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Shen grad builds career as orchestra bassist on stages locally and around world, including Carnegie Hall

Shen grad builds career as orchestra bassist on stages locally and around world, including Carnegie Hall

Bass player Taylor Abbitt, a Shenendehowa graduate, forgoes traditional college route, instead gaining experience playing out
Shen grad builds career as orchestra bassist on stages locally and around world, including Carnegie Hall
Taylor Abbitt with the New York String Orchestra and, inset far right, with rapper Kid Cudi on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon."
Photographer: Allen Cohen/youtube

Taylor Abbitt has performed in concert halls and on stages that many musicians spend most of their professional lives yearning to play.

The 2015 Shenendehowa High School graduate has played Carnegie Hall no fewer than seven times in the last few years. He’s also played in concert halls around Europe and China, as well as on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

According to former bass teacher Luke Baker, he’s only getting started.

“He acts like a nonchalant guy [but] he works like crazy,” Baker said. 

Baker, who performs with the Albany Symphony, Schenectady Symphony and Vermont Symphony orchestras, began working with Abbitt when the latter was in high school, several years after Abbitt began playing bass. 

“I took up bass in fourth grade. In Shen, they make everybody play an instrument so they demonstrate them all and obviously bass was the coolest one at the time. . . . [but] my mom did not want me to play it because it was so big, so she gave me an ultimatum that if it fit in her little hatchback car I could get it,” Abbitt said. 

His mom, Viola Abbitt, assumed the bass wouldn’t fit. Luckily, it did.  

“The first few years are always rough, but I think at a certain point something usually happens with people who stick with it. In middle school, they have you play at the end of the year for the class and at that point, I started practicing more. Then it just felt so nice to play for everybody and everyone seemed so into it. It was a special moment and I just thought ‘I want more of this,’ ” Abbitt said. 

In high school, he took private lessons with Baker and a few other bassists. 

“When I first met him he had studied bass with someone else and he was already very, very good. I was there to more advance him in ways that he hadn’t yet,” Baker said. 

Joined ESYO

Abbitt also joined the Empire State Youth Orchestra and played for the first time at Carnegie Hall with the group. 

“It’s interesting because they say the way you get there is practice, practice, practice. But I feel like if you’re in a good youth orchestra, you’ll probably find your way. I was lucky to be in the Empire State Youth Orchestra. That was the first time I played there,” Abbitt said. 

Amidst all this, he was involved in many bands/side projects, including Good Fiction, an Albany-based rock band that continued to perform until late last year. 

But his passion was not for bass guitar but upright bass. 

Thus, he decided to take things a step further in his classical music career and auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America. Organized by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, it’s a highly competitive program that was founded in 2012. For a three-week residency during the summer, student musicians rehearse for hours at a time, according to the New York Times, which reported in a 2015 story: “. . . there is nowhere the 114 members of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America would rather have been for the last two weeks than here, shut in, being instructed and drilled to within an inch of their lives.”

After the residency, Abbitt joined the orchestra on a tour, performing in seven cities in Asia, including Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. The following summer he went on a European tour with the orchestra, performing at renowned halls like The Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. 

Time in California

Between these tours, the first of which started right after high school graduation, Abbitt decided to forgo attending a traditional music program at a college, in favor of a gap year. 

Looking for performing opportunities, he decided to spend his gap year in California, where he found more than a few unusual gigs. 

“It was a whole [other] world of musical possibility that I had no idea existed and it really opened my eyes as to what this whole thing about playing music can be,” Abbitt said. 

That included delving into a more jazz and pop-focused style. 

One of his more memorable gigs was being cast in an iPhone X commercial.  

“A lot of those TV things are pretty interesting. You never know what’s going to happen. They never tell you what you’re going to do beforehand. You just have to roll with it and hope it’s something exciting,” Abbitt said. 

For the commercial, he and several other musicians got to the set at 6 a.m. and essentially mimed playing for 12 hours. They all came back the following day for another 12 hours of filming. 

“They’ve got people on staff making sure people don’t fall asleep. It was cool. They had these crazy light fixtures I’ve never seen [with] LEDs inside miniature hot air balloons that would float in the theater at various heights to get perfect ambient lighting,” Abbitt said.

Performing on ‘Jimmy Fallon’

Another memorable gig was performing with rapper Kid Cudi on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. 

“They wanted a miniature string orchestra or a large string quartet. We played the song ‘Kitchen’ and he wanted to go for a movie score-type rap-sound. He was really into that because the same group that played [on ‘The Tonight Show’] did a couple shows with Kanye and Cudi was backstage at one of them and he’s like, ‘I want that.’ He pretty much set that up for an album and for that specific show,” Abbitt said. 

In the performance, Abbitt was placed toward the front of the group, unusual because bassists are often placed behind the cellos. Kid Cudi was front and center but the cameras often panned over the orchestra.  

During his two-year stay in California, Abbitt also performed as a bassist on the TV show “The Middle” and in a promo for “Will and Grace,” as well as a jam session at a John Stamos Christmas party. It sounds impressive, but ultimately, it wasn’t the style of music or the career Abbitt wanted. 

“I think I was looking for . . . a reason to either play jazz or classical. I didn’t want to do both because I wouldn’t be able to really excel in one or the other.  . .  I think once I got to LA and saw the scene, that’s when I knew which one I wanted to do,” Abbitt said. 

That is to say, he knew he wanted to turn his attention to classical music, and the East Coast offers more opportunities. Thus, Abbitt headed back home to Ballston Lake. 

Since returning over a year or so ago, he’s been practicing day in and day out, and taking lessons with William Tilley of the Vermont Symphony and Joseph Conyers, a bassist and the associate principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

“He’s driving down to Philadelphia a couple times a month. I mean that’s some dedication. I think it’s really helped his playing. Joe’s a really big deal and around the bass world is a very, very respected figure,” Baker said. 

New York String Orchestra Seminar

Abbitt also joined the New York String Orchestra Seminar, which led to his recent performance at Carnegie Hall with conductor Jaime Laredo.

“I was not too familiar with [the New York String Orchestra] until maybe last year when a friend told me about it. I saw they were playing with Josh Bell and all alumni who were in major orchestras played side by side. I was like ‘What is this? I want to do this.’ ” Abbitt said. 

The Orchestra began 51 years ago, with violinist Alexander Schneider, who was a member of the Budapest String Orchestra. Schneider began the program, which includes a seminar and a performance, as a way to have young musicians from across the country come together and perform at Carnegie Hall during the Christmas season. 

As one might imagine, the auditioning process was intense. Hopeful young musicians (ages 16-23) from around the country sent in their audition tapes and only a few were selected to audition in person. Out of 15 bass players who were selected to audition in person, only five were chosen for the orchestra last year, Abbitt among them. 

The orchestra performed on Christmas Eve and the weekend after Christmas at Carnegie Hall. The programs were a mixture of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms.  

“It’s definitely one of the better orchestras I’ve played with,” Abbitt said. 

In the coming months, with plans to move to New York City and pursue performance opportunities there, Abbitt just might be spending more time at the Hall. It’s another leap of faith, as was his move to California and one that Abbitt is excited about. 

“The worst that could happen is it doesn’t work, but then what? Then you just move on. There were a lot of times in LA where I could’ve easily come back for other reasons and wanting to because it could’ve been either a difficult time or a time where I thought there was no hope. But I think there’s a certain amount of perseverance [that you] have to maintain while you’re doing things like that because you’re jumping in with the sharks and you have to just be ready for that. I think knowing what it’s like doing that already, doing it a second time I’ll have much more insight [into] how to go about it,” Abbitt said. 

Baker has no doubt that with Abbitt’s attitude and abilities, he’ll make great strides in his career in the coming months and years. 

“He’s got that in droves, that kind of moxie or guts, whatever you want to call it. That inner confidence serves him well and we’re all hoping that that continues with him because I think he’s going to do really well,” Baker said.

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