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.

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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  

Memories of an old Koussevitsky ’78 recording

I’ve only heard one of  Koussevitsky’s recordings and that was in the year 1939/1940.  There was an apology of sorts on the record sleeve that read, if I remember correctly,that Mr. Koussevitsky had been retired from bass playing for some time but had come out of retirement and practiced for about two weeks before making the recording.  Remember there were no cuts, splicing or major enhancement in those days and the longest take could only occupy 13 minutes or so, but, nothing daunted, our friend Koussy made a creditable job of it, considering.  Apart from the record being a bit scratchy, and although the recording of those days was primitive, I was really fascinated with it and have never forgotten it.
There was one little thing that I noticed, and that was his style of slightly swooping to a note.  Many of the old string players of those days adopted it.  I can remember Madame Suggia, the cellist, using it.  If it is done in small doses I can’t complain.

It would be interesting to find out whether there are any existing copies of this disc around.  Perhaps it has been digitally enhanced?

Getting Around With a Double bass #2

When I first started  free-lancing in London with the bass in 1947 I bought a house in Mill Hill,a suburb of London about 10 miles  from the centre.  My house was well over a mile from the London Underground and I didn’t fancy humping the bass all the way to the tube station.  In those days you could take a bass on the tube but, as I have  remarked before, I wouldn’t like to do so now.

There was stringent gas/petrol rationing in those days but I learned that commercial vehicles could obtain as much gas as they wanted-to it was coloured red. Someone told me of a small three wheeled van called a Reliant which was available and cost 120 pounds, about $500 in those days and there was no purchase tax, and another plus, it was taxed as a motor-cycle. It had an Austin 7 h.p. four cylinder engine and had a top speed of 35 mph and was very reliable.  Cost of petrol was trivial.  So, I was able to fit in all my dates, parking wasn’t a problem, and there was hardly anything else on the road.

A year or two later the German firm Messerschmidt brought out a three wheeler which was a great success and is now a collector’s item.  There was a bass player in the BBC Symphony Orchestra who owned one. To get, or rather fit himself in with the bass he had to lift up the front windshield area, and somehow he and the bass were installed  He claimed that it was very comfortable. Both the Reliant and the Messerschmidt were very economical on gas.

With these days of gasoline prices going through the roof maybe bass players will have to look out for modern versions of Reliants or Messerschmidts.

Published in: on October 5, 2008 at 9:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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Getting Around with a Double bass #1

As I mentioned in my book, “The Bottom Line”, when you take up the bass, that’s what you have to do, literally, take it up..

When I was the tender age of 16 I hadn’t a car, so I had to hump it on my back and carry it everywhere.  As Eugene Cruft once said, playing the bass is good for the cardiovascular system, but, believe me, it can become very  tiring so that when one arrives at a concert or rehearsal one is too tired to give of one’s best.

Without a car in those days people were simpatico towards you.  You could take a bass on the Underground in London for free, or on a train (steam in those days) or in some cities in Northern England such as Manchester they would allow you to put your bass next to the tram (street car) driver for the cost of a penny!  Occasionally, if there was room in a long distance bus, providing you gave the driver a little consideration, you would be allowed to travel on it with bass.

To avoid too much carting around,  most of the main railway stations had a left luggage room where you could pay to deposit the bass overnight, but also had to be sure to cross the attendants’ palm with silver so that it was safe.

Taxis welcomed bass players, because they were always sure of receiving a good tip, but they were expensive and so if you only received a minimum fee and no porterage the date became almost not worth playing.

Nowadays I would hate to take a bass on the London Underground, and it is made more expensive by the car entry charges to Central London.  Another saw-off of your fee.

In the dirty Thirties there were no full time orchestras, except for the BBC, who had their own porters, but there were private entrepreneurs in London who saw a niche for themselves and would pick up your bass and take it to your destination by horse and cart.  The charges were cheap and the orchestras or bands paid you porterage, although some were not  willing to do so.

Published in: on September 29, 2008 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Retiring From Playing the Double Bass #2

In my last blog I wrote at the end of it that there must be a moral somewhere in it.  Well I think there is.

Soon after I came to Canada in 1965 I heard from my friend, Gerry Drucker, who was Principal bass of the Philharmonia Orchestra of London that Frank Fuller, a member of his section had passed away.

They were playing at the Dome, Brighton Sussex one Saturday night, and Frank was so excited.  This was to be his last concert and he was going to retire.  However Fate stepped in, and the next day he suffered a heart attack and died.

I have thought about the moral and maybe it is this.  When you are fed up with playing  Beethoven’s Fifth for the thousandth time think of Dan Burton and Frank Fuller and be happy that you are still around to play it.

Published in: on September 26, 2008 at 2:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Retiring from Playing the Double bass

There used to be a popular song when I was a kid; “Where do all the Flies go in the Winter Time?” so what happens to bassists when they get old?
I have mentioned some bass players in my blogs. Many go on to a ripe old age and never retire.  Some leave (or are left out!) of the profession and very few seem to retire in comfort.
I can think of one bassist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra whom I met in 1947, his name was Dan Burton and he had reached the magic BBC retiring age of 60.
Although Dan was around the age of retirement he always arrived very early for rehearsal and warmed up with scales and arpeggios plus a look at the music on his stand.
He was a burly individual who had hands, to quote Eugene Cruft, “like sides of beef”and looked very healthy.
He found an ideal cottage (so he thought), in Somersetshire in the West of England  and had only been living there for three months when Winter came and so did the floods.  Dan’s cottage was inundated, he caught pneumonia and died.

I don’t know what to add,  there should be a moral somewhere in this.

The Bottesini Duo for two double basses, Victor Watson and Koussevitsky #2

Victor Watson gave me the tempi that he and Koussevitsky played the Duos.  The Polacca was a little slower than I have sometimes heard it played, but it makes sense because the gut strings they used in those days were slower to respond than our modern metal strings.  I know this because I played on gut strings for many years.  Even if one fingered and executed a rapid passage sometimes it did not come off because of the blurred effect of the gut strings.  It may be my old age but tempi generally seem to be faster than years ago, but I also think this may be due to the technical improvements that have taken place in instrument manufacture as well as the improvement in string making, besides, although a  Polacca is meant to be brilliant, I don’t think the slightly slower tempi I have chosen that Victor Watson gave me have lessened the effect.

In bar 59, it is marked “a piacere,” at pleasure. You will notice on the CD that I have made a “rallentando” on that bar, and the next bar is played double the speed, this also was in the information given to me by Mr. Watson.  Koussevitsky was playing first bass.   In bar 116 I make the “glissando” from the A to D harmonic that was also recommended to me by Victor, also you will notice a complete break that is not marked in the printed part at the end of bar 129 that then leads back into the first subject.   These are only some of the many subtleties that I had the good fortune to be given.

Koussevitsky, Victor Watson and the Bottesini Duos.#1

I was very fortunate to meet Koussevitsky and play with Victor Watson when I was in the London Philharmonic Orchestra sixty years ago. They had played the Bottesini Duos together long before when Koussevitsky was performing as a bass soloist.  I learned a lot from Victor about these Duos and vowed that one day I would record them as faithfully as I could to the directions Victor gave me.  Well, I have just recorded the Polacca and some other bass pieces using the Orchestral tuning GDAE, and I have incorporated all of Victor Watson’s and Koussevitsky’s suggestions on its rendering, also Victor de Sabata’s observations on the performance of the “Otello” solo. This can be heard in my CD, Discovering the Double Bass.

Professor Meyer’s Guide to Auditions. Some Difficult Solos #3

Opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel

You can always count on Ravel to put a few harmonics in the bass part; one piece I can think of is his “Mother Goose” Suite. At one time there were heated debates over suggested changes to some of the harmonics but now there is a general concensus of opinion that the printed part is correct.

I was fortunate enough to play a concert performance of “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” in the late 1940’s with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Victor de Sabata the brilliant principal conductor and Director of la Scala Milan who had conducted the first performance. He got a wonderful performance and at rehearsal even corrected the pronunciation of a French choir that was brought over specially.
There is a big bass solo consisting of all harmonics combined with two flutes that starts near the beginning of the opera at Fig. 1 which goes on for 21 bars or so. It is very exposed. There are other difficult bits around Fig. 95 Adagio and 96. Victor Watson played the solo bass part which he found very difficult both technically and rhythmically.
Some years later I played the solo part. I got through it O.K. but I was glad when it was over!