We often hear about using body weight rather than muscle tension to play the bass. Here are a few approaches I have learned about how to come into contact with natural body weight, and how to bring it at the bass.
In general, feet are roughly shoulder-width apart, with hips and shoulders balanced comfortably above, as in any baseball, tai chi, golf, or free-throw basketball stance. When the feet are too close together, there is a natural disinclination to use horizontal body motion (which is needed to pull the string to the side). When the feet are too far apart, the arms have less access to deploying natural body weight.
Be sure the shoulder blades are seated on the rib cage. (A quick check for this is to raise the shoulders to the ears, and then let them drop down to that “seated position”.) The head sits comfortably on top of the spine in such a way that one can simulate a Bobble-Head dashboard figurine. The knees are straight, though not locked or hyperextended. And the hips are positioned to enable a free and comfortable spinal alignment. (Very gently lifting the hair from the crown of the player’s head toward the ceiling, and inviting the player to imagine being a puppet suspended from that string, creates a sensation of easy spinal alignment. Also there are lots of great visual strategies about space above the head found in the Alexander Technique.)
Our weight can be balanced in the center of the feet such that the toes are engaged. The hips can be ever so slightly back, so that the body is in “the position of mechanical advantage”, as described in the Alexander Technique. This very subtle rotation of the hips allows the weight to “spill forward” through the arms, as water spills from one side of a cup in a kitchen sink.
The length of the endpin underneath adjusts the height of the instrument. As a starting point, put the heel of the left hand in the crook of the neck, and adjust the height of the endpin so that the player’s arm is parallel to the floor when the instrument is held at arm’s-length. The back edge of the shoulder bout comes into contact with the left side of the player’s stomach at belt level. Note that the side of the instrument ought not be flush against the body, nor should the back of the instrument lie flat against the player’s body. As a starting point, create a 45° angle between the line that connects the players big toes on the floor, and the parallel line created across the front of the bass. The weight of the instrument leans primarily into the player’s body, with the deflected weight on the pad of the left thumb, behind the neck. (It is important that their not be too much weight on the thumb. Many players today choose to use an angled end-pin to reduce the amount of weight on the left thumb. Others choose to sit in a stool. For these exercises in finding body weight, it is necessary to be in a standing position.)
When the instrument is held as described above, the player should feel free to rotate the entire body from the ankles, allowing access to all four corners of all four strings without undo strain.
Exercises in applying body weight:
Body Weight Check – Helicopter pivots: standing without holding the bass, in an open area of the room, with the body aligned as described above, gently pivot the body alternately to the right and the left allowing the hands and arms to swing freely, gently slapping into the hips when the body changes directions. (The pivoting of the body is not unlike throwing a Frisbee.) Be sure to keep the head neck and shoulders aligned, with the head in “bobble head” position. After a few minutes of this gentle swaying, one begins to feel an increased awareness of natural arm weight. A tremendous amount of force can be generated by simply using the body’s large muscle groups to move this arm weight.
Take it to the bass: setting the bow aside, with the left hand holding the bass comfortably in the heel of the neck, repeat this movement with the instrument against the body. Notice that although the range of motion is more limited, it is possible to wind up (moving to the right), and to throw the right wrist out, up, and onto the top of the strings near the end of the fingerboard, without engaging any arm or hand muscles. (The image here might be of flopping a dead fish, or a wet towel on to the end of the fingerboard, using only the pivoting of the body to jettison the arm up, in front of, and onto the strings.) Done correctly, the wrist lies on top of the strings, rather than the hand or fingers. Notice the lateral movement of the body, and the turning of the head, neck, and shoulders to the left, that enabled the right arm and hand to come out this far in front of the instrument. One should hear a kind of flump/bass-drum sound from the body of the instrument, as well as the clicking of the strings against the fingerboard.
Right arm: with the left hand holding the bass comfortably in the heel of the neck, place the right thumb near to the end of the fingerboard, so that the right elbow is slightly bent, and the palm of the right hand is more or less facing the floor. The first finger should lie along the far side of the G-string, with flesh touching the string from the tip of the first finger to the second knuckle. Now access the same weighted feeling experienced in the flopping exercise above.
Step one (“bass the pluck”) is an experiential exercise, designed to build the habit of pulling the weight of the right arm through the string with the body, rather than pinching with the fingers and hand to pluck the strings (a common, unfortunate habit, which leads to all manner of problems, both physical and musical). In this exercise, push the instrument away from the body with the left-hand (yes, left-hand), leaving the right arm in place, raking the strings of the instrument away from the body one at a time through the right hand fingers. In this exercise, and in the subsequent exercise, allow the right-hand to come rest on the next lower string, after pulling the upper string.
Notice how powerful the sound can be applying minimal forearm resistance, without using the right hand in any active way. As an exercise in contrast, notice the difference in tone quality when this exercise is repeated using only the very tip of one finger (with the right palm facing inward to the bass): the sound is thinner. Repeat the exercise a third time using both the first and second fingers braced alongside one another, with only the tips of the fingers touching the strings. Again, the tone is full, with a thick attack at the beginning of each note. This is a fundamental, and characteristic sound in nearly all iconic jazz bass playing.
In Step two (“pluck the bass”), the player will strive to create the same rich sound, with minimal forearm muscle activity, but moving this time with the right arm, keeping the bass stationary with the left arm. Be sure the movement includes the body – helicopter rotation.
Initially this exercise can involve exaggerated, superfluous body movement; it will build the habit of pulling from the large muscle groups: legs, back, shoulder, elbow, and arm, rather than pinching with the hand and fingers (small muscle groups). As with the above, do this exercise with three different types of finger contact: first with the side of the first finger touching from tip to second knuckle, then with only the very tip of the first finger, and finally with both the first and second fingers alongside one another, pulling simultaneously.
Step three: add the preparation: now let’s build the habit and awareness of preparing each movement. Imagine using a hammer to hit a nail into a floorboard. Each downward thrust of the hammer requires an upward preparation of the tool. Similarly, the preparation for pulling sound from the string is a slight elevation away from the body of the right elbow. Repeat the exercise above preparing each string in this way. In time, this movement will become automatic, and so efficient that it is nearly imperceptible.
The player should strive for a strong skeletal structure with soft flesh, tendons, and muscles. When done correctly, the directed weight of the body and the arm extract the same deep, bass drum like tone (flump) that we heard flopping the arm on to the strings in the exercise about. Notice that the string resonate across the table of the bass describing a large oval arc from side to side, and not into and away from the fingerboard.
You might want to review these habit-building exercises once or twice a day for many months. It is possible to complete all of these exercises in a total of about 30 seconds, and by doing so daily, one builds habits and easeful power that can dramatically impact success and longevity at the instrument.
Weight application in the left-hand:
Applying natural arm weight in the left hand is more complex than with the right arm. The goal is to avoid squeezing or gripping the strings with forearm muscles used for grasping. Instead, the natural skeletal shape of the arm and hand should be used to hang weight into the string in such a way that the string is firmly depressed against the fingerboard. I think about three pathways to weight application in the left hand:
1) Spear: While holding the bass in the position described above, raise the left hand over your head, and imagine you are hanging from a tree branch with the thumb curling around the other side of the branch. Next, hang your fingertips on top of the scroll of the bass, without using your thumb at all. In this position, relax and release head, neck, shoulder, and arm muscles, taking note of how heavy and powerful the left arm feels.
Now take it to the bass: put the hand in playing position, however allow the left thumb to curl around the side of the neck close to your face, as with the imaginary tree branch. Without applying any pressure at all, lay the flesh of your fingers and hand on the neck and strings in this position at the very top of the neck, where the circumference of the neck is thinnest. Now simply drop the arm, without widening the shape of the left hand. As the neck diameter increases, the hand will stop, like a ring on a cone.
In this way one can sense the application of weight, without gripping – merely holding the skeletal shape in place. I like the image of a confident warrior at rest, leaning on a spear stuck into the earth.
2) Slap: now position the pad of the thumb behind the neck. Raise and lower the left elbow without lifting the shoulder blade from the rib cage. Notice how the palm of the left hand turns to face the floor when the elbow is raised, and faces the player when the elbow is lowered. Keeping the thumb in place (yet flexible), raise the left elbow and fingers out and away from the strings. Now drop the left elbow, and slap the length of the fingers against the strings. Imagine your left hand is a cobra, coiling up and back, and then striking with a movement that begins at the elbow.
In this exercise one can sense the arm weight power that can be applied into the fingers from the movement of larger muscle groups.
3) Rotation: at the subtlest level, the arm weight felt in the spear, and slap, must be directed to each playing finger, so that in most cases the majority of arm weight is primarily in only one finger at a time. (Depressing a string with more than one finger at a time requires gripping, muscle tension, and inaccessibility to concentrated weight, since weight is dispersed across multiple contact points.) Forearm rotation is the key to this essential component of left hand technique. Forearms can pronate (turn clockwise with left arm) and supinate (turn counter-clockwise with left arm) with tremendous speed and agility, coordinating fast movements in the fingers, with larger/slower movements in the arms. Turn an imaginary doorknob with your left hand. That is forearm rotation. It should be noted that forearm rotation is not powerful enough on its own to depress the string, but is an essential component in directing the weight that does depressed the strings. Notice that the flexors (closing the fingers into a fist) are engaged, but the extensors (opening the fingers) are not used. Overuse of extensors is often the cause of repetitive-stress injuries, tendinitis, and carpal tunnel afflictions.
Three aspects of weight transfer together: Put the thumb behind the neck, raise the cobra head up and away from the strings, drop the elbow and strike with the hand, landing on only the tip of the second finger on any convenient pitch in first or second position on the top two strings. (In fact, aim for the neither the full pad of the finger, nor the very tip of the finger, but to a location between those two points, where the nail joint of the finger is at about a 45-degree angle to the string.)
It may take several attempts to coordinate the movements and strike the string accurately. Be sure not to modify this gesture in order to achieve more precise or accurate contact. Precision will come in a short time. The goal must be to transfer weight into the string. Once you are having some success with the second finger on the top two strings, repeat this exercise on the bottom two strings, allowing the torso to rotate slightly to the right to help position the hand over the lower strings.
Next, repeat this exercise with the fourth finger (pinky). This will require supinating forearm rotation, and will help to build strength in the smallest finger. The 3rd finger (ring finger) will come along for the ride.
Finally repeat this exercise with the first finger on all four strings, notice that the hand must be thrown in the opposite direction (depending on the location of your thumb behind the neck), as though one were throwing salt over the left shoulder.
The next level of this exercise is to follow the hammer-on exercise above with plucking the string fully with the right arm after an accurate strike has the string firmly depressed. Just before plucking the string with the right arm, soften the muscles, and release the weight in the left arm. This builds the habits of weighted contact, thick attack, and rich tone. With this technique, each pitch can sound like an open string. (Thank you Ray Brown!)
One final step in the left-hand low position and technique development is to add a step to the exercise above. After hammering-on a finger, raise the elbow again, pulling off the left hand playing finger to the side, allowing it to come to rest on the inside of the next higher string. These pull-offs can be done from the playing finger to an open string or from a higher-pitched playing finger to a lower-pitched finger (from the pinky fourth finger to the pointer first finger, for example). This is a great way to build calluses on the left-hand fingertips, and also to build the habit of taking fingers off without using extensors.
Here are two video exercises I like to use to build habits of left arm weight transfer. These are done without the use of the right arm. The first uses six note pattern the pattern 4-1-2-4-2-1, and the second uses the eight note pattern 1-2-4-2-1-4-2-4.
I hope these ideas are helpful to some of you out there. I look forward to hearing about your own experiences with these and other exercises in weight application at the double bass.