my past

me playing guitar
© Benjamin Forbes, me playing some songs in a park in Kassel

Who wants to read the story of my past?

Well, I admit – I don’t know at all!

But in case you are interested, well – then I wrote it for you!

I made the effort to write my story in detail to give you a full insight into my life and way of acting and deciding. In this way I hope to not only entertain you but encourage and inspire you to travel your own path. Please note that this is a very personal insight into the the memory of my past. I have no intention to offend anybody I write about! If that still would be the case don’t hesitate to contact me about it.

Childhood

It all started on the 27th of September 1986 in a little town called Lörrach in the very south-west end of Germany. I had a good time as a child growing up with four lovely sisters spoiling me and two parents truly caring and loving each of us. Not a bad start at all. Music was always around us. Our mother loved to play the oboe and the “big brother” English horn, always searching for the emotional expression in each tone. My father often played on our baby grand piano and I loved to listen to him. When we went to a church service (which didn’t happen a lot) he was usually playing the organ. At home there was the singing in the evening times too. All kinds of children songs, some of them with religious origins. I loved the familiar voices of my parents (it was the best medicine to fall asleep), especially on Sunday mornings. Classical music records, especially organ music or other stuff from J.S. Bach would welcome us to breakfast. I loved it. It felt so solemn.

me playing cello as kid, my past
My first tryouts 1992

From early childhood I was fascinated by all kinds of instruments, from the organ I made out of building blocks on the living room floor, to the pursuit of drummers and trombone players at carnival. At the age of 5 I joined an early music education group for the purpose of finding the instrument I really wanted to play. Here the cello found my main focus. Well actually I don’t remember clearly if it was the cello or the upright bass, both were fascinating. It might have been the size of the double bass that led my parents to arrange cello lessons.

When I was 10 I started playing in youth orchestras from our town. I remember the magic of the Unfinished Symphony by Franz Schubert and especially the strong intensity of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Great music! It’s funny to remember today that during rehearsals I often imagined what it would be like to conduct and how I would do things differently from our teacher. But I never took it serious enough to talk about it with my parents.

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have a good time playing the cello, I just couldn’t find the commitment to study music seriously. I wasn’t sure about the reasons.

I loved music, that much I knew. Somehow being a professional cellist didn’t seem to fit me.

Youth

At the age of 15, things started to get more serious.

After participating in our Jazzband at school I discovered the electric bass. It didn’t take long ’til I finally found “my instrument”, the double bass. Or so I thought at that time.

my double bass, my past
My lovely double bass – © Benjamin Forbes

I began playing in a youth band called Jazzattack. We participated in all kinds of competitions and gave several concerts a year, which was a big step for me. I started to get in touch with the world of grown-ups and being a part of it.

At the time of my youth I truly realised the importance of music in my life. Listening to music I loved was at least as important as playing in bands and giving concerts. Maybe it was even more important. I felt free and great when I dived into the sounds, everything seemed possible while the music played, it was part of me. I lived through the deepest emotions by listening to music. This was not due to the absence of caring friends and family. There was just a magic feeling when I was alone in my room listening to music.

“On trip” by Sebastian Scheipers, arranged by “Jazzattack”

Music is my source of energy, my drug.

Beginning

I clearly remember the day when I told my father I wanted to leave high school to study the double bass. In the weeks before I was constantly lamenting how I’d waste my time in school, forced to learn all kinds of stuff I wasn’t much interested in, while missing the time and inspiration I yearned for to become a great musician. My older sister said to me, “Why don’t you change your situation if you are so unhappy about it?”

That hit home.

I researched the conservatory in Berlin, checking the application deadlines. My parents were relieved that I’d missed the deadline. I was 16 and eager to jump into a new life, into my life, full of music – and only about music. Of course there was resistance. First my father tried to forbid it, reminding me that my school degree would be important all my life. After he realised that ultimately he couldn’t stop me, he tried to bargain about the timing and the conditions. Finally we agreed that I wouldn’t leave home until I’d passed an entrance examination to study music. If I failed, I’d continue school for at least two more years to graduation.

“Angelina” by Harry Belafonte,
played live at the final concert of Phillip
with our trio “Radio Jazz Guitar”

The closer the examination date came, the more my father understood how determined I was. There was no doubt that I would leave – if I made it in. One day while playing with Antoine Kauffmann and Philipp Kailer (two music students in the neighbouring city of Basel) Philipp asked me if I knew about the Conservatory of Amsterdam. I’d barely heard the name of this city and was clueless about its size, music scene or even its geographical location… But it seemed very interesting. I had a fixed idea in my head that I needed an international city in order to grow as fast as possible. Everything was going too slow for me, I wanted to meet more musicians and the best of them, of course. I knew that New York was the most important city for jazz, but being so young and moving out for the first time, I decided Amsterdam would become my European New York and applied.

Even though my teachers from Basel assured me that I’d easily make it into the conservatory of Amsterdam, I couldn’t be sure. I was confident, I knew what I wanted and I was prepared to give all I had. I believed that ought to be enough. Still, there was fear. What if I failed? I imagined life confined at high school, the years endlessly dragging by. I couldn’t imagine how to survive such misery. Contributing to this feeling was the understanding that I was at risk of having to repeat a year. IF I failed to make it into the conservatory I would still have to pass my school year. If I didn’t pass, it would mean three instead of two years until graduation. It might sound weird, striving to live in a foreign country away from friends and family especially as I didn’t speak English (obviously my school English sucked), not to mention my complete lack of Dutch… However, it was an inner urge that had grown to be very strong. It felt like a calling, something I just had to do, no matter the cost.

Two months before the examination I got very sick and needed to spend ten days in hospital. It’s quite possible that altogether things were a bit too much for my system. Luckily I recovered in time and found myself in an acceptable shape to travel two weeks or so before the examination.

Amsterdam

I made it in!

It was an overwhelming feeling, when for the last time I walked down the main corridor at my (now) old school. The same corridor I’d walked down countless times over so many happy and unhappy years, but all the time without a choice about being there or not. At least that’s how it had felt to my teenage self. I was free!

Finding an apartment in Amsterdam was a huge adventure. Even as I was on the train to my new city I had still not found somewhere permanent to live. Luckily my older sister was at home looking for apartments online. She ended up finding my little home (12 square meters to be precise) just in time! Remember, in 2004 there were no smart phones. This led to problems that would not exist today, mainly in terms of finding my way around. Also a lack of information on the go, perhaps led me to accepting a shoddy rental agreement for a dirty apartment with a shared bathroom that needed some TLC, and some of whose inhabitants had the propensity to mistake a shower for a toilet: Maybe it was the quality of the drugs. Obviously I was in hurry.

After the first week of sunny weather, Amsterdam reverted to normality: months of thick clouds and a lot of wet… My days were spent at the conservatory, practicing, taking lessons and later on rehearsing with different bands. There were lots of musicians. The jazz department had over 300 students, the classical, twice that. There was also a stream for popular music with growing numbers. For a music conservatory, that’s big as far as I know. However, there weren’t so many bass players. For this reason I got requests from all kinds of musicians. Guitarists especially were busy founding bands which was fortunate for me.

my past
tre at the bimhuis in Amsterdam © Claudia Hansen
Chelsa Bridge,
recorded with “tre” a
few months after our
first rehearsal

The first band I got into (if I remember right), was the trio tre with drummer Andrés Litwin and Alto saxophonist Louise Dam Eckardt Jensen. When Louise asked me to found a band with her, just a few weeks had passed since arriving and my English was on such a low level that I could’t really answer more than “yes” and “mh, ah, okay, great!”. I must have had a confused expression on my face when she asked if I wanted to play with her, because later she told me I looked totally stoned. But really this was just down to my lack of English, my not-really-getting-what-all-the-words-meant desperation. But, to give her credit, being in that “state of mind” was not uncommon for students in Amsterdam. I did try some weed about 14 years later… But at that time I was such an innocent boy, 18 years old and searching for friends, not knowing the language, not knowing anybody, but eager to become a great bass player and then… Conquer the world!

Opening my Eyes
by Lars Dietrich (as)
Remco Keizer (ts), 
Franz von Chossy (p) 
Mark Coehoorn (dr), 
Konstantin Uhrmeister (b)

I did get the chance to learn some Dutch. After some weeks of study there was a Dutch saxophonist called Remco Keijzer who asked me to join his quintet with some other Dutch guys. They were Lars Dietrich on alto sax, Marc Cohorn on drums and the German pianist Franz von Chossy. Well, unfortunately it didn’t help my Dutch abilities too much due to my great language talent but musically was a great experience for me. Most of the tunes Lars had written had a weird odd meter, some of Remco’s too. The first songs I had played with unusual meters was during the time with ‘Jazzattack’. I always loved them. Remco’s quintet with the fancy name ‘Keijzer 5’ gave me plenty of opportunity to improve my feeling for different times. Remco was a busy organiser and got us some gigs, like playing in some jazz club for five hours that payed an exorbitant 40 euro a person. Yeah. Well, it was good practice AND I needed the money.

Fritt Fem by Stephan Meidell (g) Luis Candeias (dr) me (b)

Another band I really loved to play with was the guitar trio ‘Fundbüro’ with Norwegian guitarist Stephan Meidell and Portuguese drummer Luis Candeias. Stephan was the busy one composing all of the very interesting songs we were playing. I loved the tunes he wrote, and it was a lot of fun rehearsing with those two guys. Stephan’s sound was a little distorted, inspired by Kurt Rosenwinkel, but he made it his own, a sound with space.

I would be going overboard to tell you about all my bands, especially the trios with guitar, bass (me) and drums which was my favourite combination. There were a lot of interesting guitarists in Amsterdam, but that wasn’t the only reason for this preference. The variability in sound, the chords that never grew as fat as on the piano, and the possibility of absolute soloistic lead voices made it very attractive to me. The reason might have been my love for rock music too, but I wasn’t very conscious about that undertow which caught me later on…

Nonetheless there’s one more trio I need to mention. It was the beginning of a deep friendship with the Austrian drummer Andreas Pichler who asked me to play some music with his guitarist friend “Tito” Juan Monjo. We developed our own way of rehearsing together, sometimes more like practising together. When there was a difficult chord change or bar measure we would repeat it again and again till we felt more comfortable with it. Especially with Andreas, playing together became so easy, it was like flying, floating, breathing together, trusting and understanding what we told each other, using our notes like words in a secret language the way little children do sometimes with their comrades. It grew more intense day by day.

Flickan i Havanna
live 2006 at Underbroek
(a club in the Netherlands)

The intensity (I used to use my own adjective “intensitiv”) of ‘tre’ was growing too. It was already much more than three people playing together. Our friendship was growing deeper, they felt like family. I didn’t know before that such an emotional level between band members could be possible. My youth band Jazzattack was a great experience I was always grateful for, but this was something entirely different. With only the three of us playing, it was a universe for me, growing towards eternity… The connection to Andrés as an inseparable bass/drums “couple” was absolutely special, with nothing to compare. It often happened out of nowhere that while freely improvising together we would both stop playing simultaneously, like a natural cessation. And he would play sometimes so soft that I barely heard him only to attempt at bursting my eardrums in the next moment! And he’d be angry with me when I made fun of other soloists (while playing a jazz session with them) by leaving out the first beat to confuse them. Obviously a shitty thing to do…

Louise taught me about sound. What a sound she had! And about being too quick to judge. In the beginning of ‘tre’ I connected quickly with Andrés but Louise was “weird” to me and hard to understand. I heard her phrasing and liked her sound – but the timing? Weird. At that time I didn’t question if something could be other than just simply “good” or “bad”. Maybe for this reason I had a hard time with Louise’s timing, it was “bad” or at least “not very good”. Luckily for me there came a day when she taught me that timing was something altogether bigger than I’d wagered to think. She just played, surprised me and shook my old worldview with her being.

After eight months of studying I was the bass player for seven different bands. At The Conservatory, after the first year of study, there was an examination called “propedeuse” that every student needed to pass. If not, you would be kicked out of the conservatory. Seriously harsh. There were a few people I knew who ended up in that awful situation. As it took me the first year to settle in, make friends etc., the idea of having this new, purposeful and exciting life destroyed was hideous. In terms of my schedule it meant I had some extra engagements. I remember a week with ten rehearsals, what a crazy time!

The summer of 2005 came and I remember it being an absolutely lovely period of my life. The first friendships I had made were intensifying, I was a popular student and had great musicians all around me. I was only 18 years old, my teachers thought of me as a promising talent and I just lived with the attitude towards life that everything was possible. Of course there were disadvantages to my lifestyle. Playing in so many bands while still attending regular classes (which luckily weren’t many) meant I had little time left to practice my bass, let alone the piano which I was also keen on.

Transition

Serendipitously I was practicing once in the teaching room of the classical bass department (it was just so invitingly empty and rooms were generally hard to come by) when a classical bass player made a theatrical entrance and explained that he had to kick me out “because classical students have priority”. He encouraged me to ask for lessons from his teacher Peter Stotijn because he heard me practicing with a bow.

Peter was the main bass teacher of the classical department, a serious and responsible man who took care of his students like a good shepherd. I played for him a little and he said I could have lessons with him but I would need to pass an exam to enter the classical department as a minor subject. I confidently agreed and started practicing even more eagerly. Of course I could not fool Peter. He told me that I had some talent but criticised my lack of technique. I saw this as a challenge and of course wanted to impress him, though it was more than that. I loved to improvise and to search for beautiful melodies – I still love it! I’ve always hated the feeling of being hemmed in by a lack of technique. Put simply, that was probably the biggest reason for my growing interest in studying classical music: Gaining the best possible technique to feed my passion for improvisation.

me
With tre in the Bimhuis in Amsterdam © Claudia Hansen
An energetic part of a mini disk recording from one of the many sessions we had – this one was recorded on 16 April 2006

The second last band that I played in was called KLAX. The members were Konstantin, Louise, Andreas and Xavier and most of what we played was free improvisation. Xavier was a very gifted pianist with perfect pitch and a floating way of improvising so that it felt like flying when we played together. I loved the flow. Often two hours together would pass without us feeling the need to talk, the music said enough. We were searching for a sound beyond the typical jazz we knew.

Still, in another way I had a longing for classical music, so over time these sessions became tiring. The sessions were quite chaotic and I was yearning for clarity and form. I loved the tension but I needed a release! The time came that Louise and Xavier finished their studies and moved away. That was when I had just finished my Jazz studies and was now concentrated exclusively on classical music.

I have always had difficulty with institutions like high school that I have felt are too restrictive, so it was a lucky coincidence that the rules of the Conservatory of Amsterdam weren’t that strict, at least at that time. My Jazz teachers were not happy about my final exam, but I still didn’t have any problems to pass. I’d studied for three years and managed to complete my obligations a year ahead of the usual schedule which was fortunate for me, because I rarely played Jazz anymore, being focused on classical goals. tre was the only band that still existed when my final jazz exam arrived. I had quit all other bands in my second year in order to gain more time to practice.

Sonata for double bass and piano by Paul Hindemith. Sophiko Simsive on piano, 1st movement
2nd movement
3rd movement

The study of classical music took me on a journey that involved an unexpected realisation of just how profoundly passionate and affected I was by so many of its masterpieces. I participated in many of the conservatory’s orchestral projects. We played symphonies by Mahler, Beethoven, Schubert, Messiaen and more. At this time, I practiced double bass more than at any other point in my lifetime. At the peek of my classical studies I usually spent around eight hours with the bass and an additional 2-3 hours with the piano per day. In between there wasn’t much time for anything else, but I was still listening to music with every meal. The most important recordings for me became the Sacred Cantatas from J.S. Bach, recorded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt and their orchestras and choirs. I was so deeply moved by this music that I simply could no longer imagine living without it. More than that, I wanted to be a part of it, I wanted to play this very special music from Bach on stage and include this music in my daily life as a professional musician. My previous goal of becoming a jazz bass player was increasingly fading away.

As a result I found my new vocation in becoming a classical bass player. Importantly there was one man who strongly motivated that decision: Janne Saksala, a Finish bass player from the Berlin Philharmonic. Janne was generously invited by my bass teacher Peter for guest lessons to broaden our horizons. Janne deeply impressed me as a bass player, teacher and person. His ability of not only playing with an incredible sound and technic but also his passion for clearly (and even in slow-motion) showing us how he did it, impressed me a lot and changed my way of playing the bass to the core. Of course it helped that we got along very well. He became my true hero and I believed that I could join him one day with his Berlin Philharmonic.

Black hole

Why do we learn? To be an expert? To be successful? Earn money? Be famous? To fulfil expectations of others?

Or, does it give us joy, even without fame, even without our loved ones understanding the way we choose…?

I was nearly 23 and officially ready to be a professional jazz bass player. However I had also just been accepted into the “Hanns-Eisler-Conservatory” in Berlin to continue with my classical studies and importantly to take lessons on a regular basis with Janne. It was an honour that they chose me as there was a lot of competition. Even still, I was tired of being a student. I remember the one group lesson I attended at the conservatory: Study of Musical Instruments. I felt awkward the whole time and it seemed to me that everyone could read my resentment. The feeling I had of being trapped was very similar to that of high school. I left the building with the absolute certainty to never return.

What about my bass? Of course I was still practicing, but I felt like a sinking ship, like someone had drilled a hole into my energy tank and it was just running out. I continued taking lessons with Janne and tried to keep things going. I was practicing mainly the cello solo suites from J.S. Bach (I tuned my bass in fifths like a cello, just one octave lower) and tried to find some sense in it. Yes, there was a bit of fun in it, but mainly it was a lost effort: I was searching for a sound that I couldn’t reach by playing this music on an instrument it was never meant to be played on. Not that I don’t approve of such attempts! But the technical effort wasn’t in balance with the outcome. These Bach suites should sound light and natural, like breathing. Not a virtuous bass player running a marathon! I felt at that time like I’d reached an end: The impasse of my career as a bass player. I was done with it. All vision gone.

How does it work, the black hole? It swallows everything within its gravity, right? But where does all the stuff that vanishes go?

I felt like a black hole. It was hard to recognise myself, even harder for my family who started worrying a lot. I had spent the last years practising one instrument only to realise now that I just couldn’t do it for a living… Why the hell not you might ask? I asked myself that question.

At the time I wouldn’t have admitted it , but today I can honestly confess that I was depressed. My life purpose seemed to disappear. I’d always yearned for this goal that now turned out to be a mirage. There was no way for me. Only desert and no water.

Jobs

Berlin was all too much for me, however it basically felt good to be back in Germany, to understand all the little conversations on the street, to really feel part of the daily life. But with the gradual loss of my own goals, Berlin was just overwhelming, a staggering amount of cultural life, of people in general. Finally I wasn’t unhappy to receive my draft notice by the German armed forces for mandatory service. Because I was a conscientious objector to this obligatory military service this meant that instead I had to work voluntarily at a social institution for nine months. I started checking out some kindergartens in Berlin but realised I was finding the noise and all the mess too overwhelming. I was far too much of a mess inside for this kind of work. Fortunately I found a promising homepage about assisting disabled people which was located in Freiburg, a little city close to my hometown Lörrach. I felt an inner relief when I imagined moving to a more quiet place. I applied for the job in Freiburg and got an invitation for an interview. I got the job. My boss was very careful to place me with the right disabled person. In this kind of work it is important to get along! I ended up working with a young guy about my age who was restricted to a wheelchair.

At this time I also started work as a barkeeper at a restaurant on a hill next to my apartment in the south of Freiburg. Now I was almost living and working in the countryside, a great contrast from Berlin. I was restless in that period of my life, fighting a lot of angst which I often couldn’t understand. It could be a perfectly sunny day and I’d go out for a walk in nature, maybe taking a book to read, but soon I’d realise that I just couldn’t relax at all. I could enjoy none of it. I’d end up going back to my little apartment and I’d start to sing, trying to find some secret in music I obviously seemed to have not found. I was full of grief but didn’t have the energy to express and overcome it. I remember it as a dark time, not seeing many people, spending most of my evenings after work at home searching for something unknown, some solution, some way that could lead me to the musician I wanted to be.

Musical Imagination

What are the basic laws in music? Why does some sound move us so much and some not? I felt overwhelmed by this feeling that music could become so complex and wondered if there was a simplicity at its core that I was missing? How does it work when we imagine a sound? How could I connect my brain to my emotions, to my body? How could I learn to read music and truly hear it ‘inside’? How could I possibly find a way to write the music on paper that was regularly shaking my whole system? How could I express myself?

Why didn’t I see myself as a musician?

This last question was the only one I could answer and in my mind this was because I couldn’t answer any of the others.

And nobody ever showed me how I could. It was never part of my education.

I got some very nice insights from Janne, he really taught me how to practice bass, which luckily I could apply to other instruments as well. I’ll never forget what Janne said to me when I tried to tackle the solo suites from J.S. Bach with my double bass (tuned in fifths). He said, “That is the subdominant, Konstantin, that’s all we have!!!” At that time I didn’t really know what he meant, I had a vague intuition but we never went deeper into it, it stayed a comment, even though an important one. Janne was a really great teacher, he showed me how to play, how to sound. However, of course he couldn’t show me the why, why I wanted to be a musician, why I had to be a musician if I didn’t want to fall into an even deeper depression. Of course nobody could, I had to find it on my own.

You might think that it is easy to find a why? It might have been this way for you and I truly hope so because I wouldn’t wish anyone this kind of darkness and desperation. My why, the true fundamental of my life was sound. The way I sound is the way I am. Or the other way around. It doesn’t matter. My personal bible looks like this:

“In the beginning was the sound…”

So how did I find my way?

Slowly, very slowly. I think my grief inspired me. I was suffering and I yearned for a way to express myself, so the pressure grew and drove me to extremes. I tried things out. Maybe my bible could have also read: “In the beginning was song” because by singing it happened for the first time in my life that I moved myself strongly. I had a lot of experience from listening to music I loved and being moved by it but never before had I felt moved by my own music. It started when I first sang some simple and tender tones, still full of doubt and insecurity. I was singing the French tone names: Do re mi fa sol la si. The moment my singing started to really effect me is still absolutely clear in my mind. It is easy for me to believe in magic in terms of an invisible reality we can experience ourselves but can’t prove through any means of measurement. We live in a world governed by physical laws proved by science but this was an epiphany that felt more real than any influence coming from a physical reality that I had experienced. And of course physical laws are real to me. The impact of this experience was immense, I became addicted to it. And I managed to repeat it many times, so it became a big adventure that I didn’t know existed before.

Last Gigs and Baroque Music

There was still a part of me (I must admit very little) who wanted to believe that I could continue with the bass. I knew I could play well enough to find some work. So you could call it some kind of “last hope” for my bass career when I started playing in the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO), a project with new young members participating every year. The orchestra spent a few weeks rehearsing then touring around Europe and playing several concerts with repertoire from the Baroque period. I had some good times with all the other young players, everybody was quite excited. After the last tour most of them were talking about founding their own orchestra because they didn’t want to stop playing with each other.

My last hope was not to be. I had so many questions and a drive now to go in a certain direction that was not being fulfilled by the environment or reflected by the musicians around me. Why would other members of EUBO only talk about technical details while rehearsing and never mention any deeper spirit, any profound emotion? How could they truly play this music without asking or discussing such important questions? They would say, “We love Baroque music, because it’s the best music in the world!” But honestly, what a superficial answer! Nothing to satisfy my souls burning thirst. I tried to continue with the discoveries I’d made through song by translating it onto the bass, while playing with all the Baroque loving people. Still, I felt as lonely as before. However, I did have one especially remarkable epiphany: Everybody involved in the process of playing and hearing music longs for an experience, such as a concert that involves a profound emotional connection: A concert where performers and audience are deeply moved together. In this way, there was always this ‘magic’ moment of anticipation at the beginning of each concert when the audience hoped that what was coming would fulfil this expectation of being enchanted. But that hope wasn’t enough to make such magic happen with EUBO. We had rehearsed all the pieces but never cared for the ‘magic’ in the rehearsal room, we had only worked on a perfect performance, not a magic one. So why the hell should the concert ‘all of a sudden’ be magic?

At that time I was very angry. I was such a mess, my brain was tormenting me almost all the time. I could be so angry and expect that people would see this, but I guess they didn’t because I kept it all so well hidden. I tried to not blame my environment because I felt that the reasons for my pain were far older. Still, I often failed. Often my anger would revolve around the fact that I just couldn’t understand that musicians would care so little about what was for me such an essential part of music and of life: FEELING! The perfect form and technical excellence is all that was cared for and the alive content of it was withering.

This feeling I had didn’t only apply to EUBO! At that time I missed the feeling everywhere. I played some church gigs, cantatas by J.S. Bach and it was the same: The content of the texts were not mentioned once at the rehearsals. This again gave me the strong impression that most of the musicians had absolutely no clue why this music was written and why we would still love and play it today. What a waste of time! Gradually I agreed to less and less requests.

I needed to do something about what I felt was a massive problem in the world of music and musicianship: Being a bass player was no option anymore.

Kassel – new beginning

What could be better than following the woman I love to the place where I should find a new beginning, new hope and a true home?

Kassel isn’t known in Germany as what you might call a ‘pretty’ city. Still, the first time I arrived here it felt like home. In many ways it is the complete opposite of Freiburg. The streets and places of Kassel are wide, the number and size of the parks are surprisingly big and the people often have a more rough, direct mentality. For my taste it felt very relieving to change the mentality climate… And the weather climate as well: More wind, cooler in summer, a bit further north.

I’d studied the scores of some classical master works when I lived in Freiburg. When I arrived in Kassel, I was desperate to find an opportunity to conduct an orchestra. Of course I had to realise that it wouldn’t be that easy. Nobody knew me in Kassel and even if they did, I still would have been seen as a bass player rather than as a conductor. Who would give me a chance to demonstrate the talent for conducting I believed I had? Nobody. After my first unsuccessful requests at schools and amateur orchestras I thought about conducting choirs. Luckily at that time I found a course (without an entrance exam) in choir conducting that was offered by the church. This was a great opportunity at the time as outside of my expertise on the bass, I was quite shy and insecure about my abilities and my skill at reading and playing the piano was not so good. These were the major reasons that I hadn’t applied to any conducting departments. I always loved the piano but unfortunately it wasn’t easy for me to play. The course however was a great experience. I met many young people with whom I went to the local pub pretty much every evening. Once a day we sang in a choir together. This was an ideal opportunity for all the course participants to gain our first experiences in conducting choir music. I was overly sensitive about any kind of criticism. Even a slightly critical remark from the teacher would release a thunderstorm of doubt inside of me.

At this time I also took organ lessons. I love the works of J.S. Bach (not surprising by now) but also the old hymns are lovely and inspiring. After a year of organ lessons, my teacher introduced me to a little church choir in the north of Kassel that was searching for a new choir leader. I went to an initial rehearsal and we worked on a piece (I don’t remember which one) so that they could judge if they liked me or not. I was really proud of having a new gig for the first time since my not yet started bass career had ended.

During those first years in Kassel I was working again as a waiter, this time at a steak restaurant. Additionally I was working again as an assistant for disabled people. This time I was assisting Phillip, a guy in a wheelchair who came from the east coast of Germany. A truly great guy. Originally, I wanted to stop doing assistant work just to experience something else. But Phillip and I got along so well that I welcomed this means of financial security without needing to earn money from the bass. By this time I didn’t touch the bass. The poor thing was standing in the corner collecting dust. It would resonate once in a while with my talking or singing voice…

At that time my older sister got married.
This is the song I composed for her and her husband.

Leading a choir was a huge challenge for me. I hadn’t studied conducting for a long time and my skill on the piano was modest. Today my memories of those first rehearsals are of chaos. My sharp ears weren’t always an advantage! The painfulness caused by the choir trying to sing some of the harmonies often just confused me rather than training my focus on finding a way to help them improve. I would often just sing a phrase for the choir but couldn’t understand why they still would not improve. The stress I felt wasn’t helping to motivate the choir. The piano also troubled me on a daily basis as I couldn’t yet use it to demonstrate the pieces for the choir. I’d get very nervous and make mistakes or slow the tempo to catch all the notes. Always a nightmare.

Other opportunities soon arose. My organ teacher put me in contact with a priest who worked with prisoners. The prison choir in Kassel needed a new leader. I accepted the challenge and of course was curious. In the beginning it was a lot of stress. The prisoners needed a steady accompaniment on the piano so I was fighting hard to deliver the right chords at the right time for them. Furthermore my predecessor was a young lady and a beautiful singer. I couldn’t compete with her ability and certain other qualities. Many men left the singing circle. A few stayed and I slowly developed my skills on the piano. With the passing of time I became more confident and the choir started to grow again. As far as I know they enjoyed the time they spent in the choir and with me.

When I got a request from a choir from a village next to Kassel, I accepted and quit the first church choir. It reminded me a bit of my bass period: I wanted to learn as much as possible and for me it seemed logical to change my teacher as soon as I thought I’d picked up the most essential things he could teach me. So after two years with the church choir I felt that I’d learned as much as I could and I was curious about a change. Moreover, I had had to realise that it wasn’t within the possibilities of this first choir to even get close to the repertoire I yearned to perform. And surprise! The payment was humble.

“Die Glocke”, a composition for soprano, violoncello, orchestra and choir, performed on 13 December 2015, in the St. Mathew Church in Kassel. Lara Koliusis – soprano, Antonia Uhrmeister – violoncello, VHS-orchestra (conducted by Jürgen Oßwald), choir of the St. Mathew Church, composer and conductor: myself

In addition I started conducting the choir of St. Mathew’s church in Niederzwehren. This choir was especially fun. The members of the choir were very fond of me and liked my working methods and ideas. This helped my confidence grow further and inspired me to create bigger works. In 2015 I took the opportunity to compose a piece, Die Glocke, for choir and orchestra that featured a soprano and cello solo (my wife Antonia played the cello part and a friend of mine, Lara Koliusis, sang the soprano solo). At St. Mathew’s church there there was also an amateur orchestra called ‘Volkshochschulorchester Kassel’ (VHS-Orchester) that gave concerts on a regular basis. The conductor, Jürgen Oßwald, agreed on working together to perform Die Glocke and the Oratorio de Noel by Camille Saint Saens. Mr. Oßwald allowed me to conduct both of the two concerts which was very exciting! For more than seven years I had had a deep desire (even though not always explicit conscious) to conduct an orchestra. The concerts were a success. I still remember the sound and the new feeling of my first experience conducting an orchestra and performing my own music. There was nothing else like it.

ROOF – Rock Orchestra Of Flames

Preparations for the first ROOF-video we made to invite people to the rehearsals

So why not found my own orchestra!?

I still had a feeling of being reborn after my first experience conducting an orchestra and wanted to develop that potential. Around this time I was also influenced a lot by the music Phillip (the guy in the wheelchair I was assisting) would listen to which was mainly rock. In my youth I had listened to Nirvana and Queen, and from the age of 12 I was a big fan of the German singer Herbert Grönemeyer, but the strong focus on jazz and later classical music had taken my interest elsewhere. In 2014 I got into the electronic world of Deichkind, soon followed by the virtuosity of the progressive metal band Dream Theater. I would ride to the rehearsals with the VHS-Orchester blasting to the song Counts of Toscany by Dream Theater.

This urge for rock music grew.

In Oktober 2015 I bought a drum set, well, actually two, and put them in my rehearsal room on the upper floor of the tower of the ‘Kreuzkirche’, a church close to my apartment. I started practicing some grooves including double pedal stuff.

In my imagination I was searching for some way to combine all my quite different desires and capabilities. It felt like my energy would be unfocussed if I’d started different bands to satisfy my yearning for rock and an orchestra for my symphonic longing. I realised that I was trying to find the rough side of classical music and the more colourful sounds and harmonies in the rock and pop world. I wanted to combine all these elements of music that I loved in one body of sound.

It wasn’t only about the music. The whole classical scene felt too stiff and pedantic to fit with my personality. Still, I loved the music of so many great composers, even if I rarely liked the interpretations. I’d experienced some orchestras, if not the professional ones, but the student orchestras, who – most of them – wanted to join a professional orchestra after finishing their studies, and I was disconcerted about the missing understanding about what is for me the core of making music: playing, feeling, breathing, being together, like one body of sound, and not against a potential concurrent or other instrument groups which were “less elite” or whatever bullshit was in their heads. I just didn’t get it. And, I had no clue how to change it.

Now there was a new possibility that appeared in my mind: An orchestra that would not only express my sound (rough and rocky and full of classical harmony) but could also establish a fully tolerant and open minded way of making music. A group of people making music that could be a place where everybody felt free to share their ideas and dared to go crazy; an orchestra where everybody gave their best but nobody feared mistakes; a group of people that liked new ideas and extending old habits. This is the direction I wanted to go.

Even though I found some people who liked my idea to create this kind of orchestra and were willing to help, I soon realised what a tremendous amount of work this would be. I had never founded anything which needed a business structure, so naturally the process at first was overwhelming. There were so many new things to learn and on top of it I couldn’t be sure if people would finally join.

The magic of persistence

When I remember starting this bold project today, persistence is what is responsible for ROOF surviving. In the beginning there were so many depressing rehearsals with almost nobody attending and also many frustrating failures when it came to trying to get help from others. This was especially true when requesting the help of people in the Kassel music scene. I often doubted the possibility of even the tiniest bit of success. But I persisted. I was angry “with the world”. Why was it so fucking hard to make something work which I thought was such an incredibly good idea!? Slowly but surely I learned that people weren’t so necessarily concerned with my ambition.

Patience. Definitely something to mention. Sometimes it is reassuring to remember that when climbing the mountain we can’t see the forest for the trees. It is great to look back now and realise that the feeling of being lost and lonely was only temporary. In other words, things can be going in a good direction but we don’t realise it at the time. When I started ROOF it was hard not to think about it all the time. Letting things be seemed impossible.

Relief

I welcomed the opportunity to lead a new choir, compagnia vocale kassel. It was the highest standard of all the choirs I’d led so far and a big challenge. It might sound contradictory but the additional work and responsibility relaxed me. Conducting compagnia vocale created more work and there were more people I was responsible for, but still the contrast with the stress of starting an orchestra from scratch was so huge that I welcomed the change.

A nice piece of the 17th century by Melchior Franck combined with a choral of J.S.Bach, performed by compagnia vocale kassel

Again a J.S.Bach choral, closely followed by a romantic piece of Albert Becker I deeply love

Some party music from the last concert of compagnia vocale I conducted. The Band accompanying us that evening consists of Hannes Hirth, Till Spohr and Job Verweijen

Somehow as a musician I had chosen to become a conductor, although my kind of talents made it a rocky path full of turns. That meant that I ended up searching for opportunities within the amateur music scene. Even though I hadn’t taken a direct route this had worked, with the added benefit of acquiring many skills that I might not have initially considered learning but now found extremely useful. Unfortunately there weren’t many opportunities to perform on stage. The problem was simple: I wanted to perform as much as possible. However, amateur musicians mainly play together as a recreational activity that is fulfilling in itself and the concert is more of a sort of celebration culminating another year together. The purpose is not to constantly be on stage which is where I wanted and want to be.

The time came that I grew tired of having so many amateur groups to rehearse. Finally I ended up deciding I wanted to study conducting and applied at two conservatories. I got accepted to the second and third rounds in each audition process, and while that might sound good for those who value these things, in the end the result was the same: They didn’t want me. Even so, the second round of the audition in Hannover was a really worthwhile experience as it involved conducting the student orchestra of the conservatory. It was only fifteen minutes but I’ll always remember it as a really fun time despite it being a contrived situation.

After trying and failing at entering a conducting course I felt like I had done my duty in proving to myself that I didn’t fit into the scene of the classical world. Of course I had had hopes and dreams: A glamorous career as a great conductor had been a seductive vision for many years to the point that I had become confused about what I actually wanted. So really, the relief about the rejection outweighed my disappointment and helped me see clearly that I had to continue with searching for my own way. This process further opened me up to the acceptance of my peculiarities, my characteristics, talents and unique way of being a musician. I was learning, reading and playing at a tempo I could manage and nothing else. I realised that I could dive as deep into the music as I liked and could bear. I felt free to do what I really wanted. A very nice feeling indeed.

ROOF in concert on 8 February 2020 © Michael Nägel

The time came that I got rid of all my obligations as a leader, except of course for ROOF. ROOF had flourished most delightfully. The ambiance of the rehearsals felt friendly and full of trust and the technical abilities of everyone had increased noticeably. My will to be on stage again was still alive, so I used my new freedom to practice and work on band and solo projects.


Text edited by Benjamin Forbes