Phoebe Russell: “Playing Solo and Orchestral Music on the Double Bass Are Two Separate Kettles of Fish”

Principal Double Bass with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra Phoebe Russell talks with us about her time in the Karajan Academy, her appointment to the QSO, and how she balances solo and orchestral playing in her busy schedule.
Phoebe Russell bass

Tell us about your background. When did you first hear a double bass?

I started playing the bass when I was eight years old in my school music program. We all got the opportunity to learn a stringed instrument, and I really wanted to play the harp, but to my dismay there was no harp on offer. In an effort to help, the teachers told me that the double bass was the most similar instrument. I think aside from the size and the fact that it has strings there really isn’t much else in common between the two! There was an arm wrestle with a few of the boys in my class to determine who would have the chance to play the double bass, and somehow I won. I have to say, that was probably one of the proudest moments of my career so far! However, I very much doubt that I could do it again today with the same guys. A part of me was disappointed that it wasn’t the beautiful golden instrument I wanted to play, but the bass certainly grew on me in the years that followed.

The first time I really heard the double bass on its own was a few years later and it was the legendary Gary Karr. I think that’s likely the same for many of us bass players. My parents bought me The London Double Bass Sound CD where Gary was playing Wannabe by the Spice Girls, as well as a bunch of other great numbers. I fell in love with his version of the Paganini Fantasy and got a little bit obsessed with the instrument after that. I was probably 11 at the time.

Was there a particular moment where you consciously decided to become a bassist?

Playing bass wasn’t something I took very seriously in junior school, but then I ended up getting a full scholarship to a really great secondary school. That came as a big surprise! In grade 7 or 8, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful double bass teacher, Damien Eckersley, who taught me until I went to Germany. He helped me see music in a way I hadn’t seen it before and he really instilled a deep love for music in me. He is an incredible player, and a very generous teacher with his time. We would have lessons for hours and he would demonstrate everything on the instrument. Around that time, probably aged 13 or 14, is when I started to think that this could be my life.

What was it like to travel to Germany? Was the bass teaching similar or different in Europe than in Australia?

Since Damien had studied in Vienna, he had a connection to that type of playing. I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic a lot as a teenager, especially the 1960s Karajan Beethoven recordings. It’s a famous orchestra, so of course almost everyone listens to their recordings, but when I heard about the Karajan Academy, I thought it would be an absolute dream come true to get the opportunity to play with the orchestra. I remember telling my teacher that I would love to go and audition for the Karajan Academy, and to my surprise his response was, “Sure, you’ll get in; it will be great!” He was always incredibly encouraging, and he even connected me with a teacher before I went over there. When I was 17, I went to Berlin to audition. I originally just went for a few weeks to take lessons and get a feel for the place before I returned for the audition later in the year, but I ended up not taking the plane back to Australia after my trip, and that was it. Within a few months I was playing in the Berlin Philharmonic bass section and I stayed there for six years.

I was very driven at the time, so I didn’t feel homesick or anything at first. I would go days without leaving my place, just practising day and night. Being in that environment really helps you stay motivated. Eventually I started to miss home. It’s a very different lifestyle in Berlin than I was used to in Australia.

Like I said, I spent some time over in Berlin preparing for the audition and living there on my own. Those months were definitely the hardest. I didn’t know anyone or the city and I stayed in for those months and practised from sun up to sun down every day. I am so fortunate that my poor neighbours never complained about the constant practice! I started in The Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin in September of that year, and immediately started to feel more positive about my new life overseas. I had the chance to meet a lot of people and make some great friends. Everyone is so driven over there. I guess it is the same at any specialized music school, but it was an amazing feeling to be surrounded by people that were so passionate about their instrument.

What were your audition experience and appointment to the Queensland Symphony Orchestra like? How has your time there been so far?

I got to a point living in Germany where I was missing home and especially the Australian sunshine. My husband and I decided we wanted to move to Australia, and that position was the opening that we saw. We had heard great things about the bass section in Queensland and that they were a fun group, so I started preparing for the audition. One of the bass players from the section reached out to me to say that it would be really great if I would audition, which helped me feel very encouraged. In fact, we actually moved before the audition. A pretty confident move! Thankfully I won the job and passed my trial. I’m sure we would have enjoyed our time in Australia if I hadn’t won, but that was in 2017 and I’ve been loving it here ever since.

Phoebe Russell bass

In your estimation, what is the most important part of playing in a bass section in an orchestra?

Probably the most important thing, something I learned from playing in the Berlin Phil, is that the double bass section has to work as a machine that moves and breathes together. I realize now how important the role of a double bass section is. The entire string section, and by extension the symphonic sound, is built upon the double bass sound. The double bass section is a thick cushion of sound for the rest of the orchestra to build upon. That means we also have to be fully aware of what everyone in the ensemble is doing at all times and make sure that we are always there to help shape the phrase, even if our parts aren’t as interesting or flashy as the violin parts. Many orchestras play this way, and I feel fortunate that I was able to learn this during my time with the amazing Berlin Phil.

Do you have a favourite conductor? What do you appreciate most about conductors?

That’s a tough question. In all honesty, I haven’t ever really paid as much attention to the conductor as I have to the orchestra itself. It’s amazing to hear their vision and understand how they wish to shape a piece of music, but I’m not the most critical person when it comes to analyzing conductors. I do have a few that I think are pretty cool, though. I really love the energy that Dudamel has. I also love Simon Rattle, Zuben Mehta, and Andris Nelsons; probably just the usual.

I think a great conductor has the ability to know when to step out and let the orchestra take control. That’s probably something that the best conductors do naturally. Great conductors have fascinating and well-conceived ideas about how a phrase or piece should be structured, but at the same time, they know when the orchestra can take the reins. They know when to give the solo lines freedom and space, and when to shape and direct phrases. It’s all about give and take and the best concerts I’ve been a part of are a constant kind of push and pull between being conducted in an ensemble and having the freedom and beauty of chamber music. Basically, I think a lot of conductors could learn to trust us, orchestral musicians, more. We’ve been doing this our whole lives as well, and we sound our best when we are really given the space to listen to each other.

Phoebe Russell bass
Photo: Sarah Jiriki.

You have performed as a soloist and recitalist as well. Do you approach that type of performance differently?

I try to separate solo and orchestral playing as radically as possible, actually. When life gets busy, a large portion of a bass player’s time is taken up playing in an orchestra. That’s part of the reason why I chose to stand up for solo playing and sit down for orchestral playing. It helps me to step into a different character and mindset. Where possible, I also always practice my solos in solo tuning, and on a separate bass, too. Playing solo and orchestral music on the double bass are two separate kettles of fish. When playing in the orchestra, we often search for a full and heavy sound, and in some ways we can afford to play a little ‘rougher’ and less ‘refined’ as we do for our solo repertoire. Playing solo music requires such a different sound palette for most of our repertoire; often searching for brilliance and light, we channel a bit more of a violinistic approach.

It can be tricky to go back and forth between the two styles, but now I’m rather used to it. Back when I was studying, I would bring in a concerto to work on in a lesson and my teacher would tell me it was a little too orchestral. Over time, I learned how to separate the two. Even when I am playing a lot with the orchestra, I try to get at least 30 minutes of solo repertoire in at the end of the day. Even if it’s something that I’m not preparing to perform, I do it for enjoyment.

Tell us a little bit about Ensemble Q. What types of performing does the group participate in? Recitals, chamber music, new music? How have the connections made with this group influenced your career?

We play a lot of chamber music, which is always refreshing to do outside of the orchestra. We play a fair bit of new music and Australian repertoire and do a bit of touring; it’s quite an eclectic repertoire that we perform. The ensemble is run by two friends of mine. One of those people, Paul Dean, was the director of the Academy where I studied in Melbourne before I went to Germany. He’s a composer, and he’s actually writing me a double bass concerto for next year. I’ve known him for more than ten years at this point. He composed a set of double bass duos for my husband and me at the beginning of the pandemic called Seven Lockdown Miniatures, which were written over the course of seven days and all depict a different day in lockdown. They were a selection of short little musical poems and we got a lot of good feedback from the performances we did. My orchestra then commissioned him to write me a concerto which is going to be a part of the subscription series next year. I’m really excited because it’s not often that bass players get an amazing commission and performance opportunity like this. It will be premiered and recorded in November of next year.

Ensemble Q Australia.

In addition to being the principal double bass in the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, you also teach at the University of Queensland and the Queensland Conservatorium. What are some characteristics of successful students?

Teaching is something that I’ve become increasingly passionate about over the last couple of years. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how I can be a better teacher, mainly by analyzing works and trying to understand problems from various perspectives. When we’re just practising on our own, we might not be as critical as we could be, but when we are helping someone else, at least for me, I’m much more aware of these things. Right now, I just have university students because I don’t have a ton of time to devote to students who aren’t older or more serious yet. I’m a very invested teacher, so I do a lot of work for the individuals to ensure their success. Next year, I’ll have five students, and for me that’s the perfect amount. I’ve very much enjoyed my teaching work so far and I look forward to what the future holds.

I think students who have a proclivity for resilience end up being successful, and those who are hard workers. You have to work ridiculously hard to be a working musician. It’s a really tough road to take, and successful students amaze me with how they continue to push and work, knowing that it will eventually pay off. I also think curiosity, perhaps even more so than the other personality traits, will take a student a long way. It will cause a student to go to concerts, to hear new things, and to ultimately make informed decisions about what things they like and don’t like about different performances. I encourage my students to go to as many concerts as possible, or wherever you get your inspiration from. You can work really hard and be a strong player, but everyone needs inspiration to remember why you love what you do through the hard times.

Do you have any advice for students looking to make a career in music?

Honestly, the best advice I can give is to always remember why you love music. That’s something my teacher used to remind me of regularly, and especially in difficult periods like we’re in now, it’s very important to stay inspired. I like to put on Puccini operas. Put on something beautiful and remind yourself of why you do all this work, rather than getting worked up about not winning auditions or competitions. Often as a student, I would be so obsessed with little details that I would sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. You have to be obsessed, but not to the degree that it obscures the broader goal. As cheesy as it sounds, the most important thing is the love of music.

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