Frustration

•July 1, 2008 • 3 Comments

It’s that time again…

Time to buy new strings! Yay…….?!

No. I’m not the happy camper I usually am when I get to buy bass gear. Could someone please tell me why the price of double bass strings is mimicking what the price of gas is doing?

For the past 3 years, I’ve been playing exclusively on Pirastro Permanents. They’re great strings for a number of reasons:

-You don’t really have to ‘play them in’ like other strings. In my experience, they sound great from the moment you put them on.

-They tend to feel nice under the fingers. They’re not as twisty as Obligatos or as tight as Flatchromes.

-They have a nice blend of warmth and clarity.

-They last! My two sets of Permanents have lasted me a year a piece, and they could probably last as long as 15 months.

I know my teacher, Andy Anderson, used a set of Permanents for this past season at Lyric Opera, and I remember Jeff Turner, who is principle of the Pittsburgh symphony, saying in an interview with Jason Heath (who also uses Permanents!) that he uses them on his orchestra bass.

So, clearly, I’m not the only one that feels reasonably satisfied with these strings.

You might, then, be a little surprised to hear that I want to try something new? Let’s say you buy yourself a nice Volkswagon Jetta. It works great! You haven’t had hardly any problems with it in the 7 years you’ve owned it. The time comes for you to buy another car…do you just go out and buy a Jetta again? Maybe. But maybe you want to try something new? See if you don’t like a different type of car better. That’s where I’m at with Permanents.

I was shocked, though, to see the price of strings at Lemur’s website! Here were the 3 options I was looking at:

Pirastro Obligato (with a long E)-$186.22

Pirastro Flatchrome (G, D, A), and Thomastik Spirocore (long E)-$233.00

Bel Canto (long E)-$226.40

What!! I don’t have that much money. I’ll just go with Permanents again. Let’s see how much those are.

$199?!! I think I paid $160 tops last summer! What happened?!

It looks like the inflation that is taking place everywhere else in the economy has finally reached the bass community. Or maybe it’s been that way for a while and I’m just now noticing the effects.

I know that I’m still going to try one of the three options listed above, I’m just not sure which one yet. The difference between the three is roughly $30, which isn’t that big of a gap; it’s just the price itself that is outrageous. I basically know the pros and cons for each string, so here’s a bit of what I do know:

Pirastro Obligatos: Lyric Opera of Chicago bassist Greg Sarchet (check out his site, Bass Club Chicago) uses these strings, and he seems to like them a lot. I also remember Chicago Symphony bassist Michael Hovnanian (check out his blog here) saying he liked them a lot the first month or so, but he noticed that they seem to ‘go dead’ too quickly.

On a personal note, I remember the basses at my high school were all strung with Obligatos. I loved playing those basses because the strings had a looseness and an ease about their playability which felt great under the fingers.

Pirastro Flatchromes: These were the strings that my teacher recommended to me. He’s got a set of these on one of his basses right now, and the thing that struck me about them was clarity with just enough warmth. These strings are fairly popular with orchestral bass players, and I know Michael Hovnanian has said he keeps coming back to these. Brad Opland, who is another CSO bassist, also uses these strings.

The only thing that worries me about these strings is how they’ll actually sound once on my bass. I’m a frequent Contabass Converations listener, and I remember Jason Heath (check out Jason’s blog here) saying in regard to these strings,

“They either sound great or they sound terrible.

Not much of a gray area there–which is what worries me! $233 bucks is quite a gamble for something that might make my bass sound like a foghorn!

Thomastik Bel Canto: Although I haven’t actually seen that many players with these strings, I’ve heard tell of their popularity. Ian Hallas (check him out here), who is a great bassist and is headed to the Colburn school in the fall, had a set of these on his bass the last time I saw him. My teacher played a little on his bass, and, to my ears, the sound was incredible! Warmth, intensity and power all in one!

In a recent conversation with my teacher about these strings, he said they tend to have a rubbery sound in the upper register, and as a result have a somewhat less powerful tone than one would expect.

So, there you have it. I don’t know if anyone cares to advise me on strings, but any advice or bits of information from someone who’s played on any of the above strings would be appreciated.

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Just a piece of advice…

•June 5, 2008 • Leave a Comment

OK, so, it’s been roughly a month and a half, and I haven’t posted anything…and I promised I would. Once again, I’m finding myself the victim of circumstances beyond my control: my dad had a stroke roughly 3 weeks ago. He’s been steadily recovering, and I’m grateful to God that it wasn’t as serious as it could’ve been. Personally, this means that I’ve been incredibly busy, what with finishing up school, working, practicing, and being the taxi driver for my family. Things are starting to settle down again, and my life is beginning to resemble something much more normal.

Anyway, I wanted to address 2 things in this post, both of which essentially struck me like bolts of lightning.

It seems like a lot of bass players (college musicians in general, really), with the post-audition, you’ve-already-gotten-your-acceptance-letter-to-the-school-of-your-choice mindset, sort of begin to lose some motivation to practice. Pre-college audition life is pretty strenuous, and most students (myself included) probably practiced no less than 4 hours a day, while still dealing with homework and school obligations. Once you’re free of that, it’s like a breath of fresh air after you’ve been under water longer than you can actually hold your breath. You begin to realize a few things about life that you may have forgotten:

I’ve got friends! Whoa. Haven’t seem them in a while.

There’s some good movies out.

Everyone seems to have sun-kissed tans and I’m pale and pasty and my skin begins to burn and blister when I walk to the mailbox.

So, after realizing that life is pretty enjoyable and that it’s OK to not practice 4 hours a day, you begin to indulge in being human again; or, at least I did. The weird thing is that I began to have this strange reluctance to practice…1 day of not practicing suddenly turned into 3! Ugh…and then it’s hard to pick it up again. Sort of like having to go back to the gym when you haven’t been for a month. Of course, I’m a music major, who has the intention and ambition to get a decent to well-paying job someday, and not practicing is NOT an option.

I finally forced myself to practice for a couple of hours and get some serious work done. What agony it was! Nothing sounded good, or as good as it did a week ago. My fingers weren’t quite as nimble as I remembered them being. Everything looked (I use a mirror when I practice) and sounded weak.

So, what’s my advice?

Don’t ever let yourself go more than a couple of days without touching your bass! It is bad! You will not be happy with the results when you pick it up again! If you’re really busy with work, family or school stuff, pick it up for 10 minutes before bed and run through an excerpt or Bach movement, just something to keep your fingers in shape.

The other thing I’m beginning to realize is how all double bass gear (bass, bow, strings) is not created equal! This, too, probably sounds like fairly trite and old-hat-ish information, but it’s really true. Up until recently, I firmly believed that the ability of the player overode the state of the equipment. Basically meaning that if you’re good on your particular instrument, it doesn’t matter what grade or quality of instrument you’re holding in your hands; you can make a good sound with it.

I still believe this is true.

Just not for students.

I’ll use myself as an example. I just recently sold my J.G. Bottoni bow (which is worth over a $1,000). I made almost that amount on the sale of the bow, but due to other bills that had to be paid, I couldn’t use the money to upgrade. The music store by my house had acquired a fairly decent-looking, $400 bow. The maker of the bow was Samuel Eastman. I’d seen an ad or two from the Eastman shop in Double Bassist magazine, so I figured his bows MUST be legit. But…just to be sure, I’d better bring in my bass and actually try it out before I buy it.

It worked great!…for everything on the string. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me to play any excerpts with the bow. I played a movement of Bach and a bit of the Koussevitzsky concerto, and the bow seemed to work decently enough, so I bought it.

Don’t get me wrong! For the price, the bow does exactly what it should. Unfortunately, what I need it to do includes excerpts, and therefore off the string strokes. I found out over the coming months that it does not do these things well! It’s also very light and it even bounces when it shouldn’t. I’ll be pulling a straight, legato bow, and it’ll give a weird flutter-ish bounce at the tip. Very irritating.  I’m currently trying to get together finances to purchase a better bow.

Back to what I was saying earlier. I still believe that the talent of a good player will come through regardless of what instrument and bow they’re playing on. For the most part, I would say that this true of professionals and talented college students. Not me! I’m just about to enter the CCPA Conservatory in Chicago, so I wouldn’t exactly consider myself advanced; more like I have the potential to be advanced. I know that some of this probably sounds like old hat observations and well-known truths, but I thought I’d put it out there. To be sure, the quality (or lackthereof) of a bass and bow can be prohibitive to the advancement of a serious student.

Why No Posts?

•April 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment

It looks to me like the same handful of people keep checking this blog off Jason Heath’s blogroll, so, I feel like I owe these people a bit of an explanation as to why I haven’t posted anything lately, and to also give a bit of an update on bass things.

So, why no posts? To be honest, the criminal is lack of time. I really love blogging about the bass, because bass is cool like that, but putting out coherent posts that’re mildly interesting/entertaining takes creative spark, thinking and time. Alas, time is being eaten up by homework and practice. Nevertheless! I’ll get back in the game with posts very soon.

Now, a bit of news about things with me. For any of you who read my posts pertaining to my thoughts on school auditions and the subsequent things I was planning to try at those auditions, I have results! I ended up only auditioning at one school (Roosevelt University), but the audition must have gone well enough; I not only got accepted, but accepted with a wonderful scholarship plan for 4 years! It was nice to get the acceptance letter, but receiving the scholarship was a bit overwhelming and needless to say flattering. Without the scholarship, I’m willing to bet I’d be panhandling for money in front of Symphony Center, playing Bottesini with a sign saying “If you don’t like the playing, send me to the school down the street!” I don’t really feel like I deserve this scholarship, but I’m still very grateful.

A bit more news! I started another blog called …in a couple years. This blog deals with everything else that I’m interested in aside from double bass and music. I figured readers of this blog are most likely double bassists, and they really don’t care to read about whether or not I liked Juno or why I think Christianity is so wonderful, so, I started a separate blog to rant about those types of things.

Anyway. Thanks to anybody and everybody who reads this blog, and please leave comments! I think I’ve only had one comment and it’s from a girl who’s not even a double bassist!

Bassed Wishes,

Ben

Splurge

•March 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Taking into account the fact that I’m a music student and a security guard (part time), you should be able to guess that I’m not fabulously wealthy. Despite this, when I do come into a bit of cash, I can always think of about a 1,000 things I need. When I got my tax refund a few weeks ago, only two things, however, immediately sprung into my mind that I needed to splurge on.

Both of these things I heard tell about through Jason Heath’s podcast, Contrabass Conversations. Episode 50 featured Justin Locke, who was previously a member of the Boston Pops, and is the author of ‘Real Men Don’t Rehearse’. After listening to Justin entertainingly talk about his life as an orchestral musician, I made a mental note to purchase the book as soon as I got $15 in my pocket.

real-men-dont-rehearse.jpg

I finished the book a few nights ago and I absolutely loved it. It’s a quick, easy and lighthearted read. I think anybody could pick up this book and have a few laughs, to be honest with you–bass players, musicians in general, or even the complete outsider who hasn’t ever been to a symphony orchestra concert. In fact, I mentioned to my mom that I was reading this book that was full of funny gig stories. She seemed mildly interested, and asked to hear one. I was roughly half way through the book at this point, so I told her about the conductor and the rebellious percussionist. I don’t even think I did that good of a job at retelling the story, to the you the truth, but by the time I was finished, my mom had tears in her eyes from the laughter! True story. Check out ‘Real Men Don’t Rehearse’ which is available for purchase here.

The second thing that I needed to splurge on came to my attention on episode 55 of Contrabass Conversations, which featured part 1 of an interview with and music from Cincinnati Symphony principal bassist, Owen Lee. The interview was great, but what I enjoyed most was the music. The music featured was the Gigue from the 3rd cello suite by J.S. Bach, as well as the 1st movement from the Misek Sonata in E minor. I’d heard a couple of double bass recordings of the Gigue on bass, and liked them, but Owen’s really struck my fancy. Not only was I humming the melody for a week, but I wanted to learn the 1st suite (which I’m working on now) as quickly as possible so I could move to the 3rd, and learn that sweet, sweet Gigue.

The next recording featured the music of Adolf Misek. My first teacher, Phil Serna, had mentioned to me that the Misek Sonatas were some great pieces of music, but I’d never heard a recording of them. Once again, Owen’s tone, musical integrity and seemingly natural fluidity of sound struck me. Something about the tone of his bass and his straightforward and yet sensitive way of phrasing Misek’s wonderful melodies made me repeatedly come back to that particular podcast episode just to listen to the music. To my delight, I discovered that these were not isolated recordings, but were actually available for purchase on a CD Owen made in 2000 on the Boston Records label. The CD came in the mail from Amazon yesterday, and I loaded it onto my iPod not soon after!

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As I write this, I’m listening to Owen’s music on my iPod in crowded cafe’. To my ears, Owen’s playing sounds like a unique cross between Edgar Meyer and my own teacher, Andy Anderson (both of whom I try to emulate in my own playing). I guess everyone has their own taste in what they like or don’t like in the bass playing they listen to. I can appreciate Gary Karr’s unique ‘laser-beam’ sound, but I favor the more mellow, fluid, and perhaps ‘earthy’ type of sound, which is what comes to mind when I hear Owen’s playing. I highly recommend readers check out Owen’s CD, which is available for purchase here.

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As a final note to this post, I would highly encourage any readers out there who also happen to listen to Contrabass Conversations to support any guests that come on the podcast. If you enjoyed the Chicago Bass Ensemble interview, go check out their next concert. Maybe you liked the interview with Steve Reinfranck of SMR Double Basses–next time you’re looking to purchase a bass, maybe go and check out his shop first if you’re in the Chicagoland area. Just a suggestion!

Post audition post

•March 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This is my first post audition post. So, excuse my rusty blogging skills! This isn’t going to be the most coherent post in all of the blogosphere, but will instead consist of two different things that I’ve been thinking about lately.

First off!

This morning found me scarfing down this new cereal that my dad bought (which is some kind of a combination of raisin bran, kashi and honey clusters of oats, and quite delicious), as well as listening to the latest Contrabass Conversations podcast episode which featured the conclusion of Jason Heath’s interview with Cincinnati principal bass, Owen Lee. Of all of the great advice and thoughts Owen put out there, one thing really struck me that I simply related to. He was talking about his studies at the University of Southern California with Dennis Trembly, and how he would often take lessons every 2 weeks, instead of the customary 1 week. Owen went on to explain why he did this, saying that he felt he wasn’t always as prepared as has he needed to be for the next lesson, and that he didn’t want to waste his teachers time. I was shocked to hear this from a guy like Owen, to be honest with you. I imagined him as being one of those players that cranks out numerous solos, excerpts and etudes through the course of a school year. Maybe he still did (he didn’t really get into specifics), but his saying this would seem to indicate that some things in his bass training took longer to learn than others.

I’ve been studying with my current teacher for roughly a year, and there have been a number of times where I’ve walked into a lesson not being half as prepared as I should’ve been/would’ve like to have been. Now, I’m no slacker when it comes to practicing, but with life and all of its happenings (work, errands, homework, family, friends, occasional rest), it can become difficult to consistently get in that 2, 3 or 4 hours of practicing every day. Sometimes, I’ve even had days in a row where my schedule won’t permit me even 2 hours of practice. The week between lessons passes with astonishing quickness, and here I am, the night before, trying to shuffle together some decent playing for my teacher the next day. I HATE when that happens. Fortunately, my teacher is the coolest guy ever, is flexible, understands that stuff happens, and allows me to reschedule with him.

I’m not sure that I’ve come to an opinion as to whether weekly lessons are the best way to go or not. In a way, it seems as though the level of preparation the student has done with the material should dictate when the next lesson should be. Take me, for example, and my work on excerpts. Sometimes I’ll get in a solid 3-4 hours a day for a full week and still have not made enough progress to warrant more instruction on it. On the other hand, some students are too ambitious and expect too much of themselves, and expect to learn an entire movement of Bach with only one lessons help on it (which would be me, in some cases). I suppose one of the major benefits of weekly lessons would be that it helps the student to work with a deadline, as it were. Knowing that they don’t have 2 weeks to get that stroke, lick or phrase into acceptable/workable shape could certainly be beneficial to some students. In the end, maybe it really depends on the student in question and the aspect of their playing which they’re working on.

Second!

I really love learning new repertoire. Starting work on something completely new and unfamiliar has so many benefits to us musicians. I spent roughly 6 months working on the same material: Bach, Koussevitzsky, Bille’, Beethoven 5 and Mozart 40. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of the aforementioned rep. as much as the next bass player, but, after a while, even great music becomes stale and too familiar. With college auditions done, my teacher and I started talking about what pieces I’d like to learn next. I’d been wanting to learn the Prelude from the 1st suite for quite some time, as well as the Vanhal concerto. He thought that sounded great, gave his stamp of approval, and we dived in.

To my surprise, I rediscovered the joy of practice! I’d sit down with the intention of spending maybe an hour or so on the Prelude before moving on to other things, only to discover I’d been working for 2. It is a wonderful and refreshing feeling to enjoy practice and not to merely trudge valiantly through the hours of work. Of course, it’s not always like this, and nothing stays/feels fresh forever. Alas! I’m sure I’ll be mildly tired of Bach and Vanhal within a month or so.

–Just a side note on that Vanhal: Lemur is currently out of the Vanhal Concerto (Piano in D, bass in C). So I really haven’t started work on it yet. If anyone has a photocopy of it they’d like to mail me, I’d be forever grateful!–

Status

•February 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Hey, everyone who reads this. Not that my blog is anywhere in the universe of a ‘widely read’ blog, but I thought I’d explain why things have been a bit quiet on the post front lately. Really, it comes down to 3 reasons:

1.) School-This is my last semester at COD (yay! and I hope!), and I’m wrapping my associates degree. Nothing too radical or surprising, really.

2.) Practice-Can’t leave home without doing it! Literally. I’m starting new rep. with my teacher and keeping old rep. under my fingers for my next audition.

3.) Auditions!-My DePaul audition is a week from Saturday. So, all of my focus and energy is being directed towards that.

Jason Heath put out a great post a week ago called ‘You can’t force writing…or can you ?‘ which I totally related to. As I’ve said before in previous posts, I’m a frequenter of Barnes and Noble’s, Borders and Panera’s in my area. I really love going to these places to write. People watching is a highly interesting, mildly inspiring way of triggering or unlocking certain ideas you want to express. I don’t advocate staring at people because that’s creepy and I’ve seen people at these places that do that, but being surrounded by activity and conversation helps the creative process, at least for me. I’m putting a block on my blog writing at the moment because it’s such an enjoyable, satisfying, and time-killing beast. Many, many times in the past 2-3 months, I’ve gone to a cafe’ with the intention of doing (only!) homework, and then (only!) ending up with a decent, half-written post.

Anyway. I’ll be getting back to writing, ranting, raving and being random once this last audition is over with. Thanks to anyone who reads this blog! I always appreciate comments, no matter which form they come in–threats, suggestions, phone number and picture…only kidding on the last one.

I Think I Might Start Listening To Radiohead

•February 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Everybody thinks the music they listen to is superior. Even the people who don’t think they have an arrogance about the music they listen to are (perhaps) fooling themselves. I’d like to be the first to say that I certainly do–or did, maybe, have this arrogance.

During my first two years at College of DuPage, I had this viewpoint that classical music was the most articulate and sophisticated form of music. Particularly during my second year, when I had this one music theory professor. This guy was a real renaissance man of music. Not only did he know practically everything you could ever want to know about music (ranging from all genres, history, performers, composers, recording techniques, etc.), he could actually play, too–he played gigs on weekends as a keyboard player.

I always enjoyed going to his class. He had entertaining stories and interesting viewpoints. Occasionally, he’d rant on the ‘state of music’, as it were. He’d talk about how, ‘tonality is dead’, ‘pop music is garbage’, ‘composers were not worshiped in their day’, etc. I’m even a member of this Facebook group that’s dedicated to his quotes. Check it out here.

His thinking influenced me a great deal, and I adopted many of his viewpoints as my own. I, too, began to have this chip on my shoulder about pop music; or really, anything that wasn’t classical. What an idiot I was! A close friend of mine endured some of my obstinate rantings about ‘Why Classical Music Is So Great and Everything Else Is Just Crap,’ which curiously mirrored some of my aforementioned professors thoughts.

This friend took all the wind out of my musical sails and pointed out to me how dogmatic I was being about my own musical opinions. After awakening from my classical coma, I started to think about what great music really is.

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Maybe you’ve heard from classically trained musicians, or really anyone who has knowledge of the workings of music theory, certain arguments about how, say, pop music is crap. These people say things like,

“They use the same 4 or 5 chords over and over again!”

“They aren’t real musicians–what you hear on the CD is all a bunch of fancy recording chops that make this or that person sound good.”

“It’s shallow music.”

On the opposite side, some people might say about classical music,

“It’s boring and it all sounds the same.”

“That stuff is ancient! People should be listening to the music of today, not living in the past.”

You get the idea. I’d like to say once again that I was definitely a member of the former, formerly. Now, I don’t want to overindulge in a bunch of unnecessary philosophical rhetoric–I think it’s much more simple than that.

If I were to take a highly educated architect and show a picture of the tree-house my friend and I made in 5th grade, do you think he’d be impressed? How about if I took a gifted painter and showed him the finger painting a little girl from my former church gave me, do you think he’d be able to appreciate it? Maybe, from a sentimental viewpoint, but certainly not from a technical one (I still think my tree-house was awesome, though).

Let me get more specific, and take the opposite viewpoint. If I were to take your average blue collar worker to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert, and let him listen to Beethoven’s 9th, do you think he’d be able to fully appreciate it in all of its wondrous intricacies? He’d (more likely than not) certainly enjoy it, but not as much as somebody who has a working knowledge of harmonic function and musical form.

Here’s what it really all boils down to: different strokes for different folks. Yeah, I know…kind of cliche’, but it fits.

Different types of music work for different types of people on different occasions:

-Maybe you’re really intellectual, so you listen to complicated avant-garde stuff or Schoenberg
-You’ve had a hard day at work, and listening to some jazz on your way home helps you to unwind
-Maybe you like to listen to Metallica or Fall Out Boy when you’re working out at the gym
-On Friday, you’re at a dance club with your friends and Timbaland or Beyonce is what you’re dancing to
-OR, maybe you’re able to appreciate and respect all forms of music, and you like to dabble in a bit of everything

Sure, Bruckner is more technically complex than the Beatles, but since when has technical complexity been the hallmark of good music? I’ll never forget this quote from Mr. Kesselman, my first year music theory professor,

“What is great music? Great music says something about what it is to be human.”

I think this is true. Whether you’re listening to a song by Creed that talks about becoming a father, and how you hope your child makes the best of his life, or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which beautifully paints a picture in sound of a day in the countryside, both examples speak about life and nature and all the wonderful things that come along with them.

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So, what am I really trying to say with this post? I don’t know exactly. Everything I’ve written here is a result of introspection and exploring different types of music. Maybe people reading this are more open minded than I previously was, or maybe they aren’t. I guess I’m saying that there really isn’t a place for arrogance in music. Maybe Bob likes Mozart and Linda likes The Rolling Stones–that’s fine! No one really has any place to say that this or that type of music is lesser or greater than their own. Everyone has different tastes and life experiences, which trigger what they enjoy in their music. If anything, let me encourage people reading this to branch out. If you only like classical, try listening to Thelonius Monk. If you’re really into rock, try listening to some of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, like the Pathetique’. I was talking to a friend last night, and I asked her if she thought I would like Radiohead. She recommended a few songs, and I’ll be downloading them from iTunes today.