It’s almost Christmas break — or, perhaps more to the point for overworked UC Berkeley students, exam week — and campus is bustling with students running around getting ready for finals and the holidays. Among the hectic rhythm of life is campus junior Paul Nicknish playing “Jingle Bells” on his 6-foot, 25-pound double bass.
Nicknish has been one of the seven bass players in the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, or UCBSO, since his freshman year. Nicknish also plays in UC Berkeley’s Chamber Orchestra and a campus jazz ensemble.
According to Nicknish, his introduction to the bass was quite coincidental. When Nicknish decided to join his middle school’s beginner’s orchestra, he did not know which instrument to pick. Inspiration came from the TV, he said.
“There was a contestant in American Idol — at the time, I was really into that show — who played the bass while he sang, and I thought he was super cool,” Nicknish said.
He doesn’t remember the name of the contestant, but the performance motivated him to sign up for the orchestra as a bass player. Nicknish hasn’t looked back since.
During Nicknish’s college decision process, UC Berkeley’s music program was a significant determining factor. He researched the campus’s orchestra program, and through conversations with his school bass teacher and his musician friends at other colleges, he concluded that UC Berkeley was the right fit.
“It’s a really small community, so information travels about what a good orchestra is,” Nicknish said.
Although Nicknish was excited to join the UCBSO his freshman year, he was hesitant about this major change in his music career, he said. He had played with extremely talented musicians in his high school orchestra, and he was worried about not finding players of the same caliber in college.
But as soon as rehearsals began, Nicknish was totally blown out of the water, he said.
“These are people who are going to end up in a professional orchestra one day — they are so good,” Nicknish said. “I was so impressed with Berkeley’s orchestra when I first came here.”
But in some ways, playing in a college-level orchestra proved challenging. Nicknish said the most difficult aspects of being a player in UCBSO were the ambitious repertoire and the rehearsal schedule.
“There are definitely nights when it’s 9:45 and all you want to do is not be playing music, and if you had a long day, to just go home and relax,” Nicknish said. “But overall, it’s super fulfilling.”
According to Nicknish, he has grown significantly as a musician during his time at UC Berkeley. Even though he has decided not to pursue a music major — instead, he is majoring in applied math — the challenging musical repertoire and his talented bandmates have pushed him to improve. Nicknish credits the UC Berkeley music program, which is structured to allow students to pursue both music and academics at a high level.
Despite the long rehearsals and challenging pieces, Nicknish enjoys being a student musician and has met many of his closest friends through the orchestra. He appreciates the interest UC Berkeley students have in contemporary composers, and he values the orchestra’s commitment to diversity in its repertoire.
“Orchestral music is generally written by some white guy from 200 years ago,” Nicknish explained. “And that’s not to say that they didn’t write amazing music, but it’s always nice to have more representation and variety.”
Variety is an important part of music for Nicknish. His favorite thing about the bass is how versatile it can be; with his instrument, he can play classical music, jazz music and even pop music.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has strongly impacted music communities. UCBSO has moved its rehearsals to a virtual environment, and although each player practices routinely at home, the special feeling of playing together is lost on computer screens.
“It’s one thing just to play the right notes and the right rhythms, but especially on a string instrument like the bass, tone and quality of sound are very important parts of playing, which, through Zoom, you completely lose,” Nicknish says.
But now, as the city of Berkeley moves to the orange tier and restrictions start to be lifted, the orchestra plans to resume in-person rehearsals soon. Masks will continue to be mandatory, as will social distancing, but Nicknish is excited to return to his musical “new normal.”
Music is a huge part of Nicknish’s life, and he hopes to be part of a musical community wherever he goes.
“When I think about where I want to be when I grow up, music is always a part of that,” Nicknish said. “I want to surround myself with people who are also interested in music wherever I end up living.”