Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mr. Mensch's "slow bow studies"

I've written here in the past about my former teacher Homer Mensch. One of the first things you learned as a student of Mr. Mensch was to not tell anyone about his methods - the warm-up routines, technique exercises, and those mysterious photocopied etudes he would assign at each lesson. When you had played the etude to his satisfaction, he collected the photocopy back from you - making sure it wouldn't fall into the wrong hands, I guess.

Some of the most important of Mr. Mensch's secret exercises were the "slow bow studies". At our first lesson he explained: I was to spend at least 30 minutes each day drawing the bow as slowly as possible on open strings, right down next to the bridge. I should do 15 minutes as loud as possible, and then 15 minutes as soft as possible. In each case, however, I needed to draw the bow as smoothly and evenly as possible, with the best quality sound I could manage.

Mr. Mensch also gave a standard, a goal I was to achieve: 18 counts at the lowest setting on the metronome. He turned on his metronome, dialed it down to 35, and turned up the volume, as if to dare me to play that loud. I gave it my best shot - 7 and a half beats of open E string. I tried again, slower - this time 9 beats, interrupted by croaking, sticking, squawking.

"My goodness, Matthew, this needs some serious work."

Over the next few weeks, my college suite-mates came to dread the sound of me unpacking my bass. Because every practice session began with the "drill" - actually some of them thought I was literally operating a drill in my room. I hated to disturb their naps and "Worms"-video game marathons, but I had some serious work to do. My bow wasn't going to slow itself down!

It seems silly in retrospect, how I obsessed over those "slow bow studies". But at the time, it was like some miraculous sound-production spell had just been revealed. As I worked at it, I was accessing a depth and focus that I'd never even thought was possible on that bass. My suite-mates were cranking up their Fugees albums to deafening levels, just to drown me out!

Beyond that, it was the first time I'd really made an effort to do something slower - which actually meant reducing the effort and tension, since those only made the bow less cooperative. The slow-bow study became like a sitting meditation for me; focusing on steadying, disciplining, and purifying my sound, I think I discovered my first experience of a pure, steady, disciplined, mind. Of course, I was still a frazzled, confused college freshman when I'd finished, but it seemed to take me away from all that confusion, at least for a half-hour each morning.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stuff like this is one reason to keep doing the blog. Your impressions striking out on the pro orchestra circuit are another. Be discreet, but don't stop.