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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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.

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.

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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