As an upright player you have to make many moving parts work together in order to get the tone you want. Both hands play different roles in crafting your tone, but the real voice of our instrument comes from the bow. If you are new to the upright and haven’t taken the time to really find and fine tune your instruments voice this is the lesson for you. We’re going to work on exercises that maximize the quality of tone we get from the upright and really define the core of our sound. There are three primary feature of bowing technique we have to pay attention to: weight, speed and location. We’ll take a look at each of these plus highlight a few best-practices for proper playing technique. The key to all of this is relaxation of body awareness. The points in the lesson are principles that you should be constantly aware of and work on over time. The best judge will be your ear and your body 1) Do you sound better and 2) Does playing feel better? The goal is to achieve the highest quality tone without physical strain and almost all of that is tied into your bowing technique.
Physics should be the primary guide for the weight of your bow. Hold you arm out straight in front of you and then release your shoulder letting your arm fall. Heavier than you think right? Now hold your arm out again and with your other hand hold up your bow so that it’s parallel to the floor. Now place your hand on the bow and release your shoulder (without dropping your bow). That should be the weight of your arm into the bow. Try bowing your bass using that full weight of your arm. It should not be added pressure, your bow hair should not have an extreme bend in it, but it shouldn’t be light on the strings either – just use the passive weight of your arm. Do you notice a difference in the sound? Do not rush the bow across the strings, take your time and really feel the weight of your arm in the bow and in the strings. Think of the strings as holding up your bow.
Now that you have the weight down we need to work with the controlling aspect of your arm. Where does the control come from? Are you guiding with your elbow or shoulder? Without your bass or bow stand up and let your arms hang freely at your side. Make sure your shoulders are completely relaxed. Now shift your weight from side to side and tilt your body slightly with the motion – yours arms should be swinging slightly. This is the core motion we need to emulate on the bass. The core control for initiating the movement in your arms comes from your trunk, more specifically your hips. This applies even if you play seated. Again gravity does a lot of the work for you if you’re fully relaxed – this is especially true for down-bows and the A and E strings and up-bows on the G string. Do not think the bow is only guided by rocking your body back and forth (and don’t make anyone sea-sick in rehearsal). The main point of this exercise is to be aware that it is not a shoulder-forced or elbow-forced movement, those are simply used for guiding the motion and that your trunk is the real source of movement.
It is very important to take the time and determine the optimal way for you to hold a bass. The best way to do this is with an experienced teacher. He or she will be able to guide you and point out what looks best and relaxed. Your back should always be straight. You will have to lean forward for certain playing positions (such as thumb position) and may even lean slightly depending on which string you are using (more forward for the G string, more back for the E string). Any time you lean the movement should be at your hips allowing your back to remain unbent. You do not want to curve your spine. From a physics perspective your trunk has the same physical properties as a cylinder. Tilting at the base (your hips) allows you to use gravity and your own body weight to your advantage while playing and conserves energy.
You should also pay attention to the location of your head. Your head is a load-bearing force that can also impact your playing. Experiment with different trunk and head positions and see how it affects your sound when you are fully relaxed. I’ve found that the concept of “bi-lateral motion” comes heavily in to play – my body moves in equal and opposite directions to my bow relative to the string I’m playing. Therefore if I’m playing an up-bow on the E string my body is leaning out from the bass and I’m sitting in my most upright position and a little back. On the other hand if I’m playing a down-bow on the G string my body and head are tilted in more (bent at the hips, the bass rides up my chest a bit). These exercises and concepts are not going to click overnight and take a lot of conscious effort to develop. They are important to keep in mind in order to avoid playing with chronic pain and be able to get the most sound from the bass with the least amount of physical exertion.
Let’s move on to location and speed – where does your bow rest on the bass? Think of the area between the bottom of the neck and the bridge as a 5 lane highway. The lane closest to the neck (we’ll call this lane #1) is the lane you can move the fastest in, with each lane towards the bridge requiring slower and slower bow speed. For most part you’ll spend a lot of time playing in lanes #3 and #4. Try playing as close to the bridge as possible just to hear the sound – it should be significantly louder compared to playing near the neck – and you’ll have to play significantly slower to sustain a good clean sound. One measure for the quality of a bass is how close to the bridge you are able to play without changing the tone. As another example try playing in lane #1 and progressively moving to lane #5 in a single bow stroke. The speed of your bow is going to have to adjust as you move further down the string towards the bridge. You should keep these principles in mind when you are analyzing a new piece, certain passages may dictate using a particular “lane” with the bow to get the best sound for the necessary speed.
If you have not realized it already another aspect of bow location has to do with volume. The closer to the frog you play (where you hand grabs the bow) the louder the sound will be. Likewise playing at the tip of the bow will give you a softer sound. Physics is the cause of this – you have more directly applied force when you play near the frog versus when you are playing at the tip of the bow. Combining this with the location of the bow on the string is how you control the volume of your playing while continuously applying the full weight of your arm to the bow. Add the subtle motions in your truck and head and you have a seriously powerful and ergonomic playing technique! This is your core sound.
Now that you have the beginnings of the tone you want make sure your left hand is in shape as well. Pay close attention to the points in the my previous lesson (from “Marathon Gig Techniques”) on how your left hand should be shaped. All the forces of your arm should be balanced forming a triangle between your thumb, shoulder and elbow. Vibrato will play a significant role crafting notes and refining the core of your tone. Make sure the vibrato is a pump that comes from your upper arm (not just jiggling your wrist) and practice it at different tempos. Again, trust your ear and your body – Does is sound better, and does it feel better?
There is a lot of minutiae that upright bassists have to pay attention to. Our instrument is largely physical, and that’s an aspect which is largely overlooked. Careful attention to the physics of our playing technique, body positions, and attributes of bowing allow for a lifetime of safe and successful playing. Like any other repetitive physical activity we run the risk of injuries and chronic pain if we are not careful about forming good habits early. I would really encourage all bassists to find a capable teacher and refine your playing technique if you have not already done so – it pays off in the end. Once you find your core-sound you will never go back, you’ll be amazed at how much more expressive you can be on the instrument once you have full command of the sounds you create.