How professionals mark orchestral double bass parts

This post offers a comprehensive guide to marking orchestral double bass parts, detailing the intricacies of professional marking and providing key insights for successfully navigating complex passages and enhancing performance quality.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

Marking orchestral parts is an art that involves striking the perfect balance between providing enough information to be helpful, avoiding overwhelming the player, and ensuring that the instructions are clear but not confusing.

Whether you’re a seasoned bassist or just beginning to delve into the field of professional orchestral playing, this guide will offer insights and tips on how to prepare your parts like a pro. If the intricate world of orchestral part marking fascinates you, read on.


There’s an art to marking what needs to be marked, but not covering the part with unnecessary clutter.

The Preparation Process

Playing in a professional orchestra is as much about preparation as it is about performance. For instance, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is a piece I’ve played before. Despite the familiarity, each performance presents its unique challenges, and thorough preparation is key.

Often, when you’re a substitute or “subbing” in orchestras, you’re called in at the last moment. You have to make the best of the limited preparation time available. In this case, though, I knew well in advance and had the luxury of preparing meticulously. Part of this process involves obtaining the physical part of the music rather than just a digital copy from the IMSLP library. There’s something irreplaceable about working with the actual physical music part that I’m going to perform with.


Seeing the actual marked part can help with preparing an orchestral part for rehearsals and performances.

Understanding Professional Marking

Unlike amateur or school orchestras, a professional orchestra’s parts are marked with a specific purpose. Here are some common markings and their meanings:

Extensions and Shorthand Notations

One of the first things you’ll notice in professional bass parts is the shorthand notations used to mark extension needs. These coded languages help bass players know what to expect and prepare accordingly. My wife, a harpist, uses a similar system for her pedal configurations. For instance, a “C sharp in D” in parentheses denotes the required extension settings for upcoming passages.


Marking upcoming extension changes is quite helpful.

Bowings and Fingerings

In professional orchestras, fingerings are often omitted, while bowings are mandatory. This practice ensures that while bowings are synchronized across the section, fingerings are left to the individual player’s discretion unless a standardized fingering is necessary for particularly challenging passages.


Notice the lack of fingerings in this professional orchestra part.

Dynamic and Articulation Markings

Courtesy dynamics and articulations play a significant role. For example, Mahler’s attention to detail includes writing “sempre fortissimo,” which helps players maintain the dynamic level even when the tendency to diminuendo arises. Similarly, indications like “eyeglasses” suggest an upcoming look-up moment due to a tempo change.


The section leader has added some dynamic markings to clarify what is happening in each divisi bass part.

Section Leader Markings

Often, you’ll find additional notes from the section leader. These might include instructions on bowings or reminders about dynamic levels. It’s helpful to know whether a piece is a stock part from a symphony’s library or if it includes specific directives from a guest conductor.


The “hash mark” on the left indicates which part the players using this part are supposed to play.

Navigating Complex Passages

Markings can help clear up rhythmically ambiguous sections or passages where players need to avoid common pitfalls. For instance, triplet divisions with added slashes or parenthetical notes to signify optional bow changes make the player’s job easier and the performance seamless.

Role of Page Turners

For inside players, page-turning instructions like “V S” (Volti Subito) are crucial. These cues ensure a smooth performance without interruptions. Similarly, notes like “Time” indicate enough time for a relaxed page turn – avoiding awkward moments during a performance.

The Importance of Listening

While markings provide vital visual cues, listening to the piece is an essential part of preparation. Familiarizing oneself with the musical texture and recognizing tricky passages – like Mahler’s notorious bowing patterns – can significantly enhance performance quality.

Professional Insights and Tips

  • Adaptability: Be prepared to adapt to the specific requirements of different orchestras and conductors.
  • Attention to Detail: Small indications on the score, such as courtesy rests or tempo changes, can make a big difference.
  • Communication: Clear communication within the section and keeping an eye on the conductor are paramount.
  • Physical Management: Understanding how to manage physical parts, like ensuring they lay flat on the stand, could avoid unnecessary distractions during the performance.

Conclusion

Marking a double bass part for a professional orchestra involves understanding and incorporating various elements that contribute to a seamless performance. Whether it’s dynamic markings, bowing instructions, or courtesy notes, these subtle details are crucial for synchronizing with the orchestra. The ultimate goal is to make the music come alive, blending technical precision with artistic expression.

For more tips on mastering bass techniques and marking your parts, check out our video resources and join us in the next blog post as we delve deeper into the world of orchestral performance.

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