Saturday September 19, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Chameleon Double Bass Double Bass as Solo Instrument? Tunings Playing Techniques I Playing Techniques II New Dutch School - Heavy Bow - Strings - Elements of Technique  · Playing Sitting Down  · Four-Finger Technique  · The Thumb Position - Practising in Flow - Methods / Tutors - Opinions - FAQs

Four-Finger Technique

Domenico Dragonetti is the first who can be shown to have used all four stopping fingers together with the thumb in all positions. Francesco Caffi, who was a contemporary observer of this playing technique, wrote in 1846: "His hand has such long, fat, supple fingers that all five, even the bent thumb, can glide over the great fingerboard to create the notes. After all, this hand was so industriously exercised during the years of his youth that the great softness and flexibility of the nerves enables the fingers to accustom themselves to run with safety, and to jump, and to be victorious over the difficulty of the steps required. This explanation is necessary in order to know why Dragonetti was unique, why he was described as the "Paganini de’ contrabbassi" and how he could play the parts of the violin. It is clear that anyone who can make use of every single finger at any time to create a note with a firm speech and quality, even on the enormous fingerboard of the violone, has all the same means at his disposal as the violinist on his narrow fingerboard. He can also play the violinist´s part on the violone, just as Dragonetti did, to world-wide astonishment, and did not restrict himself, as all other double bass players do, to playing one note with little expenditure of effort with the index finger, and another with the other three fingers together." (Caffi is referring here to the so called "fisticuffs" stopping.)

Certainly the fisticuffs stopping is no longer used by ambitious double bass players, but nevertheless this does resemble the Simandl system to the extent that there, too, the mobility of the individual fingers is restricted. This restriction is, however – in spite of better knowledge – raised to the dignity of a basic requirement, and often described as "economy of movement". Almost every double bass player has at some time learnt not to lift the fingers more than is absolutely necessary. For this reason, it is difficult to imagine today how it could be possible to master the usage of all four fingers of the left hand when playing the double bass. It is in fact assumed that each finger must be able at any time to reach the neighbouring note of the position adopted. This turns up again and again in discussions in which reference is made in connection with the four-finger technique to the "enormous hands" or to an "enormous stretching of the fingers" said to be necessary for this. Of course neither Simandl nor Caffi, who had also spoken of Dragonetti´s "mano mostro" (monstrous hand), was aware of the physiological contexts and the discoveries of sports medicine which have been won in recent times.

For this reason, someone who intends to take up the four-finger system must first give up the "position span". Because of course it is impossible, at least in the lower positions, to place all four stopping fingers at semitone intervals at the same time. The approach with the four-finger technique, however, is completely different from this:

1. each finger takes up the optimal position at each time

2. the fingers that are not stopping should always be as relaxed as possible

3. the intonation is controlled by the idea of the note in the mind, and the "orders" sent to the fingers are based on this, and not by a fixed position span

4. a prerequisite for this is the greatest possible flexibility of the fingers including the thumb, and of all the joints involved ("fluent mobility")

5. the thumb plays a special role because it serves as a pivot around which wide reaches of the fingers are possible without changing position ("pivoting").

When these basic techniques have been mastered, the four-finger method of playing becomes possible without restriction, even for players who have small hands, The advantages of the system can be easily enumerated:
  • contrary to a widely held assumption, it is easier to obtain clean harmonic intonation
  • the sound is improved, because each playing finger has more contact with the fingerboard
  • significantly fewer changes of position are necessary, because more notes are available in each position
  • changes of position are themselves simplified, because the fingers, and not the hand or the arm, move towards the required note, and because a "position span" is completely unnecessary.
  • there are real musical alternatives in the choice of the fingering (previously it was not unusual to have to resort to the only "workable" fingering)
  •  the musical demands of the phrasing can be met to a very high degree
  • double stops such as seconds and sixths that are not playable with the Simandl technique become possible.
  • the whole experience of playing is much freer.
I am convinced that the four-finger technique is the system of the future for playing the double bass (in combination with the "Nouvelle Technique"), and that in the long term, the Simandl method of playing will disappear. This tendency is already perceptible. Particularly in the USA, the technique is taught more and more, at the least in coexistence with the traditional system (for example at the American School of Double Bass, at Illinois State University, and at Valdosta State University). In Germany, the American Michael Wolf has been teaching the method for many years at the Berlin University of the Arts.)

Irrespective of this, double bass players who choose to retain the three-finger technique can benefit from the more recent physiological understanding, because this benefits any approach to fingering.