Volume 6, August 2015
Examination of mid-nineteenth century double bass playing based on A. Müller and F.C. Franke's debate in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1848 - 1851.

by Shanti Nachtergaele

5. Holding the double bass

Franke and Müller each provide instructions for holding the instrument. In his method, Franke describes two methods of standing with the instrument: one for larger players and one for smaller players. His recommended stance for larger people involves standing with the left foot behind the bass at the middle of the instrument, and the right foot a bit forward and turned slightly outward so that the leg makes contact with the edge of the lower bout of the instrument. In this position, Franke instructs the player to support his body weight on his left foot so that he can turn the instrument with his right knee to be able to reach all the strings. To play on the lower strings, the player should turn the bass forward a little and meanwhile lean the body slightly to the right. He warns however, that these movements should not be noticeable to the audience, and that a player's posture should always be upright and at ease. For smaller players, Franke offers a slight variation to this position; the bass should be turned more towards the player, the right foot should support his body weight, and the left foot should be placed behind the instrument in such a way that bending the knee forward slightly turns the instrument, thereby allowing access to all four strings.xxxv

Müller writes that in order to have the same ability as violinists and cellists to move the arms freely while playing, a player must hold the double bass with the inside of the left knee and the upper part of the right calf, with his right foot turned outward.xxxvi He further explains that one must have an endpin that is long enough to allow standing in this position, and also advises bass players to maintain a dignified posture since playing while standing makes them more visible to audiences.xxxvii In reference to Franke's method, Müller states outright that supporting the body on the right foot and leaning to the right to play the lower strings is wrong. According to Müller, a double bass player must always stand up straight and support his weight on his left foot, for if the player supports himself on his right foot, he will lose the freedom to move his right arm. He also advises smaller players to use smaller basses, or to choose another instrument entirely, rather than allowing them to hold the instrument in a different manner as Franke suggests.xxxviii

Neither Franke's nor Müller's suggested manner of holding the bass is popular among performers today. Aside from the fact that many modern double bassists choose to play while sitting, even those who stand would not promote supporting most of the body's weight on one leg, or suggest turning the bass with one's leg when moving from the higher to the lower strings and vice versa. However, some of these methods' principles have survived to the present day: Müller's assertion that one must not hold the double bass up with the left hand, and Franke's observation that how someone holds the double bass depends on the size of both the player and the instrument are still two of the most basic fundamentals of modern double bass technique.xxxix Other aspects of these standing positions may be more specifically applicable to historically informed performers. For instance, it is clear that both Müller and Franke held the bass in a fairly upright position, as their legs would otherwise not be close enough to the instrument to hold it in place and to turn it in order to access all four strings. In such a position, the bow exerts force horizontally across the strings more than down into the strings, a tendency that diminishes if the instrument is positioned at an angle. Historical cello and viola da gamba players also held their instruments fairly upright, a result of holding their instruments in place with their legs since they did not have endpins. The influence of this position on how the bow makes contact with the strings is part of the modern 'HIP' sound, which is commonly described as more open or resonant, but with less projection. Modern 'HIP' double bassists should therefore be cautious if they choose to sit or stand with the bass in a more angled position, and adapt their bowing accordingly.