By Richard Johnston
“I don’t want to say I’m on a crusade for the bass,” says Barry Green. “l’m more on a crusade as a musician, saying something everybody wants to hear. The bass just happens to be my voice.” If Green, a virtuoso soloist and world renowned educator,is not the Knight Templar
of acoustic, he may be the conquering Hannibal. After all, he did once take the stage astride an elephant.
“When I was teaching at the University of Cincinnati, every year I would do a concert with a different theme,” Barry recounts. “I had a crazy, avant-garde period when I came out of the ceiling in a space suit with my bass; people are still talking about that. I also did a series with music on animals that included having an elephant onstage. I figured if the opera could fill the house doing that with A•da, why couldn’t I? We did a wonderfully successful program with the zoo, and I was able to come out on the elephant, dressed as a bass.”
The 51-year-old brings that same fervor and imagination to the many projects he’s always dreaming up. A former Principal of the Cincinnati Symphony and one- time director of the International Society of Bassists, Green left full time orchestra work and moved back to his native California in 1995. He’s currently spreading the bass gospel through his Northern California Bass Club and his Bass Bashes, which draw such players as John Patitucci, Ray Brown, Michael Manring, and Green’s mentor, Francois Rabbath. He’s also working with area schools to get more young students interested in bass, and he continues presenting workshops based on his acclaimed book,The Inner Game of Music [Doubleday]. On top of that, he’s doing solo concerts and concertos in the United States and Europe, and he has released a CD of classic and jazz-inspired works called Ole-Cool [Piper Productions, 112 La Verne Ave., Mill Valley, CA 94941; fax (415) 389-0132].
It may not be easy being Green, but beyond his passion for bass and teaching, Barry confesses selflessness isn’t his only reason for constantly hatching ideas for camps, conventions, and concerts: “I do it for the value to the students and the intrinsic enjoyment. At the same time, though, I do it for myself, to learn, to grow, and to be influenced by all these wonderful people.” Consider class in session.
Warm-ups.“If you’re going to warm up physically, warm up with something you know extremely well; that way, if anything is not exactly as you love it or understand it, you immediately see what needs adjustment. Don’t warm up on something you could be casual about, or something that doesn’t require high standards.
“There’s also the mental side: the importance of clearing your mind and bringing the music into your consciousness. It lets you play the music inside yourself from the start, when you play the first note, you’re there. This kind of warm-up occurs without the instrument. It’s a mindset, like a game face.”
Practice. “You should think of practice as rehearsing, instead of practicing just to get something right. You don’t want to practice mistakes. You have to have a vision of what the music sounds like before you play it, and that means you must study it before you practice. If you’ve spent your practice time reinforcing what you know, your chances of accessing the good stuff under the pressure of performance are dramatically higher.”
Half-size bassists. “This is the first year I have worked extensively with beginners and young bass players, and I’ve learned it’s really good not to say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it.’ Who says we have to stick kids into half and first position, where it’s so hard to play and they have so many problems? I begin kids in the middle and higher positions; everything fits so well on the upper part of the instrument. The idea isn’t mine, but it comes from the same place, asking, ‘Why not?”‘
Can-do attitude. “Kids have a natural tendency to play in a lazy way; they want to collapse their hands and just hang onto the neck. I’ve found if you imagine you’re holding a beer can, for kids I call it a Coke can, you’re in the perfect position.”
Put a cork in it. “Since you have to get more distance between the 1st and 2nd fingers, I have students either tape a cork or imagine a cork between their first two fingers to separate them and provide that sense of position. The image has been quite effective. All I have to do is say ‘cork,’ end their hands open up, and when their hands are in the right position, the notes are in tune.”
Now hear this. “I’ve heard teachers say they won’t let kids tune the instruments initially, they just want the rhythm and the fingers in the right place. There might be some support for that, but I don’t understand it. Intonation shouldn’t be taught just through position; kids should learn to use their ears to adjust the sound. Playing along with them helps a lot. It forces them to play music.”
Bow tip. “I came up with a new system that’s extremely effective for keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings. The big problem is the tip usually goes down_the bass is tilted toward you, but you keep the bow parallel to the floor, creating a bad angle. A simple way to fix that is to compare the end of the fingerboard with the top of the bow hair; if the bow’s wrong, there’s an angle. I worked for several years with Rabbath trying to get my bow straight, and this helped me immediately.”
Bass for the masses. “I have never really tried to appeal to bass players. If I give a bass recital only for bassists, I’ll have a very small audience; people will hear it once, and that will be it. So I couldn’t be performing in public unless the program allowed people to experience the music, not the bass player. I am not one of the world’s two or three great soloists; I see myself as an expressive artist who creates something for everybody.”