Photo Credit: Jon Upchurch
François Rabbath is a fascinating man and influential bass pedagogue. Strings magazine published an article by James Reel, “Straight from the Heart” (2006), which is both an interview with Rabbath and a tale of his life and development. The following is a summary of this life story. Rabbath was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1931. He had six brothers and the entire family was very musical. One of Rabbath’s brothers came home from Damascus with a double bass and Rabbath was intrigued. However, he did not know of any double bass players in Syria or Beirut (where his family was moving) so he had to experiment on his own. In Beirut, Rabbath noticed a book being used as a prop in the window of a tailor’s shop. It was a copy of Edouard Nanny’s bass method from the 1920’s (roughly 20 years old at this point). Rabbath did not think the tailor would sell him the book so he stole it! Rabbath promises this was his first and last robbery. Not only did Rabbath not speak French at this time but also he could not read music. So Nanny’s musical instructions, in French, were very difficult for him to work through. But thanks to the diagrams and music examples Rabbath was able to make connections between printed notes and positions on the strings of the double bass. Rabbath says “That’s the best way to go, from the note on the page directly to the ear, without translating it into a name” (Reel, 2006, p. 56). This is already an example of Rabbath’s approach to teaching and how incredibly different it can seem from the “standard” public school approach.
The Strings (2006) article continues to describe Rabbath’s musical education and how he very quickly started to alter double bass technique. He did not like Nanny’s fingerings because they forced him to shift and move so often, regularly causing him to be out of tune. Rabbath countered this by inventing the pivot. Instead of keeping his thumb behind his second or third finger (constantly shifting), he kept his thumb in one place and allowed his fingers to pivot without having to shift the center of his entire hand. Rabbath discovered this approach as he practiced the bass, completely on his own. “He was devoting two hours a day just to scales when he was 16; by age 19 he was playing classical violin and cello pieces on his bass” (Reel, 2006, p. 57). This is before he has ever even met with a double bass pedagogue! Which leads to the next brief part of Rabbath’s life: his time in the Paris Conservatory.
By 1955 Rabbath had saved enough money to go to Paris (he was 24 years old). He wanted to meet Nanny, thank him, and perhaps share these new approaches that could improve Nanny’s method. Sadly, Nanny had died eight years earlier and Rabbath would never get to have these conversations with him. Instead Rabbath picked up sheet music from the Paris Conservatory, learned it, and auditioned there three days later. He won a spot in the bass studio with Nanny’s successor and began studying with him. Unfortunately within three lessons Rabbath knew that this “old-fashioned” professor was not going to be the mentor he needed. The professor was not interested in his new fingerings and Rabbath also started to have difficulty paying for his lessons. Rabbath left the conservatory on good terms and began to pursue other opportunities.
Rabbath played with many famous vocalists of the time including Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel, and Edith Piaf. He also began to make jazz and pop recordings and this desire to record has continued through his life reports Reel (2006, p. 57). Frank Proto, a composer, bassist, and sometimes recording engineer, says that there are quite a few recordings out there of Rabbath that were done in acoustically dreadful rooms and/or that Rabbath was never happy with so they are not likely to ever be reproduced. But Rabbath has arranged and recorded a multitude of works for double bass that were originally written for more “flexible” instruments. That is part of his genius.
In his mid-life Rabbath worried about finances and auditioned for a position in the Paris Opera Orchestra. Of course he won the spot and he remained there for 15 years (until 1996, 65 years old). He started teaching private lessons in about 1981 (50 years old) and still teaches, although clearly not as much now that he is 80 years old. He is a regular guest at bass conventions and still does some performing as well. Several very well known double bass teachers have gone to Paris to study with him and bring his approach back to their own students. Most notably are David Allen Moore (LA Philharmonic and University of Southern California professor) and Paul Ellison (string department chair at Rice University’s School of Music, and former teacher of Moore). After Strings magazine did its initial article on Rabbath, a second article followed, five years later, to discuss how these teachers are implementing Rabbath’s method today (Reel, 2011, p. 46). Much of this will be discussed below but it is important to mention here to reinforce that Rabbath, his students, and most importantly his ideas, are still very much alive and progressing today.
Summary of Rabbath’s Contributions to the Field of Music Education
Publications and Recordings
François Rabbath has contributed extensively to the study of the double bass, not only with his approach but also with his publications and recordings. The “François Rabbath” page at liben.com has a listing of his available compositions and they are: A New Technique for the Double Bass (3 volumes), Solos for the D. Bassist, Two Miniatures for Double Bass and Piano, Transcription of Bach Suite No. 1, and Transcription of Bach Suite No. 2. In addition, a search for “Rabbath” on lemurmusic.com returns the Kobolds for Four String Basses which are bass quartets that Rabbath composed. In a review of a recital Rabbath gave in 2008, Robert Battey wrote that Rabbath’s “own pieces are “world music” in the best sense, blending his Middle Eastern heritage with the style of his earlier collaborators, Michel Legrand and Charles Aznavour.” Clearly Rabbath has worked hard to ensure that bass players have solid, musical repertoire to play in a variety of styles.
In addition to these great compositions, Rabbath has also contributed to the recordings available for bass players to listen to. As mentioned earlier, there are likely many recordings out there of Rabbath’s playing that will never be professionally produced and this is regretful. But the recordings that are available include: Carmen, Four Scenes After Picasso, “Live” Around the World, Multi Bass (an LP from the 1970’s), Works for Double Bass and Orchestra, and a self-titled album (that includes the works on Multi Bass, bringing them from LP to CD). Rabbath has also recorded two DVDs, The Art of the Bow and The Art of the Left Hand. All of these recordings can be found on either (or both) the “François Rabbath” page at liben.com (n.d.) and by searching for “Rabbath” at lemurmusic.com (2011).
When discussing Rabbath’s recordings and music it is necessary to mention Frank Proto specifically. The “François Rabbath” page at liben.com (n.d.) explains their relationship nicely.
In 1978 Rabbath met the American composer-double bassist Frank Proto. A close friendship quickly developed when the two discovered that they had many shared musical experiences and philosophies. Neither had any respect for the boundaries that separated classical, jazz and ethnic musicians. Both were as comfortable playing chamber music at a formal concert one day and improvising with jazz musicians the next.
Proto is also quoted by Reel (2006, p. 56) as saying “It’s a dream to write music for him [Rabbath] because there’s virtually nothing he can’t do.” These two fantastic double bassists have worked together to greatly enhance the materials available to bass players today. They have collaborated on compositions and recordings and surely their friendship has fueled their desire to be musical together.
Influences on String Teaching in General
Although it is commonly agreed that Rabbath is a phenomenal player, often cited as the Paganini of the double bass, his influence on double bass pedagogy is still controversial. Hamann (2004, p. 223) laid out very generally how Rabbath approaches the left hand. He divides the bass fingerboard into six positions, based on the natural harmonics of the instrument. Using these six positions and the pivot technique (where the fingers rock backward or forward but the thumb does not move) a bassist is able to reach many more notes from a single position than they can with more conventional positions and shifts. Similarly, Rabbath developed and named the crab technique, wherein a finger is never lifted from the string until the next finger is placed. The fingers truly look like a crab running along the beach as they scurry over each other.
Rabbath’s reasoning for developing new approaches is very intriguing. One, it is important to remember that he did not have a formal teacher. He worked to figure out what fingerings suited his body best, not what “tradition” dictated. Second, he believed students should learn to play the double bass as soloists, no matter what their ultimate musical function would be (Rabbath, 1977, p. 3). Even though the double bass is so often an accompaniment instrument, it should not be learned this way. Students need to learn the entire range of the double bass, even the ‘unknown regions’ and the “instrument should set fire to the player’s imagination” (Rabbath, 1977, p. 3). Rabbath believed that once a student had the six positions mapped and understood the fingerboard geography there would be significantly less fumbling for accurate notes and therefore much more music making. Rabbath continues in the beginning of his first “method” book with some excellent tips including (1977, p. 3):
To adhere blindly to a certain system would be a serious mistake and detrimental to performance.
However, from the onset when choosing the fingering for difficult passages, one should endeavor to play a piece up to speed. A passage played slowly may well require a different fingering to that needed at normal speed.
The note is more important than the fingering and one should eventually be able to dispense with the annotation of the score.
Rabbath gives additional advice here about how to hold the bass and deal with the physical demands of such a large instrument and he briefly mentions the bow and pizzicato. His discussion of how to practice is most interesting. He does not recommend sight-reading. Instead he says the student should study the score and work on the music without the instrument. He believes this “will help the player to free his mind so as to be able to overcome even the worst pitfalls when he takes up the bow” (Rabbath, 1977, p. 4). This is quite different from most other methods, which reinforce sight-reading and performing on the instrument as quickly as possible.
In Rabbath’s second volume (1980, p. 3) he instructs students to learn his essential fingerings so that they have a solid foundation, but then to decide which fingerings work best for them. He also gives the invaluable advice to not use difficult fingerings in public; instead use what is practical. Rabbath is known for his incredibly musical bowing and he addresses right hand issues more in the second volume as well. As with the fingerings, he lays out some general guidelines but then encourages the student to think for him/herself and “discover one’s own sound, giving it one’s own stamp of personality” (Rabbath, 1980, p. 3). His “last word” in the introduction of this second volume (1980, p. 3) is particularly profound: “Use your technique to interpret the music – don’t use the music to show off your technique.”
Finally Rabbath’s third volume (1984) begins with a six-page narrative on “A Physical and Psychological Approach to the Double Bass” and it is just that. This extensive writing covers many aspects of playing the instrument, including the notions of “movement – space – time” (Rabbath, 1984, p. 8). Movement is the fingering, space is the accuracy of the notes (he never says something is out of tune, instead he says the space is not right), and time is the playing time. Rabbath believed that these three elements must be synchronized in order for the music to happen accurately and does an excellent job of explaining this theory. This third volume also includes a separate handout of hundreds of bowing exercises and a section specifically on the crab technique. Rabbath offers exercises to practice the crab technique but notes that the scales exercises and fingerings must be completed before the student can hope to be successful at the crab technique (Rabbath, 1984, p. 79).
David Allen Moore sums up one of Rabbath’s main influences on string teaching quite nicely. Moore says “the approach relies on searching and experimentation. Even as François is turning 80 this year, he’s never stopped growing and searching” (Reel, 2011, p. 47). Although Rabbath’s technical contributions boil down to exhaustive bowing practice, pivoting more and shifting less, and using the crab technique, his broader goals for students are to keep them thinking. He wants to ensure that each student is making good music in a way that they feel truly successful.
(n.d.). François Rabbath. Retrieved from http://www.liben.com/rabbathcont.html
(2011, October 6). Lemur Music: Rabbath. Retrieved from http://www.lemurmusic.com/searchprods.asp
Battey, R. (2008, July 12). François Rabbath. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.liben.com/fr-review.html
Hamann, D.L., & Gillespie, R. (2004). Strategies for teaching strings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rabbath, F. (1977). A new technique for the double bass: A comprehensive tutor (Vol. 1). Paris, France: Alphonse Leduc.
Rabbath, F. (1980). A new technique for the double bass: A comprehensive tutor (Vol. 2). Paris, France: Alphonse Leduc.
Rabbath, F. (1984). A new technique for the double bass: A comprehensive tutor (Vol. 2). Paris, France: Alphonse Leduc.
Reel, J. (2006, June). Straight from the heart. Strings, 21 (1), 56-59.
Reel, J. (2011, June). How the Rabbath method helps bassists get unstuck. Strings, 25 (11), 46-47.