How I teach double bass to beginners

I've tried a lot of approaches over the years, and this one seems to work the best.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

I’ve spent decades tinkering with my approach to teaching double bass beginners.

I vividly recall teaching my first beginner lesson over 20 years ago. This poor kid was staring doe-eyed at me as I gesticulated wildly. With absolutely no idea what I was doing, I had him sawing away on the first few pages of the Simandl Method, grimacing through atonal half-position exercises.

I’ve refined my approach considerably over the years.

Refining my Approach

Over time, I became more skilled at using the Simandl Method and combining it with a variety of shifting bowing, and technical drills that I’d picked up over the years.

This wasn’t a bad approach. In fact, I ended up with some very fine students using this method.

I began to realize, however, that there really wasn’t any logical sequence to what I was doing. It was almost like reactive versus proactive teaching.

More recently, I’ve fallen in love with a particular way of teaching beginners that’d I’d like to pass along to you.

About 15 years ago, I discovered George Vance and his Progressive Repertoire books. George’s method of teaching the bass fused the approach of Suzuki with the approach of François Rabbath.

George traveled to Japan to work with Shinichi Suzuki and was one of the first to teach bass to preschool students. Out of these experiences was born the Progressive Repertoire series. This series, along with his pioneering work of getting luthiers to build fractional-size basses for young students, has fundamentally changed the way bass is taught.

I was late to the party on Progressive Repertoire. I remember being unsure about teaching the Rabbath position system to my students. I’d always thought of that as “advanced” technique, something to be applied on occasion in more complicated passages. The idea of basing my teaching around it seemed crazy to me.

Over time, I began to speak with bass teachers using this method. They were finding great success and producing wonderful students. Studying how others used this method, I began to incorporate it in my own teaching.

I was instantly hooked. This was such a better system than what I’d been using previously, and here’s why.

#1 – Starting Students at the Neck Block

This was the part of this approach that I was most skeptical about initially. After all, every method I’d ever encountered previously had started people in half or first position.

Soon, however, I realized the benefits of starting at the neck block. This is a really comfortable place to develop a good left hand shape. The hand sits really well in this position, and the spacing isn’t as wide as the lower positions. I’ve had fewer left hand technical issues starting people at the neck block and moving back than when I’d start them in first position and move up.

#2 – Working with Pentatonic Scales and Wide Intervals

When you start in the neck block position, you have access to a pentatonic scale immediately. This allows for a more melodic approach to learning the bass than in many other methods. With this approach, bassists can play the same types of early pieces that violinists and cellists can play. They’e easier to tune, they’re in a more melodic range, and they’re easier to play since the left hand spacing is smaller.

I can see the enthusiasm for the bass growing with each new lesson. It’s more fun for them to play these songs. Fun translates into more enthusiasm for the bass and more interest in practicing. Yay!

#3 – Introducing the Entire Range of the Bass Early On

For me, learning thumb position was like venturing out into a scary, foreign land. It didn’t sound great. It felt funny. I didn’t particularly like it.

If we teach it early in the student’s development, however, there’s nothing to fear. If the bass is set up correctly, it’s actually easier to play in thumb position in many regards than in first position.

This is a major benefit of using Progressive Repertoire. Thumb position is introduced early on, and the same pieces are learned in first position, the neck block position, and thumb position. The concept of thumb position being a “mirror” of first position is ingrained early, eliminating the scary factor of playing up high.

#4 – Putting the Focus on Pieces Rather than Exercises

As bass players, we often focus on technical exercises over actual melodies. The Suzuki Method changed that concept, putting the focus on melodic pieces that sequentially develop technique. George Vance did the same thing with Progressive Repertoire.

In addition to simply being more fun to play, focusing on melodies is great for developing phrasing, dynamic, vibrato, and tone production. Simply put, it’s a more musical way to approach development.

#5 – Logical Sequence: from Shortnin’ Bread through Dragonetti

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Progressive Repertoire series is how logical and step-by-step the sequence is. Each piece introduces one new concept. It’s presented clearly, wth a preparatory exercise if needed for the new skill.

Each piece builds upon the previous one. It’s like a musical ladder: start on the first rung, and you’ll eventually wind up scaling the entire building. Gone are the days of realizing that I’ve tossed a particular student in over their head on a new piece. If they’ve learned one piece in the series, they’re ready for the next one. Finally, they hit Dragonetti, and after that, they’re ready for anything.

How I Integrate Other Materials into Progressive Repertoire

Obviously, we must learn to do things outside of the Progressive Repertoire sequence of pieces. George Vance put together a great scale compendium called Vade Mecum.
Besides the Vance books, I integrate the following into my lessons:

  • scales
  • orchestra music they’re working on
  •  jazz
  • Simandl, Bille, Streicher

You can find all of my favorite methods listed on my teaching materials page.

Learn more about George Vance and how to use these books

Here are some other great places to learn more about George Vance:

  • I interviewed Nina DeCesare, who was George Vance’s student. We talked in great detail about what lessons with George were like and how he used these books. Highly recommended listening!
  • When George Vance passed away, National Symphony bassist and Peabody Conservatory faculty member Ira Gold took over George’s studio. We talk about this experience in great detail.
  • I spoke with Gaelen McCormick about how she uses these books in her teaching–it was a fascinating conversation.

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