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Interview with Dominic Seldis

In this article, originally commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, the double bass professor and Principal Bass of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Dominic Seldis offers essential advice on building a career: play jazz and pop to develop your rhythm; say yes to everything; and don’t smell

I went to Chetham’s School of Music from the age of 8, playing the violin. Around the age of 14 my progression on the violin was so slow that the Director of Music said, ‘Either you take up the double bass or you leave.’ I knew I couldn’t go back to civilian life – I was aware I was in a little musical bubble and I loved it. I had one lesson on the bass and I never played the violin again. It was a feeling of coming home – an epiphany. For a lad who was so immature, suddenly everything made sense. Everybody left me alone and I was left to travel on my journey.

At the time, in 1989, it was not particularly fashionable to come to the Academy. That’s what attracted me to it most. When I came to do the audition, I walked into the building and again I suddenly felt this feeling of being at home, somewhere I could fit. I was given a place and a scholarship.

There was something about Robin McGee, my first professor at the Academy, with which I connected immediately. There were better-known professors at other conservatoires, but he believed in me enough to give me the scholarship, which said an enormous amount to me.

I had my first lesson with Robin in the bass room where I now teach. I used to sit on a very high piano stool, almost like a cellist. I thought it was hip and I wanted to be different. I walked in and sat on this high stool, and he said to me, ‘Do you want to be a professional bass player?’ I answered, ‘Yes, please.’ And he replied, ‘Get off that chair, then, and sit on a proper stool.’ I knew from that moment that he was going to teach me everything I needed to know.

Robin taught me was to say yes to everything. It expands your musical world. He also told me I needed to learn to do jazz, otherwise I’d never do gigs in the West End. He was principal of the London Sinfonietta and he would turn up with crazy scores and we would work them out. I was like a sponge. Somebody would ask, ‘Can you do the Rossini cello and bass duets and before I knew it I was saying yes; and I was doing the ‘Trout’ Quintet before I had the chance to say, ‘Hi, I’m Dominic.’

I learnt a lot about technique from other people, too. Then, as now, you could book a lesson with anyone, and I took full advantage of that, with Howard Davis, David Strange, Jeff Kline and Zakhar Bron, among others. It was entirely up to me – there was no one holding my hand. The hothouse environment I’d grown up in didn’t exist here. It was up to you to develop yourself and it was all there for the taking. I took full advantage of everything. I was able to play jazz and pop – I was in a band with Aled Jones. I did weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. I played chamber music and started to do recitals. As a result, I came to the Academy as a bass player and left as a musician who plays the bass. This was an enormous difference and that is what essentially the Academy was able to offer me. I encourage my students to do exactly the same thing.

In order to get into the Academy students are already very good. There are a few things I can improve technically, but by the time they get here, I don’t believe it’s necessary to break them down to nothing and build them up again. Bass playing has developed enormously and kids come to the Academy fully aware of the standards they need. What’s missing is experience, and I try to get them off YouTube and out playing. I would rather they get the experience themselves than listen to me telling them about the experience.

I don’t have a structure to lessons, but I spend a lot of time talking and listening, and hearing students playing. I take each student at face value. Everybody develops in different ways and at different speeds. I was such a late starter and a slow learner, and I was utterly hopeless in my first year.

I’m very tough on students. If they don’t work then I’ve got no time for them, because I know that there’s a queue of people who are willing to work. At the bottom of it all, you have to put in the hours – there’s no doubt about that. All I can really do is to teach people to teach themselves. I tell them that on day one. I’m not going to be a guru or to whip them. I’m going to encourage them to discover their own potential, positivity and worldliness within the music business.

I want students to be able to go out feeling confident about themselves and their own ability to say yes to everything, and then decide what they’re going to do. I tell them: ‘Take everything in and spit out anything you don’t like. That makes you a musician. It makes you.’ As a result they’re busy. They hit the ground running when they come here and that’s what it is like in the real world as a bass player – I haven’t sat down for 25 years.

The connections you make at the Academy carry through throughout your professional life. I met my pianist, James Pearson, who is a jazz player, at the Guildhall, and when he came to the Academy we hung out at the bar, I asked him to play for something I was doing, and we’re still doing recitals together, nearly 30 years later. There’s a big social side to learning: sitting, listening, chatting, building stories and sharing experience.

The Academy encourages a kind of maverick attitude, and as a result I’d like to think that bass players leave the Academy as better musicians and not just okay bass players. The world has got plenty of bass players – it hasn’t got many great musicians. Once you’ve played at a high level at the Academy, there’s nothing stopping you from doing anything in the music business, anywhere in the world.

I encourage anybody who comes to the Academy as a bass player to play to the other bass teachers. We are all at the very top of our game. It’s the same with the teachers throughout the Academy. Nearly all of them are out there doing it and are willing to spend their time teaching you the ways and techniques of putting bread on the table. That’s what we’re here to do. We want our students to go out and earn a living, and it’s tough.

It’s crazy to think ‘I want to be a soloist,’ or ‘I want to be an orchestral player.’ You’ll limit yourself at 18. The great thing about playing the bass is that every bit of music needs a bass line, so why pigeonhole yourself? That’s a very limited view of what’s possible as a bass player.

Good rhythm is vital as a bass player, which is why it’s so important to play jazz and pop, as well as classical. As well as being the rhythm in the orchestra, you are the foundation of the harmony. The first building block of any chord comes from the bottom, and it’s important to understand your role within the music. Good intonation is absolutely essential. I spend a lot of time in lessons making sure that intonation is accurate, sitting down at a piano playing through things slowly.

It’s important to focus on solo repertoire for orchestral auditions, but you’ll be lucky to perform recitals unless you have a job that gives you the freedom to do what you want because the mortgage is paid. In my orchestra, the Concertgebouw, people are always going off and doing their own thing outside the orchestra because they can relax, as they’ve got a great job. It encourages them to become great musicians. As a bass player, you play at the nose-bleed end of the instrument for fun, and at the bass end for money. Both are essential in making yourself a better musician.

All the bass teachers at the Academy come from the ‘London School’ of bass playing. The ‘London School’ is an attitude. If you want to work in London you have to tick all the boxes – to make a big sound and play in time and in tune – otherwise you won’t work. I can always spot London bass players. They have a solid technical basis, they’re musical and they are able to fit into any genre. That’s essential, because living in London, you can’t afford to say no. So much of the work is playing outside classical music. You have to be able to do it. London-based players have all the styles covered. There are very few places in the world where you need to do all of it – New York is another one – because there are few other cities that need so many musicians to do so many things. Bass players become stronger musicians as a result, and that is the point of coming to London, and to the Academy.

There are people who can play both classical and jazz brilliantly, but as a general rule it’s not possible. If you speak to any of the jazz players in London their music is about purity and going deep into the music and there’s no way you can do that if you’re studying classical music. At the same time jazz players can’t play Bottesini’s Second Concerto.

Smart classical bassists learn how to play jazz well enough to get away with it, but without pretending that they are great jazz bass players. There is a group of players who do both well and wouldn’t consider themselves experts at either, and I’m jealous of them. They’re like chameleons. They can fit into almost any genre and that’s great. But they will never play Mahler no.5 at Carnegie Hall or perform at The Blue Note.

Great musicians inspire one. I have got the best job in the world, as principal of one of the world’s great orchestras, and I can share my experience with my students. I’m at the top of the hill, and lucky enough to hang out musicians of an incredibly high level, so I can pass on the things I learn straight from the horses’ mouths.

I try to put across to students that I sat right there were they are sitting, and if I can do what I’m doing – and I’m no genius – then so can they. I managed to get here through luck and hard work, and if I can, there’s no reason they can’t. Everyone who comes to the Academy has that potential.

We teach students how to behave professionally. None of them steps out of line by the time they leave. If they do, we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. There’s a way to behave in this business. We know that because we’ve done it and it works, so we encourage people to be professional at all times. It’s important to get the professional stuff down – to be polite and friendly, and not to smell!

It’s a joy to come here and see students’ progression each time, and to see how they clock out at the end. That’s what’s exciting about being here. I have a busy, full class, and it’s super-intense. My hope for students is that they become greater musicians, because music will always win. Being a great musician is difficult. Music should be at the top of the agenda when it comes to performing.

When you leave it’s only the beginning of your musical journey. You have to continue listening and learning all the time, to be like a sponge, and to develop your own musical world. That will keep you sane for the rest of your existence.

This interview was first published on the Royal Academy of Music website in 2016

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