My friend and colleague Kate Jones invited me to Minneapolis, Minnesota to take in the double bass-related offerings at the 2018 Suzuki Association of the Americas (SAA) Conference.
About Kate Jones
Kate teaches Suzuki bass in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She is the current double bass coordinator for the SAA and brought together an engaging panel of clinicians for the conference, including:
- Paul Ellison – Rice University double bass professor
- Virginia Dixon – Suzuki teacher trainer
- Dennis Whittaker – University of Houston bass faculty and Houston Grand Opera principal bassist
- John Kennedy – former International Society of Bassists president and educator
- Dan Swaim – Suzuki bass teacher trainer
More About Kate
In addition to her other activities, Kate was also named as the newest Suzuki teacher trainer for double bass, and she will be coordinating the 14 and under competition at the 2019 International Society of Bassists Convention.
I’ve also interviewed Kate for Contrabass Conversations, and you can check out this engaging conversation about new developments in young bass pedagogy below.
My Murky Understanding of Suzuki Teaching
I’ve spent over 20 years teaching music to young people in a variety of settings:
- Public Schools
- Youth Orchestras
- Private Lessons
- University Bass Studio
The inner workings of Suzuki teaching have always seemed a little mysterious to me, though. I never went through Suzuki as a student, and I’ve never done any official Suzuki teacher training.
My wife was trained as a Suzuki harp teacher many years ago, and I remembered comparing and contrasting our private teaching experiences. I felt like I was out in mysterious territory with my teaching, and hers seemed so orderly and prescribed. Though I had a few colleagues passionately pursuing Suzuki bass training, I never thought about it for myself.
George Vance and Suzuki
Most bass teachers are familiar with the name George Vance. He was a pioneer in young bassist education, and his impact on the bass world cannot be overstated. I discovered his Progressive Repertoire books nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve been using them in my teaching ever since. In fact, I even shot a video about all the reasons why I enjoy using these materials:
Also, I’ve chatted with numerous double bass teachers on my podcast about how they use Progressive Repertoire in their own teaching. Here’s a partial list:
- Tracy Rowell – Oberlin Conservatory
- Nina DeCesare – Oregon Symphony
- Ira Gold – National Symphony
- Yoshi Horiguchi – Vance teaching specialist
- Johnny Hamil – Kansas City Bass Workshop founder
More About Vance and Suzuki
There’s a complicated history between George Vance and the SAA. I don’t know that much of the history, but the quick version as I understand it is that George’s materials were planning on being used as the official Suzuki bass materials, but complications arose and George ended up publishing these books himself.
Over time, the official Suzuki bass books have been published, with books 1-5 already on the market and book 6 in the final stages. These books are the result of a great team of double bass educators.
The end result is that a large portion of the bass community uses Progressive Repertoire as their source material for teaching young bassists, while others use the Suzuki books. Having fallen in love with the Vance books many years ago, I’ve stuck with them in my bass teaching, though I’m interested in exploring the Suzuki books as well after attending this convention.
Similarities and Differences between Progressive Repertoire and the Suzuki Books
Progressive Repertoire? Suzuki Books? It’s all good.
This was a huge takeaway of mine after attending the SAA Conference. Regardless of the pieces being taught, we’re taking about quite similar approaches with both Progressive Repertoire and the Suzuki books:
- Both are repertoire-based approaches rather than technical exercise-based approaches
- Both use similar songs at similar points of development
- Both focus on the bow and on tone above all else
A major difference most bassists will notice is the use of the Rabbath positions and pivoting in Progressive Repertoire, while the Suzuki books use the traditional Simandl positions.
Progressive Repertoire: An In-Depth Analysis
Yoshi Horiguchi put together a great analysis of Progressive Repertoire Book 1. We put it out on the blog in its entirety, and you can listen to my conversation with Yoshi about this analysis below:
That may seem like a big deal on the surface, but the reality is much more nuanced and fluid than that (isn’t it always?).
Revisiting Suzuki Book 1
Suzuki bass pioneer Dan Swaim gave a great talk a the SAA conference al about taking a fresh look at book 1 for Suzuki bass and all the nuances of teaching this material.
Dan is in favor of teaching pivots and all kinds of other techniques early in the student’s development. Dan’s contention is that if we show students only one way for a long period of time and then spring some “other option” on them like pivoting, they approach it as something difficult or unfamiliar. By introducing these multiple approaches early, we remove that fear of the unfamiliar.
Anyone who has watched a master teacher fluent in young bass teaching realizes how integrated and student-centered all of these approaches are. Really, there’s no “Vance Technique” or “Suzuki Technique.” We’re all humans playing instruments, and we’re all finding ways to efficiently use our bodies to make beautiful sounds on these instruments as efficiently and ergonomically as possible.
Paul Ellison and the Rabbath Influence on Young Bass Pedagogy
I was so thrilled to see that Kate was bringing in Paul Ellison as a featured clinician for the SAA Conference. To my mind, there’s no one who has revolutionized young bass pedagogy as Paul.
What I love so much about Paul is that, even though he has former students in nearly every major orchestra in the United States, he is so obviously delighted to be teaching body movement fundamentals to 10-year-old bassists.
I’ve chatted with Paul about his approach to teaching on the podcast in the past:
I’ve even put together an episode with excerpts from his past students and the impact that he had upon them as a teacher:
Suffice it to say, I’m a fan!
François and Paul
At this conference, Paul spoke about several “mid-life crises” that he has gone through in his approach to double bass playing and teaching. A big one occurred when he first began working with François Rabbath, and a more recent “midlife crisis” for Paul has been his exploration of Tai Chi and how it relates to body movement in bass playing.
What Makes for a Master Teacher?
I’ve found that the “secret sauce” for producing true greatness is often the synthesis of one master teacher’s approach by another master teacher. François Rabbath is once such master teacher. In my mind, he’s in the bass pantheon along with Gary Karr, Edgar Meyer, and a select few others.
François is great in and of himself. This is evident to anyone who has worked with him or has seen him.
The artistry, pedagogy, and concepts of François through the mind of Paul Ellison, however, is a killer combination. Paul has synthesized so many elements of François’ approach to the bass into his own pedagogy, and to see him work with any student on any level is to be truly transformed as a teacher.
Long story short? If you have the chance to see Paul teach, do it!
Paul takes lessons of body movement learned from other athletic pursuits and incorporates them into his pedagogical approach. As he frequently states, musicians are “athletes of the small muscles,” and revisiting the fundamentals of every element of bass playing with this in mind can produce dramatic positive change.
With every student, Paul reduces their body mechanics down to large structural movements. It’s amazing to watch, and it’s a powerful reminder for me of just how valuable the in-person teaching experience is. I love online learning, and there’s tremendous benefit to learning through online lessons and other means of digital education.
Watching Paul Teach
There’s nothing like being there in the room with Paul, watching him work with a student and seeing how the adjustments he makes impact tone and ergonomic comfort.
Applying the Musical Athlete Approach to Young Bass Teaching
Paul’s athletic and ergonomic approach to bass playing is being applied from the very first lesson with teachers like Kate Jones. In addition to observing Kate work with a group of students at the SAA Conference, I had the good fortune to be a clinician for her inaugural Dallas Bass Workshop in January 2018 along with Lauren Pierce, David Murray, John Kennedy, Alan Lewine, and other master bass teachers.
Everything about Kate’s approach is in line with how Paul approaches the bass, and it was incredibly instructive for me to see how she approached the Mahler 1 bass solo arrangement from Progressive repertoire in a group setting.
Teaching Beyond the Page
Kate’s teaching was as great reminder of how most of teaching isn’t what’s on the page. The music on the page is a frame, a vehicle for the real lessons not on the page. Paul’s teaching reinforces this also, as does every great teacher that I’ve watched.
Another Notable Young Bass Pedagogue
I also had the opportunity to work with some of Nina DeCesare’s students earlier in 2018. Nina is a former student of George Vance and Paul Ellison and is one of the double bass world’s rising stars as a performer and pedagogue. Her approach to teaching reminds me so much of Paul’s in terms of body mechanics. I can’t wait to see what the future looks like with teachers like Kate and Nina actively working with young bassists!
The Need for In-Person Experiences
If the vast majority of what we’re actually teaching exists off the page, does it really matter so much whether we’ve got Progressive Repertoire, the Suzuki books, or other such materials on the stand? Also, does mere possession of one of these source materials convey the essence of the embodied approach?
For me, becoming a great teacher is experiential. There’s no way to read your way into being an effective teacher. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves, attend a workshop, and learn this stuff one-on-one. Perhaps virtual reality will change this, but for now you’ve got to get out and experience this kind of teaching in person to really integrate it into your own approach.
Lessons Learned from Long Teaching Careers
Both John Kennedy and Dan Swaim gave presentations at the SAA Conference revolving around what they’ve learned about pedagogical approaches during their careers.
Along with Virginia Dixon, Dan Swaim is a trailblazer in the Suzuki bass world. Both of them have trained countless Suzuki bass teachers across the globe.
While I didn’t have the chance to check out Virginia’s session, I did have the opportunity to interview her several years ago for Contrabass Conversations:
Becoming Better Teachers with John Kennedy
John Kennedy has had a remarkable career and has worn many hats as a bassist and educator. He is a past president of the International Society of Bassists and chaired the 2011 ISB Convention in San Francisco. He’s a former member of the Honolulu Symphony and has had a long career as a public school music teacher in the Detroit, Michigan area.
Takeaways from John’s Session
John addressed several key takeaways from his career as an educator:
What do our students need:
- in our work with them
- in their lives/careers going forward
- in setting their own goals
Learning is a skill:
- skill is broken into accessible parts
- have a model for each part
- Have enough repetition for automaticity and predictability
Teaching is a skill:
- guide through progressive steps to every skill (pedagogy)
- provide a clear model (modeling)
- encourage the desire to do the hard work of repetition for mastery (motivation)
Important concepts from one of our great young bass pedagogues!
I’m done with Progressive Repertoire… now what?!?
Dennis Whittaker is one of my favorite people in the bass world. Like John Kennedy, Dennis has worn many hats as a bassist and educator. Dennis taught orchestra for several years in the Texas public schools before transitioning into his current positions as principal bass of the Houston Grand Opera and bass teacher at the University of Houston.
Another thing about Dennis: he’s a killer bass player. We had a great conversation about how he approaches practicing, playing long hours in the pit, and many other topics on the podcast:
Digging into Dennis’ Session
Dennis did a session at the SAA Conference about “bridge repertoire.” Bridge repertoire is music that you learn after finishing the Suzuki/Vance progression.
Anyone who has taught a student through one of these sequential methods has had the “now what?” experience to which Dennis is referring. Students at this point have a god foundation, but they aren’t quite ready to dive into the Bottesini Concerto. What can we work on with them?
Dennis takes a broad and student-centric approach to this issue, focusing on nurturing the interests of the student rather than funneling them toward a specific career path. As he points out, the notion that there’s an orchestra or academic job waiting for the bass student doesn’t really work in our current musical environment.
Rather than taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach like so many teachers did in the past, how can today’s bass teacher explore a diverse set of solo, chamber, contemporary, jazz, and period performance work? How can we introduce them to improvisation and composition, and how can we nurture their interests and passions?
New Materials Coming Soon from Dennis
Dennis is hard a work producing a deep resource revolving around bridge repertoire. Expect to see graded repertoire selections and much more from Dennis in the near future!
“We’ve come a long way, brothers and sisters!”
Gary Karr so eloquently stated this in his keynote presentation at the 2017 International Society of Bassists Convention, and the same can be said for young bass education. The difference in approaches, resources, and opportunities between when I was starting bass in the late 1980s and today is phenomenal.
We’e explored the topic of the bass being the most radically transformed instrument many times on the podcast, and this is true in bass education for sure. These days, we’ve got so many options that it can be overwhelming!
This new generation of teachers like Kate Jones and Nina DeCesare has taken the lessons learned from teaching titans like George Vance, Paul Ellison, Francois Rabbath, Virginia Dixon, Dan Swaim, and has synthesized them into their own approach. With teachers like them leading the way, the future is in good hands!