I’m thankful for having had the opportunity to study the double bass under John Schaeffer, retired Principal Bass of the New York Philharmonic. Schaeffer was a demanding teacher who taught me the most important lesson of all—you have to take the responsibility to teach yourself. Even though I don’t play the double bass anymore, he is still one of the biggest influences of my life.
Schaeffer was a great bassist, a real expert on orchestral playing and somewhat of a caricature of a gruff New York Philharmonic musician. Unless he was on stage, you almost never saw him without a big cigar in his mouth. He was opinionated about other musicians and he never minced words about any student’s playing. I once asked him about a legendary bassist of the previous generation who had died before I was born, but with whom Schaeffer had played with when he first got to the New York Philharmonic. His response was, “He was so bad he didn’t even know how to turn the page in the music!”
Schaeffer hated the bureaucracy of The Juilliard School. I’ll never forget registration one year. I finally got up to the head of long line (this is before the era of computerized registration) and met the Registrar. She said, “YOU! You’re one of those Schaeffer students!” I meekly replied, “Yes.” She then said I should tell my teacher to get down to the office and pick up his paychecks IMMEDIATELY. It seems Schaeffer refused to set foot in the administrative offices and the school refused to mail him his check. This stalemate had gone on for more than a year and was disrupting their accounting system!
Another one of his students loved to go to downtown jazz clubs. Schaeffer knew that this student had been out very late the previous night, so he called him at 8 a.m. the next morning. He asked, “Did I wake you up?” The student replied, (barely audibly) “Yes.” Schaeffer yelled, “GOOD, now get up and practice!”
Schaeffer only accepted three students at a time and he never got involved in school politics. He wasn’t the most famous or most popular teacher in New York at the time. But, he was an amazing teacher. Most of my lessons were at his house in Queens. I’d meet him backstage at Avery Fisher Hall after a Philharmonic rehearsal and we would drive out to his house. He had a huge mirror in this studio and we played facing the mirror. I was required to play everything by memory, so I could look into the mirror and analyze my technique. He also required me to solfège (singing with syllables do, re, me, etc.) every piece before I was allowed to play it on the bass. He didn’t want technique to influence the musical interpretation.
We spent an enormous amount of time on etudes and orchestral music. He wasn’t interested in flashy concertos. He said to me, “A bassist’s job is to fart in the right place.” He believed the orchestral repertoire was the most important music to learn. Most of my lessons lasted three hours and we went over and over and over a passage until he was satisfied. He’d ask me, “Is it in tune? Is the tone right? Was the rhythm perfect? What is the phrasing? Is it even? What about the articulation?” All this for a simple passage that most teachers wouldn’t even review in a lesson! We played these orchestral passages over and over again, until I could HEAR the most subtle differences. After a lesson, I’d take the subway back to Manhattan. I was often so exhausted by the intense experience that I’d fall asleep on the train.
Schaeffer had a fantastic collection of old Italian basses and French bows. He was very generous, loaning me instruments and bows for all my years at The Juilliard School. He said he did it because he hated to listen to student’s lousy instruments. But, we knew that wasn’t the real reason. He was trying to teach us very subtle differences in sound. When you regularly play a great 300-year old instrument, you learn to produce sound differently. He had six instruments in his house and another at Lincoln Center, so he could let us learn on a variety of great basses.
So, Happy Thanksgiving Mr. Schaeffer. And thank you for pushing me so hard all those many years ago.
Former double bassist and
Currently President & CEO
San Antonio Symphony