A major complaint among bassists is the difficulty hearing oneself while playing in the orchestra. Some of this is due to the shape of the instrument – sound-box down near the floor, ears up in the air (unless the bassists' slouch has permanently disfigured the spine) – and some of it due to the dark timbre of the instrument. Another cause, namely the volume at which other instruments play, is the third rail of describing life in the orchestra, which I will not step on just now. So, many notes go by, if not completely unheard, possibly insufficiently scrutinized. At this point, you might wish to consider what can happen to the human voice when the facility of hearing has been lost. Practice time, the obvious answer to this dilemma, can be difficult to come by in sufficient quantity in the midst of a busy schedule of rehearsals and concerts. As an under appreciated student, most of my playing happened in the practice room, where I was painfully aware of my deficiencies. As an highly appreciated professional, on a lot of days I'm lucky if I can get my practice time up to half of the total playing time, which means a fair amount of what I play every day, I don't hear. The result is that keeping tabs on how one is playing, while not impossible, can become challenging.
Over the years, when students have come to me for private lessons, whether for posterity, or to provide themselves with another chance at deciphering the tortured verbiage used by the teacher, they have often asked to record the session. After gaining permission by signing the customary waivers, they unveil one of a number of devices to do the job which have grown in sophistication while shrinking in size, from the 'portable cassette recorder' ubiquitous early in my career (horribly named by present standards at about the size of a loaf of bread) all the way to the digital gizmos of today, some of which are little bigger than a pat of butter. Sometimes I've asked to listen to the recordings, usually while the student packs up their instrument, both as a way to keep up with the technology, and to avoid the awkward chit-chat at the end of a lesson. The student who came to me with techy cred far outstripping ability to play the double bass inadvertently provided me with the much needed wake-up call.
After spending an hour covering a movement from one of the Bach cello suites, de riguer for the college student or other 'serious' aspirant to mastery of the instrument, I spied the tiny mp3 recorder and asked if I might listen a bit. The miniature device excellently captured the poor quality of the playing assaulting me when I put in the ear-buds. This fellow is worse than I thought, I recall remarking (to myself). Of course, the next thing I heard on the recording was the sound of my own voice, proclaiming the student ought to play just like that. Unawares, I'd been listening to my own playing, not liking what I had just heard.
In response to such a rude awakening, I resolved to try and rehabilitate myself by practicing my double bass more diligently. I began by resolving to practice every single day, which I quickly modified to resolving to practice often. In the cool light of reason, I once again modified my resolution and promised myself I would practice occasionally. Since practice without performing is like singing in the shower, and without some sort of end in mind, I knew I would never apply myself with sufficient diligence, I also posed a challenge to myself, using fear as the ultimate motivator.
The basic outline of the project, which I will describe more in detail as it progresses, is to record the 6 Sonatas for Solo violoncello with a thoroughbass for the harpsichord, by Benedetto Marcello, arranged for two double basses (by me). Since the point of the exercise is to see for myself whether or not I can play the instrument, the recordings would be of complete takes of each movement, and I would not resort to any sort of editing, pitch correction, or other digital wizardry to make the end product more palatable to the ear. The only nod in that direction would be the use of overdubbing, which would allow me to play both of the parts, and some EQ to compensate for deficiencies in my equipment and the location(s) where the recordings would be made. The end result would be something of a cross between a studio and a live recording – I would 'perform' each movement for the microphone three or four times and use the best take. If in three or four tries I couldn't come up with a useable take, then it would be back to the practice room to try again another day. Work on the project began in earnest during the fall of 2010, with the goal of finishing the first of the Sonatas by year's end. Obviously, I'm behind schedule for various reasons, some of which were out of my control. Never the less, I am now ready to proceed.
Click below to listen.
Click below to listen.