The three-week case of writer's block finally left, so I decided to write about some practice methods. Enjoy!
I recently made a recording of the ubiquitous Scherzo and Trio from Beethoven 5 and it reminded the value of not neglecting the "easy" sections. Like every bassist, I have spent a lot of time on the string crossings in the Scherzo and the bow strokes for the Trio, working those passages with a metronome ad nauseam, but I have never thoughtfully practiced this section:
Admittedly, there is nothing here that is outwardly challenging. Quarter note octave G's are easy, right?
Apparently not, because when I listened back to my recording, I realized that I was compressing time during the six tied measures to make the low G on beat 2 beat 1. Since I had never practiced this section on its own, I decided to take a few days to work it up to the same level of consistency as the rest of the excerpt.
What's So Hard About This Part?
In this movement, up until measure 183, the cellos and basses rarely go more than a measure without playing a downbeat (excluding rests). I think this is where the difficulty lies, especially when you are playing by yourself. With the tie between beats 3 and 1 obscuring the downbeat, the low G on beat 2 starts feeling like a natural place to restart each measure.
This shift would surely be minimized in performance as the rest of the orchestra plays something on beat 1. The timpani is the most notable voice as it plays a G on all the downbeats the cellos and basses don't play.
How Did I Practice It?
I have written before about finding practice methods that make me accountable for my own time, so that was my guiding philosophy as I worked on this section. I know from experience that when I am under pressure, I lose track of time before anything else and if I turned the beat around in the safety of my practice room, I would likely do worse in an audition.
Here's how I approached it:
I like to think of this movement in a big two- each measure is one beat of a larger two-beat measure. Starting on the low C, that measure would be beat 1, the following measure beat 2, beat 1, beat 2, etc. This makes the trio easier to count and in turn, feel less frantic. Thinking about the movement this way also gives you more flexibility in how you work with the metronome, too.
Since I was already thinking in 2, I decided to take things a step further and use some metric modulation to imagine the excerpt in 6/8. This step is optional, but I think it makes the excerpt easier to practice in 2. And because all this practice was done from memory away from the bass, I didn't have to worry about reading music, anyways.
With that settled, I had to figure out what to practice first. I decided to start with the measure that transitions to the tied over downbeats (measure 181 beginning on F). The transition is derived from a hemiola, so I practiced tapping this rhythm:
After that, I moved on to internalizing beats 2 and 3. I did this by setting a metronome in 6/8 and tapping on the two offbeats after each click.
I then started practicing the entire passage, first with a metronome on the big beats, then on off beats, beats 1 and 3, etc. Once I was able to tap and count with the metronome clicking at least once per beat, I moved on to having one click per 2 bars, 4 bars, and then random beats. Here are some screenshots from the apps I used- TonalEnergy Tuner and TimeGuru.
I repeated this process at different tempos and once I was satisfied with my progress, I did the whole thing again with my bass. It was arguably an excessive amount of work for a simple passage, but this is how I approach all aspects of bass playing. The technical and musical consistency that comes from this kind of work is well worth the effort, even with the easy parts.
Since I only scratched the surface of available practice methods in this article, I encourage people to experiment and develop new tools that work for them. If you have any thoughts or suggestions in regards to what I wrote, please let me know in the comments or send me an email. Don't forget to subscribe to my email list so you can stay updated on future posts too!
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