Perhaps you have begun learning double bass as an adult, or switched from another instrument, or have re-started after a long hiatus. After what seems a considerable time applying yourself, what you envisioned as a pleasurable, leisure-time activity has turned out to be a steep uphill climb, and you wonder why you’re not quite getting “there”. It gets embarrassing, and even consulting with private teachers and other players gives you little that’s actionable except “practice more”.
Maybe there is a way to make the process quicker and easier…here is where we fall into temptation in ways that don’t come up for young students. The internet is beckoning with apparent express lanes to playing the bass, and unlike a young student, you have a credit card and don’t need the permission of your teacher to explore the bass world and try out whatever you want. However, the shortest route is truly the most direct – though the path may lie through the Valley of the Shadow of Interminable Scales. I encourage you to stay on the bus! Consider:
Taking responsibility for the teacher-student relationship
This is a tough one. Not every locality has good bass teachers, and not all teachers are good at teaching adults – perhaps because they’re not sure if adult students CAN achieve an excellent or elite level, or are unfamiliar with the differences in the learning process between adults and youth. Or, because they are uncomfortable critiquing adults who are senior in age. Unlike when you were a kid, you have to take responsibility, tell him your goals and ask for his commitment to giving you the whole, unvarnished truth in your lessons. Not “palliative lessons” that indulge your questions but which don’t push you ahead, or deciding for you that playing musicals or community orchestra is ‘good enough’ for an older player.
Choosing between challenging yourself too much or not enough.
A woman who’d started playing at retirement age told me she was attending rehearsals with the community orchestra – but was too afraid to actually play with the section. She had copies of the music, practiced it, but was afraid of taking the next step. Certainly, this new experience is going to be lumpy at first, but whenever you get up to a challenge and see others are doing it successfully, take courage from their precedent. Your goals and your passion for playing are as valid as anyone’s, yet, adults are highly concerned about being judged. Here’s a little secret: they’re judging you. They’re musicians – being perfectionistic and competitive is what they do. Part B of that inconvenient truth is that NOTHING you can do will change that. You’re not going to emerge fully-formed as a concert player like Venus from the seashell (and if you did, some players will still troll your youtubes), so the sooner you can shoulder the overt or covert criticism of your peers, the more you will put yourself in growth-producing performing situations.
Reframing your “comfort zone”
One could make the case that making progress in an art form is to live in a constant state of dissatisfaction with your own playing – but to put that in a more positive light, you could call it becoming comfortable in a state of constant challenge. The fastest advancement is produced by exposing yourself to literature JUST beyond your reach, while concurrently working to master technique at your level. Your teacher needs to be your collaborator in keeping you supplied with appropriately progressive pieces. It doesn’t help to practice virtuoso solo literature and not see improvement over extended periods – adult students are particularly enamoured with collecting advanced sheet music – but it DOES help to do an analysis of the famous works you love for the scales, arpeggios and bow strokes you will need to master, so you understand the scope of the work ahead of you.
Going gear-crazy in search of a “magic bullet”: in the long run, making measurable progress practicing on one decent-quality bass equipped with a mainstream brand of European strings IS MORE EXPEDIENT than buying numerous brands of strings and a more-expensive new bass. See this handy companion chart:
This is not to say that upgrading your gear when appropriate isn’t a good idea; you just want to be really clear and honest with yourself about when a playing plateau is the fault of your gear, or is “operator error”.
Getting sidetracked into specialized configurations: gut strings, alternate tuning (solo, fifths, Viennese etc), mixed sets of strings and gauges, special rosin, changing good bow hair for a different color, starting the “other” bow (German if you are a French player, and vice versa) can detract from developing good core technique. This can be confusing and a disappointment, since top-shelf professionals do use all these variations and can truthfully extol their advantages. For example, there are well-noted positives to learning arco technique on gut strings – but this flips to a disadvantage if you become focused on the STRINGS and trying out half a dozen brands for the one you can play best at your level, or if your teacher is not a gut-string arco player.
Beginning a second instrument. The thing with beginning an instrument (with the possible exception of double bass) is initially, you feel you’re making miraculous progress! Things that were a struggle on the bass are so much easier on the cello or (insert other instrument here)! Instead, enlist the help of a good teacher in drafting some short-term goals for your bass playing, and commit to creating a breakthrough. You’ll become a more accomplished musician in the time that would have been a “honeymoon” with the mandolin (accordion, piano), and should you choose to take up that second instrument after becoming highly skilled on the bass, you will bring more to the table.
Teaching lessons before you have mastered bass technique – or if pedagogy isn’t a major passion and serious study for you. There are many constructive ways to share your excitement about the bass while learning the art and science of teaching – such as teaching general music, doing playing demonstrations, or assisting the public school string teacher as an “orchestra parent”.
Though you may feel nearly desperate for some gratification when you are struggling with intonation and don’t like your sound, struggle is the rocky pathway to true progress, and one of the advantages you have as an adult is the ability to rationalize. If you didn’t feel the pain of struggle, you’d lack the motivation to seek improvement. Far worse than struggling with a facet of technique that you know needs improvement is laboring under an illusion. When you’re feeling that your playing is “awful” or “not up to par”, break that down into exactly what is bothering you. “Awful” is not actionable, but “my first finger is sharp in first position” is something you can correct via meticulous, attentive cultivation of the required muscle memory. We’ll get into lots more specifics and tips in coming articles! Happy practicing!