Padawan of the Double Bass, Part 2: Teachers

The first day of my junior year I approached my high school orchestra conductor, asking what the requirements were to make the top orchestra, which was then the ‘Chamber’ Orchestra. She explained about the audition process, and how it was required that each member take privately on their respective instruments. I had no problem with this, and it seemed like the most logical thing to do if I wanted to become a better player. That same day, Ms. Armwood called up Phillip Serna, who is now Dr. Serna, and arranged my first lesson.

It was either my first or second lesson, and I’ll never forget Phil asking me,

“So, how much playing have you done in thumb position?”

After taking a brief moment to scan what bass knowledge I had, I replied, with my brow furrowed,

“Huh? What’s that?”

That should give you some idea as to what he had to work with as a teacher. Despite that, my first lesson with Phil went great. He proved to be an incredibly friendly, thoughtful and devoted teacher. The way in which he worked with me was methodical and gradual. He started me off with easier solos like the Lorenziti Gavotte and the Capuzzi Concerto, as well as some stuff from the George Vance and Simandl books. In the three years I spent studying with Phil, we covered much of the standard solo repertoire from Dragonetti, Koussevitzsky, Bottesini, Eccles, Paganini and Hindemith. Now, some of these pieces weren’t ‘recital performance’ ready, but the great thing about it was that through playing all of this repertoire, I gained the ability to play throughout the entire range of the fingerboard. Looking back, I think he was exactly the type of teacher I needed at that time. I always had the feeling that he took a real interest in me as a player, and was more concerned with my development rather than my monthly payment.

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In the fall of 2005, I enrolled at the College of DuPage (COD). My reasons for wanting to enroll at a community college were mainly financial, and to a degree somewhat bass-related. At the time, my father was a pastor at church in Naperville, and my mom worked at a rehabilitation facility. We were by no means poor, but paying for something as expensive as a four-year, undergraduate degree education wasn’t really much of an option. Also, after making the IMEA district orchestra (5th chair, yeah!), and seeing how the 1st and 2nd chair bassists were playing, it gave me some idea as to what I should be shooting for in my own playing if I wanted to pursue music in college. Taking that into account, I figured my chances of getting accepted to a four year school were possible, but getting the financial aid I was going to need seemed unlikely.
So, there I was, enrolled in the music program at COD, taking many of the same classes that music students at universities and conservatories would be taking: music theory, aural skills, class piano, ensemble, private lessons, and general education classes. My first two years there I took all of the required music classes for the Associates degree, along with one general education class per semester. This was good, because after a week of classes my musical ego popped like an overly inflated balloon. I discovered that I knew next to nothing about music beyond my ability to read music and play my instrument.

The double bass instructor at COD was, and still is, Rich Armandi. Rich, who is predominantly a jazz bassist, was sort of thrust into a difficult position, having to teach a serious classical student. When it came to the subtleties of the bow, I think my lessons were limited, but in regards to essential musical concepts such as accurate rhythm and pitch, I benefited greatly. My concept of rhythm at the time was totally subjective. My way of playing pieces up to that point was dictated by whatever recording I had laying around at the time, including taking their use of rubato (or lackthereof) as law. While not altogether bad, this meant that I was playing many rhythms inaccurately. To fix this, he sort of made me ‘re-learn’ my previously learned solo repertoire, as well as assigning me etudes out of the Stroch-Hrabe book.

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Through listening to Jason Heath’s fantastic podcast Contrabass Conversations, I found out about Andy Anderson (Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, Chicago College of Performing Arts). Aside from the fact that I absolutely loved the 3 part interview he did with Jason, I couldn’t stop listening to his recital showcase, which Jason also put out. I found myself thinking, “I want my playing to sound like that someday.” So, I sent him an email asking for a lesson (which was sometime back in May ’07).

I can remember in the week or two leading up to that lesson practicing like a demon, working from a desire to make a very positive impression musically and personally. Driving to the lesson that afternoon I was extremely nervous. As I was absently drumming my fingers on the steering wheel to Edgar Meyers version of the Bach suites, I began to have thoughts like,

“This guy plays in Lyric and Grant Park! He won’t like my playing. I know it.”

“He’ll think my Eccles 4th movement is too slow and’ll wonder why I’m not playing it faster.”

Etc…

As it turns out, I was nervous without need. I think I got to his house around 1 pm, and left around 6 that evening. Andy turned out to be a wonderfully enthusiastic, positive, honest and appreciative teacher. He was enthusiastic enough to give me 5 hours of his time for the cost of 1. Not only did we play, but we had a great chat over some iced tea, during which he was very honest with me about where I stood in regards to my playing ability. While he could clearly spot technical kinks that had to be worked out, he could tell that I had put a great deal of time practicing what I played for him, and he appreciated the hard work I had invested, regardless of how good or bad it was. He told me then, and tells me now occasionally, that I can reach the level of playing I desire, it’ll simply take time and hard work. I left that lesson feeling uplifted, challenged and intrigued. I am still studying with him.

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This is the 2nd of 3 autobiographical posts I’ll be putting out in this series.

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~ by benjamin86 on November 24, 2007.

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