George L. Vance Dies; Musician Scaled Down Double Bass to Fit Children's Hands

George Vance used the Suzuki teaching method.
George Vance used the Suzuki teaching method. (Courtesy Of Carol Dana - Courtesy Of Carol Dana)
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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

George L. Vance, 60, a musician who developed an innovative way of teaching the double bass to children, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 16 at his home in Silver Spring.

Mr. Vance was influenced by the work of the Japanese music educator Shinichi Suzuki, whose technique for teaching the violin to preschoolers became popular in the United States in the 1960s. Although the double bass was usually reserved for older students because of its size, Suzuki's success inspired Mr. Vance to adapt the method to the larger instrument. He traveled to Japan to work with the renowned teacher and became one of the few in the United States who taught the instrument to preschool students.

In 1984, Mr. Vance began working with Annette Constanzi, a Washington-based cello teacher who also relied on the Suzuki method. The two developed the first volume of what became the "Progressive Repertoire for the Double Bass." It eventually grew to three volumes and included material from Hal Robinson, then-principal bassist of the National Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Vance's "Progressive Repertoire" and a compendium of scales and arpeggios titled "Vade Mecum for the Double Bass" were published in 2000.

In addition to music for the beginner, Mr. Vance's students needed a scaled-down bass. Although quarter-sizes basses were available in the 1980s, they were still too large to be played by the 5-year-olds Mr. Vance was trying to reach. He restrung cellos with bass strings, tuned them to the bass pitch and used the hybrid instruments to test his method with his first set of students.

The results weren't satisfactory, so in the mid-1980s Mr. Vance commissioned a local instrument maker to build a 10th-size bass. He went on to commission a series of basses in graduated sizes, which he sold to students across the country through his company, Slava Publishing.

"The problem with recruiting bass players," bass teacher Helen Stephenson told the Boston Globe in 1998, "is that by the time they're big enough to play the instrument, the violinists have six years' head start on them. That's why the very small instruments -- the one-eighth and one-10th basses -- are such a breakthrough."

George Louis Vance was born in Akron, Ohio, and received his undergraduate degree from Arizona State University in 1978. Because of an administrative mix-up, he had received his master's degree in fine arts a year earlier from Carnegie Mellon University. He moved to Washington in 1978 to serve as a bassist with the Army Field Band. He also was choir director at St. Mark Orthodox Church in Bethesda and taught at the University of Maryland, George Mason University and the Levine School of Music in Washington.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Mr. Vance organized the Summer Bass Workshop, an annual week-long event in Silver Spring or College Park that featured bass teachers from around the world. He also lectured and taught at clinics throughout the United States as well as in Ireland, England, Finland, Sweden, Canada and Australia.

His marriages to Kristine Bennick and Gloria Gracey ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Martha Dana Vance of Silver Spring; his mother, Catherine Vance of Lecanto, Fla.; a son from his first marriage, Sam Vance of Seattle and a stepson from his third marriage, Alexander Barge of Silver Spring; and three grandchildren.

-- Joe Holley

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