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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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

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.

Orchestral Personalities: Alec Whittaker, oboist

I doubt whether anyone remembers Alec Whittaker, oboist. Alec was the original first oboe for the BBC Symphony Orchestra when it was founded in 1930.

A controversial figure, he was a member of what was dubbed the Royal Family: the first flute, first clarinet, first oboe and first bassoon, so called because of their haughty attitude to orchestral managers and conductors in particular. Alec was noted for this. Any young conductor was in for a bad time if he as much as demanded a certain way of playing a particular oboe solo. He always addressed Sir Adrian Boult as “Mr. Boult” even after he had been knighted. Sir Adrian, a Quaker, never sought honours or publicity. It was only at the insistence of the BBC’s top management that he accepted it.

When Toscanini came to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra just before WW. I I he requested Alec to play some passage in a certain way, to which Alec replied, “Bloody old organ-grinder”. I know this for a fact because Eugene Cruft and others who were there verified it. Apparently Toscanini made no reply, perhaps not quite understanding what Alec had said.

I used to see Alec around London where he was prominent as a free-lance musician, then one day I noticed that he wasn’t around anymore. Imagine my surprise when years later I was playing at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; I crossed the road after rehearsal for a pub lunch. I was astounded to see Alec playing Mine Host, and thoroughly enjoying it too. He was a Dionysian and fond of his tipple, the only thing that worried me was that he was consuming all the profits!

“Dear Friend, I have made this instrument for you..”

In this videoblog I tell how a new double bass came into my life, after I had given up and sold my instruments.

Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 11:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How I Came to Canada

In this video, I describe how I left my busy performing and recording life to come to Canada to work for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll

One day in early 1953 an important-looking letter arrived.   At the top of the envelope was the Royal Coat of Arms and beneath it “Buckingham Palace”.  Inside was a directive from the Duke  of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal, who was in charge of the Queen’s Coronation to be held in Westminster Abbey on the 2nd. of June, 1953.  It read that H.M Queen Elizabeth ll commanded me to play in the Coronation Orchestra.  Tail coats, decorations and white gloves were to be worn and I was to attend all rehearsals punctually.

I was very thrilled to be commanded to play as it gave me great cachet in the musical world and, too, that I would be recognized as one of the leading players in Great Britain.  Everybody in the Coronation Orchestra had to be or have been an orchestra principal or, in the case of strings, the leader of a famous string quartet.  The first violins consisted of every concertmaster in the British Isles and were led by Paul Beard, the concertmaster of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Similarly the choir consisted of every famous singer in the land – all the prima donnas of Covent Garden and elsewhere were included, not minding where they were asked to sit.

The orchestra was seated in the Rood Loft, which was a sort of gallery situated close to the Throne, so we were able to look down and view the whole ceremony. It was the best seat in the house.  There wasn’t enough room to play comfortably.  It would have been better if Sir Adrian Boult, the conductor had spent just a little time arranging matters.  When Harold Jackson the first trumpet complained to Sir Adrian that there wasn’t enough room, all he would say icily was “Neither is there room for anyone else”  There had been fierce competition for the job as conductor, but I’m sure that Sir Adrian being a staunch Quaker never sought the job, , but I know that Sir Malcolm Sargent was pulling every string he knew to get the job.  I have to say, much as I admire Sir Adrian that if Sargent had conducted, it would have been a better choice.

Then again, we had to be in position at 6 a.m. until 3 p.m and the inevitable question was raised about toilet facilities. No less a person than the Earl Marshal was consulted, and after thinking of the birds and the bees and our respective anatomies, solemnly decided that the men should bring hot water bottles and the ladies sponges and he issued a written directive on Royal notepaper to this effect.  Vive la différence!

I spoke to Marie Wilson, a real old trooper, a fine violinist and onetime leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra whether or not she was going to bring her sponge and she answered “No Bob, I’m not drinking anything beforehand, and I’ll have a good pee too.

Talking of washrooms, my wife was very curious as to what the Queen’s washroom, which had been built especially for the occasion, was like.  During a rehearsal intermission I was able to have a perfunctory peep inside; it was nothing special, just a white job.

At one rehearsal, Boris Ord, who was Choir Director etc. for Kings College, Cambridge, did not attend and was barred from entry the next day.

Came the Great Day and Eugene Cruft, who was principal bass had somehow wangled a ticket for Mrs. C. and he asked me if I would pick them up, but, he insisted that I spread sheets on the back seat of my car as Mrs. C. would be wearing a white dress.

When I arrived at the Cruft residence at about 5.30 a.m. I picked up Eugene, resplendent with his many medals and Mrs, C., beautifully attired in a white gown and wearing a tiara with a white boa feather in it.   Eugene had managed to get me a pass for my car and I was elated to be whisked through with many deferential bows by the police.  I felt to be one very important bass player.

We arrived at Westminster Abbey, and as the dignitaries arrived we played a special tune for them.  I don’t know whether or not it was for the Queen of Tonga, the Oni of Ife or the Shah of Persia, but the piece began with a terrific pizzicato from the basses.  Eugene, with great aplomb, known in the trade as “feeding the
pigeons” gave a very showy pizzicato, but unfortunately one of his medals got caught in one of his strings, but with great nonchalance he retrieved the medal and went on playing as if nothing had happened.

It was a miserable day, weather wise, but just as the Queen was being crowned and a boy’s choir was singing “Vivat, Vivat” a shaft of sunlight appeared through the Abbey’s stained glass windows, which I thought was a good omen for Her Majesty’s future reign.

There were two elderly gentlemen, both Doctors of Music and Organists and Directors of Music at big Cathedrals.  Their job was to hold up a card giving the number of the piece which we were to play.  After the ceremony when the congregation was filing out, the elderly numerologists held up their cards, but unfortunately with different numbers.  The piece was to have been one of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches aka “:Land of Hope and Glory” and the orchestra, including Boult were nonplussed, but Paul Beard, the concertmaster showed his experience by belting the tune out fortissimo and the day was saved.

Afterwards there was a reception (for which we had to buy tickets) and I found myself sandwiched between Paul Beard and Joe Shadwick, concertmaster of Covent Garden Opera enjoying some first class nibbles and one or two glasses of champagne surrounded by noble Earls, Dukes and Knights who were two a penny that day and who gave us condescending nods.

I should have gone home and taken my wife out for a celebratory dinner, but free lance player that I was, with a wife, two kids and a mortgage, had booked an evening television show for the BBC.

Although we weren’t paid for our services it was one of the best dates I ever had, for we were given broadcasting and TV fees from all over the world.  I was awarded the Coronation Medal by Her Majesty, the Westminster Abbey organist was knighted and Eugene Cruft was made a Member of the Victorian Order, Fourth Class.

Published in: on May 20, 2007 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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