You Never Stop Learning

By Colin Cronin

In 2011, we interviewed bassist and Ovation Press editor Paul Ellison, who has contributed numerous exclusive scores for double bass. During that conversation, we discussed a very important figure for Ellison: French double bassist, Francois Rabbath. A self-taught Syrian-born musician and master teacher, Rabbath has made significant pedagogical contributions to the body of ideas for studying, playing, and teaching the double bass. These include his use of the left hand and particular attention to the bow arm.

Bass pedagogy aside, Francois Rabbath’s contribution to Ellison’s life affected the latter on a much more personal level. The following is the story of how Paul Ellison became Rabbath’s first real student. Later, Ellison would go on to become the first to receive both the diploma and teaching certificate from the Institut International Rabbath in Paris.

Ellison (to Rabbath): I want to come and be your student.

Rabbath: No.

Ellison: What do you mean, “no?”

Rabbath: No. You don’t need that. You have a life. You are good at what you do, and you don’t need to come.

Ellison: Yes, but you taught yourself, and what I want to do is to learn what you know, and how you learned it.

Rabbath: No.

Ellison: If you don’t do this, I will give up the bass and sell it.

Rabbath: You are serious?

Ellison: I’m very serious. I’m prepared to come to you, to start where you want me to start. I’ll do whatever you say, and it will take as long as you decide.

Rabbath: You think you are not too old?

Ellison: (I was 40.) I don’t think I’m too old. I think I can still learn.

Rabbath: We’ll see…

And that was the “Yes!”

What can we learn from this story? What thoughts does this story provoke?

Why is Paul Ellison’s story inspiring? Although the exchange between master (Rabbath) and student (Ellison)  is laced with humor, it highlights an important aspect of the learning process: to become the very best musician possible, you must always remain a humble student.

Learning is an ongoing process that is not limited to the classroom, campus, or concert hall. Opportunities for inspiration and education abound everywhere. But when we stop being receptive to those opportunities–when we become content in our age, experience, and skill, such that we believe we have learned everything we can–we cheat ourselves out of the musician (or other professional) that we might have continued growing into.

Paul Ellison had no reason to pursue studies with Rabbath. As a successful university professor and orchestral performer well into his career, it would have been easy for him to simply say: “I’m here! I’ve finally reached the pinnacle of my career.”

And yet, Ellison, his elevated position and accomplishments notwithstanding, felt the need and the drive to humble himself and to return to the role of the student.

That’s not always an easy decision to make, because it requires controlling something that often refuses to be controlled: your ego.

That same decision is what makes Ellison such a phenomenal mentor himself. In our last interview, we talked about the concept of the “unknown” and that of always striving to discover what is new and unique about the music, and the context in which it is played. While some might look at the unknown with fear, Ellison rejoices, “Thank heavens for the unknown!”

Ellison visited Rabbath in Paris, for the latter’s 80th birthday. (Jason Heath has written about Rabbath’s 80th.) In his description of their visit, Ellison illustrates the concept of always being open in action.

Friday afternoon he (Rabbath) got up and said “I need to play.” We went through the entirety of the Variations on a Theme of Paganini set for bass. Then he played through the 2nd and 6th Bach suites… all of which happened in a very intense fashion, as if he were on stage someplace. Mind you, he’s 80 years old.

Then he wanted to show me some of the things he had written since I last saw him in August 2010. We looked at these compositions which addressed issues that he and I, as pedagogues, had discussed but which he had never quite been able to deal with before. These were pieces that, even though they were pedagogical in nature, were suitable for performance. He then proceeded to play performance-level quality of these pieces that he had written.

It was an incredibly enriching experience that goes to show you how much I appreciate the fact that there are things to be discovered on a daily basis…. As we hear people discover new things we watch them grow. Growth happens because people are constantly bringing new ideas and perspectives in the way of music-making and the way of dealing with their instruments.

"All the technique in the world is for the sake of playing one note beautifully" -- Francois Rabbath 

In our final question to Paul Ellison, we asked: “What would you say to other professional musicians about seizing the opportunity to continue learning, long after you become a teacher?”

I have considerable respect and love for my colleagues who do exactly that. When I play in bass sections, it’s a privilege to share that time and talk about these issues. And of all of the things we talk about, the greatest for me is to discuss with them, what the possibilities can be if we stay open, if we stay away from thinking that we “know” what that music is all about.

(For example) can we approach Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in a new way each time?

The etch-a-sketch is my favorite analogy–not the one with the little dials that you shake, but the one that has the simple stick and the page, where you can lift the page and start over every time.

So, you would take all the notes you made the last time you worked on Beethoven 5. Before you start work on this Beethoven 5, you lift that etch-a-sketch page, you look back and… the page is empty.

Of course that’s not totally honest. None of us lives without experience and a point of view.

But can we open up a little bit and really hear ourselves? Can we really hear what this particular performance is going to be about?

From two highly acclaimed and respected bass pedagogues, perhaps the most important and far-reaching lesson is: We Never Stop Learning!

Remember to check out expertly edited orchestral excerpts and parts for bass from Paul Ellison and other acclaimed musicians at Ovation Press.