Yorke Mini-Bass Project


Thirty years on

by Rodney Slatford

 

Way back in the autumn of 1983 I was invited to apply for the post of Head of School of Strings at the Royal Northern College of Music, where I had been teaching the double bass for three years with a class of some twelve or thirteen students.

 

The Head of School at the time, the late Eleanor Warren, was only the second person to hold the post, having taken over from the well-known viola player Cecil Aronowitz.  She had built the department into one of the best in Europe, with an enviable staff of international tutors.

 

Soon after, I was appointed as her successor and Dr Christopher Rowland was appointed as Director of Chamber Music to work with me and to take the string department into pastures new.  It was a new and exciting challenge.

 

In order to help me better understand the vagaries of the post, I sat in on some auditions with Eleanor, the first stages of which were then conducted by the Head of School and a specialist. 

 

The range of talent was staggering, with young violinists and cellists coming from the specialist music schools giving vivid accounts of concertos, sonatas and virtuoso showpieces that would not have been out of place in any international concert hall – at that age, however, seemingly polished players are by no means ready to survive the vital developmental years before launching on a serious career!

 

Then came the double basses.  Not only were there very few of them, some of whom had already been turned down by the London conservatoires (I was also teaching at the Royal College of Music at the time and had heard one or two already), but there were candidates who could barely stagger through a Grade 6 examination, let alone attempt a proper concerto. 

 

It was embarrassing.  I went home and shared my disappointment.  ‘Somebody has got to do something about it,’ I sighed.  ‘Well,’ came the response, ‘if you don’t, then nobody else will.’  I had co-incidentally been teaching at a course in the Midlands and found young players with no access to a stool perched on tables to play – one boy had broken his bow near the tip and his father had mended it with a length of lead piping.  Enough was enough - that was it.

 

My colleague David Dunn and I did some research.  We identified twelve teachers willing to come to Lyon to the sixth international Suzuki conference to see how we might begin teaching young children an instrument as large as the double bass.  I was convinced that until small equipment was available, young people would be unable to approach the bass until it was almost physically too late to lay down sound string-playing techniques.  (Most of the greatest bassists in the world had somehow procured a small instrument as children, on which they were able to learn from an early age.  Pocket-sized violins and bows had already been made to enable children to start to play from as young as three or four.  Surely, something similar could be done for the bass?) 

 

At Lyon we were able to pick the brains of Dr Suzuki himself (I gave him a bass lesson…), and we talked to specialist cello teachers who were just beginning to develop the concept of teaching children the cello using well-tried Suzuki concepts.

We spent hours talking about our experiences and working out a way forward.  After the conference David and I returned to England and wrote up our discussions, which we had painstakingly recorded, and knocked our findings into a semblance of order. 

 

We would try to source high quality small equipment; we aimed to train teachers in a new approach to beginning the double bass, and we intended to run courses throughout the country to disseminate our ideas.  This sounds simple enough in retrospect, but we had no money and preliminary enquiries about equipment had drawn an almost total blank.  Instruments would need to be commissioned, small bows designed, strings manufactured, stools and slip boards made, and virtually everything done from scratch.

 

I had been lucky enough to have had small grants from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to commission some new repertoire for my recital work.  They seemed the most natural people to approach about the Mini-Bass Project.  We were in luck.  Not only did they give us a grant towards the legal and administrative costs necessary to set up a charity, but they gave us money towards our first equipment.  In addition they commissioned a report that they would publish and that could be distributed internationally in support of our work.

 

There were already some ¼ sized solid pine instruments being distributed in Norway, though they were few and far between, and not entirely of an ideal shape.  We subsequently traced their manufacture to Romania.  We contacted the firm of Wilfer in Germany who supplied an excellent little plywood bass with a very good sound, that is still in use today.  A bass ordered from Hungary arrived with a bullet through its back!  Clearly the then Communist regime trusted nobody…  One delivered from Austria through the trade had only three strings, two of which were dangerously frayed, with the recommendation ‘It’s perfectly good enough for schools.’ 

 

A specially commissioned bow arrived that was a little longer than a standard bass bow, but no more sturdy than a cello bow – it was quite unusable.

 

Ripples in the instrument trade began to surface.  Although our initial enquiries had been met with a certain amount of derision, the fact that we had commissioned a dozen or more prototypes had been noticed.  The instruments were delivered to a freezing warehouse at Heathrow in the middle of winter minus various essential parts.  They were assembled by David Dunn and Caroline Emery.  (Caroline had taken up the cause with enthusiasm and dedication and became what we called ‘the lead teacher’ of our team.) 

Caroline and Rodney experiment with a small bass

 

By importing instruments from Romania direct, we had unwittingly entered an area that was considered the preserve of professional dealers, which we certainly had no intention of becoming.  Michael Doughty from Stentor Music Company visited us in Manchester to discuss our project and to offer his services.  He accepted our recommendations, we gave him our specifications, and before long he began to supply small equipment of the quality we required, and almost as soon as one shipment had been delivered he needed another

Roy Collins, a British bowmaker, understood that we needed a short and sturdy bow that was light enough to be used by a child, but that was also the right length to enable short young arms to reach all parts of the string whilst maintaining a good posture.  His bows were perfect, and he began making as many as he could.

 

Our ‘kits’, complete with soft cases, a block of rosin, a slip board and bow, were supplied to various education authorities who had undertaken to hold training courses, or who already had teachers who were keen to become involved with the scheme.  The Bottom Line that Stephen Pettitt and I had written for Gulbenkian, was circulated and well received. 

 

One day someone will write a more detailed history of the whole scheme, but it is encouraging to know that some of the (small) children who received one of the prototype basses at Manchester Bass Week in 1985 are, twenty five years later, enjoying successful careers as professional players.  There is now more repertoire suitable for children, from a wide variety of publishers, than was the case when we began.

 

Examining bodies that previously started their syllabuses from Grade 4, introduced early grades from Grade 1.  Specialist music schools, including the Menuhin School, began to offer double bass tuition where previously there was little or no teaching available.

 

More needs to be done, particularly at a time when funding for almost everything is being squeezed, but it is encouraging to see how things have changed for the better since we began.

 

Caroline Emery has taken up the batten and runs the Bass Club  which organizes courses with professional Double Bass tutors, for young Double Bass students aged 8 to 25 years in February and Christmas here at The Yorke Trust Centre, South Creake and a Summer School at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music.

Caroline Emery

Caroline is Course Director and Director of the Bass Club, Professor at the Royal College of Music and Yehudi Menuhin School, author of Bass is Best.  A Double Bassist and double bass teacher, she has an international reputation as a teacher of all age groups and her contribution to the double bass world is unique. 

 

She became the leading exponent of The Yorke Mini-Bass Project from its inception in 1984.  The European String Teachers Association and the International Society of Bassists have provided a platform for her work to be demonstrated both nationally and internationally. She is in demand as a guest Professor for master classes and teachers workshops internationally.