The British musician explains how playing the corny pieces of the repertoire gave him an invaluable lesson in finding his own voice
It was quite fortuitous that my first teacher was Uda Demenstein because he lived exactly across the street from us in Hollywood. When I began lessons, at the age of nine, he was ill with a heart condition and I was his only student. Every day after school I would go to his house and we would practise together.
Page by page we went through the Simandl method book, which is still used today. Right from the beginning he wanted a beautiful tone and would say: ‘Your sound was terrible – keep it alive.’ I don’t remember him giving me any tips. I think I came by sound production naturally, maybe because I am the seventh generation bassist in my family. Demenstein never played anything for me he just said: ‘Sing it.’ But that touched a chord. I remember on page 46 of the Simandl there was an exercise in a minor key that I sang and memorised, and can still play today.
More than anything, though, Demenstein taught me to focus. Teachers assume that students know how to practise, but most have no plan of action. All day long while I was at school Demenstein thought about what we were going to do and calculated everything that we had to achieve that day in my lesson. We never wasted a minute. When you have a time constriction you use time more efficiently.
Looking back, I would never use Simandl’s books now and feel that the approach does more harm than good. The method avoids the third finger in the lower positions until the student shifts high and suddenly has to use a weak finger. Simandl also fosters bad intonation: for example in fifth position the method gets you to use second to fourth finger for a half-step leading note (E-F) and the E will always be flat with that fingering because you cannot make the half-step small enough. Also, there is no interval training: it is so important to be aware of the notes that are across on the other strings and not just to play scales up and down. Personally, I begin students on harmonics, which are so easy because you don’t have to be as sensitive with the bow in order to get the mass of the string to vibrate. Harmonics help teach posture, bow speed and getting around the instrument.
I learnt more Simandl from my second teacher, Herman Reinshagen, who was at that time a retired bassist from the New York Philharmonic who was in his 80s and living in Los Angeles. He only talked in my lessons. There was a card table between us and he would smoke cigars and talk for 45 minutes and I would listen. Finally, for the last 15 minutes I played. There wasn’t much literature for the double bass and over the previous 55 years he had made hundreds of arrangements, mostly schlock – like pieces by Geissel and Manny. And if those weren’t bad enough he would give me corny ditties he had transcribed from other instruments. But for that I am grateful because it taught me how to take bad music and make it creative, as if it was the most important piece I ever played. When I finally played a masterwork I could understand what the composer wanted because I had experience in making bad music sound good.
In 1961, at the age of 19, I went to Chicago for my first solo engagement and spent a semester working with Warren Benfield at Northwestern University. We played lots of orchestral excerpts and he worked with me on ear training and solfège, which allowed me to learn music away from the instrument. This is a great time saver. If you make a mistake in front of the music stand it becomes incorporated into the interpretation and you have to work longer to undo the error. Many string players make the assumption that string fingering is the same as on a keyboard and that you just have to put your finger down on the right note; in fact, the notes have to be in your head already before you play.
I learnt a great deal from teachers such as Stuart Sankey at the Juilliard School, who encouraged my crazy fingerings, and cellists Gabor Rejto and Leonard Rose, but my true inspiration came from watching old Heifetz films. From him I discovered how to use a slow bow near the bridge, even in fast passages, and never to press. He taught me to use arm weight to slow the bow rather than muscle power. As a result my intonation and tone improved so I could play with loose fingers, little rosin and slow bow speed.
Interview by Laurinel Owen