Melbourne Symphony Orchestra held auditions for two tutti bass jobs in 2006. The audition pack included the excerpts and administrative requirements, all that a player might expect, but also a list of evaluation criteria. And top of the list was....yes, rhythm. This might be a surprise to some, but not to the majority in the profession.


Inner metronome Nature or nuture? Many of my colleagues disagree with me on this issue, but I feel that to a considerable degree you have good rhythm or you dont. You are born with it, or not. Sure, a sense of rhythm can be improved but a large portion of rhythmic focus is God given.

I have students who can handle the pitch aural tests for graded exams but struggle with the rhythm exercises, and vice versa.

And it is the same in the profession - there are some very successful players who excel in many attributes but are weak in terms of rhythm.

I use a metronome a lot when practicing, BUT it is crucial not become reliant on one, as in the audition, it aint there with you! Just before a performance or audition I record myself on video first with the metronome then without it. I use it when practicing to highlight the rhythmic issues I need to address, examples of which are below

  Multi tasking Music is multi-faceted - there is so much going on:-

you - pitch, sound, dynamics, tempo, rhythmic detail, getting the notes, bowing, articulation...

those around you - matching sound, fitting in rhythmically, dynamics, bowings etc

At times there is just too much to think about, and something has to give, and often it is rhythmic accuracy. This must be eradicated from pieces being prepared for auditions.

One good example is rhythm vs dynamics - it is a common tendancy for players to rush through a crescendo and drag in an diminuendo. All audition panels know this and will be looking for it. The March  from Britten's Frank Bridge Variations is a good example - it is a tricky rhythmic passage at a quick tempo that covers the whole dynamic range. Players need to avoid getting slower at the end as the music fades and dont rush thro to the louder passages.

Maybe the problem of multi-tasking will be reduced as there are more female bass players nowadays!

Specific rhythmic "issues" Dotted vs triplets A very common problem is the distinction between dotted notes and triplets. Lazy players will make them sound the same, ie the semi quaver in a dotted quaver-semi quaver pattern sound earlier and longer than they should and more like a triplet quaver. There are many example of music with this potential trap in the repertoire, including the March  from Britten's Frank Bridge Variations. It is important to differentiate the two, ie play the semi quaver not too early and space out the triplets - they should sound very different.

  Rushing and dragging Why is it that when we have fast passages we tend to rush them and make them even more difficult?! This is a very common problem and arguably the most common cause of a player failing to get through to the next round of an audition.

In the notorious passages in the last movement of Mozart40  the player could be forgiven for focussing solely on the notes, as they are so difficult. But keeping in time is crucial in ALL music, especially auditions. I have a tendancy to drag bar 49 (probably due to the technical difficulty created by the slurs at such a fast tempo) and to rush 50 as it is easier to play.

I find that practicing with a metronome and recording yourself, both with and without the metronome is a great way to work our ones rythmic weaknesses, to be corrected by marking the part and lots of practice.
  Anticipating (or playing in time, whether or not you need to anticipate to do so) Conductors often have set phrases - two of the more common ones are:-
timps - harder sticks
basses - you are late

Is this myth or truth? Possibly a bit of both, and it depends on a lot of factors. Basses may tend towards being late for a many of reasons, a few of which are listed below:-

1 the nature of the bass sound - its low and less direct that higher pitched instruments

2 we sit a long way back from the conductor and even if we play with this stick it may sound late when it reaches others in the hall. Christopher Seaman once told me a story about he he auditions a principal bass - in the latter rounds he puts the candidate on thier stool, in the normal position in the hall, and he conducts orchestral excerpts accompanied by two pianos and the bass player, to see if the bass player will follow him and play in time from that position in the hall. He believes a principal bass player who is late is a major issue, as there are times when he needs to push the tempo and the bass is the part to do it, only if the principal is capable of doing so.

3 RH technique - Knut Guettler makes a very good point in his book Advanced Double Bass Technique, that one reason for basses being late is due to a soft attack to arco notes, resulting in a pear-shaped note where the main body of the sound appears after the start of the note

4 type of principal bass - some are "back seat drivers" who proactively influence the overall rhythm and tempo, others are follows to place it with the group. A lot depends on the music also, but there is one orchestra in Australia with front desk players who fall into both these groups - the tutti players need to play very differently depending on who is principal that night.

5 the hall - Sydney Opera House is a wonderful building to look at, inside and out, but it can be very diffuclt to work in. The concert hall is narrow but tall and the sound tends to take a while to get from one side of the hall to the other. If we played with what we heard from the fiddles we would probably be late. Sometimes we have to anticipate, ie play ahead of what sounds "right" to our ears.

6 the country or orchestra style - most of my professional work has been in the UK and Australia. The Auzzies play much closer to the stick then the poms. My first pro gig was with the Halle, playing Bruckner 6 - is was a petrified 18 years old and I clearly remember the advice of my teacher at the time, Diana Wanklyn, who was also principal bass with the Halle - the pizz's in the slow movement need to be late, after the stick. Wait until the last possible moment, then wait a bit more, then play!! I have spoken to many Auzzie musicians working in the UK and this is a common theme - the poms play late, especially in slow tempi

7 the conductor - it is my experience that in general the more the orchestra trusts and respects a conductor, the closer to the stick they play. Christopher Seaman talks of the orchestra being on an elastic band when coaching trainee conductors, they dont come immediately, but keep conducting and they will catch up as the elastic tensions.

8 the style of music - there is more scope for rhythmic freedom in slow music that fast Stravinsky, for example.

Conclusion - we need to take all these issues into account, and probably more before deciding where to put a note. If you are a tutti player put it where the principal puts it. If you are a principal player, this is what you are paid to do, make this judgement. And good luck!
syncopations/off beats I am married to a viola player and have told my fair share of viola jokes over the years, many of which revolve around Strauss Waltzes and the chugging off beats. Well, my comeupance came in Brittens Frank Bridge Variations - there is a horrible moment in where everyone stops playing except the two bassists, the 2nd plays on the beat in 12/8 and the 1st players the off beats, ie quavers 2, 3, 5, 6 etc, at a fast tempo. I couldnt do it - and had to "cheat" player all the quavers.

Moral of the story - we dont do off beats and syncopations very often, and as a result we can be rubbish at it.

Another example is in the middle of the first movement of Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique - the passages where we play with the celli in 4/4 on quavers 3, 4, 7 and 8. Its OK for a bar or two but it goes on forever and can easily "wobble"!

Syncopations and off beats can be banana skins for bass players - look out for them and practice with a metronome.





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