses that might be a little tight or unresponsive, opening up the sound and giving the strings a slightly looser feel. The second and more involved option is to consider obtaining a Christian Laborie-style endpin for your bass. This involves drilling a tapered hole into the endpin block at an angle and inserting a wood or carbon fiber endpin into it. More and more shops and luthiers are able and willing to do this alteration in your instrument, but it will require some significant adjustments in your playing and should only be considered if you are working with a supportive teacher who can help you with this. By the way, you can often use a Laborie endpin for either sitting or standing….

8. Saddle Up – the tailpiece rests against the bottom of the bass on a beveled piece of hardwood called the saddle. Most saddles are very low, snuggled right up against the bass. By putting a new saddle on your bass that sticks up higher off of the bass, you create a more shallow angle of the strings relative to the bridge, which can reduce the pressure on the top and improve the openness and volume of your instrument.

9. Wear Nylon – Replace your metal tailpiece wire with a nylon or other non-metallic wire. This can change the pressure on the top.

10. One Wire – Some luthiers will set up your tailpiece with only one wire with loops on both ends, rather than having two wires that meet to make one large loop. This allows the tailpiece to move more freely and can affect the sound.

11. All Wire – Some teachers, most notably Albert Laszlo of Juilliard, advocate removing the tailpiece completely. A wire runs directly from the saddle to a set of four wires that hold the balls of the strings.

12. Strings, Strings, Strings – It is sad that this option has become the most expensive way to explore your instrument, but such are the ways of exchange rates and economic ups and downs. The only good news in the area of strings is that there are more and better choices available to bassists today than ever before, and there is probably a string set (or combination of string types) that will get more of what you want out of your bass. Hopefully I’ll be able to blog a bit more on strings in the future – they deserve a post unto themselves.

I hope at least a few of these sound like things you could try out yourself. If you know some more cheap fixes for your instrument or bow, please don’t keep it to yourself – drop me a line or just comment on this post.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mock Audition Day

The trees of Baltimore are leafy, the cars covered with a thin coating of pollen, the weather is balmy and delightful. This can mean only one thing – the Spring semester is almost over! Which can also mean only one thing – it’s once again time for Peabody Mock Audition Day and juries! It feels like the orchestral classes have really flown by this semester for some reason.

Here’s the list of pieces we covered this semester in orchestra rep class:

Beethoven: Symphony no. 7
Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection,” 1st mvt.
Haydn: Symphony no. 88
Britten: Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra
Haydn: Symphony no. 31 “Hornsignal,” bass solo
Haydn: Symphony no. 8 “Le Matin,” bass solo
Brahms: Symphony no. 2

From these pieces the following excerpts were selected for the “short list” that will be required for the mock audition:

Beethoven: 1st mvt., 8 after G to 22 after I
Mahler: opening to reh. 2
Haydn no. 88: 1st mvt., opening to double bar after “A”; last mvt., 10 before B to 15 before C
Britten: Variation H complete
Haydn no. 31: complete solo
Brahms: 1st mvt., A to B, E to F; 2nd mvt., 2 before C to 4 after D; 4th mvt., 8 before L to M

Mocks and juries are next Monday, May 12th. I’ll report back on the experience then.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Double Bass Socialism

(crossposted at DBB.org)

I am often most frustrated as a teacher not by anything about my students or about myself, but by my students’ instruments and bows. Sometimes my students fail to do the things they need to do, and sometimes I don’t manage to communicate what I think to my students. But sometimes the magic happens: I manage to give them a great new concept or musical idea, and the light goes on in their heads: they get it! And then the magic is ruined by the inability of their equipment to actually transform this great new idea into sound. Student instruments and bows often lack the qualities that enable students to expand their technical and musical palette. When the tone of your bass is always harsh and scratchy because the instrument is too tight, learning a light, floated sound is a challenge. If your bow is improperly weighted towards the tip or frog, it’s hard to learn a good spiccato stroke. It drives me crazy to see my students working so hard to grow as players and musicians, but be constantly bumping up against the limitations of their gear.

And what frustrates me more is that, when I grab their basses and bows, I can often produce the very sounds and strokes that they are struggling to create. This is due partially to my own abilities and the many more hours of practice that I have under my belt than they do (I’m generally a lot older than my students, after all!). But it’s also due to the fact that I play on much better instruments than they do. When you use good gear, it helps you understand and master a wider range of sounds and techniques. And once you’ve mastered them, it then becomes easier to understand and get around the limitations that inferior gear puts in your way when you want to do them. Because I have learned and mastered spiccato on great bows, I’m able to pick up a lesser bow and immediately know what I’ll have to do to make it produce a decent spiccato. I can of course let the students use my gear so that they can get the feel of what the stroke “should” feel like. But that’s not the same as having that bow at your disposal 24/7 to explore and experiment with.

What’s the answer to this? The simplest is of course to have my students get better gear, and I often advise them to do just that. But economic realities often get in the way of that solution. They may simply lack the resources to purchase better gear, even if parents and/or relatives are able to help them out. Sometimes I loan my gear to students so that they can use it for awhile. But that isn’t always practical – I have to play all the time and I need to use my instruments and bows! I don’t own so many of either that I can have tons of them out on loan and still be able to do my own playing.

The other day I came up with my ideal answer – double bass socialism, or more properly, double bass communism, as exemplified by the Marxist slogan:

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

The second clause being the relevant one. The folks who really need the good bows and basses aren’t those players who already have great careers. They’re the students who need to master the elements of a solid technique. They should be the ones with the great gear. Once they’ve used these great bows and basses to develop their technique, they should pass them on to the next generation and play on less exceptional stuff – even though they won’t sound as good, they’ll still be able to sound fine because they’ll know how to get the most out of that gear.

Like all communistic principles, this would of course be totally unrealistic and could never work in real life. After all, who would determine exactly who got which instruments? (I nominate…. me!)

I’ll be posting in the future on some more realistic solutions to this problem: namely, how students can maximize the sound and playing quality of their instruments without having to spend huge amounts of money on high-end stuff.