How to get better at phrasing on the double bass

Everybody struggles with phrasing at first, but I've come up with a method that helps to make it a top focus.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

Have you ever been confused about where to start with phrasing on the double bass?

While phrasing is the thing that really makes music come alive. It’s one of the most confusing and challenging things to learn on any instrument. I’m going to show you my method for building phrasing into your music, what to do If you’re not getting the phrasing you want, plus an extra tip for making your phrases really come alive.

I’ve got a workbook I put together and you can download that here. It’s got all the exercises plus some musical examples for you to try out your own phrasing.

‘preparing to phrase’ exercises

I’ve been doing these for years. They’re written here on the D string but you can do them on all strings, closed notes, and scales.

The goal of exercise one is to start as softly as possible, and to get it as big as possible. Start with where you’re at in terms of range, but day by day, see if you can exaggerate.

I love this first exercise because it focuses on what we don’t do well: crescendo on the down low and decrescendo on the up bow.

The natural tendency of the bow to decrescendo on the downbow is one of the key things that gets in the way of good phrasing.

Jason Heath

The second exercise is more “with the grain”. It’s what the bowl likes to do naturally, but it’s still important to gain that control.

In the third exercise, we make a hair pin with each note. Experiment making the hairpin by using speed, then weight, then a little bit of both.

Try it little closer to the bridge, then a little further away from the bridge. Can you make the tone beautiful at all times? We don’t want to make ugly sounds…at least I don’t!

Number four is a little more challenging: start big, come down, bring it up. On this one, you want to be really cognizant of your bow changes. A lot of the issues with phrasing come from the bow changes. So we really want to address this and focus on it every day.

90% of phrasing comes from the bow arm, not the left hand.

Jason Heath

Applying This to Musical Examples

Before trying out a phrase, I like to sit down with the music and a pencil and follow the following steps:

  1. write down a key descriptive word
  2. choose starting dynamic
  3. write in crescendos decrescendos
  4. add more key dynamics
  5. indicate high points of phrases
  6. mark points to stretch or move tempo

I like starting with unmarked music for this exercise, though you can apply the same steps to any piece of music and just circle in dynamics and the like. We’re working on awareness with these steps.

Also, I love to sing throughout as I do this, and also once I pick up the bass.

Once you’ve practiced singing, you’re ready to play it on the bass. Alternating one time singing the example with one time playing it is great rhythm for me.

Listen to what you’re doing!

That’s my first bit of advice when you actually start playing your phrase on the bass. The best way to listen is to record yourself regularly as you practice phrasing.

Recording is so helpful for phrasing because it separates the actual performance from the evaluation of what’s going on. So record yourself and listen, and just ask yourself constantly, “is what I want to do occurring?” It can be remarkably challenging when you get to the finer details.

What if you’re not getting the results you want?

And very often you will find that you are not doing what you’re setting out to do. So what do you do if you’re not getting the results you want, you’re doing those preparatory exercises, but it’s still not happening. The phrase is flat. The note that you’re trying to bring out isn’t coming out, the shaping you’re wanting to do isn’t working.

That means it’s time to simplify. Simply put, you have to simplify what you’re doing to diagnose phrasing problems.

You can just play the rhythm on one note.

Then try two notes. Are you using the same amount of bow for each note?

As you keep adding notes, you finally might notice that there’s a left hand issue. Maybe you’re lifting up as you’re shifting, or you’re tensing up as you’re shifting. Diagnose it. Fix it. Record it and verify.

Also, keep going back to that right arm and really try to make sure the shapes you trying to make are happening. Get that right hand happening, then apply the left hand, take everything possible away.

Make sure the phrase is coming out

Generally, phrases aren’t two notes, two notes, two notes. They’re usually a longer shape.

Extra tip: exaggerate it to make it happen

Exaggerate everything.

Back when I was in theater in middle school and high school. I’d practice my lines with massive exaggerations on different words. It sounded ridiculous, but it help me with awareness of the sentence structure, and I was able to determine what to emphasize for the final delivery.

It might sound ridiculous, but if you can go further than you need to, you will have room to come back and scale back. We tend to practice way too cautiously and phrase way cautiously also.

Go for it and make a glorious mess–you can always pull it back.

Jason Heath

Go for that contrast on your tone: dark sound covered, sound bright sound, almost too bright.

Experiment with vibrato widths.

Really engage your entire body. You’ll often notice a fuller sound as you use bigger muscle groups.

We want our phrases to connect beautifully. It’s all about awareness, recording yourself and focusing on phrasing in every single practice session.

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