I got a chance to check out a recent recital (April 24, 2009, University of Chicago) featuring double bassist Edgar Meyer, one of my favorite artists on any instrument (not just the bass), and someone who has profoundly shaped my conception of what is possible on the instrument. I vividly recall popping in my very first Meyer CD and listening to The Great Green Sea Snake, knowing that I was listening to something utterly different than anything I’d ever heard before. I blew through several sets of batteries back on my CD Walkman, listening to each track over and over again during my spare moments, memorizing every slide, every pluck, and every turn of phrase on that disc. My cabinet of dusty old videotapes has several segments from shows like CBS Sunday Morning featuring Edgar, and I’d watch them over and over at home, these tapes serving as surrogate for the real deal. Though I grew up in South Dakota, a relatively musically isolated area of the country (at least compared to Chicago or New York City!), I felt like I’d come to know and understand great artists like Edgar as surely as if I’d seen them live.
Over the years, I’ve had a chance to both see Edgar live and work with him at the IRIS Orchestra of Memphis, Tennessee; in fact, our orchestra commissioned Edgar’s Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass a few years ago, right after he’d been awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant for his creative compositional and performance work.
Over the years, I have enjoyed taking a deeper look at an artist’s approach to the instrument–this is exactly what I do each week in audio form on Contrabass Conversations. Nevertheless, I have, from time to time, also tried to articulate in words what I have come to understand about the way a great artist approaches their craft. I’ve done this with artists like Lawrence Wolfe, Ed Barker, Francois Rabbath, Tim Cobb, and Joe Guastafeste in the past.
I want to draw a distinction between what I do on Contrabass Conversations, where I hear from the artists themselves about how they approach their craft, and what I do from time to time here on the blog, which is to articulate my own observations about a performer’s craft. In other words, these are my own thoughts about how Edgar approaches the instrument, and they may or may not come close to Edgar’s conceptions. Basically, I’m theorizing and trying to take away valuable lessons from Edgar’s approach, in a fashion that will be helpful to my own students and to my own playing. I may be spouting bunk, or I may be close to the mark, but this is what I have come to understand about Edgar’s approach based on my own perceptions.
The Art of the Soft Touch
The way Edgar plays the bass is fundamentally different from the way in which I learned to play the bass, and I suspect that it is also fairly different than what you, the reader, learned as well. I suspect that younger players reading this may be feeling the indirect effects of Edgar’s approach as more and more bass teachers absorb Edgar’s recordings and live performances and incorporate his musical philosophy into their own approach. Regardless, it is safe to assume that the majority of bassists approach the bass with a more “into the string” approach than Edgar.
Edgar’s tone production is one of effervescence and lightness of body. The way he spins the string with the bow creates sound remarkably different from a “standard” (not tat this word means much in the bass world) double bass approach, and while he certainly plays with a wide tonal palette, increasing his volume or accenting notes, his default sound is substantially softer than your typical bassist. Edgar’s forte is probably closer to mezzo-forte (or even mezzo-piano, depending on how you play the bass), and while he certainly can play with a beefy, “into-the-string” sound, he typically leans toward the lighter side of things.
In contemporary youth vocal pedagogy, children are taught to sing with a light sound, focusing on comfort with the head voice and avoiding imitations of adult chest voice singing. Children who are taught to belt out, Broadway-style, often develop vocal nodules and other signs of vocal damage. While a comparison between Edgar and childlike song may seem ridiculous at first, I can’t help but see bass teacher (myself included) teaching people, from an early age, to belt out, Little Orphan Annie-style, with a heavy, “stringy” sound and a wide vibrato.
Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m an open-minded guy, but I cannot hear Edgar’s sound and approach applied to, say, Ein Heldenleben. On the other hand, maybe Edgar would play that music with a different sound than what he uses on Bach, Schubert, Haydn, and his own compositions. This is quite likely, in fact; Edgar uses a wide tonal palette within his own compositions and his interpretations of standard repertoire, and were he to play Strauss, he may very well use a “throatier” sound with a wider vibrato.
Regardless, I’ve got a “hefty” sound, with a vide vibrato and a heavy bow arm, burned into my DNA. That’s the way I approach bass, and though I absolutely love Edgar’s playing and am completely mesmerized by it whenever I hear him play, my own conception of sound remains markedly different. Maybe that’s why I’m here writing on this laptop while Edgar’s out engrossing the world with his captivating playing!
Doing More With Less
Bass players traditionally (in my opinion, at least) make mountains out of musical molehills. Let me explain: since our instrument has traditionally lagged behind the other stringed instruments technically, when we do acquire vibrato and learn about portato, phrasing, and the subtler aspects of tone production, we use them to excess–like a child who loves sugar and proceeds to dump it on everything, including spaghetti, creamed corn, and chocolate chip cookies. As we become adults (both literal and figurative) learn about moderation, but many bass performers and pedagogues seem to remain in a state of arrested adolescence musically. If we can vibrate, we do vibrate; if we can play close to the bridge, we do play close to the bridge; if we can slide, we do slide; if we can crescendo, we do crescendo. Even if the music doesn’t call for it.
Vibrato is a prime example of how Edgar does more with less. By traditional double bass standards, Edgar uses very little vibrato. He often doesn’t use any at all in his own compositions or in his bluegrass playing, and even in the classical repertoire he tends to use a narrow vibrato in a somewhat sparing fashion. Now, he certainly can play with a wide vibrato, and he will use this technique from time to time, but it is more of a “special effect” in his playing rather than a stock tool of the trade as with many bassists.
But listen closely to Edgar’s vibrato, and then listen to how some of the great string players of the past have used vibrato. It is more sparing than some, certainly, but it it really that different from the vibrato of many of the master violinists of the past? Could it be that we bass players have just leaned too far in the other direction, producing a “washing machine” vibrato that, while it may feel good to do or sound good to our acculturated ears, may actually be more of a deviation from standard string expressionism than Edgar’s? I don’t know, but it certainly bears some thought.
A Nontraditional Conception of Bow Technique
Edgar’s use of the bow doesn’t resemble that of most bass players, but it is quite different from violin, viola, or cello bow technique as well. Is it truly nontraditional, or is it just a different concept from standard “classical” string technique, however? Edgar’s goal n bowing (and I’ve chatted with him personally about this when he was playing with IRIS i Memphis) is to not leave the string. He doesn’t play off the string. He just doesn’t. He even mentioned to me that what he looks for in a bow is the opposite of what an orchestra player would typically look for; his bow (which, incidentally, is the same bow he’s played on for most of his life, and not what most would consider a “good stick” from a traditional perspective) is parallel between bow hair and stick, and the combination of the extremely tight hair and stick keeps that bow right on the string. Despite not using off-the-string strokes, Edgar can play short, long, or anything in between. While this approach may be unorthodox, it works fabulously for him. I for one would sacrifice any off-the-string strokes I do 100 times over to be able to play like him!
Is there a “Meyer School” of Bass Playing?
To me, Edgar’s approach to the instrument, while not set down on paper like that of Rabbath, Simandl, Petracchi, or numerous other pedagogues, has a consistent set of techniques of which a deeper analysis may yield valuable lessons. It’s always a bit dangerous to dissect a musical genius (which is what Edgar is to me), and I urge the reader to keep in my that this is my interpretation of Edgar’s playing. My analysis is fallible, and you may take away different conclusions from his playing, so think of this as food for thought and an invitation to come to your own conclusions about this wonderful musician’s approach to the instrument.
Though I’ll bet many readers disagree with this assertion, I believe that there are no absolutes in double bass playing. To me, any method that demands absolute adherence to a particular fingering system or bow approach is inherently flawed.
What, exactly, am I saying? I’m saying that any technique that say you must never use third finger below the octave harmonic or fourth finger above it, that prohibits the use use of the thumb below the octave harmonic, that forbids an equidistant four finger approach at times, or that either requires or denies pivoting denies the developing double bassist a valuable set of options for navigating their instrument (whew! this “bass philosophy” stuff gets heavy–feel free to take a break with some cat videos). With a string length that varies between 38 and 46 inches (or even more), a wide variety of instrument shapes, and an equally wide variety of stances and postures, it is, to me, only natural that we adopt a similarly wide set of fingering approaches to accommodate the needs of different players in different musical contexts on different types of double basses.
This open-minded approach may seem to be a logical and obvious approach to bass technique, but you’d be amazed at how wedded many (perhaps even most) bass teachers are to the notions I listed above. A strictly Simandl approach to the instrument would prohibit certain techniques that a Rabbath approach would require; the same is true for a Petracchi approach to the instrument.
Though I know that there are many other approaches to the double bass besides the three I listed above, I’d like to take a moment and look at how Edgar plays through the lens of these three (Rabbath, Simandl, and Petracchi) perspectives:
Contrasts between Meyer and Rabbath
Interestingly, Edgar’s playing is probably more dissimilar from Rabbath’s playing from a technical standpoint than from either Petracchi or from a Simandl perspective. Now, both Rabbath and Meyer are contemporary masters of the instrument, but the musical arenas in which they work, the collaborations they do with other artists, the repertoire they perform, and the way they approach the instrument technically are quite different.
Rabbath’s approach to the double bass (which you can learn more about on our audio interview with Rabbath from 2007) actually has many “Simandl-esque” elements to it. He keeps the traditional notion that the double bassist’s left hand should span a whole-step, with a half-step between the first and second fingers and another half-step between the second and fourth fingers. Rabbath then takes that position and expands it by introducing the use of the pivot, dividing the double bass into six separate positions (International Society of Bassists president Hans Sturm did a video for the blog explaining Rabbath’s concept of positions in 2007). Rabbath does not, however, advocate the use of the third finger or the thumb below thumb position, using a 1-2-4 fingering approach through pivots to cover more surface area of the string per position.
If Edgar uses pivots at all, his usage is quite subtle; he moves across the bass organically, generally in thumb position even in lower areas of the bass (depending on context), and with a more equidistant fingering approach, utilizing the third finger just as much as any other finger in the middle register of the instrument.
Edgar seems to ground his positions around the placement of the thumb, which is not dogmatic (always on a particular harmonic) but flexible, sometimes based (thinking on the G string) on the Eb, then shifting to the F, then the Bb, then the A… In Edgar’s hands, this approach is extremely elegant and sophisticated, though I would be interested if he would advocate it as a specific technique. I’d imagine that Edgar’s approach, while ensuring that he’s in the exact place on the bass that he want to be for a particular passage, would be a more challenging technique to learn than Rabbath’s clear-cut (if seemingly unusual upon first encounter) six position system. In other words, Rabbath’s system was set up as a particular approach, with clearly teachable rules. Anyone who’s seen Rabbath in performance knows that, even though this fingering approach seems more position-grounded than Meyer’s aproach, in practice Rabbath is incredibly fluid on the instrument, and the two players both display a similar elegance to fingering solutions.
There are, or course, a huge number of differences beyond a left-hand approach–stance, endpin style, flexibility and bow angle in the right arm, bow stroke palettes, and stance are but a few that spring to mind. In the interest of brevity (though brevity is probably a lost cause at this point!), I’ll keep this analysis to fingering differences only, but there are a whole host of notable differences between these two players in particular outside of fingering.
Contrasts between Meyer and Simandl
Edgar’s father was also a bassist, and I’d imagine that Edgar approached the bass from a Simandl perspective in his early years. Still, watching Edgar perform can’t help but make a person wonder just how necessary those Simandl “rules” are anyway. As in the above description of how Edgar deviates from Rabbath’s approach, he also deviates from the traditional 1-2-4 low position mandate and also approaches the middle register quite frequently in a low thumb position rather than with the thumb on the back of the neck.
I was taught to use the thumb in low positions during my schooling, and I don’t bat an eye at putting the thumb on a C or D on the G string, a technique that Edgar does frequently. It therefore surprises me when I realize how many people raise their eyebrows and “tsk” disapprovingly at the notion of low thumb position. This is a technique that is not taught from a strict Simandl perspective, and it’s one of the biggest differences between Edgar’s approach and this traditional style.
Another difference–subtle but present–is Edgar’s conception of the thumb as the foundational note for a position. Again, this is speculation on my part, but I believe that Edgar thinks of the thumb as an equal player amongst his other fingers. Most Simandl players use the thumb more like a guitar capo, using the first, second and third fingers up high just like they used the first, second, and fourth fingers in the lower positions, with the thumb being reserved for “emergency” situations. In Edgar’s approach, the thumb plays a lot of notes and is almost always down behind the other fingers on the string, not tucked into the hand as advocated by some other techniques.
Edgar also doesn’t significantly alter his left hand approach for vibrato as many bassists do–even though I’ve heard him talk about using two fingers at the same time for vibrato, in practice he is incredibly restrained in left hand distortion for vibrato. Looking at a video of Edgar’s left hand when vibrating and the left hand of most other bassists would likely reveal considerably more position distortion during the vibrato motion than evidenced in Edgar’s technique.
Contrasts between Meyer and Petracchi
Edgar’s left hand approach most closely resembles that advocated by Petracchi, a bass pedagogue who I particularly admire for his organized approach to the left hand. Unlike Simandl technique or Rabbath technique, Petracchi’s technique involves copious use of the thumb in lower position playing; in fact, much of his book Simplified Higher Technique is devoted to this approach. I do note a couple of key differences between Edgar’s approach and Petracchi’s approach, though in general these two approaches are quite similar, and anyone interested in developing a left hand approach closer to Edgar’s is advised to check out Petracchi’s wonderful text Simplified Higher Technique.
Though similar in practice to the ideas advocated by Petracchi, Edgar’s playing deviates in one significant way from the teachings of Petracchi (again, remember that this is speculation on my part based on observations of Edgar–he may or may not agree with this). Petracchi sets forth a system of fingering where each finger is either down on or hovering over a specific notes on the instrument–an approach that I love–and that there are specific chromatic, semi chromatic, and diatonic finger configurations through which a player navigates the instrument. I don’t see Edgar remaining in these specific positions like Petracchi advocates; his approach to fingering is (like I’ve mentioned several times regarding various aspects of his technique) more fluid.