Larry Hutchinson

Detroit Symphony bassist talks about classical music careers, lessons from Gary Karr and the challenges of modern music

Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
June 24, 2013

Larry Hutchinson is an active double bass performer, teacher and clinician. Over the years, his bass teachers have included Ray Fitch, James Clute, Gary Karr, Murray Grodner, Warren Benfield, Stuart Sankey and David Potter.

Larry’s commitment to music education is evidenced by his deep involvement in various activities all over the U.S., including the National String Workshop, American String Workshop, Richard Davis Bass Workshop and the International Society of Bassists. In 2001, the American String Teachers Association selected Larry as the “Michigan String Teacher of the Year.” He also received the “Distinguished Service to the Arts” award from the Farmington Area Fine Arts Commission in 2004 and 2007 for his work as a teacher and advocate for the arts.

Hutchinson served as Assistant Professor of Music at Western Michigan University for nine years and is currently on the music faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. He has been a member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra since 1983.

Larry will also be the featured guest artist at the 2013 Bass Coalition Summer Workshop June 28-29 in Winchester, VA. Visit their website for details.

FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?

LH: I think my music upbringing was really quite normal. I didn’t go to any special music schools or anything. I went to public schools in Minneapolis. Only my elementary school had a string program. I didn’t start on the bass, though; I started on trombone.

My mother really loved music and wanted to encourage me in every way she could. My older sister played the piano and I would watch her play. I started picking out tunes on the piano by ear when I was 4 or 5 years old, so my mother found a piano teacher for me.

Over the years, I started a number of other instruments besides the piano and the trombone, including the guitar. My mother encouraged me on every one. If I wanted to try another instrument, she never said no. I didn’t start playing the bass until I was in high school. Beyond high school, it was pretty normal for a music major. I graduated from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. That’s where I studied with James Clute. I spent four years in the Norad Band in the Air Force and then got my masters at Indiana University with Murray Grodner.

FBPO: What made you decide to settle on the bass?

LH: I started playing the guitar because I loved rock. Then I discovered jazz. When I was in high school, I met another guitar player and a drummer and we wanted to form a group. We rented a bass, an upright, and initially traded off playing guitar and bass. The other guy got really bad blisters from playing the bass. I got blisters too, but not as badly. Eventually, I started taking lessons and seriously studying the bass. I wasn’t consistent by any means. I even quit at one point, but then started up again. By the time I went to college, I was committed to the bass.

FBPO: Did you/do you ever play electric bass?

LH: No, I don’t play the electric bass. I think when I finally really committed to being a bass player, I didn’t want to spend time learning another instrument. I did play electric for one day when I was in the Air Force. I was playing piano in the jazz band. I’m not that good of a jazz pianist, but they were short of a real jazz pianist so I did the best I could.

We were on a tour of military bases in Alaska in December. Our bass player got sick and we had to leave him in Anchorage while we flew out to a very remote base to do a concert for the troops. He only had an electric with him and I was told I had to play it. I took the book and worked on the charts all afternoon, working out bass lines. Although my guitar background helped, I still had to hold the bass upright to be able to find the notes. I managed to get through it okay and even got some compliments from the guys in the band. That was my one day of playing electric.

FBPO: What were your career goals as an up-and-coming student of bass? Did you always want to pursue the classical, symphonic route?

LH: Yes, career-wise, I always aimed at playing bass in a major orchestra. Even though I continued to play jazz all the way through college and beyond, classical music was always there. I like to tell people that I’m married to classical music, but I’ve had this lifelong affair with jazz! I’ve also wanted to teach. I thought maybe I would play in an orchestra first and then, later in my career, teach at a university. As it turned out, I did it backwards.

FBPO: I suppose having a goal like that involves a totally different kind of mindset than that of the hordes of players who have their sights on heading to New York or L.A. and “breaking in” to the music scene.

LH: I’m not sure that “mindset” is the right word. Then again, maybe it is? You actually don’t need a college degree to play in a major symphony, although most of us have at least a bachelors or masters degree. In order to be an orchestra musician on the major symphony level, you do have to have a good knowledge of music history and styles of playing, a very sophisticated sense of phrasing and articulation and, as a bassist, an understanding of harmonic movement and voicing. That requires a lot of study beyond just playing the notes.

I am still curious about your use of the word “mindset.” I’ve always thought it was ironic that being an orchestra performer was so competitive when you’re trying to audition for a job, but then, on the job, you have to be the ultimate team player. You have eight basses that all have to play the same, so you sound like one instrument. That always seemed to be a contradiction. That’s one thing that’s so difficult about the audition. You have to show your individual musicianship when you play your solos, but also demonstrate your flexibility and ability to blend with other players.

FBPO: I’m guessing that most of your students have similar career aspirations to yours. Is that true?

LH: I do have a lot of students that are interested in majoring in music and doing performance. Winning a major symphony audition is a lofty goal to be sure. It’s a little like winning an Olympic medal, except there’s often no 2nd or 3rd place.

The jobs that really pay a living wage have always been competitive and it’s not getting any easier. I find it hard to be encouraging and, at the same time, give the student a good reality check. My father wanted me to go into business administration. I just told him that I would never be happy unless I tried music. I don’t think he ever really understood what I do for a living, but, to his credit, he let me make my own choices and supported me all the way.

If students really want to go into music performance, they need to have a good idea of what they’re up against. I do try to encourage students to go into teaching. That’s also a difficult profession, but very rewarding for those who have a passion for it.

FBPO: The competitive nature of the classical world is vastly different from that of the pop scene. What kind of career advice to you give your students about technique, sightreading repertoire, ensemble, etc?

LH: First of all, they need to know the reality of what it takes and what their chances are. To get a really good job, you need to be the best. Secondly, students need to listen to music, especially orchestral music. I run into music majors all the time that don’t really take the time to listen. That’s one thing that I learned from jazz. The sounds have to be in your ear. The more you listen, the better.

Students have to learn to be patient in their practicing. Fast passages still need to be clean and in tune. If you can’t play it well slowly, you certainly can’t play it fast. Take things slow and step-by-step. Sometimes it just takes time to develop. Learn to play lots of different kinds of music. I once had a wonderful jazz musician in Minneapolis tell me, “There are two ways to make it: You can be great or you can be versatile.” For most of us, we’ll have to be versatile.

FBPO: Do you prefer French or German bow?

LH: German!

FBPO: Why?

LH: That’s what I started playing and that’s what all my teachers played. Both bows have their strengths and there are great players that use each.

FBPO: You’ve had some pretty renowned teachers. I had the pleasure of meeting Murray Grodner and Stuart Sankey while visiting Indiana University many years ago and I remember Warren Benfield coming to the University of Miami to give a master class. I was studying with Lucas Drew at the time and he brought Benfield down. I’m especially intrigued, though, with Gary Karr. Tell me about your experience with him. What did you learn from Gary that you still incorporate into your playing today?

LH: I’ve been very privileged to study with some of the best. Each one gave me something that was unique. When I was a college student at Hamline University, Gary Karr was teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He had formed a close friendship with my teacher at the time, James Clute. For several years, Gary would come up to the Twin Cities and teach a group of Jim Clute’s students. I was lucky to be one of them. Gary was at both my junior and senior recitals.

I think the main thing I got from Gary was a concept of sound. I don’t play with a sound like Gary Karr. That kind of projection wouldn’t work in an orchestra section. But he did help me develop a sensitivity about playing with a very centered sound and an awareness of bow placement and bow speed. He also greatly expanded my perception of what the bass is capable of [doing].

FBPO: Putting together a program for symphony goers must be very challenging. I suppose you always have to have a certain amount of “safe” selections, like Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, etc., along with some of the more “daring” contemporary pieces. In your experience, what’s the best way to achieve the right balance?

LH: You ask really hard questions! Gunther Herbig, former Music Director of the Detroit Symphony, would try to balance his programing by having at least one piece on the concert that would attract the audience, then work the rest of the program around that. I’m very concerned that our music, classical music, may be the only music where the audience – and even some musicians – don’t look forward to new music and new sounds.

I suppose part of that problem is that we have such a great heritage, it’s difficult to write new “great” music. Too many composers now are so academic and detached from the audience. On the other hand, if an orchestra just plays the greatest hits, it’s not fulfilling its mission as an artistic organization.

I think I would start with the great quote I’ve heard attributed to Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music: good music, and the other stuff.” I’m not sure that the way to go is to have every program balanced between safe and challenging. I think you need balanced programming over the season as a whole, but develop good programs for different kinds of audiences.

FBPO: What’s keeping you busy these days?

LH: I’m spending most of my time practicing and teaching. I have quite a few private students and some of them are challenging me to find new literature to teach them. The DSO is also programming challenging music. We just did a festival of all nine Beethoven symphonies in eighteen days. The next couple of months will be challenging as well. I’m also doing workshops and some teaching in the public schools.

FBPO: How about the future? What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?

LH: I would like to find the time to get my jazz chops back in shape and do some more jazz playing.

FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?

LH: I don’t know! I guess I’ve never seriously thought about it. I’d like to think that I would be some kind of teacher or maybe a writer of some kind.

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