Northwestern University bass professor Peter Lloyd hosted the third in his series of master classes with world-class double bassists this past Saturday (10/4/08) with Lawrence Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe is Assistant Principal Bass of the Boston Symphony and Principal Bass of the Boston Pops, and he teaches bass at several of Boston’s prominent academic institutions, including the New England Conservatory.
Peter Lloyd is really building something special at Northwestern. The caliber of students from Peter’s studio performing for this class was incredibly high, a testament to the success Peter has had in developing a studio on par with any major double bass school in the United States. While Northwestern has a long tradition of producing fine bass players under the tutelage of teachers like Warren Benfield, Jeff Bradetich, Michael Hovnanian, Greg Sarchet, and DaXun Zhang, Peter’s unique blend of experience as a former member of the Minnesota Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, combined with his extensive chamber music and soloist experience has propeled Northwestern back into the ranks of institutions like Rice University, the Curtis Institute, and Indiana University for serious study of the double bass.
As a graduate of Northwestern (BM ’98, MM ’00), it’s exciting to see this kind of vibrancy in the bass program. I had a wonderful experience for both degrees during my studies with Chicago Symphony bassist Michael Hovnanian (a really fantastic teacher), and I have really enjoyed featuring former Northwestern faculty members DaXun Zhang and Greg Sarchet on the Contrabass Conversations podcast.
Previous Master Class Summaries:
The following points stuck out at me as I watched Mr. Wolfe’s class. Again, these are my interpretations of what I was watching and may not be exactly what Mr. Wolfe was trying to convey:
1.The “Boston Sound” – Before getting going with the class, Mr. Wolfe demonstrated some articulations that the Boston bass section (and Boston strings in general) is famous for doing. Mr. Wolfe contrasted the longer, broader bow strokes of the Philadelphia Orchestra with the shorter, more clipped bow strokes of the Boston Symphony. He played both the trio of Beethoven 5 and the 6/8 fugue section of the last movement of Beethoven 9, demonstrating how a player in Boston would play it (shorter) and how a player in Philadelphia would play it (longer).
These differences have to do with the variables of the halls in which they perform–Philadelphia’s hall is very dry, while Boston’s hall is very reverberant. Thus, the two approaches end up producing a similar effect for their respective audiences.
Mr. Wolfe approaches a spiccato excerpt like the trio of Beethoven 5 in the following manner:
A. Find the “sweet spot” in the bow
B Start from the string
C. Use a very small amount of bow
D. The lift/bounce is a result of the above factors
Mr. Wolfe stressed that other members of the Boston Symphony bass section have their own technical interpretation of this stroke (from above the string rather than from the string, etc.)
2. “Snappy” shifts – Snappy may be a bad word to use to describe this–by snappy I don’t mean jerky! Mr. Wolfe emphasized listening for the sound of your fingers moving along the windings of the string as you shift. This actually creates a much more confident and clean shift.
3. Close the note before playing it – Notes need a clear beginning regardless of articulation or dynamic. Make sure that the string is depressed all the way into the wood of the fingerboard before playing it. This us true for fast as well as slow passages, and while it may seem like an obvious point, if given proper attention it is actually a remarkable way to clean up passages.
4. Hear the left hand mechanics – A good left hand technique generally results in audible left hand string closings. If you can’t hear the mechanics of the left hand, you might not be playing with enough distinct finger articulation.
5. Fingers can only move up and down – This seemingly simple observation is actually quite profound. The fingers on the left hand can, on their own, only move up and down, not side to side. Like some sort of piece of construction machinery (an analogy Mr. Wolfe used), the arm is the mechanism that moves the fingers to the new spot on the bass. Rather than reaching for notes while the arm remains stationary, the onus is on the arm as the traveling mechanism.
6. Start notes with clarity – This applies to legato as well as staccato playing and ties in with point #3. Notes must have a defined beginning regardless of how they are articulated.
A new note is generated by one of the following procedures:
A. Bow change
B. Finger change
D. String crossing
Each of these methods requires a defined new beginning to each note. Fuzzy or messy playing is often a lack of adherence to this technical point.
7. You can’t hold and play the bass at the same time – Don’t support the weight of the bass with the left hand. You need that hand free for shifting, fingering, and simply getting around the instrument. Use balance, your left leg (depending on your stance), the neck against your collarbone in thumb position, and possibly a bent or angled endpin to keep the task of holding the bass away from your left hand.
8. Generate fast 16ths with one impulse – Again, this is an oversimplification of what Mr. Wolfe was describing, but he got into using the first of four 16th notes as an opportunity to resynchronize your playing.
9. Don’t anchor the left forearm on the upper bout – This common habit makes it difficult to vibrate and limits motion in general. Use the collarbone and left shoulder against the bass neck to support it in thumb position, not the left forearm.
Master classes are fantastic learning experiences that are quite difficult to recreate in words. I think that summarizing this kind of event is valuable, but keep in mind that this is my interpretation of what Mr. Wolfe was conveying and seen through my own personal bass playing filter. To learn more about this great artist, visit him online at lawrencewolfe.com.