Jeremy Kurtz-Harris


An Interview with Timothy Pitts

Timothy Pitts is well known throughout the bass community, both as a performer and a teacher. He has former students in ensembles around the world, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Toronto Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, and Seattle Symphony.


Pitts began his bass career immediately after graduating from New England Conservatory in Boston. For two years, he was a regular substitute with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and also played with several other ensembles in the area. When the Cleveland Orchestra had a section bass spot, he auditioned and won the position.


After seven years in Cleveland, Pitts won the principal bass spot in the Houston Symphony, and moved there with his wife, violinist Kathleen Winkler, who had been offered a faculty position at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. Pitts also taught part time at Rice, and was very active in the Houston musical community. After seventeen rewarding years as principal, he decided to resign from the Houston Symphony in order to accept a full-time teaching position at the Shepherd School of Music.


We recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk while Tim was in San Diego, performing as Principal Bass with the Mainly Mozart festival. I asked him about his thoughts on music, performing, and teaching.



Kurtz: Who have been some of your biggest musical influences?


Pitts: I started playing the bass in fourth grade in public school and was lucky to have had a very good string teacher from the beginning. She was a cellist and was able to help me—one on one—more than a violinist could. In high school, I had a fantastic choral director who not only taught me theory, but accompanied me as well—he was a great pianist. My private bass teacher in high school, Ron Mattern, was always inspiring and encouraging.


When I went to NEC, Larry Wolfe took me under his wing. Also, my chamber music experiences were unusual for a double bass player. One of my coaches, Louis Krasner, premiered the Berg [violin] Concerto. I also worked with Eugene Lehner; he was the violist in the Kolisch quartet and an awesome musician. Those experiences were great.


In addition, there was Tanglewood with Gunther Schuller. It just seemed like Boston, at that time, was full of amazing musicians with connections to the past—people like Krasner and Lehner—as well as great contemporary musicians like Schuller. These people were all important to me in my education.


I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in 1981, and at that point, I planned to go to Vienna to study with Ludwig Streicher. I saved the acceptance letter from Streicher—I still have it! At the same time, I was offered a regular subbing opportunity with the BSO. After talking both options over with Ed Barker, I decided to accept the work with the BSO and study privately with him. Ed greatly influenced the direction of my orchestral career.


I studied with Ed for two years while subbing with the BSO. During that same time, I was playing principal bass with The Handel Haydn Society, and Boston Musica Viva, a contemporary music ensemble. My musical life was extremely varied.


Kathy, my wife, is also an incredible musical influence because I bounce ideas off of her and play for her; she is such a high quality player.


Kurtz: What was playing with Handel Haydn Society like? Was that a big transition after playing with the BSO?


Pitts: In those days—before Christopher Hogwood was the conductor—the ensemble was comprised of all modern instruments, not early instruments as it is now. The main difference, at the time, was in the repertoire that we played. There was quite a bit of continuo work. In fact, every year we performed the entire Messiah seven times in a row in Symphony Hall, with one bass and one cello for most of the recits and arias. To do that—play in tune and match the style precisely—was a challenge. It was after I left Handel Haydn that Hogwood became the music director and the ensemble made the change to period instruments.


Kurtz: What were your experiences in Cleveland like, and how did those compare to Boston and Houston?


Pitts: I started in Cleveland when Christoph von Dohnányi was in his second year as music director. The timing was very lucky because it was a real heyday for the orchestra. I seem to remember that in one year, we made seventeen CD’s—it was unbelievable. We hardly had a day off.


While in Boston, I was playing with the BSO, Handel Haydn, Musica Viva, as well as playing principal bass in the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra; every day held something different. While I was in Cleveland, even though it was a great orchestra, I missed that variety. I always tried to do some teaching, play chamber music, and schedule recitals whenever I could to maintain the variety in my schedule.


When I became the principal in Houston, I had the diversity again because of the opportunities that came with that position. The Houston Symphony Chamber Players started the second year I was in the orchestra. We also played several operas each season with the Houston Grand Opera, which was a blast, too. In addition, I started teaching at Rice part time and performing chamber music there as well.


Kurtz: Did you automatically start doing all those things outside of the orchestra, or did you start getting bored before you realized you had to keep up a variety of activities?


Pitts: Even while I was freelancing in Boston—after I had graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and was studying with Ed while preparing for auditions—I still played recitals and chamber music. I just liked doing it. That came pretty naturally, and I knew that it was important for me to do. Especially later on, when I became principal, I knew that I had to keep up my solo skills in order to stay on top of my game.


Kurtz: Was there a big difference in styles between Cleveland and Houston?


Pitts: When I went to Houston, the orchestra was on an upswing. Because Eschenbach was the conductor, it was an extremely extroverted, soloistic-sounding ensemble. That was different from Cleveland. Cleveland was more refined and everything was perfectly together—a little more contained, but beautiful and elegant. It proves to me that there are various ways to make music and that they are all valid, but they can be drastically different. I had a very good experience making that transition although I did miss some things about Cleveland: the hall was fantastic, and the tradition there was legendary, but being in a place like Houston that was on such an upward trajectory was also thrilling.


On the first European tour I did with Houston, the orchestra performed Mahler's Fifth Symphony with Eschenbach. I was just blown away. I had been to Europe many times with Cleveland, and there was always a great reception for that orchestra, but I think people weren’t expecting what Houston had to offer. We were all pumped, because that was the orchestra’s first European tour. Plus, our hall in Houston was acoustically difficult—dead. So when we had the opportunity to perform in the great halls of Europe, we blew the roof off.


Kurtz: What about Boston in comparison to Cleveland?


Pitts: I think the styles of orchestras are determined by the acoustics of their halls. Because Symphony Hall in Boston is very resonant, the string section uses more of an "off the string" style in order to have better clarity of articulation. Severance Hall in Cleveland has a more honest-sounding acoustic, so the orchestra plays differently; I had to make some adjustments to fit in. I think the focus in Cleveland was definitely on the ensemble. That was something to which everybody paid close attention: they always talked about the chamber music aspect of orchestral playing.


Kurtz: I’ve recently had several discussions with several bassists about the skill of learning to play in a large hall. Is that something you had to consciously work on?


Pitts: There were great players when I was in school, but when I went to sub with the BSO for the first time, I was shocked by the amount of sound that the bass section produced. I realized, “Man, I’ve got to step it up a little bit here!” I had been so interested in making it clean—we all worry about clarity—but I realized by sitting in the BSO section that you have to make significant sound in an orchestra. I did have to reevaluate that. I think that when you start to play out, other things may fall apart, so you have to go back and pick up the pieces. That was an important revelation.


Kurtz: What do you do, technically, to play out more?


Pitts: I just started to use more bow—not trying to play everything so perfectly clean that it became small. Of course, playing closer to the bridge and varying one's bow weight and speed also came into play, but for me, I think the biggest revelation was just using more bow.


I also remember the first time I had the chance to play the Bottesini Grand Duo with Robert McDuffie on a Houston Symphony concert. When we started to rehearse, I realized that he was changing the bowings in order to use much more bow. He was not worried about the long slurs. His job was to get the sound out there. So that was important, too: not to be too constrained, not to be too restricted by the bowings.


I think there's a difference between when you’re playing a solo or in an ensemble. Playing closer to the bridge in solo playing makes the sound more lean, and for me, is the way to go. When I play in an ensemble with another instrument in octaves, for example, I go for fatness of tone, which creates a bigger sound.


Kurtz: How would you describe that “fat” sound—and how do you produce it?


Fat means more bow—more air in the sound—to fill the sound out so it’s not so dense and not so lean. When you get the fat sound, you can see the string vibrating wider.


Kurtz: I’m curious to hear about how you got into teaching.


Pitts: One summer, I had the opportunity to coach the Greater Boston Youth Orchestra bass section for their summer camp. After that summer, my teacher, Ed Barker, seemed to think that my playing had been transformed somehow. I realized that when I verbalized concepts, then I learned, too. I still benefit from that, especially with my students at Rice [laughing]—they’re so good, they keep me on my toes!


Kurtz: Did you find that you had to make a big transition in your teaching style once you started teaching more advanced students? Is it more challenging—or is it less challenging in some ways?


Pitts: I think the biggest challenge has been to teach them to incorporate their technical skills into musical ideas. Using technique to craft musical ideas has always seemed to be the area in students' playing where I have had to spend considerable time. I have found that students, quite often, are satisfied with good intonation and sound as an end product. However, that's when the real artistic element of playing just begins. It doesn’t matter how many different spiccatos or vibratos you have, or how great your sound and intonation are. If you’re not going to put them together to make musical sense, you're not working at the highest artistic level.


I always start by trying to work with whatever musical ideas my students present, unless they are out of the question. Then I'll tell them "I think this is not going to work." But as long as they can convincingly justify their ideas, I'll work with their interpretations. That's the challenge, but it's fun because it's the area where I can help develop the creative minds of my students.


Kurtz: What did you learn over the years about being a principal string player?


Pitts: I think the most important aspect is to always be prepared and to lead by example. I have also learned that having "people skills" is critical. Of course, I made comments to the section in almost every rehearsal, but I would rarely address someone directly—at least on stage. During rehearsals, I found it more productive to offer comments which stated what we were trying to accomplish as opposed to pointing out what we were not accomplishing. For example, I might say, “let’s try to match the cellos,” or “let’s try to listen for the flutes,”—whatever the case would be—and keep the comments more general. If I had to say something of a critical nature, it was always best, I thought, for those comments to be said in private. That way, spirits were kept high. We had a lot of camaraderie in our section.


Kurtz: How much influence do you think a principal has on the sound of the section?


Pitts: The principal can have a great deal of influence but it takes time. If you come in and try to change everything at once, that will be counter productive. Within my own section in Houston, I tried, over time, to instill certain general concepts that I felt we could apply across the board. For example, I emphasized more of an ensemble spirit between the bass section and the orchestra at large. I also tried to use a skill that I found very useful in Cleveland which was to rely on my own ears as well as on the conductor's baton. I encouraged my section to listen to what was happening around them as a means towards better ensemble playing. These kinds of changes took time, but paid off in the end.


Kurtz: It’s obvious that your family has always been very important to you, and I remember from when I studied with you that you always made time for them. How did you learn to balance family time with your busy work schedule?


Pitts: The biggest difference was that before I had a family, I had the luxury of practicing whenever I wanted to. After my children arrived, I realized that I had to fit my practicing around the family schedule. This meant practicing either very early in the morning or very late in the evening, or during the kid's nap time when I would sneak in an hour or so. This certainly taught me to be more efficient with my time. Now that my kids both play cello, I can practice when they practice!


Kurtz: Are there any new projects you’re excited about now?


Pitts: Playing chamber music has always been my first love. There are a couple of bass arrangements of chamber pieces that I’m thinking of publishing. In addition, I’ve been very busy performing chamber music concerts. We are lucky to have a great performing faculty at Rice. This past year, I performed Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence with Kathy [Winkler], Cho Liang Lin, Desmond Hoebig, James Dunham, and Ivo-Jan van der Werff [Pitts has arranged the second cello part for bass.] This coming Fall, I'm involved with the premiere of a work that Richard Lavenda is writing for bass, cello, tuba, and bassoon. I’m looking forward to that.


Now that my schedule is more flexible, I'm able to accept guest master class invitations. Next spring, for example, I'll be giving a class at the Manhattan School in New York as well as classes and lessons at the New World Symphony in Miami.


Kurtz: It seems that auditions and the job market for orchestral bassists gets more competitive each year. Does this change any advice you’d give to aspiring symphony bassists?


Pitts: For me, personally, it doesn’t. I always thought orchestral playing was a great career. My daughters both play cello, and I’m thrilled about that. I’ve talked to my wife at times about it: “what are the chances? There are so few opportunities and so many players . . .” My own orchestral career allowed me to not only play at the highest level of music making but offered me the opportunity to see the world while doing so. Based on my own life experience, I would encourage students to follow their dreams.