Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte recently caught up with Principal Bass Rob Wolanski as part of our HPO@Home series.
Abigail Richardson-Schulte: Hi Rob! How are you doing right now and what are you up to?
Rob Wolanski: I’m doing well. Since we’ve all been quarantined, I’ve had a lot more family time than ever before. With my daughter home from school, I’ve been spending much more time with her, and helping her with her school work. Musically, I’ve been doing a lot of general maintenance practise, giving me the chance to work on a lot of bass studies and technique work that we don’t always have time to work on during the busier times. I’ve also created some short guitar and electric bass videos for my Instagram page. Mostly fun little tidbits of things. Nothing too serious!
ARS: I’m glad you’re able to find the bright side of this time.
When did you join the HPO and how is your position of Principal Bass different than that of a section bass player?
RW: I started playing with the HPO during the 1993-94 season as a section player. I guess my style of playing was very complementary to then Principal Bass, Sharon Massey and she soon brought me up to the first stand where I was her Assistant until her retirement from the orchestra in 2002, at which time I became Principal Bass.
The role of a Principal player has several functions. Some responsibilities are more technical in nature, such as deciding the bowings for each piece and counting the bars of rest correctly to lead the section in at the appropriate times. The main responsibility, in my view, is to help interpret the musical direction of the conductor and add my own vision of the sound and musical phrasing and hopefully impart that to my players so that we can present a uniform musical result. As a bass player, I strive to shape the bass lines to help support the melody or important chord structures and find musical shapes beyond what is strictly indicated on the page. Beyond getting the section to play in tune and in time, it’s all for nothing if the music doesn’t say anything to the audience. I’m always looking for those points of interest.
ARS: That makes sense. I think the bass line is often the anchor for the whole orchestra. The more I watch and listen to live orchestral concerts, the more I see that a strong player is absolutely required in your position so that section players can lean into your sound and play out themselves. A strong bass line has such an impact on the entire performance.
You play classical double bass of course but some of our audience members might be surprised to learn that you also play bass guitar professionally. How did you end up doing both and is it the same technique?
RW: Well, in a lot of ways, I just consider myself a bass player, and in my mind, both electric bass and double bass are variations of the same instrument. I started learning both instruments at essentially the same time as a teenager, so it’s just something that I’ve always done. Both instruments are tuned the same way (usually!) so there’s no adjustment to be made as far as the notes are concerned. Obviously the techniques are slightly different, but not too significantly.
I guess a lot of the difference is often in the styles of music played by each. My double bass playing is almost exclusively in the classical field, although I occasionally use it in folk or country situations. The electric bass has served me for just about everything else. When I first started with it, I was primarily playing rock music with various bands in high school but at the same time, I would also play electric bass in jazz bands or even concert bands to augment the tuba sound. Professionally my electric bass work has been primarily folk (particularly Scottish country dance music and Canadian fiddle groups), classic rock and country, which makes up the bulk of my electric bass work these days. I do also play electric bass with the HPO and some other orchestras on occasion when required. In fact, you wrote a piece a few years ago that I played electric bass on!
ARS: That was fun! That particular What Next Festival had a focus on unusual instruments for the concert hall. It was a chance to hear our musicians play some of the instrument “cousins” to what they would normally play on stage.
Our classical rehearsals are highly structured with repertoire, timing and breaks regulated. I imagine rehearsal situations are much different for the electric bass?
RW: Well, the reality for the bulk of the electric bass work that I do is that there usually isn’t any rehearsal for the country or folk gigs I play! While the performances themselves pay well enough, there simply isn’t any money for rehearsal time in those groups. It really requires a lot of homework or amassed knowledge of repertoire and keeping your ears wide open on the job. Most of the country singers that I work with will send me a list of about 50 songs and their keys of choice, to be learned beforehand. The first time out with a particular artist can involve an awful lot of homework but once I learn the list, subsequent gigs are much less prep.
Some gigs require more strict learning. If I’m playing a large dance club, like Big Texas in Niagara, with hundreds of people on the dance floor, we usually run a pretty tight set and stick to the list with little downtime between songs. Some singers play smaller, more informal settings and things are much looser. One singer I work with simply doesn’t have a definite list of songs. He just calls whatever tune pops into his head and I either know it or don’t! Luckily in those settings, the artist is usually less fussy about accuracy. The flip side is the Scottish country dance jobs I play. Those always come with fully charted sets of music. It’s just a chord chart, so I have to interpret things a bit stylistically, but the note choices have already been made for me.
ARS: Wow, this really does sound like an entirely different world. I’m impressed you fit so easily into both. Were you drawn to play the bass line rather than the melody? How did you end up choosing to play bass?
RW: I think I was drawn to the bass mostly because of the sound. There was something about the depth and richness of tone that always appealed to me and thrilled me in both the double bass and the electric bass. I do believe that certain types of people are more suited to the bass too, I’m a pretty quiet guy and not terribly extroverted. Bass lends itself to people who are very happy in a supporting role rather than being out front. Even when it comes to bass parts, I’m not typically drawn to overly complex or soloistic bass parts. Some of my favourite bass parts to play are very simple and focus more on their sound, feel and how they support the other players. Again, to bring up country music, since I am free to create my own bass part to each song, a lot of players that I work with tell me that they enjoy working with me because I don’t overplay. I try to play what’s needed for the song – good tone, good time and not too busy. I support the artist and make them sound good. I try to carry that approach everywhere and support the greater good of the ensemble.
ARS: That personality aspect is just fascinating. I wonder how much teachers look at personality when they assign band instruments or rather just the size of the student. Is it ever a pain carrying around such a big instrument? What happens if you need to fly with it?
RW: You get used to it. Like most pro bass players, I have an inflatable wheel that I can attach to the bottom while moving it around town from my car. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to transport than my electric bass, since I also need to carry amplifiers of varying sizes for that. I’ve never flown with my double bass before. Luckily having grown up and always lived in Toronto or Hamilton, and it’s such a densely populated area, I can usually drive to most locations where I am needed. For those that do fly, there are special large flight cases that need to be stowed in the cargo hold.
ARS: Speaking of instruments, can you tell us about yours?
RW: My double bass is a beautifully made double bass by Canadian maker Peter Elias. It was actually made in 1994, shortly after he moved to Switzerland, but it was made from his supply of Canadian wood that he had taken with him. It was originally made as a 5 string bass but in 2008, I had it converted to a 4 string bass with a low C extension. I think it sounds much more sonorous with less tension on the top now.
My electric basses are made by G&L in Fullerton California. G&L was the final company of Leo Fender, the inventor of the electric bass. He started G&L as his own personal workshop to further develop and improve his designs after selling his landmark Fender brand once it became too large. I’m proud to be one of their featured Artists, and they’ve been very generous to me. The current CEO is restoring one of my basses at the moment and is featuring it on his Instagram page, CLF Research. By the way, you can find me on Instagram at @rob_wolanski, if you want to see more of my instruments.
ARS: Are you a long time Hamiltonian?
RW: I finally moved to Hamilton in 2003 after playing here so long at that point. In fact, one of my first pro gigs ever was a Scottish Country Dance ball on electric bass, in the Convention Centre adjoining Hamilton Place back in 1985. I still see one of the Convention Centre employees in the complex that I remember from that day so may years ago!
ARS: What other groups do you play with?
RW: I’ve been an extra player with The Canadian Opera Company since 1997 and have played a majority of their productions since then. I’ve been playing as an extra with the National Ballet Orchestra since around 2013 and I also have been playing with the Esprit Orchestra for the past decade. As I mentioned, Scottish Country Dance music was a big part of my electric bass work. For years I played hundreds of gigs with Bobby Brown and the Scottish Accent plus his other group, The Cape Breton Symphony Fiddlers. Since Bobby’s passing, I play for his son’s group, Scotch Mist. In the Country genre, I fill in for artists like Brad James, Ryan Langdon, Greg Williams, Tim Hebert and Anthony Tullo.
ARS: It sounds like we should be looking for you everywhere! Lastly, what do you like about playing with the HPO?
RW: The HPO really feels like home to me. It’s where I’m the most comfortable playing and where I really feel supported by my colleagues. We’re lucky to have such a great group of people right now, who all work together in a very friendly atmosphere while always striving to create the best quality exciting music.
ARS: Well said! Thank you, Rob.