The following excerpts are from an upcoming book by double bassist and educator Peter Tambroni. Peter has written an excellent double bass method book titled An Introduction to String Playing, and he has been a guest on Contrabass Conversations as well. In addition to a career as an active double bass performer and teacher, Peter is a middle school orchestra director in the Chicago area, and he offers up the following observations about considerations when teaching beginner students.
Considerations When Teaching Beginners
Sit or Stand?
If sitting, do you put both feet on the floor (similar to cello) or left foot up and right foot on the floor? I have cut my stool so I can put both feet on the ground. This does mean that I don’t extend my endpin at all. However, with both feet on the floor, I feel very centered and balanced as well as having good posture since my hips and spine are better aligned, as my pelvis is not tilted.
How high or low should the stool be? One system is to measure the inseam and subtract 2 inches (This is from Dr. Kathleen Horvath, professor at Case Western Reserve / Cleveland Institute). Many players are using shorter stools now to be able to place both feet flat on the floor.
If standing, where should the bass be and how will it be balanced?
Regardless of sitting or standing:
- The player’s left hand should be free (and relaxed) to shift and later use vibrato
- The player should have good posture and back / shoulder / neck position
- Left hand should be free to shift
- The bass should be and feel balanced
- Stand or sit up straight (keep back straight but not rigid or locked)
French or German bow?
Most students begin their studies with whatever style of bow their teacher uses. This is fine. Some people think that the student should be given the choice. However, I’m not sure if the student can make a truly informed decision. There was a great article on choosing a bow in American String Teacher by Dan Swaim. He talks about the length of the students arm impacting bow choice, among other factors. He recommended French style for shorter arms and German for longer arms.
French is easier to teach in a classroom setting because in the public schools because classes are often mixed and basses often get put with cellos. So this saves the educator time. Also many string teachers are not bassists (one reason for this publication) and therefore only know French since this is what the other string instruments use, albeit with slight variations.When I began playing the bass in high school I was taught with a French bow. I wasn’t even told there was a German bow and didn’t see one until college. I played French bow up until my late twenties and then started learning the German style. Since then I’ve completely switched to German and never looked back.
French tends to be easier to do a spiccato bowing, and for general flexibility. With the German bow, it is very easy to a large sound right away. Endurance is also easier with the German. This is not to say that certain things are not possible with each bow. Both styles can do everything; it’s just some tendencies of each bow. There have been great players who play both styles of bow. ?However, do some research first – my recent teacher (Greg Sarchet of the Lyric Opera) has a hold that is slightly different than most method books. Rather than putting the frog in the crotch of the hand by the frog, rest it at the thick skin at the bass of the fingers. This way it is an extension of the arm and hand. Great flexibility will result.
Tone is easier to produce with the German bow. I find that almost everything is easier with German – keeping the bow straight, accents, etc. and even teaching it to young students is easier! The only issue I had was keeping the stick from bouncing near the tip, but with practice this can easily be overcame.
So, French or German bow? Let the student’s arm and hand (NOT THE STUDENT) decide. Let them try both. Perhaps even teach them both. Rather than force a decision, let a decision emerge as to which style the student should play. My experience has been that German works better for about 70% of students. But I would be doing a disservice to that other 30% if I didn’t let them try French.
Simandl, Bille, Rabbath, Nanny, Karr, All for Strings, Essential Elements, Strictly Strings, String Explorer, Artistry in Strings, books by Thomas Gale. The list goes on and on.
Your choice in methods will be influenced by the situation. Heterogeneous school classes will most likely necessitate a group method such as Essential Elements. Homogeneous school groups will allow for a little more flexibility where I recommend using both Essential Elements and Thomas Gale’s Practical Studies for the Double Bass. A private studio situation allows for the most flexibility.
For individual instruction I recommend a balanced diet of scale studies such as Schwabe or Flesch, Simandl, and Thomas Gale’s Practical Studies (and his other books) as well as excerpt studies in the Zimmerman series of excerpt books. Studies for the bow arm are essential and I recommend using a transcription of Sevcik (the Tarlton edition is best), as well as Zimmerman’s A Contemporary Concept of Bowing Technique.