Learning a New Piece on Double Bass: The Ultimate Guide!

This guide from double bass teacher and soloist Lauren Pierce is a thoughtful take on the process of learning a new piece on double bass.

With Lauren Pierce · Chicago, IL

Today, we’re going to take a look at how double bass soloist and teacher Lauren Pierce approaches learning a piece. You can pick up a copy of the guide here and find Lauren’s personal editions of Bach, Dvorak, and more in the Double Bass HQ Sheet Music Store.

Why Lauren put this guide together

The main thing that drove me to make these steps was purely for my own process. I get really overwhelmed when I’m faced with the enormity of a piece. It’s sort of like what I imagine writers feel when they are faced with the enormity of a blank page, you know, that they have to fill and they’ve just signed maybe a book deal or whatever.

Having these steps helps me know that I can make the promise to myself that I can learn the piece that I haven’t broken down into these six steps. But I think it is a really difficult thing because it’s not naturally step-wise, and, I just wanna say that I have broken it down into these six steps, but it’s not really stepwise.

Lauren Pierce

Step 1: Listen to the Piece

I’ve been working on the wonderful five-movement work Sueños by my good friend Andrés Martín for an upcoming recital.

I knew that I needed to listen to the piece to get it internalized, and I chose the following recording by the outstanding bass soloist Szymon Marciniak and his longtime collaborator Evan Mitchell.

Listening to a piece of music prior to practicing it is an important step in the learning process. It allows the musician to internalize the piece and get a sense of its overall structure and phrasing.

By listening to multiple interpretations of the same piece, the musician can also gain a deeper understanding of the different ways the piece can be performed. This can help inform decisions on fingerings, bowings, and other expressive elements.

Overall, taking the time to listen to a piece before practicing it can greatly enhance the learning and performance experience.

Step 2: Decide On Your Fingerings

Lauren emphasizes the importance of being intentional when deciding on fingerings for a new piece. Although it can be scary to commit to a specific fingering, she highlights that it’s essential to do so and emphasizes the importance of being creative with fingerings. Lauren suggests using repetition-based practice to gradually increase the pace and reach the goal tempo for the piece.

Being intentional is really important and also something that I’ve noticed students of all ages are often quite scared of. I can’t speak for anyone else. I’ve become really worried that I’m making the wrong decision, which will make the whole piece fall apart. You can change your fingerings, but committing to something is important.

Being intentional about it, you know, the notes on the page are really just one. When we’re playing the music, I’m not necessarily thinking note by note in my head, and that’s whether I’m reading off the music in performance or if I have it memorized. I’m not thinking “A, B, C, D.”

Step 3: Decide On Your Bowings

Deciding on bowings is an important step when a double bassist is learning a new piece of music because it helps to ensure that the musician is able to play the piece efficiently and musically. Bowings can greatly affect the tone, phrasing, and dynamics of a piece, so choosing the right bowings is crucial to achieving the desired musical effect. Additionally, having a specific bowing plan before practicing can help the musician to more effectively internalize the piece and improve their overall performance.

There are many different ways to do determine bowings for a piece that you are about to learn.

As with fingerings, you can do this work wth the bass in hand, or you can do this away from the bass. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

I do like doing what I call “coffee shop fingerings” away from the bass. It’s nice to work through these problems without having to go back and forth between writing and playing.

But a lot of the time I have to fix those “coffee shop” bowings and fingerings, so I find that I end up needing to have the bass in my hand to really make a decision on bowings.

Accepting that the first fingerings and bowings that you write in might not work—that’s been really helpful for me to just get something written down.

I don’t need to mark a fingering and bowing over every single note, but in the early stages, I think it’s kind of nice to have a lot of this info. You can always erase it later, especially if you’re working off of an iPad!

Step 4: Split the Piece Into Big Sections

The bigger sections are really the map of the piece. So I can gain an understanding of where are we in the roadmap, emotionally, color-wise, et cetera, intensity wise, all of that stuff. And then the smaller sections are for my practice purposes with the me, repetition based, you know, the nitty gritty piece.

Understanding the roadmap of a musical piece is important for the learning process because it helps the musician to gain an understanding of the overall structure of the piece.

This can inform decisions on phrasing, dynamics, and other aspects of interpretation, and can help the musician to better convey the emotional content of the piece to the audience.

Additionally, understanding the form of a piece can help the musician to better anticipate upcoming sections and transitions, allowing for a smoother and more confident performance.

Step 5: Split the Piece Into Smaller Sections

In this step, we’re laying out the bits that we’ll actually spend the most time practicing. These are like “little nuggets” of practice material, and in my experience, the more granular you can be, the better.

I’ll break things down into chunks of 1-4 bars, or even individual shifts in some cases.

These chunks will evolve over time, and as with fingerings and bowings, it’s totally fine (and likely!) to change your mind as the learning process continues.

Step 6: Plan Your Practicing

I’m a real big believer in this long game of getting up to the goal tempo by starting really slowly. I tell my students to begin at 50% of the goal tempo; if I’m honest, I’m usually well below that.

Daniel Carson of the Chicago Symphony laid out his approach for this kind of tempo mapping, and it is a tried-and-true method that many musicians have found beneficial.

I’ve found the practice app Modacity to be quite helpful in planning my own practicing. For me, it separates the planning process from the practicing process, which helps to get me in the rhythm of practicing more seamlessly.

More Practice Planning Tips

When planning your practicing, consider using a metronome to help maintain a steady tempo and gradually increase the speed over time.

It can also be helpful to practice sections in different orders to avoid getting stuck in one particular section. Remember to take breaks and practice efficiently, focusing on the areas that need the most attention.

When planning your practice sessions, it can be helpful to set specific goals for each session and to track your progress over time. Additionally, taking breaks and practicing efficiently can help to prevent burnout and make the learning process more enjoyable.

Remember to approach each piece with curiosity and openness, embracing the creative process of learning and interpreting music. With dedication and a well-structured approach, you can master any piece on the double bass and take your playing to the next level.

Final Thoughts

Lauren’s emphasis on being intentional about fingerings and bowings is a key takeaway from this guide. By committing to a specific fingering or bowing, the musician is able to approach the piece with more confidence and intention.

It’s also important to split the piece into big and small sections, allowing for a better understanding of the overall structure of the piece and the specific areas requiring more attention in practice. Finally, having a plan for practicing and gradually increasing the tempo can help the musician reach their goal tempo and improve their overall performance.

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