Rabbath vs Simandl – What’s the best double bass position system?

The Rabbath and Simandl position systems are widely used worldwide. In this post, we take a look at the similarities and differences.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

We’re taking a deep dive into the position systems developed by two of the double bass world’s most well-known pedagogues. Both of these systems are widely used, and while double bassists can move between both approaches, there can also be a lot of confusion surrounding them.

This position guide was created by University of Michigan bass professor Nicholas Walker and is an excellent way to compare and contrast these two approaches

There are two predominant double bass pedagogical methods in the United States today. The older, established double bass method here is, without a doubt, the New Method for String Bass by Franz Simandl.

This tried, and true double bass pedagogical tome methodically takes the beginning double bass student up the fingerboard, half-step by half-step, exploring all of the notes in each position and connecting the new positions with the old positions in various etude and scalar studies.

In contrast, the New Method of François Rabbath and his followers divides the double bass into six positions and navigates the notes in each of these large positions with pivoting.

At first, some of the ideas explored in the Rabbath approach seemed questionable to me, such as his suggestion to collapse the left-hand fingers and his very specific opinions on instrument shape and size, the use of the French bow, and bent end pins.

Also, when I was younger, I attended several bass conferences where I witnessed some less-than-impressive playing by those who claimed to follow the Rabbath technique (although I must admit, I also heard some less-than-impressive Simandl technique students, but my memories of those former players aren’t as vivid).

I’ve always enjoyed watching Rabbath himself play and listening to his recordings. He is a truly innovative artist with a unique voice. I bought his Nouvelle Technique volumes when I was in high school, and even though it took me a while to grasp the core concepts, I recognized the immense value of these texts. I learned several of his pieces and performed them in recitals, competitions, and other events.

Teaching with Simandl

When I started teaching double bass about ten years ago, I had all of my students purchase Simandl’s New Method for String Bass and start learning the Half Position section, just like my bass teacher had me do in my first bass lessons. As I had student after student play them for me in lessons (I have taught a LOT of private lesson students), I came to two conclusions:

1) They were learning good left-hand position.

2) They were bored to tears.

Also, my beginning 4th-grade students had a terrible time reading the sharps and flats that Simandl put into even the very beginning of his materials. For example, the first page of the Half Position exercises already introduces double sharps. Double sharps!

My 4th graders had just learned the D scale in school, and old man Simandl was having them grind away on atonal (and they really are atonal) exercises with accidentals galore. On the other hand, they were learning their positions well (even if they were bored). I decided to use short tunes from other collections to shake things up and ended up teaching about 50% Simandl exercises and 50% short tunes.

The Simandl position numbering system is also extremely complicated, and I had a hard time remembering whether my students were playing in 1 1/2 position, low 2nd, 3 1/2 position (or is that fourth?), 5th position, or the like. Also, their school orchestra used a different numbering position than the Simandl book, so I ended up avoiding mentioning position numbers whenever possible.

Trying out Suzuki Bass School

Shortly after starting to teach with Simandl, I picked up some of the Suzuki Bass School books. I liked the tunes (the Suzuki tune progression is very well-conceived) but was unsure about trying to use these books without any Suzuki training.

Suzuki and traditional public school string instruction often don’t work together (starting a tiny tot on bass along with their parents in a Suzuki program and a student starting bass in the public schools in 4th grade are two fundamentally different ways of learning an instrument), and I decided to simply pick some tunes out of the Suzuki repertoire to add to my teaching repertoire and leave it at that.

Years after writing this initial post, I had the chance to attend the Suzuki Association of the Americas and check out a few days of early double bass pedagogy. I learned a lot, and you can dive into my takeaways here.

My “Rabbath gateway” discovery

One day, I was in downtown Chicago at a music store, and I happened to page through a copy of George Vance’s Progressive Repertoire for the Double Bass. I was surprised at the way the double bass positions were introduced and explained, but I was immediately interested. Although the book was Rabbath technique through and through (Rabbath himself plays on the accompanying CDs), I already started to see the possibilities of this method.

Progressive Repertoire fuses the Suzuki and Rabbath techniques with traditional double bass techniques and repertoire with excellent results.

Here is what I like about this method:

1) Starting in 3rd position (traditional 4th position) – When I first started teaching out of this method, I jumped ahead to the first position tunes, but over time, I realized the value of starting students in 3rd position. When a student starts in 3rd position, they are able to play pentatonic tunes, which are much easier for the young ear to process and hear (3rds, 4ths, and 5ths are much easier to hear at first than half steps). Simandl has the students grinding away at half steps in non-melodic patterns the first time they put down their fingers. I have started students both ways, and the Simandl students leave their first lesson with a grimace while the Vance students leave with a smile.

2) Pleasant, short, technique-specific tunes – Simandl presents the students with a few never-ending pages of the same note value and atonal grinding. Vance presents the students with 8-12 measure pentatonic tunes. Playing something pleasing to the ear greatly affects how the student feels about their new instrument. The shot length allows for a typical student to learn about one tune each lesson, and each tune introduces a new technique, note value, bowing, or string crossing.

3) Pivoting – This is a dodgy subject. I used to never let my students pivot, believing that it would cloud their intonation. Over time, I realized that, by focusing on the six Rabbath positions and learning the pivot motions, most students did not need to stare at their left hand or fingerboard and could instead rely on their ear and their sense of touch to find notes. Harmonically simple tunes and basic movements helped with this. I thought that pivoting would hurt student’s intonation, but I have found that the proper application of it actually helps intonation. There is something about having fewer positions and pivoting within those positions that makes sense for younger students, and I have noticed a much faster development of intonation and fingerboard knowledge with the Vance/Rabbath approach.

4) No fear of the high positions – Vance moves the students into 4th position (traditional thumb position) within the first few tunes of his method. Introducing this region early to bass students eliminates the traditional fear and discomfort of the thumb position. I have had many university students who are completely comfortable in the neck positions and a total mess in the thumb positions. Early introduction of these positions makes the thumb positions no scarier than any of the other positions.

5) Clarity in Fingerboard Navigation – Simandl’s positions are very difficult to remember and pretty non-intuitive. As an experiment, ask a professional bass player some time to demonstrate all of the Simandl positions. I’ve tried this experiment with lots of bassists, and I haven’t had many do it right. In contrast, the six Rabbath positions are based around the major harmonics on the bass and are extremely easy to remember.

Thoughts on the Rabbath Technique

Have I become a Rabbath technique convert, then? Not completely, but I have found Vance’s filtered Rabbath/Suzuki technique to be invaluable in teaching beginner and intermediate students. I now consider the Simandl New Method an advanced text, and I don’t use it until students reach a certain level of technical proficiency.

The Simandl New Method teaches a bass player all of the necessary skills to play orchestral music. Those atonal, grinding exercises that I groused about earlier are actually EXACTLY what we bass players do in orchestra much of the time. Reading all of those accidentals across the strings is an essential skill for bass players in an ensemble.

You don’t learn these skills in the Progressive Repertoire series, and Simandl can help build this foundation. The comfort of navigating the fingerboard and the flat position hierarchy taught by Vance (no position is scarier than any other) sets up a student for all of the challenges of Simandl. Also, the combination of both methods in this sequence much more effectively prepares the student world of orchestral music.

Combining both systems has ultimately been my most successful comprehensive double bass pedagogical sequence. I use Vance for beginners and intermediate students. I also augment with Simandl, orchestral excerpts, and the traditional double bass repertoire (Koussevitzky, Dittersdorf, Bottesini) for advanced students.

The Vance Progressive Repertoire method dovetails neatly into traditional double bass pedagogical repertoire since the last piece introduced in Book 3 is the Dragonetti Concerto.

More thoughts on “Rabbath vs Simandl” from a colleague

My longtime double bass friend and colleague John Tuck wrote a thoughtful response to this post upon its first publication. This is a great second perspective and clarification on some of the concepts explored in the preceding paragraphs.

John writes:

The Rabbath approach implements the concept of pivoting, and I had questioned the validity of this for probably similar reasons that you had. It is now my assessment that the problems that one may associate with Rabbath’s concepts arise when there is an incomplete understanding of the concept.

Pivoting is really not that different from the concept of forward or backward extensions, which I understand is pretty much universally accepted by cellists. In addition, the concept of left-hand technique that Ludwig Streicher adheres to in his method (where a particular finger does not leave its placement on a string until the next notes finger placement is firmly in established), which allows for one to reach for pitches which are “out of position” in a manner that is solidly rooted for intonation, is also similar to Rabbaths pivot in that there are no “block” positions maintained by the left hand.

Where I think Rabbath may differ (in theory) is in his apparent reliance of the positioning of the thumb to guide the placement of the other fingers. Whether or not Rabbath actually dogmatically adheres to his system of positions or simply uses these pivoting concepts to guide (and describe) his playing, I am not sure. But, I am inclined to think that by following Streicher’s approach, the ultimate result would be as fluid as Rabbath’s.

As with a misunderstanding of pivoting, I see the main problem with the “traditional” position system also as being a misunderstanding. In my opinion, traditional (Simandl) positions are not meant to restrict the hand but to focus the mind.

When taken to their respective extremes, I don’t see the end results of the two position systems as being different. Each one can have its pitfalls if not understood or explained correctly.

As far as specific methods are concerned, for many years, I HATED the Simandl approach. (the introduction of positions in a chromatic fashion, boredom, difficult keys etc.)

I am still not fond of this method, but now I see that it has some usefulness. I have come to the conclusion that this method was written for either those that already played the bass to some extent and wanted to go through a quick, methodical text to solidify one’s technique, OR for those that already understood music (and played another instrument) and wanted to learn the bass. I do not think this was intended for the raw beginner.

The main problem with this method is that it focuses on reading music in terms of finger placement rather than in terms of hearing the music first in one’s “inner ear” then playing what one hears. If one already has a developed musical ear, then this method may work quite well (though it is still a bit boring).

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