This week we interviewed Scott Pingel, principal bassist of the San Francisco Symphony, about his career path and how he’s handled the difficulty of the pandemic. Check out his video, transcript, and bio below!
A: So first of all, thank you so much, Scott, for joining us today to be interviewed. My first question is just to tell me and tell us a little bit about what you do for a living as an artist. I see lots of string looking things in the background, so…
S: Yes, lots of string looking things all over the place, yeah. So I am the principal bassist of the San Francisco Symphony and that’s my main job, but also I teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where I am right now in my office and so yeah, I have a lot of basses that some belong to the school, some belong to students, and they’re just everywhere in like basically every corner of this room. [laughs]
A: When did you first realize that you loved the arts? How did you get into this career path?
S: Well it was something that had been in my family actually for a number of generations. My father’s father was a pianist, although he didn’t read music and he had his own big band, the Jack Pingel Jazz Orchestra. He was apparently good friends with Lawrence Welk. I don’t know if you know who that is. Some of the older people might know who that is. And so then my dad also played piano and was a drummer. But he was a schoolteacher. He started out as a band director and then got into arts administration. My mother was an elementary music teacher, and then my brother and my sister and I all did music as kids growing up but the funny thing for me is I started out as a cellist, but my parents would make me practice right after dinner, you know, right when…and in the front room of our house! Right when all my friends are out on their big wheels and bicycles, right, you know? And I’m looking out there and I just like…my mom used to joke about the tear stains running down my cello [both laugh]. And so I just kicked and screamed. I was like, “I hate this! You can’t make me do this! I don’t want to do this!” And so finally my parents kind of gave up and they let me back off of playing cello, but then I started…but they always wanted me to play something, so I started studying piano, which I did for a while, and then I started playing the trumpet, and I played trumpet actually for seven years. So I was always around it.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into music actually. I at one point was training to be a visual artist. I wanted to go to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. But it was when I started playing bass my junior year in high school that…well actually I take that back. No, how old was I? No I was fifteen! Sorry, I was fifteen when I started playing, got my first electric bass, when I started getting much more interested in pursuing music possibly. But I was still not sure what I wanted to do and when I started playing the upright bass, like the bass violin basically, that’s when the switch really happened. That was my senior year, going into my senior year of high school when I was seventeen. And I thought, this is what I had to do.
A: That’s so interesting. Do you know what caused that switch to flip? I mean, you had done so many different instruments, so many different things.
S: I loved the…in many aspects I loved the sound of the instrument, I loved the voice of the instrument, I loved its role in these different groups. I’ve played in all kinds of different bands from jazz groups to funk bands to…I wasn’t doing much classical yet really until I started college. But I just loved that even from a practical standpoint everybody seemed to need a bass player. So I knew that there would be a lot of work. [laughs] But I just, I love the role of the bass, especially in those types of music, Latin music, you’re laying down the groove, you know, this foundation that everything kind of sits on top of, and you can really help everything feel really good. And I just love doing that. But I really just relished that role, and discovering how that can also happen in a symphony orchestra helped draw me into pursuing that later. It actually wasn’t until graduate school that I decided to pursue a symphonic career.
A: Okay, interesting. Yeah so in terms of pursuing that career, obviously it’s very hard to get a job like that.
A: Especially right now. And with COVID and everything, everything’s up in the air. What was your career path? How did you wind up with that symphony job? What was your path to get there?
S: So when I did my senior recital of my undergraduate degree, which was at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, my teacher played in the Minnesota Orchestra and he invited…he had me repeat my recital at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and he didn’t tell me, but he invited the whole bass section of the Minnesota Orchestra and most of them showed up. And Peter Lloyd, who was the principal at the time, heard me and after the recital he came to me and said, “you know, I think you really have something to offer classical music and I think you should really pursue it.”
And he said if you want to start, now that I was graduating, if you wanted to start taking some lessons from me, took me into his private studio and I got lessons about every other week or so from him. And it really encouraged me to audition for the Manhattan School of Music because he knew, if nothing else, I’d at least be able to figure out what I wanted to do there, because that school had programs both for jazz and classical. And so I auditioned for the Manhattan School of Music, I got in in the classical program, but I participated in the jazz program.
And really it was that first year that I was there that the switch really happened where I was studying…there’s a composer named Richard Danielpour. I was in his orchestra music class and we were digging into scores in ways I’d never done before and I was seeing how every note seemed to have a purpose and was chosen with care and really crafted very carefully, and as much as I loved playing jazz for myself, I could be honest that not every note that I chose was crafted with care! [both laugh] And I was thinking, you know, there’s just so many more creative minds involved in sort of this craft. Or at least that’s what I was thinking at the time. My views have changed a little bit on that, but it just really spoke a lot to me.
And practically speaking, as one of my teachers said, well look if you find yourself being more drawn to a more normal sort of way of life, the symphony orchestra is about the most normal kind of life a regular performer could have, where you have, you know, certain levels of job security, a regular schedule that you generally know almost a year in advance…there’s a lot of advantages to having a position in a major symphony orchestra. However, he also recognized that I was very behind and so I had a lot of work to do.
A: Behind in what ways?
S: Yeah, it’s such a highly specialized skill set playing in a symphonic orchestra, especially if you want to get to the upper levels of it, and there were so many things with bow strokes and understanding of style and phrasing and timing, and there’s so many things that I had to learn, and so after that first year in New York I basically stopped taking any gigs outside of classical and focusing all my energies on that. And so that’s all I did. I was just training and listening and studying scores and just doing that for like 4 years. So I did 2 more years of graduate school and And so that’s what those years did for me, is it really made me come into my own in a way. And then so at the end of my second year I got my first job as principal bass of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina.
A: Oh I’m from South Carolina!
S: Oh you are, really? Where?
A: Yeah! The Columbia area.
S: Oh no kidding, so up there, yeah so I lived for 2 years in Charleston.
A: Gorgeous place.
S: I loved it. In fact, my wife and I talk about maybe retiring there one day.
A: That sounds like a good plan to me!
S: Yeah, I just loved living there and the orchestra was really good, and I just met so many wonderful people and so that was a great place for me to get my feet wet and learn how to do the job and start learning how to listen.
I mean there’s certain things that you can learn academically but really it’s just kind of a framework that has to get both the flesh put on it and the spirit imbued into it. And that’s gonna come from that life experience and all these other things. But yeah you can start to build kind of a skeletal framework from your academic studies but it’ll never be the full body of experience really. There’s just too much. There’s just no way that that could be put into a curriculum, you know? [laughs] Even just looking at a sheet of music, you know, as I tell my students, look, this piece of paper that’s these notes on here, and all this information, it’s just a blueprint for sound. There’s just so much that you have to put into it. Nobody could put the amount of information that needs to be, that could be there to execute this. It’s just not possible. And that’s part of the beauty of it! Is that it leaves a lot of room for you.
A: Yeah, that actually segues really well into my next question. Do you find that you’re able to communicate truth and beauty, and kind of these other things through your art form? Through your music? Are there ways that…I mean you were mentioning beauty earlier. I’m curious how this kind of all comes together with meaning for you, if that makes sense.
S: Well yeah, to me art and music are divinely created gifts and experiences for us to have meanings, vehicles for expression. And for us to…you know like if I were to just play the notes on the page and I’m only thinking about technique and physical execution then I’m just, to me that’s just like I’m thinking about the body. But when I think about the meaning and the spirit behind the music, now that’s like a living body. That’s something that’s got breath, the breath of life has been breathed into it. And so, not to say, I mean I’m only a human being so not every single time that I play a note is it like this profound experience and whatnot, I mean that’s ridiculous. It’s just not possible. But the general arc is one of I want to achieve and play something to the most meaningful. And beauty is such a broad word, but I think it’s the simplest way I can put it, is the most beautiful way that I can. Even if the music is kind of ugly, there can still be sort of a redemptive beauty associated with it, because it can relate to some aspect of our human experience and help us process things that we go through in life.
A: Yeah absolutely. Well I think my last question for you is do you have any specific advice for young artists, young musicians in particular or artists in general, that you would like to leave us with?
S: Well, you know, when I was starting out there were many times where I felt like quitting because as I mentioned before I had a lot to learn. I felt like I was really far behind. And there were some setbacks that I had with either a health problem, I got a bad tendonitis injury, I couldn’t play for months, I had no health insurance, you know I had these problems, so I managed to get an individual policy, all these things learning about life and responsibility and accountability, lessons that were hard for me to learn, but I can appreciate the disillusionment that some may be feeling. Not everybody, I have some students who are super inspired and excited, but I myself had my ups and downs. But if it’s what you want to do, and you have to ask yourself that question, and ask yourself that question many times. And sometimes even put a practical time limit on it. When I was at New World Symphony, I gave myself 3 more years after I finished New World. I was like alright, if I don’t have a job in an orchestra, even though this is what I really really want to do, but if I don’t have a living wage job, you know I don’t want to be like a starving artist. I love this, but maybe not that much. I’ll go find something else to do. But I don’t know, deep down inside maybe God put it in my heart that that wasn’t going to be necessary because maybe that was why it was easier for me to say something like that.
But I did keep in that general direction, and my faith too went up and down, and there were times where my faith just felt far away and other times where it felt just like the most central thing in my life. And I think that’s also been the case with the music and career and there’s times where it just feels far away and it’s just not tangible and those other times where it feels very very close. And so you remember that truth, you remember what it means to you and you kind of ride off of that and you keep striving for that. And I think that there’s that parallel with our experience with art and faith, too, is that…not that it’s just a pure emotional thing because there’s absolutely fact and history and very tangible things involved with this. Not mere emotion. It’s much deeper than that, much more powerful than that. But nonetheless there’s that sensibility that you have and it’s just that tasting that truth helps draw you and even drive you perhaps toward what it is that you…you don’t necessarily know what the end is. Like even in the Bible when it says that you are a lamp for my feet, you know, you don’t always know what the next step is beyond one or two steps because the lamp is only showing so far. But God says you’ve still got to keep walking.
A: It’s a good reminder for me personally, you know, I can speak for myself just that there are these ups and downs and I feel like that’s a really profound truth that applies to a lot of different areas in life, which is what you were saying. So thank you very much. And thank you again, Scott, for joining us.
S: Oh my pleasure!
A: And for being interviewed. It was really lovely to meet you.
A: Thank you very much.
S: One of the differences, as I was saying, is you know this pandemic is unique in most of our lifetimes I think. But when we go through times of extreme trial you find out what it is that you value most and what you rely on, and to be cliché, where your rock is. And for me, it was like all of these different things got stripped away and what I ran back to is the Word [the Bible]. So spending time in Scripture, listening to sermons, praying, studying, I did that more than anything. And I practiced a lot and did all of that stuff too, but the number one thing for me was that. And it grew my faith through this time of trial like never before in my life. And that’s been one of the, probably…no that’s the greatest blessing of this whole time. It’s through that time of trial it’s shown me what it is that I stand on and it’s made me have a greater sense of peace and security beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced in my life in the midst of the most chaotic, confusing time [laughs] beyond anything that I could imagine. And so in a weird way I’m kind of strangely thankful and so having that level of gratitude despite everything going on and continued troubles and this variant is coming and this and that, but it’s like, I know my soul is secure. I don’t even just believe it, I know it. It’s like that is the foundational truth of my life is that Christ came, He’s God’s Son, and He died for me, and my soul is secure through faith in that, in Him. It’s not just in that, in Him. And He lives.
You know, there was a time in my life where I thought it was kind of silliness and these people that believe this stuff, you know, just part of me kind of just didn’t want to believe it. But just the reality has become so much more tangible and meaningful and the most important thing in my life without a doubt. And it’s just so freeing. It’s really truly freeing…
S: …to find that and know that it is that rock, it’s the real thing. You just feel it. It’s such a strong place to be. And so like, you know, “he who wishes to save his life will lose it but he who loses his life for my sake will save it,” [Matthew 16:25] and you start to really learn what that means and the peace that is found in that.
Scott Pingel has been serving as the principal bass of the San Francisco Symphony since 2004, after having worked with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada. He has also served as principal bassist of festival orchestras including Arizona MusicFest and the Bellingham Festival, as well as principal bassist, soloist, and Artistic Partner for the Mainly Mozart Festival of Orchestras.
An active chamber musician, he has collaborated with luminaries including Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Kalish, David Finckel, YeMim Bronfman, Wu Han, members of the Emerson, Miro, PaciMica, St. Lawrence, Danish, and Takacs Quartets, toured throughout the US with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and regularly performs in the Music at Menlo and Music in the Vineyards festivals. His solo performances and recitals featuring his own arrangements and compositions have received high critical acclaim.
Versatile in a variety of styles of music, Pingel has performed in jazz clubs from New York to Stockholm, and his solo performances with the iconic heavy metal band, Metallica, have been seen by millions worldwide, and were hailed as “show stopping” and “jaw dropping” by Rolling Stone and Variety magazines.
Passionate about teaching, he has taught master classes throughout North America, Asia, and Europe, served as a tenured Associate Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, and is currently a faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Former students have won international solo competitions and gained employment with major symphony orchestras in multiple countries.