in search of the Irish Double Bass

My grandfather Joseph Groocock took a teaching job in Dublin in his early 20s and never returned to England. Meeting my grandmother had something to do with that – they quickly established a family with 5 children in a rickety cottage in the Dublin mountains. He found that his brand of scholarliness, eccentricity and humour was welcomed and apart from secondary-school teaching he found receptive audiences for lectures on music appreciation and his primary love: educating music students in fugue and counterpoint. His palpable joy in sharing Bach’s work with young people was matched by his genuine delight in their company; this was reciprocated and he was adored by three generations of music students in Dublin, including many of my professional colleagues. Although some of those students regretted that his seeds of wisdom fell on stony ground (Bach scholarship isn’t for everyone) they all loved his classes and his infectious enthusiasm.

with my grandaddy, Joe Groocock, c.1989

Joe also wrote music in various styles to fill a need as it arose. An early success was his whimsical musical Jack and Jill and the Drainpipe – written for the boys at his school to perform a bespoke show. A much later composition was his 1985 Sonata for cello and piano, written for his second wife to play at home with him. This piece is greatly indebted to Brahms but is also gently sentimental and energetically jolly; it’s quite the self-portrait, in its mix of scholarship and whimsy. The 2020 lockdown was my opportunity to finally engage with this sonata and to see how it might work on my instrument, the double bass.

It turns out to be a terrific double bass sonata. Acknowledging that the piano part was such a delightful expression of his musical self, I refrained from tweaking it in any way. So I was obliged to choose carefully the registers into which the bass part was transposed. The result is a piece which uses the whole compass of the instrument, singing happily in the cello’s range but extending to the lowest register of the bass at judicious moments. Because of the lockdown, a performance was not a current option and so I fell on the idea of making a recording of it with the wonderful pianist Gary Beecher.

In the back of my mind I had always thought of making a solo album, I think most musicians will have fleetingly imagined it. But there is never time and in any case, there’s the enormous self-doubt hurdle to overcome: why would anyone be interested? Having my grandfather’s lovely sonata to share gave me a way around the obstacle. What else might I have to offer?

In my years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I surprised the composers of the Contemporary Music Society by volunteering to play in their concerts of new music; they were accustomed to having to beg players to engage. But I always liked the adventure of new music and how contemporary composers explored the unique resonant, timbral, textural and percussive possibilities of the bass. The romantic solo repertoire that attempted to meet established modes set by or for violinists generally ignored the strengths of our own instrument, and often failed on a musical level to match the smaller instruments (although outdoing them in spectacular athleticism).

Among other factors, the 20th century identity of the bass in jazz has played a large part in emancipating it, allowing a reimagining of the instrument on its own terms. Certainly the double bass is currently in a golden period as players and composers get to know it better at last. I have premiered lots of unaccompanied pieces by composers from Ireland in my 30 years of professional playing, and there were many I recalled with a feeling that there was more to reveal than I had been able to explore at the time. So the album that quickly took shape was of contemporary music from Ireland, all of which was closely connected with me. The title would of course be The Irish Double Bass.

The pieces display a great variety of techniques and could serve as a guide to what a double bass can do: A resonant theme and variations by Eoghan Desmond uses a detuned low string. My grandaddy’s gracious 3-movement sonata with piano. A jig by John Kinsella spans the whole fingerboard and beyond. Ian Wilson’s creative use of a unique scordatura generates colourful clouds of natural harmonics. An energetic take on Norwegian folk fiddling by Kevin O’Connell. A new commission from Deirdre Gribbin begins with a passage employing a pair of tea-spoons like dulcimer hammers. Ryan Molloy treats the bass as a giant strung bodhrán. Judith Ring gives an epic setting of timbral explorations. And to conclude, I sing a favourite Irish song to my own bass accompaniment.

It’s rare to hear a bass in the spotlight, and to get up close like this is really rewarding. The bass adds gravy to an ensemble, making everything else sound better, but it’s a more fascinating sauce than you may have realised. And to players of the smaller string instruments, it can reveal things that are not often considered; the low pitch and string length allows the invocation of upper partials to be precisely controlled for colour. It’s beautifully recorded by Laoise O’Brien and Ben Rawlins of Jiggery Pokery Productions.

I don’t seek to define the Irish double bass, but to deliver a personal document of where the double bass is at, in Ireland: it’s appreciably Irish but, like the country itself, no longer inward-looking. Like Ireland, the double bass is increasingly confident, taking its place on the broader stage, sharing its unique qualities with no need for special pleading for notice or approval.

In memory of John Kinsella, who passed away this month. A national treasure and a lovely human.

The Irish double bass can be downloaded from, the CD purchased from, or it can be found on streaming services.

This album was made with the support of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sports & Media.

This article was published in the Strad magazine online, 24/11/2021

Short Cuts

There is no such thing as a shortcut. Any journey can be made using a variety of routes but just as with the issue of procreation — where a random selection of gametes creates a unique person — the reality you arrive in via one route is not the same as if you had taken a different route. And as in the case of the person, it is hard to imagine things having been any other way. Thus, for example, learning fast and getting a good grade in a test is not a shortcut when compared with engaging with a subject in a leisurely fashion. The journeys are different and even if the same grade is achieved, the result is not the same. The person that you are is made of the journeys you have taken, there is no way to have arrived as this person except by precisely those journeys.

Bill Evans said in 1965:

“I hardly believe I’m as talented as some others. Someone with talent possesses a kind of facility and plays well as early as 16 or 17, much better than I could play myself at that age. I had to practice a lot and spend a lot of time searching and digging before I got anywhere. And because of that, I later became more aware of what I was doing. I wasn’t an imitation. I found myself with a synthesis of the playing of many musicians. From this something came out and I think it’s really mine.”

Any shortcut he might have attempted to take — to catch up with the talented kids — would have resulted in an alternative reality without Bill Evans as we know him.

There are no shortcuts, and no need to look for them.

Sing or Play

As a string player who works primarily in string groups, and who has happily spent decades of my musical life within that community, it might be assumed that I would advocate string teaching above all other musical instruction. However, when it comes to primary music education I feel that the emphasis should be on singing. Frequently – when tackling questions of musical phrasing or rhetoric, articulation or even intonation – I ask myself “how would you sing it?” Singing is arguably the fundamental music, to which all music refers and from which all musical adventures and adventurers might beneficially embark.

Violin teaching is much more fashionable; perhaps it is aspirational (the violin really is the top of the heap in the classical-music hierarchy). And I suspect that the materialistic disposition of our society leads us to value instrumental tuition over vocal because it employs sophisticated tools. I’m not arguing against instrumental tuition, but in favour of singing as the discipline to which children should first be introduced.

There are lots of well-documented rewards for schools where instruments are taught: increased discipline, self-confidence and general academic achievement. All of these are great of course; but it may be years before the average child can express themselves on a string instrument because the technique is very challenging. On the other hand, if young children are taught to sing, they can quickly attain a considerable level of musical facility, and can participate on a much higher plane. Having learned to sing – and to really engage with music – children who then learn instruments will find they are able to aim higher from the outset. And those who do not continue to sing nor subsequently take up instruments will have had a view of music from the inside that is much more intellectually and spiritually rewarding than had they spent a couple of years on the violin.

When we are built with such an extraordinary and versatile internal instrument, why favour a fiddly external alternative?

Philharmonic Tone Control

It can be beguiling to hear a beautiful voice, an immaculate delivery. So much so that the transmission can eclipse the content. Often the style-substance dichotomy is ill-balanced or simply unconsidered. Typical conservatoire training for string players emphasises the development of what has been termed the “philharmonic tone”. The production of a focused and projected sound, with a relentless sheen of robust vibrato, involves a myriad of physical components that can be taught effectively. And any school will typically focus its efforts on things that can be reliably imparted to students.

But years invested in this single facet of performance can result in neglect of the engagement with the real matter of music. Striving to achieve perfect delivery of every note (as if they were equally important) is an interesting exercise but if every note is a gem, where is the setting? As with spoken delivery, inflection and emphasis give meaning. In order to invest meaning in music you need to acknowledge that not all notes are important and furthermore to have developed the ability to make decisions on this hierarchy. And to have a strong sense of what the meaning is – of what you are trying to communicate – is a very subjective area and not easily taught.

However good the elocution, what really matters is having something to say.

Quite Interesting

I was watching Stephen Fry and his jolly chums on QI, enjoying all their whimsical banter, and once again it occurred to me that the best thing about the show (and other similar ones) was not the wittiness but the fact that it was spontaneous. Of course it’s all a bit silly, and a tightly scripted thing from any one of the panellists would in fact be a whole lot cleverer. But the show is tremendously popular, and understandably so. Maybe people really prefer daring (even if sloppy) to slick. How does that apply to music?

In his 1667 publication The Division-Viol (p.27) Christopher Simpson says

“True it is, that Invention is a gift of Nature, but much improved by Exercise and Practice. He that hath it not in so high a measure as to play ex tempore to a Ground [improvising], may, notwithstanding give both himself and hearers sufficient satisfaction in playing such Divisions [variations] as himself or others have made for that purpose; in the performance whereof he may deserve the Name of an excellent Artist; for here the excellency of the Hand may be shewed as well as in the Other, and the Musick perhaps better, though less to be admired, as being more studied.”

Which indicates that 350 years ago unpremeditated invention was more prized than intellectual offering even though the latter may produce better music! So our demised classical recording industry was really barking up the wrong tree in its obsession with clarity and perfection: all it achieved was sterility.

Simpson’s message is good: practice a lot, then make it up on the spot. That will grab them.


About 15 years ago I invited an old friend with whom I had played in teenage rock bands to an ICO concert. He endured it and although he admired the technique on display, he mainly wondered afterwards what we young people were doing playing all this dead ancient music! I could hardly comprehend the question – most of the tunes we used to play together were based on well-worn chord sequences and modes, even if we were “writing our own material”. I think his reaction was, like many people, to the complexity rather than to the age of the idiom. His preference would have been for visceral impact, which is to a degree inversely proportional to sophistication.

I never made a distinction between music of then or now, alive or dead, even rock or classical. In fact, I have always regarded Music as one big entity with infinite internal connections, somewhat like the brain. What appear to be new ideas (young music) usually turn out to have been done before, if you care to look. The optimal kind of music-making involves connections that span time in a multi-directional way: the participants are not just looking back (to the score) but rather interacting with past and future Music. Trad players call it a session which is the same word as séance, an apt comparison.

Heavy Metal Parenting

I was friends with a kid who left me for heavy metal: he moved house and found that in his new neighbourhood the thing to do was to commit to a teen code. He appeared to have had his identity suddenly replaced and we no longer had anything in common. I slightly envied him the certainty of his new highly-decorated self, but I suspected that such easily-found conviction would have its drawbacks. And it was indeed traumatic for him to abandon the metal when he grew out of it a few years later. (He had a transitional affair with some pop-rock band while on the rebound.) Making up your own mind – slowly – costs you a lot of thought but pays off in the end for all the dead-ends you don’t have to back out of, and the time invested in finding out who you are rather than trying to be somebody.

When our kids were born I had no intention of signing them up to any religion, for the same reason. And in general I have encouraged them to make up their own minds on things. It’s a slightly controversial parenting tactic, because certainty is comfortable, and children need to be made comfortable; telling a kid a lot of black-and-white stuff makes it easier for them to make sense of the world. But I think my irritating anti-dogmatic attitude provides some continuity in itself, and the boys are good independent thinkers. Then again, maybe a ready-made identity with a prescribed attitude to everything is exactly what they crave, and in time heavy metal will steal my kids too…

Notes vs Music

We were beginning a recording of works by a lesser-known English Baroque composer, with little time and a lot of concerti grossi ahead of us. There was (as is too often the case, especially in the UK) not enough time to actually rehearse and record the music so we had to look only at a few representative parts and then just play the stuff. The engineer would tell us which bits he probably couldn’t fix in the editing suite and we would get a second pass at those. With a familiar composer, you can guess what is coming up to a certain degree, knowing their language. This music however was full of charming but unexpected eccentricities. Our inspired director advised us to

“play the music and get the notes right by accident!”

An incredibly useful and succinct point, and one that I have beneficially borne in mind ever since. The music is the important bit, not to be confused with the notes which are mere detail. The more technically demanding the notes, the less attention a player can find themselves devoting to the bigger picture unless they are vigilant. As an esteemed colleague is fond of saying, in a phrase which appears comicly self-effacing but is actually  quite profound:

“the notes are just a guide”

Thorium Power

According to an article in the Telegraph today, the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics have 140 PhD scientists working full-time on an alternative to uranium for nuclear reactors (and that number will be increased to 750 in 2 years). Thorium was thoroughly investigated for this purpose in the US in the 1960s but uranium was favoured partly because it offered weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product.

The thorium reactor requires constant neutron bombardment: unlike uranium, there is no chain reaction. If you switch it off, it stops instantly, and it can’t melt down. Furthermore, the toxic residue is minimal and it can even “burn” old uranium residue, thereby cleaning up the mess left by the current nuclear power technology.

China’s motives are of course selfish (like any nation): they do not have enough power for their vast upwardly-mobile population, nor nearly enough uranium to fuel the nuclear plants that might deliver that power. But they have plenty of thorium (enough, they say, for 20,000 years). The technology that they are developing could benefit all of us in terms of fossil-fuel dependence, global warming, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.