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

6. Left hand technique

Perhaps the most extreme contrast between Franke's and Müller's methods lies in their ideas about left hand technique and fingerings. Franke advocates the equal use of all four fingers, while Müller outlines a 3-finger system, which most double bassists today would recognize as standard fundamental technique. When evaluating their arguments, it is important to view these two methods within the context of the development of both the double bass and its playing technique. Methods dating from before Müller and Franke's discussion outline a variety of fingerings. Some employ all four fingers (e.g. Corrette and Miné, though unlike Franke, their methods suggest using either the second or third finger in different situations, instead of using these fingers for consecutive semitones in one position); while others exclude a finger in the lower positions (e.g. Hause and later Simandl, who outline strict 1-2-4 fingerings, and Bonifazio Asioli, who established the Italian 1-3-4 system); and still others use only first and fourth fingers (e.g. Fröhlich, and Giovanni Bottesini at times).xl This last 2-finger, or fisticuff, fingering system was a necessity for playing on thick strings that were strung quite high over the fingerboard; however, as instruments and strings developed, the practice was abandoned early in the nineteenth century.xli

Franke claims that nothing is more natural than being able to reach all the notes between the open strings in one position, and that this yields the most reliable results for executing passagework.xlii Using all four fingers also allows the player to play more notes with fewer shifts, which Franke points out is advantageous even according to Müller's own rules.xliii Franke also implies that 3-finger technique is a byproduct of lower standards, which violinists and cellists would never accept; he asks, "What would you say if a violinist or a cellist would regress to this idea, try to declare a finger disabled and explain that a fingering derived from this is correct and useful?"xliv Franke uses an excerpt from the storm scene of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony to demonstrate the advantages of his fingering system. He provides two fingerings for the excerpt, each of which allows the entire passage to be performed without shifting (see figure 1).

Müller ardently disapproves of Franke's fingering system. He even goes so far as to say that the fingering rules that Franke outlines in his method prove that he does not have an "ex fundamento " understanding of the character of the double bass.xlv Müller argues that one can see by looking at the hand that it is only suited to reach two semitones, and that it is only possible to reach three semitones within one position by stretching out the hand and fingers in an unnatural way that weakens the hand. He goes on to say that the third finger is not an independent finger and should therefore only be used in conjunction with another finger. This finger is more useful when it supports the fourth finger, which is naturally weaker than the second.xlvi As an exception, Müller prescribes the use of the third finger in two situations: when playing whole-tone trills, for which he says using the whole hand would be too cumbersome; and to play the notes that lie one octave above each open string because the fourth finger is too short to reach them.xlvii

Figure 1. Franke's fingering options for Beethoven, Symphony no. 6, movt. 4, mm. 41 - 43.xlviii

Figure 1

While Müller does not include the excerpt from the Sixth Symphony discussed above in his collection of articles on playing Beethoven's symphonies, his most likely choice of fingering can be extrapolated from the rules and examples he presents in his articles (see figure 2). If one uses the conventional 3-finger system advocated by Müller, it is not possible to play more than three or four consecutive notes without shifting, and sometimes only one note lies between two shifts. Whether this fingering or Franke's expends less energy is largely a matter of personal preference, and depends on various factors. Someone with a relatively broad hand or long fingers might be able to execute Franke's fingerings with little trouble, while someone with a smaller hand might prefer shifting over stretching to reach notes. Moreover, training will have an impact on preference as well. Those who have learned the modern technique known as pivoting to expand their reach within a single position, and who use all four fingers independently, would prefer Franke's fingering; while players who never use the third finger in the lower positions would likely struggle to suddenly incorporate it in this passage. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to adhere to one method just because it is the most familiar. Double bassists who practice both systems, as well as other non-conventional fingerings, have the advantage of being able to choose whichever fingering is most useful in any given situation.

Figure 2. Fingering Müller would likely choose for Beethoven, Symphony no. 6, movt. 4, mm. 41 - 43. Shifts are indicated by a slash ( / ).xlix

Figure 2

Though Müller's fingering system more closely reflects standard modern technique, he provides the rather questionable justification that double bassists have already learned how to execute all the difficult passages they might come across with the 3-finger method.l Unfortunately for Müller, this argument contradicts his earlier complaint that double bass training is like old sourdough that is made into loaf after loaf of the same bread, instead of developing and progressing. Franke also criticizes Müller's reasoning and maintains that using the third finger does not reduce clarity in fast passages.li There is no way to definitively prove that one method or the other is more 'correct' for every bass, player, and situation. Whether dealing with the twenty-first, nineteenth, or any other century, double basses come in a variety of sizes, with diverse set-ups; and players have different hand sizes, as well as varying levels of agility, flexibility, strength, and coordination: factors which lead them to prefer different fingering systems.

Another dispute regarding left hand technique has to do with how the fingers contact the string. Franke writes that double bassists should not play on their fingertips as violinists do, but should instead extend the first segment of the finger and place it firmly on the string so that it cannot escape and gives a pure and melodious sound. Franke also indicates that the first segment of the thumb should be applied to the neck as a counter pressure, more or less across from the position of the middle finger.lii

Müller disagrees and bluntly states that Franke's method is wrong, and that the strings should be depressed with the meatiest part of the finger, which is something in between playing on the very tips, as violinists do, and laying the finger across the string as Franke suggests. He also rejects Franke's prescribed placement of the left thumb, stating that the first joint of the thumb should be placed on the right side of the neck.liii

Franke responds that his and Müller's suggested hand positions are essentially the same because the difference in the position of the thumb and fingers is hardly more than the width of a hair.liv It is indeed possible that Franke's and Müller's finger placements are in fact almost identical, and that the two simply interpret the terminology differently, specifically with regard to what it means to 'lay' the finger across the string. Their opinions on the matter of thumb placement differ more clearly. Müller's method of placing the first knuckle of the thumb on the right side of the neck puts the neck more deeply into the hand than Franke's method of placing only the tip of the thumb behind the neck.

From these descriptions alone, since diagrams or illustrations are absent in both sources, it seems that Franke's hand position reflects what most modern bassists would consider proper technique. However, his statement that the thumb applies a counter pressure goes against the currently prevailing rule that in order to prevent injury, the thumb should be relaxed and the strings should be depressed by the weight of the player's hand and arm — and not by pressing the fingers down, holding the instrument with the thumb, or using any significant muscular force.