Archive for the ‘Practice and Skills’ Category

Am I Crazy?

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

You knew this was going to happen.

Just a few days ago, I was looking through the latest International Musician (the publication of the musician’s union) and saw that the Detroit Symphony has an opening for Section Bass. Auditions October 16-18.

So here’s the question. Given that I have sort of taken on a project to rebuild my technique, starting over with Gary Karr’s elementary bass books (I’m up to “shifting!”) and mixing in a self-taught take on Rabbath’s method (I bought all of his books two years ago), can I get from page 63 of the book for beginners to the Detroit Symphony in 95 days?

Am I an optimist or a lunatic?

Am I being fatalistic and self-defeating if I said “honestly there’s no way I could win such an audition–there are so many great players out there, one of them would easily surpass me in a final round?” Is it setting too low a bar to say “I’d just like to play well in the first round.” (Although that of course is true.)

I got a big boost out of preparing for the last set of auditions I took. Although ultimately I was disappointed by my performance in the actual auditions. Am I thinking about doing this for the right reasons? Would it be possible to wipe from my mouth the bad taste of my last auditions by doing this? If I don’t actually commit myself to appearing in Detroit ninety-five days from now … look at it this way: with a concrete and tangible goal (“get through the audition”) and deadline (October 16, 2017) I will really work hard. Without those things, it will be easy easy easy to let practicing slide a couple times each week, and I won’t make the same progress.

But what is progress? If we accept as a given–and I think in will insist that it is a given, many of you will agree–that there are better players out there, who will ultimately defeat me in a final round, is winning an audition of this level a quixotic goal? Is it quixotic even to make the attempt? In business, we talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals, where the A stands for achievable. Again with the given I have just stated, this is NOT a SMART goal. Is making “progress” towards the impossible really progress, or is it effort that would be better directed at some other goal?

I might be talking myself out of this.

At the same time, for a few years now I have been carting around with me a yellow sticky-note with the phrase “look beyond what is reasonable” written on it. At the moment I can’t remember where I first encountered the phrase. It inspires me. It doesn’t say “be insane crazy and live outside the norms of society and abuse those around you” it just says don’t accept that things have to be just the way everyone else sees them. The audition doesn’t have to be won by the young conservatory grad with the gold medal at an international competition–the reasonable assumption. It could go to the guy twenty+ years out of school who just has a lot of heart and is going to make himself put in the work.

Do I really want to do this?

What if we took a poll? Put your vote in the comments. And please leave a comment with some of the reasoning behind your vote. If you’re reading my blog for the first time, it’d be lovely if you took in the backstory for this question by skimming the “audition” tag and the “Practice and Skills” and “Personal Preparation” categories.

Meanwhile, a few observations on the first steps in Gary Karr’s method.

  • Initially, getting a good sound on the “Koussevitzky” harmonic at the marked tempo and bow length on the E string was crazy hard. But it got better over several days of practice.
  • Really, what a brilliant approach to focus so much on bow speed as the primary concept to master when first picking up the instrument. (For me, I think poor control/consciousness of bow speed is a major underlying factor in many of the other awkwardnesses of my playing.)
  • My science brain wants to geek out on exactly what the speed ratios need to be when going from this note to that or one string to another. Practical musician brain has to intervene and remind us to get a good sound and go with it.
  • The shifting exercises, like focussing on bow speed as a fundamental skill, are quite smart. The bass is a huge instrument. Instead of initially working on shifts of a minor third or so, the initial shifting exercises very quickly cover shifting from very low to very high positions: Take on the biggest challenge with “beginner’s mind” rather than waiting until the third book of your method (meaning like second year of student study) to introduce the ‘scary’ concept of playing in the ‘hard’ positions. Master that sh*t early on, the rest will be easy!

More and more I’m thinking that I want to take these books to students of my own. I have resisted teaching for a long time. But I feel like the students I know of would really benefit from approaching the instrument this way. And that I would benefit from teaching them.

Starting Again

Monday, July 3rd, 2017

A few weeks ago, I listened to the very enthusiastic Jason Heath interview Gary Karr. I learned some stuff.

As often happens when I listen to Contrabass Conversations, I was simultaneously inspired and crushed (by the greatness of another bassist and their ideas and journey, and by my own relative lack of accomplishment in spite of my big dreams). Not having much work and not having much playing time doesn’t help.

In discussion later on Contrabass Conversation’s Facebook group, I was surprised to learn that Gary Karr has a method book. I shouldn’t have been, of course, how stupid of me. But I went to the International Society of Bassists website right away and ordered the whole set.

I am now going to go through them. I probably won’t linger; I am hopeful that it won’t take me as long to understand the concepts as it would a beginning student. But I’m going to re-evaluate as much as I can about my own current technique.

Karr writes “All instructional manuals are but an aid in helping us teach ourselves or others. Therefore whether you are a student or a master player I have chosen to address you in these books as teacher.” I actually get a kind of optimistic feeling from that idea. It does describe where I am. Although I suppose it doesn’t correct the statement in my tweet above, haha.


After reading through the first book on my commute a few days ago, I started over. Really the first thing I have noticed is my terrible tendency to lose focus. Given instruction on how to cradle the bow, to play using specific bow speeds on the different strings, to keep the bow in one place between fingerboard and bridge and the use of the arm, wrist and back–plenty to keep track of!–as soon as I begin to play a whole note G harmonic, my mind wanders to what I’m having for lunch or any other of a thousand things. It’s maddening.

After a few days, I felt I could allow myself to advance as far as page 29, the short piece “Gliding Home (A Major).”

I suppose I could say more about what my technique is or isn’t doing or how it has or hasn’t improved from three days of playing only whole note harmonics (what Karr calls the “Koussevitsky” harmonic). But I don’t really know, haha. Beginner’s mind and all, I’m trying to just play the harmonics and keep the bow in the right place at the right speed.