My TeachingWhat can someone who studies with me expect? While I realise that it's not possible to explain or to clarify everything from the outset, I would still like to give (potential) students or any other interested party an idea as to what a student in my class can expect.
Most often it is already much too late to talk about whether a student is ideally suited to playing the double bass. By the time they come to me, students often have already invested much time, energy and money into learning to play the instrument of their choice. If such a student has received a good basic education on his/her instrument, making the attainment of his/her goals realistic (see below), then I think that he/she should be given the chance to pursue his/her studies.
Given the opportunity to advise a young person before they embark on the course of learning the double bass, I would certainly say that physical characteristics should be considered, just as different physical attributes can be advantageous or disadvantageous for different sports. I definitely think that while persons with a slight stature and small hands with slim fingers can and do play the double bass, a stronger-built person with broad, strong fingers will have a much easier time of it and will probably, in the long term, be much less prone to injuries from playing the double bass.
There can be no doubts nowadays that musicality is just as much a prerequisite for learning the double bass as it is for learning to play any other musical instrument.
The question as to when one should start is already much more difficult to answer. In my experience, starting to learn another (ideally a string) instrument as early as possible is always advantageous, but I think that teaching elementary school children to play on a quarter- eighth- or even smaller double bass doesn't really bring much. I realise that I may be rushing headlong into a big controversy with this statement but the fact is that I have never seen a 15 year old prodigy who started playing the double bass when he was 6 years old!
The "right time" to change to the double bass then, should be when it becomes possible to play on a more or less normal sized instrument; this has the added advantage that a 12 to 15 year old is more likely to make his/her own decision with regards to the choice of instrument thus adding to the his/her commitment to it, whereas a young person of that age who has been plugging away on a bad miniature bass fiddle for years is often more likely to be ready to give up by that time!
Learning with me is always tedious at the beginning, for myself just as much as for the student! I am absolutely convinced that the key to good intonation and technique, as well as to a big and flexible tone quality, resides in acquiring an ideal posture with the instrument and that this can only be done through painstaking work and attention to detail from the beginning. This good posture also allows for maximal efficiency and optimal use of strength... and strength is definitely called for when playing double bass!
The fingers of the left hand must find their exact place on each individual string within any given position moving across the strings along imaginary frets, something which is much more difficult to do on the double bass than with other string instruments because of the bigger distance between the strings, especially in the higher positions. Then of course, the ear must be trained to hear exactly (most people are quite surprised to learn just what "exact" means!).
The bow has to move across the strings at an exact 90° angle and the contact point must also be clearly defined. This might not seem so important in the lower positions because the length of the strings tolerate a little variation but any imprecision then comes back to haunt you when you move on to the higher positions. Hence, the feeling for the "right" contact point for the bow and a clean, clear sound needs to be worked on from the very beginning!
After the first Hurdles: The Repertoire
When a student and I both think that he/she has the basics under control, the emphasis of the lessons turns gradually to the double bass repertoire. I try to cover as wide a repertoire as possible from the baroque, to the classic and romantic and to contemporary music whereby I give preference to original compositions whenever possible. Transcriptions are almost always necessary, especially at the beginning where we simply must rely on the baroque and even the classic cello literature. Even so, it remains necessary to take historical playing traditions into consideration. I think it is very important to find just the right balance between the knowledge of how it was in the past and a clear understanding of the times we live in (including modern-day instruments).
Transcriptions of major cello (and other) concert literature should really be kept for the very end of the studies or even for post-graduate studies. They definitely need not become a part of the standard double bass study program.
As a young student gains in experience and maturity, I become more tolerant of their bringing in their own ideas concerning technical details such as fingerings and bowings or even musical interpretations. At the beginning of their studies, I don't accept a lot of contradiction but later on, I find a working relationship in which we discuss things like colleagues and come to a mutual agreement quite appropriate.
From the very beginning, I think that the orchestra literature is as important as the solo repertoire for the students. Important excerpts from the major operas and symphonies, especially the known "audition parts" should form an integral part of their training during their entire study.
Of course, at least theoretically, the goal of any studies program is to complete it; in occurrence, to acquire a diploma as "Magister/Magistra Artium" at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna after having passed all required examinations and written a research paper. However for me, the overriding goal for the students in my class is to get a position in an orchestra, whereby in a broader sense I would also include other alternatives such as a position in a smaller chamber music formation or a position as a teacher.
This goal dictates the very high level I set for myself and my students: When they graduate from my class, they should have a realistic chance of winning an audition or of acquiring a position where they can earn their living as double bass players.
Translation by Carole Talbot-Honeck