CBC 224: Peter Tambroni on Student-Centered Teaching and Life Planning

Double bassist and music educator is today's podcast guest

Double bassist and music educator is today’s podcast guest

Today’s podcast features an in-depth conversation with Peter Tambroni.  This is a “round two” conversation that builds upon the topics that we covered in our previous talk on episode 204.  Today we dig into fallacies surrounding public school teaching, instrument setup, life planning, instrument insurance, practicing ideas, teaching philosophies, and much more.  This episode is a gold mine for anyone interested in taking their teaching game to the next level!

Pete is the author of An Introduction to Bass Playing, which is now in its seventh edition, and is an active bass performer, teacher, and author.  You can learn more about Pete on his website petertambroni.com.

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Interview Highlights
Fallacies Surrounding Public School Teaching
    • you don’t want to get too well-educated or you won’t be hired
      • Pete has never found that to be true in the various districts in which he has worked
      • everyone wants the best person for the position
      • most districts will do what they can to give you credit for your past experience
    • the right person for the job is the right person or the department philosophy-wise and personality-wise
      • people tend to focus too much on the nitty-gritty skills – it’s more about fit than anything
      • you should be interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you
  • replacing people that are:
    • good and well-liked
    • good and not well-liked
    • not good and well-liked
    • not good and not well-liked
  • Skills are easy to teach – personality and philosophy are not
  • people tend to not ask enough questions in job interviews
  • Pete always want to be somewhere where the administration supported fine arts performers practicing their craft – this was a question he posed in his interviews
  • look at the distribution of music teacher positions – are people full-time orchestra, part orchestra and part general music, etc?
  • what degree does fundraising play in the school?  this can turn into a nightmare
  • learning the other instruments as a music teacher
    • Pete took two extra semesters of violin and viola
    • music ed programs are not all requiring bass for music ed majors
Instrument Setup
  • the condition that many school basses are in – so easy to totally neglect them
    • a bass with action that is too high is a catastrophically worse situation for a young player than a violin with action too high
  • setup considerations for school instruments
    • fingerboard
    • bridge shaping
    • the need for a proper luthier
  • the extreme difficulty created for younger bass students by basses that are poorly set up
  • the advances that D’Addario has made in strings recently for students
Life Planning
  • investing vs. saving
  • index funds
  • Apps and programs
    • Betterment
    • Wealthfront
    • Robin Hood
  • IRAs
  • Roth IRAs
  • 403b investment programs for educators
Instrument Insurance
  • get a separate policy apart from your homeowners or renters insurance – these may not cover your instrument at a paying gig
  • Clairon
  • Merz-Huber
Practicing Ideas
  • teaching replacement fingerings
  • the challenge for bass players of heterogeneous string teaching (starting in D major, for example)
  • nothing beats Simandl for mapping out the fingerboard
  • Thomas Gale’s book Practical Studies for Double Bass is great for younger students
    • starts in 1st and 4th positions – allows for physical anchor point of thumb against the neck block
    • helps eliminate the “old-school bass vertigo”
  • teaching shifting
    • finding the goal note should not be a fishing expedition!
    • Mathias Wexler article about shifting in American String Teacher journal: “Throwing The Dart and Other Reflections on Intonation” from the November 2004 issue of American String Teacher.
    • this is a link to the shifting exercise Pete describes
    • shifting practice
      • play
      • stop
      • evaluate
      • play correct note if not in tune
      • repeat above procedure until shift lands right on
General Teaching Philosophies
  • try to teach for 10 years down the road
  • try to teach for the student’s next teacher
  • set people up so that things don’t need to be fixed in the future
  • having students nail a simpler piece versus struggle through a more difficult piece
  • empathizing with your students
  • don’t ask questions to “put students in their place”
  • it’s never strings versus band versus choir – though there are doubles, there are “string kids,” “choir kids,” and “band kids” – offering all programs brings music to a larger portion of the student body
  • we remember the emotion of experiences – emotion drives attention drives learning
How Gigging Helps You to be a Better Teacher
  • helps with empathy
  • opportunity to observe other players
  • opportunity to observe conductors
  • being respectful of the student’s time
Listener Feedback Links:

James Marshall Double Bass Compositions – PDF downloads 1

Double bass composer James Marshall and I have been in touch recently, and he expressed interest in my sharing scores of some of his double bass compositions here on the blog.  Jim has written several pieces in the past for Bert Turetzky (a former Contrabass Conversations guest).  Here are copes of PDFs of all three scores.  If you are interested in performing them, please contact Jim at jrmarshall10001@gmail.com.

  • Ciel Etoile (PDF) – for amplified solo contrabass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, cello, bass drum, and piano
  • Ciel Luminaire (PDF) – for alto flute and contrabass
  • Intonement (PDF) – for solo contrabass

About James Marshall

James Marshall is an American Composer who worked in business in his native city of Dallas from the late 1970’s until his retirement from JP Morgan Chase Bank in 2014. “The Texas Ives”, in the words of Bert Turetzky. A recurring facet of his music has been personal involvement with performers, composers, and exceptional participants in the field of new music. This began in association with colleagues and teachers including the Composers Club with Don Gillis at SMU. In more recent years a successful juncture was found in collaboration with contrabass artist Bertram Turetzky. A creative universe was discovered from Intonement 1976 to Ciel Luminaire and Ciel Etoil Chamber Concerto for Contrabass and Nine Instruments premiered with Harvey Sollberger and the Sonar Ensemble in November 1996.
Los Angeles Times music critic William Weber first described Marshall’s music as “avant garde” early in the 1977 review of Apre?s Moi le Sommeil for clarinet and percussion. The work was described as “magnetic” in its use of modernistic techniques. This piece has been performed extensively by the “Uwharrie Duo” (currently in residence at the University of Wisconsin), and heard live by the composer for the Society of Composers conference in Oklahoma City in February 1997.
Formal study in music began on the Garrigues Foundation Scholarship at Meadow School of the Arts SMU ( B.M. Composition with Alvin Epstein). During service with the USAF Band Washington D.C he received the M.M. degree from Catholic University of America (1974, Composition with Stephen Burton), and had sessions in composition with George Crumb (1972- 1975).
During 1975-1976 he held a Fellowship to the University of California San Diego (Study with Robert Erickson and Bert Turetzky) and attended the seminars at the Berkshire Music Center Tanglewood Summer, 1976 in connection with the music of George Crumb.
His music, performed in the states and abroad, is progressive and eclectic. It’s most overt influences are of the generation of Crumb and Ligeti who embraced the cerebral discipline of the Viennese revolution, but followed the more individual approaches in the service of an evolving modernist approach.
A writer member of ASCAP, significant performances have included: Los Angeles Monday Evening Concerts (Apre?s Moi le Sommeil; Six Nocturnes); Nancy and Bert Turetzky (Intonement, Ciel Luminaire, Ciel Etoile) in Paris, Mexico City, Freiburg, New York, London, Dallas, Tuscon, San Diego, and on numerous University campuses; Dallas Voices of Change; Contemporary Music Forum of Washington D.C.; Synchronia St. Louis; as well as various college and university concerts.
Of his music critics have remarked: arresting, avant-garde, expressive-mysterious, expressive and enormously effective, fascinating, magnetic.
Works in the 21st century have included Ciel Bleu for clarinet, percussion premiered by the CMF Washington D.C. , Evocation for alto flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion 2002, Passages for Piano, and New York Trio 2006. Retirement from banking has sparked new creative interests resulting in Pacific Moments, duo for Nancy and Bert Turetzky, Spectral Images (Nightpiece II) for clarinet, vibraphone, Marblehead for solo flute, Autumn for solo cello. Filling in for band and orchestra directors in local schools for Rockwall, Texas he has been inspired to look again for new sonorities for school groups.
Two compositions were completed in 2016: April Light, String Orchestra dedicated to Constance Groark, director Heath High School Varsity Orchestra, and Morning by the Lake for middle school band.

Guest Post: Stairway to Learnin’

Hi readers, Peter Tambroni here doing a guest post for DoubleBassBlog.org. I will be doing a semi-regular column from my perspective as a long time public school string teacher and bassist.


Learning does not follow a straight line or linear trajectory but rather a continuous series of plateaus. Acquiring new skills is like climbing an awkward staircase with long stairs.

It can be very frustrating! But being aware of this can help both you and your students.


Acquiring a new skill reminds me of video games with their ‘Achievements’. You don’t ‘level up’ every time you do something – it takes a while to build up the skills before you level up and get the ‘Achievement Unlocked’ badge.

Learning does not happen in a nice straight line.  🙁

Not Linear

Early on in learning students learn new topics at a fast rate and quickly move from one plateau to the next.

As we progress, it takes more time and practice to move to the next step.

Plateau Learning

Don’t quit, you’re about to level up!


The points labeled X are where frustration occurs. This is when students are most likely to quit. But we are so close to the next level! Don’t give up!

Students may be frustrated or want to quit but they don’t realize how close they are to leveling up.

We are all subject to frustration and wanting to give up. One of the reasons I feel learning an instrument is so important is that it instills perseverance and grit. These are traits everyone can use regardless of their educational or career path.

Thank you and keep practicin’!

Peter Tambroni


On Setting Goals and Falling Flat on Your Face


Several years ago I was digging through some old legal pads and discovered a set of lofty goals that I had set for myself in 2001, when I was 25 years old.  Here they are:

  • 10 year goals – 35 years old – 2012
    • Principal Bass, Chicago Symphony
    • Teach at Northwestern University
    • own a house in Evanston
  • 5 year goals – 30 years old – 2007
    • member of top 5 orchestra
    • teach at local university
  • 3 year goal – 28 years old – 2005
    • have a good salaried position ($40,000 +)
  • 1 year goal – 26 years old – 2003
    • salaried orchestral position
  • 6 month goal
    • apply for all openings
    • make binder
    • plan preparation schedule and do it

my notebook from 2001

Just in case you weren’t sure, I managed to accomplish none of the goals on that list.  Well, actually, that’s not true. I did put together a few binders….

Five Years Later

As I was transferring files between Google accounts a couple of weeks ago in preparation to leave my school job, I found this nugget from 2006.  Cryptically titled ”What do I do now?”, it reads:

What do I do now? 

Life after music school.


Change careers

I was kind of struck by the contrast between this hyper-driven 25-year-old detailed goal writing and this world-weary 30-year-old cloudiness.  What on Earth happened?

Did I Miss the Boat?

I’ve pondered the topic of making a career in music quite a bit on this blog, from my Road Warrior series through my latest book How to Make a Living as a Classical Musician.  I’ve also given a fair amount of thought as to why I burned out so hard on the freelance scene back in the mid-2000s.  Here’s my own quasi-objective summary of what happened to me:

  1. I had more work to do than I thought – I had always been a fairly self-confident (bordering on cocky) player.  I think that part of this came from always being a big fish in a small pond.  I grew up in South Dakota, where competition in the bass world was not particularly intense, and I found myself assistant principal bass of the South Dakota Symphony while in high school.  This was a great experience but didn’t do wonders for a teenage ego.  The small studio size at Northwestern University when I attended there gave me a lot of playing opportunities, but it didn’t expose me to the competitive realities of the scene like larger schools would have done.
  2. I was too successful too early in the freelance scene – I landed enough gigs right out of school that I never really had to struggle.  This doesn’t sound like a problem on the surface, but as a result, I never really had that feeling of hunger toward auditions.  Instead of honing my actual musical craft, I focused on developing my freelance career and maximizing my gigging opportunities.  As a result, I practiced much less than I probably should have and filled up all of my hours with gigs and teaching.
  3. I took the wrong lessons away from unsuccessful audition experiences – I would emotionally beat myself up pretty severely after each unsuccessful audition.  Rather than using the audition experience as an opportunity to grow, I would think about all the money I’d spent, the work I’d given up, and the ever-increasing feeling that I was charging blindly at a moving target that I didn’t really understand.  I got darker and darker with each subsequent audition, growing envious at other people’s successes and lamenting my own stalled career.

Did I Just Have a Different Boat?

John Grillo left a great comment on my original post that pretty much sums up my current thinking on the topic:

The moral of the story is that life never works out the way it is intended. There are many twists and turns and all we can do is be fluid and go with the flow. The path of the classical musician is probably one of the most narrow-minded career paths one can think of. Music Schools are very idealistic and rarely discuss the real options available to its students. You talk about this in your book.

A large percentage of the general population ends up doing a different career path than their college major. The modern world demands flexibility and being ready for anything. Bottom line, the ends don’t justify the means in the classical orchestra business. Who is to say you would even like the job you landed. The money wouldn’t justify the job. You could of won your 56th audition and made $30,000 a year before taxes.

Many studies have shown that only 4% of the population has any goals at all. That means that 96% of the population couldn’t even imagine having a goal sheet like yours. I think what was important is that you had goals and were going towards them. They never manifested, but so what. Many gold medal striving atheletes never win a medal, does it mean all their training was a waste?

As every decade passes in life we evolve and change as human beings. Life presents us with different adversities and challenges and who knows what will happen tomorrow. If we stay locked into the idealistic goals of our youths, we will end up miserable musicians. We have all seen musicians get fired and quit orchestras because it hasn’t satisfied their youthful craze for greatness.

In summation, the final job one ends up doing doesn’t define what level of musician you are. Some of my favorite bass players don’t have major jobs at all. I say as life changes, our goals change as well. Thanks for bringing these ideas to life. They are important issues to discuss.

All the best,
John Grillo

I know that I became a lot happier when I decided to try a new direction  That’s not to say that taking auditions was a hopeless endeavor.  I had become my own worst enemy, but I could have probably figured a way out of my emotional baggage and gone on to make substantial improvements in my playing.

I channeled all of that energy into blogging, going back to school, starting a podcast, and taking some time to enjoy life.  I started exploring the city of Chicago.  I started to feel more creative.  I started to become more open-minded and curious.  From teaching at DePaul to conducting orchestra to building up this online bass community, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in the projects I started after deciding to quit auditioning.

I’ve also had a good time connecting with some like-minded musicians who are focusing on entrepreneurship like Hugh Sung and Andrew Hitz.  Both of their podcasts focus on possibilities available to musicians outside the “straight and narrow” audition path.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!  It’s a competitive sport of sorts and I have huge admiration for those who successfully land a big position. In fact, I’m focusing on profiling as many of these people on the podcast as possible, like:

Final Thoughts

Does seeing that list of goals from 2001 conjure up some mixed emotions? You’d better believe it.  But I’m having a great time doing something that I find meaningful and making a contribution in my own unique way to the music community.

Was it what I expected to be doing fifteen years ago?  Of course not.  Am I happy with my life?  You’d better believe it.  Like John Grillo told me several years ago, “The moral of the story is that life never works out the way it is intended. There are many twists and turns and all we can do is be fluid and go with the flow.”

Do you have a similar tale?  Let me know!  Share it in the comments or send me an email at doublebassblog@mac.com.

CBC 223: Katie Ernst on Singing, Jazz Bass, and Creativity

Jazz bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst is today's podcast guest

Jazz bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst is today’s podcast guest

Today’s episode features jazz bassist and vocalist Katie Ernst.  Katie was recently featured in the Chicago Reader, and Jason Moran describes her as “a great bassist, composer, and lyricist, she has an uncanny ability to mix traditions… following her voice is like reading a great novel.”  She is one of Chicago’s most active young bassists, with two recent album releases: her solo project Little Words and her trio album Twin Talk.

We talk about Katie’s years growing up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, her “yearly check-ins” at the Birch Creek Music Performance Center with Jeff Campbell, studying at Eastman with Jeff Campbell and James VanDemark, and her educational work at the Jazz Institute of Chicago.  We also cover the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, her job directing the big band at the Wheaton Conservatory, differences between the New York City and Chicago jazz scenes, and much more!

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Katie’s recent projects:

Listener Feedback Links:

Interview Highlights

Early Years

  • grew up in Naperville, product of Naperville public school system
  • piano starting in 1st grade – sang in church and in choir
  • took bass lessons with Jeremy Attanaseo in preparation for Eastman audition
  • Studied with Jeff Campbell and James VanDemark – worked on Romberg, Simandl, vibrato, other fundamentals with VanDemark
  • lots of summer camps in high school, fiddle camp, other camps – eventually found Birch Creek Music Center right before 9th grade – used Birch Creek as her “yearly check-in”
  • Jeff Campbell – focused on deep fundamentals  – applied lessons she learned during the summer throughout the following year
  • becoming a jazz vocalist while in high school – singing with the jazz band, etc.
  • the experience of playing the foundation and singing the melody simultaneously – interesting way to experience tunes
  • Katie encourages her bass students to sing as well – incredibly helpful for young improvisors
  • Katie got a bachelor of musical arts degrees at Eastman as well—kind of like a “doctorate lite’ – she studied linguistic analysis tools in jazz scat singing
  • Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program in Washington, D.C. – where she met Jason Moran

What drew Katie back to Chicago

  • didn’t want to go directly to a masters program
  • Eastman had a postgraduate internship program where they pay a stipend for you to work for a nonprofit
  • Katie called the Jazz Institute of Chicago and proposed that she be an intern
  • moved into Chicago itself – became connected with the community of creative music in Chicago
  • differences between New York City and Chicago jazz scenes

Current Projects

  • Twin Talk
    • interactive group – focus on exploring ideas together – elements of freedom and original compositions – groovy, melodic, experimental
  • Little Words
    • project under Katie’s name – Dorothy Parker poems set to music
    • powerful poems that have a singable quality to them – cultivated
  • Lessons learned serving as Big Band Director at Wheaton Conservatory
    • listening to the whole band
    • thinking programmatically when selecting music
    • how to articulate to a group of musicians how to “get” a certain style
  • Jazz Institute of Chicago – education program director
    • takes students to see performances
    • monthly meetings
    • opportunities to be an opening act for Jazz Institute concerts

Finding time for creativity