The US double bassist on his early influences and lessons learnt from his nearly four decade-long principal position at the LA Philharmonic

Christopher_Hanulik_RWH28224 courtesy LA Phil

Courtesy LA Phil

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The teacher I must give the most credit to is Homer Mensch, with whom I studied for eight years at the Juilliard School from my teens. He had a profound effect on me not only as a bass player but also as a person. He was tremendously warm and the way he dealt with others helped me become who I am today. In terms of bass playing, sound was the most important thing for him. In the same way that everybody’s voice is unique, he thought your sound had to be too. He worked tirelessly on developing my right hand and my individual voice. In an orchestra there are only about eight to ten basses, so it’s important to have that extra gear in sound production. It’s not just about volume but also colour.

I also have to give credit to my father, who was a musician himself. I would play for him a lot and he wasn’t shy about giving his opinion! I remember once playing for him and being really happy with how I had played. He sat there and said, ‘You need to stop thinking about being a good bass player and always think about being a good musician.’ It struck me, and I’ve since carried that with me wherever I go. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what we do technically, but it’s critical for us to be always looking outwards too.

It’s critical for us to be always looking outwards

After my time in New York I needed something new, and moved to Los Angeles to be a section bass player in the LA Philharmonic. A few years afterwards I became co-principal. I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit gung-ho at first! I thought I needed to take charge, which was probably the worst thing to do because I was playing in a section with guys who already knew exactly what they were doing. Being a good leader is all about listening. I like to run my section in a cooperative way and want everyone to feel engaged. Whether that means they can suggest bowing or how to do things differently, it’s about providing a stable platform on which they can operate best.

2009 concert Mathew Imaging

Photo: Mathew Imaging

Playing with LA Phil musicians in 2009

The standard of playing nowadays is so high that playing the right notes isn’t enough any more to win positions in orchestras. And unfortunately there just isn’t enough space for everybody. It’s a real gut punch for those who get to the final stages but don’t get the job. I try to encourage them to keep going, but that’s easy for me to say! Ultimately my main piece of advice is not to close yourself off to what’s around you. This is one of the reasons I can’t see myself anywhere other than the LA Phil, and have stayed for almost four decades, because the players take risks and are constantly evolving. When you’re aware of what surrounds you, you’ll be surprised by what you hear.


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