To form correct double bass hand position, the thumb should be placed on the back of the neck opposed from the 2nd finger. The hand forms a curved C shape, with the fingers perpendicular to the strings (see image above). Ask students to reach their arm out away from the instrument, pretend they are picking a grapefruit from a tree, then bend at the elbow and bring the hand to the instrument.
The thumb should not squeeze the neck or support the weight of the instrument. If the student is sitting, the arm weight can be leveraged to help the fingers press the strings to the fingerboard. If the student is standing, the bass should be balanced. If the instrument leans slightly forward it helps the fingers press down the strings and prevents the thumb from squeezing or supporting the weight of the instrument. Correct elbow placement and a balanced hand allows the fingers to push down the strings without the thumb. The left shoulder should be relaxed and the left elbow should float, with the arm in a “wing” like shape. The movie below provides a demonstration of correct left hand position.
DOUBLE BASS LEFT HAND POSITION
Common Left Arm and Hand Problems and Solutions
Collapsed Base Knuckle
The collapsed base knuckle (Image 4) is a common problem. Check to make sure the bass is balanced and students are not trying to support the weight of the instrument with the left hand. Frequently ask beginners to reach their arms out and form the C-shaped hand.
Students with a lot of tension may play with a raised shoulder (Image 5). Walk behind students and tap them on the shoulder to remind them to relax.
If students get fatigued they may develop a collapsed elbow, where the arm rests on the instrument (Image 6). The collapsed elbow will lead to other problems like an overly bent wrist, sloped fingers, incorrect thumb position. Give students plenty of opportunities to rest their left arms so they can maintain a correct arm position when playing. Make sure the endpin is not set too high.
If the student has an incorrect Thumb Placement it can cause problems with placement of the fingers. The so –called “hitchhikers thumb” (Image 7) is fairly common. Students thumbs come in many different lengths so there is no one correct placement, but the thumb needs to be placed in a way that allows the wrist to be straight, the fingers to be curved and over the fingerboard, and the hand to be balanced. When the thumb is wrapped completely around the neck (Image 8) it is almost always because the student is supporting the weight of the instrument with the thumb. Have the student balance the bass, reach out with the arm and form a C-shape with the left hand.
The movie below contains demonstrations of common problems and going from incorrect to correct left arm and hand position.
Strumming, Tapping and Plucking Games
Strumming, tapping and plucking games help strengthen the fingers of the left hand and develop correct hand position for the student.
Bassists can participate in the strumming, tapping and plucking games shown on the pages for Violin and Viola Left Hand Position and Cello Left Hand Position. These games help develop good hand position, strengthen the fingers, and keep tension out of the left hand and arm. When violinists, violists and cellists are plucking or strumming with 4th finger, bassists should use 3rd and 4th finger together.
Basic shifting movements
Basic shifting movements can be taught from the first days of instruction when establishing left hand position. The purpose of introducing the basic shifting movements early is to help foster freedom and flexibility in the left hand, and to develop a broad conceptual framework of the fingerboard. These shifting movements will also provide the foundation for developing vibrato. Bassists can participate in the shifting games shown on the pages for Violin and Viola Left Hand Position and Cello Left Hand Position. The movie below provides demonstrations of plucking, tapping, and ski jumps on the double bass.
Double Bass Finger Spacing and Hand Frame
Bassists have a special left hand position that differs slightly from the cello in that the first finger must extend backwards slightly (Image1) to provide correct finger spacing. If the 1st finger is not extended slightly the interval between 1st and 2nd finger will be less than a semitone (Image 2). When the third finger is removed from the fingerboard as shown in Image 3, the spacing between 1st and 2nd finger should be the same as the spacing between 2nd and 4th finger.
Bassists do not use their third finger alone until they reach higher positions because the distance between the pitches is too large. Instead, third and fourth finger work together.
A game to help students learn correct left hand position is the Bass Face:
1) Place the left thumb (gently) into the left ear.
2) Place the 2nd finger on the tip of the nose.
3) Place the 1st finger in between the eyebrows.
4) Place the 3rd finger above upper lip, just under the nose.
5) Place the 4th finger just under lower lip, above chin.
6) Take hand away from face without moving fingers and voila! A perfect bass players’ hand position.
All of the fingers work together. When the second finger is down on the string, so is the first. When fourth finger is down, ALL the fingers are down. This is a very important principle of left hand technique. Play a game with your students to develop this principle and develop their left hand technique. Start with all four fingers down on the same string. Starting with fourth finger lift off 4 and 3, then 2 and then 1. Teach student to keep their fingers curved, always above the fingerboard, barely lifting off the string, and always working together - these are the foundations that will lead to correct intonation - and the ability to play fast.
Another game you can play with bassists to help strengthen fingers and make them aware of their finger shape is called "finger lift-ups." Start with all four fingers down on the string. Starting with fourth finger, Lift off 4 and 3 and place back down on the string five times. Repeat with 2nd finger and first finger while keeping the other fingers down. Remind students to keep their finger shape consistent, always press down the string with the same part of the pad of their finger, and no collapsed joints. Movie 3.3 provides a demonstration of correct finger spacing, the bass face game, and finger lift-ups.