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There are two predominant double bass pedagogical methods in the United States today. The older, established double bass method here is without a doubt the New Method for String Bass by Franz Simandl. This tried and true double bass pedagogical tome methodically takes the beginning double bass student up the fingerboard, half-step by half-step, exploring all of the notes in each position and connecting the new positions with the old positions in various etude and scalar studies. In contrast, the New Method of François Rabbath and his followers divides the double bass into six positions and navigates the notes in each of these large positions with pivoting.
I have always been suspicious of people who wholeheartedly embrace Rabbath’s teachings. Many of his ideas seem ill-conceived to me, from his advocating collapsing of the left hand fingers to his extremely specific ideas regarding instrument shape and size, the use of the French bow, and advocacy of bent end pins. Moreover, I attended several bass conferences when I was younger where I observed some truly wretched playing by supposed Rabbath technique followers (I’m sure that I heard just as many wretched Simandl technique students, my Rabbath suspicions burned these former players more clearly into my brain).
To be fair, I have always loved watching Rabbath himself play and have enjoyed listening to his recordings. He is a truly creative artist speaking in a compelling original voice. I bought his Nouville Technique volumes when I was in high school, and although I did not agree with many of the fundamental concepts I read, I knew there was a huge amount of value in these texts. I learned many of his pieces and played them for recitals, competitions, and other events.
Teaching with Simandl
When I started teaching double bass about ten years ago I had all of my students purchase Simandl’s New Method for String Bass and start learning the Half Position section, just like my bass teacher had me do in my first bass lessons. As I had student after student play them for me in lessons (I have taught a LOT of private lesson students) I came to two conclusions:
1) They were learning good left hand position.
2) They were bored to tears.
Also, my beginning 4th grade students had a terrible time reading the sharps and flats that Simandl put into even the very beginning of his materials. The first page of the Half Position exercises, for example, already introduces double sharps. Double sharps! My 4th graders had just learned the D scale in school and old man Simandl was having them grind away on atonal (and they really are atonal) exercises with accidentals galore. On the other hand, they were learning their positions well (even if they were bored). I decided to use short tunes from other collections to shake things up and ended up teaching about 50% Simandl exercises and 50% short tunes.
The Simandl position numbering system is also extremely complicated, and I had a hard time remembering whether my students were playing in 1 1/2 position, low 2nd, 3 1/2 position (or is that fourth?), 5th position, or the like. Also, their school orchestra used a different numbering position than the Simandl book, so I ended up avoiding mentioning position numbers whenever possible.
Trying out Suzuki Bass School
Shortly after starting to teach with Simandl, I picked up some of the Suzuki Bass School books. I liked the tunes (the Suzuki tune progression is very well-conceived) but was unsure about trying to use these books without any Suzuki training. Suzuki and traditional public school string instruction often don’t work together (starting a tiny tot on bass along with their parents in a Suzuki program and a student starting bass in the public schools in 4th grade are two fundamentally different ways of learning an instrument), and I decided to simply pick some tunes out of the Suzuki repertoire to add to my teaching repertoire and leave it at that.
Discovering a different method
One day I was in downtown Chicago at a music store and I happened to page through a copy of George Vance’s Progressive Repertoire for the Double Bass. I was surprised at the way the double bass positions were introduced and explained but was immediately interested. Although the book was Rabbath technique through and through (Rabbath himself plays on the accompanying CDs) I already started to see the possibilities of this method.
Progressive Repertoire fuses the Suzuki repertoire and the Rabbath technique with traditional double bass technique and repertoire with excellent results. Here is what I like about this method:
1) Starting in 3rd position (traditional 4th position) – When I first started teaching out of this method, I jumped ahead to the first position tunes, but over time I realized the value of starting students in 3rd position. When a student starts in 3rd position they are able to play pentatonic tunes, which are much easier for the young ear to process and hear (3rds, 4ths and 5ths are much easier to hear at first than half steps). Simandl has the students grinding away at half steps in non-melodic patterns the first time they put down their fingers. I have started students both ways, and the Simandl students leave their first lesson with a grimace while the Vance students leave with a smile.
2) Pleasant, short, technique-specific tunes – Simandl presents the students with a few never ending pages of the same note value and atonal grinding. Vance presents the students with 8-12 measure pentatonic tunes. Playing something pleasing to the ear makes a huge difference in how the student feels about their new instrument. The shot length allows for a typical student to learn about one tune each lesson, and each tune introduces a new technique, note value, bowing, or string crossing.
3) Pivoting – This is a dodgy subject. I used to never let my students pivot, believing that it would cloud their intonation. Over time, I realized that, by focusing on the six Rabbath positions and learning the pivot motions, most students did not need to stare at their left hand or fingerboard and could instead rely on their ear and their sense of touch to find notes. Harmonically simple tunes and basic movements helped with this. I thought that pivoting would hurt student’s intonation, but I have found that the proper application of it actually helps intonation. There is something about having fewer positions and pivoting within those positions that makes sense for younger students, and I have noticed a much faster development of intonation and fingerboard knowledge with the Vance/Rabbath approach.
4) No fear of the high positions – Vance moves the students into 4th position (traditional thumb position) within the first few tunes of his method. Introducing this region early to bas students eliminates the traditional fear and discomfort of the thumb position. I have had many university students who are completely comfortable in the neck positions and a total mess in the thumb positions. Early introduction of these positions makes the thumb positions no scarier than any of the other positions.
5) Clarity in Fingerboard Navigation – Simandl’s positions are very difficult to remember and pretty non-intuitive. As an experiment, ask a professional bass player sometime to demonstrate all of the Simandl positions. I’ve tried this experiment with lots of bassists, and I haven’t had many do it right. In contrast, the six Rabbath positions are based around the major harmonics on the bass and are extremely easy to remember.
Thoughts on Rabbath Technique
Have I become a Rabbath technique convert, then? Not by a long shot. I still don’t agree with a lot of the fundamental concepts of Rabbath’s technique, but I have found Vance’s filtered Rabbath/Suzuki technique to be invaluable in teaching beginner and intermediate students. Actually, I now consider the Simandl New Method to be an advanced text, and I don’t use it until students each a certain level of technical proficiency.
The Simandl New Method teaches a bass player all of the necessary skills to play orchestral music. Those atonal, grinding exercises that I groused about earlier are actually EXACTLY what we bass players do in orchestra much of the time, and being able to read all of those accidentals across the strings is an absolutely essential skill for bass players in an ensemble. You don’t learn these skills in the Progressive Repertoire series, and it is very important to master the skills in Simandl Book I and II (as well as Gradus ad Parnassum). The comfort navigating the fingerboard and the flat position hierarchy taught by Vance (no position is scarier than any other) sets up a student for all of the challenges of Simandl, and the combination of both methods in this sequence much more effectively prepares the student world of orchestral music.
This combination has ultimately been the most successful comprehensive double bass pedagogical sequence for me–Vance for beginners and intermediate students, and Simandl, ochestral excerpts, and the traditional double bass repertoire (Koussevitzky, Dittersdorf, Bottesini) for advanced students. The Vance Progressive Repertoire method actually dovetails neatly into the world of traditional double bass pedagogical repertoire, since the last piece introduced in Book 3 is the Dragonetti Concerto.
I welcome any comments or suggestions on other double bass methods or pedagogical sequences that other double bass teachers have found effective. There are many other quality bass methods out there (Nanny, Bille, Petracchi), and any new ideas are appreciated.
Read the follow-up post to this article with special blog guest John Tuck.
Further reading and resources: