ouble bassist Nina DeCesare is making history as the Oregon Symphony’s first female bass player. After beginning her path to a professional musician at age 8 on a quarter-size bass, DeCesare went on to study with Paul Ellison at Rice University and with François Rabbath in Paris. She represented Rice’s Shepherd School of Music with a solo at the Kennedy Center in 2014 and won her seat with the Oregon Symphony later that same year. Her hands are exactly the right size to play the bass, and no, she does not need help carrying such a big instrument.
Nina DeCesare. Photo by Christine Dong, Artslandia
How did you come to play the bass? What’s your first experience of being drawn to it?
My mom played the flute, so naturally, I wanted to be like her. When I was in third grade, she told me that my hands were too small for flute, that I should learn a string instrument for a year at school first. I chose the largest one to prove that my hands weren’t too small! In all seriousness, though, I loved the deep sound of the bass at my older brother’s spring concert and never looked back.
What draws you to working with young musicians?
I love seeing the moments of pure joy or surprise that come along with learning, especially with the really young bassists, and watching their transition from not understanding or thinking something is too hard to their excitement and pride at being able to do it, finally. When I was younger, I never had any female bass teachers and rarely even met female professional bassists, so I am particularly drawn to mentoring girls.
How was the process of learning the bass for you? What is it like to usher students through that process as a private teacher?
When I first started playing, I was obsessed and immediately began practicing as much as I could. I was a pretty shy kid, but I always felt completely comfortable when I was playing. It was a way to express myself. I was also lucky to have teachers who both inspired me and gave me a solid technical foundation. However, I had a hard time when I arrived at Rice University because the pressure of supporting myself as a musician after college became very real. The excessive practicing and stress caught up to me, and I ended up with a severe nerve injury that sidelined me for an entire year. Looking back, I’m thankful that it happened because I was able to spend that time breaking old habits and growing as a musician beyond playing the bass. I re-learned how to play in the most relaxed, efficient way possible.
I enjoy working through all of the challenges and triumphs with my students. I know how important it can be to have a mentor for bass playing and also just for life itself, so I like filling that role. It’s satisfying to be able to help my students progress technically, but it’s especially important to me that they also learn things like self-confidence, perseverance, hard work, and how to use the bass as a tool for emotional expression.
Nina DeCesare. Photo by Christine Dong, Artslandia
What advice do you give to aspiring professional musicians, and bassists, in particular?
The practical advice I most often give is to focus on time management. I think it’s incredibly important to figure out which time of day is most productive for practicing. For some people, that’s nighttime or afternoon. Some people focus better in small chunks throughout the day, others one long session. For me, I concentrate best in the morning, so I used to schedule my classes and the rest of my life around a three-hour window of practice each morning. It’s easy to end up busy and stressed throughout college, but if the goal is to win an orchestra job, practicing should be a top priority, with the understanding that the quality of practice time is more important than quantity. Also, days off are incredibly important, mentally and physically!
The more Yoda answer is not to sell yourself short. Confidence can be a goal. It’s good to be hard on yourself to a degree because it will help you continue to progress and grow, but you have to know your worth and not let self-criticism take over.
Which musicians inspire and influence the way you play?
Bassists who inspire me are François Rabbath, Edgar Meyer, and Renaud Garcia-Fons. Non-bassists who inspire me recently are Kendrick Lamar, Tune-Yards, and Vulfpeck. I love a funky bass line just as much as any classical piece.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Looking around while we’re playing and knowing that we’re all feeling the same thing. During our recent Pops concert, the strings section performed Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the emotion among my colleagues was apparent. In day-to-day life, it often seems like we’re trying to temper and conceal our feelings, so for 76 people to get onstage and play something powerful together is incredible. It’s like being part of a big team that’s committed to expressing the human experience. I’m always hoping that our audience can feel it, too.
What’s the most unexpected thing about you?
Last summer, I took a month off from playing to hike 220 miles of the John Muir Trail in the High Sierras in California. For three weeks, I ate out of a bag, didn’t shower, and averaged about 15 miles a day going up and down over mountain passes. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but also absolutely incredible.