Rabbath versus Simandl – a comparative study for double bass 26

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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:

Vance, George: Progressive Repertoire
Simandl, Franz: New Method for String Bass
Rabbath, Francois: Nouville Technique
Rabbath’s Wikipedia page

About Jason

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason teaches double bass at DePaul University and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years. Jason is the current President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association. Jason has been a member of the Elgin Symphony since 2000 and has played with the Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County for the past decade. He is a past member of the Milwaukee Ballet and IRIS Orchestra, and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

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26 thoughts on “Rabbath versus Simandl – a comparative study for double bass

  • eric steffens

    Another interesting, and very extensive topic.

    I don’t really have the teaching experience that you or many people have had. I can really only speak as a student at this point. But what I can say is that I wish I had had a more bass-specific technical background at a younger age. I feel like I am a result of this mixture-technique to an extent, though it really just didn’t happen soon enough. I went through the Essential Elements (Hal Leonard) series which teaches all the strings of the orchestra essentially the same material at the same pace. In hindsight, while I learned “music” and how to play in the ensemble, this was completely inadequate for teaching the bass, as im sure it was for the other specific instruments as well. It moved doggedly slow, and was extremely boring.

    Even as my real private lessons began in high school, I was not highly exposed to any specific method, but rather bits and pieces of several. Jason being my instructor for the mojority of highschool was probably experimenting with me and beginning to develop his current viewpoint on the subject. I had somehow acquired enough basic technique on my own over the years that I really just jumped into some rather serious literature. This was great for keeping me involved and interested, but at times i feel like I had to take many steps backward to fix problems that most likely would have been solved at I begun bass with these methods.

    I still work on the Etudes and exercises out of these books, and can also admit, that because I am not a beginner by any means, the Simandl method proves it self infinitely more relevant to anything else I am working on, be it orchestral or solo. Im also at the point where I am not bored to death by it, because I can actually see where it is relevant in my outside playing and can very much target the specific technical devices I want to work on. It took until late high school/ college to figure this out. It is not a young student-friendly book.

    In my teaching I am going to try to mix it up more. It seems that some sort of mix would be ideal, like this Vance book, apparently, which I will check out. To really appreciate the simandl and get the maximum result out of it, I feel one really needs to already have a basic knowledge of the bass. It sounds like your students will be more than prepared for that, Jason.

  • emily

    great post Jason!

    My teacher started me with Simandl too. I was really bored to tears, but it really really helped the left hand alot. That I definitely have to agree.

    Now, I still do start my students with Simandl, but I write my own little pieces for them to play too.

    Ill definitely check out the Vance. It seems interesting! =)

  • Jason Heath

    Thanks for the great thoughts on the various bass methods. It’s great to hear such intelligent comments on this complicated topic! If I could do it again I would have all of my beginner students start with the Vance Progressive Repertoire books. These tunes (pulled from the Suzuki method) and the sequence in which they are introduced make for a powerful sequence, and it is nice to have bass players learning the same melodies that all of the other string players learn–it makes them feel more like a string player and less like a percussionist.

    One of the difficulties with our instrument is how non-standardized it is in so many ways. Different sizes, body shapes, French/German bow, standing/sitting, straight/bent endpin, extension/no extension… and the same can be sad for our method books. The Suzuki method is so commonly taught for the other stringed instruments that it is the de facto sequence for the other stringed instruments, but very few double bassists are taught using this sequence. Also, I just don’t think that the technical difficulties of our instrument are effectively addressed in the Suzuki books.

    These Vance books teach the student play in all of the positions (including the “Dragonetti” harmonics at the end of the fingerboard) within the first few months of study. This is important for bass students since we can only span a whole step in our normal position.

    Eric, it’s great to hear that you are still coming back to the Simandl book. I do the same thing myself. I often work out of large sequences to help clean up things in my playing (a couple of years ago I started from the very beginning and worked through the whole book). It really does teach you how to play in an orchestra.

  • oceanskies79

    I started out learning the double bass from a student of the orchestra that I used to play in.

    One of my double bass tutors started me on simandl. It wasn’t something I would find especially interesting but it was helpful.

    I have never tried Vance Progressive Repertoire books. I shall check these out when I get my hands on them. Thanks for the post.

  • Brian Roessler

    I’d be interested, given your enthusiasm for Vance’s books (which I share) what aspects of Rabbath’s technique you remain skeptical about? Having worked closely with Francois for a long time, I must say I’ve never heard him advocate collapsing one’s fingers although I’ve heard lots of people criticize him for advocating it… the other things that you mention (instrument shape and size, bent endpin) are things that he advocates for folks wanting to learn his technique. It would certainly be very difficult to make signifcant progress in the Rabbath technique using a large, wide shouldered, heavy bass with a straight endpin.

    One of the difficulties in understanding the Rabbath technique for those who haven’t workied directly with Francois is that it really isn’t adequately explained in his method books due to various pressures brought to bear on him when he first published them (mostly that Leduc didn’t want to rock the bass pedagogy boat too much). With the imminent publication of the fourth volume of his method I think some of this will be cleared up.

    Ultimately, most of the criticism I’ve heard about the Rabbath technique comes from people who, through no fault of their own, have no firsthand experience of it and deep misconceptions of what it is about.

  • Jason Heath

    Thanks for the good comment regarding my Rabbath/Simandl piece. I e-mailed you about it as well, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Rabbath technique. My experience with it is limited–mostly from former students of Rabbath, never with the man himself. It would be great to hear commentary from someone who’s studied with him.

  • Monica

    I started off with Simandl as well, and was definitely bored with it, as I let my teacher know on several occasions…but I’ve always found it reputable for producing results, as a student seeing myself improve. Combined with the pieces I was learning for orchestra to keep myself interested, that is.

  • Andres

    Hi Jason, I find your article very interesting (you posted some of my videos long time ago).
    I had several years of experience teaching know and tried with several different methods. I learned with the Billé methods and when teaching I used Some Rabbath, Simandl, Nanny, etc.
    I completely agree with you about the Boring thing when starting bass studies. Right know I wrote a small book containing 12 studies very melodic and very fun, wiht a very small difficulty in the left hand and lots of hard work on the bow. Im working know for about a Year and my studies prooved to be a very good complement for my students. So they work with the formal method with all the boring but necesary studies, but they have a complementary etude each month that its on their level but its really fun and serves as a solo piece to peform on a recital.
    Right know I like to publish my small book, because many people of different countries asked me for it (mostly latinamerican countries because the text its in spanish) Maybe you can help me contact some editorial that you think they will be interested on.
    The book comes with a CD of me playing all the studies with the “musical” concept. send me an email so I can send you some stuff.
    Thanks for your work blogging, your place its helping a lot for the world bass comunity


  • vito

    I was reading this interesting post and I would like to tell you that we should compare more doublebass players, in example the HIGHER SIMPLYFIED
    TECNIQUE by the great italian solist and pedagogue FRANCO PETRACCHI. But we can talk also Isaia Billè, Guido Gallignani and so on which tried to find a correct way in posture but also in fingerings.
    In Italy we study a lot Billè, only for the 5th years we study something from Simandl but usually changing fingerings, and for thumb position adopting Petracchi’s system. Which is the better?
    I don’t know! Probably we should study every system to enlarge our possibilities of fingerings. Sorry for my no correct English, but I listen today to young students which play better and better which one or the other system. Probably Rabbath’s system is a little bit “dangerous” in tuning, but it’s only my own idea. STOP!

    Ciao Jason

  • Matt

    Hi Jason, I was just wondering, has your opinion of the Rabbath technique changed since you had a lesson with Sturm? Surely you have found out that the books have been edited by Leduc(Rabbath calls them “stupid”) and are best used with a very competent teacher. I could never imagine learning a quarter from the books about the Rabbath technique as I have learned from my teacher. Especially about the movement of the pivot.

  • Jeff Holsen

    Hey Jason and everyone,
    Each method seems ‘integral’ in it’s own way.
    On another note. I remember David Walter’s book “The Melodious Bass” as being full of great tunes. Unfortunately it is also impossible to find. It was not a method per se but was a great collection of fun stuff for students to play! I’m on a quest to find it. Sure wish it would be reprinted!!

  • Michael Schneider

    Many, too many bassists do their job because they learned by Simandl and their stupid teachers. In the end they all do not know the fingerboaerd at all, nothing about flageolets, except, where ” Simandl ” teaches them to play.
    One exammple: I show a bass-pupil the many possibilities of a certain fingering and tell him: look at me,how happy I am with this fingering.
    I want to have fun also, was his answer. Nor me or somebody else in the world would be inspired by Simandl in that way. This is Rabbath, the rest is: by learning the Rabbath technique I know to play Simandl a hundred times better ………..
    Rabbath is liberation of old minded teachers and players. My ceolleagues ignore everything what I am doing , because they would have to admit, that they learned a lot of ****. And it really is hard to accept this. So all Germany goes on like before. This is the problem, not Rabbath.
    Michael Schneider from Heidelberg, Germany

  • Charles Gambetta

    I am a conductor, composer and double bassist with an active performing and teaching career. While I have been a bass teacher for 37 years, I have never allowed my thinking about the bass to stand still. This curiosity moved me to spend most of my 45 years on the bass experimenting with and analysing every approach or system I came across. I believe the result of this journey is a synthetic approach that combines the strongest elements of each set of practices into a cohesive yet open architecture that consistently produces rapid progress for my students… and now their students as well.

    The author correctly points out that the “traditional” position labeling system (Simandl) is difficult to remember and offers little in the way of context that would help students make sense of either the geography/topography of the fingerboard and the locations of pitches on the strings. I still have to work to remember it after all these years. Rabbath’s reduction to 6 positions is defintely a step in the right direction and begs the question: Can we make additional improvements?

    As I write this post, I am in the middle of composing an article on a fresh look at the double bass fingerboard that includes a system for labeling positions that is simple, logical and descriptive. In other words, the labeling actually supports the students’ decision making process with respect to shifting and fingerings as it confirms the location of pitches on each string.

    I will return to add information when I complete the article.

  • Robin Ruscio

    This exactly how I am now teaching- Vance to get em going and learning musicality, Simandl to clean things up later. I had a huge fear of thumb after starting in Simandl for years myself and it’s great to see how quickly students integrate all positions after working in Vance/rabbath.

  • Jonathan Cable

    I’ve actually gone in the other direction. Instead of going from Simandl towards what is there today, I’ve gone from Simandl to what was there was before him, and ended up with … Wenzl Hause. The second part of his method is a series of 90 Etüdes. I know, 90 is a number that scares everybody – but most of them are not longer than half a page? In four or five lines, each of these studies addresses several technical aspects, without brow-beating and without the usual belaboring the point, like Caimmi does in each of his studies… Why these Hause studies are not on every bass player’s music stand and why they are not a staple of every bass curriculum is a mystery to me!
    As far as Simandl is concerned, I went through all of that when I was a student, and I loved the method, perhaps because I had a really good teacher that was able to get it across in a perfectly positive way. I was never bored to tears, that’s all I can say.

  • David B Teagie

    This is my personal experience. I began with Simandl. This bloody awful set of tuneless exercises left me frightened of anything beyond keys closely related to C major and any position beyond first.

    Years later, I found a Suzuki teacher who was willing to take me on, and I flourished. The only materials available at the time were for the cello. So I adapted. Then happily I discovered the Rabbath books and learned pivoting, poorly, until I discovered playing with a drone appropriate to the key. Suddenly I could HEAR it when I didn’t reach far enough, or reached too far. I worked through the 1st 3 Suzuki cello books, then discovered George Vance’s materials, while they were still in the six 8.5×11 comb bound booklets. This was a revelation.

    All this came to fruition when in 2004 I switched to 5ths tuning, and everything fell into place. The instrument was wonderfully resonant. The 124 fingering for whole step-half step sequence, and 134 for a half step-whole step sequence was both natural and essential to my technique for fifths playing.

    The upshot is that I believe in Rabbath’s and Vance’s work. Incidentally, Vance’s work was supposed to be the “Washington Suzuki Bass project” but Suzuki politics prevented that from happening. Dan Swaim did a wonderful job putting together the Suzuki bass books. They are progressive in the same way all the other Suzuki books are, actually more so than Vance’s work. Vance’s work carries the student much further than the published Suzuki books do (V1,2,3,4).

  • Matthew

    Honestly, I love the Simandl Method for what it is. A book of studying. I’ve learned over the years that the book isn’t a great beginners page by page book but its is fabulous for advanced bassists. I REALLY Like the Dr. Mark Morton bass book series. Those books give you the same scale like 5 different ways and positions that way you can never be caught off-gaurd for fingerings.

    One of my bass teachers had given me some George Vance books to look through and study. They weren’t too bad to get a new perspective from just studying Simandl. I know of Rabbath only through the year or so I played through the Music Minus One cd/piece. sets. His fingerings were kind of confusing to me.

    All and all, I think people should explore the different types of instructional books out there. One will help you more than the other and one may hinder you more than the other. Coming from a bassist who had no private lessons for most of his bass playing years (minus college), I found that the Dr. Mark Morton books were the best to get yourself familiarized with fingerings and the simandl was great once you understood the foundations. Vance and Rabbath were great to get yourself into playing pieces and such along with Simandl’s etudes as well.

  • David Etheridge

    Hi Jason,
    very perceptive comments on these methods. I use Simandl in my teaching and have come to the conclusion that there are only a few problems with the excercises, most of which are sorted out by explaining to the student just exactly what’s going on. Simandl is useless in explaining things, apart from the surreally badly translated instructions in how to stand, hold the bow and finger positions. Anyway, we are where we are, so there it is. I tell my students first of all that the excercises are not designed as great music. They’re very often ‘woodshedding’ just designed to get you reading the notes (even double sharps -why no double flats?) and getting around the bass and exploring positions. Musically, we’re in infant school and ‘the cat sat on the mat’ territory. Things get better as you go up through the positions, so that by fourth position the exercises suddenly have musical direction, logic and slow, and make sense to the student. Mind you, Simandl has some very wierd ideas on the upper positions where he dispense with fingering the E string, and restricts fingering on the A to 1 and 2. Even more bizarrely in Book 2 dealing with thumb position he expands the fingering onto the A string fully. The only conclusion I can come to is that 19th century string actions and gut strings meant that this was the only practical way of playing at the time.
    Rabbath is a total revelation by comparison, and makes a very good contrast. I still don’t like his insistence on standing up when playing (my chiropractor’s bills are a testament to how you can mess up your posture, likewise pivoting and his position shifts seem full of potential traps for the unwary. Mind you, that’s only my position. His scale work in Book 2 is truly brilliant in getting a secure feel for whereever you are on the fingerboard in any key, although I thought he was mad when I first saw them! It’s only when I actually bashed my way through I realised the genius.
    Suzuki -hmm, problems there. Yes, they’re user friendly and tuneful exercises to keep the student engaged, but the downside is that they go through positions in such a peripheral way that students end up having little or no understanding of what they’re actually doing. I rescued 2 former Suzuki students from their previous teacher and took them back to Simandl; they’re now racing away, doing U.K. Grade 7 at the age of 13 -they’re 5 years ahead of contemporaries, which iss very gratifying to me.
    One other thing missing from bass books is extension fingering, which was taught to me by John Walton, bass professor at the Royal Academy of Music. From 4th position you can extend the fingers and use one per semitone which frees things up immensely and makes playing much easier.
    Hope this all helps and is of interest!

  • Dee Cunningham

    I studied with George Vance when I started playing bass. I never realized that there was a different method, Simandl, and now that Im back tinkering on it (I stopped playing when I started teaching art in 2000…) I’ve been trying to review the lessons in my old books. Now that there is internet (no such thing back in 1985!) there’s so much to rediscover. Thanks for the comparison, I never realized how lucky I was to have parents that were so progressive by putting me in classes with George. Miss him and his patience!