Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Bottesini Method, part 2

What is a position?

The Simandl and Nanny methods were the books I learned from as a beginner. Later, when I felt the need to start over from scratch, I consulted the four volumes by Ludwig Streicher. Common to all three of those methods (and probably many others) is the fixed system of positions that inch up the fingerboard by half steps. Beginning from what Simandl calls the 'half position' the fingers 1, 2 and 4 are used exclusively, although there are some minor disagreements as to when the 3rd finger replaces the fourth near the octave point. Each method begins with the lowest position ('half position', Simandl) and incrementally works up the fingerboard. Simandl takes about thirty pages to climb up to the 6th position. Streicher devotes an entire volume to open strings and half position before setting out from base camp to reach the snowy, rosin-capped summit three volumes later.

For me, the numbered positions are something like the training wheels I once had on my bicycle -- in the beginning they were necessary until it was safe to abandon them in a corner of the garage. For a while thereafter they were something of an embarrassment before achieving their apotheosis as an object of nostalgia. As a young student, each step higher on the chromatic ladder brought me to a new numbered position, and with it a sense of achievement. “What position are you up to?” was something we students often asked each other to determine who was a good player. The poor fellow still struggling with the second position was an object of scorn, or of pity, to those of us who had safely gone on to the third or beyond. Recently, I'm embarrassed to say, I had to look up the positions, having forgotten them long ago.

The numbering system for positions in the Simandl method seems to be based on the natural minor scale. I believe the reasoning behind this was once explained to me, but I've since forgotten that as well. The arbitrary numbering of positions, and 'half' positions are what made it difficult for me to remember them. Nanny's method uses a slightly different numbering system, as illustrated by the wonderful diagram above. Ascending mostly by whole steps, it also includes the more logical scheme of numbering the positions by degree of the chromatic scale.

click any image to embiggen

The first six positions of Simandl

As any student discovers rather quickly, using the 1-2-4 fingering system, where the distance between the 1st and 4th finger always spans a whole step, it is impossible to play a diatonic scale in any one position above the first without shifting. The Bottesini method differs radically from those cited by quickly introducing the student to the entire range of the instrument to be covered by the method. Within about five pages, Bottesini takes us from open strings to the G-harmonic, an octave above the open string, which is a far as he is going by the end of the volume. With the emphasis on scales and melodic material, Bottesini incorporates shifting throughout the range of the instrument from the outset.

The modern player might be immediately startled by Bottesini's fingering system. After a perfunctory page covering the open strings the first exercises for the left hand begin. Only the 1st and 4th fingers are employed at first.

1st and second positions

It is interesting to note that after these first examples, he never refers to numbered positions again.

Eventually, a fingering scheme of 1-3-4 is introduced, but this differs radically from the systems of Simandl, Nanny, et al. In the first position, whole steps and half steps are both fingered 1-4. From the second position and higher the 3rd finger is gradually introduced for some half steps, although 1-4 is used more often, particularly on the lower strings. If there is some rule about when a half step is taken with the third or fourth finger, I have yet to discover it.

As always, delving into the work of Bottesini makes the us come face to face with the most pressing questions of our era. In this case the question is, what is a position? For Simandl, Nanny, & co. the answer is obvious, due to the consistent 1-2-4 fingering system. In any position where those three fingers are used exclusively, each finger has exactly one correct placement in each position. The same can be said of the thumb, resting behind the neck, which moves from one position to another in a fixed relationship to the other fingers. By contrast, Bottesini invites us to be flexible. In (his) second position, on the A-string, the first finger takes B-natural, while C-natural can be taken with either the third or fourth finger. Looked at another way, in the second position, the fourth finger can have two proper placements, on C-natural, or C-sharp. In Simandl, a 4th finger C-natural (A-string) can only be in half position. In Bottesini's method, it could either be in first or second position.

In the process of acquainting myself with Bottesini's fingering system, I spent a quite bit of time on the first few pages, wrapping my brain and my fingers around the half steps taken with the first and fourth fingers. To feel comfortable in the crimped position, I found myself holding the thumb a bit higher, opposite the first finger (or even higher) rather than my normal position, wherein the thumb resides more or less opposite the second finger. The new hand position felt uncomfortable only in that it was something different. In fact, alternately stretching and contracting the hand felt strangely liberating. With the fingers all out of their usual positions, relying more heavily on the ear than on the hand position was revelatory, as much as it was also sobering.
Anxious as I was to begin climbing the ladder, tackling the more interesting and difficult material to come. A couple lines of text made me stop dead in my tracks. In the middle of a section of brief exercises 'in all keys', where he moves to the flat keys, Bottesini writes: “The pupil will understand that the object of these exercises is to accustom him to keep his thumb perfectly still.” Somewhat confusingly, this instruction appears after exercises in F major, D minor, and B flat major, and it is unclear whether it applies to what is above or below the text. Here is the exercise in D minor, notable for the first use of the third finger in the method.

This appears to be all in the second position, so leaving the thumb in place conforms to the Simandl/Nanny idea of position. However, directly below the text is this exercise in G minor.

First or second position?

Right away there is a conundrum. Is this first or second position? First finger on A-natural implies second position, while using it on the E-flat says first. Was Bottesini asking us to shift position without moving the thumb (Apostasy!), or is this all to be considered as one position?

At the bottom of the page (clearly referring to the exercise above since the next page went on to something else) Bottesini again felt the need to add: The pupil will take care not to move his thumb in getting to the A flat on the G string.

Don't move the thumb

After some head scratching, it dawned on me that I had yet to fully free myself from the shackles of the old position system I studied as a beginner. Initially, tackling Bottesini's unfamiliar fingerings, I held onto the idea that to be in a 'position', one of the fingers needed to be fixed in place. Since the early examples had both whole steps and half steps fingered 1-4, I erroneously made the assumption that the placement of the first finger defined the 'position' while the fourth finger could stretch to a whole step or contract to a semi tone. The text and examples cited above finally made me realize that the first finger could move within a position as well.

To be fair, these conclusions are my own extrapolations of what I found in the text. Bottesini doesn't appear to be concerned with the idea of positions in the same way as Simandl or Nanny. He barely mentions them near the beginning of the method before dropping them altogether after about the first ten pages. However, from the numbered fingerings, as well as the admonishments not to move the thumb, it seems clear to me that there is some underlying idea of being in a 'position', however vague that might be.

Based on what I had encountered to that point, I came up with the following first and second 'positions'.    

Since the pitches A-B-C, fingered 0-1-4, could be in either first or second position, the defining characteristic had to be the position of the thumb. The first position would be with the thumb closest to the nut, and the in the second, the thumb would be somewhat farther away.
Upon turning the page and preceding to the next section of the book, it turned out that, while neither refuting my thesis outright, nor confirming it, Bottesini simply went on to something else. He didnt seem overly concerned about 'positions, so, I asked myself, why was I?

The following post(s) will deal with more of the Method.  

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Bottesini Method, part 1

Discarding every trifling disputation, I have followed but one threefold guide in the composition of this method: Truth for science. Beauty for art. Usefulness for the pupil.

Bottesini introduces his Method with a few eloquent remarks, laying out the practical foundation of his approach and modestly asserting that, rather than arising from a burning desire to edify the bass playing world, it was only the prompting of others that caused him to create the work. The author's modesty is not merely surprising, emanating as it does from Bottesini, the bassist and composer who bestrode the musical world of the 19th century like a colossus, it also jars the modern sensibility, inured as we are to the scourge of monetization and naked self-promotion that has seeped into every corner of our cultural experience, penetrating even to the out-of-the-way nooks and crannies of the musical world where bassists dwell. The great virtuoso only reluctantly endeavored to write his Method when begged to do so. And, furthermore, he eschewed the golden opportunity to hawk something, a special end-pin, personally endorsed bows or basses, perhaps an exclusive Bottesini Brand® rosin in a special monogrammed stay-fresh case, or maybe a bib for the bass, quivers for the bow, how about a summer camp, or an infallible secret to audition success. The great Bottesini, virtuous in every sense, renounces commercialization, turns his back on the snake oil and rubbish that litters so much of the modern pedagogical landscape.

Within the modest tone of the prologue, Bottesini makes clear that, while respecting the viewpoints of others, he reserves the right to express his own. He begins with an impassioned argument for the three-stringed bass. In adding an extra string, he argues, what is gained by enabling a few lower notes is negated by the loss of sound and clarity of tone. As he describes his experiments in adding a fourth string to various fine instruments: The result was always the same, and always bad... Neither is he in favor of tuning the bass in fifths, which he deems 'absurd'.

As mentioned in the previous post, the English language edition I'm using is published by Carl Fischer. The Escudier edition, in addition to some very handsome illustrations not found in the English version, has some slightly different material in the introductory section. For instance, here, Bottesini takes aim at the so-called Dragonetti Bow. Cette position, on le voit, manque d'élégance. (This position, as we can see, lacks elegance.) Zing!

Written descriptions of bow grips are often vague and unhelpful. Admitting this from the outset, Bottesini limits himself to a few instructions.

The hand not too near the nut, nor too far from it, the middle finger, the third finger, and the little finger firmly placed against the nut in such a way that the middle finger adapts itself to the place where the hair commences; the forefinger must hook upon the stick and press it strongly; the thumb on the side of the nut and always opposite the middle finger, pressing from the right side and a little obliquely, the edge of the groove in the nut.

Most surprising to me is that this description does not seem to match what I have long understood to be the so-called Italian bow grip, where the thumb is positioned in the little c-shaped part of the frog and does not touch the stick at all. (I've seen this part of the bow called the 'throat', which sounds gross when you think about the Italian bow grip as sticking one's thumb in the throat of the bow.) The illustrations seem to bear this out.

Although neither of the editions in my possession have dates of publication, my guess is that the Method was a later work, written after Bottesini had already achieved his fame as a bassist. In support of this, I note how he mentions that others approached and persuaded him to create it, presumably on account of his reputation. I also sense a degree of world-weariness in his remarks. The fatalism in his attitude toward the instrument and its students suggests a long travail and the attendant disappointment inevitably experienced by all who play the instrument over a period of many years.

Bottesini's views on the double bass, particularly concerning it as a solo instrument, might come as a surprise to some, particularly to those in the Academy, and his realistic assessment of the prospects of the majority of students who might take up the instrument flies in the face of our present day practice of maintaining persistent, if sometimes irrational, optimism.

The Double Bass cannot aspire to the advantages of other solo instruments... The sole end and purpose of the Double Bass ought, then, to be giving of the fundamental notes to the orchestra.

Let us make no mistake on this subject; you do not learn to play the Double Bass for the purpose of executing brilliant morceaux with purity of tone, elegance of coloring, and lightness of bow. If uncommon talent, seconded by rare gifts and long studies can attain exceptional results, such attainments are not generally acquired.

Ouch! with that, it's time to start learning the Double Bass. The following posts will delve deeper into the Method.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What would Bottesini do?

Out of the several editions of the famous passage for double basses from Verdi's Othello (Act IV), the one most interesting to me is the version that includes fingerings and bowings. Apparently, displeased by what he heard at the first go-round in Milan, probably during rehearsals for the premier at La Scala in 1887, Verdi sent a letter to Giovanni Bottesini in London, mentioning 'problematic' intonation in the double basses. Along with the letter, the composer included a copy of the passage with the request that the great virtuoso provide fingerings to guide the bassists in Milan toward fixing the intonation problem. Although I am not 100% certain of the provenance of the markings in the Ricordi edition, I have always assumed that they are what Bottesini provided to Verdi.

To the modern eye, at least to mine, some of the fingerings look odd, most notably the half-steps that are fingered 1 - 4.

An aside is in order here, in case any non bassists are torturing themselves by reading this. Nowadays, with the exception of certain 'advanced' or 'extended' techniques, in the lower positions, which encompass most of the orchestral literature for the instrument, bassists mostly use the fingering scheme of 1 - 2 - 4. The 1st and 4th finger spanning the distance of a whole tone - and, obviously, from 1st to 2nd finger, and 2nd to 4th encompassing a semi tone. This fingering scheme appears in method books by Franz Simandl, Edouard Nanny, Ludwig Streicher, and probably many more I am unaware of. [An aside within an aside: I once studied with a teacher who assigned etudes from the method by Isaia Bille, who used the fingering scheme 1 - 3 - 4, the so-called Italian Style. Only this teacher, in disagreement with Sgr. Bille, had gone through the entire volume with whiteout, covering over every instance of the 3rd finger and overwriting it with the numeral '2'. Why would anyone overlook the strongest finger? he asked, rhetorically.]

Despite the development of 'modern' fingering systems, the idea that the span between the 1st and 4th finger shall be a whole step remains largely sacrosanct. Innovations to fingering, such as they are, most often strive to increase that span, through stretching the fingers, pivoting with the wrist &c., which makes the appearance of the half-steps and major thirds fingered 1 - 4 seem archaic, or at least a little bit odd. (Once again for the non bassist: half-step corresponds to the major third in that the former is played on one string, the latter, on adjacent strings, the distance between the fingers remaining the same.)

I have made my own version of the excerpt (see below) including the fingerings from Bottesini. Instances of the 1 - 4 half-step fingerings can be found in measures 6 and 7, 11 and 12, 17, 22, 23 and 24.

Looking over the entire passage, one will not find a single instance where the 2nd finger is employed - the Italian custom of avoiding that digit altogether in the lower positions. There are some other interesting features or, one might say, inconsistencies, wherein at one time a half step is taken with the aforementioned fingering of 1 - 4, and followed soon thereafter with the same notes being fingered 1 - 3.

Recently, while searching my computer for a copy of the Othello excerpt to give to a student, I rediscovered a scan of Bottesini's method book. Years ago, unsolicited, someone had sent me a CD containing scans of the whole book, an edition published by Carl Fischer, with the text in English. Unfortunately, there are no dates or information about the editor or translator, but it looks to be an old edition, with the archaic fingerings intact. The book is also available on IMSLP, Léon Escudier, editor, with the text in French. This version, in addition to an extended introductory section, also includes a second part that deals with the double bass as a solo instrument. I'm aware that a few modern, bowdlerized version of the book exist, where, in addition to the fingerings being 'updated', various passages were transposed or rewritten to utilize a fourth string, something Bottesini did not favor. With extra time on my hands lately, as is I'm sure true of anyone reading this contemporaneously, I thought it might be interesting to go through the book in order to try out Bottesini's fingerings, and, in so doing, discover if there is any method to what, at first glance appears as madness. My intention is to make note of my experiences here. The next number of posts will be dealing with that subject matter.

Before proceeding to the Bottesini Method, a few observations about the Othello passage might be of interest. There is some debate about the accent on the first note - specifically how loud to play that. At auditions, some players play it quite forcefully, others less so, or not at all. The score has no accent, last time I checked. The up-bow marking suggests to me that less of an attack might be the better approach. Perhaps the accent is there more to indicate that the note should have a definite beginning, rather than fading in from nothing. The indication of the 3rd string in m. 17 is almost certainly an error. The 1st string is more logical and fits with the numbered fingerings. I'm hoping that study of Bottesini's Method will shed some light on the fingering choices in measure 22 - the interval C-flat to B-flat is fingered one time 4 - 1 and the next 3 - 1.

An old post might be of interest. It is an account of when the {redacted}SO, under Sir Georg Solti, performed the piece, with Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. One minor episode not covered by the blog post concerns the marking soli contrabassi a 4 corde. The three string bass being still widely used at the time, Verdi felt the need to specify that only those with the low E string should play the first six measures, until tutti is marked in measure seven, probably to avoid having players join in in the middle of a phrase. At the first go through with Solti, it seemed like he had never noticed the marking before. There was some back and forth with the principal until the brain trust, such as it was, came to the (wrong!) conclusion that contrabassi a 4 corde meant four players. We were all set to proceed that way, with four players beginning, and the rest of the section joining at bar seven. Needles to say, this didn't sit well with some of us. It was one of a number of times over the years I thought the section might actually come to blows. At the time, I was using a five-string bass and wondered whether I should be a pill and, adhering to the letter of the law, sit out. In the end, hotter heads prevailed, and we all played the whole thing.

The post about the 1990 performance is here.

click to embiggen

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Joy to the World

an argument against happiness

A casual glance at an orchestra in performance usually reveals a group of mostly phlegmatic individuals going about their business. To the untrained eye, stoicism appears to be the order of the day, but the astute observer can mark a variety of attitudes and emotions among the musicians. During a single concert it is often possible to observe everything from rapture to despair, disguised either cleverly, or not at all. Even when the general mood of the ensemble is good and spirits are mostly high, it is almost always possible to find at least one individual who is scowling or otherwise showing signs of being under a dark cloud. Conversely, when spirits are generally low, there is always someone who seems to be happily playing away, either oblivious to, or immune from the general malaise around them.

One entertaining pastime to consider during an otherwise un-engaging performance is to look for the player onstage who seems to be enjoying themselves most of all and then to seek out their counterpart, the one who is suffering. This is easier than it seems at first for, interestingly, these individuals are often seated right next to each other. Having observed this phenomenon over a number of years, I've struggled to determine if this antipodal relationship is causal or correlative. Is this a coincidence? Is it Schadenfreude - a happy individual taking pleasure in the low spirits of another? Or is it something else? Why do individuals in close proximity exhibit such discordant emotional responses to the same performance?

In my experience, the overly happy player is more often than not at least partially oblivious to their surroundings, and therefore probably incapable of experiencing Schadenfreude. On the other hand, the unhappy individual, possessed of a keener sense of discrimination, possibly sharpened by years of discontentment, is more acutely aware, sometimes painfully so, of what is going on around them. Maybe this boils down to something like the bumper stickers you see occasionally that say “If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.”

For a while I postulated that there might be a limited supply of happiness available during any performance, and the happy player had siphoned off more than their fair share - the “I drink your milkshake” theory. But later on I began to wonder if that viewpoint might have been overly simplistic. The supply of happiness is most probably variable; happiness can be created or destroyed. But is the creation of happiness equivalent to the destruction of unhappiness? This got me to wondering if the happy player, through the reckless enactment of their enjoyment, might actually be creating unhappiness in those around them.

The subject got rolling around in my mind again when I recently came across the term Gluckschmerz, a made up word with a mysterious etymology. Gluckschmerz, while not its exact opposite, is a good complement to Schadenfreude. My small understanding of these two terms is that they both have something to do with a sense of justice and with group dynamics, which make them both apt for talking about the orchestra. More than simply the enjoyment gained from witnessing someone else's suffering, Schadenfreude is the feeling of satisfaction that arises from knowing justice is being done when a transgressor receives their well-deserved comeuppance. Likewise, beyond being suffering caused by the joy of another, Gluckschmerz is the unhappiness felt upon witnessing someone deriving pleasure from something that is ill-gotten, illegitimate, or otherwise undeserved. When an acerbic conductor calls out a certain musician, players may experience Schadenfreude if they feel the criticism to be merited. When the criticism is not forthcoming they might feel disappointment, which, when the undeserving player then gambols and frolics through a concert in an unaware and unconscious state of bliss, curdles and becomes Gluckschmerz.

On the one hand, there is something profoundly depressing when considering how joy and misery are sometimes dependently linked. I can imagine Messrs. Schadenfreude and Gluckschmerz as two grizzled old timers, long time stand partners at the back of a string section in some godforsaken orchestra. Like two petulant children on opposite ends of a teeter-totter, one can only go up when the other comes down; they are hateful of, yet dependent upon the other. Conversely, there is cause for optimism, for as we are especially reminded during the holiday season, we are, all of us, sinners. As such, when we fall, as we all do, inevitably, we might be able to take solace in the fact we might be generating happiness, at least somewhere. At any rate, this dark underbelly to happiness is something to keep in mind over the next few weeks.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Logging Back On

Now that I've gone ahead and redacted myself from the {redacted}SO, I intend to begin blogging again, although the subject matter will probably be substantially different than before. But more on retirement will be forthcoming later. The pressing concern of the moment is a concert by The Growlers: A Double Bass Ensemble, exactly one week from today. Details are below.

I'm very happy to be performing Logs, by Paul Chihara on this concert. It has been a favorite of mine since college days, way back in the late 1970s. Most notable to me is Chihara's use of the 'circular bowing' technique, which produces a very earthy, organic kind of sound, evoking feelings of being deep within a quiet, ancient forest, sensing that trees are truly alive. The inspiration for the piece apparently came from Zen breathing exercises in The Art of Archery. Our performance of Logs will use six double basses, spread out as much as space will allow, hopefully giving the audience the sensation of being surrounded by old trees. Indeed, what is a double bass, if not an old log fashioned into something else?