San Bei Ji

About

Joe the Bass Dude

Most people who know me today know me as "Joe the Web Dude" — A guy with a busy career designing web sites, graphics, web applications, digital security, and other geeky and creative functions. However, most people who know me from college and my former music career know me as "Joe the Bass Dude."

In many ways, the double bass is the definition of my life, the single most influential shaper of who I am today. I have played the instrument since I was a kid. I have spent the majority of my waking hours between the years 1987 and 1996 playing it. I have recently resumed the obsession. Here's the scoop:

Background

I began my double bass playing at the age of nine years old at Larkey Elementary School in Walnut Creek. It all started when the music teacher ("Mr. Jenkins", I believe?) was demonstrating each instrument in the orchestra at a 4th grade school assembly and trying to recruit kids to play. I had no interest – until he pulled out that double bass! So massive, and what a cool sound! That was it for me.

Of course being only nine and completely oblivious to anything, I never practiced...

My first serious study of music actually was on the guitar. I had made a visit to my uncle's place up in Sonoma County and a friend of his was there who happened to be a master of flamenco guitar. I was suddenly fascinated. Chris Carnes, a.k.a. "Cristobal Dos Santos", became my part-time music teacher when I could catch him.

Of course being in high school at the time, I was sidetracked with rock and roll...

But that sidetrack quickly evolved into a strong appreciation of jazz, and I began studying technique and improvisation with a serious dedication. This turned into near-constant obsessive practicing during the waking hours.

College

After a brief sojourn at a guitar farm in Southern California, I returned to the Bay Area to start a real college career. At the time, I was sure I was going to major in computer science and pursue a career in my other passion: computers. Didn't work out that way though...

One morning in my first semester at Diablo Valley College, I saw a little advertisement, hand written on a little 3 x 5 index card and posted on the bulletin board of the music department. "Double Bass for sale, $1000 – Case, bow, and book." Suddenly, almost instinctively, I went to the nearest phone and called the guy. Nice bass - plywood, but the fingerboard and neck was straight and smooth and the thing sounded better than the Pullman basses they had in the band room. The book was the method by Franz Simandl.

I think I spent every waking moment after acquiring that bass inside my bedroom practicing for the next 4 months. I remembered the fascination I had as a little kid and it all came back to me. I decided I needed a teacher. I forget how, but I somehow got in touch with Cindy Brown who became my esteemed double bass instructor for the next year or so.

By this time I had been playing a lot of guitar with a jazz combo I had going, and making a bit of money at it. But I could tell that my practice time had shifted focus to the bass almost entirely. It was the addition of the voice of the bow, as well as the repertoire of symphonic classical music, that had me hooked. I was playing in the Oakland Youth Orchestra and fully engrossed in the instrument.

Two factors contributed to the final act of changing my major to music.

The first instance was this excellent English teacher I had. During a conversation in his office about a paper he failed me on, he asked me what my major was. "Well," I replied, "I intend to major in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) when I transfer to U.C. Berkeley after I finish my lower undergrad courses here." He looked at me, rose slightly out of his wheelchair, squinted a bit and declared: "You don't look like an EECS major to me... What is it you really like to do?" Taken aback, I didn't really know what to say. So the first thing that came out of my mouth was "I play music." He sat back in his chair, looking very satisfied and said: "Well then why don't you major in that? Major in something you love." He then added jokingly – "It doesn't matter, nobody works in the same field they major in..."

The second factor was a trip I took with my buddy Chris Haag over to Los Medanos College. Chris was an excellent saxophonist and oboist. He was going over there to register because they had a better music program. I was just along for the ride, but when I arrived there, the music director John Maltester had pre-filled all of my enrollment forms and had a little "X" penned in right next to where I should sign. Crafty old bastard had me in his claws right then and there! So with the stroke of a pen, I was officially in music for the long haul.

Around this time I began studying with Stephen Tramontozzi of the San Francisco Symphony, and playing in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Steve is an amazing teacher and performer, and I have an enormous amount of respect for this dude. In retrospect, I kind of regret not staying at the San Francisco Conservatory and continuing my studies with him, but if I had stayed in the Bay Area then I would have missed the opportunity to experience the world outside of the West Coast.

At this time it was becoming apparent that playing both guitar and bass, both jazz and classical, was a bit too much to achieve excellence in any of those avocations. So, I decided on classical double bass and began the process of looking for a four year college to complete my studies. I had a great audition for the New England Conservatory and won myself a full scholarship package to go study there with Larry Wolfe.

Boston & Chautauqua

As soon as I got to Boston, it was all 8 to 12 hours per day of practice and rehearsals. Living in the dorm sucked, and getting a dank apartment the following year was even worse. My roommates and I called the apartment "The Sinkhole" because of the way that all the floors kind of slanted towards the middle of the unit. Totally gross.

After the close of my first year at NEC, I auditioned for the summer festival orchestra at Chautauqua. That was my first summer at Chautauqua and I returned there for two more summers after that. Chautauqua is a beautiful place in Western New York that is a summer haven for artists, musicians, poets, writers, dancers, and vacationers that appreciate such things. There, I studied with Curtis Burris who is the principal bassist of the Chautauqua Symphony and a member of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. Curtis sold me the bass I own today. It needs serious work right now on the neck, but is a fine-sounding instrument.

I made my way through school by playing freelance orchestra and chamber music gigs throughout New England. This is where I began to notice that there is a big difference between the idyllic music world of the conservatory and the real world of underpaid half-assed freelance orchestras. As a musician, I was somewhat of a perfectionist. I liked to play good music with good musicians. Outside of the conservatory, this was a rarity.

One great group that I did enjoy playing with was the Auros Group for New Music. These guys were my good friends and I discovered a real love for contemporary music.

To further pursue the definition of my contemporary music niche, I began study with Donald Palma. Don is the solo bassist and a founding member of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Speculum Musicae, on faculty at NEC, Yale, and Manhattan School of Music, and is also an excellent conductor. After receiving another very generous scholarship offer, I returned to NEC to do a masters' degree.

It was at NEC that I met Yingwen. Yingwen was a bassist in the NEC Youth Philharmonic and later came to the Conservatory full time as a piano major. Yingwen was quite a hottie and I did what any virile and self-respecting young bassist would do when they met a cute freshman pianist – I asked her to play accompaniment to some of my solo music. We were married three years later. ;-)

Getting Out

Everyone always asks me why I no longer play professionally and here's why:

First of all, remember that I am a perfectionist when it comes to music. I like to play good music with good musicians. All to often it was one, the other, or both components that were missing from this formula. If it wasn't a high quality group with great repertoire on the program, I might as well have been flipping burgers. I began wondering why I wasn't just going for a solo career. Oh yeah, I played double bass... ;-)

Second of all, I was getting awfully discouraged at the dozens of auditions I was hitting. it seemed that more and more orchestras nationwide were going bankrupt (thank you Newt Gingrich!) and it was becoming harder and harder to land a full time, or even part time orchestra gig.

Lastly, I had all kinds of computer skills. Worked at my minimum wage job in the computer lab at NEC the whole time I was there, and before that I always had a number of disassembled Atari and Macintosh hardware littering my room in high school.

The final nail in the music career coffin was a horrifying accident. I was riding my mountain bike home after a long cruise through the hills west of Boston. It was a Friday evening and without warning I was hit by a motorist making a right turn as I was crossing a street. I woke up in a CAT scanner and spent the next two months in bed with broken everything. This was in the summertime, right before Fall auditions. With losing two months of practice and experiencing severe physical pain every time I attempted to play, the auditions were a big waste of time that year. I had to settle for some really crappy gigs to make ends meet.

Yingwen and I moved to Taiwan for a while, and then back to San Francisco to try and get settled. We knew that there was a better way to make a living out there and I played a few gigs back in the Bay Area until we could land day jobs.

It was around this time in 1996 that I began studying graphic design and the Internet was fast becoming the booming industry of the late 1990's. I was intrigued by the parallels between web design, computer programming, and the music discipline and knew that this would be the way to go. I think it is the combination of artistic creativity in graphic design, the parallels between music composition and writing code, and the excitement of the new emerging technologies back then that really reeled me in. That, and the promise of riches in the dot-com hype. I studied this stuff every night and practiced until I finally got my foot in the technology door with a software training job at AIG. My first full-time job with the "Webmaster" job title was at Xcert, now a part of RSA Security.

So this is what I do to this day - web, graphics, technology. I absolutely love what I do now and am amazed at how I somehow seem to have turned full circle and found the right gig for me.

Getting Back In

Thursday, April 10, 2003 — I got my bass out of the shop today. Man it looks NICE! It sounds even nicer. I have been practicing all day. This is the way it's supposed to be. I am practicing my butt off, and will do so from now on. Why aren't you?

See the new photos!

Well, that's the story. For more information, you can check out the pre-repairs bass, see my newly–repaired bass, read some of my technical articles, see some sample design work, download my résumé, or contact me!

San Bei Ji