The Makings of a Principle

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Aaron Blouin, Apr 18, 2005.

  1. Being new to the Upright Bass, I started playing with a community orchestra to get my slab hands in shape. When I got to my first rehearsal, I asked the other two bass players whom was the principle. Since there was never more than two bassists at any one time, one was never considered to be a principle, and their playing showed it. The section was very disjointed and disorganized, lots of missed downbeats etc.

    So I want to step up to the plate and do a little leadership, but I want to know what makes a good principle. I don't even know the responsibilities of the position. I can play the part better than the others but its more than just being the best musician of the section right?
  2. BGreaney

    BGreaney Guest

    Mar 7, 2005
    from my experience, you want to know whatever it is that you're playing in and out. know what you're playing and know what everyone else is playing and what your part means in relation to other parts (shouold it be brought out, quiet...). not missing any entrances would also be a plus...
  3. KSB - Ken Smith

    KSB - Ken Smith Banned Commercial User

    Mar 1, 2002
    Perkasie, PA USA
    Owner: Ken Smith Basses, Ltd.
    The Principal must lead the section in many ways. In my case I do the Bowings where needed. I split parts upper and lower where needed or Pizz/Arco. The Principal plays all the Solos. The principal stands out when the section is 'Soli' as well. I usually play above the section Volume wise and try to cut thru the Orchestra. The Principal Bass should also instruct when necessary. Ties, slurs, fingerings etc.

    If you do not have the experience to lead then just do your best. The Conductor may or may not appoint a Principal.

    Recently at a dress rehearsal in the second Orchestra I play in, the other 2 Bassists commented that my Sub Notes on my 'C' Extension was overwhelming and drowned them out a little..."Too Bad".. I am supposed to.. They are 'two' playing the upper and I am 'one' playing the Lower. I have a Better Bass as well.. Not My fault I was a Pro for 20 years and they have never been... I got pissed... The next night at the concert, I left all 3 of my Basses home (Gilkes, Martini and Morelli w/'C'Ext.) and borrowed my 14 year old sons Bass which was my 7/8 Shen. It's a great Bass but not compared to my old Master Basses. They looked suprised when they saw I left my Bass home and I took the 3rd Stand and not the 1st. I told them I will play under them to make them happy. I also mentioned that it's up to the conductor to tell me if I am too loud or too Low in register and not them... They felt bad for making the comments they did but they needed to know by demonstration how I felt about the lack of professional experience behind their statments...

    In a Community Orchestra you just do your best and not try to make them look bad if you're better.. That's hard sometimes but life isn't always fair, is it?
  4. Thanks for the tips. Even if it is just a community orchestra, I want to make the section as cohesive as possible. Seems I'm gonna need a louder bass though...
  5. Friends, the most commendable thing any principal can do is to have the attitude that you always have something more to learn and are open to learning. Orchestral etiquette is a centuries old concept which deserves more attention in all levels of orchestra, best learnt from great teacher to pupil.
    Maybe consider rotating the section and make it a group learning experience. Have fun, enjoy the music as much as you can - that's the point, right?
  6. This is coming from someone with limited orchestral experience, but it seems to me that if you want to take charge, just do. If you play confidentaly and have the music totally down then in a less formal environment like a community orchestra others will follow you. Last year I was playing in my school symphony and even though I didn't have as much experience as the others in terms of reading or classical technique they still seemed to follow me or ask me questions about the pieces (which I usually couldn't answer but they kept doing it), simply because I knew the music (from practicing alot) fairly well and played confidently.
  7. littlekatie


    Jul 14, 2004
    London, UK
    coming from someone with a lot of experience....

    at the main orchestra i play in, last years auditions had a big clear out, leaving just two players (myself and one other) from the previous year auditioning for places for the current year. I at the time was studying grade 8 repertoire, and the other person was studying grade 6, and had only gained a place in the orchestra half way through the previous year, my second year. however, the section coach taught this girl and not me, and as a result she became the principal bassist. The orchestra in question is a full symphony orchestra and as i could see that not many people would audition, i recruited a couple of people that i know/have taught previously that were of about grade 7 standard, but the moment she started leading the section things went rapidly downhill. she considers herself very much superior to the rank and files, and she will not allow us to use our own instruments, we have to use the budget instruments provided by the orchestra for those who do not have their own basses. she consistently uses inappropriate language to refer to our playing when in fact it is her making the errors. in sectionals she frequently puts us down. we have gone from 5 basses at the beginning of the year to three (the other two just got sick of her unprofessional attitude and left) and the other two, myself and a former pupil of mine, are very close to not auditioning again this year.

    just a word of warning, if you want to be principal, make sure that you do not belittle or in any other was discourage the rank and file is no use leading a section if they really dont want to follow you. i understand that some leadership is required, but not to the point of patronising and otherwise making orchestra an unpleasant experience or make the post of principle something that people will no longer aspire to. it is far more important to lead by example - just to do an ordinary job extroadinarily well.
  8. LowEndLady


    Apr 25, 2005
    Another thought about principle - I feel like it's really up to he/she to figure out bowings and fingerings that generally work for the section. All too often, especially in a less experienced bass section (which tends to be many since there are so few players to begin with), the lack of consistency in approaching the music can really make the group sound disjointed - and you need to be tight on the low end. So I would suggest that you really start getting comfortable with your own playing and how you tend to approach a given piece of music. Listening helps too - gives you a sense of how others divide up their bow strokes to make a measure work, decide on fingerings to save energy for a long run, etc. It's almost like the principle is just trying to think a couple steps ahead and ask the right questions - but not dominate the group.
    Sounds like you've got initiative, which is half the journey. Good luck!
  9. B. Johnson

    B. Johnson

    Apr 28, 2005
    I, sir, frankly hope I never have to play in a section with you. Principle is not about complete rule, but rather, it's more about gentle guiding. You seem to rule in a totalitarian manner.
  10. My friend, B. Johnson, are you referring to me in your post? I love playing with all of my bass player friends and would never want to offend.
  11. JimmyM

    JimmyM Supporting Member

    Apr 11, 2005
    Apopka, FL
    Endorsing: Ampeg Amps, EMG Pickups
    I thought he was referring to Ken Smith. Listen, my experience in orchestral playing is limited to playing trumpet in my high school band, but in any musical situation, the leader is the leader is the leader. It's OK to have ideas about things, and a good leader will listen to the people under him, but in the end, the leader makes the decisions and the others need to either follow or get out of the way. The section musicians defer to their principle, and the principle defers to the conductor. In an orchestra, chaos will ensue if it goes any other way.

    Do I think Ken got his nose out of joint over something relatively minor? Sure. I think he could have handled it just by saying, "I'm the principle...I'm supposed to be louder than you," and left it at that. But it's not my section, and I know from years of seeing Ken's great work with electric basses that he takes what he does very seriously and has very high standards. But he was making a point, and a very valid point. He is the principle and the rest of the section needs to respect that and not try to poop on his leadership. I'm sure he respected it when he was part of the section. Besides, who knows? Maybe these other bassists are constant trouble...

  12. B. Johnson

    B. Johnson

    Apr 28, 2005
    I was infact was refering to Kens comment. I too have sat principle and I think that a principle has many responsibilities, but one of those responsibilities is to convey an amount of respect to other players.
  13. Pete G

    Pete G

    Dec 31, 2001
    Northern Virginia
    Those are words of wisdom, and not just in the context of an orchestra. How often in the business world have you seen insecure people in supervisory positions who feel the only measure of their effectiveness as "boss" is how unhappy they can make subordinates?
  14. Tbeers


    Mar 27, 2005
    Chicago, IL
    The main role of the principal bassist is to create consistency. Bowings, fingerings, splitting upper/lower parts, and occasionally dynamics. Make sure that to an audience member, every player looks (and sounds) like he is making the exact same movements.

    In addition, the principal bassist usually plays any solos in the music (though there aren't that many).

    In no way is the principal player some sort of superior being, or overlord, or even teacher. He (or she) is merely the person who makes sure that the basses play as a section, not as a bunch of individuals each doing their own thing.

    Ken -- I tend to disagree on the matter of the principal bassist playing louder than the others. A conductor once told me, "If you can hear yourself over the rest of your section, you're playing too loud." In fact, as I've said, the main duty of the principal is to create as much evenness and consistency among the basses as possible.
  15. KSB - Ken Smith

    KSB - Ken Smith Banned Commercial User

    Mar 1, 2002
    Perkasie, PA USA
    Owner: Ken Smith Basses, Ltd.
    Ok, let me shed some MORE light on this inncident. The other two Bassists are also Principals in other orchestras. I am not the Appointed Principal in this Orchestra but often Play first because I am the best player as far as the complete Bass goes. One guy has played Bass in another Orch. for over 40 years but still has trouble playing above the 6th position, crossing strings and playing in tune. The other player plays so soft, you cant tell he is even playing. My Sons have also played in the orchestra when we had 5 Basses so I played 2nd or 3rd so that I could be with them and help if needed. Other than that, I play first and give gentle direction.

    In my Main Orchestra, North Penn Symphony which is more of a Regional Orch. rather than a Community Orch. I am the Appointed Principal and Bass Soloist when written.

    Last week at our first Pops Concert Reh. with the Asst. Cond. we did a tune from Porgy n Bess and there is a Jazz Piano solo.. With the Piano, Jazz drums and Cymbal, it felt naked without the Walking Bass. So.. In B-minor, I did a walking line instead of 'tacit' and went to C-minor next chorus....The Tuba player said.. "Hey, that's not in there!".... I told him it was needed.. I E-mailed the Condustor the next day and his reply to me was "sure -- Ken -- go ahead." .... I have a fairly extensive Big Band Background as well from my NY days.

    A friend on mine, retired from a major Symphony told me that the Principal Bass has to play above the others and above the Violins as well. In the case of me being louder, it is because my Bass is louder and I only use Professional quality Basses where they don't. I will not play down to an amatuer level like someone who is afraid to be heard playing out of tune or wrong notes. I play the volume needed to support the Orchestra. The Other Basses have to play UP to me but NOT over me.

    Many rehearsals go on without me saying a word of instruction at all.. No news is good news. On occassion, something is pointed out that I might miss.. Thats' fine as well..

    In 99% of the Jobs I played in my 20 years, I was the ONLY Bass. I KNOW what it is to support the entire Orchestra/Band.

    Now, B.Jhonson, your comment came after the LowEndLady and LittleKatie.. Days after my comments.. Who are you talking to??

    Katie?.. I am curious.. How old are you.. You seem to have alot of experience for a Teen...

    LowEndLady, can you fill out your profile?.. thx
  16. B. Johnson

    B. Johnson

    Apr 28, 2005
    I was in fact talking to you Ken. It may have been a poor first impression, but you came off very cocky and it seemed you were somewhat of an overbearing principal.
  17. KSB - Ken Smith

    KSB - Ken Smith Banned Commercial User

    Mar 1, 2002
    Perkasie, PA USA
    Owner: Ken Smith Basses, Ltd.
    B. Johnson, I hope you read the update I just posted. That should help fill in the blanks. I wonder how many professional Bassists will post their experiences here on TB?..

    In the Amatuer ranks, Pros may have a have time in their retirement years. Imagine playing along side amatuer players that have played in an Orchestra for 25-40 years and still can't play a one octave scale in tune let alone a two octave scale.

    If you fill out your profile, I would know more about who and where you are. There is no reason to hide from anyone out here. Most of us lay our cards on the table. Maybe if you are in the area, you can come and play in one of the Orchestras with me and form an 'Actual' Opinion from experience rather than from comments...Try it.. It's free.
  18. B. Johnson

    B. Johnson

    Apr 28, 2005
    My appologies for not filling out my profile sooner. Unfortunatly I am not in the area so I will have the pleasure of playing with you anytime soon, but who knows, maybe in the future.
  19. KSB - Ken Smith

    KSB - Ken Smith Banned Commercial User

    Mar 1, 2002
    Perkasie, PA USA
    Owner: Ken Smith Basses, Ltd.
    Thanks B. Your are about 1 year older than my eldest son. Now that helps knowing when answering and responding.

    Sounds like you have a nice Bass. Send the Pics to John of CSC and he can post them in the Talkbasses section.

    BTW, Brucken-Hammig according to Henley died in 1875. Your Bass dated 1876 is a Mystery. There are also 11 other Hammigs in the Henley book so it's possibel one of them carried on with the firm.
  20. Pete G

    Pete G

    Dec 31, 2001
    Northern Virginia
    Ken, what is the Henley reference work you mentioned? I don't know about it, though I have the Elgar, Rosengard, and Chris Brown books.