Left-hand technique of professional orchestra players

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by donotfret, Jul 22, 2018.

  1. donotfret


    Jun 11, 2018
    Forgive me if what I'm about to post sounds stupid or like a troll post to you. It's a genuine (potentially naive) question of a bass guitar player of many years who has just started taking double bass lessons.

    Yesterday I went to a "virtual orchestra" event, which consisted of a few video installations showing different sections of an orchestra at work and, separately, a 3-D film showing the orchestra at different stages from rehearsals to the concert.

    Obviously I spent a lot of time watching the double bass section. I expected to learn a lot, but to be honest I ended up being confused. The left-hand technique of these musicians looked inconsistent to me to say the least. I saw practically nothing of the kind of things I've been practising and that (in my opinion and that of my teacher) are making my playing more effortless. On the other hand I did see a lot of what reminded me of my technique before starting lessons, which was more or less bass guitar technique adapted to the upright bass.

    So what's up with this? Am I missing something big here?

    Looking forward to your replies, and thanks for your patience with a newbie.
  2. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    What orchestra?
    It would help if you provide a link so we can see what you are talking about.
    jallenbass likes this.
  3. donotfret


    Jun 11, 2018
    Hmm, seems that's easier said than done. It's the Philharmonia Orchestra London. I've just looked for videos. Most videos don't show any close-ups. There is one educational video on Youtube, which, as opposed to what I saw in the video installation yesterday, looks all good to me. I can link it anyway, but it's not at all showing what I was posting about.
  4. Neil Pye

    Neil Pye

    Apr 13, 2016
    Horsham, UK
    Can you describe what you were expecting to see that you didn't? Or didn't see that you were expecting to?
  5. Jazz Ad

    Jazz Ad Mi la ré sol

    This is a very vague topic, it's hard to comment on it withoput specifics. Simandl and its variants are an almost universal basis.
    Now when you play a part the idea is not to bother with technique but let your hands to the job while you do music. practice will bring you to that.
    As for your comment regarding bass guitar, I don't see much of it that can truly be used on an upright.
  6. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    Well, I know those guys pretty well and I can assure you that their left hands are very good.

    Here is their current principal while he was in college, his left hand is nothing short of spectacular:
  7. lurk

    lurk Supporting Member

    Dec 2, 2009
    I've seen this in top orchestras for decades. What you learn in school as perfect left hand shapes gets modified in the real world. Even so, the principles of balance and relaxed strength those perfect shapes teach are there even when you see "wrong" technique.
    donotfret likes this.
  8. donotfret


    Jun 11, 2018
    I can see that my post is to vague, but struggled to do any better. I guess the main thing I saw was raising the unused fingers without any obvious (to me) reason - no vibrato, not particular fast passages. That looks like bass guitar technique to me. This might actually be one concrete question - which other reasons would there be to do this?

    The other thing I saw were bent-through knuckles, admittedly much more extreme in the cello section than anything I saw in the bass section.

    I'll take your word on that, everything else would actually surprise me. It must be missing something, which is also an opportunity for me to learn.

    I guess this might be a big part of the explanation.
  9. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    Good sections tend to vibrate a lot less than you may think. As for raising unused fingers, I work with one player in particular who lifts and slams down each finger for almost everything and it gives him outstanding clarity and articulation.
  10. lurk

    lurk Supporting Member

    Dec 2, 2009
  11. Neil Pye

    Neil Pye

    Apr 13, 2016
    Horsham, UK
    I play bass guitar too, and I don't lift my fingers on that either, but if guys in the Philharmonic do, good for them. It really doesn't mean you should though.
    Seanto and Les Fret like this.
  12. wathaet


    May 27, 2007
    Coming from electric one bad habit I still have after decades is not lifting enough IMO.

    There are no videos of the player I mentioned, but his left hand looks a lot like Heifetz in this video. His left hand may be best described as deliberate and almost always with all weight on the given contact finger.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2018
  13. Les Fret

    Les Fret

    Sep 9, 2009
    Not sure who your teachers were but raising unused fingers is not (correct) bass guitar technique. Neither are other bad habits.
  14. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    These posts said what I was going to say: all weight on the contact finger means no weight on the fingers around the contact finger. It's like vibrato position, only vibrato is optional. Also hammering down on most notes ensures a good, clean, fast stop. In my case, the motion that makes it happen begins much further up the chain than the finger, but the principle is the same. These could be two benefits of "unconventional" technique in a section.
    csrund and wathaet like this.
  15. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    My two cents... I've watched many teachers not do what they tell me to do. I wondered about it too. IMO, part of it is necessity... the music requires such quick movements that even if the "proper fingering" were present, it would be so fast that it's undetectable. Next, I find that over the years, I can make a good stop with a single finger even near the nut because I've learned to leverage my arm weight more effectively. My issue is actually the opposite, I tend to squeeze more than I need to and thus tire my hand too quickly. Next, many of these players have learned more than one way to play in tune and do so regularly so until you've studied with them, you won't know their secrets;
    Simandyl is a great way for beginners... few great player's alive stopped there; so get some lessons.
  16. donotfret


    Jun 11, 2018
    Fair enough. The fact that a lot of players do it doesn't make it correct. I suppose on the bass guitar you just get by with these things a bit more easily. I never had proper bass guitar lessons, and this is probably one of the bad habits I could have avoided. The double bass lessons I'm taking are definitely having a positive impact on my bass guitar playing in that sense. I already notice I'm finding more economical ways of doing things.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2018
    Les Fret likes this.
  17. salcott

    salcott Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2007
    NYC, Inwood.
    Better to learn "by the book" and be able to disregard as necessary than vice versa.
    Bubbabass, donotfret and Les Fret like this.
  18. csrund

    csrund Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2011
    Bloomington, Ind.
    “Flyaway fingers” are viewed as a hindrance to speed, strength, articulation and intonation. Letting the unused fingers fly away from the board undermines economy of motion and creates clumsiness. It forces the left hand to work unnecessarily harder.

    Here’s an example of what I would characterize as flyaway fingers:


    This image was made during an allegro passage with 16th notes. The left hand is working way too hard because of the extra motion of the fingers. Just looking at that image, I can sense a weakness in the finger stopping the note, as well as added tension in the remaining fingers and hand. I've never seen a professional-level player with an egregious form like that. (Hours a day of playing like that would likely lead to injury.) I'm guessing what you observed in the video is likely what I'd describe as a “range of acceptable variance” in good technique.

    Does that seem to jibe with what you’re thinking?
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2018
    coldtrain, Don Kasper and donotfret like this.
  19. donotfret


    Jun 11, 2018
    This looks far more extreme than what I saw. It might well be one of the other explanations given above. If it didn't involve several hours of travelling, I would be keen on going to that thing again to have another look in the light of all the answers here. I might now see and understand more than I did then.

    Thanks to everybody who's replied so far, I'm learning a lot here.
  20. Bubbabass


    May 5, 2004
    Once you learn proper hand position, you can break the rules intelligently. For example, if I need to play 40 bars of oom-pa on the same chord, I will conserve energy with a ball bat grip, and let my left elbow drop. Someone earlier alluded to vibrato hand position, which could have flattened fingers for more contact with the string, rather than the Simandl claw which is better suited to technical passages.