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!