Technique: Phrasing musically under pressure

Edwin_Barker cr Marco Borggreve

Double bassist Edwin Barker shares exercises in repetition and variation to ensure maximum musical security on stage

Many conservatoire-level students have a strong technique. Fewer have the analytical skills and discipline necessary to help them improve their technical approach to musical phrasing. Every time we develop a technical process it’s as if we are creating a new pathway in our brain, or making grooves in a soft clay ball. We can deepen and widen each groove through repetitive and varied practice, which helps us build the muscle memory and security that we need to phrase and articulate music beautifully, even in high-pressure situations on stage. This aids us in our ultimate goal to develop the craft of music making.


To begin, we must decide on the shape of a phrase. We should control the inflection of every note that we play, just as we use our voice to shape words to fit the meaning of a sentence. It is vital to play with good diction, using the bow strokes outlined in figure 1. Here the sounds that begin with black blocks have consonant-like articulations, as though they begin with a p, k, b and so on; those without are more like vowels. The thick strings of the double bass take time to react, so to create a consonant sound we have to grab the string with the bow, pull it to the side and release it again, like a bow and arrow. A vowel attack can be less pronounced.

  • Choosing one articulation style, play eight bow strokes for each note of a scale. The bow strokes should be played with equal weight but with a slight accent on the first note of each grouping
  • Reduce the number of strokes per note to six
  • Further reduce the number of strokes per note to five, four, three, two and finally one. As you get faster, this will help you to align your left and right hands for each bow change

You can use combinations of these strokes to bring out syntax, movement, tension and release in any musical passage…

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