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From the Richard Davis Foundation 2015 Conference in Madison WI

Apr 5 | Posted by: Robert Sabin |

The best way to change your life is to find people who've already achieved what you want and then model their behavior.

A few months ago I approached Richard Davis and Catherine Harris who run the annual Richard Davis Foundation in Madison WI at the University of Wisconsin.  I had heard of Richard’s conference for years, but not being under 18 I was never a participant.  I was really curious about how they operated and what they were doing for young bassists.
I was also really in need of an ass kicking in terms of my teaching chops after leaving a position where I felt several people weren't invested in the program or the students.  I needed to surround myself with the best bassists and teachers I could think of while they interacted specifically with an age level that I specialize in.  I wanted to be the smallest fish in the biggest pond and see what I could learn about the program, their teaching methods, and all the people involved.  I got all of that and more in a weekend that was profoundly inspiring.  If you don’t know about the program, go here now to check it out:




Here, in no particular order and without regard to rhyme or reason, are some impressions of the weekend.




Stayed at the Lowell Center, a nice place (the whole campus is spacious and gorgeous). Rooms here are quite nice and reasonably priced.  The staff is also very friendly, must be a Wisconsin thing.  Breakfast was in the ballroom, friendly vibe all around.  David Murray was holding court with a young bassist and his parents.  I ate some strange midwestern concoction that may have contained eggs; it definitely had meat and cheese. 


Friday April 3rd




Catherine Harris (the executive director) greeted me and made me feel immediately at home.  Despite me just planning to be a fly on the wall this weekend she had me all set up with a welcome kit and plans for me to meet some of the faculty.  She (and everyone) was obviously paying attention to detail here, fantastic.  I was the one odd person out, not being faculty, a student, or family and throughout the weekend everyone was most receiving, open, and friendly.  GREAT VIBE.


The conference is set up principally for students, but parent(s) are required to come as well.  This eliminates any issues of liability for the program but has the rather amazing side effect of involving parents directly in their child’s experience.  Throughout the weekend there were opportunities for parents to ask questions about college, careers, and equipment (feeding and caring for a bass player).  Siblings were also incorporated into a sibling group that augmented the chamber ensembles.  In speaking to several families I was impressed with how many had been coming for several years, and had brought various older and younger family members.  Having other parents there to talk with also gave them valuable resources for navigating the ever-changing world of music programs, colleges, instruments, careers, and countless other issues involved with raising creative young people.


The view of the half frozen lake from all over campus is spectacular, but not as cool as the large bass storage room that is quickly filling up with instruments.




The students and families gathered in the alumni hall for the opening.  Most of the faculty were casually dressed and sitting on the floor.  They did a great job creating a comfortable and approachable vibe right away.  Most of the faculty has been coming for years, and it shows.


Richard was greeted with a very warm welcome before he welcomed the participants.  He singled out each new student, welcoming them and asking their name.  I would later finds out this is a central precept in Richard’s philosophy on communication, listening, dialogue, and education.




I was going to attend the warm up class, but I was pulled aside by Peter Dominguez who asked me, “I have Milt Hinton’s bass upstairs, what to check it out?”  I was ignorant of what that meant, not being familiar with the Judge’s instrument.  Peter is on the faculty of Oberlin, who have acquired Hinton’s main instrument.  This is one of the nicest basses I have ever seen let alone had the opportunity to sample.  Peter was brimming to show people the instrument (let alone play on it that weekend) and detail it’s history.  He would show it to all interested students and give them a chance to play it.  I posted some pictures to Facebook that immediately garnered over a hundred likes and comments from bassists who had a chance to sample it over the years.  Peter is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and is obviously invested in the music’s history and personal connections.  I would subsequently learn much more about his history with Richard, Milt, and the countless musician’s from Milwaukee (including his brother-in-law Rick Germanson) that he came up with.




I participated in an introduction to Tai Chi presented by the great Dianna Gannett.  I have taken one Tai Chi lesson before and it did not go well to say the least.  The teacher was a Chinese drill sergeant and I was in so much pain afterward I couldn’t walk down the stairs.  Diana was quite the opposite; she showed how enjoyable and challenging the practice can be and demonstrated her love for the art most sincerely.  She explained how the practice helps support energy, focus, and healthy physical habits on the instrument. She took us slowly through Master Ho’s Five Elements, several times while explaining each movement as we went.  She was brilliant in the ways she would modify the numerous repetitions, having students lead the class, using others to demonstrate the movements to latecomers, and demonstrating how various elements could be adapted to the playing of the bass.  By the end a class of 20+ students was able to complete four cycles in sequence, in silence, following a student who led them.  Two things that also stood out were her insights into breathing at 80%, and the greatest line from the entire conference:  “…this way you don’t start the music, you join the music.”




Peter Dominguez presented an introductory improvisation workshop to a mixed age group of students.  While some of the students have some jazz experience, most where new to improvisation and the class was designed to get them learning a piece aurally while using an open form to get their feet wet blowing over a single scale.  Some things that stood out that Peter did well:


Learned names quick and used them often.  This approach came directly from Richard.


Most instructors with younger bassists tuned to matching open strings.  (Each class involved meticulous tuning to reduce as much as possible the inevitable intonation issues that would arise from a group of mixed experiences.)


Peter Started with something everyone can do, a simple scale.  Doing something immediately.  This class was 90% doing and 10% talking.  Students were always being engaged.


The concept of improvisation was laid out as the manipulate a scale, or “doodles.”  This “no big deal” approach made some kids visibly comfortable.  Peter inferred the unspoken question, “Are we doing something that relates to music or to an exercise? " (Most of the presenters made it a point to state some goals at beginning, so that students wouldn’t be wondering, “what are we doing?”


The class played a multi-part progression in C:


Bass Line:        C          F          B          E         A         D         G         C          (beginners)


Octave up:       E         E         D         D         C          C          B          B          (Intermed.)


T. Position:      B          A         A         G         G         F          F          E         (adv.)


Peter set up a Reggae groove using the bass line set against the guide tones.  I thought this was brilliant because it minimized a lot of intonation issues by having parts of the ensemble play on different parts of the bar.  


Solos proceeded with students constantly being given options:  What part would you like to play?  Arco or pizzicato?  Peter encouraged them to become “sound scientists” and told them that learning how not to do it is as important (and fun) as the notes that sound good.


Random thoughts:      


I like that I haven't seen a single bass stool yet today.  It does expose how difficult it is for some student to stand for long periods, but it engages them just by being constantly on their feet.

This makes me think of what the difference is between someone who is asked to "take a solo" vs.  "make up your own part.”  Is a solo always in the spotlight?


It is impossible to evaluate how a presentation went over unless you took the time to find out about their experiences coming in.


Parents are active participates here, predominantly through the schlep of instruments.  I’m surprised they didn’t clean out the vendors of bass wheels!




Lunch was next, a great time to meet families and talk to the bassists about their mornings.  Some of these students have been playing since the age of three!


At the end of the lunch hour I ended up at Richard Davis' table.  After the exchange of greetings Richard finished detailing the numerous UW grads that were leading major US bass studios to a parent.  When this father left I found myself alone at the table with Richard and he asked if I had any questions for him.  I asked him about the origins of the program and he proceeded to detail for me the origins of how it started and what it was like in the early years.  He repeatedly emphasized the attention to detail and personal connections vital to the success and longevity of any endeavor.  This evolved into an intense description of what he feels the role of listening and dialogue is to education, business, music, and life in general.  Central to this was the honoring of others through learning of their name.  As we talked he would see random service workers clearing the room and call out to them using their first name and often something about them.  Being abysmal at this skill myself I inquired how he was able to do it… “Practice!”  The reverence and loyalty I say from families, students, and faculty all weekend toward Richard I believe to be in part due to this incredible attention to detail and Richard’s ability to invest in each person he met by taking a personal interest in them and learning something about them.  VERY INSPIRING!  He recommended some books by Tim Wise and William Isaacs in addition.  We spoke for about an hour, and I was honored he had taken the time to talk with me.  He cuts right through the nonsense, quick.  As Peter later said, “His bullshit detector is deep.”




There was a panel discussion for older students and parents about the college process and career landscape.  Many parents seemed to be wondering, “What can my kid do if they decide to study bass?”  The panel was really articulate and detailed their experiences, and was especially helpful in advising students about their transcripts.  The most important things for students wishing to major in music were their ability and their grades.  DON’T try to load up your resume with every activity under the sun.  It’s not as important as your over all grades (which affect scholarship and admittance) and your playing ability.  I wish the students at Hunter could hear this!




The bass orchestra rehearsed.  This was every student playing together in a single large ensemble.  The music was divided into parts that would accommodate any level of ability, and some very clever orchestrations to make this happen.  The faculty did an amazing job here, bouncing around with basses to different parts of the ensemble, especially helping the most inexperienced students navigate the parts.  For the entirety the vibe was upbeat, John Kennedy and Larry Hutchinson were really fantastic as conductors.  They included the technique of “playing catch” with the group, playing a short challenging passage and having the ensemble repeated it back to them several times.




The students were invited to observe the faculty rehearsal before the evening concert.  Students could see the amazing rapport the faculty had with each other and first hand how to work as an ensemble, not to mention some up close views of some of the baddest bassists on the planet.




The evening concert featured the entire faculty playing individually before coming together as an ensemble.  Highlights for me were Peter Dominguez solo playing and original arrangements, David Murray and Diana Gannett’s gorgeous duet, and Philip Alejo’s jaw-dropping Bottesini played on a borrowed instrument.  Damn!


Saturday, April 4th




Philip Alejo presented a warm up class to a large group in the alumni hall overlooking the still mostly frozen Lake Mendota.  This was a fantastic class; Philip really knows all of the techniques needed for a young bassist and can communicate them really effectively.  The students were playing almost the entire time.


In the space of an hour he covered:


  • Value of moving slowly through a warm-up
  • Use of the arm in bowing open strings
  • Bow Planes
  • Function of each finger in holding the bow
  • How to stand (Finally!!!!)
  • How to stretch the low back and how to build from this into an effortless bowing forward into thumb position, avoiding a collapsing of the shoulders and keeping your spine straight.  This was REALLY effective and helped many of the students IMMEDIATELY.  This was the best thumb position demo I’ve ever seen.
  • How not to use the shoulder transitioning in and out of thumb position.
  • Playing octaves as a variant of the Karr "Vomit Exercise."
  • Playing a series of ascending perfect 5ths though the entire range of the bass.  This involved singing the next note before you play it in order to “plan ahead with your ear.”


More Random Thoughts

Throughout the rest of the morning as I observed various classes and rehearsals the atmosphere made me reflect on many of the issues we encounter when doing this kind of teaching.  Some thoughts that came to mind:


  • Create an immediate good vibe and energy in the room.
  • Make sure your students have learned something or have improved in some way after the hour.
  • Articulate to them what that piece of knowledge is.
  • Do student’s have something they can practice or apply after the class?
  • Did you give them any kind of takeaway after the hour so they could remember your presentation?
  • 85% doing, 15% talking. Less talking if possible especially for younger students.  Older students need explanation, younger ones demonstration. If you do talk make sure you are having a dialogue with the students and constantly getting feedback of one kind or another.
  • Most of the time playing or working together, with some time focusing on the individuals and creating a balance where everyone gets your attention a few times.  Don’t loose the engagement of the group by having people just sitting there observing, especially the young ones.  DO SOMETHING.
  • LEARN NAMES AND USE THEM.  No student should be or feel invisible.  Introduce yourself to them individually and have them introduce themselves to each other.  To fail to do so, in Peter’s words, is a “dignity violation.”
  • Especially early in the morning, having students sit instead of standing could encourage kids to become too relaxed, disengaged, or even have them fall sleep!  Unless you are having a discussion make them stand up and do something.
  • Do. 2. Teach 3. Apply 4. REPEAT many times with variation.
  • Call back when possible to things covered earlier in the hour.
  • Be physical, move around, and engage all parts of the room in sometimes-unpredictable ways.
  • MAKE THE CLASS A DIALOGUE.  Ask them questions and talk to them not at them; get constant feedback.
  • Don’t assume ANYTHING about a student, their background, experience, knowledge, temperament, or ability without verifying.
  • Your hour is successful if it results in massive amounts of questions and curiosities at the end.
  • Encourage a student and reward risk taking, but don’t bullshit them if they do something wrong.  Incorporate lots of positive reinforcement with an appropriate amount of constructive criticism that encourages them to practice.
  • Be prepared.  Have pencils for the group if needed.  Be early!  Don’t leave people hanging.
  • Let people out on time.


Students throughout the mornings were also giving recitals and being adjudicated by faculty members.  These were short snap shots of the variety of different levels.  Students played everything form Frank Proto to early Suzuki exercises.  This was a great experience for the students.  Later at lunch I sat and spoke to a family of a young bassist who was only seven years old.  We spoke for a while and without prompting brought out the comment sheets from faculty for their son.  I was taken aback at how well the comments were put together.  Completely encouraging and enthusiastic responses peppered with specific advice (usually just a single sentence) that honed in on an element of the performance. the advice was given with a laser like focus yet never taken away from the enthusiasm that judges were emparting to the student. Once again the 80/20 model popped into my head, encouragement vs. age appropriate advice. 



During this hour bassists assembled in groups of 3-6 for chamber ensembles.  Each faculty member coached a group, with musician’s divided up according to ability, age, background, and interest.  This included John Kennedy working with an older alumni group, Jackie Picket working with a group that incorporated siblings and a bass quartet, Tine Asmundsen working with jazz group, David Murray coaching a quartet through a 4-part arrangement of The Marriage of Figaro, and Peter Dominguez taking a multi-aged mix of acoustic/electric bassist through an vamp and improvisation based on “Hey Joe.”  I will definitely steal his technique of having the group hi five each other after a good rehearsal/ run through; instant camaraderie.  The students were great working with each other, despite being from different parts of the country, possessing different skills, differing ages, and different types of basses. 




This hour was devoted to a question and answer panel with the faculty and students and did not disappoint.  Student’s questions ranged from the light hearted; “Would you rather have all the sushi you could eat for the rest of your life?” Does Byron need changing[1]?” to more serious inquiries; “What regrets do you have about your career?”  Dianna Gannet had a wonderful answer to a student asking about performance anxiety, describing her imagining of chairs placed before her while she practiced performing in front of these invisible groups of listeners.


“Find music that makes you listen like your life depended on it.”


In responding to a student expressing self-doubt about not knowing how to sight read Inez Wyrick expressed contagious enthusiasm for that student’s ability and encouraged an insatiable appetite for those sorts of big challenges. “Bring it on!”




The "bass parade” took place, with all students taking their instruments a few blocks away to the performance space for the final rehearsal and concert.  Brilliant move making the schlep into a selling point Watching the rehearsal it was striking how much the students had improved in 24 hours with limited time to practice. 




The final concert was great.  All of the chamber groups played and featured each faculty member finding unique ways to introduce their groups, sometimes making them announce themselves and describing their favourite candy or ice cream.  This made all the musician’s laugh, calmed nerves, and made them get their heads out of the music for a quick second before playing, and engaging their audience without their instruments.  Very effective!


The bass orchestra finished the night, with he first two orchestral excerpts being played with a CD.  Really great idea, the volume of the basses could be matched by the recording and the incorporation of melodies played by an expert orchestra let the players match what they heard above and below them.  This was followed by an original piece by John Kennedy that allowed all the players to incorporate extended techniques.  The section with bowed tailpieces created a genuine “Holy shit” moment for myself as well as the students.  The final “Simple Samba” was another expertly arranged piece for mixed ensemble that allowed everyone to be challenged.  The faculty played along side the students for the duration, bringing everyone together for the final set.  


Parents were thrilled with the outcome of the weekend, and everybody stayed late after the concert to congratulate each other and take photos with each other, especially with Richard.  Peter was even gracious enough to invite me to the faculty beer and pizza hang back at the hotel that went into the wee hours. 


I can’t thank Richard, Catherine, Peter, David, Dianna, Donovan, Inez, Jackie, Larry, John, Philip, Tine, Virginia, and everybody at RDF for letting me be a part of this weekend.  It was a  rare opportunity Ito the best in the field doing  masterful work.  Very few people get that inside look and I owe you guys bigtime. 

I can’t wait to see everyone in a few months at the ISB convention in Ft. Collins!

[1] I strongly recommend you find any opportunity to hang out after hours with David Murray and Inez Wyrick.  The stories that come out after the gig are worth the airfare alone, including some about the brothers Byron and Myron, and something about a one-handed guitar player...

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