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Fundamentals

of Double Bass
Technique
with
Jason Heath
How to Use This Book

After interviewing hundreds of bass performers and teachers, I’ve learned one thing:

There are countless ways to approach learning the double bass.

This book contains some of my favorite double bass exercises. I keep coming back to
these time and time again over the years, and I’ve used them with hundreds of students.


I learned every single one of these


exercises from somebody else. Like
everyone, my playing and teaching is a
mixture of ideas from all the great
teachers and performers with whom I’ve
worked.

When possible, I’ve given credit to the


person from whom I learned the
exercise.

I hope you find this book useful, and


please share it freely with friends and
students!

Jason Heath
contrabassconversations.com
Table of Contents

Principles to Keep in Mind 4

Part 1: Left Hand Fundamentals 5


Part 2: Bowing Fundamentals 11
Part 3: Developing Thumb Position 14
Part 4: Making Connections 20
More Books for Your Library 22

Part 5: Articulations 24
Bouncing the Bow 26

Part 6: The “Daily Dozen” 28


Navigating the Bass 29

G Major Three Octave Scale 30

Shifting Drills 31

Max’s Magic 32

Progressive Scales 33

Part 7: Scales 34
Next Steps 39

About the Author 40


Principles to Keep in Mind
1. When playing the bass, don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do in “real life.” Your hands
should look like… your hands! This is a concept that Rice University bass professor
Paul Ellison talks about quite a bit.

2. Work to keep both left and right hands as close to your center of gravity as possible.
When you’re in playing position, are your hands centrally located in front of your body, or
are they off to the side? Work to keep them in front of your chest.

3. Whether you’re sitting or standing, develop an “active stance” when you’re playing the
bass. Have a slight bend in the knees and a bit of a forward lean to your posture, as if
you’re about to take a leap.


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Part 1: Left Hand Fundamentals
There are so many ways to approach the left hand! We’ve got Simandl, Bille, and countless
other classic texts. In fact, I’ve got a page of them up on my website for you to check out.

My favorite system for learning left hand fundamentals is George Vance’s wonderful
Progressive Repertoire series. I love it so much, and I use it with every single young
student. George brilliantly combined the teachings of François Rabbath and Shinichi Suzuki
to create this unique approach to the left hand. These books are a must-have for any bass
teacher or young bassist.

Also, double bassist and educator Yoshi Horiguchi put up a post on my blog covering


research that he did about Progressive Repertoire Book 1, and I included videos of me
playing through these pieces. You can learn more about the specifics of approaching these
books in this wonderful resource.

One of the first pieces learned in Progressive Repertoire is Shortnin’ Bread. Here’s the piece
—notice that we’re starting up in Simandl’s fourth position (this is third position in Vance/
Rabbath pedagogy):

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I love starting in this position for several reasons:

1. You’re at the neck block or “heel” of the bass as my friend Lauren Pierce calls it. This is
one of the easiest places to find on the bass from a tactile perspective.

2. The spacing is smaller for the left hand. It’s much easier for beginning bassists to make
this hand span work at first. Once you learn the spacing up here, you can move down to
first position quite easily.

3. You’re able to play bigger intervals starting in this position. Shortnin’ Bread uses the G
pentatonic scale, and it’s easier for young ears to differentiate these wider intervals
(that’s how it seems to work to me, at least!).

After establishing this neck block position, I typically move down to first position and teach
students some simple tunes like Mary Had a Little Lamb:

Really, any simple tune like this will work. I like to teach familiar tunes like this because it

seems to hook the students. Grinding away on first and half position Simandl exercises has
never worked well for me!

George Vance saves half position for later in the Progressive Repertoire series, but I have
found it helpful to introduce it after first position. After all, bass students are usually playing
in some sort of ensemble early on, and half position rears its head early in their journey.

I don’t dwell on it a lot—just a few simple exercises to set the student up:

Next up for me is a basic introduction to thumb position. I like to start with harmonics to set
up the basic left hand shape. It’s fun to see students light up when they realize that they
can make these resonant, flute-like sounds so easily:

So far, everything we’ve done has been in one position: fourth, first, half, or thumb. This
allows us to focus on getting a quality sound without the added variable of shifting.

Of course, shifting is a way of life for bass players, so getting introduced to it early on is
important. I start off by moving from two of our “home bases,” namely first and fourth
position.

I’ve found that repeating notes four times each in the lower-to-middle part of the bow is a
great way to develop confidence and tone. The four times per note approach creates a
solid rhythmic foundation, so the student isn’t slipping and sliding all over the place out of
rhythm. It also allows the student more time to think about the upcoming shift:

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I have them repeat this in an infinite loop, focusing on smooth shifts and organic arm
motion. We start with the larger muscles and follow through with the hand, much like
throwing a ball.

After this shift gets stabilized, we move on to a 1-4 shift. For me, this shift is actually a 1-1
shift from A to D, followed by the 4th finger and supporting fingers closing on the E:

After establishing that 1st position to neck block position connection, we make the
connection between the neck block and the octave harmonic. This is the range
encompassing the Vance/Rabbath 3rd position, and making this connection early has
proven helpful for me when teaching:

Next, we connect these three major landmarks: first position, neck block position, and the
octave harmonic. We play the following exercise on the G string:

Throughout all of this, I’m teaching my students pieces from Progressive Repertoire and
working on their school orchestra or youth orchestra music.

Now I like to “fill in the gaps” between 1st position and the neck block position. In
traditional fingering systems, these are 2nd and 3rd positions. In the Vance/Rabbath
fingering system, they’re a part of 1st position and 2nd position.

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My good friend Peter Tambroni has a great exercise for finding these intermediate positions:
play G - A - B in 1st position on the G string, then replace 1st finger with 4th finger:

This lets the student go from familiar territory into new territory with a nice safety step. We
then practice that same type of motion in different sequences until it starts to become more
familiar:

I’m never sure exactly what to call this area of the neck with students. To me, it’s an
“intermediate zone” between 1st position and the neck block, so I think of it as one general
region. If hard-pressed, I’d probably separate it out into traditional 2nd and 3rd positions,
but I tend to shy away from giving it a name at all with students.

Around this time, I teach students how to use the 3rd position tuning harmonics to tune the
bass. I teach them how to do it, but we still tune with open strings as well. It’s just to get the
concept down and also to introduce the idea of this being a position. In fact, I often call it
the “harmonic” position.

We work through a few simple “Simandl-like” sequences. I usually teach these by rote as
warm-ups during the lesson. I introduce these while we’re still early on in the Progressive
Repertoire books, mainly to help with school music. I don’t dwell on it or make a big deal
about it, but I find these to be helpful for developing a good technical foundation:

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Part 2: Bowing Fundamentals
I’ve always found teaching bowing fundamentals to be more challenging than left hand
fundamentals. To me, the left hand is more objective. You’re either on the right finger or
you’re not. The left hand functions as a “measuring device” with results that can be clearly
seen.

For the first few lessons, I always start with the D harmonic in the neck block position on the
G string:

If I’m starting a student who is totally new to the bass, this is actually the very first thing that
we’ll play with the bow! It’s easier to get this harmonic to speak than to get an open string
to speak, and it begins to set a student up with a goof neck block hand position from day
one.

We’ll play the same harmonic on the other strings, always repeating things four times to
allow for the concept to sink in. Then we’ll alternate open strings with this harmonic.

After the early weeks, we may not always play this harmonic exercise, but we’ll do some
kind of connected open string exercise every lesson. I’m always working to keep the focus
on making a beautiful sound above all else.

Progressive Repertoire is wonderful for developing those foundational bow strokes. I really
try to focus on making short notes crisp and quite different from connected notes. George
Vance builds each new bow stroke in such a logical way. I’ve yet to find anything better
than Progressive Repertoire for developing right arm fundamentals.

I’ve found reviewing past pieces is key for developing tone. Students love seeing how much
better they’ve gotten on pieces that they learned in the past. It’s a great feeling of
accomplishment for them, and it’s a great way to go deeper and dig into more details,
particularly those revolving around tone, shape, and line.

Every once in a while, we’ll go all the way back to the beginning of book one and play as far
as we can in one lesson. It’s a great way to keep those fundamentals in mind, and it’s a

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wonderful way to solve various technical problems that may have crept into a student’s
playing.

Early on, I don’t do much beyond Progressive Repertoire to develop the bow arm.
Eventually, I add in a few basic exercises for developing slurring and string crossings. I
almost always teach these by rote:

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Part 3: Developing Thumb
Position
The idea of 1st position and thumb position being close cousins is a crucial concept for me
to get across to students. Progressive Repertoire does a wonderful job of this, covering the
same piece in multiple positions.

By the way, having students of different ability levels play the same piece in different
positions is great for a group class with bass students at multiple levels. Suzuki bass
teacher extraordinaire Kate Jones does a masterful job of this!


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Here’s a series of exercises that I use to reinforce the similarities between 1st position and
thumb position. All sorts of simple songs work well for teaching this concept.


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Franco Petracchi covers the concept of chromatic, semi-chromatic, and diatonic thumb
position hand shapes brilliantly, as does UK-based teacher Chris West. Progressive
Repertoire starts off with the semi-chromatic position and eventually introduces the concept
of diatonic spacing.

Here are a few exercises (again, taught by rote during lessons) that I use to reinforce these
two basic thumb position hand shapes:

Another basic thumb position concept I cover is opening the hand to reach the D harmonic
on the G string:

I’ll have students do the same exercises on the D string as well.

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George Vance uses familiar folk songs in thumb position throughout Progressive Repertoire.
It’s a wonderful way to get students familiar with this region of the bass. Here are a few folk
songs that I teach by rote to my students:

We’ll work on different articulations, dynamics, and phrasing with songs like these. I’ll have
them play the song while I play a simple accompaniment. Also, we’ll practice ensemble
skills like bringing each other in with visual cues, learning how to end phrases, and other
important musical elements.

I continue working through the Progressive Repertoire books with students, and I find the
alternation between 1st position, neck block position, and thumb position to be really
effective in establishing a secure foundation.

In Vance/Rabbath pedagogy, the thumb position with the thumb on the octave harmonic is
known as 4th position. I refer to this as both “basic” thumb position and Vance 4th position
to get students accustomed to the different labels commonly used.

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The next Vance/Rabbath position—5th position—is located between the D and G harmonics
in thumb position of the G string. We’ll work on exercises like this to establish this position:

We’ll also learn the harmonics in Vance/Rabbath 6th position around the same time. It’s
great watching student’s eyes light up as they realize that they can create melodies easily
using these 6th position harmonics:

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At this point, I have students connect the 5th and 6th Vance/Rabbath positions into a one
octave G major scale.

Descending is typically more challenging for students, and we practice making the tactile
connection between the thumb harmonic on the D into the “all fingers down” C natural.
Understanding how to make that “handoff” is important for developing a smooth thumb
position technique:

We’ll also practice a G major arpeggio in thumb position. I typically have students play the
B with the 3rd finger even though we played it with the 2nd finger in the scale. I find that to
be more dependable for most students:

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Part 4: Making Connections
After establishing some familiarity with thumb position, we start connecting all of these
regions of the bass together and peppering in some important additional skills in the
process.

We’re continuing to move through Progressive Repertoire as we develop these skills. I view
these exercises as supplementary devices to strengthen that “connective tissue” in the
student’s technical skills.

First off, we practice moving from the neck block position (Vance/Rabbath 3rd position) into
thumb position (Vance/Rabbath 4th position). I find that practicing D - E - G and alternating
between 3rd finger and thumb for the top note helps to develop this connection:

I find that students tend to “undershoot” that G harmonic with both the 3rd finger and the
thumb. Also, it can take some time to develop the body mechanics to gracefully move into
thumb position.

Next, we practice adding a few notes in thumb position once we arrive:

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I find double stops to be really helpful for tone development and bow arm control. I like
having students separate the two notes of the double stop and then play them together:

Getting a good balance between the two strings and listening critically to make sure that
these intervals are in tune can have a big impact on overall tone quality.

I also run a few additional exercises in different parts of the bass. The octave can be a little
more challenging to balance at first due to the difference in string lengths:

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So far, we’ve been balancing a closed note against an open string. Playing two closed
notes can up the challenge factor for double stops.

I start by having students play fifths across the string, with the first finger on the low note
and the fourth finger on the high note. I tell students to “trust the low note” and tune the top
note to the low note. Wiggling both fingers around to try to get the double stop in tune
doesn’t produce good results. Also, I have the students keep their second and third fingers
on the top string behind the 4th finger:

I’ll have students practice this on all strings, in different parts of the bass, and using different
intervals like major and minor thirds.

Gary Karr once told me how important practicing thirds is for developing a good sound. He
uses them to “break in the bass” and really get it to resonate. Double stops are great!

More Books for Your Library


Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassist and Curtis Institute bass teacher Hal Robinson has
put out two magnificent technique books: Strokin’ and Boardwalkin’. They are both
available for purchase from Robertson & Sons, and they’re an essential part of any bassist’s
library.

Boardwalkin’ takes the Rabbath fingering system and applies it to scales and arpeggios
across the entire register of the bass. I have all of my college students work through
Boardwalkin’, and it’s remarkable to see how it transforms their understanding of the bass
fingerboard.

Strokin’ is an adaptation of part of the Sevcik Opus 2 bowing technique book. I also have
all of my college students work through this book, and it’s transformational for their bowing
technique.

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Hal Robinson has two etudes that he uses for teaching string crossings. They’re great
etudes and really help develop string crossings. I have my own (much lower quality!) etude
that I use with my students:

Try this etude out as a warm-up exercise. We’ll build upon this in the next section.

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Part 5: Articulations
George Vance includes articulations from the very beginning of Progressive Repertoire, and
highlighting these for students from the very first lessons can really help to develop a
sophisticated articulation palette.

In addition to what we learn organically through this progression of pieces, I have students
practice scales with various articulations.

Doing staccato bowing with four notes per bow is a fantastic exercise on so many levels. It
teaches students how to divide the bow precisely, make clean stops and starts in various
parts of the bow, and develop consistency of tone throughout the bow:

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We’ll then work on portato bowing, showing how the mechanics relate to staccato bowing:

We’ll do this on open strings and also over scales.

After that, we explore legato, detache, and martele playing. I try not to get too geeky with
this and keep the strokes as simple as possible. Here’s how I explain it:

1. Legato: total connection between notes - no discernible space:

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2. Detache: a slight re-articulation - I call it “standard bowing” for lack of a better term:

3. Martele: a noticeable bite at the beginning of each note and a slight space between each
note:

Bouncing the Bow


I’ll have students experiment with bouncing the bow fairly early in their lessons. We’ll start
by letting the bow naturally bounce in the middle of the bow, then start to control it. I try to
make spiccato development an organic part of the learning process and revisit it every few
lessons in our warm-ups.

By the time we’re learning the articulations we’ve covered so far (which are, of course, all
on-the-string articulations), we start to explore different off-the-string stroke lengths.

I’ll start by teaching three basic off-the-string stroke lengths: short, medium and long. I refer
to these as Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms strokes. As I’m demonstrating, I’ll describe the
Mozart stroke as a V shape, the Brahms stroke as a saucer shape, and the Beethoven
stroke as something in between:

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Let’s revisit that string crossing etude from the previous section. I’ll have students run
through this etude while practicing the various articulations we’ve explored:

Typically, I’ll have students do one type of articulation per lesson, but I’ve also experimented
with alternating between two or more with each new bar. Have fun and explore, and you’ll
be well on your way to helping students develop a rich articulation palette!


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Part 6: The “Daily Dozen”
I think of the exercises in this section as “intermediate level” exercises. I’m not introducing
them when a student is starting out, but by the time we get to the second volume of
Progressive Repertoire I’m beginning to add them in.

I like to call these exercises the “daily dozen.” There aren’t a dozen of them, but I like to
touch upon all of them each day, even if only for a few seconds.

All of these exercises are simple but deep, and they touch upon fundamental principles of
quality bass playing. Most of them have endless varieties to them. They can be learned on
different strings, in different keys, with various bowings, dynamics, and articulations.

I’m presenting only one version of each of these, but use your imagination and find ways to
alter them. Also, I have invented none of these exercises, so I attempt as best as possible
to give credit to the great teachers from which I learned these!


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Navigating the Bass
Most days, I’ll “reacquaint” myself with the instrument by gently sliding between the various
harmonics that outline the Vance/Rabbath positions. Something about this exercise
grounds me physically to the instrument. I find my hand gravitating naturally to these
positions if I spend a few moments dusting them off:

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G Major Three Octave Scale
What can I say? I love the G major scale.

While I certainly practice other scales, the way in which it lies on the bass is so great for
warming up and getting the instrument ringing. If I only have time for one scale, it’s this one:

I’ll practice it with and without vibrato, slurring two, three, four, or more notes per bow, and
with various articulations. I always progress from slow to fast, and simple to more complex,
with emphasis on the slow and simple.

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Shifting Drills
Gary Karr famously refers to these exercises as vomit exercises. I’ve been told that it’s
because:

A. you “throw” your arm up the bass

B. doing these makes you want to vomit!

Regardless, they’re fantastic exercises, and they’re actually more bowing exercises than left
hand exercises. It’s hard to believe upon first glance, but it’s true!

These are the ultimate “simple but deep” exercises. Practice them with every conceivable
fingering combination, extend them to two octaves, play them on other strings, add
crescendos and decrescendos, and move them to different keys.

I have to give a huge shout-out to Jeff Bradetich, from whom I initially learned these
exercises. Jeff’s book Double Bass: The Ultimate Challenge is a comprehensive look at this
exercise and so many other key aspects of bass playing. It’s another must-have for any
bassist’s library.

Here’s the most basic shifting drill exercise. Be sure to repeat each bar twice, and focus on
smooth shifts and good bow placement throughout the exercise:

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Max’s Magic
This finger dexterity exercise, named for University of Michigan bass professor and
Cleveland Orchestra principal bassist Max Dimoff, is awesome. It’s another “simple but
deep” exercise that can be learned going up one half step at a time.

I start students in half position, playing separate bows very slowly. We climb the bass one
half step at a time, typically ending when we reach the G octave harmonic:

We’ll then add in slurs and start to increase the tempo. After that, we’ll do it on all the other
strings. It’s a great way to develop strength and dexterity, and it’s a great warm-up exercise.

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Progressive Scales
Here’s another exercise I learned from Jeff Bradetich. Each and every day, I try to do a
shifting drill, Max’s Magic, and a progressive scale. I’ve been doing these for decades, and I
find them to be helpful in maintaining my skills.

In the progressive scale, we climb the scale in four note sequences. Each position gets two
notes. Here’s a one octave A major scale as an example. As we did with the shifting drills,
be sure to add slurs, change the key, learn it in two octaves (Jeff has great fingering for this
in Double Bass: The Ultimate challenge), do different rhythms. The sky’s the limit:

After learning the pattern, I find slurring four notes per bow to be the most useful variant.


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Part 7: Scales
I’m often asked about what scales to learn and in what sort of sequence.

Typically, I start by focusing on two octave major scales only up to two sharps and two flats.
That’s what’s typically required for my student’s school and youth orchestra auditions and I
find that it establishes a healthy foundation.

We’ve already learned the G major three octave scale. In addition to that, we dig into C, D,
A, F, and Bb major.

The finger pattern for C major is quite similar to G major, and since we’ve already learned
the three octave G major, C major is fairly simple to learn:

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I teach D major two different ways. First, we drop down the octave after the open D string:

Next, we go up into thumb position. Finding the C# up in thumb position can be a challenge
early on. I typically have students play the top D as a harmonic, some of them find it simpler
to play the D closed:

I’m always surprised how easily students seem to learn the A major scale. The challenge is
often finding the G# in thumb position (and sometimes the low G# in half position):

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F major is relatively simple for most students to learn. The biggest challenge for me is
keeping the student in half position until its time to shift. I find that a lot of students
unconsciously switch to 1st position once they get to the D string:

Bb is quite simple for most students after they learn F major. The Eb - F on the G string can
be a bit of the challenge, but otherwise the scale fits under most student’s hands quite well:

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Up to this point, I’ve kept the 3rd finger out of the lower positions. This is when I like to
introduce the concept of “shiftless” scales and one finger per half-step. Anyone who has
played electric bass will be quite familiar with this pattern! Hat tip to Jeff Bradetich for
teaching me this pattern when I was in high school:

After learning the F major shiftless scale at the neck block, I have students move it around
the bass. It’s a great fingering template that can make faster passages much easier.

I mentioned Hal Robinson’s wonderful book Boardwalkin’ earlier. This book runs scales up
and down each of the Vance/Rabbath positions. It’s a fantastic way to improve a student’s
technique, and I find that it’s really helpful for developing the ability to sight-read as well.

Here’s an exercise that I use to familiarize students with each of these positions. I start by
teaching them G major, and then I run through Hal’s great book with them. The dashes
indicate a pivot:

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Hal’s book Boardwalkin’ continues into the Vance/Rabbath 6th position, but I usually hold
off on that until students are a little more advanced. Stopping in 5th position works well
because it covers the range of that G major three octave scale.


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Next Steps
I really hope that you enjoyed this book and got some value out of it! I’ve been teaching
bass for a long time, and these are the exercises that I’ve found to be the most helpful for
my students.

There are galaxies of technical material out there, of course. I’ve got a list of what I like to
use at contrabassconversations.com/teaching. Thanks again for reading this, and feel free
to share this with anyone that might find it valuable.

Sincerely,

Jason Heath

jason@contrabassconversations.com

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About the Author

Jason Heath is the host of Contrabass


Conversations, a podcast devoted to
exploring music and ideas associated
with the double bass. His blog and
podcast are highly regarded in the music
world and have been featured as top
offerings in the world of arts and culture
for the past decade.

Jason serves on the Board of Directors


for the International Society of Bassists
and is the Double Bass Product Manager
for Eastman Strings. He also serves on
the advisory boards of Musician’s Toolkit
and Be Part of the Music, and he is
internationally active as a clinician and
consultant. Jason is also past president of
the Illinois chapter of the American String
Teachers Association.

A highly decorated veteran teacher, Jason


is a past faculty member at DePaul
University, the University of Wisconsin-
Whitewater and Trinity International
University. His former students hold
positions in the Lyric Opera of Chicago,
Grant Park Symphony, Baltimore
Symphony, and Philharmonie
Südwestfalen.

Photo credits: Peter Tambroni and James


Coyne

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