2015 - 2016 ARCHIVE

Pasquale Masaro's Bottesini Recital

Our student Pasquale, who is specializing in the three-string double bass, gave a summer recital during the Brussels Midi-Minimes Festival: four Bottesini pieces, accompanied by Toby Sermeus on an authentic Pleyel piano from Bottesini's time.

Tuning the Pleyel piano
Sans paroles...

Natacha's bass recital

Our student Natacha Save played a recital at the Midi Minimes Festival with works by Sofia Gubaidulina, Joseph Jongen and Jacques Vanherenthals.

Isaline and Natacha's Exam

Just before the summer holidays we organized the Postgraduate Exams for Natacha and Isaline. Since the focus of their course was on Audition Preparation, we staged a mock-up audition at the Opera. Unfortunately only Studio 5 was free, but this added to the realism since this is one of the halls where first audition rounds are held.

We got some panels to hide the candidates, then the jury had to decide which of the over 20 excerpts they wanted to hear. There were two concertos as well, the evergreens Dittersdorf and Koussevitzky. The jury consisted of Tony Nys, principal Viola and Viola teacher at the Conservatory, Martin Rosso and José Vilaplana, two wonderful bassists from the Opera bass section, and Haruko Tanabe, 2nd Violin.

Of course, since this was not a real audition, they each had to play the full three rounds, alternating with each other. Three fifteen-minute rounds can be very heavy, especially when you have to regain your strength and concentration after every round. The first round was quite convincing for both, but one could feel the energy slipping towards the end of the audition. 

After the ordeal, we had a long discussion with both candidates, followed by lunch at the opera canteen. Glad to say they both succeeded and were awarded the Diploma. General remarks centered around preparation and stamina: an audition is almost like a sporting event in that it is physically and mentally exhausting. Managing your energy and concentration is of the utmost importance, and this can only be achieved by serious training. It can't be left to chance. Ideally, the student who wants to do auditions should be in a permanent state of "readiness", physically, mentally, and musically. With the fierce competition out there, musicians can't afford to adopt a "wait and see" attitude when it comes to auditions. 

Some orchestras demand technical perfection. At the opera, we don't. Perfection is an illusion anyway. As an opera musician you need flexibility, openness, fast reactions, a feeling for a vocal style, a sound that blends easily, and great concentration: with operas lasting up to six hours, concentration and energy management take on a wholly different meaning. These things are more important to us than flawless, mechanically perfect playing.

It's important to play extremely well and to be over-prepared, but it's also important to know the style of the orchestra for which you will be playing your audition: sometimes they don't want to hear anything "personal" in your playing. Make sure you know what they want, and make sure you can do it. 

If you're serious about auditioning, you will have to make some sacrifices. You will need to start early: if your audition is in two or three weeks' time and you have to start from scratch, you're in trouble. 

You may need to quit your folk group or your jazz band for a while. You may need to invest in an instrument that combines good sound with ease of playing: a fabulous sounding bass that is too hard to play for longer than fifteen minutes may not be the wisest choice. 

You will probably benefit from regular physical exercise to increase stamina: auditions often involve exhausting travel, long waits, no time to eat properly, nervousness. At our latest bass audition we had people coming in by plane and train with huge, heavy flight cases. It always breaks my heart to see them arrive, dead tired but full of hope, knowing that they will only have ten minutes to make a first good impression. 

Be prepared.

Enrico Fagone Master Class/
Dates confirmed!

Our dear friend and colleague, the extraordinary Enrico Fagone, will give a two-day Master Class for our students at the Brussels Conservatory. 

Dates: tuesday 20 and wednesday 21 December 2016 

19th June 2016

Getting near the end of the Academic Year...
For those who would like to join our Bass Class next term, check out the Brussels Conservatory's websites for all kinds of practical information:


The Admission Exam for double bass (both modern and baroque bass) is on Monday 29th August at 10 a.m.


The courses we offer for double bass are the following:

- Bachelor Modern Bass (tuning in fourths)
- Bachelor Historical Basses (various instruments / tunings)*
- Master Modern Bass (tuning in fourths)
- Master Historical Basses (various instruments / tunings)*

- Post-Graduate Course (one or two semesters)
- Concert Musician (one or two semesters)

For all questions concerning the double bass study programs, you can contact the conservatory, or you can join me at this mail-address: klc2612@hotmail.com

12th June 2016

At the Opera we're in the middle of a new production of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd". Not an opera in the strict sense of the word but a musical full of gorgeous tunes that has the quality of all great art: it grows on you, it gets better every time you hear it (the "Parlor Songs" are a personal favorite). It would be hard to imagine an "easier" bass part, at least technically speaking, but the writing is extremely effective. Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is well worth checking out (the internet will take you there in seconds). You might not know his name, but "West Side Story" should ring a bell...

Here's an interesting and inspiring short quote from Sondheim about his first teacher:

"(Robert) Barrow made me realize that all my romantic views of art were nonsense. I had always thought an angel came down and sat on your shoulder and whispered in your ear 'dah-dah-dah-DUM.' Never occurred to me that art was something worked out. And suddenly it was skies opening up. As soon as you find out what a leading tone is, you think, Oh my God. What a diatonic scale is – Oh my God! The logic of it. And, of course, what that meant to me was: Well, I can do that. Because you just don't know. You think it's a talent, you think you're born with this thing. What I've found out and what I believe is that everybody is talented. It's just that some people get it developed and some don't."

With Martin and José, before the show

Kabuki and Kadenzas/
Questions about artistic freedom/
Cadence or decadence?

On one of my off-mornings i went to listen to Alessio's bass exam. Alessio Campanozzi is a student of my distinguished colleague Christian Vanderborght at the French-speaking side of the Brussels Conservatory (complicated country, Belgium...) but he will be joining our Dutch-speaking bass class as from next october. By the way, he did a good job at his exam :-)

Since one of the jury members was missing, i was asked to sit in for him which i gladly did. This gave me a chance to hear three students in the concerto round of their exam.

I won't go into the details of every student's performance, but listening to the first two movements (no 3rd movements were played at all) of Bottesini B minor, Dittersdorf II, and Vanhal brought home to me once more what makes or breaks a performance, or at least what one can do or avoid to get a better result.

One of the main issues is freedom. Freedom is a concept that we often take for granted, although in a huge proportion of our world it's far from acquired. Freedom, if we limit it to artistic matters, is worth thinking about - thinking deeply. How free is a musician to play the way he or she likes? Are there any limits? Where do the concepts of "freedom" and "taste" meet? There are many such questions, and it's useful to try and formulate some answers.

It's something we often discuss in class, because it's an important aspect of our profession. As an ensemble or orchestra player, your freedom will be more limited than as a soloist. But does that mean that a soloist can get away with just anything?

Knowledge of style is important. Gone are the days (at least one would hope so) when you could play a baroque sonata or a romantic concerto with the same kind of sound and vibrato (come to think of it, i'm not so sure these days are really gone yet...)

What set off this train of thought about freedom was the fact that i heard a lot of "personal interpretation" in the cadenzas. Most students had opted for the Gruber/Streicher cadenzas in Vanhal and Dittersdorf. And although i do love these cadenzas very dearly, and although they are mandatory in some orchestra auditions, they're not always the best choice.

Not surprisingly, Streicher's own versions are the standard against which all other interpretations are judged. Like it or not, but these are Streicher's cadenzas and you have to be a hell of a bass player to come even close to his level of mastery.

Why is that? Is it only because of Streicher's superior technique, musicality, and sound character? Or is there more to it than that?

I think the answer is: coherence. 

Any cadenza, no matter who wrote or played and recorded it, should have an inner logic. It should tell us a coherent story. A cadenza consists of musical phrases, just like any other (western) music. What we often hear, in an attempt to "do it differently", is chopped-up and re-pasted phrases that don't seem to make much sense anymore: arbitrary fluctuations in tempo, inserting silences where they don't logically belong, ignoring silences where they do belong, distortions of rhythmic figures.

Played in such a way, the cadenza does indeed become something "different", but it doesn't seem to make much sense any more. So i will always urge my students to try and discover the inner flow of the music first of all, before trying to do something "special".

This is a train of thought that permeates the way i teach, and that i constantly question as well. It's something we often discuss in class: does our music indeed have an inner logic, does it have a rhetoric quality that is ours to discover and bring out? I think it does. Does this limit our freedom to play however we like? I think it does. Does this stop us from having a personal, heart-felt interpretation? Hell, no.

There are so many ways in which we can make the music our own, as if we had composed it ourselves (we should always play everything we have to play - be it by pleasure or by obligation - as if it was OUR music. We should defend it and care for it as if it was our child. If we can't do that, we shouldn't be playing). There are so many shades of timbre, note length, note shape, phrase shape, subtle dynamics, we have so many agogic nuances at our disposal. Playing personally within a limited stylistic framework is absolutely possible and it's more exhilarating to find means of expression in little things than in the big gestures of trying to be different just for the sake of it.

The concept of artistic freedom is fascinating indeed. Performing musicians are artists in their own right. Finding the right balance between the limitless freedom of the creator and the tight harness of the performer as a mere machine of re-creation can be incredibly stimulating.

In this respect, knowledge is as important as artistic temperament: reading treatises doesn't harm, and listening to as many great musicians and as much music as you possibly can, in all genres, is a great form of schooling. Throwing off the veil of ignorance and the many prejudices we all carry with us, can only enrich us as performers.

Our western idea of artistic freedom isn't shared everywhere in the world, and it's good to be aware of that and to understand it. As i've been informed, japanese Kabuki theatre has been played in the exact same way for some 400 years: same costumes, same way of speaking, same staging, same dances and gestures, and often by actors that are descendants in a straight line from the original artists. 

It makes me wonder... We have no continuity in performance like Kabuki has. If we did, we wouldn't have to guess how to play baroque and classical music (and we probably often guess wrong: see how we played baroque 50 years ago and now... and yet, back then, people also thought they were right. Who knows how future musicians will poke fun at our way of playing Bach?)

But let's come back to the subject of cadenzas in relation to freedom for a minute. A cadenza in itself is, supposedly, the "free" part of a concerto: originally often improvised, a kind of inspiration-of-the moment, a chance to show off. Virtuosity is implied. It is part of the catalogue of "Affects". It can uplift the audience's spirits and increase the listener's heart-rate. What's not to be "free"? (It's precisely because soloists started abusing their cadential freedom that composers decided to write the cadenzas themselves, fixing them once and for all. Cadenzas had become showcases for the soloist. They had become "decadent". Too long and too "foreign" to the concerto's character, they had often become separate entities with little or no relation to the original composition. At least from the composer's point of view this gives us an inkling of what we can or cannot do with a cadenza. On the other hand, disobedience can be an artistic quality as well).

I believe one can distinguish between a creative freedom, where a player can indeed freely improvise or prepare a personal cadenza (wouldn't it be great if we, modern players, were capable of improvising a cadenza on the spot?) and the questionable freedom to play in a rambling, fragmented style where nobody knows what you're trying to say (least of all yourself). In the case of pre-composed cadenzas the music itself dictates in great part what we can do with it.

Coincidentally, only last week the subject came up in Natacha's lesson: wouldn't it be in the spirit of what a cadenza stands for, to play, say, a contemporary cadenza in a classical concerto? This is nothing new, it's been done before. Or wouldn't it be nice if a violinist or pianist had the guts to ignore the composed cadenza (let's imagine the Brahms violin concerto), replacing it with his or her own? 

In these cases, we can imagine a cadenza in a style that's completely at odds with the style of the concerto proper: a culture clash, as it were. 

However, when we choose to play a "standard" cadenza, do we have the same degree of freedom? How far can we stray from the style that the cadenza imposes on us? Perhaps even more interestingly (and this, i guess, is where i often feel a strong incongruence): does the composed, "standard" cadenza fit the style of the concerto itself? And should we do something about it if it doesn't? 

Let's look again at the Gruber/Streicher cadenzas in Dittersdorf and Vanhal. Not surprisingly (with Streicher as the co-composer) these rather long virtuoso demonstrations (especially in Vanhal) fit Streicher and his playing style like a glove. But when we choose to play the concertos in a somewhat more "classical" way, these cadenzas can suddenly sound rather out of character. Especially when we emphasize their purely instrumental, flashy, virtuosic elements. Then the whole thing starts to sound more Romantic than Classical. Or, to put it bluntly, more Hysterical than Historical. One student's cadenza, some time ago,  sounded more like something from a Flamenco piece than Dittersdorf. And she wasn't Spanish.

I have to admit that sometimes i'm in two minds about this whole cadenza/freedom thing. Both options can be valid, i think, even today. But personally, i would most probably try and find a way of playing in which the cadenza is a continuation of the style and the manner in which i have just played the movement (preferably as close as possible to the original style) and not something that is clearly 250 years younger. (Unless as a kind of musical joke of course. One of the candidates, who had indeed taken up the challenge of composing his own cadenza, quoted some Fryba fragments. Needless to say, this only works if you do it really well. A good joke told badly won't get you many laughs).

What would you do?

Why not, first of all, study the original manuscript cadenzas? True, they're not all that exciting (one wonders why Sperger wrote such bland cadenzas, he who was such a good composer. There's a recording of one of his cantatas that is absolutely breath-taking). But on the other hand they offer us the challenge of trying to find ways to make them "speak", in the style of the period.

In the end, we remain with more questions than answers. If only we could hear how Sperger played... But then again, we might find his playing totally "out of style", like some of us do with Koussevitzky's recordings of his own music. Yeah, Koussevitzky was a lousy musician...

It's interesting to read what Joachim Quantz has to say about cadenzas for wind instruments. He advises to make a cadenza that can be played in a single breath. Isn't that wonderful? How about a cadenza you can play in a single bow stroke? Actually that's exactly what Charlotte did a few weeks ago, in Dittersdorf's 2nd movement. It was a beautiful "haiku"-cadenza. 

Just a breath of air, 
a butterfly's paper wings
flittering and... gone.

There was a lot more food for thought at the exam, from how to behave on stage or in performance (as long as the piano is still playing, your performance is NOT over, so don't start fidgeting) to how to tune, how to control your nerves, how to get over mistakes and continue the flow as if nothing had happened. Some students alternated, playing first one concerto and the other one later in the morning, which seemed to affect their concentration negatively. Alessio played both his concerti in one single performance, which seemed like a better idea.

Just one other thing: depending on the goal of your studies it might be a good idea to take the Vanhal concerto down again to its original octave. Conductors in an orchestra audition don't generally appreciate a bass player who is trying to sound like a canary (with a cold). They want to hear a bass.

About cadenzas in classical music (don't be afraid, it's short - just like a cadenza ought to be):

About the meaning of the word "cadenza":

About Vanhal's octaves and articulations, see this blog:

10th June 2016

The last straight line... next week Isaline and Natacha will have their mock audition at the Opera: orchestra excerpts and two concerti. Nothing really special. Ginastera's "Variaciones Concertantes", Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Stravinski, Prokofiev etc. The traditional audition fare. Some tutti passages and some solos.

Whilst we were working on Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kijé", we used the iPad to have a quick listen to what Sting did with this beautiful melody in his wonderful song "Russians". When Isaline told me she didn't know the song at all, i realized - not without a shock - how old i have become. For the young generation this is definitely "Ancient Music", but since i believe that listening to all possible styles can be very inspiring, here is Sting's take on Prokofiev, along with the original bass part:

The original articulations are quite interesting and worth the effort: playing the melody in an "instinctive" way will result in more regular ties. Following the original indications gives us a different perfume. Then again, when you have to fill a big concert hall all by yourself with a double bass, you might be tempted to use more bows - and i think you should, if the need arises. Reality always overrules theory. 

I would encourage studying this solo with all possible and impossible bowings, including starting up-bow. Trying (and not only "trying", but really practicing) all the up/down/separate/tied combinations will give you a great vocabulary of possibilities and will prepare you even better to play the original version really well, than if you only practiced the original for weeks on end.

Apart from that, i spent a couple of days on the jury for the Ancient Music Department's Chamber Music Exams. Some really nice programs and good playing by a wide range of musicians and instruments. 

One always learns a lot on these occasions: what works, what doesn't, and the reasons why. Depending on where the students come from and what teaching systems they've been subjected to, one can distinguish the fearful who dread the whole idea of "exams", the ones who are a little too relaxed because "it's only chamber music", the people who have really got their act together (with the accent on "together"), the ones who are almost at a fully artistic and professional level, and everything in between. 

It's also an exercise in distinguishing instrumental technique from ensemble skills. Although good technique will naturally facilitate the freedom to play together without inhibitions, sometimes you will come across those who count solely on their instrumental abilities to get through their programs without too much damage. 

As a jury member it's important to try and make abstraction of the individual's instrumental skills and to concentrate on each student's ability and willingness to engage in a musical conversation, in a give-and-take with the other players. I always come away feeling privileged to have witnessed these varying degrees of exchange that every so often leave me a little bewildered, or, on a few very precious occasions, almost moved to tears. 

The care a student has bestowed on his or her chamber music work also shows in the choice and in the construction of the musical program itself (after all, they have to play a 50 minute recital) and in the paper programme they submit to the jury's scrutiny. Preparing a proper text, with or without illustrations, is part of the job. For some students it's clearly been an afterthought, others make their flyer a highly individual and original affair.

At the opera, we're in the last preparatory stages of our "Sweeney Todd" production, a musical that in spite of its horrible story is full of the most delightful music. A pity we didn't need any extra bass players this time, because it would have been great to get some of the students to play with us. But there will be some occasions next season.

This morning i'm going to listen to Alessio's bass exam. He will be one of our new students, after the summer holidays. 

2nd June 2016

Great news: Brussels Conservatory gave us the green light to invite Maestro Enrico Fagone for a two-day Master Class!
Dates to be confirmed. Probably early 2017 or next spring.
This link will show you one of his live performances:

Enrico is a dear friend and a very inspiring musician. I had the great honor and fortune to give a Master Class for his students in Lugano last year, and to play next to him with his orchestra. I'm thrilled to have him over here in our Class 273. For the students as well as for myself it will be a fresh look at things, a different point of view, a new inspiration. Can't wait :-)


A year or two ago, my eminent piano colleague Daniel Blumenthal found a copy of the Bass Method by Johann Hindle (1792-1862). This method is of some historical importance since it's meant for the "modern" bass, tuned in fourths; but actually Hindle himself was one of the last virtuosos (if not the last one) on the Viennese Violone, which was tuned in thirds and fourths (the so-called "Viennese Tuning"). Clearly, at the time of publication, the Viennese Bass had become an anachronism and was on its way out. What's interesting is to see that Hindle tunes this "new" bass to F-A-D-G, with an F as the lowest string, not an E. 

It's a pity that Hindle doesn't even mention the Viennese Tuning at all in these books. At the time when the first methods for instruments appeared, the third-fourth tuning had gone out of fashion, and the one bass player who really knew the tuning as a virtuoso, and who could have left us at least some indications about his way of playing, apparently decided there was no longer any need for it. This means that there is no historical Viennese Tuning Method whatsoever. The only Method ever written was the one by Dr. Igor Pecevski. It was published a few years ago on his own great website viennesetuning.com, but the site is closed and inaccessible now.

I had been toying with the idea of a method long before i knew about Igor's effort, but i gave up on the idea when i learned that he had beaten me to it. Now i might reconsider it... A lot of players are discovering the old tunings, so why not give them a hand?

It's interesting to have a look at the drawing below: the bass is still fitted with frets. The bow looks like it's a "french" model but interestingly from his verbal description of the bow hold one can only conclude that the "german" hold is meant. One should always be careful not to jump to conclusions: drawings are not photographs. Basing our assumptions solely on pictorial "evidence" can be a slippery slope. If by any chance the verbal description had been missing, more than one well-meaning but over-zealous bassist would have concluded that Hindle played the french bow. (Which he maybe did! Remember, from his method we could never even guess he was a virtuoso in Viennese Tuning... and neither from the drawing nor from the description of the bow hold that he recommends, can we conclude how Hindle himself played the bass).

Historical insight, or at the very least historical curiosity, is part of what it means to be a musician. It enriches our understanding and our playing. Usually there are many more questions than we find answers. The good thing is that questions can be a lot more inspiring than facts. And many things that were once considered solid "facts" are now myths...

Our Conservatory Library staff was very helpful in scanning the whole two-volume Method, so now we have the original (in good but quite fragile condition) as well as an electronic version. As time permits (always a big problem, "time"...) i might publish an in-depth analysis of the Hindle bass method on one of my other blogs: viennesetuning.blogspot.be

1st June 2016

Last thursday José played his exam. Preceeded by a flute, he was the second candidate of the day. He was followed by another flute, two clarinets and three pianists. Proud to say he was the only musician who played everything by heart, even the modern piece, and that he was the only one who presented a truly varied program, ranging from baroque to contemporary. Accompanied by Cécile Mangeot, he managed to bring very personal and convincing renditions of music by Bach, Bottesini and Wolfram Wagner, using a different type of bow for each piece.

The jury was impressed enough to select José for the opening concert of the conservatory's Academic Year, next october. He will perform the "Kyrie" piece. Some of the jury's comments praised José's use of silence as an integral part of the music and his strong stage presence, his obvious passion for music and his command of style.

We tried to get a harpsichord for Bach, but transporting it from the other building was too much of a job for just ten minutes of music. It's understandable of course, but still it would have made the recital into something very different. A Steinway concert grand, unfortunately, is not the best match for a double bass. (Not even for a flute, as a matter of fact...) Even with the screen and the small podium, and with José's powerful bass, the balance wasn't as good as it could have been.

This experience made me realize that, if we want and need a harpsichord, the best idea is to get our own. And just like i don't mind playing baroque or classical music on an EUB (electric upright bass), i have nothing against an electric harpsichord. I know this is a touchy subject for many musicians, but purism is not what i'm interested in. I have performed Bach, Sperger, Vanhal e tutti quanti on an electric double bass equipped with gut strings and frets. Some audiences were sceptical, to say the least. But invariably, when asked to be as open-minded as they could, and given enough time to disconnect the visual from the aural and to let go of their prejudices, listeners were always very positive in the end. The medium is not the message. Often one can hear musicians play on the most "authentic" instruments available, without them even coming close to some kind of a convincing historically informed performance or to an aesthetic or emotional experience. It's not about the instrument. It's about the soul.

So what i did was to get a Roland C-30 harpsichord for our bass class. Always in tune, easy to move, comes with various high quality samples of French and Flemish harpsichords, pianoforte and even organ, different temperaments, couplings, and pitches. Just what the doctor ordered. And i'm happy to say that we found a few real, serious harpsichord players who are open-minded enough to play this "thing". Isn't that wonderful?

The only two students left who have an exam to play are Natacha and Isaline: they will play a mock audition with orchestral excerpts and concertos on June 16th.

23 May 2016

This morning Charlotte played her class exam in Room 274: Koussevitzky 1st and 2nd Movements and Dittersdorf II, first two movements as well. During the past week we had the occasion to listen once more to Koussevitzky's own recording of his concerto's "Andante": Louis "At Last, My Right Arm Is Complete Again"  Ponseele has started playing again, and he's on Koussevitzky too. 

(The quote about the right arm comes from the musical "Sweeney Todd" - recommended listening for all music lovers)

The Koussevitzky recording is a real treasure: there's so much we can learn from the Master's own playing. Derided by some misguided present-day players for its old-fashioned style, it's a historical document as well as a very moving musical testimony. The fact that nobody plays like that anymore, today, is no valid argument in the discussions about the quality of this recording. Many players dislike the portamenti or glissandi, and the very free tempi that the composer chooses in his own piece.

(By the same token, i daresay that if Bach had made recordings, many people would probably hate "what he did to Bach's music". But any such discussion is futile: here we have a recording by a composer of his own work. What's not to like? Do we really think we know better than the composer himself? Are we really so arrogant as to believe that the way we play is superior to what Koussevitzky does? )

In the late afternoon lesson, Louis played the Andante as well. We discussed phrasing, fingerings, string color (using the 2nd string for timbre changes - or not?), portamento, freedom in tempo and rubato, lengthening some notes (which ones? why?), vibrato on harmonics within a phrase or not, dynamics (the Andante is in a kind of A-B-A' form. I'm not an advocate of playing repeated or similar material in the same way as the first time), all the parameters that allow us to express the emotional content of the music. 

Analyzing what Koussevitzky does is an interesting exercise in developing sensitivity. In his recording, for instance, he plays the middle part quite fast - faster and with much more freedom than most modern players would dare to do. It's interesting to "try this at home" and see how that works out. Koussevitzky gets away with it. Would you? If not, why not?

Trying many different ways of playing, different fingerings and bowings, different phrasings and timbres, different dynamics, shades and shapes: all these things contribute to better understanding and better playing. Sure, it will probably take more time to study a piece in this way. But it will provide the musician with a gigantic vocabulary, a huge palette of possibilities that will serve him or her for a lifetime. To me, this is the only way to become a true musician.

But before Louis, José had a piano rehearsal in the conservatory's Concert Hall, his only chance to play there before his Exam Recital that takes place next thursday. The hall sounds great, but even with the tremendously powerful bass by Barnabas Racz that José is playing, he needs all the help he can get. So we tried out different positions for the bass and the piano, and we used a small podium for the bass, and a reflecting screen behind it.

In the Bach gamba sonata, José is using a light walnut baroque bow. Excellent for timbre and for the articulations, but a bit delicate against a concert grand piano. Pity we won't have a harpsichord on thursday. We found out that tempo is important in the sound balance: in the 4th movement you need a certain tempo for the piano to articulate lightly. If you play too slowly, the articulations get heavier and the bass is drowned out. When the tempo is fast, everything clears up and the bass becomes audible again.

For Bottesini, José will use the french bow. For the modern piece by Wolfram Wagner, we chose the modern german bow. 

Incidentally, while we were working on this piece i had flashbacks of rock music that i used to listen to (and still do, as a matter of fact): some of the rhythmic figures in Kyrie seemed to come straight out of Jethro Tull's rock idiom ("Songs from the Wood", to be precise). Perhaps this should not come as a complete surprise, with "Kyrie" drawing its inspiration from Gregorian chant and Jethro Tull often turning to english medieval tunes and colors. 

As long as you believe that everything is connected to everything, you're bound to find parallels and similarities everywhere, even between seemingly disparate worlds. Recognizing these connections and actively seeking them out can help you enrich your listening and playing experiences. 

We also handed in the final program booklet which we had been working on last weekend:

18th May 2016

Pasquale played his 2nd exam in the HIPP- Department (Historically Informed Practice and Performance). This time he had an all-Bottesini program, which he played in the tuning of (high to low) Bb - F - C, i.e. a semitone above Solo Tuning. Indeed, Bottesini often used this high scordatura, and in his manuscripts we usually find several versions of his works, both in "regular" and in high Solo Tuning.

Again, a three-string bass was used, and a Bottesini-style bow (an original italian bow from Bottesini's time). 

Here is the program:

José is getting ready for his "Concert Musician" exam. In the end, he decided on three of his favorite works: Bach's 2nd Gamba Sonata (last two movements), Bottesini's 2nd Concerto (first two movements), and the compulsory piece from the latest Sperger-Competition, Wolfram Wagner's "Kyrie".

Last week we had a three-hour teaching session on the "Kyrie" alone, and the more we hear and play the piece, the more it grows on us. It's really great music that invites you to find colors, atmospheres, emotions. In fact, it's become my favorite Wagner piece. Sorry, Richard...

Most probably, José will use three different bows for his recital: the light walnut Gastaldo baroque bow for Bach, a modern French bow for Bottesini, and the modern German bow for Kyrie: three very different sound worlds for three very different music styles.

Part of his exam is the preparation of the printed program, so he spent quite some time writing, typing, and finding pictures and references, as well as finding ways to express his own views, his own ideas about the music. Since he's Spanish, it will be nice to have his original Spanish text alongside an English translation.

Charlotte's class exam, this coming monday, will consist of the Koussevitzky and Dittersdorf concerti. Next month will be Natacha's and Isaline's turn with mock auditions at the Opera: a selection of orchestra excerpts, two concerti, and a piece they choose themselves.

Louis is back in business: the plaster cast has gone and his right hand seems to function normally again. We still have to go easy on the fortes and fortissimos, but it's a relief that his skateboarding extravaganza hasn't left him all crippled.

Here are some photos of the "Pizzicato Robot" that Louis' father invented. It enabled his son to exercise his left hand separately. An ergonomically shaped button-studded handgrip, connected to four electro-magnets, driving four piano-hammers that struck the strings from below. Better not show this to any composers of contemporary music, or we'll all have to get one of these machines...

With jazz students Fil and Jérémie i played some duets today: baroque with Fil (Guillemant cello duos), and some jazz songs with Jérémie. Ramon came with the Prelude from Bach's 2nd cello Suite, which he has to play as part of his jazz bass exam. We discussed articulations and style and we tried to get the music to sound more like speaking phrases than singing melodies. It's an approach that makes the music sound more natural.

28th April 2016

These days we're all preparing for the various exams that the conservatory imposes. Our jazz bass students (Filippe, Jérémie, Emanuel) and their jazz-classmates have been playing lots of gigs. Their exams take the form of ensemble concerts, and one often hears their infectious grooves resonating throughout the building.

The classical department should do the same. For too long, exams have been tests in which mistakes were counted and added up, and in which the joy of playing and listening was not part of the equation. 

It always amazes me how any art-institution can ignore the basic, elementary values that should constitute its core business: the communication of emotion to an audience. Learning to recognize the emotions that are inherent to (and sometimes hidden inside) a composition, finding parallels between the composer's emotions and one's own, then selecting the musical tools to bring them to life and to pass them on to the listener who will, in his or her turn, recognize these feelings - thus closing the circle. For too long, teaching music has mainly, or even solely, concentrated on the technical tools without pointing out what they can and must be used for. Flashy technique and faultless playing have been idealized at the expense of a true, deeply human connection with both the composer and the audience.

I have to say that, at least in the HIPP department of the Brussels Conservatory, the tendency is towards seeing exams as true performances or concerts and not so much as technical, clinical exercises. In my classes, both in Modern and in Historical Bass, the accent is on truly understanding the music and its emotional content, then identifying and perfecting the skills we need to bring this content to life for an audience. 

Studying "pure" technique for years on end, in the hope that one day we will be allowed to add a touch of musicality to our digital skills (we seem to have forgotten what "digital" really means), and that we will somehow miraculously be able to do so, is a waste of time. Emotion and empathy are qualities to be cultivated as well, from the earliest age, and they should be developed along with the technical ability to express them. To paraphrase one of the less intelligent quotes of the past few decades: it's the emotion, stupid!

José has discovered the baroque bow. He's studying Bach's 2nd Gamba Sonata and some Sperger, and i wanted to hear how he would play these styles with a different bow so i let him try my Gastaldo. Using gut strings is out of the question at this point. We'll do that later, after the competition and exam. But just changing bows made a huge difference in his understanding and playing. Articulations have become so much more transparent and varied, the music has started to take on a third dimension: more depth, more plasticity. Less singing, more talking. For music styles that are closer to the spoken language, to story-telling, the baroque bow is a tool that is far superior to its modern counterpart. One wouldn't want to play Bruckner or Wagner with this featherweight walnut stick, but Bach and Sperger seem to be delighted.

Again, it's a question of using the appropriate tools: both the material ones, the hardware as it were, and the mental, technical and emotional ones. It's all connected. Listening to what the music needs, finding out how we can best serve the musical content of a given piece, discovering how we can make the ink on the paper come alive so that it means something to a present-day audience, this is the greatest pleasure a musician can have. 

The shapes of individual notes and phrases, the timbre we give each note, the dynamics, the "soul". The hardware: instruments, bows, strings, rosin. The set-up, the instrument's balance. The knowledge we gain from studying treatises, books, biographies and manuscripts. The inspiration that a great (or not so great) performance can awaken in us. The examples of other musicians, conductors, actors, but also our normal daily interactions with other people. Everything is connected and can contribute to our growth as musicians. We must be thieves, we must steal with our eyes and ears, with all of our senses. We must be open-minded enough to accept different ideas, to incorporate what different "schools" can teach us. Music then, is not a skill we can learn by just studying technique or by being stubborn in our ideas and opinions. That's why we have no "school" in our Bass class, except the school of openness, the school of humanity, the school of curiosity.

Baroque bow by Jérôme Gastaldo,
made of walnut that's 200 years old...

...it's so light you have the feeling it will just float away if you let it go.

Yesterday, as i was experimenting at the opera with the Japanese silk strings in Viennese Tuning (the top two strings in silk, the bottom two made of gut), José came in and he had a go at the third-fourth tuning and the yellow Koto-strings, albeit with a modern snake-wood bow. It was interesting for me as well, because it gave me a chance to hear the strings at a distance. They need to be played very carefully, with a lot of bow control. But once you know how to treat them, they reward you with a fascinating, somewhat brittle, trebly sound that seems to fit the Viennese repertoire very well. 

Isaline is preparing an orchestra audition. For the last couple of weeks we've been concentrating on the audition repertoire and on run-throughs of the different audition rounds for stamina. It's quite a challenge to play the whole program in one go. Last lesson we started with round 3 for a change. Whatever the result will be, it's a good preparation for the end-of-term exam, since both Isaline and Natacha are Post-graduate students specializing in audition preparation. Their exam will be in the form of an orchestra audition, with a mixed jury, screens, and all the necessary whistles and bells (well, just one bell anyway).

José's exam will be in concert form, he's doing a Post-graduate year as a "Concert Musician". The difficulty for him will be to choose his program, because he's only allotted 30 minutes and he has a huge repertoire... In order to make it more varied and interesting, he plays a Sperger Sonata in its original form with Viola (Sperger never wrote a bass sonata with piano accompaniment), and the Bach Gamba Sonata nr. 2 with accompaniment of a harpsichord. Add some music for solo double bass and a couple of 19th century virtuosity showpieces, and you're looking at more than an hour of music. So both the Bach and the Sperger will be reduced to one or two movements.

Louis went skateboarding a few weeks ago, and guess what? He broke a bone in his right hand and is out for at least six weeks: no exam until next September. Still, it's a perfect chance to concentrate on some left hand work, so he got himself some exercise books. His father, a builder of baroque oboes who made Louis's bass transport case and his beautiful metal mute, designed and made a battery-powered "pizzicato robot" that Louis can install on his bass. It has four piano hammers connected to four electro-magnets, which can be controlled by four buttons in a wooden ergonomic handle. Since Louis can still move his right hand fingers a little, he can push the buttons, one for each string. I hope i'll have some pictures soon.

21st April 2016

Last tuesday Pasquale played the first part of his Bachelor exam. He used three different basses and three different bows (and bow holds), in three very different styles of music, all to the delight of the jury which consisted of gamba player extraordinaire Philippe Pierlot, violone specialist Benoît Vandenbemden, and our Hipp Department head Peter van Heyghen.

Here is his program:

Today i came across a very interesting original 3-string bass in very good and original condition. It's French, very similar to a Jacquet bass (if it actually isn't one... i'll know more tomorrow, when i visit my violin maker for a first check-up), and it even seems to have its original gut strings - they seem to be very, very old anyway. Unfortunately, its typical high shoulders make solo playing a bit difficult so i'm not sure i can use it for Bottesini, but we'll see after restoration. No cracks other than a few very small ones in the side, but someone fixed the neck and the fingerboard with big wood screws (it's better than wood glue - but unfortunately some open seams have been generously filled with the horrible stuff. Always hard to get that out without damaging the surrounding wood fibers). 
The fingerboard is a dyed hardwood. Its original color seems to be quite beautiful so we'll leave it on, probably just rub off the black paint. If necessary we'll replace it with a proper ebony fingerboard, but i want to leave the bass as original as possible. The bridge, which i suspect might be original as well, looks like it can be saved too. It's still straight, and it's quite high so there's enough wood left there. The soundpost is sitting in a strange position, right in the middle of the bass.

And i'm not the only one who got a new bass: our friend Martin Rosso had a five-string bass sent over from his native Argentina. A real beauty, a Stelio Maglia from 1963...

By the way, Martin is playing a recital of Argentine music soon, see the BASS EVENTS page for more information:

Last night i attended a little concert of the conservatory's baroque cello class. They played a program of Geminiani Sonatas, with teacher Alain Gervreaux playing the continuo bass parts. Alain is a great musician, and he was one of my greatest inspirations when i was a student at the Hipp Department. Bass players should always try and learn from other musicians, not just from bassists.

More news from the silk string front as well, interesting progress there: a new silk string maker that Alexander Rakov suggested we contact for our project, and another overseas contact with our friends from Juilliard. Information coming soon.

The Prague Bass Convention in september will present quite a few Belgian and Belgium-based musicians, our colleague and friend Martin Rosso is one of them. He will present Argentinian music. I'll be there with my own Duo in a program ranging from early baroque to Anime and Videogame music - all in Viennese Tuning and on gut strings of course.

José Vilaplana is working many hours a day, preparing for the Sperger-Competition in May. Last week we had a closer look at the new competition piece, it's really great music and it gives the player a chance to find colors, atmosphere, emotion. I'm curious to hear what the other competitors made of it, but José is doing a hell of a job.

2nd April 2016

Life goes on.

The conservatory has a two-week holiday, but our bass lessons just continue. Since i'm not allowed to teach at the conservatory itself during holidays, we organize the lessons at my place or at the opera.

Natacha and Isaline are preparing some auditions, Charlotte, Louis, and Pasquale are getting ready for their exams, José is working on his competition program.

Yesterday Pasquale brought the Bornhak Travel Bass that i had stored in our Room 273. He's been experimenting with strings to see how he can make the instrument sound at its best. Despite its narrow shape, it has a surprising amount of bass power. Right now it sports five strings, but maybe a four-string set-up might work even better. It's always nice when the students do these experiments and i encourage it: set-ups, string types, bow holds. Always interesting to stray from the beaten path.

On the other hand, this should never be taken to extremes. Some string players get so obsessed with their instrument's set-up that they need a luthier every couple of days to change the position of the sound post, the type of strings, and what not. Sometimes it's better to leave the instrument alone and to solve problems through playing rather than through tinkering with the hardware.

Isaline had brought some Richard Strauss excerpts: Ein Heldenleben, Don Juan, Der Rosenkavalier. Each and every excerpt carries memories along. The Rosenkavalier especially comes with a lot of emotions attached because i've played several series of performances of this opera, notably with the late Sir John Pritchard and with Felicity Lott in the main role, and with Antonio Pappano (another Sir). When we arrive at the last few pages i always find it hard to keep my eyes dry, and i remember a few occasions when my stand colleague and i were both moved to tears while we were playing. Totally unprofessional, i guess...

Strauss allegedly said he was a first-rate composer of third-rate music but i'll take that with a very generous pinch of salt.

Pasquale had a few baroque orchestral excerpts: Bach, Händel and others. Here we also tried different bows. I always find it fascinating how changing bows can sometimes make a bigger difference in sound than changing instruments.

For both students, again, i focused on structure and phrasing, and on the "Affekt" or the general emotional content, the meaning behind the notes. Once you begin to understand what the music is about, the technical challenges become a lot easier to situate and to solve. In this way the meaning of the music will dictate fingering and bowing solutions, note and phrase shapes, dynamics and colors. 

Very often, music is learnt in a backward fashion: we try to pinpoint the technical issues and to master the separate difficulties first of all. I think that's a mistake. It's like trying to paint a portrait by first painting one corner of the mouth just perfectly, then one nostril, and next maybe part of an eyebrow, a wrinkle or an earlobe, hoping that by getting all the details right you will end up with a vivid likeness. I prefer to get a global impression first, to catch the deeper character of the whole piece before losing my way in the details. 

José had prepared the Glière Intermezzo and Tarantella, two fascinating pieces from the solo repertoire. Different editions present slightly different articulations and octaves, so we had a closer look at the options. Again, character was our first concern. We were lucky to have Pasquale, who could throw some light on the Tarantella as a dance. We couldn't get him to really dance it for us, but we'll try to persuade him again next time...

27th March 2016

25th March 2016

Place de la Bourse, Brussels

José, Haruko and i took part in an impromptu concert at the Brussels' "Bourse", the ancient Stock Exchange building. We picked up two basses at the opera (luckily we live in the city center and the opera is just a stone's throw away) and we all assembled at the Ancienne Belgique concert venue, where we had a rehearsal in the entrance hall. 

At 3 pm we walked from there to the Bourse where hundreds of people had gathered. In the last few days the place has become a meeting spot where men, women and children of all nationalities and religions express their grief and their solidarity, their support for the victims and the unshakeable strength of their stance against the criminals who still seem to foster the illusion they can win this crazy war against civilization. Dream on. 

Rehearsal in the Ancienne Belgique's entrance hall

All morning it had been raining, but by the time we came out of our dark rehearsal space, the sun had miraculously reappeared and the wind had calmed down to a soft breeze.

We played Samuel Barber's "Adagio" and a choral excerpt from Beethoven's IXth Symphony on the stairs in front of the building. It was a short but very intense moment, and looking down on all these people, seeing their expressions, the signs of humanity, the flowers and candles, the words written on the streets and pavements, with the television trucks of all the main international TV stations in the background, all of this made us feel closely united and it brought home to us once more what a precious gift music is, both to the musicians and to the people we play for.

Haruko, José and Korneel after the open-air concert...
...and in the evening, a few minutes before the start of the opera.
It's all part of a musician's life.

Music and terror

The difference seems too big. Music, art, humanity on one side. Blind terror on the other side. It forces us to reflect on what we do, on our role in this world. How can art find its true meaning amidst this turmoil?

We will continue to build bridges between people. Others may only aim at destroying them, but they won't succeed in the long term. Terrorism, by its very nature, is self-defeating. Throughout history the examples are numerous. The terrorist is by definition, inevitably, a loser. 

Don't be afraid. Humanity is bound to prevail. Artists are seemingly powerless in the grand scheme of things. But on a basic level they are builders of bridges, they are truly "connecting people". Let us all think about what we can mean in this world, during our brief earthly existence.

22th March 2016, Brussels

20th March 2016

The Collage that artist Begga D'Haese made for our Bass Room.
To be inaugurated soon...

A busy sunday for the Bass Class.

Early in the morning i drove to the village of Huy, about 100 km south of Brussels, to hear Natacha's concert. The stage of the local culture centre had been transformed into a kind of 19th century "Salon", with wooden furniture (rocking chair and all) and discreet lighting. 

On the program: songs and instrumental works of Bizet, Rossini, Glière, Bottesini and other romantic composers. Natacha's contribution consisted of two Bottesini songs with double bass obligato's, the Glière Intermezzo, and Bottesini's "Gran Duo" for violin and bass.

It was a very cozy and warm concert with outstanding playing and singing and excellent introductions and comments. Well worth the trip.

Upon arriving back in Brussels, i rushed to the conservatory for the Open Door Day. Isaline, José and friends were already there. We had an open class moment, Isaline playing the Dittersdorf concerto in an arrangement for two basses with yours truly accompanying and José performing the Zbinden "Hommage à Bach".

Both had some public lessons on their pieces, with José taking the role of teacher in Natacha's Gruber-cadenza before he was spit-roasted in the Zbinden. We tried to establish atmosphere and structure by connecting the modern piece with Bach's own music and by trying to find parallels between both worlds: the opening of the Hommage, for instance, works better if you think of some of the darker cantata moments for a bass singer, and if you try to find actual words (in German, of course) to fit the initial rhythmic figures. It's always an act of character to dissociate oneself from the ink-on-paper that music appears to be (which of course it is not). Many players and teachers seem to think that merely playing the notes exactly as they are written will somehow, miraculously, turn them into music. Alas, this is never the case. It takes imagination, knowledge of as much music as possible, courage, and willpower (besides many other qualities) to make printed music come alive.

After the lessons we moved to the nearby "Temple", our baroque concert and exam location, for a little impromptu concert where we tried to realize the things we'd been talking about. Never waste a chance to play before an audience.

And then, without any break whatsoever, i went to the main Concert hall to listen to Louis in the Rossini Duetto, and to Schubert's Trout Quintet. It was a great end to a day of music, because both performances were of a very high standard indeed. Louis and his cello partner Stéphanie Huang played one of the most inspired versions of the Duetto that i've heard in many years.

The "Trout" Quintet was of the same high caliber. Five young students playing like true professionals, a pure delight. This was one of those memorable days that make you believe in mankind, for a change.

16th March 2016

I forgot to mention Mr. Tokutaka's Bottesini-Blog. Well, i did mention the delicious eye-witness account by Reginald Haweis of one of Bottesini's recitals, which i found there. But this blog contains a lot more interesting stuff. Most of it is in japanese, but some articles are in english and well worth a look. Besides there are a few rare photos (at least i had never seen them before). So here it is:

14th March 2016 

First tests with the Koto Silk Strings, last week at the opera.

50 yen coins, ideal to secure
the string's end knot at the tailpiece.
First sound impressions, with one silk string installed
With a little help from my friends...
My good friend and colleague Janos Csikos lending a hand.

I finally cut up two of the silk strings and lo and behold, the two halves were long enough for use on a double bass. That's a relief. The other two halves i'll give to Pasquale, so he can try them in solo tuning on his 3-string bass. 

I tried two different gauges for the top two strings, but the "D"-string was a bit lacking in volume. The G string on the other hand is perfectly usable, and when i tuned up the "D"-string to "G" as well, it worked even better than the thinner string. Further experiments will tell us at which pitch the strings function at their best, and then we can order more specific gauges from the manufacturer.

The sound, again, is brilliant and silvery, with lots of upper harmonics. Ideal for the top two strings on a solo bass, or for the top three in Viennese Tuning (can't wait to play Sperger or Vanhal with silk strings). Below "D" i don't really think they will work so well. 

The feeling of the strings' texture under the left hand is very smooth and sensuous, a real tactile pleasure. The bow doesn't seem to be bothered by the "cable"-like surface. With a little more research and experimenting with string diameters, these Koto strings could work really well on a double bass, albeit within the confines of "Ancient" or Romantic Solo music. For the orchestra i don't think they fit the bill. (Then again, i'm sure some contemporary composers might feel inspired to explore their special timbre in harmonics or in new soundscapes. So please don't tell them...we have enough unplayable pieces already).

9th March 2016

Look what came in the mail today...

A seven-string bass?
No, the Testore with three gut strings, compared to four steel strings
The bridge, always ready to switch between three and four strings
Same thing for the (extended) top nut.
One wonders when (and why) the neck graft was done.

Tokutaka Sensei, unbelievably generous as i've come to known him, sent us these photos of his Testore. On a recent visit to Japan, Thomas Martin tried gut strings on the bass. Just three of them, of course. The instrument, as you can see, is at all times ready to take either three or four strings. The tailpiece has an extra hole in the middle, and if you look closely at the old Bottesini pictures, you can see that the bass was transformed from four to three strings back then: one of the tuning gears has been taken away and the tailpiece has four holes, plus the extra one in the middle.

But it's getting even better: Mr. Tokutaka kindly invites us, next time we go to Japan, to visit him and to try our silk strings on the Testore! Thank you so much Maestro. We'll be in touch. (I'd better brush up on my Bottesini repertoire...)

Our student Louis Ponseele will be one of the stars at the closing concert of the conservatory's Open Door Day on sunday 20 March, with Rossini's Duetto.

A great day for our bass class, since Natacha Save is playing a recital at 11 a.m. at the Huy conservatory. See BASS EVENTS for more information.

8th March 2016

Today i picked up the 20 copies of the new edition of Jacques Vanherenthals's "Four Baroque Suites" that i bought from the composer. 

These are delicious works in the style of J.S. Bach, not really easy but entirely manageable by an advanced student or an accomplished bass player. Most of the 20 copies will go to students, friends and colleagues here and abroad. I do hope the students will respond to the challenge. The great thing is that both the modern bass and the baroque students can play them. I hope they will inspire each other with different sound colors and interpretations.

Another thing that's wonderful about these pieces is that they cover the whole range of the double bass. Whereas the Fryba Suite hardly ever comes down to the real bass register (which, in my opinion, makes it a bit tiring to listen to), these new Suites are much more balanced. They don't really try to imitate the cello by staying in the stratosphere (isn't it time we bass players started to play the bass again, instead of hopelessly trying to imitate the cello or the violin?), but they use the whole tessitura, including the instrument's best-sounding "comfort zones". The 4th Suite even goes down to the low D and requires the 4th string to be tuned down for the whole duration of the Suite.

I premiered the 4th Suite (which has a Tango as its 5th dance) over a year ago, and i was in the process of planning the recording of the whole series when i got hit by a cancer that required immediate surgery. Project postponed but not abandoned: as soon as i feel up to the task i'll resume where i left off.

Jacques was one of the best bass players of his generation, so he knows the double bass very well. Still, i managed to surprise him by playing the 2nd Suite (the one he kindly dedicated to me) in Viennese Tuning. My idea of the recording is to play each Suite on a different bass: steel or gut strings, different tunings, frets, or even the G-violone. And now i might throw in a silk string version as well. From my experience with double bass recordings i know they can be less than riveting: too much of the same for too long. I hope that variety in sound color and style can help, especially since it's just a double bass and nothing else.

Jacques and Korneel admiring the new edition
A CD with some of Jacques's works,
and the Suites in their new edition

Our Koto Silk String idea seems to catch on: my Japanese colleague Takashi Tajima ordered two silk Koto strings and installed them on his Yamaha EUB. But he got them in traditional white, less crazy than our bright yellow strings. Anyway, white or yellow, they do look cool.

Also today, i had a marathon teaching stint with my colleague and student José who is preparing a bass competition. Always interesting to exchange ideas, to experiment with possibilities, and to find unexpected challenges and solutions. Finding the inner narrative of the music and giving structure to a performance are two of the greatest pleasures in playing and teaching. I always feel like i'm learning more from my students than they are from me...

I paid a visit to the conservatory's music library, one of the nicest in the world. There's quite a lot to be found there that's interesting for bass players. 

Recently i found an original copy of Johann Hindle's double bass Method: one of the oldest methods that exist. The most fascinating thing about it is the fact that Hindle was one of the last virtuosi on the Viennese Bass, but his method is for the modern bass in 4ths (except that he tunes the 4th string to F, not to E). 

The library people will do me the great pleasure of scanning the two volumes of the method. That's a relief. I tried to copy it but i only managed to tear the very fragile paper. Better to leave this work to the specialists. 

Talking about history, here is the Blog of Mr. Tokutaka with a very interesting historical document... I'll reprint the text in the WORTH READING page, so that it's readily accessible. Worth reading indeed...

5th March 2016

It's been a while since i updated... There were some technical issues accessing the blog (since i'm a computer troglodyte i had to ask the kids for assistance), and life has been quite hectic these last months, with little or no time for blogging.

But we're back in business. I don't really know where to start, so i'll jot down things as they come to mind. 

First of all, i just got back from a study trip to Japan. 

One of the main purposes of this trip was to find silk strings for the double bass. And find them, i did. Updates in the SILK ROAD page.

I also had the great pleasure and honor to hear, see, play and measure the Bottesini Testore (which has its home in Japan), and Bottesini's own bow... To be honest, i'm still reeling from the experience. 

One of the most memorable things about Maestro Tokutaka's recital, apart from his warmhearted, sincere and honest way of playing (which often made me forget entirely about the instrument itself) was the uncanny range of piano, pianissimo, -issississimo and beyond that the Testore was capable of producing. Even in the softest nuances the tone remained perfectly audible and round. Surely the bass has a strong voice as well, and its sound always seems to remain round and warm, even with its Thomastik Solo strings. But it's the softer sounds that are really magical.

By the way, Tokutaka-Sensei played the first half of his tour-de-force recital (the fifth one of a long series) with the german bow, but the second half with Bottesini's very own french bow. Appropriately so, since the second part consisted solely of Bottesini pieces. Still, not many players can switch between german and french bow with such ease and mastery. Enrico Fagone comes to mind. He too is a master of both bowing styles, flying spiccatos and all.

Enrico has agreed to give a two-day Master Class at our conservatory next year! Dates to be announced soon, so stay in touch. 

For my student Pasquale measuring the mythical Bottesini bass was quite important. Pasco is very much into all things Bottesini. On his recent trip to Italy he made a few thousand (!) photos of Bottesini manuscripts at the Parma library, and knowing the exact dimensions of the Testore gives him a more precise idea about how he wants to set up his own 3-string bass. 

In photos one sees that Bottesini placed the bridge of his bass below its normal position, thereby gaining a few centimeters in sounding length. Today the bridge is in its normal place, and the top nut has been lengthened so that the original 106,50 string length is reduced to the "standard" 105cm. An educated guess of Bottesini's string length would be 108 to 109 cm. Interestingly, the neck has something between a D- and an Eb-stop.

Pasquale and Bottesini

Before i left for Japan, we installed two of Alexander Rakov's three silk strings on Pasquale's instrument, and just as on my own three-stringer, they sounded quite convincing. Brillant and silvery, a very different sound color from steel or gut.

In the next few weeks we'll do more experiments with Rakov's strings and with the Koto strings i brought from Nippon. Not at all sure they'll work as well as Rakov's (if at all), but that's secondary: it's all about the experiment.

The owner of the Testore bass played a beautiful recital while i was in Japan, and he was so nice as to give me the score of a wonderful Japanese bass piece by composer Yutaka Fujiwara, that has never been published, but that i feel is destined to become a classic in our repertoire.

After the recital, we (my life and Duo partner Haruko was with me for the whole trip, a good thing because my Japanese is hardly sufficient to find food) so, as i was saying, we had a drink with some of my Japanese bassist friends and, not surprisingly, we talked about basses, music, and... bowing "schools":

Trying to defend the "Belgian Bowing School" against the German style...
We had a few great laughs that evening. Seriously, who still needs "schools" today?

On one of the last days we visited a young bass and bow maker, Kampei Ageishi, in his workshop. I played some of the nice basses that he made. The idea is to maybe rent a bass in Japan next time we go on tour. I still haven't got all my strength back, and traveling with a bass isn't such an appealing thought right now. Of course i would have to install gut strings and frets, and i really prefer a five-string bass for my Viennese Tuning. 

But i was most impressed with a bow that Kampei recently finished. Quite long but perfectly balanced, and very Pfretzschner-like. I had to suppress a sudden rush of GAS or Gear Acquisition Syndrome... Oh no, not another bow, not this time! (But i'm secretly hoping it will still be there when i come back).

Going back in time then: José Vilaplana joined our class in January. He's going for the diploma of Concert Musician, and he's preparing a few bass competitions. He is also working on a new double bass chair and experimenting with different types of seats and saddles. The idea is to combine a traditional bass stool with the "saddle" type chair in the picture below. Our class is turning into a real Bass Laboratory.

The students are all making great progress. From now on, until the end of this semester, we'll be focusing on the exam programs: the inevitable "warhorse" concerti by Bottesini, Vanhal, Dragonetti, Dittersdorf and Koussevitzky, études by Mengoli, orchestral excerpts, Sonatas, contemporary music...

Earlier this year and during my stay in Japan, as part of a seemingly never-ending project Natacha did a lot of work to create some order in the chaos of our thousands of bass and chamber music scores, books, magazines, and recordings.

During recent lessons, i had the great pleasure of going through some Bottesini works with Natacha: the Gran Duo for violin and bass, which we played together (both playing the bass part, great fun exchanging ideas for phrasing, bowing and fingering), and two of his Songs: Une Bouche Aimée and Tutto il Mondo. I played these Songs many years ago, in 1991 if memory serves me right, at the Mittenwald Bass Convention and as part of a recital at the Opera. 

It was nice to revisit them and to discover how quickly it all came back to me. I took out all my old scores, including the old Malaric edition with its usual obvious errors (it always surprises me when i hear recordings of bassists who play the Malaric editions, errors and all...), as well as my own transcription and a pre-edition version that Klaus Schruff sent me, back then. We also compared the Tutto il Mondo to the Chopin original (the song is a transcription of one of the Etudes). Very interesting to spot the differences. 

Still, one has to respect Bottesini's version. Some editions go back to the Chopin source, re-writing the bass part so that it exactly matches the piano's left hand. I think that's a mistake. We're not playing Chopin. We're playing Bottesini's take on the Etude, his arrangement of it. If you want Chopin you should get yourself a piano. Not a bass.

Hopefully, Pasquale has some photos of the original Bottesini manuscripts. In the meantime i also bought the Thomas Martin edition to compare. Never be content with just one source. Research is an integral part of musicianship. Or it should be.

Natacha will be playing these works in a recital on March 20 (see the BASS EVENTS page for details).

Isaline, on the other hand, has been concentrating mainly on orchestral excerpts on the gut-string bass. 

It's important to realize that auditions have nothing to do with the way one actually plays in a real-life orchestra setting. Audition playing is very far removed from the everyday reality of playing with a bass section in an actual rehearsal or concert. This means that you probably won't use the same fingerings in both cases, or the same bowings and dynamics. 

I have always found this dichotomy disturbing and fascinating at the same time. In an audition one has to play carefully, cleanly, nicely. One has to respect dynamics, tempi, phrasings, to the letter. One has to produce a beautiful, "complete" tone with a nice color. One has to play metronomically correct. 

Real orchestra playing has nothing to do with that. All of the parameters of tempo, color, phrasing, intonation, timbre, rhythm, etc, will change drastically within the context of a section and of the orchestra. You will have to manage the "space" you occupy within the music. You will have to think differently about playing "beautifully". 

The way of playing that got you through the audition will no longer be valid or appropriate. You will sometimes have to produce an "incomplete" sound that matches the other orchestral timbres. You will sometimes have to produce an "uglier" sound than you would if you were playing alone. You will have to be able to give other people some sound-space, or to fill in the space they are leaving you. Your sound will have to compliment other people's sounds. If everybody plays with a thick, beautiful solo sound, your section or orchestra might become horrible to listen to.

Conversely, if you did an audition with the kind of playing that is common and desired within the confines of the orchestra, you'd never even pass the first round. It's a strange world, no?

I had some interesting conversations about the value of the "ugly" or incomplete sound in an ensemble setting, with Guy Danel of the famous Danel Quartet. Even within the context of a String Quartet one has to manage sound production very carefully so that the sound of the Ensemble "works". That means continually manipulating your sound production so as not to be in the way of the others.

This is a subject one never hears or reads about. It's a pity. Knowing that you really have to play very differently in an audition than in the orchestra would help many aspiring musicians. Knowing that, after you've won your audition, you will have to develop a whole new set of ensemble playing skills would help in getting rid of the "failed soloist" syndrome so many orchestra musicians carry around all their careers.

One wonders if there isn't a better way to select orchestra players. Clearly, the traditional audition system is less than perfectly suited to find the best candidates. A good audition player doesn't automatically transform into a good ensemble musician. An important part of teaching is precisely pointing out these differences to the students, making them aware there's a lot more to it than turning out a nice Dittersdorf concerto and Beethoven's recitative. (And i haven't even mentioned orchestra behavior, one of my pet peeves. But don't worry, i'll get to it, sooner or later).

Anyway, we've been working on lots of orchestral excerpts: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert e tutti quanti. I love to work on this type of repertoire. Here, as in solo music, one has to find structure in the excerpts. It's one of the things i'm adamant about, both in solo works and in orchestra pieces. Music without structure, without a guiding idea or concept, is just a bunch of meaningless notes, however beautifully they are played. Structure is more important than beauty of sound or even intonation. These can be refined later. Structure has to be there from the very start, it's your skeleton, your frame. Having a strong idea, a solid concept of where the music is going, of how to bring across its narrative, will help you with all other aspects of playing.

30th December 2015

First silk string test results in the SILK ROAD page... Finally i had some time to install the new strings on my bass. More results will be published soon. I want to thank Alexander Rakov profusely for manufacturing these strings for us. They were definitely worth waiting for: i just love them.

22nd December 2015

Last performance of Hänsel und Gretel tonight, at the Bozar. For this production we had a very nice bass team again, with Natacha and Pasquale joining us. Yesterday we had our private bass section rehearsal for an upcoming concert of French music: Ravel, Ibert, Bizet etc. Isaline and Natacha will play with us (more details about the music will follow). 

After a run-through of all the pieces and a closer look at the tough spots, we stayed on for coffee and sweets and we had a long talk about life and music. It's always great to get to know each other better, to exchange ideas and opinions, to have a few laughs. Though not the primary purpose, it also makes for better ensemble playing within the section and the orchestra.

Meanwhile in Shanghai: When Toby Met Gary


Gary (in Japan, with Bottesini's Testore on the right)

Gary Karr, world famous bassist and pioneer of the bass as a solo instrument, is in Shanghai for a recital and for master classes at the conservatory. Shanghai Conservatory is a special place. On summer days, when you walk around the grounds, you can hear a fascinating mixture of Chinese and western instruments and  music vibrating through the sun-warmed air. On the few occasions when i taught there, there were more girls than boys studying the double bass, and they were all extremely talented. They also studied really hard. When asked to prepare a sonata movement for the next day, they would come back the next morning with the complete sonata mastered overnight. Amazing.

My son Tobias, who has been living in Shanghai for the past seven years, and who has toured all over China and the Far East as a musician in pop, rock and jazz, went to see Mr. Karr at his Master Class.

Gary Karr showing the damage his bass suffered in transit.
Its broken neck was repaired during the night, 

just in time for the Master Class.
In Bottesini's "La Sonnambula".
Notice the very specific left and right hand positions.
Talking to Tobias about the damaged bass:
"It looks like they took out the neck
and broke it on purpose before putting it back"

Gary Karr has been an inspiration to hundreds, if not thousands of bass players, with his very personal way of playing and of approaching the instrument. And though i never advocate imitating one's heroes in every detail, his views on bass playing are as valid as ever. Here's just one Question and Answer from Karr's "Forum" on his website:

Q. "What do you think about not respecting the traditional rules? (like positions, bow, etc...), and i'll appreciate a lot on advice from you to us who came from playing electric bass and want to venture into the d-bass without starting all over again..."

A. "Yes, break the rules. I have broken with most of the traditional rules and for left hand technique I believe that electric bassists are ahead of the game. I do not understand the logic of most of the traditional rules and i am amazed that classical bassists still adhere to antiquated concepts of playing. In my humble opinion, the traditional approach has impeded the progress of playing and has kept the standard low".

Food for thought... Of course there's a lot that can be said on this topic, if only that a "traditional approach" does have its place in historically-oriented performance. But i do agree that a revision of the concepts of "tradition" and "schools" is long overdue, and that the least we should do is to have a long, critical look at what "tradition" really means; in many cases tradition is just another word for bad habits.

Here is Maestro Karr's program in an internet translation from the original Mandarin version. The translation is just too funny to try and correct it, so i left it the way it came out. Bass players will be able to guess a few of the original titles, such as the "Micro Waltz" which is of course the "Valse Miniature". And guess what the names "Kauwa Tina" (not a Bollywood movie star) and Saint-Mulberry stand for... (A quick search reveals that there's a Chinese company named "Saint Saens", which produces a kind of... mulberry juice. Reality is stranger than fiction - or at least funnier).

One, the Sonata in a minor, Grieg, works 36
Two, vocalising, Op. 34, fourteenth poems of Rachmaninoff
Three, Andante, Op. 1, first poems of Koussevitzky

Four, micro waltz, Op. 1, second poems of Koussevitzky
Five, melancholy song, works 2 Koussevitzky
Six, humorous song Koussevitzky
Seven, prairie song Zhang Baoyuan
Eight, selling newspapers Wang Liansan
Nine, "in the dream of" Bottesini
Ten, Kauwa Tina, from the opera "the deer hunter" Meyer
Eleven, the two Arias and variations of Paganini
Twelve, the cradle song He Luting
Thirteen, song of the guerrillas heluting / ferrandino
Fourteen, Scherzo, Op. 12, Twelfth songs, more

Fifteen, elephant Saint - mulberry

14/15th December 2016

Two months after the start of this academic year the Bass Class presented its first class concert. Here is the program:

Monday 14 December 2015, 17h


1. Louis Ponseele 
Henry Eccles: Sonata, parts 1 and 2
Dragonetti-Nanny: Concerto, part 1

2. Charlotte Barbier
Sergei Koussevitzky: Concerto, part 1

3. Filippe Caporali
Sergei Koussevtzky: Concerto, part 2 

Filippe Caporali: Study

4. Isaline Leloup
Giovanni Bottesini: Concerto in b, part 1

5. Natacha Save
Carl Ditters: Concerto nr. 2, part 1 with cadenza (Gruber)

6. Pasquale Massaro
Giovanni Bottesini: Concerto in b, parts 1 and 2
                                 Allegretto Capriccio

(Three-string bass, gut strings)


L.v. Beethoven: Recitative
G. Verdi: Otello (arr. P. Massaro)
F. Simandl: Trio on “Au Clair de la Lune” (V.F. Verrimst)
A. Piazzolla: Tango Appassionado (arr. P. Massaro)

Piano : Cécile Mangeot

We started preparations at 9am: warming up, piano rehearsals, ensembles, shopping for drinks and snacks, decorating Room 274, and getting some general nervousness going. Louis had a chamber music lesson till 11, Fil had Big Band practice in the afternoon, Emanuel needed his bass lesson in between things. Isaline needed a nail clipper (urgently), and most of the day was spent in merry confusion and excitement. 

As we approached the beginning of the concert, an audience of about twenty people took place (there was no room for more) and we were happy to see some old friends and quite a few new faces. Our friend José Vilaplana from the Monnaie Orchestra was there too. He will be joining our class after the Christmas holidays: he's preparing some international Bass Competitions and we will be thrilled to welcome him in our Room 273.

We started off with Louis playing some Eccles, with Teacher on the baroque bass playing the continuo part. Louis has the sensitivity to adapt to the baroque sound and to try and blend, the mark of a true musician. Then we had a bunch of modern basses in various concertos. First Louis again, with a flashy and imaginative interpretation of his very first concerto: the famous Dragonetti-Nanny double bass "warhorse". Composed, in all probability, by the French bass soloist and teacher Edouard Nanny

It's very interesting to delve a little deeper and to find out that in Nanny's days and in his musical circles it was quite common to compose pieces "in the style of" and/or to attribute, tongue-in-cheek, own compositions to historical composers. Nanny was a member of H.G. Casadesus' "Société des Instruments Anciens", an Ancient Music ensemble avant la lettre. Casadesus and his brother Marius wrote music under the names of Handel, Mozart, or CPE and JC Bach and succeeded in fooling the "serious" music world for decades into believing that these works were genuine. Menuhin himself recorded some of this music, never suspecting that he was actually recording music by Casadesus.

Today, nobody who is familiar with Dragonetti's music would ever believe that this concerto could be his: it's not even remotely similar to the famous Italian virtuoso's style. But it's nonetheless a very beautiful concerto, in spite of being a spoof, and still a very good piece for an aspiring student. Purism is for musicologists, not for players.

Charlotte played the Koussevitzky concerto's first movement. Managing her nervousness, she succeeded in transmitting the many emotions the piece contains. She was replaced by Jazz bassist Filippe (who had been quietly waiting in the corner) who took over for the Andante in a smooth transition. His idea of the 2nd movement is more "Debussy-esque" than we're accustomed to hearing. It's good to encourage students to try their own take on the well-known pieces. After all, we don't all need to sound like Karr- or Streicher-clones (two of my bass heroes, needless to say. But admiration shouldn't lead to copying).  After that he played his own composition, having explained to the audience how his perspective had changed from that of a composer to that of a performer.

Isaline came next, with a very romantic and heartfelt rendition of Bottesini's 2nd concerto (1st movement). Very warm and mellow sounds, like musical honey, rather slow but really very convincing in its expression. The last few lessons she had been playing it quite fast, and this volte-face was a wonderful surprise.

Natacha, having discovered a baroque bow (the one i used in Eccles) just an hour before the concert, decided to risk changing bows for her Dittersdorf concerto. Since originally, in classical concertos, the soloist is expected to play the tutti parts as well as the solos, we had the idea of asking Isaline to play the tuttis along with Natacha and the piano. This gave a bit of an orchestral color to the accompaniment. Natacha's playing has changed beyond recognition over the last few months, and her solid, down-to-earth but very tasteful rendition was just what the doctor ordered.

Then came Pasquale's mini-recital of Bottesini pieces on the three-string bass. We have found out, over the past weeks and months, that Tempo is much more critical with gut strings than on the modern bass . Play too slowly, and you risk compromising the sound quality. The use of a longer bow does help, like Bottesini indicates in his Method, but it's still very important to get the tempo just right in the slow movements. 

Pasquale, with the help of Cécile at the piano, succeeded in the challenge of finding the right balance between expression, sound quality, dynamics, extreme virtuosity and belcanto. A balancing act if ever there was one. The three-string bass project is a very interesting one, and the more "sculptural" sound of this special kind of bass is very addictive. We'll soon be experimenting with the new silk strings that we recently received in the hope of discovering whether they are a valid alternative to gut.

Incidentally, no German bow in sight today, except the one in the big photo canvas that we used as a backdrop. Some of the students play with both bow holds but we don't care much about bowing "schools" in our class: we use whatever the music calls for and whatever we feel like. 

It was very nice to see everybody taking risks in their playing. "Playing it safe" is not what a class concert is about. All students were very convincing in their attempts at expressing the music's emotions in a decidedly personal way. This lead, for instance, to very different interpretations of the Bottesini concerto's first movement by Isaline and Pasquale,  both immensely touching and entirely credible.

After a short break there were a few Ensembles. One of my favorite Bass Trios is Verrimst's arrangement of the French folk song "Au Clair de la Lune". First published as part of Simandl's Method, it's one of the very first Bass Trios (if not the first one), and it's very well written.

I found a very interesting link here:

Pasquale had brought arrangements of Verdi's "Otello" and of Piazzolla's "Tango Appassionado", and there was a bass-section tutti in Beethoven's Recitative: it's a bass part every bassist should know by heart, and it's one of those many things one has to start early. 

This first concert will inspire us to continue on our way together. More concerts will follow. We'll use the feedback from this one to improve many elements in teaching and playing. We'll have more lessons with Cécile's piano accompaniment. And we'll do a lot of ensemble work, with orchestra excerpts and in various combinations from two to ten basses, or more...

After the concert Pasquale presented me with facsimiles of Bottesini's "Allegretto Capriccio" (which Bottesini subtitled "per il Violone") and of Bottesini's own transcription of the Mozart Aria "Per Questa Bella Mano". A wonderful regalo from our Italian student, for which i'm very grateful.

Cécile, Pasquale, Natacha, Korneel, Louis, Charlotte, Filippe, Isaline,
with Bottesini's "Per Questa Bella Mano".

12th December 2015

Last saturday our student Isaline performed with her Ensemble Taxidi (which, apparently, is Greek for "voyage"). Widely eclectic music for a variety of instruments: clarinet, flute, accordion, bass of course, voice, percussion, guitar, all in changing combinations and with stylistic influences of pop, jazz, rock, classical and ethnic music, and even rap. The musicians took the stage one by one, starting with just one instrument, and the concert ended like Haydn's Farewell Symphony. (By the way, the 18th century Viennese bass virtuoso Johann Matthias Sperger composed an "Arrival Symphony" so the idea isn't new). 

An exciting concert full of surprises, with a driving, pulsating bass and a few choice moments for bass soloing. Music full of great melodic ideas and of exciting timbre changes and dynamic contrasts. I would welcome even more harmonic variety, but their infectious groove and energy seemed without limits.

What amazes me about the students is precisely this energy: from baroque on gut strings to jazz and back to Bottesini or to the classical orchestra, they seem to be everywhere. In a time where for each orchestra audition hundreds of candidates from all over the world turn up, music students have no choice but to diversify. 

This is what we try to do and to encourage in our bass class as well: jazz students come to us, or the classical bass students attend jazz classes. They play pop music or they add the bass guitar to their arsenal, they experiment with gut strings, bows and tunings.

Precisely in this spirit, yesterday i took some of my own instruments to Room 273, after having bought a number of wooden bass stands. By having these basses in our class, the switch from modern to baroque instruments will become more natural. I even included one of my hybrids: an Eminence EUB (Electric Upright Bass) with gut strings and frets, tuned in Viennese Tuning. How's that for a cross-over?

Part of our current bass collection.
The case is for the Eminence EUB with its detachable neck.

Four basses, four tunings:
Bornhak Travel Bass, E-A-D-G-C
Krattenmacher Violone, D-G-C-E-A
Kappelmeyer Viennese Bass, D-A-D-G
Eminence Travel EUB, F#-A-D-F#-A

At this moment our students Natacha and Pasquale are playing with the Opera Orchestra in a production of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hänsel und Gretel". A tricky piece with tempo changes every few bars, and with colours of Wagner, Strauss and impressionism. 

It's always nice to have the advanced students play with us: they're full-fledged ambitious professionals with a very developed sense of duty and great musicality, and they fit very well within the section's dynamic and atmosphere.

Just like for last month's Bruckner, i'm using the old hammerhead bows. They're very thick but lightweight, and they produce a sound that is warm but very defined. 

It's such a pleasure to be able to hear oneself, for once. These bows seem to produce a kind of "scooped" sound with a warm bottom end, complemented by very high harmonics that make the bass sound eminently audible over the powerful brass and percussion. No modern bow i have tried produces this kind of distinctive sound. The nearest i can get is with a Wilfer snakewood bow, but the old bows are in a league of their own. I wonder why bowmakers and musicians have abandoned all types of wood in favour of pernambuco. Sure, the Brazilian wood is superior in its handling qualities. But sound-wise i'm not so sure.

Last monday we had a kind of general rehearsal for the Class Concert (which takes place this monday at 5pm). Great progress again for everyone, so i'm pretty clear that 1/ we have to organize more concerts, and 2/ we need more regular rehearsals with the pianist. Having a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic reference is of the utmost importance.

Unfortunately, the piano in Room 274 (where the concert will take place) isn't really in the best condition (conservatory instruments rarely are. An instrument that belongs to everybody, belongs to nobody in particular. Responsibility gets diluted. In other words, nobody cares) but we have to try and make it work. When i say "we", i mean our pianist, Cécile Mangeot, who has to temper the piano's shortcomings so as to blend with the basses. But the students too have to adapt so as to try and match the strident tone of the piano.

Every student has at least one solo piece, and there are a few ensembles as well. What i said about diluted responsibility is valid in ensemble playing too: we have to fight the tendency to divide the total musical "input" by the number of musicians in the ensemble. 

What happens so often, as soon as people play together (and actually the same phenomenon exists in everyday life), we count on the others to do the work. We no longer take full responsibility because we are so many: "the others will do the job, so i can take it easy". In a big orchestra, this can be mortal. If nobody really cares about his or her playing (because we're so many, each individual feels less responsible), the result is disastrous. It feels like we have divided the 100 percent that we want to attain over the 100 participating musicians, and we end up giving just one percent each. But of course it doesn't work this way.

So i encourage the ensemble players to do the contrary, and to add even more input than they would do for their solo pieces. Knowing the other players' parts, beside your own, is important. Letting the others inspire you, "playing off" each other, is one of the greatest joys of chamber music. Being totally aware, being "in" the music and in the moment, every second, is what makes chamber music work. And this engagement (or lack thereof) is immediately felt by the audience.

In teaching it's very important to point these things out to the students. It's part of the preparation for a fulfilling musician's life, and it creates awareness of how to behave as a professional. I find this aspect of making music is underdeveloped in teaching. Music as a profession is not just about "the second finger on the third string". It's about interacting, it's about taking things really personally, even in a big orchestra. It's about how to behave - and very often, how not to behave - in an ensemble. Good habits should be formed early on. Nothing new there: Joachim Quantz already mentioned these things. Should be compulsory reading for all music students...

In the afternoon i had jazzers Jérémie and Emmanuel. We concentrated on bowing. Emmanuel wants to combine bowing with jazz, which i think is a great idea. Not many jazz bassists use the bow extensively or exclusively. There is no bass equivalent of Grapelli, let's say. 

With both students i like to explore all the bowing parameters: speed, closeness to the bridge, angle of the hair, angle of the bow on the strings (the idea that the bow should always be perpendicular to the string is just that: an idea, and nothing more. Many useful sound colours can be obtained by varying this angle), pressure, tension of the hair... We do one-note, one-string improvisations: choose an open string and try to create a musical story by varying all these parameters, combined with rhythm, dynamics, or even pizzicato. As soon as you stop finding the exercise ridiculous, or as soon as you overcome the initial shyness, very nice things can happen.

In teaching, as in everything, there are different opinions about what are effective methods, what approaches work better than others, how to achieve the best results. One particular strand of thinking concerns the individual student's talents or strong points. There are those who think that what a student does well naturally, or what he or she can accomplish easily, should not be the focus of attention. Rather, the student should focus on what he or she does not do so well, and the more natural strengths should be ignored: they don't need developing any more. One hopes that by proceeding in this way, the weaker points will be strengthened.

Although i wouldn't say that the exact opposite is true, i do think that the natural strengths that the student possesses should by all means be used, strengthened even more, and developed. In doing so, these strengths can be expanded from within their nucleus. I like to compare this process to a stone that you throw in the water: from the center of the impact, ever widening circles will form. From the nucleus of a certain natural talent, one can widen the circle so that over time it reaches and includes abilities that seemed out of reach in the beginning.

This approach doesn't exclude specific development of problem areas. But it creates and fosters a self-confidence from which one can build and reach out. Never neglect what you do best, or what you have a natural talent for, in the hope that by doing so you might one day develop a new set of abilities. You might suddenly find that your original talent has atrophied because you didn't feed it, and that you didn't succeed in developing something new, after all. 

At the very least, work on both aspects simultaneously, and use your ever-growing confidence in one area to feed new aspects of your playing and to take risks in other fields.

Just an opinion. 

3rd December 2015

On sunday Natacha played in a performance of the Schubert Octet at a private concert, literally a stone's throw away from where i live. The Ensemble "L'Heure de Musique" lived up to its name by filling almost exactly one hour with the delicious sounds of winds and strings. But as always when i hear the Trout Quintet or the Octet in a more or less formal setting, i couldn't help imagining how nice it would be to serve the after-concert drinks during the concert, even taking short breaks in between movements for a sip of wine or a piece of cake. I seriously think that next time i organize a concert with one of these works i'll do it this way.

The bass, positioned right in the centre of the Ensemble, sounded nicely full and warm and provided the necessary pulse and direction to the other players, all enthusiastic amateurs with professions ranging from biologist to diplomat or from physicist to librarian.

Last night we played Bruckner 7 at Bozar (one of the finest concert halls in the world, according to the connoisseurs - although i always find that the basses don't sound quite enough there. But that may be a professional disease on my part). Students Isaline and Natacha were part of the section, and did a great job.

As promised last week, i'll include a couple of fingerings here because they're not really "traditional" or "old school". Part of the teaching process is looking into all kinds of possibilities of bowing and fingering with the students, and applying our findings in a real-life concert situation. Not only that: since we're concerned with the historical side of music making, we have to ask ourselves how musicians back then might have played, what bows, basses and strings they may have used, what aesthetics were prevalent in the past.

Then we have to check what historical knowledge we have gained against the present-day situation. After all, a modern orchestra doesn't play on gut strings or with historical bows. Why then would we use old-fashioned bowing or fingering systems? 

So an important part of teaching and playing consists in this kind of open-minded research without (we like to think) pre-conceived ideas. In the end, let's not forget, we have to "make it work"

The way i play and teach was formed by many musicians and non-musicians from the past and the present. "Making it work", regardless of any so-called rules, is a concept that i owe in part to conductors like Antonio Pappano. Whenever i had questions about how to play orchestra parts, be it about bowing, articulation, or suggestions from my side about changing the original bass parts so as to get a more coherent section sound and thus to contribute to a better sounding orchestra, his answer was invariably "just make it work". If that meant having part of the section playing pizzicato instead of arco, just to clear up the sound, that was totally OK by him. As long as it worked. Certainly not your orthodox way of doing things, and sacrilegious to many musicians, for sure. But what a conductor, and what fabulous concerts...

A lot of my teaching centers around the concept of just how much freedom the player has in deciding how to interpret the score. This is of course a topic one can discuss endlessly (and we sometimes do, during the lessons). Thinking deeply about these things helps the students in becoming more conscious of what is important in music, and what isn't.

Now then, Bruckner 7. Not the most difficult Bruckner symphony, but still worth having a thorough look at. Here is one excerpt from the 1st Movement (please do try this at home):

Avoiding open strings (bars 367, 369),
unorthodox use of the 3rd string (from bar 375 onwards)
 or the 4th string (from letter V),
avoiding position changes (bars 384-385)

And another one from the Finale. Note the bars starting in 105 where i use either thumb position or extensions across all 4 strings. On a five-string bass, especially if the 5th string is tuned to CC (in 95 percent of the cases i greatly prefer CC to BB for the 5th string), you can just stay in one position without any shifts at all.

The first piece of the concert was Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which i played with my young new colleague José. (As you can see in the picture, the basses are always the first to arrive on the crime scene). We like to have a thorough warm-up before the concert starts. For the whole concert José and i used two of my ancient bows, which produced a warm yet focused sound.

With José Vilaplana, warming up together before the concert.

After the concert.
The fabulous new bass by Stefan Krattenmacher,
an old bow from before or around 1900.
A perfect match.

(I'm talking about the bass and the bow here).

On monday, tuesday and wednesday the students all played their pieces for the Class Concert (getting nearer...only ten days left). To my delight they had all suddenly progressed beyond belief, so i guess we'll have to organize more concerts. There's nothing like a healthy dose of pressure to get the best out of an aspiring musician.

With Louis i'll play the Basso Continuo in the Eccles Sonata (there's a very nice manuscript on the IMSLP site). He will open the concert with the Nanny-Dragonetti concerto. What was especially nice was the fact that he played completely differently with the B.C. playing along. I used the gut-string baroque bass, and Louis proved his sensitivity by matching his playing and his sound to mine.

Natacha is giving Dittersdorf a new lease of life, and she's working hard at the Gruber cadenza and the narrative she wants to give it. Now that she's been using a different bass, her playing, her imagination, and her confidence have increased tenfold.

Isaline will do the Bottesini b minor's first Movement. She's playing on a modern bass. (Pasquale will play the same concerto on gut strings, so it will be interesting to compare the sound of both basses). Right now, Isaline is trying different bows. Not always easy to find a bow that suits your playing style and your bass. As we all know, a bow can have a huge impact on the sound you produce, like we experienced once again when using ancient bows for the Bruckner concert: the basses sounded like totally different instruments). 

We also discussed bass set-up. I feel her strings are a trifle too high above the fingerboard. Personally, i prefer the lowest possible height (Edgar Meyer, i have read, is of the same opinion. But read further on about "opinions" in music). Not much sense in wasting energy pressing down strings that are too high: energy that you could use to play musically, not muscularly. If physical obstacles hamper your expressive potential you're selling yourself short.

That being said, there was great progress in Isaline's interpretation. There was a better sense of structure (which i like to call "narrative" because it's less abstract). On the topic of the Bottesini concerto, here are two little suggestions i proffered:

In bar 65 i use what i call "supernatural" harmonics. These are neither real natural (single finger) ones, nor are they artificial: i don't press the thumb down at all. Neither on the "a" and "e" nor on the "c". When you play the "a" (thumb and 3rd finger, on the 2nd string harmonics a and e), just move the hand over to the thumb on f and 3rd finger on c (keeping the same hand shape), without pressing any finger down. 

The harmonic "b" is right where the normal note "b" would be, an octave lower. It sounds great. Use a generous amount of bow. The notes will come flying out of the bass without any of the hysterical quality that you risk if you play the traditional way on one string. 

What's interesting as well: as we know, in the world of harmonics, 3rds and 7ths are flat, intonation-wise. In this specific case, we have a flat 7th ( "c" on a D-string) followed by a flat 3rd ("b" on a G-string). Strangely, having these two flat notes one after another seems to diminish the total degree of out-of-tune-ness. Usually when we have only one flat harmonic in opposition to a pure tone, it sounds quite jarring within the context. Here, it's less jangling. The fact that we can play the figure really loud also contributes: the more energy we give the last two notes, the higher they will sound (check it with an electronic tuner if you don't trust your ears).

You might of course play the harmonics in the "normal" harmonic territory, and indeed this will add a bit of a "show"-element (nothing to be sneezed at in a concerto). But i always prefer to stay out of the "eternal snow" of rosin residue for as long as possible if i can help it. No fun having to play the rest of the piece with sticky fingers).

In this second excerpt, look at bar 120:

Avoid playing the "g" as a thumb harmonic, but play all four notes e-g-f-e on the 2nd string. It might seem like a small change, but playing it like this makes for a much calmer bowing arm and allows you to play faster and with more clarity of articulation. The most obvious fingerings are often not the best choices. Never be content with the first fingering that comes to mind. Chances are, there is a better alternative.

Charlotte surprised me by making a diminuendo at the end of the 1st Movement of the Koussevitzky concerto. Traditionally we all go crescendo there. But she's been playing the last page by heart for some time now, so she just kind of followed her own feeling. Actually, it sounds very nice that way: it prepares the soft 2nd movement in a most magical way. There is no break between the movements, and preparing the new atmosphere with a diminuendo sounded just right.

Filippe will play the same concerto's 2nd Movement, and we might try to change players between both movements without any break. He will also play one of his own compositions, for which he wrote a kind of "scenario", a story of what the music is about. I'm not sure whether the story came first and was then set to music, or if the music was there first, in which case it inspired the story.

Pasquale played his three Bottesini pieces. His performance will be like a mini-recital within the concert. All played on the three-string bass with gut strings, the pieces sounded very convincing and musical. I borrowed him the bow by Gerhard Landwehr that we have in our class, and that really works very well for Bottesini. It sounds full and round, and it's a bit longer than the old Italian bow he has. The difference in sound quality and in (audible) playing comfort is remarkable, and it made me think about Bottesini's remarks concerning bow lengths for orchestra or for  solo playing.

Yesterday we skipped Bass Lab but we rehearsed the Ensembles instead: the Beethoven Recitative (with piano accompaniment), Piazzolla's "Tango Apasionado", Pasquale's humorous arrangement of Otello, and Simandl's Trio on "Au Clair de la Lune", with an extra variation ("The Minor Variation") by my old student, jazz guitarist and composer Chris Carlier.

Besides the concert preparation, there were lessons with our jazz friends Emmanuel and Jérémie, who always bring a very welcome different perspective into our classroom. And besides the hands-on teaching and learning there is always time for philosophy and for excursions outside the little world of the musician as an artisan. One of the topics i discussed with some students this week was the teacher-student relationship. Here are some of these thoughts.

Your Opinion or Mine?

1/ Teachers and students should never forget that teaching is about opinions, much more than about facts. Even though we teachers like to believe (and make believe) that what we're teaching is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we must remain modest enough to realize that we're usually just selling opinions (the same goes for conductors, by the way, or for anyone in a position of power). Luckily, students today are often more critical than they used to be in years past, but still. Education would be more useful if we could all see that, while opinions may be very valuable, they by no means constitute an absolute truth or fact.

2/ At a certain sensitive age, one feels the need for a respected figure, a guru if you like. One needs a teacher one can look up to, a person who will guide you unerringly. 

But not finding such a figure can be a blessing in disguise in the long run. With hindsight, one sometimes finds that through the lack of a guru, one has found access to an inner strength, to one's own resources. What once felt like an absence, a void, has become a force and a feeling of trust in one's own capabilities.

3/ Students should never be over-zealous in trying to imitate their teachers, regardless of how much awe and respect they feel towards them. Just realize that trying to become the same musician that your teacher is - by imitating his or her every quality or mannerism - will only result in you becoming a lesser version of the person you so deeply admire. Developing your own specific qualities is a better option  than trying to become your hero's clone or believing his or her every word.

And here's a final bit of news, since we've been talking about Bottesini: the silk strings arrived today! We hope to have updates soon in our SILK ROAD page...

26th November 2015

Yesterday we had a bass section rehearsal for Bruckner 7 at the Opera. This time it's Natacha's and Isaline's turn to play with us. Actually they had had their own private sectional the day before, so they came to the rehearsal fully prepared. Nice!

Notice how high José is perched upon his chair.
He's working on a new, bicycle-inspired design for a bass stool...

So we had a thorough run-through of the symphony with some of the usual suspects: Kevin, Jens, Ariel, and with José, Natacha and Isaline. As always a mix of german and french bows. For Bruckner, contrary to last concert's Berlioz which i played with a french bow (a copy of a Dodd bow, made by Jérôme Gastaldo),  i will opt for underhand bow grip, and i'll probably use an old bow, dating from the late 19th century. Never waste a chance to research possibilities and historical tools. 

Speaking of research, José is designing a new bass stool, inspired on a bicycle saddle, of all things... I'm curious what that's going to look like.

I suggested some fingerings for the intricate passages, which i'll post later. As for bowing, i like a certain amount of "free bowing" so that each of us can react to what's going on "in the moment".

As we speak, all public concerts in Brussels are cancelled so we're not quite sure whether our concert at Bozar will actually take place, early next week. But that doesn't deter us from getting ready. In the meantime, getting together with the whole section (minus Martin, who is coming in today) was a great pleasure.

It was a good moment to test the two new basses that Natacha brought back from Stefan Krattenmacher's workshop. Playing quietly at home, or giving it all you've got in rehearsal or concert are two different things. As is so often the case with new or unplayed basses, the guitar-shaped instrument started to open up after an hour or so of intense bowing. 

A much needed break with coffee and chocolate to replenish energy

Kevin, Natacha, Korneel, Isaline and José (Pepe for the friends)
On the left, the Bohemian bass.
On the right, the "big guitar".

16th November 2015

A few days ago i went to a tango concert by the Eduardo Rovira Trio, with our friend Ariel Eberstein on double bass. Delicious music by "the other Piazzolla" as Rovira is sometimes called. This was the Trio's first concert. Although the group usually includes a violinist (thus making them a quartet), they managed very well with just the guitar, bandoneon and bass.

Before the concert, which took place in an old Brussels loft, there was a very interesting initiation to Tango dancing, and the dancers improvised during the concert as well.

The demanding solo bass part in the only Piazzolla piece on the program, "Kicho", was played with aplomb and with a full, generous sound by Ariel on his huge Argentinian bass.

Stairway to Tango Heaven
Last rehearsal
Dancing improvisation
With Ariel and Bass

Today was another busy teaching day. Filippe presented his own composition in full this time, and it was interesting to have him take on two different roles: he is the composer but also the player. 

Trying to dissociate oneself from the composer's role and becoming another person, a performer this time, demands some stretching of the mind. Looking at one's own composition from a different vantage point, as if it were an unknown piece waiting to be discovered, is a great exercise. 

This is part of what it means to be a musician, an artist: stepping inside a different role. One moment you're the performer, the next second you try to be the listener, you become your own audience. 

A continual shift in focus is necessary if you want to be able to grab the listener.  A player or a composer/performer has to realize that very often the listener doesn't know the piece. To the performer, everything he or she does makes sense (at least we hope so). Not so for the listener. The listener has much less previous information (or none at all) about the music. We can't take for granted that the listener will understand everything which to us, players, is obvious.

Especially on the bass i have found we tend to underplay much of the time. Maybe because we're such a modest species. But dynamics on the bass, for instance, are much less pronounced than on many other instruments. The same goes for expressivity. Many of our intentions are lost to the audience, even though we imagine that we're being clear. Much like a far-away actor on a big stage we often have to amplify our gestures and intentions and sometimes we have to clearly spell out the words we're speaking. Playing music is like telling a story, after all. If the words aren't clear, it's hard to follow the narrative. 

That's why we have to learn this switching of focus, from inner to outer, from ourselves to the audience and back. Or from the role of a composer to that of a performer.

Most of the day we were busy preparing our upcoming class concert, deciding what pieces to play and preparing the piano parts. We'll present a Smörgåsbord of concerti, solo pieces and ensembles, on modern and less modern basses. 

And more exciting news from Alexander Rakov: the silk strings are ready! Can't wait to try them. We'll be able to compare our experiences with those of Juilliard, where they tested silk strings ten years ago. This is part of Pasquale's research project about the three-string bass. In connection with this, here are two very interesting extracts from Bottesini's Method, one from the Italian version and the other one from the French edition, which Pasquale just sent me. Often, the translation is slightly different between both languages. Here, Bottesini speaks about portamento and "good taste" (or rather, about the "cativissimo effetto" - not just "cattivo" but "issimo" - of a too pronounced portamento. The French version only mentions "mauvais goût") :

Coincidentally, we had been listening, a few weeks ago, to the Koussevitzky recording of the Andante from his concerto. Talk about portamento! Interesting to compare Bottesini's opinion on the matter to the recording we heard. Such a pity there are no recordings of Bottesini playing.

13th November 2015

Great news from Alexander Rakov, who is making our silk bass  strings. Click here: The Silk Road page.

Last monday, Filippe Caporali played some of his own music in his lesson, besides Bach and Koussevitzky. One of his pieces is quite spectacular in that it demands a tricky Brazilian rhythm to be tapped with the foot whilst playing the instrument. I hope he'll perform some of his music at our class concert, which we have scheduled for 14 December.

Natacha brought the second bass that she borrowed from Stefan Krattenmacher, an old Bohemian-style instrument that looks as if it's survived a major earthquake. Big, precise sound with a rich colour, a huge difference from the bass she's been playing for the last few years. We worked on the Dittersdorf concerto and on the Gruber-Streicher cadenza for the 1st Movement. I brought up Quantz, who said - talking about cadenzas for wind instruments - that ideally a cadenza should be so short that you can play it in one breath. Not a bad piece of advice, even for string instruments, and something to think about. How often do musicians play a concerto very beautifully, only to dilute it immediately afterwards with a long and boring cadenza? We also explored the degrees of freedom one does or doesn't have within a cadenza's inherent structure and "Affekt". Freedom in classical music is a topic i often address in my lessons and that i will regularly come back to. 

The fact that it was cadenza composer Heinz-Karl Gruber's grandfather who wrote the evergreen "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night) was all the more poignant to me at this moment: we had just performed the "Grande Messe des Morts" by Berlioz with the Monnaie Orchestra, and surprisingly the beginning melody of "Stille Nacht" can be clearly heard in one of its chorus lines. Just like "The Girl from Ipanema" appears, very briefly, like a whiff of tropical air, in Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra...

Louis had brought the Eccles Sonata's 2nd Movement in the Nanny-Sankey arrangement. Now that a manuscript is readily available on the IMSLP-site, with only a few clicks you can compare the versions to see the differences in notes and articulations: look at the upbeat to bar 1, and see the articulations in bar 3 for a start:

Find the seven (or more) differences...

Also note the indications "Corente" (absent in the modern version) and "Stacato Alegro". I always urge students to check out the manuscript(s) so that they can make informed choices. There may be reasons to opt for a modern edition, but today there really is no excuse for ignoring the information that is all around us.

For our two new jazz students it was the first formal lesson. Both Emanuel and Jérémie having some physical problems with either the double bass or its electric counterpart, we concentrated on finding a natural stance first of all. I remember it literally took me years before i found a healthy standing position, so i don't foster the illusion that we will solve the problem in one easy lesson.

Ironically, what does NOT help is the amount of well-meant but oftentimes dangerous advice from Bob and his uncle (and sometimes his aunt), usually formulated in terms of "Right" and "Wrong" or "must" and "should" : "The upper nut of the bass must be at the same height as the player's eyes". "When you hold the bow in playing position, the bow-hair should be two inches above the bridge". "Always maintain a straight back, also in thumb position". "Incline the bass towards you so that you can lean into the instrument". "Both the player and the bass should face forward". "Put the left foot against the underside of the bass". 

Truth is, with an instrument like the double bass it's quite a health risk to take this sort of advice too literally. No two basses are alike. No two players' bodies are alike. No two sets of legs, arms, or fingers are the same length. No two basses are set up in the exact same way, or react exactly alike. I could go on, but you get my drift. There is one rule: there are no rules (but there's great Scotch, the ad says). It can take a while to find a position that feels healthy and relaxed, and once you've found it you'll probably still have to change it once you start playing in thumb position, and again, once you start playing seated. And once more when you switch from underhand to overhand bowing or vice versa. And when you buy a new bass. Or when you get fat.

These are things you can't learn from some method book. This is where personal help is needed, and some understanding of the human body and of the laws of physics.

Long story short, we spent a lot of time on this important aspect of playing, and we will continue to do so. And what is valid for stance is, mutatis mutandis, also valid (maybe to a slightly lesser extent) for the bow hold.

Since Charlotte was absent, i went downstairs with Jérémie for a cup of coffee and we had a long talk about music in general, about jazz in particular, and about life. A very nice moment.

Pasquale had had a heavy week of concerts and rehearsals, and he came without his personal bass. But he managed to play Bottesini and Mengoli on the baroque bass that we have in our class, an instrument that's really not set up for solo playing at all. Since the fingerboard is short and the strings are set high, he used the ancient technique of pulling the strings to the side. Quite amazing what he did in the given circumstances. After the lesson we took the instrument's 3rd string off, to try it on the 3-string bass: it's a tighter and tauter gut string, and maybe just what we need for the 3-string project. So far, we haven't found the right balance between strings, and it seems that our Silk String Research is leading us towards a combination of two silk top strings and a gut third string. So we absolutely need to find something that works well.

The Mengoli Etudes are well-known in Italy but not in Belgium. It's a pity, because they're truly wonderful. The one Pasquale played is very reminiscent of Rabbath's drone-based solo works.

On Wednesday i went to see Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's dance production "Fractus V", in Bruges. Despite its title which smacks of 70's cold-abstract contemporary music, it's an amazingly human, gripping show in which the dancers are also musicians and singers, and the musicians and singers become dancers, in which the music is varied and haunting, with a capella singing, with ethnic instruments and with musicians who succeed in using their incredible virtuosity as an emotional medium, rather than as the typical chest-beating look-at-me tool it usually is. This brought back to me how important it is to always embed instrumental technique in a deeper context. Technique for its own sake is meaningless. 

With some of the ideas of Noam Chomsky serving as an inspiration for Cherkaoui's production, i was acutely aware of the bridges that can be built between philosophy, science, art, learning and teaching.

6th November 2015

Natacha just came back from a visit to Stefan Krattenmacher's workshop, with two basses to try out for a week or so. It's always exciting to discover a new instrument, its strong points and its weaknesses, its potential and the inspiration it can give you. One of the basses is with me now, and i've been playing it all morning. Curious to see the other one next monday.

Tonight we're playing Berlioz at the Bozar. For the last two days, our new colleague José Vilaplana was in the Principal's seat and i sat in the back. It's something i'll do more often. It's a good experience for the young musicians not only to sit in front but also to do the job of a Principal: deciding on bowings and all the other essentials of group playing. And it's good for the Princial player to sit in the back from time to time and thus to change perspectives. Win-win all around. Isn't that nice?


4th November 2015

We had our first Bass Lab today. A couple of hours with the students, exploring basic exercises and warm-up routines. For Jérémie, our new student from the jazz department and originally a bass guitarist, it was a bit of swim-or-sink with the upright bass and bow. Glad to say that not only did he survive, but he managed quite well. All in all a fruitful afternoon, and a nice start for this new initiative. Some of the students being abroad at the moment, we were only six today but next time i expect the whole class to turn up.

We started with some very Zen bowing drones on open strings to open up the basses and become one with the vibrations in- and outside of ourselves, then we moved on to basic fingering drills for intonation and to the famous Karr "vomit"-shifts (up and down) in glissando on a fixed interval, with all possible variations in fingering. We also explored some basic Petracchi exercises (which we will "enrich" later on) and a few daily thumb position routines...

...all the while keeping in mind that exercises are music too, and that they can or must be infused with emotion and expression if they are to be as effective as possible. Detachment can only come after attachment has been mastered.

2nd November 2015

YOUR future is on the line

If you are concerned about the survival of orchestras in Belgium and worldwide, if you are concerned about the continued existence of Conservatories, if you care about art and culture, then sign this petition for Belgium's National Orchestra.

Disappearing orchestras = less jobs for musicians = less chances of landing a job for music students = less conservatories = IT'S ABOUT YOUR FUTURE




Check out the Bass Events Page for information about the ARD- and Sperger-Competitions. There are a few similarities between both competition programs, so why not participate in both?

1st November 2015

Student Louis Ponseele just sent us the last part of his Concert Diary. A bit late, but interesting nonetheless because of his "social energy" theory in orchestra playing.

Dag 5

Eerst en vooral mijn verontschuldigingen dat er van gisteren geen verslag gemaakt werd. Een zeer kort en bondige samenvatting zou zijn: "een vruchtbare repetitiedag".

Ik deed gisteren ook een ontdekking in de basklas, een mooi idee om eventueel over te nemen in onze basklas (foto). Het lijkt me een eenvoudig en efficiënt systeem om bassen te klasseren.

Dit project was eigenlijk ook een beetje een taalstage voor mij. Frans, Engels, Nederlands, Duits worden hier dagelijks evenveel geoefend als dat we repeteren aan de stukken. Jullie moeten je nu geen illusies beginnen maken, ik kondig de concerten niet aan. Er is zelfs een kans dat ik tegen ik thuis ben weer geen woord Frans meer spreek, want de laatste dagen merk ik eerder achteruitgang dan vooruitgang. Dit komt vast en zeker door de vermoeidheid. Ik hoop maar dat dit niet in één lijn kan doorgetrokken worden met het maken van muziek. 

We krijgen gelukkig wel meer en meer vrijaf. De repetities van vanavond en morgen vroeg zijn zelfs afgelast. Waarschijnlijk in de hoop dat er op het concert ietsje frissere gezichten achter de blinkende instrumenten zitten. Toch denk ik dat de volgende keer  uitgekeken moet worden naar een iets haalbaarder repetitie-schema dat volgehouden kan worden. Een muzikantenleven is zo al onregelmatig genoeg.


Het eerste concert in Brussel zit erop, en ik denk dat we tevreden mogen zijn. Ik heb het gevoel dat iedereen zijn concentratie op het concert voor 104% gebruikte en dit bracht een veel beter resultaat dan verwacht. Ik denk niet dat het met die 4% concentratie te maken heeft maar wel met dat totale percentage. De generale repetitie was echt slecht, hoewel ik denk dat de muzikanten zich wel volledig inspanden, maar de opmerkelijk betere prestatie op het concert zelf kan toch te verklaren zijn door een gebrek van aandacht in het orkest tijdens de generale. Tijdens de generale waren er nog een heleboel andere factoren die hem misschien niet opper-charmant maakten zoals: het lange wachten op de enkele bussen, een chaotische start, een heel andere zaal / opstelling dan we gewoon waren,... en misschien gewoon omdat een slechte generale nodig is voor een goed concert? 

Geen van deze redenen kan een echte verklaring geven waarom de repetities minder goed waren dan het concert. Misschien wel omdat de repetitiezaal inderdaad niet optimaal was, maar volgens mij ligt de hoofdoorzaak weer bij de groepsgeest van het orkest. 

Ik geloof in uitwisseling en daarbij aansluitend het verhogen of verlagen van energie. Volgens mij heeft dit ook allemaal met frequenties te maken en hoewel er weinig of geen kennis is over hoe het precies in zijn werk gaat, mag je er van mij gewoon de wetten van het geluid op loslaten. 

Mijn volledige theorie staat nog in de kinderschoenen, maar een korte samenvatting zou zijn: als iedereen met zijn persoonlijke energie bijdraagt tot een consonante samenklank zouden we een "energie-akkoord" krijgen dat een stuk luider en voller klinkt dan de energie-frequentie van één persoon. Zodra er een persoon met een energie-frequentie komt die dissonant klinkt in dit akkoord krijgen we problemen met mee-resonerende individuen en krijgen we een zware aftakeling van het volume van dit akkoord. Als iedereen zich dus vervoegt bij de energie-frequentie van de dirigent hebben we reeds een mooi energie-level om mee te werken tijdens de repetities. 

Ik denk dat, doordat de dirigent geen duidelijke toon zette wat betreft zijn wensen zoals klankkleur, dynamiek, eenheid in de stukken,... de jonge, enthousiaste, onervaren muzikanten er hun eigen energie-frequentie op loslieten, wat ervoor zorgde dat de consonante energie wat verloren ging en de repetities zwaarder aanvoelden dan ze eigenlijk waren.

Waarschijnlijk is dit een veel te vergezochte theorie en bestaat er zeker een juistere, eenvoudiger verklaring. Toch zal ik mijn bedenkingen zo laten staan in de blog. Het zal ten eerste leuk zijn om later opnieuw te lezen, en je weet nooit dat het een ander, gespecialiseerder brein kan helpen bij een verklaring voor sociale energie.


Momenteel zit het orkest project er net op. Ik heb eerlijk gezegd weinig toe te voegen. Het was een super toffe ervaring die enkele aspecten van het muziekkantenleven aan het licht brachten die bij binnenlandse projecten minder naar voren komen. Nu alleen nog wat slaap en werk bijbenen, maar indien mogelijk doe ik het zeker opnieuw.


English translation of the "Louis-Theory":

"I believe in exchange, and connected to that, the heightening or lowering of energy. I think this also has to do with frequencies, and although there is little or no knowledge about how this works precisely, as far as i'm concerned you can let the laws of sound loose on it. 

My complete theory is still in its infancy, but a short summary would be: when everybody, with his own energy, contributes to a consonant harmony, we would get an "energy-chord" that would sound a lot louder and fuller than one person's energy-frequency. As soon as there is a person with a dissonant energy-frequency, we get problems with co-resonating individuals, resulting in a heavy decline of this chord's volume. So if everybody joins the conductor's energy-frequency we already have a nice energy level to work with in rehearsal.

I think that, because the conductor failed to set a clear tone concerning his wishes for sound colour, dynamics, unity in the pieces,... the young, enthousiastic, inexperiences musicians let  loose their own energy-frequencies, which made for some loss of consonant energy and which caused the rehearsals to feel heavier than they actually were".

Mmm... not sure i understand all the details, but on some level i think i do, more or less. I'll have to talk to Louis, next lesson. But this reminds me of a long conversation i had a few years ago, at the Kopenhagen Bass Convention, with the amazing, inimitable and unsurpassed bassist Dean Ferrell. If memory serves me right, he had a theory about the frequencies of light having an influence on the frequencies of sound: live music, according to this theory, sounded better in the dark than with all the lights on, or better by candle light than by artificial light - something like that anyway. So maybe we should try and organize the students' exams in a pitch dark room for a change. Worth a try, no?


Dean Ferrell, singing and playing simultaneaously

31st October 2015

Berlioz and Jazz

Orchestra rehearsals for Berlioz all afternoon and evening, and then - and now for something completely different! - i went to see Filippe Caporali and his band at the Sazz'N'Jazz club. They played a beautiful set of mostly original compositions in a very eclectic style. Jazz, pop, alternative rock, and ethnic elements in an enveloping, warm mix of melodic and rhythmic inspirations. 

Truly nice bass playing from Filippe i must say, with some beautifully inventive solos to boot. Kudos to Fil and to his fellow musicians, and a special mention for the lady behind the mixing desk who did a fantastic job, playing the mixer like a musical instrument herself, making sure every detail in the music could be heard, and especially taking care that the sound level never exceeded the humanly acceptable. That in itself is worth the highest praise in a day and age where the only thing that seems to matter in most live concerts is an earth-shaking sound volume in which you can't distinguish anything.

An evening well-spent, and i'm happy that today i had the chance to work with one student in the orchestra, and to hear another one in concert. What more can a teacher ask for?

29th October 2015

Just received this drawing from bass colleague (and daughter) Viola le Compte in Sweden. Check out the Ellemenopee Page to understand what it's all about.

Hindemith and the Nonsense Chord
by Viola Le Compte

Also today: first rehearsal since my cancer operation (five months to the day), with the Monnaie Opera Bass Section: Grande Messe des Morts (Berlioz). Always a great pleasure to play with colleagues, students, and friends for a few hours, just basses and nothing else. This is what we'll do with the Bass Lab too: just basses working on a unified "section"-sound. But today was extra-special of course. 

School's Out

Our section for this concert boasts six nationalities: Spanish, Argentinian, British, Italian, Hungarian, and there are even two Belgians :-) Their teachers include Ludwig Streicher, Franco Petracchi, Miloslav Jelinek, and Dorin Marc to name only the famous ones. Schools, anyone?

The very idea of the importance of "Schools" is totally passé today. Half of us play French bow, the other half German (by the way, isn't it high time we abandoned these nationalistic names for how we hold the bow? Historically, they have little or nothing to do with France or Germany, and even if they had, they carry with them too much of a "political" weight and bias). Some of us switch between both bow-holds without any problem. We also mix different fingering systems: 1-2-4, 1-3-4 and 1-2-3-4. We don't even use uniform bowings all the time. And in spite of all these differences - or thanks to them - it works like a charm. "School's out forever", Alice Cooper sang. And who are we to contradict him?

Pasquale is joining our bass section for this concert, and more students will get a chance to gather some real-life experience in upcoming concerts and operas. 

Preparing the parts

With Janos, Ariel, Pasquale, Jens, Kevin, Martin
(hiding from the photographer), and José

Wall of Sound

This concert also marks the debut of Maestro Alain Altinoglu as our new Music Director and Chief Conductor. A great moment for the orchestra.

And, last but not least, today was a historical day for the World of Bassists: In Japan the world première of Joe Hisaishi's double bass concerto took place. Joe Hisaishi, originally a composer of esoteric "contemporary music", turned towards the world of Anime and became famous with immortal music scores for such films as "Totoro", "Kiki the Sorceress", "Kikujiro", "Departures" and countless others. Or how some contemporary composers are really capable of writing decent music :-)

Joe Hisaishi

Today's lucky bassist, Shigeru Ishikawa, performed the concerto with "his" Yomiuri orchestra, under the baton of Joe Hisaishi himself. I hope i'll be able to lay my hands on the score soon! 

Shigeru Ishikawa

28 October 2015

Mail from string maker Nicholas Baldock about the three-string set-up as used by Bottesini, check the "Silk Road" Page. Very interesting...

27th October 2015

And then they were ten

... and yet another new student, from Philippe Pierlot's Viola da Gamba class. Matthias Ferré is in Master 2 for Gamba, and will join our class to study the baroque bass: our 10th student... 

Today i had a reunion with a new Artist's Association, called "Artists United". They are an independent organization by artists for artists, specializing in advice and support for all their colleagues, including musicians, aspiring musicians and students.

It's very important to have such people to support us, especially in times where we've been swindled into believing that "it's the economy, stupid" and that numbers are more important than humanity, art or culture. I've joined, and i would honestly urge any musician or other artist to do likewise. 

26th October 2015

We welcome two new students, Emanuel and Jérémie, both from the Jazz Department.

Bass Lab starts on wednesday 4 November and will be held all year long on wednesday afternoons. From Karr's Vomit Exercises to Make-Your-Own-Method or Progressive Scales, and everything in between.

25th October 2015

First entrance in our "Ellemenopee" Page... Enjoy!

24th October 2015

More to read from Quantz (in English translation) and from colleague Andy Ackerman in "Worth Reading". There will be more Quantz soon: he has much to say that is still remarkably valid today. The Ackerman article eloquently sums up the essentials of bass playing in Ancient Music. Worth Reading indeed.

23rd October 2015

Bass Lab

November will see the start of our BASS LAB: weekly technique and warm-up sessions open to all bass students. A single one-hour individual lesson, once a week, is really not enough to help aspiring bass players in acquiring the necessary tools for a successful career. So i'll do this bass workshop, on a voluntary basis, in the hope that this will help them.

As my students know by now, i don't believe in technique for technique's sake. Rather, technique should always be consciously connected to a musical reality. That being said, a series of group sessions where we concentrate on healthy technique and efficient warm-up, on technical tools, individual and collective sound production, on intonation, listening and adapting, can do no harm. Especially when there's coffee and cake as well.

More news on actual dates will be posted here. The most likely day of the week for these sessions will be Wednesday, in the afternoon. 

Isaline at today's Berio Birthday Concert:

22nd October 2015

A message from the Conservatory Music Library:

Dear student, professor, colleague,

You surely know the online sheet music collection of the IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, www.imslp.org, but it is not the only player in the field.

There is also Digital Resources in Musicology, or DRM, http://drm.ccarh.org. It is a portal site providing access to an impressive range of open-access resources for musicians and musicologists.

On its homepage you will also find a link to ADAM and EVE. The latter is the more interesting one for performers: Electronic and Virtual Editions.

The link to DRM and other resources is also available on our library pages: http://www.kcb.be/en/pagina/catalogue-online

Beste student, docent, collega,

Het online aanbod van bladmuziek op de IMSLP Petrucci Music Library, www.imslp.org,  is je ongetwijfeld bekend, maar IMSLP is niet de enige speler in het veld.

Er is ook Digital Resources in Musicology, kortweg DRM, http://drm.ccarh.org. Dit is een portalsite die toegang geeft tot een indrukwekkende reeks open-access bronnen voor musici en musicologen.

Op de homepage vind je ook een link naar ADAM en naar EVE. Vooral deze laatste is uitvoerders boeiend: Electronic and Virtual Editions.

De link naar DRM en andere e-bronnen vind je ook op onze bib-pagina: http://www.kcb.be/pagina/catalogus-online

Ilse, Ilse, Johan, Joachim en Richard,

Het bibliotheekteam

The Library Team

T +32 2 213 41 30

School of Arts
Erasmushogeschool Brussel

(Note: there is also the www.scribd.com site, where you can find books, documents and music scores. Amongst thousands of other interesting things, there's a fascinating Koussevitzky Biography from the 1930s).

21st October 2015

Don't forget: tomorrow (thursday) and friday we'll have this year's first HIPP-Seminars. Interesting for all students, not only the hipp ones: have a look at the Conservatory Activities Page to see what it's about.

Pasquale's adventures are now in the Students' Page, with a few pictures and links. I always encourage students and friends to write in their own language. It makes for more personal writing, and a more colorful blog. Today it gives you a chance to brush up on your Italian. What a beautifully musical language!

Coming up soon: more pages. One of them will be entitled "Ellemenopee". Bikkuri desu ne...

20th October 2015

Check our Students page for an update on Pasquale. I'll add the pictures tonight, gotta run now.

19th October 2015

Check our "Friends" Page for a new contribution by a good friend and a great colleague, Tom Fiorini, a truly all-round musician on the bass guitar and the double bass, in jazz, rock, pop and classical music. I've known Tom for many years. He has played with our opera bass section, and i've seen him on bass guitar in various concert settings. He's a classy guy and i'm very happy to have him as a friend. 

Today's lessons included the Hindemith and Misek Sonatas (Charlotte), the Bottesini Concerto (Pasquale and Isaline), Kousevitzky Andante and the Prelude from Bach's first Cello-Suite (Filippe), the Fryba Suite (Natacha), Bottesini's "Rêverie" (Pasquale), and a host of orchestral excerpts by Beethoven and Verdi, some of which we will perform, all the students and Mr. Teacher together, at our upcoming Bass Class Concert in December...

Fryba's Suite is one of those pieces that merit not only the effort to study them, but also some reflecting on the different possible ways to interpret them. Should we obediently stick to the score in the name of so-called "respect for the composer"? Or can we try and do something with what the title says: "Im alten Stil"?

I always like to imagine that the score we have is actually a modern edition of a real old, forgotten baroque Suite. And what do we do with modern editions of Ancient Music? Right: we clean them of all the probably non-original indications of dynamics, fingerings, and articulations that have been added by the modern editor, and we go back to the basic text. Once all of the modern editing has gone, with what we know about baroque articulations and playing style, we can now fill in new (old) articulations, and we can try to come closer to the "Olden Style" the title promised us. 

We can now find a way of playing that is really close to what we find in authentic baroque music. By pretending that this is a piece from Bach's time, or even earlier, and by treating it as such, we free ourselves from the "modern" elements and we find a different voice. We discover new, more declamatory phrasings for the Prelude instead of playing it like a boring étude (the way it's usually done). We can add little cadenzas here and there. We can play the Sarabande in a more "authentic" style when we get rid of the printed articulations. We use vibrato sparingly, only as an ornament on some choice notes, instead of like a sticky sauce that covers everything. All too often, vibrato is the musical equivalent of ketchup.

What does "respect for the composer" really mean? Does it mean that we always have to play literally what is printed, at the risk of boring everyone to death? Or do we show more respect when we make the music come to life and when we succeed in "translating" the dots on the paper into a real-life experience that moves an audience?

These questions are part of what it means to teach and to learn. Whatever the answer is, as musicians we have the duty to ask them and to think deeply about them. In fact, the answers aren't all that important. The questions are.

Early in the morning one of our old five-string basses was picked up by the people of the Bozar Concert Hall, for use by the Berlin Philharmonic in tonight's concert. I hope they like it...

Three prospective new students visited our class today in view of joining our Room 273 "Bass Lab". The more the merrier :-)

17th October 2015

This morning i received a very interesting mail from Robert Nairn at Juilliard, concerning our wild goose chase for Bottesini's silk strings: check the "Silk Road" page for the latest updates. I wrote to Rodney Slatford as well. Rodney is a distinguished English bass soloist, teacher and scholar, and the man behind Yorke Editions. Maybe he can shed some light on the silk question.

In the meantime Rodney's answer has come... I just can't believe the support and warmth that exists in the world of bass players. I have known Rodney Slatford as a great figure in the bassworld ever since i bought his recording of music by Keÿper, Dittersdorf, Michael Haydn and Rossini (all world premiere recordings if i'm not mistaken), almost forty years ago. It was one of three LPs i had, my prized collection of recordings that featured the bass as a solo instrument, and that in time grew to over a hundred LPs and as many CDs. The times have certainly changed. Now you can find countless bass records, but the sheer excitement of unearthing another obscure rarity has gone forever.

Rodney was the Mastermind behind the Isle of Man Double Bass Conventions in 1978 and 1982. The 1978 Convention was the subject of a BBC documentary, and is now on YouTube:


Rodney's contribution to the Silk Whodunnit can be found on our Silk Road page.

Last night i went to see and hear the KBM-concert, in which Louis took part. It brought back many memories of playing in youth orchestras and in conservatory ensembles. It also made me realize how many things we take for granted in a professional ensemble, and how much effort and prolonged dedication it takes to make an orchestra sound like... well, an orchestra. Being there was a very good thing for me as a teacher. I learned or re-learned a lot, last night. The orchestra received a warm and well-earned applause from an international audience in which it was heart-warming to see at least a handful of conservatory teachers...

The bass section consisted of one German student, three Chinese bassists (which made me think of the old German children's song "Drei Chinesen mit dem Kontrabass", but in this day and age it's probably become politically incorrect to mention it), and the one and only Louis Ponseele. In the total balance i would have wished for more bass (and more string sound in general), but the few solo spots for the bass section in the Lutoslawski piece sounded very nice.

This afternoon Isaline is replacing Natacha in the beautiful children's opera "Okilélé", check it out in "Bass Events". And Natacha is part of the orchestra in the last performance of a series of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" at the Antwerp Opera tonight... Busy girls! 

16th October 2015

Today, as we were occupied (again) filling our libraries in Room 273, Louis came in to drop off his bass before the orchestra rehearsal and concert. This gave us a chance to take a few pictures. Louis has a very special bass case, that his father made for him. It's got a nifty little alarm attached to one of the wheels that goes off if anyone tries to steal the bass. Louis has been working very hard, rehearsing three times a day for the three concerts of the coming weeks. Tonight is the first one.

15th October 2015

No news from Louis these past two days... we hope he's all right. Tomorrow is his first concert with the Three-Countries-Orchestra, here in our own beautiful Concert Hall. I hope all his fellow-students will be there.

Isaline succeeded in the audition for the Orkestacademie in Antwerp. Congratulations!

Today i started organizing our class library of scores, books, LPs and CDs: there are around 150 recordings, a few hundred books, over a hundred bass magazines, and close to a thousand bass- or bass-related scores for the students to consult.

I also had a short conversation with Peter van Heyghen, the Director of the Ancient Music Department. We talked about our Silk Road string-project, and about Peter's idea of having all baroque students learn to make their own bows. Just like musicians back then usually did. The plan is to have a professional bow maker teach the students how to go about building a simple bow. The course would last two weeks. Great idea, as long as we can avoid cutting off any fingers...

We're trying to organize a few class concerts this year. The first one will probably be in december. I hope we'll be able to present some nice pieces and ensembles. I'll also play my own recital in spring, with pianist Jan Michiels: Hindemith and Arpeggione Sonatas, some Glière and Bottesini, and the "Tango" Baroque Suite by Jacques Vanherenthals. All on gut strings, and with pianoforte accompaniment. 

The recital will be entitled "Oh my Gut!" and the idea behind this project is to make a connection between a very personal adventure (my recent cancer - with some of my guts removed) and the artistic research into gut strings. It's more than the cheap play on words it seems to be at first sight. Music, after all, is not something that is far removed from the real world - or at least it shouldn't be. All proceeds will go to cancer research. And the students who attend will get good grades :-)

Since we're looking into different types of strings with Pasquale Massaro, it will be interesting to see and hear how gut strings work in these pieces that are now invariably played on modern steel strings. How will the strings affect the way we play this music? How different will it sound? I think (and hope) we're in for a few surprises along the way. Also, some of the students will tackle the Hindemith Sonata this year (on steel strings), as well as the Vanherenthals Suites: fabulous new music in baroque style for solo double bass. These pieces haven't been published yet, but the composer graciously allowed us to explore them in our Room 273 "Bass Lab". It's nice to be able to build this bridge between composer and students.

Isaline will be playing in a Berio concert next week. Check the "Bass Events" page!

12th October 2015 (bis)

Louis' Diary 

Dag 3

Hier ben ik weer en de dag zit er weer zo goed als op. Drie tutti-repetities hebben hem rijkelijk gevuld.

De repetities gaan door in het gebouw van de Hochschule für Musik und Tanz te Aachen. Dit is een departement van Köln, behoorlijk gecentreerd gelegen tussen de drie deelnemende staten en dus ideaal als hoofdkwartier. Het gebouw is behoorlijk nieuw denk ik, afgaand op de goede staat ervan. De klassen staan perfect in orde en men heeft met moderne technologie het systeem om klassen te ontlenen proberen te vergemakkelijken alhoewel ik hoorde van de gitaarleerkracht dat hij niet echt fan was van dat systeem. Ook al zijn de gebouwen in perfecte staat, het kan niet tippen aan het conservatorium van Brussel op zeker vlak. Het studeren in de Brusselse klassen met hun hoge plafonds, echte deuren waarvan je het slot voelt omslaan, geeft een warmer gevoel dan de klasjes in Aachen doen. Het gebouw is, hoewel ons Conservatorium meer ten dode opgeschreven staat, doodser en volgens mij goed om fysica in te studeren en misschien ook wel muziekgeschiedenis en solfège. Ik vrees minder goed om iets te maken dat moet leven.

Genoeg gefilosofeerd over de architectuur. Een feit is dat dit bolwerk vandaag heeft staan daveren op zijn grondvesten en dat onze oren ook moe gedaverd zijn. Ik was naar de apotheker oordopjes gaan halen maar het is helaas niet altijd even aangenaam spelen met deze willekeurige equalizer in je oren.

Ik mag jullie niet vergeten te zeggen dat we vandaag anderhalf uur eerder hebben mogen stoppen. Dit is voor sommigen een opportuniteit om nog wat te studeren. Ik moet eerlijk toegeven dat ik daar de moed niet meer voor gevonden heb. 

Tot de volgende.
Vriendelijke groeten, Louis

12th October 2015

It's after midnight now, and Louis just sent me his Report of Day 2... Poor guy, he's been working all day but he's taking his duty as a reporter very seriously indeed. Thank you, Louis!

Dag 2

Na een goede nacht, een warme douche en een lekker ontbijt voel ik me klaar voor de nieuwe repetitiedag. Alhoewel ik misschien net ietsje te enthousiast ben want het repetitieschema lijkt me zelfs na deze positieve start uitputtend:

9u30-12u30. Partitiële repetitie
14u00-17u00. Partitiële repetitie
19u00-22u00. Tutti

Alleen fanatiek christen worden zou me denk ik kunnen helpen bij deze uitputtingsslag op zondag. We kunnen er bovendien maar beter aan wennen want de komende 4 dagen zien er net zo uit.

Momenteel zitten de eerste twee repetities van de dag er weer op. De bassectie kampt met behoorlijk wat intonatieproblemen waarbij de frustraties af en toe wel eens opborrelen. Op de intonatieproblemen na kregen we helaas niet veel aandacht aangezien onze coach enkel de cellopartij mee volgde. Dit was aan de ene kant een negatief punt maar de positieve kant was dat de bassectie een gemeenschappelijke ergernis -factor had wat de groep wat dichter bij elkaar bracht.

De repetities waren uitputtend! Het is ondertussen 23u en ik verlang naar mijn bedje maar eerst nog wat feiten. Deze avond was de eerste tutti repetitie in een ietwat kleine zaal voor zo'n bende en onze oren kregen het dan ook zwaar te verduren. Mijn buur was de tubist en hun definitie voor bassen was anders dan van een contrabassist. Ik ken de definitie helaas niet volledig maar de woorden: kletterend, zaalvullend en dominerend komen er dacht ik wel in voor.
Dit gegeven kwam vooral tot uiting in het modern cello concerto van Lutosvasky waarbij alle kopers van zich laten horen.

Mijn laatste bedenking van deze dag is omtrent dit modern werk. Ik denk dat, om dit werk op een efficiënte manier te repeteren voor een goede uitvoering de aanpak een beetje zou moeten veranderen. Wanneer we dit werk repeteren zoeken we naar de noten en de ritmes die op de partituur geschreven staan. Maar helaas is dit maar een klein deeltje van de muziek. Bij Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms,... lezen we ook de noten, maar voelen we de muziek mee, maken we vaak onbewust een klankkleur die deze muziek draagt,... Deze nieuwe muziek voelen we helaas niet zo snel aan dus zouden we op dat vlak meer assistentie moeten krijgen. Hoe deze aanpak dan precies zou moeten zijn, daar ben ik helaas nog niet uit. Als jullie lezers ideeën zouden hebben zou ik het erg op prijs stellen als je deze in de comments zou kunnen nalaten.

Ik moet zeggen dat de gemeenschappelijke moeheid van alle studenten en de communicatie al een duidelijk meer gehechte groep hebben gecreëerd. De schrik onder de bassisten ebt ook stilaan weg.

Ik denk dat de dresscode zwart zal zijn op het concert... Toch onder de ogen...
Tot morgen

Beste Korneel,
Zie zo. Dat was dag 2.
Tot morgen.

Vriendelijke groeten, Louis

11th October 2015

Louis is in Germany at this moment for an Orchestra Project which unites students from the conservatories of Köln (Germany), Maastricht (The Netherlands) and Brussels (Belgium). I asked him to let us know what's going on there, so we can all share in his experiences. Here is Part One of his Diary.


Het eerste orkestproject van het Koninklijk Conservatorium van Brussel voor dit jaar is vandaag van start gegaan. Het is een internationaal project in samenwerking met Köln en Maastricht en de eerste repetitieweek gaat door in het Duitse Aachen. Het idee was om jullie een korte beschrijving van de gebeurtenissen te geven, bekeken vanuit de ogen van een bassist. Ik voelde mij aangesproken aangezien er geen andere bassisten van "Room 273" meezijn, en bij deze doop ik mijzelf om tot reporter Louis. Beste blog, ik ben geen fotograaf, helaas want ik weet dat foto's jou opfrissen, maar ik begin al met de droge tekst en misschien neem ik nog een fotograaf aan.

Dag 1

De eerste dag van een orkestproject is altijd de spannendste en ook één van de belangrijkste. Als bassist had ik dan ook de verstandige reactie om me bij het wachten op de bus zo rustig mogelijk op te stellen, het socialisen tot de eisen van de etiquette te beperken en, na mijn bas in het ruim van de bus achtergelaten te hebben, een rustig plekje te zoeken op de bus waar ik me mooi een beeld kon vormen van de situatie. (Ik benijdde stiekem de violisten, trombonisten, cellisten, ... die rustig hun instrumenten mee op de bus konden nemen). 

Blijkbaar dachten velen er zo over wat zorgde voor een rustige busrit. Zelfs het kopergeweld hield zich stil (ik weet niet of dit gebonden is aan zonsopgang en -ondergang).

Bij aankomst escaleerde deze rust tot een rustige hectiek die veroorzaakt werd door enkele problemen bij de organisatie. Maastricht was er nog niet, men had twijfels bij de haalbaarheid van de planning. Ik zou nog een eindje meegegaan zijn met de bus om mijn bas in de Hochschule te lossen, maar de bus was helaas zonder mij vertrokken wat hem in de handen van de percussionisten liet (ik weet niet hoe ik zo kalm ben gebleven), maar wat ons bovenal verontrustte was dat er blijkbaar vergeten was om middageten te voorzien. We werden gerustgesteld en ingeleid tot de Jazz-mentaliteit: Improvisatie!

Ieder kon zijn buikje vullen en daarna startten we de repetities zonder de studenten en docenten van Maastricht.

Hier kom ik terug op het belang van zo'n eerste dag. Volgens mij is een van de hoofdingrediënten van een orkest de sfeer en deze wordt bepaald door de groepsdynamiek. Het starten zonder Maastricht was in mijn ogen geen goed gegeven maar op dat na leek het er wel op dat de sfeer zeker goed zou komen. De bassisten repeteerden samen met de cellisten en vaak zijn er bij cellisten in het begin wel wat spanningen. Zonder een leidend persoon zoals de docent van Maastricht werd onze groep in het begin ook wel erg op de proef gesteld. Toch bleven de spanningen nihil of straalden ze niet door tot bij de baspupiter.

De bassectie was weer een superbrave groep van gezapige mensen. 4 bassisten van Köln (als ik het goed heb) waaronder 3 die Chinees onder elkaar kunnen babbelen en met z'n vieren kunnen ze Duits spreken wat voor mij helaas ook Chinees is. In mijn ogen was de groep eerlijk gezegd misschien net iets te braaf. Ik denk dat er nog in iemand de leidersfiguur moet ontbranden en de sfeer moet ook nog wat losser worden. De communicatie is hier helaas een remfactor in denk ik.

Ziezo. Dit was Dag 1. Ik hoop dat de vermoeidheid het laatste stuk niet te chaotisch gemaakt heeft. Een goede nacht.

Vriendelijke groeten, Louis

10th October 2015

More news about our Silk Strings Project: i found a string maker who is willing to manufacture some silk bass strings for us. 

As the project is gaining momentum, i've created a dedicated "Silk Road" page on this Blog where we will gather all the information that is coming to us from players and specialists all over the world. Building Bridges is what music is all about...

Incidentally, as i was browsing the Internet in a search for the Japanese Aichi University of the Arts (Chinatsu, one of my former Japanese students, has succeeded in the entrance exam there), i came across the university's Admission Policy:

"The school of Music seeks students who have sensibility, distinctive personality, balance between theory and technical skills, and motivation to express themselves by music. Students also should have a lofty spirit, definite sense of purpose, and strength of character as they can pursue a broad range of artistic activities with not only local but also international viewpoints. The refined sensitivity, well-organized expertise, and refined skills of performers will be essential elements to move an audience"

I couldn't have said it better.

9th October 2015

John Feeney
Bass players are such a warmhearted and supportive lot... I received a mail from John Feeney, an extraordinary musician and a specialist on the gut-string bass as well as a  scholar (he made new editions of Dragonetti's music). John proffered some insights into the use of gut strings and how to draw (literally) the most out of them. Very interesting for the Ancient Music bass students, but for the others as well.

I went to see the Pre-General rehearsal of Spontini's "La Vestale" at Brussels' Royal Circus. This Sunday i'm taking some students to the General rehearsal. Always interesting to see a live orchestra rehearsal or performance.

I posted some more reading stuff in the "Worth Reading" page. When i have time i'll write some explanations or comments, and maybe a translation of the Gustav Laska article for those who don't read German. 

The gist of his piece is that he deplores the fact that all double basses are so different. He would prefer it if there were only one universal model and he even goes so far as to suggest the exact measures of such an "ideal" double bass. 

This reminds me of my old teacher who maintained that all basses should be set on fire, and that only one type of bass should be allowed to exist. Personally, i am of the opposite opinion and i'm very happy that no two basses are alike: it allows every player to find an instrument that suits her or him. Besides, changing instruments (or bows) can be immensely inspiring.

Louis, our Bachelor 3 student, will be joining the orchestra in the Orchestra Project which unites students from the conservatories of Köln, Maastricht and Brussels. On the program: Richard Strauss, Witold Lutoslawski and Manuel de Falla. I hope Louis will find sometime to act as a reporter for our Blog and that he will share the adventure with us... 

7th October 2015

Davide Botto, principal bass at the Torino Opera and a good friend since we met in Lugano last spring, just sent me some old Italian bass methods that will be of interest to myself and to the students. He has more stuff at home, so one day i'll have to visit him, maybe with some of the students...

I also came across a few articles that i saved some time ago because they're very useful for aspiring bassists. I'll create a new Page for such articles, so check out the Blog to find them.

5th October 2015

Today i was the first to arrive in our Room 273, at 8.20 am.

Filippe, my first student, had been working on Fauré's Vocalise-Etude and on the Brasilian piece. For a more vocal style i suggested limiting the string changes to a minimum: in a way a singer can be seen as having only one single string, not four or five. In order to come closer to a singing quality, it seems to be a better choice to take some risks (including far-away shifts) rather than to play in a technically "clever" way. The sound color will be more uniform and the string player will acquire a more profound knowledge of the many uses of vibrato, types of shifting (fast or slow shifts, portamento, subtle touches of glissando, expressiveness), intonation, shades of light and dark.

Once i read in a bass magazine: "there is no such thing as a slow shift". I don't believe that is true at all, just like i generally don't believe much in hard and fast rules in music. There is definitely room for a slow, "lazy", smooth kind of shift in bass playing.

We also added some slurs to the music: the printed notes come without slurs of any kind. There are just a few commas that indicate phrases. Singers often don't need slurring indications: they instinctively combine consecutive notes into meaningful entities. Players of bowed instruments need to try out a lot of bowing possibilities before settling on something coherent.

The Brasilian piece "De Coraçao a Coraçao" (by Jacob do Bandolim and Bittencourt) has a melancholy flavor all its own, the bittersweet lilt of rhythm, melody and harmony combined with the instrument's timbre. Filippe let me hear a version on the original instrument, the Bandolim, accompanied by a guitar, which was inspiring. 

During the lesson we discovered we had almost diametrically opposed views of the second part of the piece, which was a nice surprise to both of us. One of those truly enriching moments in teaching.

Louis had brought Simandl's 3rd Etude, which he played with an impressive kind of innocent mastery. We worked on structure. The etude consists of an almost unchanging, obsessive series of triplets in which it's easy to lose one's way. So we sought out the short and long phrasing possibilities instead of concentrating on the notes themselves. Once the structure is in place, it's much easier to fix the little things. 

Afterwards he played a few different versions of the Eccles sonata's first movement, showing that he had absorbed the idea of variations in sound color, attack and decay, articulations, dynamics. Time for new challenges in the weeks to come: the Dragonetti concerto (the one that was not written by Dragonetti, more on that fascinating subject in future posts) will be a welcome change. A flashy feel-good piece for a young boy, just what the doctor ordered. And then we'll start on Dittersdorf. Always good to start early on that one.

We also started to work on scales. Louis had been studying the traditional two- and three-octave scale patterns. On the bass, i'm afraid to say, these don't make much sense. I can count the number of times i've encountered scales of more than one octave on the fingers of one hand - and i'll probably have a couple of fingers left over. In order to stay closer to the real-life situation i advocate a system of "progressive scales": one octave at a time, up and down, on every note of a given scale. The system comes with its own fingering patterns: always play an even number of notes before shifting to a new position (supposing we are using traditional Simandl-fingerings. In a later stage we use extension fingerings as well).

Natacha had brought the Dittersdorf concerto to the lesson. Since she's a postgraduate student specialising in preparing for orchestra auditions, we have to find ways to play this concerto in a very convincing manner. First thing we did was to get rid of fingerings and articulations that sounded too muddy. Sometimes it's hard to distance oneself from ways of playing that are incrusted, that almost have become part of who we are. But now and again we have to let go, we have to say goodbye to what was comfortable and we must embrace something new. This demands an open mind and a certain amount of courage. 

As to the discussion about "authenticity" (again) i recalled a discussion i recently had with my dear friend and colleague Davide Botto. He couldn't really understand why i teach the Tischer-Zeitz (Schott) version to my students, whereas i usually insist on using manuscripts, original tunings etc.

The thing is, as an ambitious young student trying to win an audition, it's important to be able to conform oneself to what is the reality in audition-land. It's all very well to try and be as authentic as possible, and indeed i applaud and encourage it. But the truth is that in many orchestras the "old", traditional version is obligatory. As a teacher i feel it's my duty not only to encourage my students to look for authenticity but also to hand them the necessary tools to succeed in a professional life. If your future boss demands that you wear a formal suit at work, you don't apply for a job wearing a pair of torn blue jeans. 

Besides, as i have explained in some of my other blogs, manuscripts can be tricky. The Dittersdorf manuscript presents very few articulations, but that doesn't mean it was played exactly that way. Musicians were well-versed in the conventions that were de rigueur back then, and they played with those articulations that were part of the musical vocabulary of the time. It wasn't strictly necessary to notate them, because everybody knew how to play. It follows that it would be a mistake to play the surviving manuscript exactly as written: without the knowledge about historical articulations you might be missing the point.

Isaline joined us while Natacha was playing and took notes, as she's studying the same concerto. So when her turn came we were able to get a quick overview of the first Allegro Moderato (important to realize it doesn't say "Allegro". As Adolf Meier has pointed out in his excellent book "Konzertante Musik für Kontrabass in der Wiener  Klassik", in the bass concertos of that time the "allegro" is almost always tempered by the indication "moderato").

This year Natacha and Isaline will work on the four most demanded "audition concertos": Dittersdorf, Koussevitzky, Vanhal and Bottesini, besides a whole rist of orchestral excerpts. Speaking of which, Isaline gave a nice and solid rendition of some "Rosenkavalier" highlights before it was Pasquale's turn.

Three-string time again, with Bottesini in the main role. The Andante from the B minor concerto had given us some food for thought last week: playing it on gut strings seems to limit the options in regard to tempo. Whereas on a modern bass a very slow tempo is feasable (if maybe not desirable), with gut strings one soon feels the constraints in tone production. If the indication "Andante" is not enough, the "flying staccato"- like articulations also seem to contradict too slow a tempo, as well as the beautiful, singing passages in harmonics. 

Contrary to the Viennese classical bass works, in which the general  expression is (grossly speaking) narrative, i.e. closer to spoken language than to singing, here we are in belcanto territory. In the Viennese style it is usually enough to attack the note (pressed or harmonic alike) and to let it resonate and decay naturally. In this singing Italian style the notes need to be "fed" by the bow a lot more, they need more help to obtain the desired sustained quality that imitates the singing voice. More diaphragm, as it were. This again seems to preclude a very slow tempo in the harmonics: there simply isn't enough bow length to play so slowly. 

Bottesini, in his Method, speaks about two types of bow with two different lengths: a shorter one for the orchestra and a longer one for the soloists. Pasquale played with both types, which yielded very interesting differences in sound color and in playing comfort. But even with the longer bow one has to carefully choose a tempo in which the sound quality doesn't suffer.
On the same subject, i suggested to simply take multiple bow strokes on some really long, strongly sustained notes: if you don't have enough bow length on a down-bow, just take two bows instead of a single one. If done artfully, this doesn't really disturb the line. It's a technique that is now somewhat frowned upon but that used to be quite common. It seems like a better idea than to try and save bow length at the risk of losing musical intensity, volume, and sound quality.

Last student of the day was Charlotte, who had prepared the Andante from the Koussevitzy concerto Dittersdorf part 1 and Mišek's first sonata. Like last week, she played very convincingly in Koussevitzky, with musical maturity and technical command. I think it's about time she got a better bass. We'll see if we can find something for her. The Mišek sonata has always been one of my favorites, and it's a great piece for Charlotte to sink her teeth into: many different atmospheres, emotional content, technical challenges, it's all there.

Time passed quickly again, today. Always a good sign.

3rd October 2015

In between practice moments (working on Filippe's pieces, great music. Especially "De Coraçao a Coraçao", a Brasilian piece which seems to work really well on the bass. And reviewing Bottesini and Koussevitzky, all on gut strings. I'm using Michael Bornhak's Travel Bass, which originally came in Viennese Tuning but i took off the top and bottom strings and tuned the F# to G - et Voilà, a three-string Bottesini Bass!) ... So, in between these practice moments i've been trying to find out more about the silk strings that Bottesini allegedly used.

Robert Nairn of Juilliard had mentioned a string maker to me, a few years ago, and i was lucky enough to find his name in an old mail. One thing led to another. There's always knowledge to be gleaned from the Net, and i found a wealth of information on the manufacture of silk strings, not so much for the bass but for the Oud... As chance would have it, lately i've been dabbling in Oud territory on a modern Godin Multi-Oud: i want to use the instrument in a project around a piece that America composer Giuseppe Lupis wrote for my Duo.

Last monday in Pasquale's lesson we discussed the production of harmonics on gut strings. Whereas in Viennese Tuning harmonics speak very easily on the top strings, in normal fourths-tuning A-D-G they seem to resist much more in their struggle against gravity. Apart from the necessity to adapt your bowing technique to the idiosyncrasies of gut as opposed to steel strings, there is an element of "unpredictability" that can be disturbing.

As always, there is more to it than meets the ear: Bottesini wasn't the first bass player to tune his strings up from the "normal" tuning. Indeed, the Viennese soloists often played a semi-tone higher and Sperger went as far as to tune his bass up a minor third in some works. From Bottesini's manuscripts we know that he must have used a tuning in A and even in Bb: instead of A-D-G he tuned to B-E-A or even to C-F-Bb.

The question then is: did he use the same strings, tuned higher? Or did he use a lighter gauge? This is the kind of information that is usually sadly lacking, and modern players trying to come closer to some kind of authenticity see themselves obliged to "go by the gut" and to use a certain amount of conjecture in their research.

To complicate matters even further, as we all know there are no steadfast rules in instrument making that will predict exact outcomes. So a lot depends on chance: what works on one instrument may not work as well on another, even if it's been constructed in exactly the same way. The interaction between bass, strings, bow hair, rosin, set-up, and the individual player's technique and sensitivity will yield very different results as soon as one of these factors changes.

So there we are: should we "go by the gut", or shall we need to look into the rumors about Bottesini's silk strings? I guess it can't hurt to find out more.

In the meantime i wrote to Thomas Martin, the great bass virtuoso and bass maker. Since he's quite an authority on all matters related to Bottesini, i asked him if he could shed some light on the question of silk bass strings. Alas:

"I have seen old silk violin strings but I've never seen an old silk bass string. I have seen lots of very old gut strings on basses. Bottesini doesn't mention them in his method and in all the photos the strings appear to be gut. I have seen and played on Dragonetti's bass with the old strings which were gut."

Back to square one, it would seem. The information i got from the internet about silk Oud and Violin strings is provocative though:


To be continued...

The news keeps pouring in... Just got a mail from the person who manufactured the silk bass strings for Robert Nairn, some years ago. I hope we'll be able to explore this "Silk Road" in more depth.

1st October 2015

Right now i'm preparing the USB sticks for the students, full of chamber music, orchestral excerpts, solo pieces etc. In the meantime we're trying to organize ourselves (by mail) to participate in a Bach-Suites Concert that baroque cello teacher extraordinaire Alain Gervraux is planning for next March. He was so kind as to invite the Bass and Spalla-players to take part in the event.

I'm not an aficionado of Bach on the double bass, but as a learning tool it certainly has its merits. We'll see what we can do. I hope there will be room for some out-of-the-box playing: after all, jazz bassists have occasionally played Bach in a pizzicato arrangement, or on the bass guitar. And it would be nice to let the jazz students who frequent my classes join in.

Anyway, i'm very grateful to Alain. We had been talking about collaboration between our classes, and it seems he's wasting no time in making that dream come true. I hope we can come up with more bridges to build.

29th September 2015

Yesterday was our first real lesson day. I arrived at Conservatory around 8.45 but Louis beat me to it and he was practicing his Eccles Sonata. I took some time to start cleaning up our Room.

From 9am on, six students played. 

Louis' lesson was all about finding more sound colours and more differences in articulation, about creating atmospheres through the use of the bow and variations in fingering. It's good to always look beyond the obvious ways of playing. It may seem like a waste of time to try out all kinds of fingerings and bowings, but in the long run it's a treasure chest: you develop a huge musical and technical vocabulary that will help you in everything you play.

Fil had a Fauré Vocalise and a Brazilian piece, neither of which i was familiar with. So i got a copy of his music, which i will study at home. I always want to play what the students are playing in order to be of more help to them. We tried to find a vocal quality of sound in the Fauré, by using the bow differently and by changing some fingerings. We also took down the high passages an octave. Once you can play the piece in a musical way in an "easier" octave, you can transpose it up again. The memory of better musicality stays in the mind, and it becomes easier to imitate that feeling in the right octave. This works better than playing the same bit over and over again in the "right" octave. Detours often prove to be shortcuts.

Teaching with the door open. Please DO disturb.

Isaline and Natacha came with some orchestral excerpts. After a few minutes we found out that Natacha's bass wasn't really helping her in getting a good, responsive sound. Since i brought a whole box of used strings to the class, we selected a set of Evah Pirazzi to replace the Spirocores she was playing. This improved the response and the "oomph". We'll see how it evolves over the next week. Isaline played Bruckner 7 and i suggested some fingerings that avoid having open strings on notes that are supposed to be played really short. The old-fashioned idea that bass players have to stay in first position as often as possible, and that any A,D or G should be played as an open string, has had its time. 

Charlotte had prepared the first movement of the Koussevitzky concerto. Originally a cellist, she performed amazingly well for a first attempt at this warhorse piece, and it was a pleasure to see how quickly she responded to technical and musical suggestions. I handed her a Cadenza by Lajos Montag, that i had lying around. Originally the concerto has no cadenza, but a few years ago Enrico Fagone played the première of a cadenza by Teppo-Hauta Aho. I'm curious to hear how Charlotte will interpret the Montag cadenza.

In between we went down to the mess for soup and coffee. Pasquale had brought some delicious Italian Parmiggiano cheese. And in the meantime our friends Alessio Campanozzi and José Vilaplana had joined us, so we had a nice time together.

While i'm typing this, bass maker Michael Bornhak is here in my living room, adjusting the bridge on his Travel Bass that he wanted to show me. It looks stunning. I'll keep it for a week or so, to try out its possibilities. It's in Viennese Tuning, gut strings, frets.

Michael Bornhak

The Travel Bass

Last student of the day was Pasquale, who played us the Bottesini B minor concerto on his 3-string bass equipped with gut strings. It's a very different sound experience, more three-dimensional in a way. If i compare the sound of the modern bass to a painting, the gut string instrument's sound is more like a sculpture. It formally stands there, in the room's space, and it moves like a living creature. 

Experiments like this, where we try to come closer to a historical reality (that we know we will never grasp), automatically entice us to think about more than just the music: how did people live in Bottesini's time? What kind of a person and musician was he? What does his music tell us? If there are 4 or more different manuscript versions of each piece he wrote, then how many more versions could he have played in real concert situations? How much of his playing was improvised? And: how literally should we take the written or printed music that we find, how far can we stray from what is written, knowing what we know about the composer and his surroundings (and not knowing most of it)?

Here music and philosophy meet and become friends. As long as philosophy helps us become better musicians and better people, there's nothing against it.

27th September 2015

This morning i've been preparing a great number of scores, method books, audition programs, bass syllabuses from American universities, treatises, orchestral parts and more. I had this idea of putting all those things on memory sticks and to give one to each of the students as a present. As the "information pool" is expanded and updated, we can update the sticks too.
Of course i could have used Dropbox or some similar tool, but i like the idea of giving something physical, something one can actually hold in one's hand. For my feeling this is closer to the musician's world, where the sense of touch and contact with a physical instrument is such a huge part of what we do. 

Tomorrow is our first real teaching day, and i'm looking forward to  hearing what the students have been up to, all these past years. 

In the meantime more people have been contributing to the Blog, so check out the STUDENTS and FRIENDS pages from time to time.

21st September 2015

Today we had our first Bass Class reunion. After a few emails back and forth between new teacher Korneel Le Compte (Modern and Historical Bass) and all the old and new students, this was our first chance to meet, all together, around a cup of coffee at "Le Pain Quotidien", a stone's throw away from the Conservatory.

Charlotte Barbier (France), Louis Ponseele (Belgium), Pasquale Massaro (Italy),Isaline Leloup (Belgium), Natacha Save (Belgium), and Filippe Caporali (Brasil) were joined by Alessio, another Italian bass player who was curious to know what's going on in our bass class. Alessio is a student of Christian Vanderborght at the French-speaking side of the Brussels Conservatory. Yes, Belgium is a strange country...

All in all a nice bunch of motivated, enthusiastic young musicians. More students are planning to come in for the 2nd Semester, in January 2016.

We had a joyful talk (to be honest, i did most of the talking...) about the plans for this year. Here is a list of the things we want to accomplish (we're very ambitious):

1/ first of all, we'll start by cleaning up the classroom itself. At this moment it looks terrible. During the last few days and weeks i have been moving most of my personal music library there. Hundreds upon hundreds of scores, methods, books about music, treatises. Over a hundred LPs, CDs and DVDs of solo bass music. Tools, clamps, spare parts, steel and gut strings, many kinds of rosin. A cheap, simple computer and a sound system.


I like to have all that stuff handy when i'm teaching. Later on i'll add a printer/copier, some bows, and one or two of my own instruments.As it was, the class contained three old wooden bass cases with two broken basses and a Violone that was missing two strings (which i replaced), a Viennese bass, two modern basses in need of a thorough cleaning, and an old five-string bass. Three bass covers lying on the floor in the middle of the room. A metal locker with some old strings, posters and scores, besides a number of plastic coffee cups and a string of Christmas-tree lights. An upright piano. And lots of dust in every corner.

So our first job will be to put all that stuff out in the corridor and give the whole room a thorough scrub. Then we'll re-organise everything. A sad, dirty room isn't really conducive to good playing or teaching. We might use some paint to add a touch of colour to the walls, and we'll find some nice posters to decorate them. I also brought in some better quality lighting for the dark winter days, and a few small carpets.

2/ Once that's done we can start concentrating on playing and learning. A substantial proportion of my scores consists of complete orchestra parts, not just excerpts. It's important to study and be aware of the whole score, not only the hard bits. There are lots of copies of ancient manuscripts as well, since modern editions can rarely be trusted. Part of the learning process is listening to recordings. Not just one version, but as many as possible. Like they say, if you listen to only one version you're copying. If you listen to five, you're doing research. That's the reason i brought in a computer (YouTube can be a great learning tool) and a sound system. I would like to digitalize my old LPs, many of which have never been published in CD format. As a lifelong member of the International Society of Bassists i'm in possession of nearly all of their publications (many years ago i ordered all their back issues as well). We'll put them in the right order and extract from them all articles that can help us become better players.

3/ The computer will also be used to contact other players by Skype. My dear friend Enrico Fagone will be the first player we'll contact in this way, thus bringing an outside voice inside our class room. If the experiment works, we might go down to the conservatory's Multimedia Room, where we'll have a bigger screen and better sound.

4/ The Room 273-Blog you're now reading is another element in our ambitious plan.

5/ I have contacted the teachers of our Jazz Department. At the moment, Jazz students can come to the Classical Bass section to learn from us. That's all very well, and i'm happy when they do. But i feel that classical players can learn just as much from their jazz-colleagues. So we'll try to eliminate the segregation completely, we'll go visit our jazz-brethren in their lair, and we'll try to organize concerts with both music styles.

6/ Same thing for the French-speaking side of our Brussels Conservatory: i have contacted my eminent colleague and friend Christian Vanderborght, an outstanding bassist, and we'll try to find ways to collaborate across the linguistic barrier.

7/ I'll organize some Master Classes with bass teachers from Belgium and abroad: Not only Enrico Fagone has agreed to come over this or next year, but also Violone-specialist Benoît Vandenbemden will join us for a special Ancient Music-class. I would like to encourage modern bass players to extend their interest to Ancient Music, to attend the Ancient Music Seminars that are given inside our Conservatory, and to be present at the Violone Master Class. There is a fretted gut-string bass in our Room 273 and everybody is free to try it out.

8/ Wouldn't it be nice if we could have a bass concert with my colleagues of the Opera and the students? From Solo to Octet, from Early Baroque to Jazz, from Pizzicato to Arco, from Violone to Tango, and why not throw in a bass guitar or two? Or a bass ukulele, for that matter... We'll start by visiting the Monnaie Opera Orchestra in rehearsal and by inviting some of its bass players to our class.

Ambitious? You bet.

After coffee we went up to the 2nd floor of the Sablon Building for a look-around in our Room 273, and then i had a nice long talk with Pasquale Massaro. Pasquale has a fascinating project in which he explores the Italian 3-string bass, as used by Dragonetti and Bottesini. 

His idea, which he explained at the entrance exam, prompted me to take one of my own basses to my luthier in order to have it converted to a three-string bass. This way i can be of more help to Pasquale, and maybe we can try one or two of Bottesini's Grandi Duetti for two basses!

We talked about the questions of strings: no steel strings of course, but gut... Or silk? Some sources speak of Bottesini's use of a silk top string, and suddenly i recalled having discussed this topic with, if memory serves me right, Bob Nairn of Juilliard. I even seem to recall he gave me the address of a string maker who had experimented with silk strings. So i'll have to find that information (if indeed my memory is correct), or else we'll have to delve deeper to find out more. Silk is used as a component in several modern bass strings (Velvet and JR Strings come to mind), but maybe someone out there is crazy enough to try and make a pure silk bass string...

We also discussed bows: there are some photos of Bottesini with his bass and a bow. I warned Pasquale of the danger of pictures, be they paintings, drawings, or photos. About the bass there seems to be little doubt: the Bottesini Testore is a well documented instrument. But just imagine for a minute that on the day the photo was taken, Signor Bottesini had forgotten to take his own bow. Or his bow was at the workshop for a re-hair. So he borrowed a bow from somebody else. The photo is taken and now it goes down in history as "the Bottesini bow". Then, so many years later, we try to draw conclusions as to its shape and weight and what not. A bit dangerous, no?

But luckily we have several photos of Bottesini holding a bow. He can't have forgotten his bow every time he had to show up for a picture. Part of Pasquale's research is to find out more about the type of bow Bottesini used, and about his bow hold (in the third photo he seems to be holding the stick some distance away from the frog, contrary to another popular Italian grip with the thumb inside the frog's curve - but this static-looking picture may not be a real playing pose).

All of this reminded me of the so-called "Sperger-bow", that (according to the story) was found in a broom-closet at Schwerin. Was this really Sperger's bow? If so, was it his main bow? Did he really use it as his favorite bow? Did he use it in solo works or only in ensemble pieces? Always dangerous to jump to conclusions. It's nice to know that Pasquale also has a copy of the Sperger bow, it will be interesting to check it out. The copy i tried a few years ago didn't really convince me. Maybe his is better.


Another interesting element is Bottesini's fingering system for the left hand: in his Grande Méthode (which appeared first in French), he uses a seemingly awkward system of 1-4 both for semi-tones and for whole tones. Like a closed/open-hand system.

Pasquale also made photos of the different manuscripts of Bottesini's 2nd Bass Concerto. Some versions are in B minor, some in C minor. Some are scored with piano accompaniment, others with orchestra. And there are many differences between the versions. This is all very interesting in a day and age in which we are obsessed with "correctness" and "definitive" answers, and with questions of "right" and "wrong" (i'll have more to say about that obsession in later posts and in my other blogs).

Fortunately, real life isn't all that definite or correct. And artists then and now don't care much (if at all) about these things.Time passes quickly when you're engaged in such conversations, but i was expected at the Opening Speeches of Director Dr. Peter Swinnen and Head of the Music Department Dr. Kathleen Coessens so we had to move. 

An interesting first day, and i hope many more such days will follow!


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