Excellence in Teaching Award: Maurice Todd

Marurice Todd and his double bass. Photo: Olivia Bruner.

"No one likes to play scales," Maurice Todd states matter-of-factly. The College-Conservatory of Music master's student should know, he teaches scale lessons to all undergraduate and first-year graduate students in the CCM double bass studio, under the direction of associate professor Albert Laszlo. But even though these pupils may not like scales, they do like Todd. Words such as "rewarding" and "exemplary" run through the recommendations that helped him earn the Graduate School's Excellence in Teaching Award.

Standing aside the richly stained poplar body of his instrument, the bassist admits that he was in a similar place to these students ten years ago. “I realized that I wasn’t getting any better and that I had to incorporate scales,” Todd says, “but I had to do it in such a way where I was paying attention and was in the practice session the entire time.” To that end, he developed a series of practice exercises he called the “72s and 88s,” named after the metronome markings at which he played them.

Todd’s routines worked because they combined the notes of the scales with changes to bowing and articulation. “With each rhythmic value I did something different, and I was listening for something different,” he explains; this variety encouraged him to stay constantly involved while playing. By taking better stock of his technique and questioning himself on how best to improve, he was again able to make progress on the bass. Todd now teaches using these exercises, and the hard-earned lessons of working through them help him dissect the performance of
his students.

Maurice Todd looks on as one of his students, Brian Hanson, plays some scales. Photo: Olivia Bruner.

His pedagogy focuses on the crucial links between sound and motion. As he watches students play the 72s and 88s, his eyes critique their fingers on the fretboard, their arms drawing the bow, their bodies slightly swaying with the music. One student looks stiff as he plays a difficult pattern; Todd advises him to shift the weight on his feet to follow his bow motion, and soon the strings resound much more smoothly. “Other string instruments, like the violin and viola, are able to move while they play, and sometimes they have freer arm movements than we do,” he says. “So I try to incorporate those movements in the scale lessons.”

Even while the bass is silent and Todd interacts with his students, the studio constantly echoes with the click of a digital metronome. When asked why, he begins tapping his wide hand in time against his leg. “In any kind of orchestral audition, while you’re up there baring your soul, there’s always one person on the committee doing this,” he clarifies. Because of its size, the bass creates more timing challenges for players than do smaller, nimbler instruments. But Todd, who plays professionally with the Lexington Philharmonic and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, tells his pupils that audition committees are unsympathetic. “You have to play in time to be in a professional orchestra. If you can’t, they’re not going to want you.”

Maurice Todd demonstrates scale technique. Photo: Olivia Bruner.

Auditions also inform Todd’s approach to the style of the scales in his lessons. Orchestras need their players to cover centuries of musical history, and the works of different composers often call for drastically different techniques. “We have a couple of minutes to show a committee how we can switch from style to style,” he explains before demonstrating two versions of the same scale. The first, appropriate for a Mozart opera, has a certain bounce as the bow “comes out” of the string for each note. The second, in the pattern of a Brahms symphony, is much weightier, with a stronger attack and more forceful stroke. By challenging his students to swap their styles throughout the lesson, Todd trains them in the flexibility they’ll need for professional work.

Todd emphasizes that his method isn’t just a way to teach: it’s a way for students to teach themselves. To improve in any music, he says, “you have to ask questions of yourself. You have to open your ears and listen.” After his lessons, Todd’s students know to interrogate their playing in motion and rhythm, tonality and style. The base of technique they learn prepares them to scale any musical heights.

Written by Daniel Walton, Graduate Assistant to the Graduate School Office