Volume 14, January 2022
Musculoskeletal symptoms of double bassists: a literature synthesis

by Frances Levenderis and Bridget Rennie-Salonen

5. Literature and resources on double bass pedagogy

There is a wealth of knowledge about the double bass that is found outside the realm of academia. Pedagogical knowledge about the physiological aspects of playing the double bass is contained in books written by prominent and active double bass teachers and performers. More recently, online resources such as websites, YouTube channels, podcasts, and events organised by the International Society for Bassists have added to this bank of information. This section will review some of the literature that discusses the physiological aspects of double bass playing, providing insight into the MSS of double bass players, and the possible risk factors for these health problems.

In 'Double Bass: The Ultimate Challenge', Jeff Bradetich refers to double bass playing as an 'athletic event' (Bradetich, 2009). Numerous authors concur that musicians are like athletes in that optimal performance requires both physical and mental fitness (Dick et al., 2013; Green & Gallwey, 1986; Kenny & Ackermann, 2009; Rennie-Salonen & de Villiers, 2016; Stanhope, 2016; Tambroni, 2014). Bradetich highlights the uniqueness of the double bass in that it requires more stamina than others, meaning that double bassists cannot practice for as long as other instrumentalists. Furthermore, advanced techniques such as vibrato and thumb position require special consideration, due to the additional strength needed in the left hand to vibrate the string for vibrato Tambroni (2014) and the potential discomfort of thumb position (Bradetich, 2009).

Dr Randall Kertz's 2011 book, titled 'The Bassist's Guide to Injury Management, Prevention and Better Health', offers comprehensive information on the musculoskeletal symptoms experienced by both double bassists and bass guitarists. He describes the most common injuries and conditions that double bassists' experience including tendonitis, nerve impingement, muscle tightness, carpal and other tunnel syndromes, tennis elbow, thoracic outlet syndrome, and trigger finger amongst others (Kertz, 2011). The areas most prone to injury include the neck, back, shoulder, and arm, which is in line with Bradetich's suggestion that strength development in the shoulders, forearms, and fingers is important. However, whilst exercise and physical conditioning are beneficial, Bradetich (2009) cautions that injury from overuse is common, both from playing too much or exercising too much or improperly.

Bradetich (2009) mentions that physical characteristics such as smaller or weaker hands can be a disadvantage and that being slighter instead of heavier in build makes it more difficult to produce a fuller sound. Bass setup can be adapted depending on the height, size, and proportions of the player, such as the size of the bass, the string length (or fingerboard length), the width of the 'shoulders' of the bass, and a bent or straight endpin. Therefore, the size and proportions of the double bass that the player uses should be matched with the physical characteristics of the player (Bradetich, 2009).

Bradetich (2009) provides valuable and thorough recommendations for an optimal double bass playing position: the right arm should be kept closer to the body, as it is stronger in this position and therefore the instrument must be held more upright; sitting is often preferred, as standing without weight equally distributed can lead to balance problems and long-term injuries; both feet should be placed on the ground when sitting, which can prevent torsion of the spine and reduce lower back pain; utilising the larger muscles of the back instead of the smaller muscles of the right forearm and hand when drawing the bow; curving the fingers of the left hand in order to maximise efficiency of strength for 'hammering' the notes; using the 'fleshy' part of the thumb and not the knuckle when playing in thumb position, as this can cause injury to the ligaments in the knuckle.

Strength, flexibility, and coordination when playing the double bass are important. Developing these skills includes exercise both at and away from the bass for strength, stretches for flexibility, and technical exercises on the bass for coordination (Bradetich, 2009). Other methods for reducing the possibility of injury include: stretching before and/or after playing (Bruser, 1997; Kertz, 2011; Paull & Harrison, 1997); limiting practice time (Kertz, 2011); practicing awareness of movement quality (Green & Gallwey, 1986); and exercising frequently (Conable & Conable, 2000; Kertz, 2011). Conable and Conable (2000) mention that double bassists need to learn correct body and muscle use to sustain longer practice sessions.

It is clear that multiple factors are involved in double bassists' performance health. Double bass setup must be considered along with posture, technique, playing position and physical condition, as all of these aspects contribute collectively to the potential occurrence of MSS (Benfield & Dean, 1973; Bradetich, 2009; Conable & Conable, 2000; Kertz, 2011; Woldendorp et al., 2016).