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.

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Published in: on December 1, 2008 at 12:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Double Bass Auditioning Material

Some time ago I noticed an advertisement for a principal bass in the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, Holland.  One of the requirements for the candidates was that they play a Bottesini and Vanhal concerto.
In the early days of my career I gave many auditions and was told on several occasions that they didn’t want to hear a lot of harmonics and skating around the  top of the instrument but  they wanted to hear solos from the lower part of the bass.  The sound one made seemed to be the main concern. Because of this I changed my audition pieces to the orchestral range and without boasting, I got a lot of  jobs by doing so.

Willem Mengelberg, a onetime conductor of the Concertgebouw, made his feelings known very forcibly as to what a true double bass sound should be, especially a principal bass – strong and authoritative.  I can’t write the words he used because they are unprintable.

Edouard van Beinum who became principal conductor of the Concertgebouw sometime later, also had this concern for a big bass sound. I played many concerts for him and, I can tell you, he really loved the sound of the basses, at times flogging us to pull out that extra bit of tone.

In 1946 I listened to the Concertgebouw conducted by van Beinum, in London.  The main piece on the programme was Berlioz’ Symphony Fantastique, and the basses made a great sound. Later, I listened to the Czech Philharmonic, and their bass section sounded magnificent in Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Considering that 99% of bassists make their living by playing in an orchestra, (everybody cannot be a Gary Karr – Gary is unique,) I can’t see why some audition requirements are for bass concertos and not the repertoire.  True, there are many bassists quite capable of playing concertos beautifully,  but  they play on a small solo bass, the strings are set lower on the bridge,  solo strings are used, and  usually the bass is tuned up a tone, thereby making it a kind of bastard instrument,  with a much different sound than that of an orchestral bass.

Often transcriptions are made of violin, cello, oboe etc. sonatas and concertos, but what’s the point of playing them for an orchestral audition?  I felt so strongly that the average listener would probably like to hear what an orchestral bass sound is like that I made a CD on an orchestral bass tuned GDAE The sound is gruffer than a solo bass, I grant you, but then, a bass is a bass is a bass!

So, all you young hopefuls who have been practicing for years and are now out there auditioning for jobs, take heed of my advice; I’ve been there and done it.

Published in: on November 15, 2008 at 12:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Celebrating the Completed Book and CD


Here I am raising a glass with some of those who helped me with my book (The Bottom Line) and CD (Discovering the Double Bass). Present were Janette Chrysler, Catherine Foster, Carol Sill, James K-M, Aleksandra Hadjioannou and Margaret Olney (who arrived after the video).

To see a larger view of this announcement, please click on it, or if you wish, you can download Robert Meyer Announcement

I’m also pleased to announce my new site.

Aria from Verdi’s Il Trovatore

Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 5:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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.