Strokin’ – level up your double bass bow game!

This book could change your arco skills forever.

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

Back in 1994, I was starting my freshman year at Northwestern University and studying with former Chicago Symphony bassist Michael Hovnanian. I so clearly remember that very first lesson, especially his recommendation for technique books that I should get.

I have always been a nut for collecting different method books and etudes, and I was so curious as to what my new teacher would recommend. What kind of technical routine does someone in the Chicago Symphony find most helpful?

His answer was simple. He pointed me to one book: the Sevcik School of Bowing Technique for Violin Op. 2.

I promptly ran down to Carl Fischer Music’s Chicago location (RIP) to pick up a copy. I was surprised that, out of all the myriad of possibilities, this I was the one technique book that he had found the most useful.

I mean, a book for… violin? What about bass? And something from a late 19th/early 20th century violin pedagogue?

As an 18-year-old, I was a little confused as to how, exactly, this book would help me. How do I practice these? Do I spend hours a day doing these? What about string crossings? What, exactly, is the point of doing these exercises?

Over time, I began to understand what Michael recommended these.

The Sevcik books really were the closest thing out there resembling “bow school” for the bass.

Jason Heath

When practiced intelligently, it develops the skills needed for tackling pretty much anything that you’d find in solo and orchestral repertoire, and it gives you a huge about on control over articulation, tone, and overall facility on the instrument.

Frustrations with the violin books

Even though I knew that I could transfer the Sevcik concepts and exercises from violin to bass, it always felt like there was something lost in translation.

It wasn’t just the fact that it was all in treble clef, either. I wasn’t sure if the tempos and bow strokes all applied to bass in the same way, and I knew that there was a lot lost in translation when it came to string crossing.

There have been several attempts to make a bass edition of Sevcik Op. 2, but I found a lot of strange stuff and outright errors in them, so I always found myself drifting back to the violin version despite its inherent challenges.

Enter Strokin’

back in the late 1990s I’d heard whisperings from a ton of bass players about a “secret weapon” book by Hal Robinson called Strokin’. It seemed like everyone that was crushing it on the audition trail was using this book.

I ordered a copy and was totally blown away.

What makes Strokin’ great

It’s incredible what the editorial eye of a seasoned professional like Hal can to do make something go from useful to incredible. As someone who had struggled with the “square peg/round hole” challenges of using the violin books, I was blown away by how seamlessly and usefully he had adapted the concepts for the bass.

Understanding the technical jargon

There’s a bit of technical “code” that Sevcik uses in the original book and is also present in Strokin’. Here’s a quick run-down, and if you have a different way to describe it definitely let me know in the comments below:

  • W – whole bow—all the way from frog to tip
  • H – use half the length of bow
  • LH – lower half (frog to middle)
  • UH – upper half (middle to tip)
  • F – at the frog
  • M – in the middle
  • T – at the tip
  • M* – in the middle, then at the frog, then at the tip
  • – = legato detache
  • . = staccato or martele (note value shortened by half)
  • ’ = spiccato or sautille
  • _ and . = broad with space between notes
  • ) = lift bow from string
  • ’ = bow recovery

The details are everything

It’s critical to notice all the details that Hal provides throughout the exercises. I think of each one of them as a mini-puzzle that I’m trying to solve. How, given the parameters, can I best execute exactly what’s on the page in front of me?

I’ve found that the biggest source of confusion for students is the M* marking. Again, this is a marking that Sevcik himself used, and it’s a great way to save a lot of space rather than individually writing out exercises.

For anything marked with an M*, you should think of it as three separate exercises. Usually, i do it the first time in the middle. Then I do it again as close to the frog as I can. Finally, I do it a third time, as close to the tip as possible.

The idea is to stretch your abilities and your standard of perfection. It’s all about executing these details as meticulously as possible.

Also, pay close attention to where Hal indicates the ) symbol for bow recovery. This often happens after a few slurred notes, and it indicates precisely when you should last the bow from the string. Sometimes, it’s after the slur, so the next note is off. Sometimes, you’ll play first separate note on the string, then life the bow to have the subsequent note be off the string. All easier to demonstrate than to describe!

How Strokin’ is organized

Hal breaks the book down into three parts:

  1. Rhythmic Exercises and Division of the Bow Length
  2. Detached and bouncing styles of bowing
  3. String crossings

Here’s a detailed look at what’s contained within each of these sections.

1 – Rhythmic Exercises and Division of the Bow Length

This section is made up of 43 bowing variations that are meant to be practiced over a scale. This first part of the book is relatively short compared to parts two and three. I think of it like a brief overview of the concepts of good bowing. For me, it lays out the foundation that the rest of the book builds upon.

Hal suggests practicing these over two octave scales, and he lays out the exercises in C major, with each variation being represented as a numbered cell with double bars separating it.

This is exactly how Sevcik lays out the exercises in the violin book, and it can take a little getting used to for some students, but once you get the concept it’s easy to understand.

Pay close attention to the metronome markings that Hal recommends. This is another one of the things that I love about Strokin’: every marking seems to exactly fit the exercises for which it’s indicated.

I haven’t found that to be the case with some other versions of Sevcik, and it’s a great feeling to know that you can really trust what is on the page in front of you.

A bunch of key concepts are covered in this first part:

  • even bow speed
  • uneven bow speed
  • bow recovery
  • hooked bow

2 – Detached and bouncing styles of bowing

This is a huge chunk of the book, and it’s basically everything you can do in terms of bowing patterns for ascending and descending scales.

Basically, you start with 8th notes in 4/4 time, slowly accelerating in terms of note length. It’s laid out as follows:

  • scales in 8th notes
  • scales in 6/8
  • scales in triplets
  • 2 octave triplets in 3/4
  • 2 octave scale in 6/8 with 16th notes
  • 2 octave scale in 3/4 with 16th notes

For me, two octaves is just enough to provide some variety in terms of string length and register. after all, this is a book focusing on the right hand, so keeping the left hand simple is key for getting to the heart of the work.

3 – String crossings

Here we go! This section is divided into two different types of string crossings:

  1. exercises on two strings (w/ 556 variations)
  2. exercises skipping over one or two strings (w/ 158 variations)

Hal has etudes that he put together for each of these sub-sections, and they’re actually included in a fold out from the back cover, which is incredibly useful since you can see both the etude and the variations.

I love how these etude take you through a harmonic progression and cover all the different registers and string combinations of the bass. It’s a brilliant way to keep the mind engaged with some harmonic interest while navigating the instrument.

Hal’s practice suggestions

Hal lays out some great advice in the preface for how he suggests approaching this book:

Choose the most comfortable scale fingering in order to concentrate on the right hand. Each type of variation must be the subject of personal research to find the appropriate combination or arm weight, bow speed, and contact point.

He also writes:

Careless practice will produce more harm than good. Fifteen to thirty minutes of practice at peak concentrations should be sufficient.

How I practice Strokin’

I take that 15-30 minute advice from Hal to heart. Each day, I take a few cells, perhaps 3-5 depending on where I am in the book. I then do a deer tailed analysis of them and how to most perfectly execute them.

I find that the gains happen when I’m being brutally honest with myself, holding myself to the highest possible standard and not letting anything slide. It might be tough, but I’ve found that a few minutes of deliberate practice on these will get my brain dialed in on my bow and set me up to better tackle the other materials that the day will bring.

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