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Bass: Interview and demonstration with principal Alexander Hanna

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 5" by Ludwig van Beethoven) - The bass is a very interesting instrument because basses vary so very much. They vary a lot. We're very different from, say, the violin, viola and cello. A lot of people think that we're just a bigger version of the cello, which is wrong. We're not. Our instrument actually comes from a different family. We have evolved more from the gamba family. And so often, not with this instrument, but often with many basses, you'll see basses with very sloped shoulders. This particular instrument is more of the violin family. It has more violin corners and a more rounder violin shape. The instrument in my hands right now has so many different names. Bass, string bass, double bass, contrabass, upright bass, bass fiddle. And the reason that is, is because the bass is used in so many different kinds of musical genres. Bluegrass, rock, Baroque music, classical music, jazz, obviously. I mean, you name it and there's often a string bass involved. I call my instrument a double bass because in the earlier classical music and the baroque music, we were often just doubling the bass line, and the bass line was just the bass line of the composer. It was often played by the cellos, and often the bass was added to get a much greater depth to the sound. So, we're added to double the bass, hence the title of the instrument, double bass. ("Symphony No. 5" by Ludwig van Beethoven) It's tuned in fourths. The violin, viola and cello are all tuned in fifths. And the reason our instrument is tuned in fourths is because the intervals are so great. For example, for me to go from one note to the next (double bass music) it requires a full hand position just to play three notes. Now, on the cello, you could play many more notes with each one of your different fingers. So, we tune in fourths to just make it easier on ourselves. It's tuned G, D, A, E. And you might notice I just closed this little lever here, and this kinda brings me back to what I was talking about earlier when I mentioned it's called the double bass. Well, this device up here is called an extension, and when I'm doubling the line of the cello, the cellist, since he's tuned in fifths, has a low C string. So, we've added this device to take us from what is normally our lowest string, which would be an E natural, and take it down. (double bass music) To a C natural. So, we can play all the notes that the cello can play. ("Symphony No. 5" by Ludwig van Beethoven) This is a French bass, made by Francois Barzoni. I've owned it for almost three years now. It was made around 1890. It's a magnificent instrument. Often, the basses that are the most coveted are the English-made basses and the Italian basses. French basses are also very good, but they tend to have a very bright, and sometimes nasal sound to them. So, this bass is one exception, though. It has a wonderful, big, broad, boomy sound, while maintaining that French kind of projection and brightness. And it ends up being a very good instrument for the leader of a bass section because you can have a very strong, direct sound when you play the instrument. The bow is often just as important, or more important than the actual instrument you have. I would much rather have a fantastic bow and a sub-par bass than a fantastic bass and a sub-par bow. 'Cause this is where all the (double bass music) heart and soul of the sound comes from is everything you do with your right hand. So, it's very important, and I'm really, really lucky to have this bow. I'd been waiting for about four years for a wonderful bowmaker in Woodstock, New York, named Sue Lipkins to make me this bow. I don't think she ever got to hear this bass, but I spent hours on the phone talking to her about my bass, the way I play. And so, this bow is custom made for me, and it's absolutely wonderful. ("Symphony No. 4 in F Minor" by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) On the bass, there's a few different ways to hold the bow. This is the French style that violinists, violists and cellists use, and most bass players use this style, as well, and it's called French or overhand style. It's nice because when you hold the bow overhand like this, you have much more of a natural legato sound, or it's much easier to get a legato sound because you're hovering over the string. The other style of holding the bow for bassists is the German style. German-style bow, they're a little bit different. They have a broader frog, but it's held like this. (double bass music) And the nice thing about holding the bow that way is because you can get a much more natural weight into the string. For example, when you drop your arm, it falls like this. It doesn't fall like this. So, to play the French bow, you really have to be very mindful of your posture, because you have to make sure you get all of that natural weight into the string without compromising the sound. ("Symphony No. 5" by Dmitryi Shostakovich) I got involved with the bass when I was about 13 years old. The bass is not the very first instrument I played. I started piano lessons when I was four years old, growing up in Bowling Green, Ohio. I came from a musical family. My sister played piano, and my brother also played piano, and some other instruments, and so I had many different musical instrument. I played the piano, but I also played the cello, guitar, I sang in a band, all sorts of stuff. But I was attracted to the bass because I fell in love with the sound of the symphony orchestra, and the bass in the symphony orchestra is awesome. It's a huge role, it sounds great, and I just really fell in love with it, and so I decided I wanted to start playing the bass when I was 13, and I started taking lessons with Scott Haigh, who's a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. I decided I wanted to be in a symphony orchestra, which is a huge undertaking. There are very few really great symphony orchestras in the world, so obviously, the spots are very limited because there's only eight, or maybe even nine bass players per orchestra. So, thankfully, I had very supportive parents who allowed me to do this, even though it's a kind of risky career path. But I think they could see that I really loved it, and I was willing to practice and work really, really hard, and take those risks to pursue this art. So, my parents bought a car that was big enough to transport this instrument and myself, and drove me to all kinds of lessons. By the time I graduated high school, it was time to audition for music schools, which are very competitive to get into the very best music schools. So, I was fortunately accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I got to study at Curtis for four years, and during that time, my passion for the symphony orchestra just grew and grew. Around my third or fourth year at Curtis, I started taking auditions, and I learned very quickly that auditions are very, very difficult. Hundreds of great musicians show up for one spot. It's extremely competitive. You have about 10 minutes to prove yourself and play all sorts of different pieces from the orchestral repertoire. I was fortunate enough, my senior year, I won an audition for the principal position of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. So, two months after I graduated, I was already playing probably one of the greatest jobs in the world, and I feel very fortunate to have gotten that job. I stayed in Detroit and played there for four years, and about two or three months ago, I joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as its principal bass. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) To those who are interested in pursuing the double bass as an instrument, I would say just start listening to music that features the bass. It would be hard to find any music that doesn't feature the bass somehow. I would listen to Beethoven symphonies and Brahms symphonies, but also jazz and bluegrass. Any kind of music that involves the instrument. A fun way to kind of just kinda kick the tires on the bass is to play bass guitar. Get to know it a little bit. Bass guitars are much more affordable than the upright bass. Hopefully, talk to your band director or orchestra director and start playing in school, if your school has a music program. I would encourage all young students who have a little bit of interest in music to pursue it because it's a wonderful, wonderful universal language that I think everyone should know. I think being able to read music is such a wonderful gift to be able to sit down at the piano and pick out a tune, or sing a song. I think it's an essential part of life, so I would say just go for it, and don't be afraid of singing out a tune. Just sing. ("Symphony No. 9 in E Minor" by Antonin Dvorak)