January 2018

It’s All About That Bass

Bass instruments can play more than just a supporting role.

National Standards: 7-9, 11

Prepare: Have the class read It’s All About That Bass (page 34 of the student edition). The article describes several pieces that feature bass instruments.

Click here to listen to a playlist of pieces mentioned in the article.

Key points in the article:

  • Bass instruments are often seen as supporting instruments, but there are many pieces written to feature bass instruments that show off their versatility.
  • One of the most famous pieces written for a bass instrument is English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Concerto for Bass Tuba, which was written for Philip Catelinet, principal tubist for the London Symphony Orchestra.
  • Camille Saint-Saëns’ famous “Carnival of the Animals” work features a piece for a solo double bass player, “The Elephant.” Bassists looking for more “serious” music often play works by Bach and Vivaldi, who often wrote for solo cello.
  • “Old Man River” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein is a rare example of a vocal bass solo written for a Broadway musical, featured in the 1929 musical Showboat.

Begin: Discuss with the class the role of bass instruments in music. Topics may include:

  • Why the lower register is typically reserved for a supporting balance to a piece of music
  • The positive aspects of featuring a bass instrument for a solo (They can explore a different register, have an unconventional solo voice, etc.)
  • What songs featuring prominent bass parts do students know of?

Develop: Play the following video of Yo-Yo Ma performing Bach’s Cello Suite No. 2 – Sarabande:

Ask students:
How would you describe the piece?
Does the cello’s different melodic range give it a different emotional range?
How would the feel of this piece change if it was played on a higher-pitched instrument?

Expand: Now play the following video of virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius performing his composition “Portrait of Tracy” live:

Ask students:
What makes this piece unique?
Is Pastorius playing a standard bass line?
What does he do to add interest to the piece?