Fifth in a 10-part series
Bassist David Grossman: 'Not a 9-to-5 job'
(CNN) -- This is the fifth part of an exclusive 10-part series at CNN.com/Career, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.
This week's Player: David Grossman, bass player.
He plays the double bass -- the largest, lowest-pitched string instrument in the orchestra. Despite its great size, the bass is often over-looked; often under-appreciated. Yet the bass is fundamental to the orchestra. Its low, resonant sound is a kind of musical ballast: It gives power, weight and stability to classical music, and to jazz -- and David Grossman plays both.
He's at the beginning of his career in the Philharmonic, the start of his professional life as an orchestra player -- even though he's played the bass half his life. But that's only been 11 years.
You're just 23 -- the youngest player in the New York Philharmonic. How did you come to be a member of the orchestra at such a young age?
I was studying at Juilliard, and in my last year at Juilliard, there was a retirement in the bass section of the Philharmonic -- the first opening in the section in 23 years. The last opening was actually before I was born. It's a bit rare for it to be that long for an opening, but these jobs are not abundant by any means.
I won the audition last November (1999), and started officially in May (2000) -- I had to wait until I graduated.
What was the audition like?
The requirements for this particular audition were intense -- I had to be able to play, really, a survey of orchestra music, from Bach to Bartok. It was an advantage, I think, that I was still in school. I was primed to learn.
I was proud of my preparation: I went in there after practicing the music five or six hours a day for three months. I figured, worst case scenario, I'd learned a pile of music and I'd improved. Best case scenario, I'd win. My teacher, Eugene Levinson, who is principal bass with the Philharmonic, was very supportive. Before the audition, he told me, "Don't try to play better than you are." That really stuck with me as I entered.
You go onto the stage. The stage door opens up, and there's a red carpet leading to a podium with a stool on it, and a music stand. And there's a big black partition separating me from the (audition committee) panel. It's a blind audition. I went in there, and just tried to make music. I just played.
'Led Zeppelin and stuff'
How old were you when you first played the bass?
Well, I started playing piano when I was 7 -- my mom taught me piano. And I started playing the bass when I was 12.
Actually, I wanted to play the guitar -- I wanted to play Led Zeppelin and stuff. But there was a shortage of bass players at the Manhattan School of Music pre-college, where I was taking lessons in a Saturday program. They needed bass players for the orchestra. My mom thought it'd be a great opportunity.
And as soon as I picked it up, I fell in love with it. I realized it was the voice in the orchestra I'd always loved. I loved the sensation of playing it -- you could almost feel it more than hear it, you know?
Were you a tall kid? Did your size have any bearing on your playing bass?
Yeah. I was a big boy and I'm now 6 feet 3. The bass is big -- it's the biggest instrument in the violin family. When I was 12, I was big enough to start on a three-quarter size bass, which is pretty much the standard size. Very few people play a full-size. Even a seven-eighths size bass is huge.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
My parents, in terms of inspiration. My mom plays and teaches piano, and now is in arts management. And my dad is an opera singer, and a photographer specializing in the arts. He knew all these great artists and they would always come over to the house. We had a big apartment and my parents would host musicales. People would come over on a Sunday afternoon and play a program before they played a concert at Carnegie Hall.
I went with my dad to dress rehearsals (at the Metropolitan Opera in New York). Music was just a way of life for our family. I was always surrounded by musicians and artists and people in the arts and it was always such a personal connection, because my parents knew the performers.
Was it assumed that you would play a musical instrument?
Yeah, that was the way it was going to go down. (laughs) I can remember to this day saying "I want to quit playing piano. Mom, why are you making me play piano?"
But it was the discipline. Be it swim team, be it basketball team, debate team, or music. It was learning discipline that she insisted on. And there came a point where I could tell, if I said "I'm not into it anymore," she would have said "OK, but you have that discipline now; you can apply that hard work and effort to anything you do."
At what point did you realize that you wanted to study the bass seriously, even play it professionally?
Oh, I never said "I'm going to be a professional bass player." The career choice was music, which was a lifelong passion.
At Manhattan School of Music's Saturday program, you could sign up for a full day of classes -- classes in theory, ear training, private instruction, conducting. They had five orchestras, depending on age and level. After half a year playing the bass, I was in an orchestra.
But they also had a jazz band and that was very important because I played a lot of jazz piano -- when I started playing classical bass, I started playing jazz piano. And then I started getting into composition, about 8th grade, because my parents bought me a synthesizer. I started composing jazz songs.
When I graduated from high school, I was playing just as much piano as bass. I gave my high school graduation recital in classical bass, classical piano, jazz bass and jazz piano.
It's a shame -- you're such an underachiever...
Well, I wish I did more. That's been the hardest thing for me: to find what to focus on. That's not, I hope, because I'm so flaky, but because I love it all.
Playing classical bass professionally -- that just kind of evolved. I got to a point in my studies at Juilliard where the more I played the bass, the more I learned about music, and the more I felt like I opened up.
And I saw that the symphony (orchestra) is itself such a great instrument. To be surrounded by that sound, that wash of sound, is awe-inspiring, really. The orchestra is the perfect example of a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts and to be one of those parts is incredible.
What part do the basses play in most orchestral music?
Accompaniment. We're the bottom of the orchestra, tonally and figuratively; we have a supporting role. We play a lot of "dum...dum...dum...dum."
I love the function of the bass in the orchestra. I'm happy to have the violins or cellos get the main tune and attention, while we're just making music in the back. There's no reason to be scared that you have to play the melody the whole time, and I love that. And when the bass does have the melody, it's really pretty.
How often does the bass get the melody, or get a solo?
Melody doesn't have to be the main theme that makes everyone in the audience look at the instrument. A lot of times, what I play is a melody -- even if it isn't THE melody, it is A melody.
Typically in a symphony or sonata, during the development of a piece, the melody will be thrown around to all the different instruments, and then we have a solo. But what's really great (about) playing in a section is that I'm one of nine, playing the same part. It's a group effort - it's like we're on a team.
How hard is it to play the bass? What are the most difficult aspects to master?
It's a hard instrument to play well, in part because it's so big. Just like the violins, we have to position our fingers exactly on the strings, but we have much longer strings.
Strings have historically been a problem for basses. They used to be made of (animal) gut. Gut strings sound great, but they're very temperamental -- they vary with the weather, the humidity. And they're not machine-made; they're not perfect..
Steel strings are made in a factory; they're more uniform, more reliable. Violins have been playing on steel strings for quite some time, but the bass world only switched to steel strings in the late 50s, 60s.
The use of steel strings has done a lot to allow players to play more comfortably and express themselves. Orin O'Brien, another teacher of mine who is also in the Philharmonic bass section, says that it used to take six months to teach someone how to get a good sound on gut strings -- and with steel strings, it takes her five minutes.
So it was easier for me to learn to play the bass than it was for some of my colleagues in the orchestra, because I learned on steel strings. Now, with the new strings, if you put your bow on the string at a certain angle, with a certain amount of weight and speed, you're going to produce sound x. That equation is a constant.
The bass is still difficult but it's also exciting, because of the emergence of the bass as a solo instrument. Most bass players have no delusions of grandeur about being soloists -- they're not thinking about playing Carnegie Hall. Bass players (are told) early on -- "hey buddy, if you want to play the solo, this instrument ain't for you."
For years the bass player has been kind of the dolt of the orchestra -- the bass is often seen as out of tune and awkward. Eugene Levinson (principal bass of the Philharmonic) is trying to push the bass forward. His whole thing is: just because the bass is big and cumbersome, why should you play it as such?
Why not play the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto on the bass? Why not play Bach suites on the bass? The bass line is the same as the cello line, but an octave below. I'm working on a Bach cello suite right now and I just played the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto. The point is not to mimic the cello -- it's just that the bass doesn't have this quality of repertoire, for the most part. There are many concertos for the bass by second-rate composers, but we have no Brahms Concerto. We have no Beethoven concerto.
Tell me about the instrument you play. Do you own only one bass?
I own four basses. When I practice at home, I practice on my old bass, the bass I won the audition on. My best instrument I keep at work, for rehearsals and concerts. It's such a gorgeous instrument! It's about 200 years old, if not a little older. I'm trying to learn more about it - I just bought it last August, after seeing it on tour with the Philharmonic in Hamburg (Germany) in May.
You were out window-shopping for basses?
I'd been looking for about two years for a bass of this quality. There aren't too many basses of this caliber floating around and when you do find them, the people don't want to give them up.
I was looking, ideally, for an Italian instrument. Without over-generalizing, Italian instruments are superior. I was looking for an old instrument -- "old" meaning over 100 years old, preferably more like 200. That's because as wood ages, just like a red wine, it matures. And also because the old makers, masters like Stradivarius, their techniques, their varnish, everything was of highest quality.
Are basses of this description more rare than violins or cellos?
Historically, the bass has always been the underdog of the string family. In fine violin shops, the makers never wanted to bother with the bass. I mean, why make a bass when for about one-tenth the amount of wood and effort, you could make a violin? And the violin would sell for more, because people were playing violin solos. No one was playing bass solos.
Every once in a while, someone would say, "Oh well, OK, I'll make a bass," but the great makers essentially didn't bother with it. If you find a bass that ostensibly has a great maker's name attached to it, it's probably a workman in the shop who worked on it.
People refer to these rare Italian stringed instruments as "priceless," but they do have a price. What did yours cost?
These things don't come cheap. I don't want to say how much mine cost, but it was enough for me to take out a five-year loan from the Philharmonic to pay for it.
Violins of this caliber are a million (dollars) or more; this is less than that. It's so strange: You can go to a violin shop and say, "What's the best one you have?" And they might say, "We have a Stradivarius and it'll cost one million dollars," but they'll have that violin there. Basses are nowhere near that price, but you can't find them.
What do you have to do to maintain an 18th century instrument?
Something as mundane as wiping it down with a cloth after I use it. We use rosin on our bow, and when we play, it tends to drop dust on the body (of the bass). And, over time, the fingerboard -- which we push our fingers down on -- that gets worn. Then you have to get the fingerboard dressed: they shave it down, take the grooves out. That happens once every couple of years.
How important is climate control?
Ideally, it should be damp rather than dry -- wood, when it's too dry, can crack. But the most important thing is keeping it at constant humidity and temperature. That's one of the reasons I keep mine in a locker at the Philharmonic.
When you do have to take it with you, how do you transport such a large instrument?
You can get a wheel, which you can clamp into the bottom of the bass. And whenever I've traveled with the bass, I've rented a hard case for it that has wheels.
Wish I had more time to play'
Are there any occupational hazards of playing the bass?
Don't fall off your stool. (laughs) For me, luckily, I've had no injury, no repetitive stress or strain. Part of the point and goal of proper technique is learning to avoid these things.
But there comes a point when you have to listen to your body, just like in sports -- it's really related to sports in that way. When I feel like I'm getting tired, or I feel something's not right, I just stop. I'm in tune with my body enough to know when something's really wrong.
I do Alexander Technique (mind-body exercises centered on spinal alignment). I studied it for three years at Juilliard. It's hard to explain because it's really, above all, awareness of your body. That's very important, particularly for this instrument, because it is bigger and so much can go wrong.
Do you have to take special care of your hands? I see you have developed thick calluses on your thumb and fingertips.
I like tough hands -- it means I can play (on these steel strings) and not hurt myself. And the calluses, well, that's ok. I never had pretty hands. (laughs)
Is there a certain kind of person who is drawn to the bass, to bass playing?
You'll be drawn to it if you love the sound of the instrument -- if you want to feel this instrument vibrate and produce this low tone. Pythagoras talked about vibrations in music, in life -- about the power of resonance. When you play the bass, you just feel it.
It's very mellow; it relaxes you. After a while of not practicing, I miss just the sensation of playing -- it's like getting a hug.
How much do you practice? What's your workweek like?
We usually rehearse in the mornings, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. That's deceiving -- it looks like a part-time job. But you're expected to know the music before you go into rehearsal, which means hours of practice.
A great day for me is when I can practice an hour or two before rehearsal, have rehearsal, have lunch, practice two hours of piano, practice some more bass, and then go to play a concert. And even on those days, as full as that sounds, I'm still thinking, "Oh, I wish I had more time to play."
When I practice, there are a series of yoga-based stretches I do first, such as raising my arms in the air slowly, just to get the blood circulating. Then I start practicing scales -- the ABC's of music. I do scales for an hour a day. It sets me up. It's like my meditation in the morning, before I can do the work at hand. Then I'll practice a solo piece I might be working on or something coming up in the orchestra. Even if I've played it before, I want to get it fresh in my memory.
There might be a day when I don't practice. At certain times, I have taken Sunday off, or one day a week off. I think it's important, sometimes, to have a break, not just physically, but mentally.
Do you have any special routines before a concert? Any "game day" rituals?
I try to relax. My attitude is: the work is done; just enjoy it. You've been practicing the music for months, or at least weeks.
Who are the composers whose music you most enjoy playing?
Bach. Bach. Bach! When I play Bach -- like, the bass line to the Bach Double Violin Concerto -- to me, that's how the bass should be. It's functional, but it's melodic. To me, Bach's greatest achievement was blending melody, harmony and counterpoint -- he always has a number of voices interacting. Brahms is one of my favorite composers. Beethoven.
Anyone more contemporary?
Eduard Tubin, who wrote a bass concerto that Eugene Levinson played with the New York Philharmonic, and which I played at Avery Fisher Hall after winning a concerto competition at Juilliard. That was written around 1948 in Estonia, so you can imagine the vibe of the piece: it's coming out of Shostakovich and Prokofiev -- it's really very heavy. To me, that's the best concerto we have in the repertoire.
What's the reaction when you tell people that you play in the New York Philharmonic?
Usually I don't like to mention that, because I don't like to brag. Sometimes people will ask, "Oh, what do you do?" And I say I'm a musician. And they say "What do you play?" And I say "Jazz and classical bass."
Do people always know what a bass is?
Most of the time. But sometimes I have to say "it's that big thing in the back."
Particularly now, with the lack of musical education in the schools, there isn't always an understanding of what I do. I've had people say things like, "Oh, you're a musician. You can make a living doing that?"
It seems that around the time when Leonard Bernstein did his Young People's concerts, learning to play music and appreciate music was really important. Those people are now 40 plus. I find when I talk to (those) adults -- even those who aren't musicians -- they love music. They know what it means to play in an orchestra.
From your perch on a high stool onstage, what does the concert-going audience look like?
You look at the audiences and you see older people. Although I do see people who are my age or a little older than me and that's cool, to see my peers out there.
But we play these spectacular pieces, and I'm saying, "Why aren't more people listening to this? This is so great!" Take someone like Beethoven -- young people should love Beethoven! But people see this as music for powdered wigs and the courts of kings. They don't see it for what it is -- it was the pop music of its day. Somebody like Paganini was the Britney Spears of his day.
Do you teach?
No. In the future, perhaps. But right now, there's so much I still need to learn.
Is it hard to be the youngest member of an orchestra full of seasoned virtuosos?
There are members of this orchestra who played with Toscanini! To be able to interact with the extraordinary musicians of the orchestra -- that's one of the greatest joys for me.
What's unique about the work environment at the Philharmonic is that some of these people have been playing together for more than 30 years, so people know each other really well. It's not the kind of job where there's someone new every six months. People stay.
Will you stay? Is this the job you think you'll have for the rest of your professional life?
My career is definitely music. The question is, what will I do? I love playing bass. I also love the piano. Here I am at Lincoln Center, at the heart of music -- there's Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the Chamber Music Society, and the Metropolitan Opera, et cetera. My challenge is to fit everything I want to do into a 24-hour day.
My parents always taught me, do what you love to do and do it as well as you can. I feel very fortunate. I can wake up and my main concern is: What kind of beautiful music am I going to make today?
Music is not like a 9-to-5 job where you turn the switch off and say ok, now I'm on personal time. What I know about music is that it engrosses you and encompasses you -- no matter where I go, I'm thinking about music.
Next week's Player: Philip Myers, principal horn (French horn)
Bassoonist Judy LeClair: 'A family was my answer'
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