Sunday, December 30, 2007

on the skin

Which is the most important body part in playing the double bass?

Is it the shoulder, the elbow, maybe the hand? Or we could think more in the abstract - Daniel Barenboim talks about the head, the heart, and the gut, three principal and equal contributors.

I'm going to suggest something a little more superficial, though: the skin. It's our largest organ, also our most prominent, most often injured, and quickest to heal. We constantly stretch it, squeeze it, splay it, poke it, pluck it - we ask it to be firm, soft, callused, flexible, tough, fleshy, sensitive. Amazingly, it will usually do all these things, without us taking much notice until it cracks, chafes, burns or blisters.

Within the skin are nerve fibers, which create our sense of touch. These nerves provide our most important sensory input while playing; even more than our ears, they allow us to micro-adjust and play in tune. By the time our ears have heard a note played out of tune, everyone else's ears have heard it too - so we depend on our skin to correct it quicker.

A cellist friend recently cut her left middle finger at the knuckle, rather severely - she had to get eight stitches. She's recovering well, but it's still been frustrating for her to play with injured skin. For a while she couldn't flex the finger enough, and then that finger's vibrato didn't seem to work. For something superficial, the skin can have a deep impact.

One bass maker once told me that the reason strings take a while to break in - and sound so much better after a few weeks of playing - is that skin cells and oils fill in the string's gaps, softening and warming the edges of its vibration. So skin becomes an essential part of the instrument, as well as our own bodies. We leave little pieces of our skin all over the place - as gross as that might seem.

I haven't read too much about the skin, and I can't remember any teacher coaching me on proper skin care. But I've definitely been paying more attention to it since I moved to Calgary. The climate is very dry, which can cause our skin (as well as our basses) to tighten and crack. The best solution to the problem seems to be a good humidifier, and some well-insulated gloves.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

working with video

A couple of people have asked me about video equipment and using video in practice.

The camera I use is a Sony DVD camcorder (DCR DVD-108 is the model number). I bought this camera partly because it has external audio inputs, but so far I have just used the camera's own built-in microphone. It records onto this small DVDs - they only hold 30 minutes or so, but you can play them on most normal DVD players as well as computers. So I can leave my camera equipment down at the hall where I'm practicing, and just bring back a couple small discs if I want to review what I've worked on.

I mostly use video for my own benefit, to diagnose problems I can't see while I'm causing them! That being said, it's hard to resist the temptation to want to record something perfectly. So when I turn on the camera it often stops being a practice session and becomes a performance, (though usually a lonely, mediocre one!) There's nothing wrong with that - we all need to practice performing, and the video camera can serve as a more patient (and less forgiving) audience, when we'd rather not ask a real person. I just find I need to set aside some time to work on things before setting up the camera and pressing record, or else my anal perfectionist side takes over!

Most of the recordings I do get quickly erased and recorded over - that's another nice thing about these mini-DVDs, they are rewritable. I don't want to turn this into a primarily video blog, so I try to only use video here to illustrate some idea or piece I'm working on.

The video below was an excerpt from a Bach cantata I performed last weekend on a Baroque concert. It's practically unplayable on a bass with an extension, but I wanted to find a way to play as many of the notes as possible - so I devised a little extension cheat, leaving out a few notes to close the levers. I also lost a little bit of time, you might notice. It's helpful to watch for any excess or jerky movements in passages like this one, in which I'm trying to be as efficient and fluid as possible.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

bass blogroll and Schumann video

I've been delinquent in blogging lately, preoccupied with moving to a new place and trying to find a tenant to take over my lease. In the meantime though, Stan Haskins has started a series of copycat video posts, messing around with weird camera angles and obscure Mendelssohn excerpts! It's an honor to help spread bass geekery around the blogosphere.

And Michael Hovnanian wrote a very entertaining post about orchestral seating arrangements, titled "Bass-Ackward". Just like at a wedding reception, you can never please everyone -- no matter how hard you try, someone's going to get stuck with a trumpet bell aimed at their head, a violin turned the wrong way, or a bass pizzicato going off like a bomb behind their ear.

Since I'm too distracted to write much, I'll post another video of my own. This is a movement from Schumann's Five Pieces in Folk Style, originally for cello and piano, which I worked on with Donald Palma as an undergrad at NEC. Each week, Don would try subtly to dissuade me from playing the piece, pointing out all the awkward compromises in the transcription, but I wouldn't listen. I finally performed it on my junior recital, to the muffled applause of a very charitable audience.

This movement is marked 'Mit Humor', and what could be more humorous than cello music played on the bass? I'll leave it up to my readers to decide whether it's worth bringing it back before the public, or I had better keep it confined to poorly-lit locker rooms.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

bouncing bow advice

The very first masterclass I attended at last summer's ISB convention was entitled "Bow Strokes with Jeremy McCoy." That might not sound irresistibly attractive to some people, but those people apparently were not in attendance at the 2007 ISB Bass Convention. The room was packed, there were people standing along the wall, and even craning their necks to see from outside the door.

We were about to hear Jeremy McCoy demonstrate spiccatto, and we were all pretty damn excited about it.

Jeremy McCoy plays in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and if you don't know his playing, check out his recently released cd "Dialogues with Double Bass". It's an incredible variety of duets for bass and other instruments, showing off Jeremy's musicality as collaborator as well as soloist.

Getting back to the masterclass though - I unfortunately can't offer any sound or video, but I was taking notes. Here are some of Jeremy's guidelines for working on spiccatto, as well as I can remember them:

1. Prepare with long tones - The contact in a bounced stroke is relatively short, so it's especially important to develop immediate, quality core sound. Focus on full contact with flat bow hair, developing the maximum friction in order to start the string vibrating as quickly as possible.

2. Neutral lines - We don't want anything rigidly straight in the bow arm, since that will disrupt the natural springiness of the bow. The wrist and elbow need to have a combination of firmness and suppleness, so they can direct the bounce without overly controlling it - think of the fluid motion of a basketball player dribbling. This will work best with some degree of flexion.

3. The tip must track - Any wobble or wavering in a long or detache stroke will only become more pronounced in an off the string stroke. Watch that the tip follows a consistent, straight path in long tones, so that it can track horizontally in spiccatto strokes. Notice if the motion of up-bows and down-bows is symmetrical, or if one is more pronounced. Again, using full bow hair for maximum friction will help.

4. Find a natural bounce point - This can start with finding the balance point on your bow, and experimenting with bounced strokes in relation to that point. There's no single ideal spot on the bow, but moving away or towards the balance point can help make spiccatto strokes longer or crisper.

5. Initiate with the elbow - Longer strokes might work better with the whole arm, while shorter may mostly involve the wrist and fingers. Any bounced stroke will start with the elbow though - watch that the elbow is preparing and leading the arm and bow.

He went on to demonstrate a whole range of spiccatto strokes, from martele and sautille to ricochet, battute and balzato. I don't actually remember what a balzato stroke sounded like (my notes say "lit. 'prancing' - flicked at top") but it's a fun word to say in rehearsal or at an audition. "Can we hear that a little more balzato, please?"

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Public School attitude

"Their ignorance of the arts was notable, and they lost no opportunity of proclaiming it to one another; it was the Public School attitude, flourishing more vigorously than it can yet hope to do in England. If Indians were shop, the Arts were bad form, and Ronny had repressed his mother when she inquired after his viola; a viola was almost a demerit, and certainly not the sort of instrument one mentioned in public."

- E.M. Forster, "A Passage to India", p. 31

There may be some differences between Victorian England and modern America, but "the Public School attitude", as E.M. Forster calls it, seems to be pretty much the same. Expressing an interest in subjects taught in class is bad form, and taking an interest in art, literature, or music outside of the classroom is absolute social suicide. It signals that you're different, weird, maybe pretentious and full of yourself - all signs of weakness and invitations to bullying. For a great example of the mercilessness of teenage boys, this one in a 1980s British public school, check out the novel Black Swan Green by David Mitchell.

That attitude might not be particular to public school, or even teenagers, as Forster points out. It might arise in any community that values conformity above all else, where displays of strength and cruelty are necessary to cover up insecurity. Public school is just the place where most of us first encountered it, and where its effects can be greatest. I seemed to fit in pretty well all through elementary school, but then in junior high school I was branded as different - it may have been the 'magnet' classes, or walking around with musical instrument cases. Probably lots of kids cast off these signs of weirdness before they can compromise their reputation - I was either too slow or stubborn to do that, though, and so I got stuck with the label of band geek.

Things are pretty rough as an outcast, and your only friends are other geeks (one of my closest friends, Aaron Olson, just wrote a nice blog post remembering high school geekiness, 'Band Geek'.) Still, you do your best to keep it from getting even worse - I remember being ultra-careful to not let anyone at school know that I still played the violin as well as the bass. If I had to go to a lesson, I would scan the sidewalks for anyone I knew, crouching down in the bushes with my violin case if necessary. I had resigned myself to being a bass-playing nerd, but somehow being a bass and violin-playing nerd was more than I could handle - I quit the violin when I was 15, though now I wish I had kept it up. I still have my old violin, and once in a while I'll pull it out and play through the Suzuki pieces I haven't yet managed to forget.

Things do get better, and as people become more comfortable with themselves, they start to realize that having friends with different talents and interests is actually quite a cool thing. This week at the CPO we've been playing a series of education concerts for school kids, a show called "A Paintbrush for Piccolo" that celebrates a little Italian kid who wanted to be an artist. The music is by Calgary composer Arthur Bachmann, who is also (I hesitate to mention it in public) a CPO violist. It's been going over very well with our elementary school-age audiences. It has some lovely, infectious melodies, as well as a sweet and clever story, engagingly acted - including a little cameo by my stand partner Graeme, who warns the 10-year old protagonist, "Go beg somewhere else!" (He says he practiced his delivery on his own kids.)

Maybe some of the kids in our audiences will decide that being an artist or musician is pretty cool after all, and stick with it despite the Public School attitude. We have one more show, this afternoon at 2 pm, preceded by an instrument petting zoo at 1.