The Bass Etudes Interviews – Eugene Levinson

Eugene's decades of experience as a performer and teacher yield unique insights into the world of bass etudes.

With Andrew Kohn · Pittsburgh, PA

This is the second in a series of interviews conducted by Andrew Kohn. Andrew is the Professor of String Bass at West Virginia University, is a member of the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestras, and is an active soloist. Eugene Levinson was one of Andrew’s principal teachers.

Eugene Levinson is the former principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic and the Minnesota Orchestra. He formerly played bass with the Leningrad Philharmonic (now the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic). Levinson’s solo performances with the New York Philharmonic have included concertos by Koussevitsky (live recording conducted by Zubin Mehta), Tubin (conducted by Kurt Masur), and Mozart’s Per questa bella mano, conducted by Riccardo Muti and broadcast on PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center in 2004. He wrote School of Agility (Carl Fischer), many editions of solo bass music, and a guide to orchestral excerpts for Boosey & Hawkes.

Each of these interviews explores the application of etudes into one’s development as a bassist. Enjoy!

Interview with Eugene Levinson by Andrew Kohn, August 14, 2005.

Edited version.

Kohn.  What is the pedagogical use of etudes?

Levinson. It depends on the etude. Each etude should have some special purpose to it—and it depends on the level of student—whether a beginner or medium level or high level. But I believe that etudes are very very important. They should resolve a specific problem: they develop people both technically and musically. Students are typically working on some repertoire, whether orchestral repertoire or solo repertoire. But we don’t have a big, varied repertoire, so there will not be much in solos to develop their musicianship, and more especially their technical approach and agility of playing. Again, each etude should have some particular trend—what one wants to develop in that person, whether it’s one region of the fingerboard, another part of the fingerboard, or vibrato, or shifts, or whatever: the student must discover the purpose. Then the teacher’s role becomes more prominent: advising the student on the particular challenges they are facing, so that they achieve a very comprehensive development. In my opinion, bass players today are very gifted and the bass itself is considered a different instrument than it used to be fifty years ago, and we could use more skills and so become better artists. So I believe bass players should play etudes. Of course, some people do not use etudes, often only using orchestral music instead, because there’s no time. We meet our students for one hour per week. That’s not much. But I believe etudes are very important, and even before college, students should use them a lot. Again, etudes are important important for us because we have a very small amount of [original solo] music: concerti, classical music, baroque music (there’s none), and romantic music (a few pieces only). So therefore, with such limited repertoire, they will not learn as much as they could, reveal their stuff, and should use etudes to fill up those gaps that, with other instruments, could happen through studying concerti or other repertoire. Plus, the way people usually interpret solo repertoire is more personal, not necessarily exactly the way the concerto, say, was written. People say, “That’s my personal concept of this music.” As opposed to, let’s say, orchestral excerpts. There it’s not an issue of personal concept, there’s already stuff established in an orchestral situation: orchestral committees and audition committees just expect people to meet the standards. However, on solos, it’s not that restrictive. I believe that etudes can help a lot with this. Of course, I believe interpretation is good, whether it comes from teachers or from the student. Etudes are very important to use, but you should make sure that you use them as they are intended. Some etudes are mostly to learn a staccato stroke, some are good for working on the quality of vibrato, some for detaché, some for quick varieties of strokes, mixed strokes. So, I think that’s what’s the most important thing.

K. Do you think that a specific etude is usually designed for one area of technique, or are there etudes that are good for different techniques depending on how you teach them?

L. The same etude could be used differently. Let’s take the Kreutzer etudes. In that book as we have it, Zimmermann’s edition [International Music Company], he has many varieties of bowings, and that’s very very good. But, though I personally feel that one etude could be used in different ways, I think the main thing is to develop the quality of tone. Even continuing with Kreutzer etude no. 1 in C major, first of all one has to develop a very good detaché, as [Leopold] Auer called it—what we call here legato separate bows. I believe that’s the most important stroke that we need to develop: to make sure that we know how to connect notes together. And on the bass it’s not that easy because string crossings, et cetera, are involved. That etude on the bass, with that goal, could use different kinds of fingering so as to be as technically cohesive as possible—so that the left hand will not interfere with the right hand’s detaché. With the strokes that we use, first and foremost detaché, if the left hand is spread all over the fingerboard, it’s very difficult to connect the notes with the right hand. So therefore I believe we must consider both hands together. That’s my opinion. Again, and with the same etude, you could also use different types of bowings. So you could kill two birds with one stone. And that’s a big big book, so you could use different etudes with different designs.

K. If you have a student who needs to study a particular problem, how do you decide what etude to give them?

L. That depends on what level that student is. If they’re just a beginner, or perhaps a person having problems with basic issues such as hand position, posture (whether standing or sitting), or even how to place the bow properly, or to place fingers properly on the fingerboard into the string, then you have to make sure that you find a good etude for that need, or even a more general exercise. There are lots of exercises for left hand position: to reinforce the gross strength of the fingers, to place them properly on the string—in the right way, in the right position and only with the [tips? (the word didn’t come through clearly)] of the fingers. But once that person already has advanced enough to understand how to take care of this basic technical stuff, then it’s necessary to use other material, to build their technique and become a more agile skillful player. With an etude there’s a lot of things that could be developed. So many things. Etudes should not be viewed as amusical exercises. They ought to be viewed as concentrated vitamins to stimulate the body to solve musical problems that would otherwise take longer to address in a musically complicated sonata or concerto. So, etudes must be played like concerti: very musically. As should scales, by the way. I don’t believe that these areas should be separated: scales and etudes from concerti and concert pieces. They’re all supposed to be a part of music.

K. I remember being tremendously impressed by how musically you could play an arpeggio.

L. I appreciate what you say very much, but I must tell you that I believe it’s supposed to be no surprise because any music, as I have said before, is based on scales and arpeggios. That’s why I wrote my book of scales, The School of Agility. I believe strongly, highly, that the skeleton of music is scales and arpeggios. So, therefore, if you play, let’s say [sings opening of Scherzo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony] or you play the end of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth, that’s very musical, but it’s also just an arpeggio. So therefore I believe that anything one plays is supposed to be very musical. It’s a question of how you could use scales and arpeggios musically: in the right rhythm, in the right tempo, and—especially—with a specific quality of sound. In order to achieve that, you have to get the left and right hands to interact together, which is what makes it sound good. So that’s why we use study material, whether scales, or arpeggios, or etudes. And then you’re ready to play pieces—concerti or whatever. Or even orchestral music, which is the most difficult in our repertoire, I would say, for the bass players. I’m talking about if you play it ideally well. If you play absolutely whatever it says in the music. Let’s say Ein Heldenleben, which we will play [here at the Aspen Music Festival] two hours from now. There’s passages in there that are unbelievable. I don’t see any solo repertoire having these things. Or Brahms’ music, or Mahler’s. It’s—oh my goodness, it’s just comprehensive, it has whatever you could name.

K. Are there particular etudes you like to use?

L. You know, it used to be we’d play a lot of etudes from Simandl, and others, like Storch-Hrabe. Now, I appreciate these guys very much. They were fantastic enthusiasts in their days, working to bring the bass to a higher level than it was before. And then we see beautiful etudes, like Nanny’s “Twenty-four Etudes of Virtuosity,” etc. Medinš and others did lots of works of this sort. But for some reason, the ones I have found most profitable and beneficial are Kreutzer, Kayser, and—Dotzauer, actually: excellent etudes, from cellists’ repertoire. They’re beautiful etudes. And they develop a lot of things: different type of strokes, and shifts, vibrato. Very musical. All of Kreutzer’s etudes are also very musical—like concerti, you know. Kayser: fantastic things—Kayser number thirty, especially. I recommend it very strongly, even to violinists, to develop stamina, left hand positions—fingers [sings]. Those triplets, you know. Zimmermann’s bowing technique book: I have that, but I use a variety of fingerings and bowings. I think that book could be improved, especially as far as fingerings are concerned. Because in music everything is determined by [what Zimmermann leaves out]: what the rhythm is, and such things as arpeggios, which are especially beneficial practiced in triplets. The book’s okay, but if we could supplement it by using fingerings in accord with the way music was written, then we would become much more agile. Which was my main goal in my own book, actually.

K. Yes, I’m happy to use a page of two of the Zimmermann with somebody, but after that, they get it, and they’re ready for something that’s more musical.

L. The most important thing, Andy, is to look at how the music was written, and then to use all your skills to find a fingering that will fit the music properly. Some people are only familiar with using the fingerboard in one way, and that obviously limits us musically, because the bass is a four-stringed instrument. Sometimes it’s musically necessary to use as much as possible notes “over there,” high up on lower strings, where they’re closer to higher pitched notes. On the other hand, with some music in a slow tempo, or with very lyric phrases, it’s not necessary to play in the same position. There it’s even better to include some audible shifts, slides: there, this is typical musical expression.

K. Are there any etudes you think should be used more than they are?

L. There’s a lot of things that come to mind offhand. Those three—Kreutzer, Keyser, and Dotzauer—I use and I feel they are very very important, but I’m sure that you could find some useful stuff in other books, as well. Even the Storch-Hrabe and Simandl etudes. In fact, Simandl’s etude in E-flat major (from the Zehn Grössere Etuden in his Method, Volume 2), that’s fantastic. It’s just like a concerto. And those etudes we actually have in the Juilliard School undergrad curriculum: it’s required to play one of those (not necessarily this one in particular), as is mentioned in our catalog. Several etudes from the second book of Simandl are fantastic. Though I think it is necessary to edit the fingering, because of the way he played in those days: today we could do a little bit better.

K. Is there anything that you use that you think of as being pedagogically equivalent to an etude?

L. I hesitate to call it equivalent to an etude, but, yes, I also use orchestral music, excerpts, of differing style and difficulty. I believe that after a person is all ready, physically, musically, and technically, it would be a good idea to practice, for example, all the arpeggios from the third movement of Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony, and also great, of course, to study all the Strauss Tone Poems: Ein Heldenleben and Don Juan of course, and Also Sprach Zarathustra, Death and Transfiguration, even Til. And it works fantastically, in the same technical approach, because it’s based musically on scales and arpeggios and technically on being prepared to use the bass in different ways.  Saying, “Oh, my bass does not sound good in third position on A string or E string, it’s much better in half position on D string or G”  — look at how far away from the [physical and musical] goal you are. So also I believe that, once people play scales and arpeggios, and then etudes, and feel comfortable with that, it seems to become second nature, and a person plays correctly right away—eyes look at the music and hand goes right away to that place where it’s supposed to be. If they make a mistake, they will analyze and check and maybe find a different way. But obviously this is a better vision. At least, that would be the ideal situation, pedagogically, when you have a lot of time with students, to develop people’s playing. However, the reality depends on the situation. Take Juilliard: excerpts, for the bass department, are in the curriculum. Of course, we have to use common sense in choosing what to work on. But no matter whether students are ready or not, we cannot totally restrict them from this: we have to work on excerpts. It not like, let’s say, a violinist, who starts at the age of five or so. So violinists, by the time they go to college, are fantastically developed technically and musically, because they played so many etudes and so forth. It’s different, of course: they have material available such as student concerti which develops them fantastically—like, let’s say, Spohr violin concerti. Though even there, we could make more use of what we have, such as the Simandl Concerto (that I also reedited). I believe it would be a great thing to learn it. And now I am preparing a new edition of a concerto by Haydn, the cello concerto completed by David Popper, which also will help develop skills fantastically.  Again, it’s based on scales and arpeggios, which are learned as the result of those etudes which one practice.

<discussion of forthcoming edition>

Yes, the Ries und Erler edition was for the cello, from which part I (and you) used to play. But I reedited this a lot. And so fingerings are different, bowings are different, even some mistakes in the piano part are corrected. So there are a lot of changes since you played it. I went through it very thoroughly. So I hope when you see it, you will be very happy.

<discussion of Mr. Levinson’s forthcoming CDs>

K. Are there any other kinds of etudes that you’d like to see composed?

L. I believe that there’s always room to bring something new. But I’m not sure if any etudes need to be done and/or could be composed in a different way, except perhaps bringing a more modern situation, you know—modern style. But generally speaking, the whole idea of etudes is to make sure that the student just practices one thing—to solidify one thing in that etude, and so to solidify musicianship: so that the technique could be used eventually to play other stuff artistically. That’s my point.

Reprinted with permission from American String Teacher, Vol. 57, No. 2, © 2007 by American String Teachers Association.

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