The 2 constants and 1 variable of of sound production OR how I learned to play softly and still get a good sound

April 14, 2009

There are 3 commonly acknowledged factors when it comes to sound production.  I consider two of these to be constant and one variable.  Can you guess which I consider which?

Bow placement: CONSTANT
The brightest, clearest tone is near the bridge, so I always play as close to the bridge as the note will allow.

Bow speed: CONSTANT
The slower the bow, the more beautifully and fully those strings are going to vibrate.

Arm weight: VARIABLE
When I am playing in orchestra, the biggest variable in how I alter my sound to accommodate the music is with my arm weight.  By backing off on the weight I can achieve pianissimo notes that are clear and beautiful.  Why are they clear and beautiful?  Because I’m still close the bridge and using a slow bow, that’s how!  And when I want fortissimo, I apply my relaxed arm weight fully, and BOOM, super sound.

Often we are taught from conventional string-playing wisdom that to play more quietly, we alter the bow placement and get closer to the fingerboard if not over the fingerboard.  While this might work on the small fiddles, it sounds atrociously muddy and gross on a bass.  Plus I play notes up by the edge of the fingerboard,  no way do I want to get it all gunky with rosin!

Then there is the wisdom that to play louder, we should use more (as in faster) bow.  Well, if we go too fast, the bow starts to  loose its grip on the string and starts to gloss over it.  In doing so, we lose the deep core of the sound and start getting scratchy half-tones.


The formula for legato playing

April 14, 2009

The formula for legato playing (continuous sound):

1)  Leave room for up bows & down bows

2) Keep your bow on the string

2) Keep your bow moving

3) Apply consistent arm weight

Let’s talk about each one:

1) Leave room for up-bows and down-bows: Too often I see student’s perform with their bow at the extreme end of the frog, which does not leave room for up-bows.  If you play more in the middle of the bow, you have room to complete both up and down bows evenly.  You don’t have to play dead center in the middle, just think about leaving room for the bow to move around both sides of you starting point (the balance point works great).

2) Keep the bow on the string: Once the bow leaves the string, the sound stops.  And the definition of legato is continuous sound! Often students habitually lift the bow at the ends of notes, especially on up-bows.  Once you can keep it on the string, you’re on your way.

3) Keeping the bow moving: As soon as we stop the bow, the sound stops.  So the bow must be perpetually moving either up or down, never stopped!

4) Apply consistent arm weight: Another bad habit is releasing our arm weight at the ends of notes.  This is akin to lifting the bow off the string–it degrades the quality of the sound.  At this point we have to regrip the note, and why grip the note every time when you can just do it once?  Applying consistent, relaxed arm weight allows the bow to effectively grip the string and vibrate, creating a big, rich, clear fundamental tone.  So think about “bearing down” your relaxed arm weight into the string, never letting up for a second, especially when you are changing the direction of the bow.  If you have trouble with this, you can even practice giving a little more weight during the bow change until it becomes natural.

***Notice how using more bow or a faster bow is not part of the formula!  It does not matter how much bow you use or how fast you move the move, as long as the bow is perpetually moving and you’re using enough weight.  It is possible (and even preferred) to play extremely legato using only a few inches of bow.  Practice using less bow and slowing your bow down while working on your legato.  Once you do this you’ll have a great grasp on legato playing on top of a great sound.

Never work harder than your students

March 21, 2009

Earlier this week I was in Ellensburg visiting my friend, the marvelous educator Kara Hunnicutt.  I noticed a book on her shelf that deeply intrigued me so I had to read some of it.  It is called “Never Work Harder than Your Students” by Robyn R. Jackson.  Inside the book it actually clarifies that you don’t work less, you just make a distinction between the teacher’s work and the student’s work and avoid doing the student’s work for them.

In the book was an anecdote about a teacher who would pose a question to her class, and if no one answered it right away, she would just wait, sometimes for minutes, until someone answered.  She found that if she gave her students time to consider thoughtful answers, they would!

It can be very uncomfortable for both student and teacher when the student is in the hot seat for too long, but too often we teachers are too quick with the right answer just so we can relieve the discomfort of the silence when the student doesn’t answer right away.  When this happens, we miss an opportunity for the student to arrive at the right answer on their own.

I have been trying this for the last few days, and I have had a lot more “aha!” moments from my students this week than ever before.

Less is more

January 7, 2009


The bass is a big instrument, and playing it can be an athletic feat.  So we must be as economical with our motions and energy as possible.  Surprisingly, this approach yields big results as far as sound production is concerned, and keeps us from overplaying.  See the Bass Paradox for more info.

Using less motion and energy relates to the need to relax while we play.  By relaxing and not overexerting, we remove obstacles that we put in our own way.

Some applications of less is more:

1. Spiccato stroke: By bouncing the absolute minimum distance off the string, you have less distance to travel therefore more control over the stroke and speed.  Try to keep the flight pattern as tight as possible.

In fact, leaving the string to begin with is inefficient, because you have to “re-grab” it with the bow.  Most of the time I imitate spiccatto by leaving the bow on the string and varying the pressure to get very precise, clean spiccatto-like staccato.

2. String crossings, especially multiple string crossings: the bow should virtually be touching both strings.  Then with the tiniest, tiniest motion move the bow so it is just barely not-touching one of the strings.  You can then “rock” back and forth and get incredibly clean and efficient crossings.  Any more movement will make high speed playing difficult.

3. Relaxing the bow into the string instead of pressing.  Pressing or using force to create more sound requires effort.  Using no effort is much better!  By using arm weight to relax the bow into the string to create a strong connection, we get just as much power and no strain.  And a much better sound.

More to come …

Be natural. Be relaxed.

January 7, 2009

My first rule of bass playing, the cornerstone to the way I approach and teach the instrument is:

1. Be natural, be relaxed.

Playing the bass should be a comfortable, enjoyable experience.  If there is any pain, discomfort or tension present in any part of the body, there is a better way.  So if any of these conditions exists, it’s time for a change!  Being natural makes sure we aren’t going to injure our bodies by doing something unnatural.  And part of being natural is being relaxed.

Let’s talking about being natural.   Whether you play german or french bow, the basic bow hold should be a slight modification of your hand at rest.  Try this: Shake your hand wildy and then let it fall to your side.  Look at your hand.  That is how you should hold the bow.

The same applies for the left hand.  With only the tips of the fingers and thumb coming into contact with the bass, your hand should basically look as if it is at rest.

Now let’s talk about being relaxed.  The hardest thing to relax is the right arm.  I see so many students use effort to lift their right arm higher in the air than their arm would be if relaxed. The result?  The bow placement is too close to the fingerboard, which has serious repercussions on sound production.  If you just relax your arm all the way, yes, all the way,and  your bow will be closer to the bridge.  By relaxing, you’ve put yourself in a postion to get a much, much better sound!  So think about this: if you looked in a mirror while you were playing, would your right arm resemble that of a Tyrannasaurus Rex?  Or that of a lazy gorilla?  If you find you’re using effort to hold your arm in the air, even an inch or two, it’s time to relax!

The biggest case for relaxation is when learning new music.  Playing unfamiliar music slow is easy.  Playing it faster is more of a challenge.  Why?  It’s not because your fingers and arms can’t move fast enough.  They’re plenty fast!  The real reason playing fast is difficult is because we panic.  We think playing fast is difficult, so we have a miniature internal panic attack and tense of our muscles.  It’s the tension that’s getting in the way, causing you to lock up and play in a choppy frenetic manner with bad tone!  Professional baseball players know that a relaxed muscle is one that is ready to run to catch a ball hit in any direction.  So let’s take a cue from them and be in a constant state of complete relaxation, ready to make any movement.

When you practice, start slow and with a relaxed body.  As you gradually speed up, make sure to continue to relax completely!  If you detect any tension or panic in your playing (lack of control of the bow stroke, particulary “involuntary stacatto”is a giveaway) or your sound gets weaker, stop and relax before continuing.  You might even need to slow down again.  Master the ability to relax at all times and you master the ability to play at super speed.  I have a feeling this skill could come in handy in mastering performance anxiety too.

How do you learn to relax?  Look up ‘progressive relaxation’ and practice it twice a day.  Practice being aware of the different parts of your body.  By having a greater sense of what is happening in your body, you can more easily notice if you are holding any tension.  And if you want to get really, really tricky, you can expirement with self hypnosis and train yourself to relax completely just by thinking the word “relax.”  Have fun with these techniques!

Loosening the stick

November 26, 2008

I had a thought yesterday during a lesson.  I was explaining why string players keep the bow hair loose when we are not playing.  The answer didn’t have anything to do with the bow hair.  The purpose is to relieve the tension on the stick of the bow, because tension on the stick for long periods of time causes the wood to warp.  So why don’t we tell students to loosen the stick when they are done?

Adventures with a high C string

October 22, 2008

I am in love with the extreme high range of the bass.  I’ve made it a point to “specialize” in this range because not only do I love the sound, it allows me to be more expressive than other players who have not taken time to develop their potential in this area.

So when I heard the music of bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, I immediately connected to it.  Fons is a french bassist who uses a 5 string bass with a high C string.  He plays his original compositions that bridge classical, jazz, flamenco and other influences.  I was amazed at the beauty with which he played in this new high range unavailable to standard 4 string basses.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to borrow a 5 string bass with a high C and for a few weeks had a lot of fun with it.  So I took a leap in pursuit of my emerging identity as a soloist-improviser, bought a high C string and turned my own bass into a “piccolo bass,” tuned ADGC.    But after just a few days, I found that it just wasn’t my thing.  As much as I loved the extended range, I just didn’t like the thin quality of C string.  My bass didn’t like it much either; I discovered new wolf tones in all sorts of places as a result of the new tuning.

I am grateful that I tried this experiment, because I learned something new.  I found that the high C string didn’t respond to the slow, economical bows that I’ve trained myself to play.  In order to make it sing I needed to use more bow.  What I discovered was the threshold of the Bass Paradox; the diameter of string in which using long energetic bows to acheive a strong beautiful sound is no longer effective, and the opposite strategy of using a minimum amount of bow with concentrated arm weight is vital.   Now I know for a fact that strings smaller than a standard E, A ,D or G bass string  (such as violin, viola, cello strings) require more bow use.  And bass strings need less.