Don’t be a Domino King/Queen Part 2

Professor Robert Meyer’s Advice to Young Bassists, Don’t be a Domino King/Queen Part 2

I have found that this advice is very helpful to beginning students whether they aim to become professionals, talented amateurs or members of a youth orchestra.  I have also found that their overall playing ability is improved too.

First, arrive at the venue in good time, set up your bass and quietly tune. If you have borrowed the music don’t forget to bring it.   When the rehearsal begins, say, with a chord, have your bow ready to attack the string as the conductor gives the downbeat.  No ragged entries!

Second, be sure you bring a pencil, eraser, paper clips and a piece of manuscript paper. Erase all your marks in hired parts before they are returned to lender. This saves your hard-up organization a lot of money.

Don’t be afraid to mark the parts!

In the opera and the ballet sometimes big cuts are made. In a very large cut you can either slip a large paper clip or use some tape over the pages to keep them together so you can make an easy turn. At the end of the cut, mark “HERE” with a large arrow above it at the place where you have to enter. You can’t search for it at the performance and marking it can avoid you much embarrassment.
The sudden stop, or cesura.  (Verdi’s parts are full of them)  Mark it like this::-  //
A  rallentando, or a slowing down   Mark with a wavy line over the bar (s)  like this  ~~~~~~~~~ or an arrow pointing to the left
Speeding up; an arrow pointing to the right.

A section in the music where you have to watch the conductor very carefully, mark with a pair of spectacles       O-O— over the top

Draw an arrow pointing downward over the top of a note that either leads or has to be particularly emphasized.

Turning the page quickly.  Mark V.S. (volte subito) at the bottom of the page, or just before, as necessary.
Sometimes there is a difficult turn.  This is where your m.s. paper comes in handy.  So that you don’t lose continuity write the section of music down and use one of the paper clips or some tape to fasten it in place. On a particularly difficult turn sometimes the players turn alternately.

Change of key, modulation. It always helps for example when a key changes from two sharps to five sharps, to draw a circle around the new key signature and pencil in a sharp on the first few notes that now have sharps, as a reminder.

In a difficult rhythm it is a good idea to put a mark over each beat, which helps you play a syncopated rhythm, also when there is a 5/8 or 7/8 bar often the accents are in different parts of the bar.  You can find examples for instance in Stravinsky’s “Rite” and also his “Soldiers Tale”:

In passages such as those in the beginning of the” Rite”, where all the strings are playing in unison and the accents occur on different parts of each bar it is not a bad idea to emphasize the printed accents by going over them with a pencil to make them stand out.

Sometimes there are pieces with many bars rest such as the Wagner operas (don’t I know!)  It certainly isn’t amateurish to put in cues.  Perhaps there is a very long rest.  If an oboe solo commences at bar 20, pencil in 20 and write “oboe’ above it. Continue to write in other cues, but above all COUNT!

I don’t apologize for all the preceding hints, ridiculously simple though some of them may be.   I never expect a student to have any pre-supposed knowledge, and, as I wrote at the beginning this is really intended for absolute beginners. It might have helped Fred too!   See my previous blog.

Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 9:53 am  Leave a Comment  
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Don’t be Another Domino King! Part One

Professor Robert Meyer’s Advice to Young Bassists: Don’t be Another Domino King! Part One.

A Domino King, in British slang is someone who persists in making false entries; this blog is an attempt to help all tyro bassists and maybe others to avoid coming in at the wrong place.

Maybe, after annoying your wife, family, girl/boy friend and your neighbours by your constant practicing you have landed, after audition, a place in a great orchestra. Now that you can play all the Bottesini pieces in fingered octaves you may think that you have at last arrived. Not so. You have your first foot on the ladder but you now have to learn the craft of playing in an orchestra.

I got my first job over sixty tears ago in the London Philharmonic Orchestra after giving an audition. Sir Thomas Beecham was the conductor at that time. Even though the audition was successful I still had to play next to Victor Watson, the principal bass at a rehearsal, to see what I was like in the orchestra. That was not all, I was hired on probation for three months and only after that was I given a contract.

I don’t know what the hiring procedures are for the entire world’s orchestras but most are stringent, therefore I thought I would write an article giving you tips you can follow in order that you not be dubbed a “Domino Queen/King” and thereby lose the job you have worked so hard to get.

Social mores may have changed since those days but human nature hasn’t, so believe me, as the new kid on the block you will be under silent scrutiny in your every move, and things have a habit of going back.

I had the misfortune of having to sit next to an old timer, Fred, who surely didn’t like the idea of “all these young chaps coming into the orchestra. Where was their experience?” He would never mark the part and castigated me if I did, looking down his nose and saying “After all my years in the business I don’t need to mark the parts, neither do you. You can only learn by experience”.

Fred was hoisted by his own petard when, in rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathètique” Symphony, last movement, where there is a loud chord preceded by a strong upbeat he came in too soon. Even Koussevitsky who was conducting roared with laughter.

In the next installment of this blog I’ll give you a few tips so you can avoid being like Fred.

Professor Robert Meyer’s advice

Professor Robert Meyer’s advice to young (or not so young) bassists, continued

In my post of July 8th, 2008, I wrote about having your bass set-up properly. That post was about rounding the fingerboard. This post is about setting the distance between the strings, which can greatly improve your technique thus giving you a better chance to get a job, quite a feat in these hard times, and also it will give you more satisfaction with your playing.

You see, sometimes it is necessary to press down two or three strings at the same time somewhat in the manner of a ligature that guitarists use, if your bass is set-up properly then you can do it.

As an example I can quote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Scherzo where there is a pianissimo rising passage that can be played with relative ease if you give some thought to the instrument’s set-up. Another piece is Richard Strauss’s “Heldenleben”.

My bass has a stop of 41 inches.

Distance centre to centre between the strings at the nut:  3/8” (three eighths of an inch).

Distance centre to centre between strings on the bridge: 27/32” (Twenty-seven thirty-seconds of an inch, just under seven-eighths of an inch).

One thing; it is critical that your bridge be of the correct height so that your bow clears the bouts of the bass.

Tips on Performance

Revealing the compass of the instrument and what it is capable of was one of the goals of the CD Discovering the Double Bass. Through it, I hope to hand down tips about authenticity of performance I received from Victor Watson, Koussevitsky, de Sabata and many others.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 6:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On Benjamin Britten

Some of my memories of Benjamin Britten are described in this short video. I was also the librarian for the English Opera Group as well as Principal Bass.

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bass Playing Past and Present

In this video I discuss approaches to the instrument, auditions and my reflections as included in my book, The Bottom Line. Also I go into some of the tips I received for performance from de Sabata, Koussevitsky and others, and how these are included in my CD, Discovering the Double Bass.

Markneukirchen Instrument Makers

A visit to Markneukirchen, Germany, the home of many good instrument makers

Let me state right away that I have no connection with Alfred Meyer the bass makers, although I have the same surname, I am not paid by them to advertise their products and I am merely giving what I hope will be an interesting account of my visit to Markneukirchen, Germany.

My father came from a town near Markneukirchen and some time ago I visited there and resolved to have a look round the town which is small and devoted entirely to making musical instruments.

A further incentive was that the bass I play on was made by Eberhart Meinel who I tried to visit but I was told that the firm had gone out of business.

However, I was directed to the premises of Alfred Meyer, who, I was told, are now the premier bass makers in Markneukirchen. I was cordially welcomed and examined and played on six models.  All of them were well made and sounded very good.  I was very impressed with a five stringer, the model having won a prize.  Later that evening I went to a concert given by the Dresdener Staatskapelle.  All of the eight basses were five stringers from Alfred Meyer.

There was a copy of a Gaspar da Salo, a ¾ violinform, a ¾ Milano, a ¾ Verona, a 4/4 Alfred Meyer and a 3/4 Dracula, the latter having a carved head of Dracula instead of the usual scroll, and lightning zig-zags instead of the usual F holes. All were easy to play and to “get over”.

Considering that they were so beautifully made the cost (in Euros) was very reasonable.  As a professional they offered me a 10% discount and said they would ship to Canada.  It was very tempting, but I’m satisfied with my own bass and do not do a great deal of playing now so reluctantly I went away empty-handed but to anybody starting in the profession who needs a good, reasonably priced bass this is one of the places to look.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Beethoven Symphonies

How they may have been performed in Beethoven’s day.

When playing the Beethoven symphonies I have often been asked, and I’m sure many of my colleagues out there have also been asked by conductors for much more sound. But not all the great conductors were like that.  I remember some elegant performances by Furtwangler, de Sabata and Bruno Walter.

I have often performed them with a small orchestra consisting of instruments of a type that were used in Beethoven’s day and the sound was completely different as was to be expected.  There was not the blaring brass and screechy string sound that some orchestras make today. But there were drawbacks. For instance in the trio of the “Eroica” Symphony very often the old style horns fluffed it.

It is interesting to note that when Sir George Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 that four celli and two basses only played the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, which, said Sir George, is certainly better than if one takes all the basses.

However, Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play the recitatives in a singing style, not stiffly, but in strict time, not dragged.

According to my research there were mostly only four basses in Beethoven’s orchestra (in which the basses were sometimes led by Domenico Dragonetti) playing on gut strings and some with only 3-stringed instruments, so it must have been a completely different sound than we hear today when up to ten basses are used, all with metal strings

On Dynamics

Sometimes there are dubious dynamics in the printed parts. For instance, in the last movement of Beethoven’s 5th. Symphony there is a solo passage for cellos and basses with an accompaniment of the upper strings playing chords on the off beat. I remember de Sabata asking the upper strings to lower their fortissimo so as to let the cellos and basses be heard above the din.

In the Variations in Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” one variation is the Theme played by the cello and bass. The piano part is marked F or FF and invariably the pianist thumps it out drowning the cello & bass.

Sometimes the cello and bass part needs to be played really strongly, for instance in the opening of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”.

Opera and Ballet often need the principal bass to play up so as to set the tempo in the first bar or two of a piece such as Bertha’s aria in the last act of Rossini’s opera the “Barber of Seville”, or in the allegro in the first act of Verdi’s “La Traviata” after the first couple of bars intro.

It is only after much experience as a player that you can judge whether or not to decrease or increase the sound to make the bass part more viable. Usually an experienced conductor will tell you. There was a bass player who, when playing the” Messiah” put some very sticky resin on his bow and then declared to the conductor, “Now I’ll show you ‘Who is the King of Glory! ‘” Don’t make the mistake of trying to lead the orchestra: I can quote a conductor’s remark to Dragonetti. “Please, Signor Dragonetti, let me have my Orchestra back!”

Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Preventing Physical Strain

Preventing Physical Strain and Sustaining one’s Health when playing the Double bass.
I have to write a disclaimer because I am not a medical doctor and these are only some observations I have made during my long career as a double bassist.

When I was at the height of my career I was very busy, and keeping my health was a necessity since if I did not work I was not paid.  I can remember only three occasions in over 60 years when I had to give up a date for health reasons.

Of course, genes have a lot to do with it.  I was as strong as a horse, but I ate right, exercised and slept well, but playing the bass does give rise to some physical problems.

Many bassists I knew developed a “widow’s hump” from sitting all day long hunched over a bass.  It is most important to get your playing position right.  The Alexander Technique can help you with this.  You can help yourself by seeing to it that the stool you sit on is adjusted properly.  One plague of bass players is varicose veins which you can help to avoid by slicing off the edge of your stool so that it doesn’t press into your inner thigh cutting off the circulation. Of course, sitting all day like a stork with one leg up and the other down doesn’t help.

Recently I realised that my body was out of alignement due to playing the bass for so long and I decided to consult a Rolfing practiioner.  After only one session I found it to be of great benefit.   You can Google it to find out all about it.

Published in: on December 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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