March 25, 2011
Mary Reed photo Lauren Shusterich
Double bassist Mary Reed grew up in South Carolina, the daughter of musicians. She began studying classical guitar at age six, and at age nine, picked up the double bass, which has been her primary focus ever since. She earned her Bachelor of Music from Johns Hopkins University last year, and made the move to Los Angeles to continue her studies. Last September, Reed was just settling into her first semester as a graduate student at USC Thornton School of Music when an amazing opportunity arose: she was invited to participate in a mock orchestral audition for strings, and ended up winning a very real prize – the chance to join LACO for a week of concerts! Reed will play during the Beethoven’s Emperor concert in April, and recently shared with me, among other things, what the audition contest experience was like, what she’s thinking when she’s performing onstage, and what it’s like to travel with her double bass.
Can you explain the audition process that you went through to win the contest?
“My private studio teacher nominated myself and one other graduate bass student. Of the nominated students, there were three violinists, two violists, two cellists and two bassists – all graduate students and beyond. [At auditions like this one,] the performer has a substantial amount of space, and in front of the judges, there is a tall curtain suspended on a rod, large enough to block out any view of the performer, the idea being to prevent any kind of bias, whether personal or physical. I love curtains in an audition setting for two reasons: I can pretend there’s no one on the other side if I’m feeling nervous, and no one can question the integrity of your success when you’re being judged purely on sound.
At the time that I was asked to participate, I didn’t realize that the audition was a master class setting, meaning that the entire string department was going to be on the other side of the curtain, in addition to the panel of judges. The audition itself was about 15 minutes, which is pretty typical.”
How did you find out you won the contest, and what was your reaction?
“Since the mock-audition contest was intended as an educational tool, all 100 or so of the string department students and professors were [there], and after we were done playing, we were expected to go into the audience to listen to our colleagues. Since I was the last player, I put my instrument down and sat in the audience to hear the judging panel’s closing comments. Then they said that they had chosen a winner – ‘Bass #2’! First of all, I never thought they would choose a bassist over a violin or a cello. The double bass has often been regarded as the underdog of string players, since our instrument is cumbersome and our repertoire is not always so dazzling. A rush of adrenaline came over me. I’m sure I was blushing, since I was surrounded by all of my classmates, who were looking around to see who the mystery bassist was. I awkwardly put my hand up and waved to the room – a more gracious person probably would have stood. I was surrounded by my fellow bass students and my private teacher David Allen Moore of the LA Phil, who were all very proud and supportive. I remember turning to my friends and asking reassurance: ‘Bass 2? That’s me, right? They really said that?’”
How much does your double bass weigh? Is it tough to travel with?
“Ha! If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me ‘don’t you wish you played the flute?’ I could retire. Something that every bass player deals with when walking around in public with their instrument, especially if you’re a girl, are people always making comments. A bass is typically about 30-40 pounds, and if you use an end pin wheel (which attaches to the bottom of the bass) it’s not too much trouble. A soft case is probably only about 5 pounds, but a flight trunk is a whopping 60-70. Flight trunks are crazy. Wheeling it around the airport is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and talk about people staring at you! It’s gargantuan. A random person in an airport even took my picture once. You can check it, but only with certain airlines. It’s kind of a hot topic in the bass community because so many people have had serious problems, which I guess is not surprising since the whole package is about 100 lbs and 77 inches tall. I always fly Southwest. They’ve never done me wrong.
I drive an old Ford Explorer (don’t judge, I’m from South Carolina) and am more or less doomed to a life of big cars. Station wagons make good bass cars too.
There are plenty of these kind of inconveniences that come with playing the bass, but it’s definitely worth it. After so many years of playing, I’m pretty used to it and hardly notice the daily struggles of traveling with my instrument.”
In addition to your classical repertoire, you’ve performed many genres, like folk and jazz. How does performing a bar or club setting, like Hotel Cafe, differ from playing with an orchestra? Do you prepare differently? “Overall, I think there is a spectrum of casual to formal – with rock being the most casual and classical being most formal, jazz probably somewhere in the middle. No one shows up early for band practice, and on the other hand, for most orchestra jobs, if you’re on time, you’re late. For an orchestra concert, depending on the difficulty of the repertoire, I will spend about an hour practicing the music every day for two weeks leading up to the first rehearsal, in addition to my daily practice routine of technique, solo, and audition repertoire. For a pop/rock gig, I would listen to the songs a few times and maybe take some notes, but there is a lot less personal practice time required, since the techniques and structures are far less complex. There are always exceptions, but most of my experience has been that way.”
How would you describe the feeling of performing onstage in the company of a great orchestra?
“When performing with an orchestra, especially a great one, I feel excited, and typically some adrenaline on the night of the concert, but there is always a sense of duty. The idea never leaves me that I’m there to do a job and give something beautiful to the audience, rather than just get carried away in the music myself. I am more or less aware of the audience depending on the hall, or lighting, or restlessness of concertgoers, but my focus is 99% on what’s happening on stage. I can’t just put my hands on autopilot and look around to see if any of my friends are out there.
It’s hard for me to think of an analogy for non-musicians because the concert is such a unique experience. In a way it is like a job, I play bass every day of my life, so maybe if you could imagine practicing your job for hours every day and then for a couple hours on the weekend, hundreds of people would pay to watch you do your job. The catch is that your ‘job’ would be an expression of the human spirit. I know that may sound funny or pretentious, but art is unlike anything else in life.”
There are a lot of people out there who have never experienced orchestral music live, and may feel intimidated, because they don’t know anything about classical music, don’t know what to listen for, or feel out of place. How would you respond?
“I think that an orchestra concert is a lot like a novel. Inevitably there will be novels or authors or genres that you don’t like, but does that mean you don’t like to read? Maybe Beethoven isn’t for you (though I can’t imagine!), but maybe Copland is. I think one of the biggest problems that people are afraid that they don’t know what to listen for, or feel out of place. I believe that if someone comes to the concert with an open mind and respect for the performers, composer and the tradition, that they will have an enlightening and enjoyable experience. And if not, it’s ok! I remember going to a film screening of Mike Kuchar shorts (an underground filmmaker of note) and thinking, ‘That was weird, I don’t think I liked it. Do I have low tastes?’ The experience was memorable, since I had never seen anything like it and although I was uncomfortable and uncertain in this viewing, I would certainly not dismiss all films of this genre. However, I am not anxious to go to another Kuchar screening. I would say that anyone who likes to go to museums or plays or a ballet or enjoys any of the traditional art forms would probably enjoy an orchestra concert. As for new concertgoers being afraid of the formal element, there are mild expectations of dress and etiquette is pretty intuitive. Personally, I like getting dressed up to go to a concert on the weekends. I like the feeling of doing something classy and intellectual, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Besides you can always hit the bar or the club afterwards!
What are you most looking forward to when you perform with LACO in April?
“I am most looking forward to playing with an intimate group of such high caliber musicians. I love the chamber orchestra environment, where everyone is important and pulling their own weight and it is possible to feel connected to every other musician, more so than in a full symphony. I am also very excited to play under Jeffrey Kahane. I am very familiar with the Emperor concerto, it is standard repertoire and I am sure that I have performed it at least twice it before. I am familiar with the Dvorak serenade, though I don’t think I’ve played it. The Harbison is completely new to me, but I look forward to learning it!”