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orchestra Embracing the Forgotten Section

Or: If the Bass Ain’t in Tune, Ain’t Nobody in Tune Carrie Gray, WMEA State Chair, Orchestra

I am blessed to have a solid bass sec- tion in my school: seven alert and en- gaged young people sprinkled through- out three orchestras. Over the years, the numbers and ability/ experience levels

vary, but it is always the case that each section of the orchestra has its own chem- istry and personality, and the bass section always needs extra TLC.

Wait a minute – the bass section doesn’t need extra TLC, it needs the same TLC as any other section. I catch myself ne- glecting (sometimes ignoring) them. I examine my actions and inactions. Am I burying my head in the sand? Am I not addressing rehearsal letter G because I feel inadequate? Am I waiting for a better time to help them with measures 72-78 because the violins and violas need my attention right now?

I asked our three freshmen bassists what suggestions they would have for teach- ers about dealing with the bass section, and they willingly and enthusiastically supplied me with ideas to share. Here are their main points:

We need to be able to count. Most conductors focus on the upper strings, especially in the cueing department, so help us to be rhythmically literate right from the start.

We’re too far away. That doesn’t mean we need to move up front. After all, we can see you better than anyone else in the room, but hang around our section once in a while. Look over our shoulders and help us while we are playing. Besides it will


make the other kids listen to each other better.

We are NOT just cello adjuncts. If you want to rehearse ONLY the cellos at letter C, ask for them. If you want basses too, don’t assume we can read your mind.

We would benefit from peer tutoring, on both sides of the aisle. We would love to go to the middle school and help the young ones, just as we would like to be helped by the seniors.

Teach us to tune with harmonics and let us tune by ourselves without the rest of the room screeching their high E’s. And when we are playing a piece, remember that our pitches are very difficult to hear. Help us –and the whole orchestras all learn to listen and discern the low frequencies. Then we can ALL be in tune.

Give us a jazz piece once in a while. The parts are easy to count and fun to play.

Don’t wait until high school to give us songs with difficult parts. We play on beats one and three though elementary and middle school and then we see “real” music in high school and totally freak.

And we WANT those difficult parts. We don’t want to be just functional, but musical too! We can be soloists, too.

We shift before any other instrument in the orchestra. We should be playing bass parts in the orchestra that follow up on that shifting, and not just third position! Fourth position is amazing and second

makes life so much easier. Make us use them.

Keep your expectations for us high, at least as high as you have for the rest of the orchestra. The minute you look at us and say “it will be fine… we’ll fix it later,” we will shut down. If you don’t care, we don’t care.

Remember that we have a different kind of bond between us. We rely on each other and listen to each other more than the other sections. This has helped us stick together – the few, the proud, the bass section.

Since a small percentage of us strings teachers are bass specialists, and because the bass pedagogy is not as standardized as it is for the other instruments, I’d like to suggest that we all reflect on our practices with regard to the bass section. My mantra out of respect for these kids is now: if I can’t play it (or at least put fingerings in) how can I expect my students to be able to? If I am looking over their shoulders and cannot in my mind visualize the finger- ings I would advise, I need to spend time with the piece or get outside help before handing it out.

Sometimes these folks are compared to percussionists or low brass members of a wind ensemble, but at least the jokes have the same punch lines (a trombonist/bassist and a kangaroo walk into a bar…padum ching!). Just because they are distinctive individuals, don’t assume they don’t need or want your attention and a good measure of specific pedagogy. They deserve it!

Carrie Gray teaches elementary and high school orchestra in Appleton. Email:

January 2012

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