As a performer of an instrument traditionally used in multi-member orchestral sections, much of my energy and focus in rehearsals and performances is spent achieving unanimity of blend, pitch, timing, and tone with my double bass colleagues. My goal is to first amalgamate with my section mates, then to weave this cohesive sonic product with the rest of the ensemble.
I love this process–this, in fact, is one of the main reasons why I play music! To me, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as being part of a well-oiled double bass machine (and nothing as horrifying as playing with a rusty and shambling mess–something that I have managed to excise from my life for the most part!).
I perform all over metro Chicago with a wide variety of ensembles, and I am the sole bassist for much of my playing these days. As a result, that section dynamic is lost, and I find myself in a role more commonly associated with chamber ensembles or orchestral wind players. I have found that week after week of performing in small (10-25 musician) ensembles has a real effect on the way I play my instrument, and fitting back into a typical 6-8 person double bass section can be a real adjustment.
After pondering this dichotomy for a bit, I came up with the following list of differences between my large section and one-on-a-part ensemble roles:
Key Differences Between Single-Part Ensemble Playing and Section Playing
1. Leading versus following – As an orchestral double bassist, I am used to fitting into a smaller structure (the bass section), which then fits into a medium structure (the string section), which then fits into a larger section (the entire orchestra). This wheels-within-wheels role is flipped on its head when I am the only double bassist in an ensemble, and I find myself playing much more like a chamber musician. While some people theorize that all ensemble playing must resemble chamber music playing, I find that in actual practice sitting next to someone with that kind of outlook is highly annoying. A person who play like a soloist within a string section sticks out like a sore thumb, making it extremely difficult to achieve blend and unanimity of approach.
2. Use of vibrato – When I’m in a section, I generally use much less vibrato than I do when playing as the only bassist. Over the years, I’ve noticed that many bass sections tend to play with little or no vibrato, creating a sound much like a sustained organ pedal. This approach actually makes a lot of sense, especially when one takes a look at a score and sees how frequently we play an organ-like role in the texture and harmony. In smaller settings, I tend to play with a much freer and more pronounced vibrato, emulating the approach of a cellist in a string quartet rather than a member of an eight person bass section.
3. Bowing flexibility and freedom – Unanimity of bowing is one of the key factors in achieving a quality orchestral sound, and making sure that bowings are clearly communicated from the front to back of a string section is a critical task for both principal and section players. Changing a bowing takes a lot of work, with the principal player erasing and rewriting, then passing the changes down through the section ranks. In a chamber setting (one on a part), one only has to worry about matching what the other string players are doing musically, and bowing are more flexible, often being improvised on the spot or altered according to musical needs.
4. Different intonation orientation – As a section player, I first try to make sure that I am in tune with my immediate section mates. Playing in tune down n the lower positions can be a challenge for even the most experienced section players, requiring constant attention on the part of the players. While this is obviously a concern in any musical situation (out of tune is out of tune no matter how you look at it), the phenomenon of listening within before listening throughout exists in this aspect of section playing as well. As a solo player, this intermediate level of attention is eliminated, not necessarily making the task easier of harder, but simply different.
5. Playing like a chamber musician – I love playing chamber music (most people do), and as a bass player these opportunities are all too infrequent. The feeling of playing in a small (4-8 member) string or mixed instrument ensemble for me represents an ideal mix between solo playing and ensemble playing. There’s a reason why some of the greatest players of the 20th century have been members of string quartets, brass ensembles, or other small groups. Even if I’m playing an orchestral part and just happen to be the only bass player, I still feel some of that chamber music interaction (though not nearly as much as I’d feel in real chamber music playing), and I really enjoy things moving in that direction.
What I like about being alone on a part
- Having the freedom to change bowings on a whim
- No need to ask permission or explain musical decisions to other members of the section–streamlined communication if the only one on a part
- Being completely responsible for the product of the bass section (this can also be a negative!)
- Feeling like I’m playing chamber music
What I like about being a member of a section
- Section camaraderie
- Feeling that the whole (section) creates a product greater than the sum of its parts (individuals)
- Bass section playing makes me learn more about the art of bass playing–I pick things up from my section mates
- There is an art and craft to being a member of a section, and I love working within this framework–I really like playing in a bass section!
If you’re in music for the long haul, you’re likely to be playing as a section player, section leader, solo instrumentalist functioning as the entire section, and as a chamber musician during different engagements. Though music is music no matter how you cut it, recognizing that there are subtle but recognizable differences between these various roles can help a musician to better understand how he or she can be most effective in any given musical situation.
Thoughts? Feedback? Let me know–Id love to hear other perspectives on this topic!