Herng-Yu Pan: “Auditioning Taught Me How to Fail, and I Think This Is a Good Thing to Learn as a Musician”

Herng-Yu Pan, double bassist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Professor at the Central Conservatory of Beijing, offers insights about her first few years playing in a major symphony orchestra and teaching across the world during a pandemic.
Herng-Yu Pan

What is your background in music? When did you first begin playing the double bass?

I started playing music at age four on the piano. I was in a music class at an elementary school in Taiwan, so we studied music as well as language, math, and other subjects. At the age of 10, we were asked to learn another instrument in addition to the piano. At that stage, I was a little taller than my classmates, so the orchestra director asked me if I wanted to play double bass in orchestra. He also met my mom and knew that since she was pretty tall, I would be fine to start on the double bass! I also played the flute for a short time, but I didn’t have good enough grades to continue on with that. I still played the piano primarily until I was about 20. Nobody else in my family is a musician, even though my mother is a music lover. Her family didn’t have enough money for her to learn an instrument, so she is very happy to see me in music.

In the music class in Taiwan, we had a lot of music lessons, which was quite intense actually. We learned as much as other normal elementary students but then studied music additionally. I enjoyed my time in school in Taiwan, especially the music classes. I passed the exams to be in the music-focused junior high and high school. When I was 12, I attended a masterclass of a French double bassist that really encouraged me. He even talked to my parents and tried to convince them to allow me to study in France. They thought I was too young to travel that far at that age. Even though I didn’t go then, I knew I would move there one day, and it became my dream to study in Paris. At 18, my parents still didn’t think I was serious enough to make it because, at the time, I was the drummer in a rock band and was in the hip hop dance club at school. Music was a part of my life, but I wasn’t a traditionally “good” student in Taiwan. They were worried if I travelled to France, I wouldn’t be able to focus enough. My parents supported my decision to study in France; they were just concerned for my success. I bought the plane ticket even before my parents said I could go. I thought if I bought it, then I would have to start pushing myself and get down to practising. By 19, I won the audition and moved there permanently. This is when I really buckled down and got serious about the double bass. Before then, I had only been dedicated to the piano. I didn’t know the full musical possibilities of the double bass.

A few years in, I was playing with the conservatory’s orchestra and getting to know the other double bassists at the school. The culture at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) is very nice, and we all got along well. We shared the same practice rooms, drank coffee together, and learned from each other. In orchestra, I loved the collective desire to support the orchestra from our bass section. That’s not something you can experience with the piano.

I spent two years studying in Vienna (University of Music and Performing Arts from 2014-2016), which was quite different from Paris. I studied with the ex-principal double bass of Vienna Philharmonic, Alois Posch. I learned a lot about playing orchestra excerpts and the orchestral sound there, and I also worked on my German bow grip. In Paris, I had been working hard on my technical and solo repertoire. These two schools in my training were so important.

The double bass is a discrete instrument. You can play in so many different styles, and you can always go deeper with it. I found this fascinating because I hadn’t thought of the bass in the same way before. The instrument has so much character and possibilities.

Can you tell us about your teaching at the Central Conservatory in Beijing? What has that experience been like?

I was still in Paris when I heard from a friend that there was an opening. She told me they were looking for more teachers, and they paid well, so we both went to audition. At first, I wasn’t very interested, but I said if I could make it work with my schedule, I would go. I happened to have an open week for the audition, so I booked a flight to Beijing from Paris without even taking my double bass! The head of the school, who is a conductor, really enjoyed all the orchestra excerpts I played for my audition. When I got back to the airport in France, I received an email saying I would need to return the next week for the second round. I sort of decided then that it was too disorganized, and I wasn’t going to take the position if they offered it, but then in September, I got an email about a new professor’s conference that I was supposed to join. I never received any notice of me being hired, but we checked online, and there I was listed on the faculty page! That was in 2018, and since then, I’ve been happy to work for the school. It has had its challenges, of course, the distance being one. I flew four times per year between Europe and Beijing, living the orchestra life and teaching life. However, there are many opportunities in China for performing and giving masterclasses. I performed the Vanhal Double Bass Concerto with the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra in 2019.

Life is great in school. I love teaching and am passionate about bringing more orchestral excerpts to my students and preparing them for their auditions. Some students wish to study in Europe after their graduation, so I enjoy sharing my experience with them. Beijing Central Conservatory has international standards. There are many wonderful activities in this school at all times, and lots of top worldwide musicians come for masterclasses, such as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal double bass. I have learned a lot in Beijing from the new environment, and by teaching, my love for the double bass has grown even more.

What was it like joining the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and how have you enjoyed it so far?

Playing with an orchestra has been my dream for several years. I also knew I didn’t want to stay in Paris my whole life. I auditioned in some different capital cities in Europe because I wanted to continue to live in a big city and meet more people, and London was one of my options. I actually hadn’t been to the city before I auditioned there. I earned a trial for my audition, but I was still taking other auditions in case this didn’t work out. Coming to London for my trial performances was great. I would get an Airbnb, eat at a pub, go to tourist attractions, and see my friends that were here. I think because it felt like a trip for me every time, it always put me in a good mood for my playing.

This orchestra has been so kind to me. A freelancer tipped me off to this early on; she said the BBC Symphony Orchestra has a great reputation for having nice people. I’m the youngest in the double bass section, and they have all taken me under their wing even though I don’t speak perfect English. The trial lasted 18 months. At the end of the trial, they booked me to stay longer. That was the first time I started feeling a bit nervous about the trial period. All along, I felt mentally at ease because I knew if it didn’t work out, I would have other job opportunities, whether as a performer or teacher, and I think that was to my benefit.

I enjoy the tea culture and the British humour in the Orchestra. One thing that I love about the group is that everyone is a very good sight-reader. Sometimes, we have a rehearsal one day and then perform the next. It is challenging for me, but I enjoy how efficient things are. It’s a little different from France, where you have time to wake up and grab a coffee and take your time.

Herng-Yu Pan

In the last two years, how has the pandemic affected things in your musical life?

It was early in 2020 when I signed the contract with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but after I signed, the pandemic hit. I didn’t even move to London! We didn’t really perform for the first year, but now things are pretty much back to normal. We social-distanced and did temperature checks, tests and all that, but we are continuing on with a concert series even now (5-6 person double bass section). As far as teaching goes, I am able to teach online for Beijing Conservatory, which has been working alright. Travel opportunities have been very limited, but I plan to go back once I am able to see my students in person.

What advice do you have for any young double bassists out there?

There are many ways to make a career as a double bassist. If you want to play in an orchestra, know that auditioning is a process. It can be very hard at times. In the end, it’s not only about how you play technically; it’s about how you approach it mentally. Auditioning taught me how to fail, and I think this is a good thing to learn as a musician. Don’t beat yourself up when you don’t win; there will always be other opportunities. Also, you will see the same people over and over again, and that can be nice, knowing that there are others out there trying to do the same thing you are doing.

Keep your head up and practice hard. Don’t get too uptight; the music will come when you are relaxed. We can control how we play the double bass, but we can’t control the results of auditions. For me, I do my best for the part I can control, and the rest is out of my hands. You will feel better if you come from that angle.

You can also use auditions to see what other cultures are like. You might want to audition in a different city or country. You can try to take the risk and not only stay in a comfortable place. Give yourself more opportunities so you can understand yourself better and know what you would really like to do. Sometimes, God will open a door for you that you didn’t expect.


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