Friday, May 2, 2008

Double Bass Socialism

(crossposted at

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.

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