A Unique Approach to Teaching Scales for Double Bass

Andy Moritz's book Scale Skills emphasizes the development of specific techniques and skills. This deep-dive with Andy highlights key insights such as the importance of bow placement and introducing new variables one at a time.

With Andy Moritz · Houston, TX

In this interview, Andy and Jason explore some of the key insights and strategies shared in his book Scale Skills: A Systematic Approach to Skills Development for the Double Bass, from the importance of understanding bow placement to the value of introducing new variables one at a time. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced musician, Andy’s guide is sure to help you unlock your full potential and achieve new heights in your playing.

You had mentioned to me that you were working on a book.

I certainly was. It had been something that had been a development for quite a while.

The book itself is the culmination of the way that I’ve been teaching scales for the better part of 20 years. Scales are interesting to me. I’m fascinated with scales. Scales are very humble. They’re very nondescript.

When I was a very young private teacher, orchestra directors would hand me the assignment and say, “Teach these kids these scales.” And they said, “Just give them the fingerings. It’ll be fine.” I’m like, “alright.”

I tried that, and I didn’t have success. Simply giving them the fingerings just didn’t work. I realized that they’ve got to know how to move their hands. I realized that I needed to teach them how to move their hands. When I started doing that, my students were having success, and their classmates who weren’t studying with me were not.

I quickly figured out that I was onto something, and so I started focusing on this idea that scales are where I’m going to teach skills, and that’s why I ended up calling the book Scale Skills.

Scales are very uniform. They are what they are, but the way that you do them, the way that you choose to present them, gives you an opportunity to really hone in on particular kinds of skills. You can decide how much new material you want to put into a scale or how much you want to take out and say, “I want to only present a new idea.” You can strip it down to have only a new idea.

Different scales lend themselves to different skills. And, through the course of undergraduate and grad work and all that, I explored the Rabbath technique. I also got to explore Billè and Petracchi. As I Incorporated all this into my playing, I realized that I need to present this to kids. So I asked myself, “What’s the common denominator?” and I figured out how to do it with a scale in some very particular ways.

I found it to be just an excellent medium for me to introduce very specific skills in specific ways.

Just about every teacher has asked themselves, “What do I teach first, and then what comes next?”

It’s a tricky thing because the deck is stacked against us. Even with a one-octave scale, we’re doing something that the violin, viola, and cello aren’t.

I need to point out that the whole basis of the way I’ve been teaching my whole career is in the context of a classroom supplement.

Generally, I’m not having students come to me out of the blue. I’m getting students who are coming from orchestra programs who have been started by teachers who are doing the best that they can without information about the bass. I’m taking that, fixing some things, and then running with it.

My whole thing is coming from the classroom paradigm. In the classroom paradigm, everybody starts with the D major scale. That’s where everybody gets to first. All the classroom methods get there. Since that’s where they’re starting, that’s where I’m starting.

I grafted my thing onto the classroom methodology, so that’s where I want to begin because that’s where the students begin. And from there, I start to fill in gaps in ways that they’re not able to do in the classroom.

The elegance with which you take people through this initial D scale is so cool.

We’re doing what you would consider the very standard fingering for the D major scale. We’re not going to try and close strings here. That’s a concept I’m going to do later.

What I’m using the D major scale for is not for the fingering. I’m using it as a platform to introduce the idea that the bow has to move in order to pull off that shift and play those notes in different positions. Most orchestra directors have absolutely no idea that has to be the case.

It goes back to this idea that Rabbath talks about in the Art of Bow, the son premier with the bow being at the seventh harmonic.

I introduce it that way, but then I refer to it mathematically. I call it the six-to-one ratio point because that’s what happens if you’re at the seventh harmonic. The bow’s there, and then you’ve got a ratio. It’s six above and one below, and then that math holds true for every single note that you play, ever.

Now granted, we don’t play that way professionally. We don’t leave the bow in that spot as professionals. We’re going to be changing all kinds of bow placements. That’s what we do. We’re artists, we’re performers, and we’re going to utilize those different bow placements to get different tonalities, to get different textures and all kinds of things.

For beginners, what I determined was that we have bow weight, bow placement, and bow speed. We have these three variables. In order to really be able to control anything, we have to strip it down to a single variable.

These students are in school, so they’re learning about the scientific method. They’re learning that they have to do only one variable if they want to figure out what that variable does. So I took the idea of that six-to-one ratio point. We need to make that a constant thing, and then we have to treat it like the variable that it is, that when the left-hand moves, now it introduces the variable.

The work here of shifting is to learn how to move the hand, to reestablish that ratio every single time the left-hand moves.

If the bow’s not right in that spot, if you don’t bake that into the playing from the outset, it’s such a hard thing to remedially teach.

Because I’m dealing with kids that are generally starting in junior high school, I wanted bow placement to be uniform so that the length of the bow, the speed of the bow, and the weight of the bow all become constant. I want that stuff to be constant.

The bow shift, what I call the bow shift, migrating the bow in the north and south axis of the string, that’s the variable that we’re going to try to master. Once they learn to master a variable, then they can master more variables.

I’ve determined that for this age of kids, this was the easiest variable for them to grasp onto, to understand, and then to actually be able to do because it’s less subjective. Bow weight is a subjective thing. Bow speed is subjective, and it all changes based on note length and other variables.

But bow placement is something that they can physically watch happen. It’s something that the teacher can actually visually watch happen. It has a visual component that is so much easier for a teacher to be able to hone in on and easier for a student who’s just starting to figure out abstracts.

My kids aren’t taking algebra yet. They’re not ready for it. I’m a big Piaget guy, so we’re still dealing with concrete operational kids. We’re not ready for the abstract. I want them to have a concrete idea that they can move their hands with and understand.

Once they can do, like I said, once they can do one variable, then I’m going to be able to expose them to the other ones, and then they’re going to have a much better idea about how to deal with those.

Along with that D scale, you group in the A major scale, which has the same fingering.

I group the scales into what I call fingering families. I took what was called the open string family, and that’s the D major, A major, and E major. They all start on the open string.

I’m having students do the exact same fingering for A and E as they’re doing for D. We’re not going to half position for these because that’s going to be a different concept. I’m going to have that skill in a different scale family.

I want D, A, and E to be exact copies of each other. What ends up happening is that they learn to shift on three strings, and they’re shifting the exact same way on three different strings.

The variable is that their elbow geometry is changing. On different strings, their arm is going to act differently. That’s the single variable that I’m introducing. The fingering itself is the constant.

At the same time, they have to do bow shifting with their right arm, and they have to do it on the D string, the A string, and then the E string.

They’re feeling it in three different string configurations on the right arm. Their arms are learning how to move, and the fingerings are all the same, and they don’t realize what happened to them.

That’s the part that I love. It’s all happening in the background, and you get to watch it happen, and you’re making sure it’s happening, and you don’t have to tell them about it.

This reminds me of a Pinchas Zukerman masterclass I was in 25 years ago. He turned to us, and he held up his bow, and he said, “See, this is your bank account. The better this is, the more money you’ve got in it.”

I was talking with a younger teacher, and he was asking me about what it was like to teach something. I don’t remember what we were talking about. It was something very complicated. He had seen a very young student play it, and he was trying to wrap his head around how to teach that.

I told him that any note is easy. A single note anybody can play any one note. Anybody can play all of the notes. It’s getting from one note to the next note. That is the hard part. That’s a mechanical activity. Getting from one place to another is a mechanical activity at its root.

Music’s actually pretty easy. We do it all day and every day. Speech itself is a species of music, and if you can communicate by speech, you’re doing “music things.”

It’s the same on every instrument, but ours particularly because it’s so physical, it’s so athletic. If you can get the mechanics down, the music part’s actually not hard.

At this point, you’re talking about phrasing. You’re talking about structures. Understanding the ebb and flow of textures and dynamics. That stuff’s actually not that difficult to convey to kids. Mechanics are the hard part.

Then you go into the second finger family.

That second finger family is going to be the G Scale and the C Scale. I modeled the book on following along and being a supplemental material to whatever classroom method book that a teacher wants to use. In a method book, the next thing that they’re going to hit is G major.

The point that I make in the book is that G major for the bass is the only scale in the entire orchestra program that requires all four strings to be played. There’s no other one-octave scale in the whole orchestra that requires mastery of a straight bow on all four strings to pull off a one-octave scale.

For me, G major is really not a fingering study: it’s a bow draw study. It’s a “drawing the bow straight exercise.”

You’re going to have to sit there and help them master the geometry of the right arm as they cross across all four strings. At first, they’re going to play that first note, and it’s going to be great, and the bow is going to be straight.

We’re not really crossing strings as so much as going around the arc of the bridge. That changes so much about the geometry of the right arm. Every single one of those positions has to be custom-built. They have to be able to do this on all four strings.

You have to camp out here and make sure that they can draw a straight bow on every single string. If you don’t, when are you going to do it? If you don’t fix it now, you’re never going to fix it. You’ll be chasing it forever, and you’ll never probably catch it.

If you catch it here, then you’re done. It’s there. You’ve already fought, and you’ve already won the fight.

You’ve now introduced this geometry going across with the left hand and how that feels.

As they come across like the left elbow’s going to have to do this thing where it swings. It’s an arm thing less than it is a fingering thing. The new concept here is really the second finger.

We used the second finger in the open string scales, but now we’re differentiating between the second and fourth fingers. It’s all about how the arms are moving to cross the strings, and if we solve it here for those kids, it’s solved.

Then you move over to C. The variable of shifting was introduced in the D scale, but now you have a twist.

The C scale is almost a carbon copy of the G scale. But as we hit that last note, we have to move. We’re out of strings, so we’re going to have to move. How do we get to that last note?

In the C scale, I start to break out different ways that you can move around, and I call them different kinds of shifts.

When they did the open string scales, they shifted to grab the last two notes. They’re shifting to that spot, so they know how to shift to that position. I’m going to borrow that concept for the C scale.

We’re going to play C D E F G A B, and then we’re going to shift to that place.

When they shift a whole position, I call it a position shift. If they’re shifting just using their fourth finger, I call it a weak finger shift. The first finger is the strongest finger at this point, so we’re going to call that a strong finger shift. That leaves the one that we haven’t shifted with, and that’s a different finger. So now we’re shifting different fingers, strong finger, weak finger, or a total position.

What makes it agnostic in terms of methodology is if you’re a Simandl person, then in order to move up, you’re taking the thumb with you. But if you leave the thumb put, if you leave it be and you pivot forward, then you’re doing Rabbath stuff. So it works both ways.

You’re setting up this path where you’re succeeding, and then just by adding one new variable, the probability of success is so much higher.

I wanted to streamline the process, creating something that was repeatable, something that was scalable, something that I could do with one kid or I could do with 30 kids.

If I’m doing these scales in this way, and I have them do them in these particular ways, then I can scan the room, and I can see what’s going wrong because I only have a handful of variables to be looking at.

It pares down the things that I have to look at, which gives me more opportunity to fix those things. As I move through the different things, then it’s just adding single variables. When I’m only adding one or two new things, if something goes dreadfully wrong, the culprit is generally going to be the new stuff that just got added.

Then we move to half position.

The third scale family is the half-position family. At that point, the variable is the stretch of the hand. Here is where I’m going to find out if the student is not correctly sized on the instrument.

If it’s just too much, too painful for them to stretch, to make this giant hole step in half position, I’ll have a really good indicator that maybe I need to move that kid down to a smaller size instrument.

Assuming that is correct, now we’re just dealing with half position. We make sure that stretch is there. We’re fortifying the fourth finger to make sure that it’s strong enough in a stretched environment to be able to press down G and C and then all the things.

F is relatively easy as a fingering. Then the variable is the stretch and the strength. B-flat is the next one, and it’s another exact copy. And then E-flat is the last one that we get to. It’s almost a copy, but then we have three more notes we gotta grab, and then we can go back and review the shifting categories.

For those last three notes, we have four different ways that we can do those. I camp out here until they can do those scales with all of those shifting categories. I always finish with the position shift because the whole time, we’re reviewing bow shifting. With the position shift on E flat, it’s a double shift, which means that the bow has to move twice as well.

That’s the first time we, that’s happened. That’s, again, a single variable for them to be able to hone in on.

Moving up to that, the thumb goes up to the crook of the neck. Third position if you’re a Rabbath person. And then the first finger’s playing E-flat. That’s the preview for the F two-octave.

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Most people choose the G major two-octave scale as the first two-octave scale to learn. Why do you teach F two octaves first?

Because I’m doing all of these one-octave scales in this exact order, and we’ve done E flat in this very particular way, their hand is already in the exact place that they need it to be to play F because their first finger on E flat.

If their hand is shaped correctly, which I’m going to be monitoring, making sure it’s shaped correctly and that the spacing is there, all they’ve got to do is put the second finger down for E and the fourth finger down for F.

Those two new notes are the new concepts. Everything else in front of that, all the stuff before those last two notes, is all review.

The G scale is going to have a farther stretch to first finger E and fourth finger F sharp. Depending on the construction of the bass, this could be really easy, or it could be a nightmare of a stretch.

If you’re dealing with a standard D, or maybe even an E flat neck, it’s going to be really easy to get to those places.

But if you’re dealing with a shop-made bass that has almost a C sharp neck, you’re going to have kids who have to make giant stretches to play the G major scale. I don’t want this to be their first experience in this place. I want this to be their first experience in this place so that I can nail down the shaping and the distance of the fingers.

Once I’ve got F, then I go to G. The new concept is not this placement. It’s the extension of this placement, the further reach, and then the idea that you can play a note as a harmonic. I’m repeatedly trying to pare it down to only a handful of things that are brand new.

Then we go to B-flat, so we’re getting into thumb position.

Because I’m moving in this sequence, the harmonic G is now going to be reviewed, but the way we play it is going to be new.

At this point, they know harmonics exist. We’ve played all kinds of harmonic games. But now I’m going to have them reach their hand forward and then bring it back with a bent elbow but a flat wrist to play the G harmonic with the side of the thumb.

This is a new experience for them. Because of the construction of the hand, we have a big space and a small space. And conveniently, we have a half step and a whole step for the last two notes of B flat. So we’re going to come down to those notes. And so, this idea of shaping the hand position is the second new concept.

I’m going to have them come from the big knuckles and a slight bend of the smaller knuckles. I love to come up with quirky names that really speak to their experience outside of bass playing. I call these their karate knuckles, and I call these their knocking knuckles.

Everybody’s had to knock on a door, and everybody’s pretended that they were a ninja or something like that. I’m having them shape their thumb position hand, and I’m going to have the majority of the bend be at their karate knuckle, with a slight bend at their knocking knuckle.

They’re going to end up with a hand that’s shaped nice and upward, with the hollow inside from above without it hanging off to the side. ’cause if it hangs off to the side, you necessarily have to, you have to reverse this bend. And that’s not what I want. So I want them to very pointedly show me this bend and then this bend.

What comes next in thumb position?

The next thing I do after B flat major is C major. I don’t want to do C major first because I want this very natural thumb.

In C major, the shaping of the hand is a new concept. The harmonic with the thumb is also new. So I’ve got two new concepts. Two new concepts and two new notes.

In order to pull off C major, they’re going to use third finger. They’ve never had to do this before, so I don’t want their first thumb position experience to also involve their third finger.

Now I’m going to go into what Petracchi calls his diatonic handshake. Thumb and one are going to be reviewed, and the whole step to second finger is the new thing that they have to do. After that, we’re going to come over to third finger.

That third-finger usage is new. The reach of the second finger into a whole step is new. They’ve used the second finger, but now they have to do it as a whole step. Two new concepts, two new notes.

Andy’s Book:

Scale Skills: A Systematic Approach to Skills Development for the Double Bass is available in the Double Bass HQ Store

Andy’s Seven Minute Warmup

Andy Moritz also has his Seven Minute Warmup available as a free download. This innovative warmup helps you identify the majority of the skills needed to play the bass.

About Andy Moritz

Andy Moritz is an active professional bassist and music educator in the Greater Houston area, as well as the director of The Bass Studio, an intensive double bass instruction program.

Andy holds a Master’s Degree in Double Bass Performance & Pedagogy and a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education, both from the University of Houston, holds a Texas teaching certificate from TEA, and has registered Suzuki Bass training with the Suzuki Association of the Americas.

He has studied with such bassists as Dennis Whittaker, Owen Lee, Ken Harper, David Murray, William Black, and Dr. Kate Jones.

Andy’s students have a tradition of excellence, having been chosen for the Texas All-State orchestras for over 20 consecutive years. Many of his former students have become fellow music educators or are members of major orchestras throughout the country. As a highly sought-after clinician for teacher in-services covering all facets of double bass pedagogy, he is also a regular presenter and clinician with the Texas Music Educators and Texas Orchestra Directors Associations.

In addition to The Bass Studio, Andy is the faculty bass instructor for the American Festival of the Arts High School Summer Music Festival.

Creatively, Andy has always been involved with numerous projects. In addition to being the bassist for the bluegrass/Americana group Cadillac Sky, Andy was a founding member and lead bass for the innovative bluegrass fusion band Classical Grass.

Currently, Andy plays bass guitar with the Courts Worship Band at Kingsland Baptist Church and is also a longtime player with the Encore Strings chamber groups. He has previously performed with such varied groups and artists as the Charlie Prause Trio, Encore Jazz, The Blue Monks, the Ed Gerlach and Ronnie Renfrow Big Bands, Sugar Bayou, Brazos River TurnaroundBrent Ward, the Houston Mountain Boys, Bo Levi and the Untamed Ponies, and the Apache Relay.

Andy was a member of The Woodlands Symphony Orchestra for over 10 years and performs as a substitute bassist with other regional orchestras.

Andy lives in Richmond, TX, with his wife Donna, their 2 teenage daughters (a vocalist and a percussionist/cellist), 2 spoiled dogs, and a giant tortoise.

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