Friday, November 30, 2007

Bach OS2 video

While at New World, I talked with performance coach Don Greene about using more video in my practice. He said that it's not for everybody, that watching your own playing can be rather tough on the ego, but it's definitely a useful exercise - and he suggested I try some different camera angles, not just the straight frontal shot I normally use.

So here's my first experiment with an over-the-shoulder camera angle, which Don Greene also suggested. It's about as close as I could get to a bassist's-eye view, without removing my head. I'm playing two movements from the Bach Orchestral Suite No. 2, the Double and Badinerie, with a baroque German bow loaned to my by the Calgary Bach Society. I'm still getting used to the light, whippy feel of the thing.

Recording this video so close to my head, it really makes me realize I need to work on calming my breathing. It's lovely though to not have to watch any strange facial expressions - or worry about combing my hair.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

composing silence

There's an odd thing about the last measure of Dvorak's 8th Symphony: no one plays. It's a bar of rest with a fermata over it, for the entire orchestra -- as if to tell the audience, "We'll wait, just clap whenever you feel like!" Of course, the audience won't get that message, unless they happen to be following along in the score. The conductor is not going to beat time for that measure, and the musicians don't have anything to do either, but damp their strings and wait for applause.

It seemed like a strange, sort of John Cage-ish thing for Dvorak to do, composing the silence after the music. Then I noticed today that Schubert's 9th Symphony also ends with a bar of rest, as do Schubert's 4th and 5th. So there must be some explanation - it can't have just been a slip of the pen. I wonder if something about the phrase structure dictated that bar be included - or if the orchestra would cut off that last note differently if it didn't have the empty space following it.

I really have no idea, and it's bugging me.

I like to think that perhaps Dvorak and Schubert just wanted to say, "Well, for the last hour or so, I've organized all the sonorities in this room - I've been controlling your aural experience. It doesn't take some famous dead guy to make sounds into music, though; ultimately what enters your ears, and reaches your mind and heart, is all up to you. Fill this empty measure with whatever sounds move you, or fill it with nothing at all - I leave the choice to you."

It's like when you leave an art museum, and walk out onto a city street. You've just been absorbing dozens of artists' visions of what is beautiful, but suddenly the only one that counts is your own. Which way do you look, what do you notice, how can you tilt your gaze to catch a passing glimmer - how do you frame your own experiences? That's what art asks each of us to decide, and it's a big question. You might need a long, grand pause to figure out a good answer.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Chaplin's "Modern Times"

I just watched the 1936 film Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin - the first Chaplin film I've watched. All I really knew of Chaplin was the silly mustache and the waddling walk, but he was an incredible performer - expressive facial expressions, brilliant comedic timing, and a physical grace that is really startling. His character is painfully awkward, yet once in a while he'll do a beautiful roller-skating routine, or spin around in a cocaine-induced frenzy, and you realize that he couldn't do all these things so elegantly if he weren't a brilliant actor and dancer.

Here is the climactic scene, in which Chaplin throws away the words and has to sing nonsense. It's worth checking out the recently re-mastered version on DVD, which is much higher quality.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

orchestral puppy love

A couple of months ago a video began circulating on the internet of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra at the London Proms, turning the "Mambo" from West Side Story into a ridiculous free-for-all fiesta - shouting, choreographed and spontaneous dancing, trumpets and basses spinning -

Watching that clip, people who had never seen an orchestra must have been saying, "Wow, that looks like so much fun - maybe I should try it!" And when it was e-mailed around the CPO, and I heard some of my veteran colleagues comment about it, their reaction was also: "Wow, that looks like so much fun - maybe I should try it!"

It's not that playing in an orchestra stops being fun once you have done it for a while, or done it professionally. But it does become a workplace, rather than just a huge floating party - which means we're unlikely to break into spontaneous dancing during rehearsals, unless specifically instructed to do so by the composer. Orchestra members have families and outside obligations, and it's not easy to act like a goofy teenager among people who have teenage kids of their own.

Which is not to say my CPO colleagues are all a bunch of jaded, grumpy grown-ups - far from it. Most rehearsals are filled with jokes, gags, and teasing, and not all of it at the expense of the conductor. There's a level of intensity and commitment, in our more serious moments, in which everyone is completely focused on the musical product. And I've even caught one of my fellow bass players, in an unguarded moment (we were playing Firebird), saying, "I love my job."

On the whole, it's a little like people who have been married for 20 years - it's not that they value the marriage less, but you're more likely to hear her complaining about where he leaves his socks, or find him wondering if she'll ever be done in the bathroom, than you are to catch them making out in public.

Which is why a week like this one, with music director emeritus Hans Graf returning to conduct Don Juan, Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 (with Corey Cerovsek), and Dvorak 8, is such a treat. The orchestra adores Hans, and you hear musicians at break or in the locker room marveling at his clarity, his precision, or his sensitivity and graciousness. Midway through the first rehearsal, four or five experienced colleagues asked me what I thought of him, sort of like giddy school-kids admiring a crush, and I told them that I had actually worked with him before (he conducted Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra in Miami), but I still found him wonderful.

Having Hans on the podium has been like catching a glimmer of the exuberant, wonder-struck adolescent still hiding in every member of the orchestra, beneath the hardened exterior. Everyone on stage was at least as goofy and fun-loving as those Venezuelan kids, at one time or another. And though we might not get up and start dancing through Don Juan tonight, it feels like an orchestra remembering how to fall in love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


This evening I heard Measha Brueggergosman give a song recital at the Jack Singer, with Roger Vignoles on piano. Her program was full of sexy, flirtatious songs by composers I hadn't considered all that sexy - Britten, Schoenberg, Bolcom - along with some Poulenc and Satie.

It wasn't until I was riding home that I realized, that was an all 20th century program, made up entirely of stuff I'd never heard before. Somehow all the songs were immediately accessible, and even the stranger ones had some charm and style. It might have been the force of Measha's personality, which seems to radiate joy and playfulness. Even in "George", a William Bolcom song about a murdered drag queen, the audience started laughing - I couldn't really figure out why, since I found the song heartbreaking, though in a somewhat ironic way.

Measha's stage presence is so powerful, you find you can't take your eyes off of her. I wanted to follow the translations of the texts, in the Schoenberg, Poulenc, and Satie songs, but I found after a while that it was much more interesting just watching her face and gestures. (Most of the texts seemed pretty silly anyway.)

The rest of the audience seemed equally enthralled - she gave two encores, a spiritual, and a silly song about someone sending unwanted flowers. Before the second, she joked about not quite having the lyrics memorized, and she actually repeated the last verse so she could get it right. I think she could have sung nonsense syllables and the audience would have still adored her.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

"marvellously deceived"

When I think of my parents in the time before they became my parents, after they had made their decision but before their marriage had made it -- in those days -- irrevocable, they seem not only touching and helpless, marvellously deceived, but more attractive than at any later time. It is as if nothing was thwarted then and life still bloomed with possibilities, as if they enjoyed all sorts of power before they bent themselves towards each other. That can't be true, of course -- they must have been anxious already -- my mother must certainly have been anxious about being in her late twenties and unmarried. They must have known failure already, they may have turned to each other with reservations rather than the luxuriant optimism that I imagine. But I do imagine it, as we must all like to do, so we won't think that we were born out of affection that was always stingy, or an undertaking that was always half-hearted. I think that when they came and picked out the place where they would live for the rest of their lives, on the Maitland River just west of Wingham in Turnberry Township in the County of Huron, they were travelling in a car that ran well on dry roads on a bright spring day, and that they themselves were kind and handsome and healthy and trusting their luck.

-- Alice Munro, "Working for a Living", from The View From Castle Rock, p. 139-140

Alice Munro is one of my favorite authors, and I'm willing to try and go anywhere she takes me. It's strange to think about my parents before me, though -- actually, I can barely picture them together at all. They were separated when I was 4, and my earliest memories of them together were all arguments. Still, I like to imagine them both as attractive, clever, optimistic people -- which I think they still are -- and I guess I like to think of my existence as justifying their marriage, however flawed it must have been. That sounds like wishful thinking, I know -- of course they wouldn't have married, if they'd known about the break-up that was going to happen. No one gets married just for the kids who potentially might be born, right?

Still, I think there's part of my mind that can't quite believe in a world in which I didn't exist -- as self-centered as that sounds! -- and that has a hard time even contemplating all the various accidents and coincidences that led to where I am now, and that might have produced a completely different person given different circumstances. Maybe it's the same part of my mind that can't imagine that some day I'll be dead, or that there are people who don't care the slightest bit about double bass playing. Is that the ego, or maybe the superego? I'm not sure, but it's awfully good at blocking out all those uncomfortable realities.

I wonder if I could wrap my head around all this transience and coincidence, would that already make me a different person? Would it lead me take more chances, take myself less seriously, maybe even be somewhat less self-centered? I'm going to pretend that I never asked that question.

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Bourne Identity" meets "Three's Company"

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about the lack of CIA thrillers involving orchestral musicians - apparently someone in Hollywood agreed with me, way back in 1985:

In The Man With One Red Shoe, Tom Hanks portrays a typical orchestral violinist named Richard: he lives in a luxurious old house in Washington, D.C., never learned to drive a car, teaches 12-year-olds while lying on the couch in his bathrobe, and is having an affair with flutist Paula (Carrie Fisher), wife of timpanist Morris (Jim Belushi).

The movie is more sitcom than thriller, though there are some grisly scenes of CIA dupes getting all their teeth extracted and nearly drowning in a sewer. Back in 1985, you could still make a light, screwball comedy about CIA torture. Strangely, this movie was a remake of another spy comedy involving a violinist: The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

winterizing hella frisch

I've been hoping to give hella frisch a bit more of a Calgary feel - and trying to figure out a good location to photograph the bobble-head.

This was taken at Olympic Plaza, right in front of the Epcor Centre where the Jack Singer Concert Hall is located. That's the best I've come up with so far. It's a bit tricky to capture a mountain range and a 10-inch high ceramic statue in the same shot, but if anyone has suggestions for other locations, please let me know!

If anyone is curious, the bobble-head was made by the people at At their wedding, my sister Zoe and her husband Elliot had the whole wedding party Bobble-ized. The scarf was custom knitted by Calgary Phil violinist Laura Reid (thanks, Laura!)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

wild and woolly

The title "Nights in the Gardens of Spain" doesn't quite do today's CPO program justice: it's one of the oddest I've ever played, a hodge-podge grab-bag of music related to sheep.

Shepherd's Hey
From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests
de Falla
Nights in the Gardens of Spain
Sheep May Safely Graze
Mind Over Mountain
Lachian Dances

All week in rehearsal the sheep jokes have been flying fast and furious. My stand partner Graeme is from a Scottish family, so he's got a whole flock of good ones. I won't repeat them, but here's an online site for Scottish sheep jokes.

As odd as this program is, it's always refreshing to play some new and unfamiliar music; I hope that audience members will enjoy it, too. I think that musicians sometimes get overly worried that our audience won't understand a program, or that they'll go running away in tears if they don't recognize anything; my former teacher Michael Hovnanian wrote about the "s.s.", noting that orchestra members can be as narrow-minded as our more conservative audience members.

I don't know what kind of sandwich you'd call this - it reminds me of the salads we'd get at Pizza Rustica in Miami, where they give you a check-list and let you pick the ingredients, often leading to bizarre combinations. Here you've got some dance music and nationalistic Czech music, with the Smetana and Janáček; an impressionistic piece with piano soloist by de Falla; contemporary Canadian music by Tobin Stokes, a suite of rhythmic music depicting endurance sports; a romanticized Bach transcription by Leopold Stokowski; topped off with a weird little jig by Percy Grainger. You can't have a Rustica salad without some cheese.

My favorite piece on today's program is a movement from Smetana's Ma vlast. My friends Brad and Denise went to Prague earlier this fall, and got to see a production of The Bartered Bride, including an extended choral homage to beer. Smetana's father was "a master brewer and amateur violinist", according to liner notes to this recording of Ma vlast. I haven't been to the Czech countryside yet myself, but based on this piece there seem to be rolling hills, a lot of shepherds singing fugues, and maybe some drunken partying.

This movement we're playing begins with the strings playing these legato arpeggiations, which are pretty awkward on a bass tuned in fourths. (warning: extreme bass-geekdom ahead)

My colleague Jeff was saying that this could have easily come from a Simandl etude - all those tricky string crossings and left hand bars. I haven't joined the Canadian Tune-Your-Bass-in-Fifths mafia yet (I'll entertain offers, if they want to buy my loyalty!) But sometimes you play a passage and think, there has to be an easier way -

Here's the same passage with the A string tuned down a step - so the strings are G-D-G-D, with the extension closed on a D. It's a nice resonance, having those two sets of octave open strings - Paul Ellison retuned my bass this way in a master class, to demonstrate how fluidly you can play the beginning of the Bach 1st Suite Prelude. You get to use the string crossing patterns a cellist would, instead of our hodge-podge of tricks and compromises.

For this evening though, I'll be sticking with the hodge-podge method.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

confessions of a practice rat

All this talk of practicing is making me realize - I need to go practice! Well, that and:

My name is Matt, and I am a practice addict.

The first realization that I might have a problem was New Year's, 2000. I was visiting my family in California for the holidays, in the middle of my senior year at New England Conservatory. I'd been practicing more that year than I ever had, trying to shape up for grad school auditions and prepare for professional auditions - like Jason and Joe, I basically lived in a practice room that year.

So I was with family over winter break, and I was away from my bass for two weeks - and suddenly I was a complete basket case. I had never been anywhere near that depressed. The rest of the world was drinking and partying like it was 1999, because it was. Everyone else seemed to have a noisemaker in one hand and a glass of bubbly liquid in the other; the only noises I was making were muffled sobs, crying into a plastic cup of champagne. My mom, a psychologist, knew it was depression, and we both knew it was serious - but neither of us could explain what was causing it.
A Skinner box is a cage equipped to condition an animal's behaviour through reward or punishment. In a typical drug test, a surgically implanted catheter is hooked up to a drug supply that the animal self-administers by pressing a lever. Hundreds of trials showed that lab animals readily became slaves to such drugs as heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines. "They were said to prove that these kinds of dope are irresistible, and that's it, that's the end of the addiction story right there," [psychologist Bruce] Alexander says.

- from "The Rat Trap" by Robert Hercz, p. 37 in The Walrus, December 2007

Without realizing, I had been running a sort of Skinner box experiment: depriving myself of any sort of stimulation or activities - those things I called "distractions" - not having to do with the double bass. I would even mentally play through excerpts while walking back and forth from my apartment to the practice room. I had conditioned myself into a bass-playing machine, doing, thinking, even dreaming about nothing but bass. No wonder I'd turned myself into an addict.

The problem with the Skinner box experiments, Alexander and his co-researchers suspected, was the box itself. To test that hypothesis, Alexander built an Eden for rats. Rat Park was...the size of 200 standard cages. There were cedar shavings, boxes, tin cans for hiding and nesting, poles for climbing, and plenty of food. Most important, because rats live in colonies, Rat Park housed sixteen to twenty animals of both sexes. [...] The denizens of Rat Park overwhelmingly preferred plain water to morphine (the test produced statistical confidence levels of over 99.9 percent). Even when Alexander tried to seduce his rats by sweetening the morphine, the ones in Rat Park drank far less than the ones in cages.

- same article, p. 38

Doing one activity 8 to 10 hours a day (besides sleeping) is not normal behavior, for a rat or a human. Why then do we do this to ourselves? Like drug addiction, it seems to start with a severely restricted, oppressive environment. Not that NEC was a cage - though at busy times people would circulating through the halls, looking into practice rooms like rats in a maze - but I built my own cage out of low confidence and self doubt. I decided that I would have to work harder than other people - I wasn't as naturally gifted, but I still wanted to be successful, so I would have to squeeze out any other interests. To be the first one practicing in the morning, and the last one to go home at night, was really a sort of high - and the fact that I still wasn't making as much progress as other students only seemed to confirm that my attitudes were correct.
Rat Park showed that a rat's environment, not the availability of drugs, leads to dependence. In a normal setting, a narcotic is an impediment to what rats typically do: fight, play, forage, mate. But a caged rat can't do these things. It's no surprise that a distressed animal with access to narcotics would use them to seek relief.

- p. 38

Luckily I wasn't a complete practice rat: I still had some friends who would pull me out of my cage, and later that year I started training to run a marathon. I really think having a supportive social network and some form of physical exercise are vital for all music students; I doubt I could have survived those years without them, and I've seen other young musicians lacking them fall apart. My mom was very concerned, seeing my depression that winter, and from that point on she would often tell me not to practice so much. I didn't really take her advice - how could I ease up the compulsive practicing, when I was still bombing at auditions? But at least she provided a voice of caution, and helped me to pull back from really hurting myself.

Practicing would go through cycles for me: for a while I would be completely gung-ho, pounding away, burning up the hours, feeling great about the work I was accomplishing. And then I would find myself crashing, becoming either depressed, sore, or nauseated by the just the sight of a practice room. In retrospect, those times were my mind and body's way of telling me: "Lighten up, take a break, do something different for a while." When we're too stubborn to listen to what our bodies tell us nicely, they'll sometimes resort to injury or burn-out to get the message across.
His message - that the core values of Western life have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction - is Rat Park writ large. And by addiction, Alexander means a great deal more than illegal drugs. There are legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, of course. Then there's gambling, work, shopping, the Internet, and anorexia ("addiction to starvation," as Alexander puts it). Research is showing that as far as the brain is concerned, these activities are drugs, too, raising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, just like alcohol, heroin, and almost every other addictive substance we know. In this broad - but not loose - sense of the word, addiction is not the preserve of a coterie of social outcasts, but rather the general condition of Western society.

- p. 39

The stereotypical drug addict - dependent, desperate, dangerous - is not a figure I like to associate myself with. Though if I've never been much of a drinker, smoker, or gambler, it's probably because those weren't my drugs of choice. I went for the hard stuff - Findeisen, Simandl, Bottesini. A week without Sevcik still leaves me jonesing. And the underlying problems, of doubt and low self-confidence, never really disappear. I just have to manage those feelings, and take pride in the efficiency of my practice sessions, rather than the length.

Recovering from this addiction isn't about going cold turkey - I'm always going to practice. But hopefully I can learn to do it sensibly, safely, and in moderation. And maybe save some time for fighting, playing, foraging and mating.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

on practicing a la parilla

Catching up on some more bass blog correspondence - here's a query from Joe Lewis, who blogs at San Bei Ji:
My dear bass bloggers... I find myself once again falling back into my old obsession of relentless practice. I posted a little thing on what to practice when you don't have time to practice everything you want.

Do you guys have any opinions on the subject that you would care to post? Know anyone else that might have good advice or experience to share?
There's a great phrase they use in Argentinian music, a la parilla. It means "lightly grilled," sometimes vuelta y vuelta ("on each side"). The music needs to be prepared just well enough - medium rare, let's say - so that it still has the juice of spontaneity in it, without being too gamy or viral!

I'm no expert chef, but when it comes to practicing I think we tend to burn the crap out of things, especially when we're young and still figuring things out. Joe mentions practicing up to 12 hours a day - in a response post, Jason Heath confesses to 9 hour practice days. Both from a physiological and a musical standpoint, that kind of practice routine doesn't make any sense. Playing the bass is a taxing activity, both mentally and physically - we need time to recover and process what we've learned, before slamming it through our neurons 50 more times.

Overly repetitive, uninterrupted practice is what leads to overuse, tendinitis, as well as neurological problems like focal dystonia. It also may reduce your ability to have any sort of life outside of the practice room. Which means limiting yourself as a musician, as well as a human being.

Don't do it, and if you feel a need to practice that much, follow Joe's advice and take plenty of breaks! Preferably including some sort of social interaction...

Now that I got that rant out of the way, I haven't really answered Joe's question, which is how to practice less, and still get things done. A few guidelines I would suggest:

  • Have a plan. Before you get into the practice room, take a moment to think over what needs the most work - and if that is one particular piece or excerpt, what specifically is causing problems? Try and isolate one concept you can work on. That way, even as you do your warm-up exercises, you can tailor them to that particular problem.
  • Have a quick warm-up. Find some exercises that get your hands working quickly - Joe and I both studied with Don Palma, who has several terrific examples. These can be modified with different bowings, tempos, articulations - again, to complement the work you're focusing on.
  • Don't get sidetracked or nitpicky. If your focus is the intonation at rhl. C, don't start obsessing about the legato 12 before! Keep your focus on the issue at hand, and make a note to work on that legato next time you have the opportunity.
  • No need to run the whole piece. Once we've taken things apart, we all want to put things back together again. If you have enough time to do this, it might give you a certain degree of personal satisfaction. But it's also likely to bring up more problems or ingrain bad habits.
  • Write things down. Make it part of your practice to note what you focused on, how it worked, and your goals for next time. This will help you get back into the practice mindset quicker in the next session.

I can't say I follow all these guidelines as much as I'd like - when I have plenty of practice time, it's easy to get self-indulgent and not really accomplish that much. At the end, I realize I could have done more in two hours of focused work than I did in four. That being said, I'm going to start a new practice journal - maybe sharing some of it here, if people are interested - and see if I can't make my practice a bit more a la parilla.

Monday, November 12, 2007

hanging elbows

My fellow bassist and blogger Stan Haskins wrote a post titled "Tipping the bucket" in response to my post about carrying angle, "buckets of physiological fun." Stan covers all sorts of technique and pedagogical issues on his blog glued to the string, and he's a careful observer of what bassists do, as well as what they say they're doing. They're not always the same.

For example, I wrote that "there's a continuous need to get the elbow onto or above the plane of the string - our elbows tend to dangle down below," as though that were a rule: dangly elbow = bad bass playing. There's also a case to be made for keeping the elbow lower, though:
The lower the upper arm, that is, the lower the elbow, the less energy is necessary to hold it. At the same time there is an increase in the energy that the biceps must provide to maintain the angle at the elbow. Since the forearm weighs less than the entire arm, less energy is necessary at a low-elbow position than at a high one.

- Gerhard Mantel, Cello Technique: Principles and Forms of Movement, p. 170-1
Less energy means more efficient, which means better playing, right? Well, not necessarily. Mantel suggests an experiment using a letter scale:
Take up the bow and put the tip on the scale. Now press on the scale as hard as possible, once with a low elbow, once with a high elbow. With the elbow low the scale will register about half what it will with the elbow high. Thus we can deduce:

An increase in dynamics requires an appropriately higher elbow position.

- p. 171
Mantel's experiment doesn't account for many of the factors in bow position, but it does lead to a basic understanding of the physics involved. For louder dynamics, and particularly for playing loudly at the tip, a higher elbow will tend to be more powerful; at softer dynamics, and when playing towards the frog, a lower elbow will tend to be more efficient. I recorded a video of myself playing an excerpt from Mendelssohn 3 to try and gauge where the right elbow goes:

And there are certainly moments when it goes "submarine", and others when it lifts. Not that my playing is the authoritative example of right elbow usage! What I especially wanted to stress in my original post was to not settle for one answer; observe lots of bass players, and other string players as well. The basic principles of shoulder, elbow and hand movement are surprisingly similar across all the string instruments, and even for German bow players.

Mantel adds another point that I wanted to stress in my post:
One final warning: So far we have assumed that the shoulder is a pivot point that is steady, whereas in fact it can make rather big circular movements. It can be pushed forward, up, and back. If the shoulder is habitually raised, unnecessary muscle activity will result, which may hinder the control of small motor impulses in the entire right arm. A raised shoulder is also a visual expression of insecurity and should be avoided.

- p. 172
So while there may be no rule on lifting the elbow, there's an essential one on lifting the shoulder: don't do it! I have to continuously watch out for that in my own playing, and it sounds as though Stan does as well - he emphasizes keeping the shoulder in a relaxed position.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Big Bass Viol, by M.T. Bohannon

My tuba colleague Mike Eastep found this old tune, in his mother's attic I think. He seems to want everyone in the CPO bass section to learn it and perform it. It's called "Bass Song" by M.T. Bohannon, and the lyrics are as follows:

There once lived a man in the town of Missoula,
His name was Augustus Miles.
He was known miles around as a Lalapalousa,
At playing the Big Bass Viol;

And ev'ry night when his work was done,
You'd hear him playing Zum, zum, zum,
And o'er his face there comes a smile,
as he plays this tune on his Big Bass Viol.

Zum, zum, zum, zum, zum, zum,
sounds forth his Big Bass Viol,
Zum, zum, zum, zum, zum, zum,
He plays it all the while,

Theres ne'er a lute nor a harp or flute
with tones so soft or mild,
As the Zum, zum, zum, zum, zum, zum
that he plays on his Big Bass Viol.

(2nd verse)

Augustus Miles played himself into trouble,
For a maid with a roguish eye,
Just gave him a smile and his heart like a bubble,
Went bounding to unknown skies;

And now he goes to serenade,
Beneath the window of this fair maid,
Says he, "Her heart I must beguile
by playing this tune on my Big Bass Viol."


Friday, November 09, 2007

buckets of physiological fun

This post is part of my occasional series on playing the double bass using a human body. Okay, very occasional. You can read the other post here if you like.

One of the odd things about the human body is that it didn't evolve primarily in order to play the double bass. Our body structures were produced by adaptations to pressures and demands having little to do with double bass playing. Demands such as - carrying buckets.

That's right, there seems to have been quite a lot of bucket-carrying in our evolutionary past, and we have the elbows to prove it:

Carrying angle -

When the arm is extended, with the palm facing forward or up, the bones of the humerus and forearm are not perfectly aligned. The deviation from a straight line (generally on the order of 5-10°) occurs in the direction of the thumb, and is referred to as the carrying angle (visible in the right half of the picture, right). In females the carrying angle is greater than in males.[1]

The carrying angle can influence how objects are held by individuals - those with a more extreme carrying angle may be more likely to supinate the forearm when holding objects in the hand to keep the elbow closer to the body.

- extracted from a Wikipedia article about the elbow

You can see your own carrying angle if you stand in front of a mirror and externally rotate (supinate) your shoulder until your palm faces forward. It's different for every person, though as the Wikipedia article notes, it tends to be greater for women - since women's hips are wider, they need more clearance for those buckets. It will also tend to be larger on your dominant side, meaning most of us are right-arm bucket-carriers.

Of what importance is this to the inquiring bass player, besides a new and hopeless pickup line ("Hey baby, what's your carrying angle?") At least for German-bow players, there's a continuous need to get the elbow onto or above the plane of the string - our elbows tend to dangle down below, accommodating our carrying angles but compromising the weight and support of our bow arms.

In order to correct for the carrying angle, we tend to lift our elbows and rotate the arm inward - pronating the bow into the instrument. If you use the larger muscles of the back and shoulder to do this, by lifting and compressing the shoulder forward, you'll also compromise the structure of the arm. Which will also disrupt the transfer of weight to the string, and possibly cause long-term injuries. Damn those bucket-schlepping ancestors!

Somehow we have to find a way to keep the chest open, the shoulder lowered and relaxed, and still create the internal rotation to lift the elbow and transfer the weight into the string. It sounds hopelessly complicated, I know - but when you see it in action, it looks effortlessly graceful, almost like we evolved to do this after all. Next time you watch a great string player, pay attention to how he or she rotates the arm - what happens to the shoulder, is the elbow straight or slightly bent, and can you tell where the pronation or supination are happening? How does this change on the lower and upper strings, through different bowings, articulations, and expressive demands?

And when the concert is over, do they still have the strength left to carry a bucket or two?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

a small post, but a Gran step for bassist-kind

Discussions of music on this blog usually range from works I really, really like to stuff I'm deliriously fanatic about. I'm going to make an exception today and talk about a certain composer of virtuoso double bass music, an Italian whose name rhymes with the phrase "What a weenie!" We shall refer to this composer as He Who Shall Not Be Named (HWSNBN) for reasons which may soon become clear.

A search of past hella frisch posts reveals that HWSNBN has been named in 3 previous posts, or 0.68% of the 436 total. I'd like to get that down to 0.67 or 0.66% if possible. If only I could say that less than 1% of my life has been spent playing and studying HWSNBN's music - sadly, this is probably not the case.

I won't say he never wrote a good piece - I like his Elegy in D somewhat, and last summer I read a string quintet which was rather pleasing, if only because it did not use the bass as a solo instrument. Please don't get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for the double bass' soloistic properties - somehow though, just about every performance of HWSNBN's works ends up sounding like a circus for retarded animals. Even the very best performers end up sounding a little bit foolish and awkward. It's like a person who, having nothing to say, goes on chattering away as high and quickly as possible, in hopes of not being discovered.

Even people who talk about HWSNBN sound rather ridiculous, in my opinion - one of the reasons I'm being so cautious in taking up the subject (please, no hate mail!) Look at this recent comment thread on Jason Heath's blog if you want an example of the level of discourse regarding HWSNBN.

Well, I think bass players are a pretty sophisticated group of musicians in general, and hope we will eventually cast off the scourge of HWSNBN. We'll stop programming him on recitals (three worst words in the English language: All-B******* Program), stop requiring his pieces on auditions and competitions, stop teaching them to our students. Perhaps with this blog post, I can begin to do my own small part.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

making fun of philosophy

I can be sort of a hypocrite when it comes to reading. I'm always telling other people what to read, but then someone else recommends a book - like Brad and Denise, my friends here in Calgary who loaned me The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton - and I'm like stubborn old George W. Bush: I'll be the decider! Well, I listened to my friends' advice for once, and I'm so glad I did. This was one of those books that feels like it's been written specifically just for you, even if millions of other readers feel the same way too.

Alain de Botton takes on some of the most-discussed and least-read thinkers in the Western canon: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Before this all I'd read was a little bit of Nietzsche, which I found totally incomprehensible. It's hardly the fault of the philosophers themselves, though: their translators and publishers seem to like packaging their writing in books which practically seem to glower at you through the cover. If philosophy offers relief from suffering, you wonder, how come reading it causes suffering?

Consolations corrects the problem, with more laughs, anecdotes, and whimsical asides per page than any other philosophical text you're likely to read. And having obtained a copy, you are likely to read it, because it makes these ideas and the people producing them seem so lively and fun. De Botton seems to take a cue from the blogosphere, sticking in a silly picture or diagram whenever things threaten to get dull - yes, it's philosophy with pictures! - but it's hardly philosophy for dummies, and his imaginative, clever writing style insures against any dullness that might approach.

My favorite section of the book was on Montaigne - I actually might go out and find a copy of the Essays, I liked him so much. As de Botton writes:

[Montaigne] was concerned with the whole man, with the creation of an alternative to the portraits which had left out most of what man was. It was why his book came to include discussions of his meals, his penis, his stools, his sexual conquests and his farts - details which had seldom featured in a serious book before, so gravely did they flout man's image of himself as a rational creature.

- page 129
He sounds like a blogger living before his time.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sparafucile, the incompetent hit-man

Rigoletto is one of my favorite operas, and it has one of my favorite opera characters: Sparafucile. Just saying that name makes you want to sing, or perhaps cook some pasta.

Sparafucile is a rare breed of hit-man, in that he advertises his services directly. When he sees a potential client, like Rigoletto in the second scene, looking upset and muttering about a 'maledizione' (curse), he walks right up and offers to solve the problem quickly and inexpensively. There happens to be a double bass solo (er, duet with cello) going on at the time, perhaps signalling that the world has gone completely topsy-turvy. Rigoletto considers the proposition but finally declines; Sparafucile wanders off, after repeating his own name a few times. Who wouldn't want to hire a hit-man named Sparafucile?

He's more than just a great name though - Sparafucile prides himself as an honest businessman, a straight shooter, you might say. Twenty scudi, that's all he charges - his sister Maddalena seems to think that Sparafucile is selling himself short, having taken a liking to his victim, but he's not going to budge on price. They've got a sort of motel / homicide operation going, which provides some nice synergy - it simplifies check-out, anyway.

Unfortunately, their building is falling apart and full of holes - maybe business has been a little bit flighty, like a feather in the wind - which allows for all the eavesdropping and changes in plans in the 3rd act. Maddalena proposes they murder Rigoletto instead, saving the Duke and earning the same 20 scudi. Sparafucile refuses indignantly, saying he won't tarnish his reputation as a contract killer through petty theft. No, unless someone else walks through that door right away, he's going to kill the guy he's been paid to kill, charming or not.

I'll try not to spoil the ending. Sparafucile's heart clearly wasn't in the killing that night, though - his victim is still alive in the sack, and lasts for another 15 minutes of heartbreaking arias. It's one of those great opera moments, where you're either transported and weeping uncontrollably, or else wishing that singer would just die already. I'm usually in the former category, except when I'm playing in the pit, where uncontrolled weeping is looked down upon.

For all its silly conventions, Rigoletto is an exceptional opera in that its hero is not the dashing, royal tenor, but a hunch-backed, buffoonish baritone. He has all the passions, jealousies, the loves and dreams of a heroic protagonist - unfortunately, for a jester, he's really bad at brushing off a joke. I wish Verdi had maybe gone one step further, and made an opera about the incompetent hit-man: a guy striving to do his immoral job in a noble, upstanding way, in a world where it's not always easy to kill the right people, or kill them completely. He could call it: Sparafucile.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

all things elephant

But the dust-laden and echoey churches were not enough. She was drawn to another place of worship, the Ganesh temple in the heart of the city, the elephant image smiling at her from the inner sanctum. That was how it seemed: another big soft gaze in her life. The other deities sat glowering, with horror teeth like Kali's, or else solemnly dancing like Shiva; with half-closed eyes like Saraswati playing the sitar, or goofy-faced with pouchy cheeks like Hanuman. But only the elephant god smiled, always the kindly eyes directed straight at her, and the full satisfied mouth chomping in the tusks like a tycoon with two cigars. The way the fat thing sat on the rounded cushion of his bottom, his center of gravity in his broad bum, was also a pleasure to see, but most of all his eyes reassured her with a What can I do for you? look and a guarantee: I can help you.

"The Elephant God", from The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, p. 202

Bass players have a special connection to the elephant, by virtue of the famous solo from Carnival of the Animals. I think we're not alone in feeling an affinity for these mysterious giants, though. When I took my mom to the Bass Museum in Miami Beach, her favorite thing was a sculpture of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god - remover of obstacles, deva of wisdom. I just finished reading The Elephanta Suite, this wonderful collection of three novellas by Paul Theroux, and the one quoted above especially struck me with its description of the elephant's beauty and power.

I visited Calgary Zoo recently with my dad and step-mom, and we got to see the zoo's new baby elephant, Malti. She was born August 9th, just two days after I moved to Calgary, so when these pictures were taken she was around two months old.

The handlers were trying to measure and photograph her - even at two months old, she's a pretty powerful creature, and it took all three of them to control and guide her. Below is one more picture of Malti, and then one of her father, Spike, and her mother, Maharani, shown with another female elephant, Kamala.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sheila's dream

One of my bassist colleagues told me about a recent dream she had - and I hope she won't mind if I write about it here, since it's so fabulous I think it needs to be shared with the world.

In her dream, both she and I were taking some big orchestra audition. We'd been working hard for a long time to prepare, and all the rest of our section decided to come along with us for moral support. (I love my section, but I can hardly dream of anyone wanting to do that!) So we got to the audition, played our best, but neither of us got the job. That's life, I guess. But the really amazing part was the guy who won, and the reason - he had worked out this whole skit to go along with the excerpts from Ein Heldenleben. Something elaborate involving an anti-gravity mail-chute-type thing, shooting the music up into the air, and then he would play it. We were both really disappointed, in Sheila's dream, because we hadn't thought to prepare any skits to accompany our excerpts!

I'm not sure what the orchestral world would be like if auditions included props and pyrotechnics like that, but I imagine that the conversations afterwards with friends and family members might be much easier:

ZOE (my sister): So whatever happened at that audition you took a couple months ago? The one in Cleveland, or was it Colorado?

ME: Oh, you mean Kansas City. I played pretty well, I nailed the Don Juan and got all the notes on Mozart 35, though I may have been a little under tempo...

ZOE: Uh-huh, you're kind of losing me there, but so what happened?

ME: Well, I made semis, but there was a guy with a talking parrot and a little person in a tutu, so he ended up winning.

ZOE: A little person? Do you mean a midget?

ME: Well yeah, but they prefer to be called little people.

ZOE: Oh yeah. Well sorry about that. Anything else coming up?

ME: No, but if you meet any little people who can dance to Beethoven 5, you should let me know.

ZOE: Sure thing

Friday, November 02, 2007

greatest in the known universe

A couple of blocks from the Epcor Centre, where the Calgary Philharmonic plays, there is a pizza restaurant called "AAA Great Pizza Company". (The name is "AAA Grate Pizza" on the receipts, but it's "Great" on the sign.) It's just your average hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, with a few solitary people sitting at small cracked tables, eating cheap slices with plastic utensils. But just outside the door, one of those folding placard signs boasts:


Then it starts talking about the quality of the dough, the sauce, and the value compared to other pizza options, challenging the reader to make his own comparison, which can only heighten his appreciation for the greatness of the AAA Great Pizza Company's offerings. I didn't memorize the whole sign, but somehow that first line struck me.

I'm not much of a food critic, and actually I didn't even try the pizza, opting instead for a cheesy lasagna in an aluminum dish, with some semi-burnt garlic bread on the side. What struck me more than the food though, was the attitude demonstrated on that sign. I've noticed this kind of chest-thumping bravado at other Italian restaurants - they're always proclaiming themselves "The Famous Original Ray's", for example - and I wonder if it's a part of Italian culture, or just a necessary conceit when you're competing against so many rivals.

In any case, I thought as I munched my respectable if non-universe-shattering lasagna, I sort of like it that the pizza cook at AAA have a certain swagger. If he considers himself the best pizza cook in the universe, he's not going to skimp on the ingredients, or leave it in the oven too long (like the garlic bread), and he's going to make sure when he tosses it up in the air that it doesn't splatter on the wall or the grubby floors.

It reminded me of back before I entered conservatory, and I really thought of myself as a great bass player - I was voted Most Musical in my senior class (along with a violinist, Nelly Kim, who is now playing in the New York City Opera orchestra); I won the state solo competition, and I got to play principal in the All-Northwest orchestra. All this really meant something, before I moved east and realized that I wasn't even the best bass player on my residence hall floor.

Far from it - I had some serious issues to work on. Probably it was a good thing to get that shot of reality, in the long run. In the short run though, it felt like my playing had degenerated. All the things I thought were awesome and amazing, now just sounded hackish and lame, and every lesson brought up something else I couldn't do very well. I think it's a hard adjustment for music students, or any kind of fish moving to a bigger pond. Your self-image is shot, and the confidence that allowed you to rise above yourself, suddenly just pulls you down. I remember hearing another music student say that her best playing had been for college auditions, her senior year in high school - it had all been downhill from there, and she was in her second or third year at this point.

Maybe her self-image had gotten skewed in the opposite direction, which probably isn't that uncommon either. As soon as we rely on comparisons and other people's praise to assess our own worth, we're prone to these kinds of delusional swings of confidence and self-loathing. There may not be any really objective evaluations in the arts, but at least we can find our own values, preferences, and ideals, so we don't have to judge ourselves by a different standard every day.

Or try and measure ourselves against bass players in another galaxy - who can bother worrying about them? At least we know their pizza isn't as great as ours.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Bourne Ictus

I just watched The Bourne Identity, which is the first part in the three-movie Bourne series. Thriller movies like this are a lot of fun, but they always seem to challenge my excuses about how I'm too busy and stressed to have a relationship. This is what I tell myself a lot of the time: "Being an orchestral musician is a time-consuming career, it takes a long time to get settled and established, you have to practice endlessly and travel quite a bit..." Then I watch Jason Bourne, who at the beginning of the film washes up on a boat in the Mediterranean with no clue as to who he is - then he has to dodge police forces, fight off thugs and goons, hitch, steal, and lie his way around Europe, finally take down a whole CIA operation - and he still has time to meet someone, get to know her, fall in love, etc.

It all seems a bit unfair. Of course I don't have amnesia, but I do have some liabilities that Jason Bourne didn't need to face. He's played by Matt Damon, for one. He's able to take the wheel of love-interest Marie's Mini-Cooper, pursued by droves of Paris police, and swerve through sidewalks, down staircases, and up a busy highway in the wrong direction - I get squeamish if I have to ask to use a girl's bathroom. I get nervous calling a friend to ask her out for coffee - Jason Bourne picks up the cell phone of a guy he's just shot to death, calls up a CIA director in Langley, Virginia, and demands a meeting the next afternoon on a bridge in Paris. Then he hangs up before hearing an answer, so they can't trace the call and send more goons. That would be a problem for me, but maybe I need to develop that sort of dashing self-confidence.

Jason Bourne must have gone through some serious training to gain all those skills though. I wonder what if, instead of a top-secret CIA agent, he had waken up in his amnesiac state to slowly discover that he was an international guest conductor. Here's a character-explication scene from Identity with Jason and Marie that I've adapted:

Jason and Marie have just sat down at an orchestra concert in Switzerland. Marie speaks first.

Marie: So what's the deal, Jason? What are you doing here?

Jason: (agitated, tired of all the questions he can't answer) Listen, here's how it is. I walk into this concert hall and I'm immediately checking out the sight lines, locating all the brass and percussion players, so I can put up my hands and discourage them from playing too loud. I know that the third trombone is a little tipsy, the second oboist hasn't had a good reed in weeks, and both second stand violinists think they can play the solos better than the concertmaster, but only the inside one is right. I can read opera librettos in 5 languages, then schmooze potential donors in 8 languages. I know that the guy three rows down is humming La Traviata, but he's 5 cents flat. And I know that I can beat the first 50 bars of the Danse Infernale before my hands start to shake. So you tell me, how can I know all this, and still not know who I am?

It probably wouldn't work too well, though I think it would be great if someone made an action movie about a conductor or orchestral musician. He (or she) could race through exotic city streets to get to the gig on time - subdue angry audience members tired of long introductory speeches - wield a music stand or a viola bow as an improvised weapon. It would be thrilling stuff, I'm telling you.