What were your first steps in music?
Well, it was an extraordinary coincidence: I had failed the Preparatory Course for University and I had to repeat it (I was seventeen years old). But my brilliant mother told me, “You’re not just going to repeat the course; why don’t you also do something with music?” My father was a musician, and I had started taking lessons when I was five or six years old with a piano teacher who was a colleague of my father, but I quit because my mother, who was the one accompanying me to the lessons, saw that I cried every day. I then began learning the double bass, since my father played the horn and the double bass. That same year (when I had finally passed the Pre-University course) I learnt the equivalent of two double bass grades with my father. I also studied music theory with a great teacher, Benito de las Cuevas, with whom I would later continue to learn harmony.
The following year I enrolled in the Madrid Conservatory (at that time, there was only one conservatory in Madrid, where they taught from beginners to professionals). It was there that I made the decision to continue with music: the atmosphere, friends, concerts, operas, etc., enriched my interest. Time flew by. Simultaneously, my father would take me to the Teatro Real in the afternoons where he played with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra as principal double bass, so that I would become familiar with the orchestra’s work. During that period, the Symphony Orchestra was revitalised, reinforcing its members with advanced students from the Conservatory, which was real progress for me, since there were no youth orchestras.
What were your first influences at that stage?
I modelled my playing on the principal cello player of the Spanish National Orchestra, Pedro Corostola, without him knowing it. As the years went by, he became a great and admired friend of mine. He helped me greatly in establishing my artistic foundations. My teacher, Mr Emilio Martínez Lluna, was an equally impressive musician, but as a teacher, I felt he lacked something because he used to just show you his theory but not his practice. I never saw him play the double bass (and that’s why I had to look for a reference).
So I finished my degree and “got into it” quickly. There wasn’t the same competence as there is today. Now it’s monstrous (although it’s also great to see so many people playing so well!). My teacher told me, “Pass the 5th and 6th grades, and you’ll get into the City Band” (where he played). And, indeed, there I entered as an interim. The following year I auditioned for the Band, the National Orchestra and the Spanish Radio and Television, all in one month! I won two of them; the one for the Band and the one for the Radio and Television. Later, at forty, I finally joined the National Orchestra, which was a thorn in my side. And it was there I settled and played for twenty-five years (until I finished my professional career), of which about fifteen were as a principal.
And how was the experience with the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon?
I went to Portugal in 1975, the year after the Carnation Revolution (1974). Whilst I was there, I was surprised by the Counter-Revolution. I knew Ana Bela Chaves, the fantastic principal viola of the Gulbenkian (and later of the Orchestre de Paris), who encouraged me to join her orchestra. However, when the Counter-Revolution broke out, the concerts were suspended. Although I had already auditioned and passed the audition, I decided to return to Spain and stay in my country.
What are the most special memories you have of your orchestral experience?
I have been fortunate to play with great maestros and soloists. Those who have been able to motivate and teach me the most have been Igor Markevich (his communication through gestures and glances was incredible, achieving marvels with small movements), Lorin Maazel (capable of creating music in a single bar), Zubin Mehta, Igor Oistrakh, Itzhak Perlman, Maria João Pires, Mstislav Rostropovich (who was a friend of Queen Sofía) and many, many others. And, as a double bass player of my time, of course, Gary Karr. At that time, some impressive musicians came to the National Orchestra too.
At the beginning of my professional career, I had the honour and the pleasure of playing the “The Trout” quintet with the Trio de Madrid formed by Joaquín Soriano (piano), Pedro León (violin) and Pedro Corostola (cello) plus Emilio Mateu (viola) at the Royal Palace; they with the Stradivarius, and I with the Amati that Fernando Solar, a luthier in charge of the maintenance of the Palace instruments, had to tune up because it had not been played for twenty-five years (the last persons to play it was my teacher, don Emilio Martínez Lluna, and it was still mounted with gut strings). Later we would play “The Trout” again as a quintet in the concert hall of the Juan March Foundation, which was packed. I have given more important concerts, but the ones at the beginning of my career are some of my fondest memories.
And, as a pedagogue, what would you propose as the basis for the first steps on the double bass? What should musicians focus on when playing your etudes?
I wrote those etudes because I saw they worked for me, although I prefer that specialists do the initiation exercises because I have worked very little with children. When I was teaching at the Conservatory of Guadalajara, a former student was the instructor in charge of those first grades to establish a good base. I was with more advanced students who I could play with. I could make them see the feelings they had to have, in order to define the notes. That’s an essential thing. If they don’t explain to you what feelings you have to look for, it’s tough to find them. And this must be transmitted to you by someone who already feels them; it is not something you can invent. It was challenging for me because, if no one had transmitted those feelings to me, I would not have been able to understand them.
We must also be tolerant of fingerings because there are always several alternatives, even if one of them is very harmful and has to be corrected. However, we must have a very low tolerance for the tuning. The most essential things to bear in mind are to transmit interest, emotion and taste. Even an eighth note in the double bass section of an orchestra can and should have exclusive treatment.
Life has changed a lot in these years; today, technology floods everything, so we can access videos of the best bass players in the world with a single click, including lessons, tips, concerts, etc. We can even say that, perhaps, for a student, there is too much online content, which often results in the search for quick rather than deep content. What is your perspective on all this?
I think videos are helpful because they pose a challenge and help you set a goal. You see an end. But the problem with that vision is that you lack the means to reach it. There are no questions you can ask and certainly no answers to your doubts. The road to achieving that goal must be walked with a teacher. The teacher will help you advance, and you have to respect and value them; if this is not the case, you should change. That is what I understand as essential for one to develop, which is the fundamental objective.
I only had one teacher — apart from my father — who I will never forget and will always be grateful to. It was another era, very different from today, and I was partially trained. He taught me to solve problems by myself; we didn’t have records, there were very few scores, and in Spain, only Barcelona was a bit up to date. Of course, the present moment is much richer and more open. The progress we have made in Spain is evident.
Online classes can remedy a given situation, but face-to-face classes and direct relationships with colleagues are fundamental. I didn’t have fellow bass players when I was studying; we were distributed among the different courses. Rivalry is very healthy when it is done nobly: it allows you to see what you don’t have, and your classmate can see in you what they don’t have. It is a fundamental correlation. We didn’t have that; we were very isolated.
And do you think that the increase in the number of students has helped raise the level of double bass players in Spain?
Yes, but also the qualification of the teachers, whose work has to be valued because they have done a tremendous job. They are the ones who set the guidelines and lead the group.
Fortunately, there is no longer the same difference between Spaniards and foreigners when competing in auditions, which used to be quite overwhelming. I have been a jury member in the auditions of many orchestras created in the 1990s in the different regions of Spain, and I have witnessed the significant difference between Spanish musicians and those from abroad (especially from Eastern Europe).
It was a problem for Spanish musicians. I went so far as to suggest restricted auditions so that some Spaniards could enter these new orchestras being created in their country since, in reality, not everyone was bad. Those auditions were not managed well because not all the musicians who came from abroad were wonderful (don’t get me wrong: many were very good and deserved it, but not all of them). However, some Spaniards who were left out could have won places; people who had lived on music for twenty or thirty years went down the drain after that. Very sad. But that time has passed, and we are at our best now.
Although you are now retired, your passion for the double bass is more alive than ever. Do you have any projects or ideas in mind?
In this respect, I can say that I still have the same need to have a good time with my double bass. As I keep it in my studio without sheathing it, there isn’t a moment when I feel too lazy to get it out. Those who know me know that I am available to spend some good time chatting and practising with whoever joins me. I love being with friends and colleagues (and by “colleagues”, I don’t just mean professional bass players).
What do you play now that you can play whatever you want?
Well, there are things I don’t play anymore, like the Bottesini Concerto, the Grand Duo for violin and double bass or the Vanhal Concerto. I like to play the Bach suites, for example, which are always great fun, or Fryba, a very unique and well-written work for double bass. Songs like Bottesini’s Elegy, Meditation, Rêverie… Short pieces which are easy to play. And also works that were written for me and that I like very much. I play all these on a whim.
Any advice for future double bass players?
To be curious, to look for other music. You will find good professionals in all the music you discover because there is high quality in all genres. To be concerned about doing things well, work hard and always be aware of not letting your guard down. To be constant. To always be ready to work hard. We are like athletes, but with a very long professional life. We must take care of ourselves to reach the end in the best possible conditions. We must always work hard and take good care of our physical condition. We have to do some sport adapted to our needs. The study must be measured, without saturation, because saturation is what causes tensions and bad habits.
And above all: respect music. And musicians, of course, respect each other. We should be positive because we have the best profession, at least for me. It has been helpful to me, and I have done very well. I’ve been fortunate.