My Way of Practicing the Double Bass, Part 2: Nitty Gritty

Practicing is another one of those things, like auditions, that everybody has their own take on. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, articles I’ve read, and podcasts I’ve listened to that talk about how to practice. Of course, doing all of those things is the BEST way to arrive at your own method of practicing. Taking all of the information and advice you’ve picked up, picking what you like and disregarding what you don’t, and then synthesizing it, is pretty much how I came to my own method of practicing. I don’t have any goals of trying to convince people reading this to agree with me or change their practice routine–this is just my take on things.

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2.) Nitty Gritty-Every topic under the practice category is subject to variation depending on who you ask. For example, Francois Rabbath said in an interview with Double Bassist magazine (alas! which is soon to be no more),

“One must study deeply, so that one need not practice more than two or three hours per day, to have the time to enjoy life.”

-Double Bassist, Autumn 2004

Francois knows what he’s talking about, right? Of course! He’s an internationally famous teacher and performer. We should probably take his advice.

During my first two years at College of DuPage, I played in the chamber orchestra there. In my first year, there was this young guy (I wish I could remember his name, I’ll have to check old programs I’ve saved) who played clarinet with the orchestra. He was the best musician in the entire group, hands down. I simply thought of him as something of an anomaly at COD–with his wonderful intonation, precise rhythm and refined sense of musicality. I had no idea how good he was though, until I got a chance to have a chat with him. He was a pretty modest guy, but during a concert rehearsal break, we struck up a conversation and he mentioned in passing that he was transferring to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Of course, I knew all about Curtis and how prestigious it is, so I was, to say the least, impressed. He told me about the hours he spent practicing coming up to his audition at Curtis, and he said,

“You’ve got to spend 8-9 hours a day practicing. That’s simply what you’ve gotta do, and, it’s really the only way.”

Curtis is one of the finest and most elite music schools in the world, and it has a reputation for churning out people who get jobs in top-level orchestras. So, really, what this guy was saying has just as much validity as what Rabbath said. I know I’d like to go to Curtis and study with Hal Robinson…should I take his advice instead…?

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All of that is just in regard to time spent practicing. How about in regards to warm-ups? Scales? Arpeggios? Bowing exercises? Do they just take up an unnecessary amount of time? Mmm? My teacher, Andy Anderson, who has a had a great deal of success playing in two world-class ensembles said he usually just warms up on excerpts. In an interview with Jason Heath for Contrabass Conversations, he said, talking about his time spent studying with Stuart Sankey,

“Sankey never had me work on scales. Well, look in Mozart 40, there’s plenty of scales in there, right? Look in Ein Heldenleben. Those are arpeggios, right? They’re just all separated by whole notes.”

On the other hand, you have people like Jeff Bradetich (Soloist and teacher at University of North Texas) and Max Dimoff (Principal of the Cleveland Orchestra), who have these very well thought out and useful warm up packets, which Jason Heath has available for download here on his blog.

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I said all of that to demonstrate the fact that many different reputable people have different takes on how to practice. Personally, I think all of them have validity. They’re just simply different ways of getting (or attempting) to get to the same place. Could you practice 8-9 hours a day and be an excellent musician? You bet. Could you only practice 3 hours a day and still be as good? Sure. Are warm-ups helpful? Yep. Could you not do scales, arpeggios and the like as warm-ups and still be a technically efficient musician? YES! My teacher is one of my favorite players, and I don’t think he spent a lot of time (some, perhaps) cranking out 3 octave major and minor scales and arpeggios.

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Now we come to it. Enough jibber-jabber, right? Here’s the Nitty Gritty of how I practice.

Warm-up: I warm up on the music that I’m working on. I tune my bass, though.

First Set.) The first thing I like to do in the morning (or sometimes evening) is the Courante from Bach’s 1st Cello Suite. This movement is full of fun but challenging licks and trills. I’ve broken down the licks and trills into 5 different groups, all of which I do 4 or 5 times each, slowly, with a drone on G (which is the key of the suite). Here’s what these licks look like taken out of their context…

After I do this, I like to play the entire movement (no repeats) with this cool midi file Andy made. It’s quite slow, but it helps with pitch and rhythm.Then, I like to play the movement 2 or 3 times through, with a metronome on quarter=85 and the drone on G. If, when doing this, I find that I’m getting rough or messy with a given passage, I’ll take a bit of time and try and undo whatever knot presents itself. This part usually takes me anywhere from 30-60 minutes. I ❤ Bach.
After work on the Bach, I like to work on my Bille’ etude. This etude is not really that difficult, but, DePaul requires an etude by Bille’, Simandl, or Nanny. Some of the Simandl etudes are boring, and many of the Nanny etudes are as difficult as the Koussevitzsky or Bach, so Andy and I thought this one by Bille was the right pick. I like to work on these 3 separate but similar licks first, before I play the entire thing.

When I play the entire etude all the way through, I do it with a metronome on quarter=90, with a drone on E. I do this 2 or 3 times, too. I know, I’m slightly pedantic, but I’d like to get a job someday, so it’s okay. This part of the ‘First Set’ usually only takes 30 minutes, and at the most 40.

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15-20 minute break.
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Second Set.) I spend the entire ‘Second Set’ working Mr. Koussevitzsky’s Concerto. This concerto is perhaps a bit too popular and well known to bass players out there, but I still enjoy a good rendition of it. I know I rave about my teacher a lot, but on his Contrabass Conversations Recital Showcase (CBC 11) there is, among other standard bass rep., the first two movements of the Koussevitzsky Concerto. I’ve not heard a better interpretation of this piece; it radiates verve.

So, the first thing I work on in Koussevitzsky is the trouble spots. I like to start with the double stop passage at the end. I play just the double stops first, which is in imitation of a chord progression, this way: E/G together, F#/A, G/Bb, then G/B natural. Sometimes this section can become a bit muddy (especially with me playing) so I really like to take a bit of time and work through it slowly.

I then play the entire 3rd page straight through once or twice, with a drone on E. No metronome this time, kiddies, I like to use a bit of rubato. I’d like to complain and say the 3rd page is deceptively difficult.

After that, I go to work on the middle section, which I guess is appropriately labeled the ‘development’. The difficult thing for me, overall, with Koussevitzsky, is transitioning effectively between sections. To be specific, the transition between the triplets section on the 2nd page, into the rapid, 16th note section. Within this transition, I like to take the last measure of the triplets section, on the 3rd and 4th beats, with a bit of a rit., and with separate bows. To work on this, I like to start the triplet section and play a few measures into the 16th note section, 4 or 5 times. Here’s what I’m talking about:

After I work on the transitioning there, I like to go to work on the entire middle section. I play the entire middle section 2 or 3 times through. Here’s me again with my pedanticism (I think I can use the word that way…), but, I have this rule with the middle section here, that, if I don’t play it 2 or 3 times through perfectly, I don’t move on to the next thing until I do. So, if I were to play it through twice perfectly, and on the third time fudge something up, I start over. This doesn’t usually happen, though. I’ve been playing Koussevitzsky long enough to be decently efficient at it.

If all is going well up to this point, I like to play the entire 1st movement once (maybe twice, if I’m feeling obsessive).

After I do this, I take a moment to reflect on how everything went within my practice session. I think about things that need improvement, things to ask Andy about, etc., and I write them all down. I highly recommend writing things down! I just started doing this 4 or 5 months ago, and, it’s helped a great deal with my practice regimen.

–Oh, or use a data recorder. I did this for the first time for my lesson with Lyric Opera of Chicago bassist, Greg Sarchet. I think I’m going to do this for all of my lessons now.

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So, there you have it. That’s basically how I’m practicing and preparing for my upcoming college auditions. It’s probably not the best way, but, that’s what I do, and I feel that I’m getting better because of it. If there are any professors or students reading this who see serious flaws in my practice logic, please take all the wind out of my sails and leave a comment, or email me at Innes1286@yahoo.com .
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~ by benjamin86 on January 22, 2008.

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