If you’re an instrumental musician in Missoula, chances are you’ve got less than two degrees of separation from Don Beller.
Despite spending most of his time hidden at the edge or back of the stage behind his double bass, Beller has either set the rhythm for or taught the leaders of literally thousands of fellow performers. Lauded last month as “the oldest surviving member of the String Orchestra of the Rockies,” Beller officially retired after 30 years as a professional bass player.
How did he celebrate? With a road trip to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he attended a week-long international bass-player’s conference.
“It’s a whole week of 9-to-midnight bass playing,” the 68-year-old Beller said from a roadside stop last week on his way to Colorado. “There will be concerts, recitals – everything you could imagine about the bass. They’re even going to build basses this week.”
He started building the String Orchestra of the Rockies in the “coincidental year” of 1984, when violists Russell Guyver and Sara Avery moved to Missoula the same year Beller arrived for a job leading the Missoula Youth Symphony and violin master Johann Jonsson joined the music school at Montana State University.
“We all thought it was wonderful to have small group that played without a conductor,” Beller recalled. “That’s where the seed came from. And there’s all this music for small string orchestra out there, but it seldom gets played. Big symphonies don’t play it because it doesn’t have parts for winds and brass.”
Beller also played bass with all of the Montana Symphonies in the state at one time or another, as well as the DePaul Symphony Orchestra, the Gold Coast Chamber Orchestra in Chicago, the Spokane Symphony and the Festival Amadeus Orchestra in Whitefish.
“When I think about the people who made the String Orchestra of the Rockies become a reality, he’s really at the top of the list,” said SOR music director and fellow founding member Fern Glass Boyd. “You don’t have a lot of bass players – basically one in an orchestra of 15 – but they’re really important because you build an orchestra from the bottom up.”
In his teaching role, Beller helped develop the musical leadership of Ryan Davis, who now runs the orchestra programs at Hellgate and Sentinel high schools, and Michael Johns, who teaches orchestra in the Missoula County Public Schools middle-school program. Now living in Kalispell, Beller continues to work with four or five private students on classical bass.
Glass Boyd said the more visible bass players of jazz and pop groups owe their roles to the rhythm players of the Classical era.
“He’s the rhythmic center of the group and the harmonic foundation,” Glass Boyd said of Beller. “Everything you hear is built upon that solid bass line. The whole rhythm-section idea comes from Baroque and Classical style, and they are the models of modern rock bands today.”
Nevertheless, Beller said he’s never been interested in bass playing outside the classical form. Orchestral music has more than enough variety and complexity to keep him interested. When he needs a break, he tinkers with Model A Ford cars and antique clocks, and does woodwork on bass violins.
While he joked at his last SOR concert that he looked forward to finally playing some melody parts instead of rhythm, Beller said the double bass has never lacked for interest.
“When you get students who spend any time on the bass, you don’t have to try and convince them,” he said. “It’s so gratifying, so much fun. I have a sixth-grade student up in Kalispell who wanted to play bass, but they didn’t have enough instruments when he started. So he had to play viola for a while until finally one came free. He likes the sound of it, the feel of the instrument next to your body. You both hear the sound and feel the vibrations. It more than makes up for the fact you’re not playing melody up front.”