By Ricky O’Bannon
For Victor Holmes, music didn’t start as a professional career aspiration, but as a family calling.
Holmes is spending the year as a fellow with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra where he will play and receive mentorship on how to prepare and audition for a professional orchestra. He recently performed on double bass in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker—his first time playing with the orchestra outside of a rehearsals.
Much of the focus of Holmes’ yearlong fellowship has been focused on learning what is involved in a professional orchestral job and preparing him for the uncertain and intimidating world of orchestra auditions. Holmes said the process so far has been intense but a productive experience.
“I’ve gone back to the basic fundamental work to make sure that is consistent,” he said. “I sit next to Bob Barney now. He's very consistent, and he's been consistent for 30 years.”
Barney, who is the BSO principal double bass, serves as a mentor during the fellowship, and Holmes said playing beside him has been helpful both in preparing his audition music and learning about how to play in a classical ensemble.
“I'm learning here that you need to be able and ready to respond to anything,” he said. “And it's going to be easier if you take it with a smile. It's been really educational.”
Holmes graduated from Boston University in 2013, but even as recently as high school he said he wasn’t thinking about playing classical bass in concert halls but about playing jazz drums like his father.
“When I was four years old, my dad was teaching some kids who were older than me [how to play drums] and I asked him ‘why don’t you teach me?’” he said.
His father agreed and set up a makeshift drum set at their home where Holmes said he would play along to what he affectionately calls the “oldies” of Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind & Fire. Holmes’ father was the drummer at their church in San Antonio, Texas, and by the second or third grade Holmes had taken his father’s place.
Holmes comes from a musical family. His uncle, Brannen Temple, is an Austin-based jazz drummer with an extensive discography. Holmes’ mother taught the string program at his middle school and talked to him about the versatility of the bass when he was choosing his instrument.
For Holmes, those different musical experiences and influences are part of who he is as a musician and how he thinks about music.
“I feel like my vibrato is probably based on singing in church —that soulful sound,” he said. “I like vibrato a lot. I actually recently had a lesson where I was told you're using vibrato a lot, it's nice, but it's like putting ketchup on all of your food. That's a habit I have because of the music I listen to outside of classical music.”
Similarly, continuing to play drum set with jazz, funk or rhythm and blues groups has helped him when he plays classical bass.
“Music is music,” Holmes said. “[It’s the same] in terms of quality of presentation, playing with other people, listening to other people and knowing how to play with taste.”
Jazz drumming, he said, taught him how to get beyond what’s written on the page and listen closely to what is happening around him, which he said has served him well on bass. Similarly, playing in classical ensembles has helped the way he thinks about drums.
In jazz, the written instructions — if there are written instructions — are very open ended and the personal expression often comes from filling in the rhythms and the notes that aren’t on the page. In classical music, the written sheet music is precise, but Holmes said there is some unwritten leeway in how you play those notes and rhythms that allows for personal expression.
“When I'm trying to play a Bach suite, my teacher in Boston once told me you're playing it too strictly,” he said. “I just wanted to groove. I just wanted the rhythms to be right.”
Holmes said classical bass helped better teach him how to build phrases, take points of repose or when to get out of “the pocket,” which is a drumming or jazz term referring to being in time and rhythm.
“Knowing what high quality can be achieved in an orchestral context or how a group rehearses efficiently, I can take that back to playing drums or rehearsing with a smaller band that might play jazz or funk,” he said. “There are certain processes and things to be aware of in classical music that I think really heighten anyone's ear.”