Hal Robinson’s Boardwalkin’ – It’ll change your left hand on double bass forever!

This concise scale system has been a part of my practice routine for decades, and here's why.

With Hal Robinson · Philadelphia, PA

When I was in music school back in the late 1990s, I remember hearing mutterings about this incredible new book that Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassist Hal Robinson had released.

Titled Boardwalkin’, this book seemed to be a key component in the practice routines of people that were landing orchestra jobs.

Hungry for any material that would get me closer to my goal of being in the bass section of any major orchestra, I ordered a copy. Immediately, I knew that this was something special.

About Boardwalkin’

Hal writes in the preface:

This volume of scale and arpeggio exercises provides supplementary material for students of Francois Rabbath’s Nouvelle Technique de la Contrabasse, Vol. 3 (published by Leduc) and is intended for use by bassists who have worked through the three-octave scales in that work. Understanding of the pivot and independent use of each finger is assumed.

While this isn’t a book for beginners, over the years I’ve incorporated Boardwalkin‘ more and more into my teaching. These days, any music school-bound student of mine will be working out of this book. When I was teaching bass at DePaul University, there were only two books I’d ask my students to buy: Boardwalkin’ and Hal’s other book Strokin’.

I love Francois Rabbath’s books, and I’ve been using them since high school. What I particularly enjoy about Hal’s Boardwalkin’, however, is how he distills one of the key concepts of the Rabbath left hand approach into a concise volume that can be efficiently applied in a practice session.

How the book works

The premise of Boardwalkin’ is simple: take a major scale and run through all the possible notes in each of the six Rabbath positions.

By pivoting, we bass players can play diatonic scales across all four strings without shifting, just like a violin, viola, or cello. This opens up a whole world of new fingering possibilities.

What I’ve found is that spending time each day going up and down the bass in this way opens my mind to new possibilities for fingering. I’ve also noticed the same effect in my students. It’s also a wicked way to get better at sight reading.

Over the years, I’ve used a ton of scale books, from Carl Flesch’s Scale System to the Simandl Method and countless others.

I have yet to find a way of practicing scales on the bass that opens up my ears and my mind quite like Boardwalkin’, though. It’s the first thing on my practice list each and every day.

Boardwalkin’ at the top of my Modicaty practice queue

How the book is organized

Boardwalkin’ starts with C major, running through each major scale and associated arpeggios in the circle of 4ths:

  • C Major
  • F Major
  • Bb Major
  • Eb Major
  • Ab Major
  • Db Major
  • B Major
  • E Major
  • A Major
  • D Major
  • G Major

Each scale starts in the first Rabbath position, using pivoting to go diatonically up the scale to the G string, then descending back down in first position al the way to the lowest note of the scale on the E string.

The scale then ascends in first position. When you hit the top of the first position notes, you move into the second Rabbath position, reach the top of that position, and then descend all the way to the E string.

You then ascend in second position, move into third position once you run out of notes, then repeat the process all the way up the neck.

You continue through third, fourth, fifth, and finally sixth position. After fourth position, Hal leaves out the E string notes since no one but a sadist would want to play that high up the E string.

You then turn the pattern around in sixth position and descend back down through the positions until finally arriving back in first position.

Hal notates fingerings for each note as well as the string and position, and he indicates pivots with a dash.

Arpeggio sequence

For many years, I’d only practice the scale portion of Boardwalkin’ sand ignore the arpeggios.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to see the brilliance of Hal’s fingering approach to the arpeggios as well, and I now do these each day as well as the scale exercise.

Hal runs through the following arpeggio sequence, which is similar to the classic arpeggio sequence laid out in the Carl Flesch Scale System:

  • Major
  • Sub-Dominant
  • Augmented
  • Minor
  • Diminished
  • Dominant 7th

In addition to providing a fingering for each note, Hal gives enough information on strings and positioning so that you can navigate your way through the exercise.

As Hal states in the Preface, he adheres to two principles for these arpeggio fingerings:

  1. At least two notes are played in each position before a shift is required
  2. The fingering pattern avoids big leaps between consecutive notes

Handling the “tricky keys”

Navigating through keys that have a lot of open strings and harmonics is a breeze with these fingerings. As you ascend the bass, the thumb lands on natural harmonics, making to easy to check your intonation even in the higher positions.

I absolutely love the way that Hal handles the use of the thumb in trickier keys like Ab, Db, and Gb. Generally, the thumb moves back a half-step from the natural harmonic, so first, second, and third fingers tend to land on the same note names as the easier keys. Easier to demonstrate than describe!

Trust me, though—this is a brilliant way of thinking of fingerings on the bass that will really speed up your fingering choices and sight reading.

How I practice Boardwalkin’

I’ve tried many ways of practicing Boardwalkin’ over the years. I used to try running some of the exercises in Hal’s other book Strokin’ over the Boardwalkin’ sequence, but I found that this simply took too long and wasn’t really getting the most value out of the sequence.

I’ve found that I get the most benefit if I spend 10-15 minutes a day on Boardwalkin’, following these basic guidelines:

  • One key per week
  • Start slow
  • Use a drone
  • Add a note to the bow each day (separate on Monday, 2 slurred on Tuesday, etc)
  • Go for the best possible tone given the circumstances

It can be a challenge, of course, to get a beautiful sound way up on the A string! I find that really focusing on getting the best sound that I can given the restrictions of the fingering is a healthy approach for this exercise.

Final thoughts

I’m always aiming to be as efficient as possible in my practicing, and I find that Boardwalkin’ gets me great results without taking an incredible amount fo practice time.

If I quit practicing this material for a while, I can feel it In my playing. It has been a core part of my daily routine for a long time, and it’s definitely one of the “desert island” books that I recommend to all my students.

The only place to get Boardwalkin’ is from Robertson and Sons Violins. There’s an online order form that you can fill out on their website. Do that and they’ll ship you a copy.

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