100 Days Day Number … aw forget it

December 29th, 2018

I’ll start this post by saying that I don’t want to say this is a post about failure. But it is about realizing that something isn’t working, and that I’m stopping that something, and I’m going to muse a little bit about why it isn’t working and I’m stopping.

Back on November 25 I started this 100 Days project. In short, the idea was to practice every day for 100 days uninterrupted, working backwards through a piece (new to me), one measure at a time. I modeled this idea on others I had heard of where people practice a dance move every day for 100 days, posting as they went along. It sounds entertaining and interesting to me. I hoped to be inspired myself by making this continual progress.

But Life intervened, throwing me off-schedule when I wasn’t even 10 days in on the effort. I thought that would be okay, that I would just soldier on. But then I missed some more days, and then a whole bunch of days—and it really felt to me like I had lost the thread of it. I was forcing my practice, rushing to “do my measure” even on days and at times when I was frankly too tired or distracted to do it properly.

There was another element as well. I posted several blog entries about this effort, and publicized those posts (via a WordPress plug-in) on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. And I have a very small number of people who are subscribed to receive an email when I make a post. And I heard not a peep from one other person in the world about my trying out this project—with the exception of a kind of solicited reaction from David Heyes, since I made a post on his Facebook wall about his 100 day project. Looking at the statistics on SoundCloud, it appears that I was the only person listening to the recordings I posted there.

I was feeling deflated that no one thought enough of the idea to send me a comment or check out what I had done.

And then from the library I checked out the book “An Audience of One—Reclaiming Creativity for Its Own Sake” by Srinivas Rao with Robin Dellabough. Just reading the Introduction, I was struck by how clearly Rao described the situation I have found myself in: playing to an imagined crowd, expecting fame and accolades and receiving none. Rao writes:

In the pursuit of success, the value of creativity for its own sake has diminished, if not disappeared entirely. … We’ve placed celebrities on pedestals and turned their achievements and lifestyles into our new definition of success. The result is a profound sense of dissatisfaction with our creativity. Purity is lost in our work when everything we do is for some external outcome, when every creative pursuit unnecessarily turns professional. (Audience of One, page 6)

That described my actions pretty accurately: choosing what I would do based on an expected or hoped-for popularity, more out of a desire for notoriety and less based on my own desire and curiosity.

So I have decided to suspend the public-facing part of the 100 Days quest—nobody was following it anyway—and focus on practicing for my own betterment and following my own interests.

I think this approach is going to guide what I do in resurrecting the Chicago Bass Ensemble as well. Long moribund after my two favorite colleagues chose to stop working with me (did I take it personally? Yes, I did. Was I right to take it personally? Probably not; I don’t know if their decisions were because of me or not), I have said for many years now that “this is the year” that I get in gear and make something happen with the group. But there too I may have been thinking of “fame” or “success” in external terms, and allowing that to distort my perspective on what I should be doing.

So, just in time for the new year, a new leaf in my playing. Wish me luck. I’ll continue to write here occasionally, but I won’t allow external measures (comments, re-posts, inquiries, tweets) to dictate how I feel about what I’ve done or to influence what I choose to do. Of course, if you’ve got a spot or event where you’d like a small group of large instruments to perform, do reach out to me!!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Jacque

100 Days Day 10/21

December 15th, 2018

The “100 consecutive days” is not going very consecutively. Today, after several more days of “not getting to it,” I worked on measure 32.

As I mentioned in my last post, the previous measures are pretty solid. Albeit not perfectly solid. And having not checked with a metronome, this recording is well under the tempo suggested by the composer. I’ll admit it, I’m not super-proud of this effort (today) and feeling a tad let down by the effort (my effort) overall. But I’m going to press on. It’s still fun.

Today’s recording, measure 32 to the end.

100 Days Day 9 or is it Day 17

December 11th, 2018

Well, that stinks!

I actually missed more than a week of this project, just because other things (“LIFE”) got in the way. I’m pushing myself past my self-disappointment to get this posted tonight.

Follow this link to bars 33 to 42 of the piece. Worked on bar 33 today. Happy to say that the measures that I’ve been working on up to this point actually flowed pretty well. I think that is a testament to this very odd, very focused way of learning and practicing. I don’t know if this is really a successful and smart way to work; but that is the point of trying it out, to decide if it is beneficial.

 

100 days, Days 3 to 8

December 2nd, 2018

Some very brief notes about my practice and recordings for days 3—8 of my 100 days of learning a new piece. (Rather than post to the blog each day, I’m gathering up the better part of a week. I noticed that probably people who have subscribed to this blog were getting an email each day. I didn’t want to subject my friends to that!)

39-42 (27 Nov) – I did my practice and recording at the end of a long-ish day. I had forgotten I have a Messiah performance this coming weekend, so I “warmed up” by running through the first ten or so peices of the Messieah. My arm is tired—I’m suffering a bit of what is commonly called “tennis elbow.” Find that I had not perfectly remembered measure 40. Caught myself doing bad habit, imperfectly corrected that behavior. Still rushing, even though I checked tempo against a metronome as I was recording!

38-42 (28 Nov) – This day, I worked only on this. I had better discipline, but also added the practice in different rhythms stuff. REALLY rushing when recorded. Felt better about remembering the later measures. Liking my dynamic at the end. You’ll find that because I boosted the mic gain just a little, there will be some difference in sound/volume.

37-42 (29 Nov) – I did a lot more of the different rhythms practicing, less of the 1+4 repetition. To be honest, my discipline was a little lax. I went back to an old technique of playing with the metronome and starting slow, increasing a click at a time, which was a good idea—one that everyone really should use as a tool in the practicing toolbox. My overall problem is that I just don’t have a lot of time in the evenings. But then again I’m only doing a measure at a time!!

36-42 (30 Nov) – I stipulate that 10:30 pm after having a beer is NOT the best time for me to practice. I was not very disciplined at all although maybe I still got a decent result. I’m willing to give myself some congratulations for the discipline to not have a second beer with friends at the bar but instead come home and do this.

35-42 (1 Dec) This was recorded using my Zoom recorder, while practicing at the school at which my wife teaches. If you listen closely you might hear in the background some of the pandemonium of the Chicago Waldorf School Holiday Fair in progress. I began the day by sitting in in the bass section of the school’s chamber ensemble, playing a selection of frankly mediocre arrangements of holiday tunes. Then a trombone playing friend and I played duets for 90 minutes to accompany the candle-dipping room. All good fun, and for a good cause! Exhausted, I took a nap on the floor of the music office, then practiced measure 35 for a while and recorded what you hear.

34-42 (2 Dec) – After a lightning-quick-through-the-major-pieces rehearsal and then a “sing along” performance of Handel’s Messiah, I came home, had dinner, practiced ever so briefly without any discipline whatsoever and recorded measures 34 to 42 of the Armand Russell Whimsical Prelude. As on the 30th of November, I’m giving myself props for actually doing this and not just claiming my right to break my own rules, but I won’t hold this up as a stellar example of how best to organize your life as a practicing musician.

So, what are my overall observations thus far? Well, forgetting about commitments you have made is a bad thing … you might note that in the blog post that began this series, I said “I don’t have much coming up …” well, I actually did, and I had forgotten that. Second, I’ll confess that discipline to do this ‘exactly’ the way I set out has been lacking, but I’ll also argue that my initial framework was probably a little over-limiting. Third, I’m having fun, even if I am exposing the sloppy underbelly of my playing.

I’m adding all the recordings I am making to a SoundCloud playlist: you can listen to the progression measure-by-measure.

I’d love to hear any comments that anyone has!

100 Days, Day Two

November 26th, 2018

Measure 40 has been added to the collection. https://soundcloud.com/jacque-harper/100-days-of-bass-40-42 It’s going really well, don’t you think?

I did rush a bit on this excerpt. Tempo is supposed to be quarter note = 96, I am a shade faster than that.

It took a little bit of discipline to practice it properly. I was so tempted to just play it through a bunch of times!

100 Days—mm41-42

November 25th, 2018

The start of a new little project.

100 days

I don’t have much playing on the schedule for the next month or so. And I have wanted to do this “100 days” thing for a while: Pick an endeavor, do it every day for 100 days, post to the world as you go. I think I have seen people do it with dancing and the results are a) entertaining and b) show how working on something small every day can make a real difference, an improvement.

My daughter’s first violin teacher challenged her with this once; the reward was to be that if she practiced 100 days in a row, he would take a horseback riding lesson!!

Here’s a link (which I hope works) to David Heyes announcing the start of his 100 day quest.

A Way to Practice Better?

One of the flaws I have in my practicing is that I often approach learning something new by just hacking through it over and over and over. And I think this means that what I really learn is all the wrong ways to play something. Then I spend a lot of time undoing all of that learning.

Noa Kagayema has written extensively about practice strategies (here’s one blog post for instance). One technique that I think must be great but always feel too impatient to do is to practice a small section of something in the following way:

  • play it once
  • mentally rehearse it—”exactly as it should be” in your mind four times
  • repeat the above two steps two more times.

So when you’re done, you have practiced the section fifteen times, but your hands are only tired from three times. And you’ve given the section a lot of thought.

So What Does this Add Up To?

Here’s what I’m going to do. I have picked a piece. Not completely at random, it happens to be a composer I really like, Armand Russell. But it is something that I have never played before and have never heard. I am going to work on this piece for 100 days. I am going to work on one measure per day, using that “15 reps” method I described above. And I’m going to work backwards, i.e. starting with the last measure and moving to the first. Each day, a new measure.

The piece I’ve chosen is “Whimsical Prelude” from Russell’s Preludes and Nocturnes for unaccompanied double bass. (Recital Music RM1000) The piece is actually only 42 measures long, so when I get to playing the whole thing (about 42 days from now), I’ll either continue to work on it for more days or move to another of the 5 pieces in that collection. So here’s a link to the recording of the first day: https://soundcloud.com/jacque-harper/whimsical-prelude-41-42

I stipulate that I have already broken my pledge; I worked on and recorded two measures today. But measure 42 is only a held quarter note followed by a sixteenth and an eighth note. It was just begging for more. Also, I fully expect that I will miss a day here and there, so this won’t be the last time I break my own rules. But the spirit of the idea is intact!

I’ll tag each of these blog posts with “100 days.” And they will almost certainly follow each other with very little interruption, so you should be able to just go next next next through the posts and fast forward through my progress. I love to hear comments!

The Chromatic Endpin—Making a Change Months Later

August 13th, 2018

Well, it has been almost a year that I have been using the Chromatic Endpin. Previous posts detailed my experiments with different rotation angles, and I had settled on an angle that shifted the weight of the bass away from my body slightly. I described this in my “day three” post.

Well about a month ago—as of the day that I’m writing this—I decided to make a pretty radical switch. I changed the rotation of the pin so that more of the weight of the bass would fall into my body.

I had always more or less subscribed to Gary Karr’s thinking of having the bass lean into the left hand. As I understood it, this means that the arm and hand don’t have to “press” the bass, in essence the bass is pressing them. I guess I can’t say that I was ever super-rigorous about feeling this ‘pressing,’ and to be honest I probably didn’t do my technique any favors by switching back and forth from seated to standing. I started out playing standing, switched to seated when studying with Brian Marcus (I think that was when I switched, anyway) and continued seated when at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music studying with Stephen Tramontozzi, but then went back to standing after that. (Boy oh boy isn’t making hyperlinks fun? I should mention I studied with Sal Macchia for a while too! Oh and Greg Sarchet!)

Okay, back to blogging and away from bragging.

So I made the switch and my end pin now looks like this:

The result, and this is what I said to my friend Rich Armandi at Chicago JazzPhilharmonic rehearsal, is that the bass suddenly felt like it was hugging me. It was a pretty dramatic feeling. I have now been playing like this for over a month, including rehearsals and concert with CJP and also with a local semi-pro symphony, and it’s going well.

I haven’t done the more rigorous self-examination I described in the ‘day one and two’ post—i.e. playing specific excerpts and scales to assess the effect of the end pin on my playing—but my casual observation is that there has been no problem. I’m just as sloppy and undisciplined as I was before, haha.

So what should you conclude from this? You should try the Chromatic Endpin yourself and don’t be afraid to experiment, even with things that seem pretty different. It sure beats drilling another hole in your bass!

The Chromatic Endpin – Rehearsal Reflections

August 18th, 2017

Last night was my first rehearsal using the Chromatic Endpin. (See my other posts about setting up this endpin.)

I continue to use the settings I describe in “day three.” And I got to compare notes with longtime friend Rich Armandi, who is also using the endpin.

I really experienced no problems with the endpin. Partly, this is because the new setup is quite similar to my straight endpin setup. I’ve been a standing player for over 20 years, and the way I have configured the endpin moves the contact point a little bit back and a little bit towards the E string. This shifts the weight just a little away from my body, and I think that means my left hand works just a little bit less at holding the bass up. It’s subtle, and the transition has not been difficult.

One caveat should be made here: this was not the most challenging rehearsal in terms of technique. It was a string sectional of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic (performing next week at Chicago’s Millenium Park), and the strings–particularly the basses–do not have the hardest of Orbert Davis’ writing. The relative simplicity of this rehearsal was probably a good thing for my trial of the endpin!

Here’s what I did notice. In the practice room, I have begun moving more, forward and back, using the new balance point of the bass to shift how I get into and out of the upper register. What this means in practice for instance is that for a Bach Cello Suite (#1, Prelude) I take a step backwards with my left leg, allowing the neck to rest on my left shoulder and easing the left hand’s access to the thumb position. For low pitch passages, the left leg comes forward and the bass very upright, so I don’t have such an acute angle with the left elbow to reach the low positions (think Beethoven Fifth Symphony, third movement, Scherzo).

This movement was harder to execute when playing in the section, for two reasons. One, we were in a rehearsal room with a riser-like floor, so a rise in the floor just behind me kept me from stepping back unless the endpin was very close to the front of the riser I was on. Two, the other players and the “cramped”–compared to my regular practice space–area for the bass section kept me from complete freedom in my movements. And related to that cramped-ness, sharing a stand with another player while wanting to keep the conductor in sight meant I couldn’t just move however I wanted.

I think with time I’ll find ways to overcome this movement inhibition. It’s just a matter of trying different things, working with section mates to get into the right place physically. Maybe it means not sharing a stand, or being more picky about where I need the stand to be. (I remember seeing a violist in the San Jose Symphony using a tape measure to adjust the distance from his stand to the end of his nose before a rehearsal, quite a sight!) Or maybe it means just not worrying about ever being a section player again, since I have decided AGAINST taking the Detroit audition after listening to a recent podcast from Jason Heath on the oversupply of conservatory graduates and the failure of conservatory training to prepare musicians for the real world. (Also Phantom Brass blog post.)

And the one other worry I had is proving unfounded. I had been concerned about the “teeth” of the Chromatic Endpin having enough depth or bite to hold the bass up for a long period. At home, I’ve been babying the pin a bit, taking it out and replacing my straight endpin when stowing the bass in the corner. I just don’t know if the angle will hold when subjected to long-term weight-bearing (like overnight, etc.). But it didn’t slip during the two-hour rehearsal, and I didn’t have to think about it or feel it wobble.

A last observation, my sound production seems to be really solid these days. I felt quite good about the tone I was getting last night, and in tune with the section. (Of course, being in tune with the section is sometimes a matter of the rest of the section being in tune, eh?) I don’t know if the better sound production is a result of a change relationship between the bow, right arm and string due to the endpin, or to the fact that recently my practice routine has focused an awful lot on Gary Karr’s bowing exercises in book one (harmonics only! super-aware of bow speed!). Well, even with knowing for sure, I’m glad of it!

As I mentioned, Rich and I were comparing our setups. His endpin is set using the long lower rod and angled towards the G string. He’s going for a much less upright position than I am (more like the Rufus Reid video shared in the Chromatic Productions resource section). It seems to be working for him, so go for it!

Bottom line, we’re still happy with the new endpin!

The Chromatic Endpin – Day Three

August 6th, 2017

Finally got back to some experimenting.

Day Three

6″ lower rod; angle about 30°; rotation towards back and E string

So I wanted to see what it would feel like to have the rotation be towards the E string, as Lynn Seaton does. But I had already found that the very “horizontal” approach that seems to be Seaton’s approach wasn’t working for me, so I set this up to be more vertical. The bass definitely felt different here. As might have been predicted—see the diagram about center of gravity on Knickstachel für Kontrabass – eine Übersicht—I initially felt as if the bass were falling away from me.

I ran through my chosen repertoire for this trial, and made some adjustments to where my feet were. I couldn’t quite make this comfortable, but I felt like I was making progress. I decided to move to the short lower rod.

4″ lower rod; angle a little more than 30°; rotation towards back and E string

With the shorter rod, I also chose to make the angle slightly greater, as well as to extend the upper rod a bit more from the body of the bass, compensating for the shorter rod but overall making it just a little bit higher.

This felt pretty comfortable. I think it will be the setting I go with for a little while before making more experiments.

That is not to say that I think I found the perfect setting in just three short days of experimenting. (Far from it!) It is more an acknowledgement that my technical skills are really sub-par these days, and I need to get serious about getting back to form before I can make any final conclusions about how to adjust this endpin.

In other news

My last attempt to get folks together for some music reading did not receive much response. Maybe a combination of the short notice and the fact that it’s the end of summer. If you’re a bassist and want to get together to read through music or to play your audition rep in front of a friendly audience, get in touch with me, we’ll set something up.

The Chromatic Endpin – Days One and Two

July 30th, 2017

A New Endpin

I have begun my adventure with The Chromatic Endpin. If you have ever been interested in that crazy kinky stick endpin you might have seen on a colleague’s bass—you know, bent at a 45 degree angle to the line of the strings, and rotated toward the G string, or a new hole drilled in the end block with a pin in there—but didn’t want to go drilling new holes in your bass, this device is for you.

It’s a machined endpin device, with multiple axes of adjustment: angle, rotation, height, length. It replaces a traditional end pin of 10mm diameter with no changes to your bass. By installing it, you can experiment wildly with all the variations. And if you find something you like, either continue using the Chromatic Endpin with those settings, or work closely with a luthier to drill that new hole in your instrument in just the right way.

Wild and Kinky

I am currently on the second day of my experiment. And it feels like a wild ride, anxiety-inducing in all possible ways. Day zero (actually a few days) I spent just putting the pin together, trying a few combinations and marveling at the different stances adopted by example players Rufus Reid, Lynn Seaton and François Rabbath. (The Chromatic Endpin site links to videos from each.) My wife was watching with me and marveled at how upright and relaxed each looked, comparing to my Hunchback of Notre Contrebasse posture when playing in the upper registers. (She worries about me. She would like me to join her at Pilates classes.) I was trying to adjust to the idea of the heel of the neck of my bass resting on my solar plexus and the extreme angle of my elbow when trying to tickle my ear with my finger while playing low F (see the Lynn Seaton video). And freaking out at the idea that the upper bouts of my beloved Buchanan bass are too wide to allow a german bow player to play on the E string in that position . . . aaaaaaagh!

Getting a grip on myself, yesterday I settled down to try to make some progress on an actual combination of settings. Instead of just playing randomly and getting worried, I tried more or less to have a set several pieces I was going to play as I adjusted various angle and things. So that I would have a reference, instead of just vague chaotic and fearful impressions.

(Have I mentioned how badly the idea of switching endpins, stance, everything messes with the idea of taking a professional audition in 10 weeks? Yeah, let’s not think about that just now, okay?)

Loosely, here are the things I am trying to play with each different endpin configuration:

  • Beethoven Fifth Symphony, Third movement, Scherzo
  • Bach First Cello Suite, first movement
  • Strauss Ein Heldenleben, any of those damn two+ octave runs in three beats, like rehearsal 9 to rehearsal 11
  • E arpeggio exercise, three octaves
  • E major scale a la Galamian mm=60

Real Day One

4″ lower rod; angle about 45°; rotation towards G string and back of bass.

This setting is somewhat like the Rufus Reid video. But I found that if I tried to emulate Reid’s posture, I could not reasonably play in the low register, nor on the E string with the bow. Partly the shape of my bass and my use of the German bow. However, when I decided to go back to a more ‘upright’ stance, this was a reasonable configuration for the endpin.

The aforementioned kinky stick blog post gives the reason: moving the contact point back means that more of the bass’ weight is forward of that point, and so my left hand was less obligated to support the weight, making it more free to shift. This realization felt pretty good. I did not realize the benefit of standing straight up and reaching forward to play in the higher positions—it’s still incumbent on me to visualize the string-through-the-crown-of-my-head pulling me upright that your Yoga teacher told you about—but I think I can live with that.

Real Day Two

6″ lower rod; angle about 60°; rotation towards G string and back of bass.

I watched the recording of John Clayton, Martin Wind, Lynn Seaton and Rufus Reid (the Talking Hands bass quartet) playing Wind’s Iceland Romance and observed Clayton’s setup. The angle of his end pin is less than those of Reid or Seaton. It looked like something worth trying. With the Chromatic Endpin setup, to achieve the same net position of the ground contact actually means a very extreme angle and the long lower rod.

At first I couldn’t get the bass low enough to be comfortable for the left hand in the low registers (note the upper rod is into the bass as far as it will go), but by putting the long low rod into the extreme angle, the bass was playable and reasonably comfortable.

Of all the experimenting I’ve done so far, both unstructured and structured, this set up is working best. Same caveats apply around standing erect when playing in high registers, but the balance of the bass seems good (re the kinky stick post).

I can’t play for long with these experimental setups: my natural frustration at sounding like a beginner (and today, too much coffee) get the best of me and I have to put the bass down. Today that meant switching to writing this blog post, which isn’t a bad thing.

Keep Breathing

Hey, I have to say that I should not have gone into this thinking “a new end pin setup will be a miraculous enhancement of my technique,” but I admit now that I held a not consciously acknowledged belief that I would suddenly master Ein Heldenleben by futzing with my endpin. That hasn’t happened. Yet. Ahem. But I do feel like there is some good opportunity ahead. I just need to calm down and take the needed time to sort this out.

Please share your experience with the angled endpin concept. I could really use your perspective.