It’s time for a perspective shift. If you were a visitor from another planet and you came to Earth to watch a concert, would you have the sense that you were watching Humans perform on instruments that were designed BY Humans FOR Humans? Do the players look like they are distorting their physiques to accommodate their gear, or do they seem to be merging effortless with the physicality of their instruments?
Postural awareness and sensitivity to excess tension are fundamental qualities of good technique on ANY instrument. I always strive to alter my body as little as possible (but as much as necessary) in order to ensure maximum longevity and control. Awareness of tension that may lead to excessive effort or postural distortion is dependent on an idea known as the “Weber-Fechner Law”. This is a proposed relationship between the magnitude of a physical stimulus and the intensity or strength that is perceived. In simpler terms, our ability to notice changes in stimulus is inversely proportional to the overall amount of stimulus present.
A classic example involves a simple thought experiment. Imagine you are in a pitch black cave unable to see your hand in front of your face. If you light a candle, the difference between the darkness and the illuminated cave will be striking. If you were already in a room with 500 candles, the 501st candle would add the same amount of light to the room, but we would no longer be aware that anything had changed. It is a bit of a paradox, but it is the rules of the game in that our ability to sense changes in bodily tension will increase as we reduce the amount of static “background” tension.
One of the unique challenges of the double bass is that due the extreme size and lack of instrument standardization means that this is all dependent upon there being a good match between instrument and player. Finding a bass that fits your body size and musical needs can be a lifelong pursuit. This applies at both ends of the spectrum in that larger individuals can feel hampered by instruments that are actually too small for them. It is not just the more petite among us who are struggling with a mismatch with a large instrument.
Another way of increasing your awareness of your physicality has nothing to do with bass playing. It is important to consider that if playing the bass is the most physically demanding thing that you do during the day, you are asking for trouble.
A Paul Ellison quote that has greatly affected me is, “Bassists are Musical Athletes.”
Find an activity that you enjoy that promotes strength, cardiovascular health, and body awareness. This can be yoga, pilates, strength training, swimming, running, or any combination of the above. Strength training and running have been my activities of choice over the last 8 years. You may even find a new passion that brings a fresh perspective to your Art. I started to run Ultramarathons (races of over 26.2 miles and frequently up to 100 miles) in my 40s, and the discipline and focus required to prepare for these types of events have profoundly influenced my approach to practice and performance. The physical requirements of our instrument (not to mention the inevitable cartage) demand a high degree of fitness in order to sustain a long and injury-free career.
About the Author
David Allen Moore, 4th Chair Bass of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2000, was previously a member of the Houston Symphony. He is an internationally sought-after Guest Principal and has performed with the Helsinki and Israel Philharmonic.
Moore is the author of Fractal Fingering, a required text at notable universities. He joined the USC Thornton School of Music’s full-time faculty in 2010 while maintaining his position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also teaches at Domaine Forget in Canada and DiscoverDoubleBass.com. His students hold positions in orchestras globally.