Here’s one bassist’s weblog post on attending, and getting up the nerve to perform at, a double bass masterclass:
I seek out weblog entries on music, and in particular, practicing the double bass. There ain’t a lot of contrabass bloggers out there, apparently. (Bassists aren’t generally known for their literacy. You’re lucky to find one sober enough to write their own name.) This is a good one – the author gives up some honest dialogue on the experiences of being an enthusiast of this enormous, odd, addicting instrument.
For classical musicians, the masterclass is the pinnacle of the fear pyramid. At the bottom is of course practicing alone, behind closed doors. Then there’s letting some of your friends hear — not too scary but they don’t know any better. Then there’s letting other musicians hear, perhaps even on your instrument, that might be able to tell if you just hosed the whole passage or where you’re playing spiccato where the part is clearly marked sostenuto and pppp.
Then the scale of fear moves up to the live performance category, starting with section playing in a full orchestra. Who will know when there’s nineteen other violinists. This is followed by the chamber ensemble, or you have a solo part in the orchestra, where you have some serious exposure. But still, everyone’s in it together and you’re not 100% on-the-spot. Next we have the solo recital, where everyone else is there to hear you fuck up, just once, and then dive into your reception of warm Coke�Ѣ and the stale bag of tortilla chips from Costco that just wouldn’t die. Even worse is the concerto solo, where the entire mass of your worst critics are actually staring at the back of your neck while you fitfully saw away at an instrument that has no chance of being heard over the brass section. Nasty but not as common in life are the blessed jury exams at the conservatory, where the entire string faculty and local virtuosi on your instrument sit there and decide if you get to advance to the next level. I think that’s about on the same level as orchestral auditions; same thing except you’re now an adult and the jury decides if you get the job or if you continue to live on Top Ramen�Ѣ and Macaroni and Cheese by Kraft�Ѣ for the next six months.
Then there is the unholy master class, where you play, probably unaccompanied, in front of just about every other player for your given instrument in the local metropolitan region, while they all look on and say “I could’a done that better…” After you complete your performance, or perhaps getting stopped in the middle, the master will tell you exactly how many ways you sucked. You cry, you wipe yourself, and then it’s the next poor sot’s turn to go down in flames.
I’m of course exaggerating some, and coloring it all with a bit of humor, but you get the point. Being a musician can be nerve-wracking and downright frightening at times.
Pei Yun on her masterclass performance states:
Reflecting, I think I was a little too anxious about playing, I could have given myself more time to settle down before I started playing, especially the second movement of the sonata. It was embarrassing to hear that my intonation needed more improvements especially at the middle section of the second movement. I missed a note, and the rest of the notes following it went out of pitch too. I reckon I could have played at a slower tempo too, given the fact that my fingers needed time to get used to the instrument. To comfort my slightly hurt ego, I told myself that my intonation could have been better if I had played on my own double bass. The best solution might be for me to play more exercises, studies and scales so that in time to come, I will be able to play just as good on any double bass that I would lay my hands on. Maybe the secret is no secret: Practice, practice and practice.
Ah yes, those post-performance feelings. What if I had only remembered that one note? What if I didn’t rush through that section? What if I didn’t drink so much the night before? What if I had just stayed in bed?
Seriously, though… practicing the instrument will help. But what will help even more is to practice in front of people–often. Play at talent shows, at churches, at retirement homes, at elementary schools. Whip out your instrument at parties and play a few cadenzas.
Playing an unfamiliar bass though, now that can be tricky. For basses that have a common setup from the same luthier, things might not seem to different. But basses, more than most instruments, come in many different sizes and shapes. String length, bridge arch, and the shape of the shoulders of the bass can all make it unfamiliar territory. Then you’ve got the whole 3/4 vs. 5/8 vs. full size thing. (Most basses are 3/4 size – a full size bass is freakin’ huge.) In this case, practicing shifting exercises (like the all-time favorite “vomit exercises”) can help. And if you can, trade basses with your colleagues now and then. But it’s always going to be a bit odd at first when picking up a new bass.
I got in about 45 minutes of double bass practice tonight, and just a bit of playing through some Bach on the guitar. I see that playing contrabass at home has some challenges compared to practicing guitar. For one, I have to practice after the kids are asleep. The bass is louder than the guitar, so I stick a mute on and bow lighter than I would normally. The bass itself requires some time to unpack, clear out the living room, set up the music stand, extend the endpin, tighten the bow, tune up, and play, and everything of course needs to be put away when done, whereas the guitar is easy to pull out of the case and play anywhere–porch, bed, couch, staircase, kitchen, or even the loo. I worked on the bass parts to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Du Soldat and the Dvo≈�√�k Quintet. I can’t even believe I found that Stravinsky part in my old stacks. A bunch of dudes and I are going to try to work this stuff up and play it all this summer sometime.
Interestingly, if I hadn’t written this post, I could have probalby gotten in another 40 minutes or so of practice. Ah, the life of the obsessed…