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Topic: Question for Contrabass Players: Pizzicato vs Arco

  1. #1

    Question for Contrabass Players: Pizzicato vs Arco

    I'm putting the finishing touches on my score for the musical theater and I am wondering about how much time it would take a bass player to pick up and put down his bow (or how long he could be expected to play pizzicato with the bow in his hand before switching back to arco or spiccato).

    Up until now, I have been careful to always give the player a couple of beats rest between bowed and plucked phrases. But there are a few places where a relatively quick transition between the two articulations would really benefit the composition.

    For example, the overture to the second act has slow, majestic bass chords under one of the show's main themes (backed by sweeping arpeggios) on the treble staff and above. The overture goes right into the first number (a tarantella with a walking bass line built around a progression that goes root-fifth-root-octave and sometimes up and down the scale). Pizzicato works best for the number, which is structured as two verses sung by the chorus, then a long dance break, then a slow B section, followed by a reprise of the verse at tempo. All the strings play tremolo during the B section, the higher instruments sustaining throughout; the bass plays tremolo in the first chord (before the chorus comes in), then plays spiccato until the end.

    So, the bass player would either have to use his bow in the overture, then put it down for the pizzicato section, then pick it up at the tremolo -- with very little time to make the transitions -- or hold it in his hand while he plucks the strings for the bulk of the number. Am I safe in assuming that one or the other of these approaches would work for most bass players? I am trying to write not only for pro musicians, but also for advanced amateurs, because it is hoped that schools and community theaters would play this one day. I don't mind if it takes a little work for them to learn it; but I don't want to give them something that's impossible or have to require a second bass player just for this number and a couple of others where the transitions have to be made relatively quickly to be effective.


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  2. #2
    Senior Member tedvanya's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2009
    Canada,winter Mexico

    Re: Question for Contrabass Players: Pizzicato vs Arco

    Not an expert at all, but in pizzicato ( bow in hand) if you set the note length of at least 1/8, the player will have time to switch to arco. The bow while plucking ( taking a fraction of a second) will be across the base therefore it takes less than a second to position and play the next arco note. I noticed this ina piece where pizzicato and arco followed in quick succession. However, if you still have doubts, divisi is the answer.
    Good luck


  3. #3
    Senior Member Tom_Davis's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2005
    Ellendale, ND

    Re: Question for Contrabass Players: Pizzicato vs Arco

    Having played CB in several orchestras I can tell you that bassists rarely lay the bow down during performance. If the entire piece (or major section or movement) is pizz., then maybe. I can say that in over 25 years of performance I never experienced the first chair player indicating the section should lay down their bows. Part of the problem is where would they lay them. Certainly not on the floor (many bows can cost almost as much as the instrument) and since two bassists share a single stand it would be awkward to place two bows on one stand. At best that would make it very difficult to turn pages. Worse yet injecting the sound of clattering bows bouncing about the stage.

    On the other hand, there is a humorous review from the late 1800s describing how a bassist changing from pizz to arco caught the frog of the bow on the strings that sent the bow sailing into the back of a cellist. I have absolutely no idea if that is true. (I kinda' hope it is)

    That may be in the same genre of literature that reported a bored timpanist who was playing solitaire on one of his drum heads. He was allegedly surprised by an upcoming cue and whacked the drum just in the nick of time - showering a deck of cards onto the brass section.


  4. #4

    Re: Question for Contrabass Players: Pizzicato vs Arco

    That's what I was hoping to hear. Thanks.

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