Ahh, those lovely and divisive double bass issues like standing–fodder for eternal and impassioned debate on both sides of the fence. Deciding whether or not to stand while playing the instrument (or to do both depending on the context) is a pivotal decision for every single bassist, and it is the source of much controversy and confusion.
Honestly, I should have my head examined for even considering tackling this thorny topic. I’m sure that even pointing out these various differences will cause a good deal of heated debate and disagreement (notice that I avoid mentioning the stance I actually use). What on Earth am I thinking? Who knows…but here it goes!
Double Bass – Non-Standardization at its Finest
Double bass is certainly one of the most non-standardized instruments in terms of size, shape, and pedagogical approach. While violins and cellos come in commonly accepted sizes, with specific measurement standards, the double bass family is truly all over the map. The very fact that our “standard” (whatever that word means in the bass world!) double bass size is referred to as a 3/4 size instrument has caused many an educator to throw up their hands in despair, and it only gets worse from there.
With non-standardized instrument sizes, string lengths, and instrument shapes, it’s no wonder that players and teachers have developed such a dizzying array of stances and postures to cope with this large instrument. But with such a bevy of options, what is the poor music educator to do? Throw a dart at a list of options and go with whichever they hit? Ask their local bass teacher (ask two or three teachers, and you’re likely to get two or three completely different responses)? How can students and teachers make an informed decision on such a slippery topic?
Why Stand? Why Sit?
Most bass players are taught to stand from an early age, and only sit on stools after several years on the instrument. Why?
Most professional orchestra players sit on stools, yet most jazz players stand. Why?
For most players, it is a combination of three factors:
- Tradition – what they were taught
- Instrument – how their instrument is shaped
- Context – what kind of playing they do
Interestingly, some double basses just really lend themselves to being played either sitting or standing. Some basses are constructed in such a way that touching the back with the leg (it’s almost impossible to avoid this in any sort of seated position) will mute the instrument quite noticeably. While I have actually seen a bassist with this kind of instrument build a sort of “chin-rest” to put space between his legs and the back (bassists will try anything!), many players with these easily mutable basses simply opt to stand.
Methods of Standing
There are at least a dizen distinct stances commonly used when playing the double bass in a standing position. Each of these methods have their proponents, some of which are convinced that their method is the “only method”, conveniently ignoring the multitude of successful players using an alternate method. As with every aspect of double bass playing, keeping an open mind and being receptive to various approaches allows a player to find the method (or combination of methods) that works best for their approach, size, and instrument.
Common standing stances
Here are a few of the most common approaches to playing the bass in a standing position:
(Fig. 1) Bass rear right corner balanced on hip – This classic stance accommodates a wide variety of double bass shapes and playing angles.
(Fig. 2) Bass balanced on belly – Commonly considered a bad habit, this stance is actually used by quite a number of double bassists. While keeping the instrument stable, this stance puts the player at a somewhat awkward angle for both left and right hand, and E string playing frequently bows into the player’s leg.
(Fig. 3) Bass in front of player but angled – This stance strikes a balance between the classic angled stance (Fig. 1) and the Rabbath stance (Fig. 4). A “turned out” bass stance puts the double bass more in line with the torso but necessitates more reaching in the right arm (highly controversial–see below).
(Fig. 4) “Rabbath” stance – Bass centered in front of player, with left hand parallel to spine and right arm plane parallel to bridge and body. A bent or angled endpin is often used in this stance.
Methods of supporting the lower bout of the bass (standing)
(Fig. 5) Unsupported with leg – This is the most common method of standing with the double bass, regardless of what general standing stance is used. Both feet are in line with the torso, and may be positioned in a wider or narrower stance according to personal preference.
(Fig. 6) Supported by left leg – This stance provides a great deal of stability but throws the feet out of line with the torso. Holding the bass in a more upright position helps to facilitate this stance. This stance contrasts sharply with the “Rabbath” stance shown in Fig. 4. Using a bent endpin in this stance would not be a good idea!
(Fig. 7) Supported by left foot – Used most famously by Ludwig Streicher. I’m doing a rather poor imitation of this technique in this photo (I don’t use this technique!), but it gives you the general idea. Here’s a link a reader pointed out in the comments of a cartoon drawing of Streicher using the foot technique., and here’s a small photo of Streicher I found that shows this technique. Anyone have a better photo of this technique in use?
There are even more variations in seated double bass positions than there are for standing stances! Dozens of factors come into seated bass playing that don’t factor into standing when playing, including:
- stool height (high/low/medium)
- stool rung arrangement (high/low)
- stool design (wooden/metal; padded/hard; drum throne)
- use of foot stool (guitar foot stool, built-in footstool)
- endpin strap (Xeros strap, homemade strap)
- stool angle (flat/angled)
The list goes on and on, making seated postures a more complicated affair than the standing postures described above. Here are a few of the most common methods of sitting when playing the bass. Keep in mind that there are an infinite number of subtle variations within these basic postures, and that stool height, bass shape, and other factors influence one’s chosen posture.
( Fig. 8 ) Seated with pronounced bass angle – This is a classic seated position, with the right leg close to the middle of the lower rib and the left leg elevated (either on a stool rung or on a foot stool). This posture balances bow arm and left arm requirements quite well, and remains a popular method of holding the bass. One must take care not to bow into one’s right leg when in this position, especially when plying German bow!
(Fig. 9) Seated with gentle bass angle (cello style) – This posture has become much more popular in recent years among both orchestra and solo bassists. Players with big upper bouts may find it easier to get into thumb position with this posture, and the alignment of the fingerboard with the vertical axis of the torso facilitates left hand technique for many players. Though this stance keeps the bow arm on a plane more in line with the player’s torso (helping with many bow fundamentals), many bassists find that the extra distance they have to reach in order to play on the G string causes unnecessary left shoulder strain and an uncomfortable torquing of the lower back. Narrower upper bouts often help with this. Players may either use a stool rung or foot stool for their left leg or else keep both feet flat on the floor in this stance.
(Fig. 10) Seated with high endpin – Endpin height is another hot topic among both standing and seated bassists. As mentioned in previous examples, instrument shape and player physiology often play as great a role in determining stance as any pedagogical dogma. In other words, if it works for you and your bass, do it! This posture brings the instrument table onto a more horizontal plane, which may be either advantageous or disadvantageous depending on one’s technical approach. This posture is often called “bazooka” bass playing.
(Fig. 11) Seated with low endpin – As with Fig. 10, this position involves a series of trade-offs, with a close resemblance to a standing posture in terms of instrument angle. Players often find playing in the low positions easier with this arrangement but may have difficulty keeping their bow close enough to the bridge and on a straight plane.
Which is the best stance for you?
Now here’s where I can get into a lot of trouble! Like arguing whether a Mac or PC is better (something that I’m actually doing in another series on this blog!), pointing out advantages of either method (or any of the sub-methods illustrated above) is likely to make fans happy and annoy detractors. I can’t resist putting out a few observations, though, so here it goes….
Advantages of Standing
- more natural posture for right arm
- body doesn’t mute instrument
- more body freedom
- ability to find the exact right position for every register of the bass
- right arm power more readily available
- easier to use large muscle groups when playing (this can be done in seated positions as well–it just takes more initial work)
Disadvantages of Standing
- more difficult to balance instrument
- easy to put a lot of tension on the left hand thumb
- can cause problems with tension (from trying to balance the bass)
- shifting significantly harder at first
- moving between neck and thumb positions more difficult
Advantages of Sitting
- less fatigue (who ant to stand for hours at a time in rehearsal and performance?)
- easier for left hand to navigate bass
- shifting significantly easier
- bridging neck and thumb positions easier
- instrument more stable
Disadvantages of Sitting
- easy to slouch or develop poor posture
- body may mute the instrument
- less available right hand power (certain techniques can negate this tendency)
- upper left bout more likely to interfere with playing
- one becomes addicted to a particular stool and may not be able to play well without it
- one can easily lose the ability to play standing when sitting exclusively (what if you forget your stool?)
- have to carry a stool everywhere (even on flights – yay!)
How do you hold the bass? I wonder how many other instruments have opinions this heated and methods this divergent? Did you start standing and eventually start sitting, or vice-versa? Do you ever switch it up or alternate between these methods? Do you have any other methods of holding the instrument we didn’t cover here (I know there are a lot that I overlooked here!)?
Let me know! I’d love to hear your input. And if you have any photos showing how you hold the bass that you’d like included on the blog, send them along!