Beginning an instrument is, contrary to what it may seem, not much like setting foot on a path. The steep, arduous path analogy may have a reassuring sensibility, but actually, beginning an instrument is much more like being airdropped into a wilderness. You take off in one direction, encounter obstacles, slow down from lack of information, start over when inefficient habits have formed, backtrack, and add detail to your mental map of the terrain. As you become familiar, eventually things start to look more like a path.
You may or may not already have a bass - what to buy? How much to invest? French or German bow? Can you learn technique from youtube? Books? Where to find reliable information? Here is our page on the "BASSICS", to get familiar with what a bass is, to start.
My best advice in these areas would be to start from the top. That's right - skip the Yugo and go right for the Bentley - in quality of information and workmanship. Who's going to live long enough to become the best musician he wants to be? So, why waste time trudging your way up through the ranks of crummy gear and blind-leading-the-blind instruction? Let's make a bullet list:
- Your bass. Have you ever owned one before? If not - get your hands on one before you buy. Find the best player you know and ask questions. Ask for him to let you hold and try the bass, and ask him to show you what he likes about this particular bass and what to look for. Borrow or rent a bass for a period of time before making a first purchase decision. Why? You'll benefit from learning enough to develop some discernment and preferences.
- What are the notes? For a fast track to navigating the fingerboard, consider a well-designed electric upright (some of the cheap ones are awkward to hold in playing position and wouldn't help much). I actually have found an electric upright to be very handy in learning the map of the fingerboard and in learning to play in tune. Quantum Bass Center stocks the high-quality NS Design electric uprights. It's a personal opinion, but since electric upright basses are relatively inexpensive and have minimal setup issues as well as lots of fingerboard position markers (dots), they might be a good first bass or transition from bass guitar, especially for those who are not playing with a bow.
- To mail-order or not to mail-order? Naturally, you've seen countless tempting online deals that make it seem like every brick-and-mortar store is overpriced. And, you'll have heard a lot of opposing opinions from brick-and-mortar store owners. Who's right? What about the array of brand names? I recommend your first purchase be a used instrument purchased from a real person. As time goes on, you will get to know the shops that are reputable and what online retailers are actually drop-shippers. It is USUALLY true that the cost of an entry-level bass, properly set up, from a knowledgeable dealer is little if any more than the cost of a mail-order bass plus the setup work and strings that will inevitably be needed, even if the sight-unseen instrument is said to be "shop adjusted". However, some shops simply charge a lot and some don't do good work - most put their own labels in instruments, and you will find the identical instrument sold at different prices under different labels. As an absolute beginner, you'll be less likely to be taken advantage of by purchasing a used instrument from someone you know.
- Your instrument dealer: the cheapest bass in the best shop will be better set up and serve you better in the long run than the best bass from an uninformed dealer. You are also more likely to get a better discount on an inexpensive bass from a knowledgeable bass shop (to whom the inexpensive bass is not worth much) than a more general string shop or music retailer who knows little about double bass and is setting "value" of their inventory on the percentage of markup they want. Most importantly, find the place the highest-level professionals are taking their own basses - it's the players who will tell you who the experts are. Mass-market music stores and mail-order retailers are not places double bass experts are likely to work. Which brings us to:
- Setup: meaning the detailed adjustment of your bass in regards to the shape of the fingerboard (hand carved with a block plane), the height and curvature of the bridge, and several more parts - this is the most critical aspect of your gear, so as with the other aspects of beginning, go where the top-level bassists go without wasting any time elsewhere. Although violin and cello dimensions are much more standard, there are still many variations in the size and shape of basses, and though correct setup is a straightforward matter of the physics of the bass, there are few to no current and correct published setup specifications for double bass, so good bass luthiers are few and far between. "Professionally shop adjusted" is not a defined term, and in many cases terrible setup work is allowed as a "jazz" or "bluegrass" or "amplified" or "student" setup; often these players are badly under-served. We often see students whose parents have paid dearly for a bass and lessons, while the player is struggling or even at risk of falling short of a scholarship or conservatory audition simply because his bass was ineptly set up. Can't emphasize enough to accept nothing less than the best setup - it's even more important than the bass you choose.
- Finding a teacher: go right to the top - email the principal of your local orchestra, or the bass professor at your local university, and ask for advice and references. The best players and teachers do not mind being asked for advice, and will be happy to assist you starting on the right path. Not all great players teach, and not all teachers have good track records no matter how impressive their titles or credentials are on paper. Find out before you place your musical future in this person's hands. As a beginner, you don't need to seek out a specifically jazz or bluegrass teacher if you are not planning to go into classical playing. Good double bass technique applies to all styles of playing. You could ask someone in school or in a band for lessons, and chances are, they will jump at the chance to make some money teaching someone who knows less than they do - but teaching technique is a skill in itself. Beginning is possibly even the most critical phase of learning. Your beginning teacher can assist you in rapid advancement in proper technique, or set you up to waste years of potential, if not your career. The more I learn as a player, and the more I learn about teaching, the more convinced I become that teaching is a skill that really belongs to those who, first of all, are true masters of their instruments, and secondly, are keenly interested and extremely well developed in pedagogy.
- Gathering information: youTube: yes or no? YouTube can be an incredible source of both information and inspiration - however, if your first searches are for "beginning bass" or "how to learn bass", you'll find a bewildering array of varying advice. Taking a "top-down" view will give you more of an idea of what to look for - search out performance and master class videos of the world's top bassists in every style. Although their technical moves may at first seem complicated, seek to take mental photos of their hand position, bow hold, motions, sound, phrasing, and the position of their bodies as they hold the bass. You will form concepts of what you want to model as you begin your own study.
- Online forums: yes or no? Similarly, seek to read expert discussions even if they seem confusing at first, and similarly, true experts are not self-titled. You'll find their names recommended by other professionals. Look up any terms you find unfamiliar, and develop a picture of what's of interest to top-level players. Forums, as I'm sure you already know, are populated with enthusiastic new players and amateurs, whose advice, though usually well-meaning, is not as well-informed as what you need to move as fast as you can.
- French or German bow? Your outcome as a player is far more dependent on modeling your beginning teacher than on which bow you choose - it is more advisable to play the same bow as the best teacher in your locality than it is to end up with a second-rate teacher just because he or she is the only one around who plays the bow you like best. You'll make the most rapid progress toward good bow technique with the best teacher - then, once you have become proficient, you may wish to learn the other bow in addition, at your own pace.
Hope these are some useful starting points! As always, any of us here is happy to answer any questions you may have.
When put in terms that playing a musical instrument at a high level is a study in human achievement, support from all sectors of the community is feasible. It’s already been amply proved that basic musical performance ability is a cognitive and physiological feat. It is a pursuit open to everyone regardless of cultural background or educational level, and is achievable, remarkably, with or without training. Many of the world’s most skilled musicians are self-taught, and without any special academics, jazz players learn the rules of improvisation, which are exponentially more complex than the rules of chess. The extremely fine degree of motor coordination is an athletic activity which is retained and refined in the musician’s body for his lifetime - well past the age when sporting athletes are considered past their prime or earning capacity. The achievement of high-level musicianship is open to persons of all physical abilities or special needs: there are world-class musicians who can not walk, or who are missing a hand or leg, or are blind or even deaf. Musical competence is often achieved equally by those who are autistic, mentally or emotionally disordered, learning disabled, dyslexic, addicted, injured or seriously ill. The musician possesses a consuming, powerful emotional connection to music, and will persist in exercising this potential in spite of any hardship - our most famous, of course, being economic - including driving our shitty cars 300 miles round trip to performances, performing when we are sick, sacrificing opportunity, comfort, family, and relationships. We voluntarily spend as many or more years in conservatory training as doctors are required to do in medical school, and when we get out, on top of our school loans, we have to buy our own instruments (just for example, $70,000 is a very modest price for a professional string player to have invested; $200,000 is quite ordinary). Although the oversupply of trained musicians to living-wage jobs has been legendary for decades, if not centuries, each year conservatory applicants willingly enter a lifetime of financial instability, if not hardship, and in many cases, destitution. Apart from the tiny percentage of players who win salaried positions, commonly with well over 100 applicants for each job opening, musicians in all genres are self-employed without benefits. Add to that the drastic financial losses musicians are undergoing in the digital age - as a Grammy-winning producer remarked to me recently, as much as 85% of our recorded output is downloaded without compensation.
Then, consider that the practicing is never done. Musicianship has not yet been totally defined or fully developed. The master musician will report, as Casals has famously been quoted, “I am making progress”. He will always hear something that he would like to have done better, things he would like to do. It is a process - a self-evaluation that induces the performer to continually, each day for the rest of his life, reach beyond himself and to be and do more than he ever has before. It’s rare that a musician will retire from making music. Their process may wax and wane in their priorities, branch or morph into different forms and specialties, but with every performance, down to individual notes played, the typical musician is wired to evaluate and plan to refine the next.
Can you name any other human pursuit as comprehensive and self-propelling? Yet, music is disinvolved with any commodity. It doesn’t exactly teach you anything, since you don’t need education to become highly proficient at it - yet, by simply practicing, musicians figure out some fairly sophisticated mathematics and physics. They become engineers, inventing their own instruments, and writers, as they share their experiences (including composition). Reading music is not required for proficiency, but cultures around the globe can all make use of a common music notation. I’d submit that the understanding of physics and mathematics, and the principles of literacy, are innate; consider that the word ‘educate’ means ‘to draw out’ (and interestingly, not “beat it into your brain so you can pass a standardized test”).
I submit that, although it’s much more, music is relegated to a cultural category called The Arts or Entertainment simply because its essence has not yet been quantified. Certainly, music is both, but is also unique in its cognitive and physiological demands on the performer. A violinist has been measured as “the world’s fastest superhuman”, and a drummer has been gauged as detecting timing variances of 6 milliseconds, although there are stories of drummers being able to vary their timing by as little as one millisecond, simply by describing to them a type of groove or feel to express in the music.
If the technical ability of the individual musician is remarkable as a human achievement, then consider the social achievement of the symphony orchestra. Just as musicians are able to defer many individual needs to the practice of their art, they hold ensemble performance as a priority above personal differences and musical opinion. Up to 100 musicians enter into a contract for working hours until 10 or 11 at night, as well as weekends and holidays, silently take direction from the music director, acquiesce to assigned seating and uniform attire, and get restroom breaks only at scheduled times. It’s a completely diverse and multicultural workplace where individuals may not even share a common spoken language, and a supreme example of teamwork. The individual musician must not only be in complete command of his own technique, including any idiosyncrasy his equipment may be exhibiting at the moment, but matches his pitch, time, and articulation to the rest of his section (at least, that’s what’s supposed to happen), while simultaneously reading music, disengaging from his instrument to turn pages, watching the conductor, using his personal database of music literature to know what instrument has the melody line at each moment, and adjusting his timing and nuance to accompany that line while not varying from the style of his section. Undoubtedly a supreme physiological feat. Why do we do it? Why is it important, what do audiences get out of it, and why should musicianship be adequately supported?
I observe there is a very strong human drive to be fully engaged, inquisitive, and to challenge ourselves. Interestingly, this is one of the tenets of Montessori education. Studying and performing music is one of the most comprehensive portals humans have to this kind of satisfaction. It meets us on both an individual and social level, and is both intellectual and emotional. Since music, for some, has a steep learning curve, many turn away from its initial challenges, having been led to believe, through lack of exposure and/or well-trained educators, they aren’t “talented”, and miss the opportunity to learn how to enter a state of high-level achievement, which would translate seamlessly to other fields, such as science, engineering, and medicine. We have all seen it claimed as “remarkable” that so many of the world’s greatest intellectuals coincidentally play music - what if, actually, it’s no coincidence that early musical training led to their careers in cutting-edge science? It can be said that through music, a great many people learn how to learn, since, by its emotional effect, music supplies its own motivation for the individual to build these bridges to his potential.
That there is a virtually universal drive to be highly engaged is evident from the popularity of vicariously engaging in sports - countless people will watch them on TV or purchase tickets to games in which they don’t personally participate. It seems to represent a thwarted desire to do and be more. People will buy expensive replicas of team jerseys and go around wearing these shirts with someone else’s name on the back. They paint themselves in the colors of their favorite team. They will hug total strangers or beat each other up based on whether their favorite team wins or loses. Why this intense identification with something not directly experienced? With such an intent connection to the contest, fans deeply care that they choose to identify with a winning team. I would submit that there is an innate desire to excel. Either students are provided with the means to excel, or they grow up and bet on Fantasy Football. Or maybe they will do both - not my problem, as long as they take on the ‘excel’ part.
It also evidences, given the titanic sums contributed to these types of activities by non-participants, that there is more than enough to adequately fund not only music education for all, but the continuing development of our professionals. There has not, to date, been sufficient financial backing applied to any aspect of musical training to find out what we can do. We do know that well-funded music students, provided with top-quality instruments and teachers, tend to do better. We don’t yet know what happens when top-notch pedagogy is devoted to talent education on a large scale. In the U.S., anyway - distinguished European, Russian, and Israeli musicians evidence these societies are exposing more students to music education in general. In fact, we don’t yet know how well things can work even within music when pedagogy is prioritized - quantities of performers hang out a shingle as self-titled music teachers solely for the purpose of making a living, without the benefit of any pedagogy and sometimes without even the desire to excel at teaching. We still find that in many schools, music education majors are not held to as high a standard as performance majors, and performance majors are given little to no teacher training.
Society has not yet dedicated itself to creating more players than fans. We musicians commonly accept a social role in which we are regarded as superfluous (“not a real job”), instead of as ambassadors of achievement. Understandably, we are so busy keeping up with practicing and trying to make a living that we don’t much consider what non-musicians think, and we tend to be passive when we could do a lot of job creation. We’ve been willing to be regarded as different, a breed apart, even when it’s disadvantageous, such as when we see talented young musicians distraught and demotivated when their parents demand they major in engineering or business “so they can make money”. Our willingness to accept this has led to giving up the role of talent buyer to tavern owners, coffee shop owners, and mass-market media conglomerates that own the concert arenas, the radio stations, the record stores, and the billboards. It’s all the same to them to hire amateur bands who will bring a few friends from work to their rock gig, or to manufacture pop stars. We wait around for work to be handed out by contractors and personnel managers who play favorites instead of hiring the most qualified - a disservice to all, since it bypasses the motivation to practice and improve in less-accomplished players who get handed work. It’s often more convenient to “fill out a section” with marginally qualified contract performers rather than undertake holding auditions - giving out a mixed message to patrons whose developed musical taste is the substance of their willingness to buy tickets. As if it weren’t hard enough for career musicians to win living-wage jobs, we are seeing the exposure of orchestra managements that are running (cough - destroying) performing organizations instead of being hired by, and working for, the musicians. I would submit that any individual in performing arts administration who raises any complaint about how much musicians are paid should be handed a trumpet (a very athletically challenging transposing instrument with very exposed lines) and sent into the next concert. Patrons supporting the organization have the right to hear plainly the musical competence of persons making these decisions on their behalf.
One of the most disappointing missed opportunities is undertaken equally by musicians eager for work and music educators - severely underfunded music programs paying professional musicians to come in and serve as the entire accompaniment for student performances. I don’t mean to be the “walked to school three miles in the snow uphill both ways” kind of storyteller, but, beginning in junior high school, our directors undertook to stage full-scale musicals with a full orchestra. It took us weeks to learn the music, and sometimes, we were awful. Rental parts went missing. We had to make cuts, transpose songs, and hand-write out our own parts. Kids missed rehearsals. Our directors were supremely frustrated every time, although they’d been doing it for years. Evidently, there is no end to the novel ways 7th-graders can screw up a full-scale musical theatre production. There was screaming. But, by the time we reached ninth grade, other junior high schools who didn’t have a full orchestra were inviting us to come and serve as the orchestra for their musicals. By the time we got to high school, full-orchestra musical preparation was no big deal. I still meet professional musicians who came through the same junior high school. Our directors created careers.
Nowadays, we union players sometimes get calls to go in and perform a musical for a high school. I’ve even been paid to travel to the state music convention to accompany a high school choir. We learn the parts in one rehearsal, which takes place in quiet concentration, without a high school student in sight. It’s always for a very reduced ensemble, because “there’s no budget for a full orchestra”. Sometimes we are called upon to cover it with five musicians instead of 20 or so. The school captures a nice, tidy performance on DVD for the parents. The end product is nice, but no one had the chance to make a big mess and take on the learning curve. The school’s orchestra students have zero participation - no side-by-side performance, no coaching by the union players. I wonder where they are going to find players competent enough to play it at all a generation from now. This trend reflects the current model of public education. I don’t take these gigs any more because the concept is frankly too depressing. Instead, I volunteer to help out the orchestra at the middle school. I have no idea what the end product is going to be, but I know that musicianship is achievement, and it’s math, science, culture, history, foreign language, and literacy, whether the school district acknowledges it or not, or pays for it or not. These kids are going to be lawyers, my neighbors, driving instructors, and in city council, so this is my chance to teach them to appreciate my profession and what musicianship can do for them.
Musicianship is a study in human achievement, and therefore it’s worthy of all necessary support. Only musicians are capable of demonstrating this at the present time. I think we have a lot of work to do.