by Mark Taylor
The SFCM Newsroom sits down with San Francisco Symphony Principal Bass player and Professor Scott Pingel to find out what inspires him, his biggest piece of advice, and how Metallica made him cool.
Music: A Family Affair
Can you tell me how you started playing double bass?
I was born into a musical family and we were always required to play something. The first instrument that started was the cello. The funny thing is, I don't know if it was laziness, or just being pigheaded, or what, but I just told my parents, “I hate this, you told me this would be fun!” Because I didn't want to have the discipline to practice. All of my friends would be out in the street in their big wheels fooling around and there I am with my cello. My mom would often recall with amusement the fact that there were tear stains down the front of my cello!
It worked out though. When I was about 15 years old, there was this garage band down the street and they needed a bass player and they were like, “Wait, didn't you play cello or something like that as a kid? Do you think you could play this bass thing?” I was like “I don't know for sure. I'll try,” And I just loved the instrument.
(After that) I decided I was going to go to music school and study music. Then I realized in my senior year that if I was going to do that, I needed to learn to play the upright bass. I was pretty much self taught, because my high school didn't have a string program.
They did have a bass.. a white fiberglass bass from the 1960s sitting up on a shelf, covered in dust, and the fingerboard was broken off of it. But because I knew that I needed to learn this thing, I took it home and I used Elmer's wood glue, not knowing any better, and I glued the fingerboard on there and clamped it on. My parents were so impressed with my initiative and my drive to do it, that they bought me a bass.
It’s funny, I look back on that and just tell you just never know what life will take you. And I'll never forget that my brother was actually the one that turned me on to Metallica and Cliff Burton. My brother gave me this record to play, and he's like, “Check out this bass solo, Anesthesia.”
Would you have ever believed it at 15 if someone had told you would someday play with Metallica?
Probably not. It’s kind of a funny story, when I got the job in the San Francisco Symphony back in 2004, I was on the phone with my brother, and he asked me, “So what is this job that you're going to?” He wasn't sure what the San Francisco Symphony was. I told him I was moving to San Francisco and I was going to be playing in the San Francisco Symphony. He's like, “Oh that's cool. Wait a minute — Aren’t they the ones that recorded with Metallica? Whoa, that is so cool!” Now suddenly it was cool, before it was, “whatever”.
When they announced that they were going to do an S&M2 show, my brother was just out of his mind, he was so excited. When I told him I said, “Oh, by the way, I think I'm going to be doing a solo with them as a tribute to Cliff Burton!”
Heavy Metal to Major Classical
Who were the major musical influences in your life? What did you learn from them?
The people that stick out are family members early on, because they have that influence of getting you involved. Family and what your home life is like is where it starts. You have parents that say kids need structure and need help with learning how to be disciplined. I'm grateful to my parents for doing that.
When I knew that I wanted to pursue playing music was when I heard this lick that Jaco Pastorius played on a Weather Report album on a tune called Birdland. I remember listening to it, and there’s this little fill that he does, and I just loved it. I don't even know how to even put words to it, I was so inspired by it that I just had to learn it, and became obsessed.
On the upright bass, Ray Brown became my first really huge influence, so was Ron Carter. When I got into classical playing, there weren't as many classical soloists back when I was a kid. The main one was Gary Karr, he was the bass player that everybody had heard of. Gary was sort of a trailblazer in trying to raise the profile of the instrument as a solo instrument, at least as far as I was aware at that point. Then Edgar Meyer came along and kind of revolutionized things.
There were my teachers—James Clute was my first primary bass teacher in my undergraduate studies. Oddly enough, he almost never played for me. He played for me, maybe two times in the entire four-plus years that I spent with him.
Peter Lloyd was my next teacher before I started graduate school. He was the principal bass of the Minnesota Orchestra at that time. Timothy Cobb, who was the principal bass at the Metropolitan Opera and is now principal of the New York Philharmonic and I studied with him.
Teaching: A Delicate Balance
What do you find yourself doing in lessons? Do you talk? Do you model?
Early in my teaching career, there was talk that modeling wasn't a very effective pedagogical technique because there are so many things that students might need that they can't pick up on just by watching someone do it.
What I'm finding is that there has to be a balance, and it has to be student-specific. There are some students, I think I was one of those students, I would just see it done and I could absorb it and I could hear it in my mind. I could remember what I saw, and go into practice for hours and just keep sawing away until I found that same sound.
Maybe there are times when people need more specifics so they don't injure themselves. On the flip side, in that modeling, there were things I was doing that were passable because they sounded good enough, but I was actually injuring myself. For a lot of teachers, as long as it sounds good, they're not going to change anything. After going through some serious injuries myself, I realized that just sounding pretty good is not good enough. You need to know about body mechanics, healthy posture, healthy kinesiology, healthy movement, and relieving tension.
So, you have to have a balance of things. Yet, one of the best ways of absorbing musicianship and expression is through modeling and being able to hear someone do it right and feeling the emotion, and thinking about how it makes you feel.
I think I've gone through different phases in my teaching career, where I was focused more on modeling initially, and then I moved away from that into more nuts and bolts pedagogy and deep technical understanding. I found that for some students, that kind of deep technical training can crush their soul, and it would for me too. So, I try to find the right balance.
What do you hope to pass on to your students?
It starts from just a healthy foundation of being able to interact with the instrument. They're there with me, first and foremost, to learn about how to play the bass, but it is more than that. They have to learn how to solve problems for themselves because if you give someone a fish, they eat only for a day, but if you teach them to fish, they eat for a lifetime.
Another aspect that is a joy is simply being able to work with other people, because we need other people, and none of us knows everything. That openness to learn from others, and work with others, and be a good colleague. I mean, it's a lesson for myself. Of course, there’s a core repertoire that students need to know, yet that core repertoire consists of important works from history because they are truly beautiful and meaningful. It's the framework upon which you're learning how to play the instrument, how to understand music and expression, how to problem solve, and even how to think about your own life. Think about why the music was written, what is it trying to express, and how might I relate to it? What does it mean? It doesn't necessarily have to be put into words, but it can be put into a heartfelt playing.
Push for Excellence, Not Perfection
What advice would you give to students beginning their own audition journey?
You’ve got to do it because you want it and you love it, for you're probably going to face a fair amount of discouragement and frustration. Love is ultimately a choice more than a feeling, and you sometimes have to choose to keep going, keep investing. I know there were a few times when I auditioned, and thought I played great, but then I couldn't understand why I didn't advance. There are other times where I didn't think I played well at all, and I somehow advanced. It’s important to be able to achieve a degree of sober self-analysis and take some of the magical mystery out of playing.
When I'm on the other side of that audition panel, I don't want to hear this particular person playing an excerpt. I want to hear them capturing the piece. So, yes, all of the intonation and rhythm obviously needs to be there, but the ones that are the most successful are the ones that really capture the spirit and the style--these are the ones who really interest me.
Of course, I am listening for mistakes because we can only hire perhaps one person, But, again, that's not really what interests me. I really want to hire someone, and am listening for great musical expression--that gets me excited. Frankly, a couple minor technical mistakes will be largely inconsequential for me if the musicianship is there.
Obviously, you're always striving to try and be excellent. Not perfect--perfect is like a mirage in the desert--go for excellence. If someone is really playing with excellence, awesome. I love it. I want to hear that musicianship. So, make it a compelling performance, even if you don't feel like it! That's an important component of being a professional.
Can you talk about keeping a job, versus auditioning?
Being prepared. The first rehearsal is not the time to start looking at your music, that will not usually fly. In a professional world, you’ve just got to know it. In some ways it gets a little bit easier, the longer you do it because you've been through all the repertoire before.
In an orchestra section, especially if you're in a non-rotating position, it can be a little bit like an arranged marriage, you know, that person that you're with. You can get really lucky, or it can be a horrible experience. You have to be careful that the horrible experiences are not because of you, and they can be, so try to be self-aware.
Sometimes it just doesn't work and either you have to leave or they leave or you have to move, but I think that's rarer. As I said, keep your chops up, be prepared, and be a good colleague. It's not that much more complicated than that to keep the job.
Work Hard, But Have Fun Along The Way
Can you share a funny performance story from your career?
Once we had an Organ soloist come and play the Poulenc Organ Concerto, which is a completely out-there kind of piece, a little bit bizarre. (After) The soloist walked off the stage, and the audience started clapping and usually, if someone's going to do an encore it’s usually like the second or maybe third curtain call that they do the encore. Well this particular person walked off the stage, came right back on, sat straight down, and started playing of all things, Messaien!
I don’t know Messiaen’s repertoire that well, so I'm sitting there thinking, What is he doing? Is he just making this up? It was just getting kind of ridiculous and it may be a genius piece of music, but whatever it was, at that moment, I was like, “Is he improvising? What is going on?” What's so funny was it just kept going on and on, the thing was almost as long as the concerto.
I'm starting to think “This is getting really absurd.” It's so ridiculous that I'm starting to laugh. I'm looking around the orchestra, like is anybody else laughing? I look down the row, toward one of my colleagues, Brian Marcus, and I'm just kind of wondering, he must be just thinking, “What the heck is going on here?” I looked down the row and I didn't see him because he was down, ducked behind his bass. Then he came up for air, his face was red, tears were streaming down his face, and he's gasping for air because he's laughing so hard. I lost it. I couldn't breathe because I was laughing so hard.
Then that laughter just goes through the whole orchestra. Everybody was tearing up; we're all laughing. Of course, you’re trying not to because you're trying to be a professional. You’re on stage in front of this audience, but we have nothing to do but just sit there, and we're all just dying. This thing goes on and on and on.
Then what made it even funnier is I see the Director of Operations looking at his watch and throwing his head up in the air and throwing his arms and he's pacing back and forth because he knows what it means — this super long encore is going to cost the orchestra thousands of dollars because we're going into overtime. He is furious. It just added layer upon layer of comedy to this whole thing.
Then he finishes the encore and the audience is kind of clapping, but they're not sure, responding a bit like “What did we just hear?” This was more than 10 years ago, we still laugh about it.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I’d tell myself to be more patient. I think that sometimes my drive to try and make stuff happen was one of the ways I injured myself. I would practice so excessively and not realize that some things just take time.