It is a problem that has plagued school orchestra directors through the ages: not enough double bass players.
Because of the size and technical challenges of playing the bass, young bassists often get a later start on playing the instrument and have traditionally been recruited from other parts of the orchestra.
“It’s not an instrument that people gravitate to naturally,” says Oregon Symphony bassist Ted Botsford. “The bass is the instrument that is leftover in orchestra class, so often that’s the one that the tall kid gets.”
In recent years, directors of youth orchestras, like Portland Youth Philharmonic Music Director David Hattner, have faced the additional challenge of finding enough musicians with the skills and experience necessary to play their more difficult repertoire.
“The orchestral music that we play is very challenging, particularly for the bass,” says Hattner. “If students don’t have good private instruction before joining the orchestra, there is a good chance they will be overwhelmed by the material.”
According to Hattner, cuts to elementary music programs in recent years have reduced the opportunities for kids to learn instruments in schools and shrunk the pool of potential musicians for the Youth Philharmonic. Most of the kids accepted into the PYP have had private lessons from an early age, paid for by dedicated parents. Otherwise kids often don’t start learning an instrument until middle school.
“It makes it much more difficult for talented students to get started,” says Hattner. “When you put an instrument in someone’s hands in the sixth grade instead of the fourth grade, you are making a pretty big difference in that person’s potential to become advanced on that instrument.”
To address these challenges, the PYP has expanded their programs to take on more of the role of preparing students to play in their top ensembles. In the past 10 years they’ve added several new ensembles for younger students, including the Portland Youth Wind Ensemble and the Young String Ensemble, which expose the young musicians to music that they would never see in their middle school orchestras.
To help fill his double bass sections, three years ago Hattner launched a free double bass class for any student interested in trying out the instrument, regardless of experience. Taught by four members of the Oregon Symphony bass section — Don Hermanns, Jason Schooler, Brian Johnson and Ted Botsford — the class meets Saturdays throughout the school year. There are three levels of instruction for students, from beginners who are picking up an instrument for the first time to more advanced students who have some experience playing the bass in their school orchestra or are switching over from another instrument.
For any kid interested in trying out the instrument, it’s a rare opportunity to get high-quality instruction that is focused on the bass.
“In a school orchestra, there is a lot more going on and the instructors don’t necessarily have time to pay attention to what’s going on in the back of the room with the bass players,” says instructor Brian Johnson. “This is an opportunity to get together with the basses, play some tunes, talk a lot about technique and proper setup with the instrument that they sometimes can’t get as frequently in a classroom setting.”
“The class has been remarkably effective at filling our orchestras with double bass players,” adds Hattner. “We now have the most double bass players enrolled since I’ve been the conductor.”
It has also helped a new generation of players discover an affinity for the bass. Nick Arredondo, a student at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, was a beginner when he joined the class during its first year. He has since gone on to play in the PYP highest-level ensembles and was accepted to attend the Tanglewood Music Center this past summer.
“Nick has jumped in with both feet and used the class as a catalyst to discover that he wants to be a bass player — and he is,” says instructor Don Hermanns. “It’s really gratifying to uncover talent through the stimulation of the interest in the instrument thanks to a program like this.”