By Bob Phillips
Do you ever find yourself wishing you had more bass students in your school’s orchestra? While there are many factors that play into overall student recruitment and retention, one precaution teachers can take to avoid a lack of bassists is proper care and maintenance for the instrument. Often, instrument maintenance falls to the bottom of the to-do list, and teachers who aren’t bass players themselves may not even be aware of its importance! First impressions are lasting, so introducing brand new students to a sleek, beautiful, well-kept bass will gain their attention much quicker than asking them to play a giant, beat up pile of wood and strings—simply put, it’s all about the presentation. Below are some tips on how to keep school basses in excellent condition, helping to attract and keep new students in your orchestra.
Proper Bass Setup & Upkeep
Proper setup of the school basses cannot be stressed enough! This starts with initial setup on a new instrument done by an instrument repair person who will work with bridge placement, string height, and sound post position to maximize the sound of the instrument. Even student-quality instruments can be made playable and provide good tone, if set up well. Look for a shop or repairman who understands bass setup.
Upkeep on the basses includes ensuring there are adjusters in the bridge so string height can be maintained as humidity changes with the seasons. In the summer, the bass will swell and the strings can be so high off the fingerboard that the student can barely get them down. In the winter, as the bass shrinks, the strings may end up hitting the fingerboard if not adjusted! Neither scenario bodes well for the young player—even young players know when they sound good and when they don’t! A continual struggle with a poorly setup instrument can lead to frustration, which can lead to unnecessary drop out.
One Bass Size Does Not Fit All
A bass should be of the proper size for the child to ensure their success. What most normally think of as a full-size bass is actually 3/4 size! Sizing is crucial—perhaps even more than for other string instruments—because the bass is so large. Asking a small child to play an instrument out of proportion to his or her size is only going to develop bad habits and make it much more difficult for the student to be successful. The amount of strength needed to push the string down is tough enough without making it more difficult! If the student cannot reach a whole step between 1st and 4th fingers, then the bass is too big. This method of sizing will work well whether the students play sitting or standing.
- Elementary students most often play ¼ and ½ size basses
- Middle School students most often play ½ and ¾ size basses
- High School students most often play ¾ size basses
Make sure the endpins work well so that students can properly adjust the height of the bass. One tried and true sizing method is to stand the bass vertically next to the child and adjust the endpin until the bridge hits between the student’s knuckle at the base of the hand and the first finger joint (See more on page 3 of Sound Innovation for String Orchestra, Book 1). If the endpin height is not correct, it will result in right-arm problems and poor tone. Providing stools so young players can sit some of the time is essential. They need to learn to play both ways, but they get tired from standing all the time, and once they are tired, the attention span doesn’t last long!
String & Bow Maintenance
Though budgets are tight, changing strings every decade or two probably won’t provide the best tone! It is recommended to change the strings on school instruments every 5 years. Make sure your students are using good rosin. The wider diameter of the string requires that the bow hair gets a good grip on the string for the best response. School bows will need to be re-haired every 2 years or sooner depending on use. Since the width of the string in proportion to the width of the hair is already high, a bow with little hair left only makes that proportion more out of whack. These time frames are all relative to your budget constraints, but it is important not to let it go too long—especially if the instruments are being played multiple hours each day.
Tips for Quality Control
We all take better care of something that’s in better condition compared to something that is beat up—think about how much more you wash a brand new car versus an old one!
Teach your students the best ways to handle their basses. Practice walking through doorways without bumping the bouts. One way is to go through the door backwards so, if the door slams, it doesn’t hit the bass. Also practice setting the bass on its side carefully. With the size of the instrument, chips in the varnish on the bouts are inevitable. Every few years, it’s best to have the finish touched up on the basses.
The good news is, the quality of student basses now available to purchase and rent is better than ever. This exciting development makes it easier to provide the same good, playable instruments as we do for the violins, violas, and cellos. If the school owns the basses, bass maintenance is something that needs to happen regularly. Keep in mind, if your students own their own basses, it is equally important to educate the parents.
We all know how much easier it is to play well on a good instrument. Setting up a well-maintained, cared-for, playable bass means setting up students for success.
Sound Innovations for String Orchestra is the most comprehensive method available—you can teach beginners through advanced ensembles with the same series. No matter what level of Sound Innovations you’re using in your classroom, all Sound Innovations books promote better understanding with solid pedagogy, and a clean and uncluttered page layout. The content is organized in levels to provide benchmarks and intermediate goals. Learn more on Sound Innovations at alfred.com/si.
Bob Phillips is well known in the music education community as a successful teacher, composer, teacher-trainer, and conductor. He is the Director of String Publications for Alfred Music and Past-President of the American String Teachers Association.