When a bassist would play as a substitute player in the Columbus Symphony, Principal Bass Mark Morton would give the player this sheet of tips for playing effectively in this orchestra’s bass section. I find this list of tips very interesting; it’s the exact sort of thing that section members talk about amongst themselves but rarely crystallize into an actual document, and though this is a list put together for a specific orchestra and designed to compensate for the tendencies of a specific hall, I think that a lot can be learned about section playing in general from perusing these suggestions. These are the sorts of details that members of an instrumental section think about in a professional orchestra, and students reading through these tips may want to think about incorporating some of these concepts into their own school orchestra bass (or other instrumental) section.
Mark is now a member of the faculty of Texas Tech University, and he will be an interview guest on an upcoming episode of Contrabass Conversations! Mark is also the author of several publications, including Double Bass Concepts and Ideas, Dr. Morton’s Torturous Exercises for Double Bass, and Scales and Arpeggios, all of which can be purchased through Basso Profundo Publications.
Playing in the Bass Section of the Columbus Symphony
by Mark Morton
Playing Ahead or Behind the Beat
1. When playing with the bow, play ahead of the beat. The faster and/or the louder the music, the further ahead we must play. Listen to the orchestra in the Ohio theater, and you will be shocked at how behind the basses are. Soft chords played by the whole orchestra should start with the basses.
2. When playing pizzicato, play behind the beat (and always with vibrato).
3. Play with a wide range of dynamics: fortissimo is extremely loud, pianissimo is extremely soft (including pizzicato). Go out into the Ohio Theater, and you will be shocked at how inaudible the basses are when the orchestra is playing even just moderately loud. It is almost impossible for the basses to be too loud or too ahead in forte dynamics.
4. As you get lower, get louder.
5. Sforzandos should be very strong without being violent. They should really jump out of the dynamic texture. “Regular” accents should be audible as well.
6. When playing in octaves with the cellos, our octave should be the predominant note.
7. If the cello part splits off from the bass part, we must play louder still to keep the bass line at the same dynamic level (whether playing arco or pizzicato).
8. We need a wide palette of off-the-string strokes: from a brush stroke that stays considerably in the string, to extremely off-the-string where the bow bounces very quickly into and out of the string. However, due to the acoustics of the Ohio Theater, we generally need to play in the very off-the-string range. To match the sound and articulation of the other string sections, we must play with a shorter stroke than the other strings.
9. As you get lower, get shorter (more off-the-string). (With item #4, we need to play shorter and louder.)
10. When playing sustained repeated notes on the same pitch, put a surprisingly large gap of silence between each note and lightly accent the attack of the new note. Otherwise, it will sound like one long note.
To summarize these first ten items, we generally need to play ahead, loud, and short.
11. In addition to looking to the principal bass for cues, bow strokes, and note lengths, also look to the principal cello and the concertmaster. The concertmaster is particularly helpful for placing pizzicatos that are played by the entire string section.
12. When accompcomianying a concerto, listen extremely carefully to the soloist for ensemble and dynamics.
13. In general, the basses use the same bowings as the cellos, and presumably, the first violins. If you are unsure about the bowings, it may be easier fro you to see the principal cello or the concertmaster than the principal bass. It is likely that their bowing is the bowing that the basses will use.
14. I always try to write the bowing changes into all the parts at the next break. However, if you do see a bowing change, writing them in yourself is always appreciated!
Copyright 1999 by Mark Alison Morton