How to work in Germany as a double bass player

Uli Schneider shares his experiences building his double bass freelance career in Germany.

With Uli Schneider · Wuppertal, Germany

Although I started very early with the Double Bass at the age of 10 (in 1991, there were no small basses in Germany, so I started to play a 3/4-sized bass while standing on a stool), the instrument did not play a big role in my life. When I finished school in 2000, I stopped playing the Double Bass for 2 or 3 years and began to study Musicology, German Philology, and Pedagogics in Cologne.

For some reason, I was always thinking about starting to play again, and so I called my first teacher Jon Diven who studied at Eastman University with James VanDemark, before if he could teach me again. Because I showed more interest in playing the double bass, I improved very fast, and so I went to my first masterclass with Prof. Ulrich Lau.

All the people I heard there were so much better than I was, and I wanted desperately to study the double bass and play the same stuff that they were playing. The more my interest grew, the more opportunities opened up, and I think this was one of the most important aspects of becoming successful with my instrument.

Starting in a Freelance Orchestra

My first bass teacher told me later in 2005 that there was a freelance orchestra sponsored by a big pharmaceutical company named Merck, where he works as the principal bass player, and they were looking for new members. At that point, the orchestra was full of amateurs like me, but they had a professional conductor who wanted to improve the orchestra’s quality. The pieces were getting harder, and the orchestra’s quality was improving very fast. After some time, I was the only amateur left, and I was quite afraid of getting kicked out as well, so I decided that it was time to study the Bass.

Honestly, I was very naive to think that it would be easy, so I failed my first audition in Music University. Shortly after the audition, I heard that the Bass teachers there were having a barbecue party with their old and new students and asked me if I wanted to join as they knew me from some masterclasses and lessons before. Without knowing how good it was to join this party, I was going with them. When we were sitting at the camp fire, the two teachers asked me to come to them and have a short talk about my audition and the future, and one of them said that if I had some private lessons for 6 months, there would be a chance to join the class in University.

So I started having private lessons with Prof. Gottfried Engels. It was such a strange coincidence that a party was actually the starting point of my career. After some weeks, my new teacher told me that he had to take responsibility for me and that I would have no chance to become a member of a States orchestra because I was simply too old but that my qualifications in Musicology and pedagogics could help me to become a very good double bass teacher.  At the same time, he kind of destroyed my dream to become a professional bass player in one of the States orchestras in Germany. He also told me that I had to finish my master’s in musicology; otherwise, he would kick me out of his class. Trusting my teacher, there will be a good chance for me to start a career as a teacher, I studied pedagogy before and decided to accept the challenge even if it was not my dream at all. That was another lesson I learned for my future life: Find a teacher you can trust and who will take responsibility for you. The next audition was fine, and finally, I had a place in the Class!

A Special Project in Cologne

After some months, I heard about a special project in Cologne which was paid for by a foundation. There was an older gentleman who asked the Music University if they could develop a string class project for the elementary school as he knew he was going to pass soon, and he wanted to donate his money for cultural belongings. Without having a single idea what string class teaching is and how you deal with around 30 kids per class at the same time, I started this adventure.

In elementary school, I learned very fast that I did not learn anything at Music University that could help me because you only learn how to play your instrument and how you deal with a student in a single lesson which is a completely different thing. So I had some talks with some elementary school teachers and my parents, who were teachers as well (but in physical education)if they could help me with my lack of knowledge. It was maybe the first time that I found out that you have to build a good network around you and that you have to trust the experts surrounding you to improve your own skills.

A few months later, it went better, but in the first months, I was always hoping for the end of the day. But, it was the first opportunity not to work in a supermarket or do other jobs that did not have anything to do with music education. The funny thing was that this project started without having any bass players there, and the responsible teachers at the music university didn’t want to develop the project for Minibasses because they were afraid of making any mistakes.

Actually, they had no clue what Mini-basses are. But my teacher hopefully had!  Can you imagine a University that has professors for music pedagogy who can live with that? For me, this had nothing to do with music education. It was simply a big mistake to choose the easy way.

After some time, we convinced the foundation to buy some basses, but they bought 1/2-sized basses for 7-year-old children who needed 1/8-sized basses. In the following months, I met some bass players who were working in the same city and had the same problems (guess who was their professor?), so we started a revolution in the project. 1 year later, there were 5 elementary schools with four classes minimum, each with four or more basses in the right size, and we all could teach the kids properly. Some of the students asked if there was a possibility to have additional single lessons, and of course, we said yes.

What I learned

If you want to live as a freelancer in Germany, you have to teach in String classes as well because the lessons take place in the morning. In the afternoon there is time for the single lessons. A normal music school in Germany pays around $70 per month per student, which means even if you have 30 students, you have to live on $2100 a month, including living, insurance, healthcare, taxes, car, and so on. That’s not enough to have a family and take care of them. A string class pays $120 for each day per hour per month. That sounded good.

What I found out later is that the music schools in Germany often don’t have string class cooperations with public schools, so the bass teachers have maybe 4 or 5 students in single lessons and have a bad contract with the music schools: Every year you have to fight for a new contract. But if you are an expert in string class teaching, you can either convince your boss to start such a program or work more hours on an already existing project at the same place. Another advantage is there is a possibility that you could get an unlimited contract with the city you work in, which means that they pay 50% of your healthcare and insurance.

During my studies in music university, I had to visit teachers in some public music schools to learn more about teaching. I had to observe some lessons and also taught on my own under the advice of the mentor. In Germany, a music school is a completely different thing from an elementary school. Everybody can apply there and can have lessons with a music pedagogue, but it is an additional “hobby“ like playing soccer or basketball.

In Germany, there are nearly no boarding schools that focus on music or prepare young students for University. Every school is a public school with no school fees at all. That means, on the one hand, that everybody has a fair chance to have a good school education. On the other hand, there is no money for music equipment or instruments. That means that you have to apply to a music school besides your regular public school.

Becoming a Minibass teaching expert

When I had my first appointment with the bass teacher in Dusseldorf, which is the Capital of the State North Rhine-Westphalia (the state has around 20 million inhabitants, which means a quarter of Germany’s citizens and Dusseldorf has 600k), I recognized that this guy runs the biggest bass class in Germany. He had and still has 50 students per week. The youngest is 4 years old. For me, this experience was like a goldmine in music teaching, and a new idea was born: Becoming an expert in Minibass teaching as well. My professor was a good friend of mine, and so I recognized that this was the second big favor my professor did for me. What I learned: The more interest you show, the more chances you get. The more people you meet, the more opportunities will open up.

In 2010 some teachers and students in North Rhine-Westphalia founded the Double Bass Teachers Association in North Rhine-Westphalia with the goal to develop the teaching of Minibass in the music schools. In NRW (short version for the region), there are around 800 double bass students taught in music schools. That sounds like a lot, but most of them have lessons in the big cities. In the countryside, there is nearly nothing. So one of the goals of this association is to develop a good infrastructure concerning teaching there.

At that point, I was still a student, and I was asked if I wanted to join the association. Of course, I said yes because I had the impression that this could be a very big thing for the future. The government was going to help us, and the cultural ministry had a cooperative deal with us. I helped at the annual Bass Camp as a student. In the beginning, we earned nearly no money, and the students worked for free, but I thought and still think that it is better to start a thing you have a good feeling with, and later on, you will get some other chance because the people you were helping remember you as a good guy. Honestly, we were all working for the idea and the dream, not for money.

Meeting Caroline Emery

The first time in my life that I met Caroline Emery, who was so kind to come to the Bass Camp as a teacher, was a big inspiration for me, and she also had a lot to tell about the invention of the Minibass and her books. We had some very interesting talks about my future plans, and she told me some of her “secrets of teaching.” On the last day of the course, she said to me: “Hey, you should come to Bassclub in Menuhin School and help a little, and I can tell you it will blow your mind.” And it did!

I saw all those talented young Bass Players there playing on the highest level I heard so far, and I also had a chance to teach a little during this very intense week at Bassclub. Most of the time, I was taking notes and tried to keep everything in mind. At Bassclub, I also met Francois Rabbath, Gareth Wood, Christian Mortensen, and Jan Alm, which was absolutely crazy. Meeting Caroline was very important to me, and she still means a lot to me. I still think that she gave me a lot of good advice and an idea of quality-based teaching.

The same year the first International Basscamp in Germany took place, and again Caroline Emery was there as Edmond Cheng, who has probably the largest Minibass-Class worldwide in Hong Kong. Another very inspiring person for me. All of his students play at a very high level. I only heard that quality in Caroline’s class before. With Edmond, I had some very interesting talks, too, and one of the things I kept in mind most was: If you think small, you stay small, so think big. I will keep that sentence in my mind forever. I met Edmond at three or four more courses, and so I had the chance to teach some of his students, and he taught mine. The same year I finished my Master’s degree, and half a year later, I earned my diploma in music pedagogy.

More Camp Experiences

After that, there was the same camp taking place in Berlin, where I met Szymon Marciniak and Giorgji Makhoshvili. The course was led by Prof. Stephan Petzold, who is a big influencer in BASSEUROPE, and he also invited me to teach another course- again, a lucky coincidence. The next Basscamp in Germany was with Thierry Barbe. who I met before on a masterclass in Montepulciano. All these events took place in 3 or 4 years, and they were all very inspiring. Actually, I felt like a sponge getting more and more useful information, and as well the network was growing.

Shortly after that, there was a small city music school close to my home, and they had a very small Double-Bass class with 5 students. As my mentor told me that they were looking for a young and motivated bass teacher, I gave the boss a call and they wanted me to become their new bass teacher. That was in 2011. Unfortunately, I had to quit after two years because there was a better job in another city.

A New Job

There was another music school looking for a teacher, and again my professor gave me the advice to give their office a call. Again I was lucky because in that school, they had not one single Double Bass student, so it was somehow like a laboratory where you could start from the very beginning. I have to say that I was lucky at that point in time because the city was running a project for the elementary schools there. In collaboration with the music school there, the city spends a lot of money to pay for string class teaching in elementary school.

After two years, my class was growing, and I had 15 students there, plus 5 hours of string class teaching. As the school was desperately looking for more string teachers, I could help some friends to work there as well. As a result, we could build up two orchestras in the music school. One was conducted by me. I also had a very good friend who was willing to teach the piano at that school. That meant that the quality of my class was improving as most of the students had the possibility to play in the orchestra and could play with a professional piano teacher. I think that we have it in our own hands if our class becomes a class of motivated and talented kids. The more quality the kids see and hear (from yourself, from piano teachers, etc.), the more they can improve. That means as well that you should try to bring them to masterclasses, concerts and so on.

In 2012 my wife, who was my piano player at Music University before I married her, became pregnant, and I was living quite okay for a single household. But at that point, I only earned around 1200 Dollars a month- not enough to make a living with my wife and kid. Also, my contract was limited to one year. So something had to happen very fast. My day was full of driving to several music schools and string classes, but still, there was a lack of money. So I decided to ask all my bosses if there is a chance to work more.

My Expectation was that maybe one of them could help me, but all of them offered me to work even more!! Within 1 month, I had a 50-hour work week, and the family was fine. At the peak, I had 18 string classes, 30 students, orchestra playing, courses, and so on. The best thing that happened to me was that I got an unlimited contract in one of the schools. As a consequence, I had to decide to quit some of the small jobs and concentrate more on the bigger ones. In my opinion, this is also a very important aspect: If you want to improve, you have to quit the worst job you have to create space for more inspiring ones.

While all these events took place, I was a member of two big freelance orchestras, and so my dream to play in the orchestra somehow came true. At that point in time, it was the first time that there were opportunities to pay back the favors other people were doing to me. I had some friends who were still studying, and I heard about some schools looking for teachers. Also, our orchestras were looking for new members, so I remembered all the people who were taking care of me and paid back. Actually, it was a very good feeling because, in the first years, I only received and wasn’t able to give back. The whole freelance scene is like an organism to me that feeds you but also has to be fed. That means that you should not bite the hand that is feeding you, should you?

Becoming a camp organizer

In 2014 my mentor, who was the head of our teacher’s association, became sick and told me that the association needed somebody who could organize the bass camp instead of him. So in 2014, I became the head of the Double Bass Teachers Association in Northrhine-Westphalia. In the beginning, it was very scary because my responsibility grew, and I had to take all the financial risks such a course had. But I also met new people holding very important positions in the cultural scene in Germany as the German Association of Music Schools and the Association of Orchestras for talented children in our region.

At Music University, we did not learn anything about self-management or how to organize a course, so I had to talk to a lot of people and visit the other Teacher’s Associations in Germany. At the moment, there are five of them, but as every head of the Associations was a guest at the Bass Camp before, it was very easy to refresh the contact. From now on, I visited, mailed, or called one of them regularly, which was quite helpful. After some difficulties at the start with only 28 participants, our course now has a size of 60 bass players every year, which makes it one of Germany’s biggest bass camps. We had teachers like Gottfried Engels, Thierry Barbe, Caroline Emery, Carthy Elliott, Stefan Schafer, Boguslaw Furtok, and Stanislav Anishenko, who were so kind to give a lot of inspiration to the kids. Last year we came in contact with the European String Teachers Association (the German section) and as well BASSEUROPE.

In the last months, there were some possibilities to write articles about new literature for double bass or string class teaching. At the moment, I am writing an article about Claus Freudenstein’s new piece “THE WOLF & STRUCT.“ This is actually very funny because now, Musicology has come back to my life again. For me, it means a lot because I know now why I had to finish my first studies and that it was not in vain to choose the long road and is now a big advantage.

Lessons learned about teaching the bass

Since that point, I recognized that teaching the Double Bass is a lot more than teaching one student after the other. You have to connect to influencers, you have to be diplomatic, you have to love children, you have to play and teach professionally, you have to go to events, courses, lectures, and so on, and you also have to try to do favors to people who helped you. All in all, it is a very altruistic behavior which can’t be wrong because you only make yourself and other people happy. I don’t know if you will find another job that can make you that confident…

All these things you don’t learn in Music university. In Germany, you study mostly one segment, for example: orchestra musicians. That means you practice a lot without knowing if you get a job in a state orchestra.

You can study music pedagogy, and you learn, besides playing your instrument properly, how you teach a kid in a single lesson. Or you become a teacher in a High school or elementary school. While you study, you learn how to teach your segment, but no one tells you how to react to the fact that reality works quite differently. Concentrating on one job will lead to nothing but self-destruction.

If you want to get a job in a music school, they ask you if you have experience in string class teaching. Otherwise, they won’t hire you. That is a big scandal: How can music universities forget their responsibility to the students? Why don’t they learn the basics of their future life?

Violinists or piano players are a lot more prepared than we are. That made me think of the real aim of a Double Bass Teachers Association, and this is maybe the biggest thing you can think about.

What we don’t learn at the university

We work with children, but we don’t really learn it in University. So the goal should be to improve music education from top to bottom. There are lots of very talented young bass players out there, but if they want to study Double Bass, the music universities have to offer more opportunities. Therefore we have to open the professor’s minds to our belongings. I think the more professors know what we are doing, the more we can change. In fact, we are experts like them, but unfortunately, some of them think differently.

I think that I was very lucky so far, and I really met the right people at the right time. Nevertheless, living in the freelance scene in Germany is possible, and you can be very successful.

The funny thing is that the freelance players in Germany live mostly from teaching and do not study music pedagogy. Teaching is sometimes seen as the second chance for all those who fail in the auditions. But everybody knows that teaching has a lot to do with responsibility, and you cannot use 50% of your heart while teaching. It is a 24/7 job. In the orchestras, there are not so many jobs at the moment, but we need the teachers. Crazily people behave quite differently. They study orchestra playing and only reproduce themselves and feed a system that is wrong. Most of the students who go to music university will have to live teaching, writing, and playing at the same time, but they aren’t prepared for that type of life. If you want to live as a freelancer you should be able to become an expert in as many topics as possible. The music world is full of possibilities, and I am sure that everybody can find his place in the freelance scene.

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