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  • Ariane Todes

Life in Teaching: Thomas Martin


Double bassist Thomas Martin studied with Roger Scott in Philadelphia and can trace a teaching pedigree that goes back to Bottesini. In a career that has combined both orchestral playing in the world’s top orchestras and teaching, he has taught at Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Royal College of Music, and is currently senior professor at Birmingham Conservatoire. In this interview, first published in the European String Teachers Association magazine Arco in Autumn 2016, he told me about his teaching philosophies

A student’s ability to improve is directly proportional to their ability to self-criticise. You’re not always going to be there to help them. They’ve got to learn to understand their problems and to help themselves.

My lessons are four-pronged: in each one we cover technique, etudes, orchestral passages and solo pieces. No one uses etudes any more; they work on one solo piece a term. I don’t do that – etudes are very important. You’re learning one or two new pieces a week and rising to the various technical challenges they throw forth. I use the Billè books, Storch’s 57 Studies, Simandl’s Gradus ad Parnassum, Mengoli, Montanari, Rossi and Caimmi. They’re all very good and I like to travel through them. There has to be an orchestral passage every week, because the bass is the foundation of the orchestra.

We make up little studies as we go along, to get over problems. It’s easy to do, but first the student has to know what the problem is. For example, if they’re going from one note to another and they get stuck, they must think, ‘How do I get unstuck? I’ve got to loosen and take weight off, and then think about going to the next note.’ We’ll make up a little exercise, maybe using a scale pattern.

Intonation comes from inside us, from our own ears. We have to develop that. When practising intervals, I would think: ‘Where am I; what is the next note; where do I think it is; what am I expecting to hear?’ If you play and then you listen, you’re too late.

The best way to work on intonation is through singing. The student will play a note and sing the next note, so they now know what they’re looking for, and they’re developing an ear.

There are a number of ways you can adjust intonation. If you’re extremely close you can just move your finger. There’s also finger tread. If you put your finger straight down, into the string, the note will go sharp; if you bring your finger up the note will go flat. You can get almost a semitone out of finger tread.

Many musicians over-press and with all the shifting we do, that can slow us down. I use as much downward weight as I need to produce a note. I don’t over-press. As a demonstration, I often play a harmonic and just push down until a clear note arrives. Once the note comes out you don’t have to push down much harder.

Students have to learn to use the bow as an expressive tool. We use portato to make expression – playing every note, whether it’s slurred or not. Many people don’t begin to understand or use portato.

Apart from portato, building a phrase is about crescendo and diminuendo, and vibrato. Some fiddlers use a uni-vibrato to make a phrase but that’s not the best way. It’s better to be able to change the speed. In lessons we practise making crescendo and diminuendo, and building intensity of vibrato along with that.

There are basically two vibratos on the bass. One is like turning a light bulb. The other is like Bruce Lee: moving your forearm up and down, without moving your wrist – the forearm moves downwards and upwards parallel to the string. You can practise this vibrato on top of a piano or by sliding up and down the string, stopping your finger.

There are two types of imagination to develop with students: musical and technical. Technical imagination is all about thinking of how to finger things. Bassists used to play everything up and down one string, but now with set-up and metal strings we can cover all the strings, and the technical possibilities are huge. So I’m going to think, ‘Can I think of at least three different fingerings for the passage?’ Or, ‘I’m on the open string – can I move anywhere without anyone knowing?’ And we only used to use the thumb for octaves, but now we use it all over the place.

We also have to cultivate musical imagination. What do players want to achieve? What phrasing do they want? In my lessons we will try one way, and then another, and another, finding at least three ways of phrasing the same thing. Then you begin to develop musical imagination. You’ve got a completely open mind and the ability to change phrasing in a split second. If you’re in a chamber music group or orchestral situation and someone plays a phrase, or a conductor gestures in a certain way, you can change to that phrasing instantly. You should be able to respond to that.

I tell students, ‘Never play the same thing twice.’ Many pieces have the same phrase four times. You have to put your musical thinking cap on to find a way around this. Let’s say I’ve got a phrase of four even notes. I can phrase one and three, two and two (which is not interesting) or three and one. With eight notes there are even more possibilities to think about phrasing. This makes students think.

Too many teachers give students their music to photocopy, with all their fingerings and bowings. That is dead. It means you can have a talented student who can pass an audition but they don’t know how to play. They can’t think. I see players like this in masterclasses. They can only do what their teacher told them to do. I ask for at least three fingerings for every passage. That makes the student think, and opens their mind.

There’s often confusion between what we conceive and what we achieve. You can think you’re playing a phrase one way and it comes out differently. Students can use a recording apparatus to check whether what comes out is what they’re intending.

Look in a mirror to find out what you’re actually doing. I had a student from one of the London orchestras recently, who had never looked in the mirror. When I pointed out what he should be doing, he saw it in the mirror immediately and was able to fix it in a week. This comes back to the idea of self-criticism. We have to examine ourselves to see what we could improve, and then fix it.

You have to know your students well. Teaching is about finding a way in. Get to know the person – how they think, their temperament, their personality – so you can find a way through, together. You have to be very careful. You’re teaching them self-criticism, but with the right attitude. You don’t want them to tear themselves to shreds. You have to be very constructive. You want them to say, ‘How can I be better?’, rather than, ‘What’s wrong with me?’

Constructing the bow arm – taking it apart and putting it back together – is the best thing you can do for a student. They have to develop a feel for the string. Many misunderstand and press too much, which causes all sorts of problems for both hands, both musically and technically. You can get a bigger sound in other ways, by grabbing and pulling out with the right hand, for example, rather than grabbing and pushing in. All pressing does is choke the instrument.

The first problem is how to make the string vibrate freely in two directions using a bow that only goes in one direction. The solution is to use relaxed weight, and to get the weight line right, running from the middle of the back to the string. That’s the first lesson. All string schools are similar in that you use the big muscles of your back and shoulders to supply the power for the bow and left hand. There are other problems. For example, all the weight is in the heel of the bow. How do I spread this weight evenly? When I’m at the tip the weight is still in my hand, so we talk about simple leverage, which is the science of moving weight. Then we find out what each finger can do.

It’s hard to imagine how big the bass fingerboard is. I see a lot of sluggish shifting, because people put too much pressure on their left hand, so it’s hard to move. I often use a train as an analogy. When you’re in the station you keep the brakes on, but you take them off while you move to the next station.

I use the image of an airplane landing when showing students how to shift. If you land on the front of the airplane you crash. If you land on the back or the middle of the airplane you have a nice landing. That gives us some clues about which fingerings work better in shifting. If I’m shifting upwards I’ll tend to use the first or second finger. Coming back I’ll shift on the fourth.

I’ve only ever taught one beginner. I told his mother, ‘He’s got to do it my way: we’re not going to learn half an instrument, we’re going to do it all now.’ So we learnt the whole bass, which is the way I was taught. Students often use books that go up to the fifth above open string, and struggle for three years until they’re allowed to go higher. How silly! We learnt the whole thing, and he’s now principal bass in a major opera house.

Orchestral and solo techniques are not necessarily the same. The bass is so big that if you’re in a section with seven other basses you become a composite instrument the size of a wall. This has its own particular problems, mostly with notes gobbling themselves up and the sound swimming around. Bass players have to play in a clean and clear way in an orchestra, sometimes stopping the resonance, both with the bow and the left hand, to make passages clear as a group.

A student came to me who was about to go for an audition. He got out a metronome, and I said, ‘Put that away. Rhythm comes from you.’ Rhythm is the most physical of all the aspects of bass playing. You’ve got to feel rhythm.

I’m trying to give students a well-rounded education and the tools they need to go out and get a job. My kids get jobs because I show them what works, and I teach them orchestral music. You can’t believe the number of students who can play their solo works, because they’ve been working on them for four years, but you give them a Beethoven symphony and they can’t deal with it.

Institutions have increasingly been lining their pockets. They’ve been over-producing graduates. We’ve got a shrinking arts market being served by an ever-increasing number of musicians. We’re over-producing. Conservatoires often take kids who aren’t good enough and you think, ‘How are they going to survive?’

Some teachers feel they have to have a gimmick or a new take. I don’t take that approach. If I have a motto, it’s to KEEP IT SIMPLE. A lot of the work I do when students come in is about uncomplicating things. Playing the bass is not rocket science. If it were, I couldn’t do it. Aged 76 I’m still running all over the place. I’ve got no playing hang-ups and it’s because I’ve found an uncomplicated, simple way to play. For example, I can explain bowing in three words: grab and pull.

There are lots of little basses and little bass players these days, which has happened over the last 30 years. It’s a revolution. Kids are starting to practise and learn the bass much earlier. The standard of double bass playing is going up like a rocket. I’m from a generation that mostly viewed the double bass as an orchestral instrument. The principal bass of an orchestra occasionally had to play a concerto and people would go along and laugh. Then Gary Karr came along and started playing as a soloist and that made us think. He was doing things that had seemed impossible, but that we now think of as first-year college standard.

Double bass soloism has emerged. One reason is the steel string. When I grew up we had gut strings and not everyone could play the bass or sound good. They were tricky to play. Now, you’re unusual if you play on gut strings. However, it’s good to play on gut strings sometimes, because it brings you back to the reality of what you can and can’t do on a bass. I have a bass set up with gut strings.

I never tire of teaching. The greatest thing you can do in your life is to help a young musician.

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