Many students have had poor training before they come to college: perhaps they learnt with someone who doesn’t play the bass, or they taught themselves. I spent years teaching myself, and a lot of bad habits had formed before I found myself a good teacher.
The concept of teaching half an instrument for three, four or five years before allowing a student to graduate to the rest of it doesn’t make sense. Many students become total experts at the low positions because that is what their teachers cover first. One student’s mother told me, before his first lesson, ‘He can play up to about fourth position.’ I told her that if he studied with me he had to do the whole thing at once. We started with three-octave scales. It’s just as easy to learn the whole range of the double bass at once. In fact a very good place to start teaching hand position with younger people is in the middle of the instrument, because there isn’t as much of a gap between the intervals so it’s easier for smaller hands. When I talk about hand position with younger players, I often start with the first finger on the 4th or 5th above the open string. There are lots of melodic exercises they can do in those positions. Later on, a knowledge of all the dark areas where nobody ever goes is very important on the bass – it can make the things we play twice as easy. Why not have a technique where you can play a Mozart violin concerto or a cello sonata? To learn that is very interesting.
The adjustment of the instrument is important too. I can remember when I first started I was struggling to play this thing – the strings were a mile off the fingerboard. The people who sold it to me just took it out of a box and stuck the bridge on without adjusting it properly, and King Kong couldn't have pushed the strings down. If the instrument isn’t set up properly, you’ll end up with the worst playing position you can possibly find.
Photo: Tudor Photography
Tom Martin writes more extensively on Double Bass technique in the May 2014 issue of The Strad, out now.