Wise Words from Bassist Paul Ellison


Paul Ellison, Editor at Ovation Press

Paul Ellison is the Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Double Bass and chair of strings at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He is also one of the most active editors at Ovation Press, having contributed a number of exclusive editions of works for double bass. We were fortunate to be able to connect with Mr. Ellison at distance and get his insights on a number of topics.

(interview conducted March 7, 2011)

String Visions: Going back to your early days as a musician, what were the first steps you took in preparing yourself for a career in music?

Paul Ellison: I don’t think there really was such a thing for me. Having had the advantage of growing up in Manhattan and moving to Chicago, as well as having grandparents who had been professional musicians in New York their entire lives was important. My grandfather was in the same theater orchestra, a colleague of, Eugene Ormandy. He saw Ormandy rise to the podium and decided to do the same thing. My grandmother was the first woman theater organist in New York City. So even though I wasn’t playing music at that age, I had an idea of what it was all about.

When I started playing the bass in Senn High School, Chicago it never occurred to me to do anything other than express myself—have fun. I’d immediately started playing in garage bands with friends that were making music of all kinds. Bad chamber music, bad dance music, good dance music. (With) whomever I could find. There’s nothing more fun than being part of all that.

SV: Do you have any specific advice for students in that situation, who are just about to enter the professional music world?

PE: Yeah, don’t prepare for your ‘career.’ What one needs to be is the best possible and the broadest base musician one can be possibly be. One of the things I discuss with all my students in studio and orchestra rep class is that when your phone rings, you want to be able to pick it up with one word in mind: YES. So if it’s early music, a show, a commercial job, whatever it is — contemporary music, orchestral music — be able to say yes. And the great thing about that is that when your base is that broad you train yourself in a way that everything grows on everything else. It’s an organic experience. By NOT leaving anything out, the breadth of your training and experience set you up to do everything… and anything. I once even took a gig on ‘tub bass’.

SV: Going off that, some people say that if you try to diversify too much, you aren’t able to be as focused or reach your full potential. For example, studying jazz requires a different skill set mentally and physically from classical music. Can you reconcile this perspective with your own?

PE: I have two words for you: Andre Previn. For what purpose do we place limitations on our selves? Are we accepting limitations placed on us by others?

Playing  jazz was something I loved to do and still do on occasion. I don’t do it with the same intensity, energy, and consistency I do classical music, period performance, and chamber music. I hold it in a slightly different place. Could I have made a living in jazz, perhaps if I had focused myself at a certain age in that area I might have, but I didn’t. So in that sense yes, your point is well taken.

When I look at my former students, there are a couple examples that stand out. Nicholas Walker is the Professor of Bass at Ithaca College. He’s had his jazz group at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan. He‘s done barge-music. He plays with a Handel-Haydn early music group in Boston. He plays gamba. He plays symphony orchestra. He plays solo. He’s a composer and has won competitions as a composer… what a great thing to see. On the other hand, there are students that are totally motivated in one area, I don’t have any problem with that and I support that. I do encourage them to broaden themselves the same as I encourage them to go the Museum of Fine Art, Ballet, etc. to broaden their vision of art in general. Among my fondest memories is being reduced to tears seeing for the first time the progression of Monet’s Japanese bridge and lily pond.

How can you deal with your own art unless you actually know what that is, unless you have a palpable sense, at a visceral level if you will, of what it is to do that particular thing? I think branching off into whatever you choose to do, while it might be a somewhat different story, has to come from that kind of background.

SV: Looking back, is there anything else you would have rather done or have had happen differently?

PE: All knowledge that we acquire that is of functional value is experiential. It doesn’t come any other way. Yes you can read about it and learn theoretically how to do something like–say a few words in Mandarin or Shanghai dialect. But the real use of it, and the real experiential use of it, is gleaned out of life. And I could answer you simply and say sure. I’d like to know when I was your age what I know now.

Actually, there was a particular audition that I played in which my preparation was extensive and I was well prepared. I had also been doing some research into some of the music I was performing. And by having looked at the sources of the music that I was performing, I had fixed two notes that were commonly thought to have been a certain way, and I corrected them to be the way the composer had actually written having looking at the facsimile of the composer’s hand. Following the audition, which I didn’t win, there were several positive comments but they said—‘you know you got yourself in trouble when you played those ‘two wrong notes’ in your solo.

So I thought, what’s happened here and what can I learn? You have to play to your audience, particularly at an audition. It helps to understand what the audition committee’s expectations are and use that knowledge appropriately. Don’t expect them to be hearing it from your point of view or your life experience. Those elements are liable to be quite different.

SV: On the subject of auditions, what are some of your top recommendations for what a musician should focus on in this type of performance? Or rather, what do you notice most in an auditioning musician?

PE: Most often audition winners are very thoroughly trained and complete players. It’s rarely someone who has gone to school with the thought of getting an orchestra job in the front of their brain… and (who) spends all their time pummeling the orchestra repertoire to death.

Having the skill sets to approach the breadth of repertoire that is required in a professional audition, meaning everything from the Bach Orchestral Suites to Prokofiev, Shostakovitch, late Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern… the skill sets are something to be learned independently, not as part of the repertoire. When the  learning process has been sufficient, such that the use of the bow and the appropriate combination of bow and left hand are correct in each context; so that you can hear the progression from Bach-Handel-Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven-Schubert-etc; so that as you play through the repertoire, Schubert doesn’t sound like Brahms, Mendelssohn doesn’t sound like Mozart, and Mozart doesn’t sound like Schumann. That itself tells you about that person’s musical background and knowledge of the repertoire.

More from Paul Ellison on auditions and also on being part of an orchestra

PE: Among the things taking place at an audition, is the committee’s choice of a  work-partner,’ someone who is going to sit very close to you and make music with you at least 20 hours a week. One wants that person to have the appropriate skill set and knowledge base to make the good choices on a regular basis. No one expects someone just starting their orchestral career, no matter how spectacular their technique, to have an experiential understanding and familiarity of playing with ensembles. It’s something they settle into. They bring their technique, skills, and musicianship, then learn the ways of a particular ensemble.

You do expect and hope that the person would have the knowledge from which to choose the appropriate ways of playing the orchestral repertoire and also understand what the ethos and aesthetics of playing that music are. If they are playing Strauss’ Don Quixote, do they understand where that comes in the history of Western art music? Is there the understanding of what it means when hearing a descending glissando in Strauss? What is that? How do you do that? Why are you doing that? What is the difference between a fortissimo marcato and a fortissimo with dots? This knowledge comes from profound and sincere study, from trying to understand and absorb this repertoire.

Expanding on the ideas of different perspectives in auditions, Paul Ellison discusses the importance of context

PE: Orchestras, and in particular bass sections, play a certain way based upon the hall in which they play, the history of the music directors, and the culture of that unique orchestra. Each ensemble is quite different. To have some understanding of stylistic differences between North America’s and Europe’s senior orchestras is helpful. These differences are shared by many of our younger ensembles for various reasons. The more one understands this, the easier it is to support a young player’s audition preparation.

What’s important is that we try to keep the music in a context that would have made sense to the composer… so that we don’t completely disfigure the music based on modern, largely twentieth century concepts. Approaching any music, it’s appropriateness, it’s honesty, its context… these are critical to the value of one’s contribution as a musician. Are you able to address these issues?

Understanding context is critical for giving superior performances in auditions as well

SV: Going back to what you notice in auditioning musicians, what indicates to you whether someone is a more “thorough and complete musician.”

PE: It’s all about the music making. Generally one starts with something in the earlier repertoire such as Bach, Haydn, Mozart. One knows immediately from the choice of bow strokes, the type of sound, the use of vibrato, and the way the phrase is presented. Are they more worried about the instrumental aspect of it, or are they shaping a phrase that is a part of the larger orchestral, musical context? If the strokes are wrong, and the emPHAsis is on the wrong syllABLE then… (well, let’s just say) that if we did that with our language, with the spoken word, it would be immediately recognizable as something foreign sounding.

SV: How would you recommend young students build up their knowledge of this dimension? What can they do approach being that kind of through and complete musician?

PE: With today’s technology and everything at our fingertips, it’s much easier to get access to recordings and performances. You go to YouTube and watch and/or hear performances from the early 20th century. You can head over to Amazon and purchase recordings made throughout the century. Today’s incredibly sophisticated music scholarship is easily accessible. One needs to become familiar with different interpretations, at different times, and in different contexts. Without that background, how do we dare present this repertoire? I often think about the music we know from our life experience—jazz, pop, rock, etc.—how disturbing it can be to hear a bad ‘cover’’ or trashy version of something we like.

SV: Do you have an embarrassing moment as a performer that you would be willing to share with us?

PE: The 3rd movement of the Mahler First Symphony has a famous bass solo… the minor version of “Frere Jacques.” It refers to a faux-children’s parade that was kind of a mock funeral, and it has a particular character. Having thoroughly prepared and performed it three times with the Houston Symphony… I had allowed myself get a little cocky with it as we took it out on a regional tour. It was fine on the first couple stops, but on the third show I didn’t prepare it as well as I should’ve for that night. It had gone very well both nights before, and then–it didn’t go well. And you know, it’s like everything is fine and you are as good as the last thing you’ve played. If a little tragedy occurred… in this case slipping off the string in the middle of sincere emotion… it should be just comical. I have to admit it was horrifying—- AND I took an incredible amount of ‘business’ from my colleagues in the bass section. Most of the other orchestra members were very forgiving, though I wished they’d said nothing….

I actually wrote an article for the International Society of Bassists’ magazine titled “Don’t Mess with Mother Mahler.” As simple as the solo is, do be ready and take it seriously each time. And of course I already knew that, but just didn’t persevere as I should have.

SV: You often approach master classes and your lessons from the perspective of “discovering the unknown.” About 60-65% of material falls into the category of the things you know you don’t know. For you, what is the significance of the unknown, either on a personal or professional level?

PE: The first thing I would say, quoting (my teacher) Francois Rabbath, is that “the only teachers you will ever have are these (grabbing both ears).” You have to learn how to hear yourself not through the filter of what you think you know and what you think you are supposed to hear, but of what sounds you are actually making. When we come at a new piece of music, all we have is the printed page, the map… If you go from B-flat to D-natural perhaps on the G string, you already know how to do that, but how do you know how you get there? How do you know in fact if that’s the way to play the first B-flat and second D-natural? Because, obviously there are many ways on a string instrument that you could reproduce those notes.

So that discovery process has to do with: let’s see, how many ways could I play it? Well I don’t know… so we’re into the dark areas, into the areas of not even knowing what you don’t know. But you DO know that it’s an area to look at, to begin to cast light into, to shine the light on. Now how many B-flats in this register do i have on my instrument, and you go and find each of them and the different colors that they make. And then you say, what’s the function of this note? Is it a note that comes on the strong part of the beat or the weak part of the beat? Is it a pickup? Is it a resolution? Is it a terminus? Okay, now I have some idea of about what’s required—this with out yet considering fingering, shifting, etc.

Moving forward with that, what’s the next note I’m going to. The next note is a D-natural, so how many of those do I have on the instrument? And you go through and probably find 3 or 4 of the same note. What are the ways I could move to each one? And then, you put the connections between the B-flats and the Ds, and you may have three, four, or five different ways of moving from one to the other. At this point, you may not have seen an urtext or facsimile, what the original articulation is. So you are beginning to build a body of knowledge from which you can choose how it is you are going to approach this passage. And you are also beginning to develop a level of security for your own self. Because by having done all of things we just discussed, your understanding of what the possibilities are has broadened your awareness of how you are going to present this B-flat and d in the context of say Mozart. So you have some choices and some options. And you are beginning to put together the basis of a pretty good place to start. And then you’re able to begin expressing yourself musically in an appropriate context with the necessary skills.

SV: It’s a very Socratic approach. Do you think the amount you “don’t know” or “know you don’t know” becomes smaller as you become more experienced, perhaps as you become a more complete and thorough musician? Or is it something that remains more or less constant because each unique situation will have its own unique “unknown?”

PE: Well, the first thing I would say is thank heavens for the unknown! I just returned from visiting my teacher Francois Rabbath in Paris… He showed me some pieces that addressed issues that he and I as pedagogues had discussed but didn’t really have any practical way  of approaching. They were pieces of a nature that even though they had a pedagogical purpose, they were suitable for performance. He then proceeded to play, at performance-level quality, these new pieces he had written. So that’s one way of trying to describe to you how much I appreciate knowing that there are things to be discovered on a daily basis (even for the older “masters.”)

Ellison continues talking about the unknown and its influence on his contributions to Ovation

PE: One of the difficult things about doing arrangements for Ovation, is that I never do the same thing in the teaching sequence of a major piece. There are always changes and updates to discover. Sometimes it’s because of new or newly discovered scholarship that indicates: “In its original form, we have the original parts from such-and-such orchestra, and this is what they did with Beethoven. This is exactly how it was played.” Well, you can only know that when you find it out. If you didn’t know that before then you didn’t include it in your ideas. So that’s why it’s difficult to set anything in stone and put your name on it because it was appropriate for the moment on a given instrument in a given period. And, in the meantime we have strings that are better than they were two years ago. Or we have something that’s new. Or better yet, I’ve got a better bow from the beginning of the 19th century or end of the 18th century that allowed me to find a way to play this that I never would have thought of.

So the dark areas, accepting that they are there, and knowing that hopefully every day you can cast a little light in that direction to see what you get is to me a magnificent part of what we do.

SV: What would you say to those who believe that their percentage of the “unknown” is not so big… in other words who have the mindset that they know everything or close to everything? How do you coach someone like that?

PE: Either the student or I am recording any given lesson or coaching, that’s a constant in my studio. We arrive at a certain moment and I suggest we put our instruments down to see and hear how things actually are. A high percent of the recordings are done with video and we just sit down and look and listen… The goal is self-discovery. (But) if they don’t have the questions, if they aren’t yet open enough to discuss it with me: “Well what do you think about when it’s played this way…” if we can’t get there, then we might as well do the same thing as (one) visitor who came to play a perfect performance for me—and was sure that he had.*** Because there’s no opening, and the last thing I want to do is attempt to force feed a bunch of information into somebody’s head who isn’t available to receive it. What good is that going to do? It’s going to frustrate me. It’s going to frustrate the other person. There’s certainly no way to get there from here.

***This musician made considerable arrangements to come play for Mr. Ellison as a guest. After he gave an impressive private performance, Mr. Ellison complimented him and asked him what he thought of his performance. The guest replied that it was perfect. They then shook hands and the guest departed.

We thank Mr. Ellison for his time and willingness to share such great experiences with us. Please check out his and other exclusive editions of orchestral excerpts and parts for bass at Ovation Press.

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One Response to Wise Words from Bassist Paul Ellison

  1. Duane Hulbert May 31, 2011 at 12:13 am #

    Hi Colin: I enjoyed reading your interview with Mr. Ellison. I had the pleasure of meeting with him in Houston last February during my son’s bass audition at Rice. He’s a marvelous musician and a fine human being. My son, Evan will be studying Mr. Ellison’s colleague, Tim Pitts this fall at Rice. All the best to you as you launch your website! Best, Duane

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