The game of music: A close encounter with a double bass

Stuart Riley warming up before rehearsal. All pictures: Daria Impiombato


Stuart Riley is sitting in the double bass section of a professional orchestra for the first time in his life. He is 18 and nervous, oh boy he really is.

But something steals his attention: In the arms of an experienced musician in the pit, is a beautiful double bass. Its sound is warm, its notes bewitching. 

“One day, I will own that old, beautiful Italian bass,” Stuart vows.

Thirty-seven years have passed since that first gig in Manchester in 1980, but his memory hasn’t faded, nor has the passion that every day drives Stuart to the practice room. Today he owns that bass, and he has his first full-time job, won this year at the age of 55.

Stuart doesn’t give up easily.

In the world of classical music, instruments and musicians are like spinning tops, constantly on their journeys throughout continents, crossing countries and cultures, and eventually bumping into each other. When the right instrument meets the right musician, they magically fuse into one creature.

The bass becomes the player’s voice, says Stuart, while its sound comes to life thanks to the musical abilities of its owner. However, for Stuart, the whole concept of ownership is dated. 

“That Italian bass is 250 years old,” he says. “It was made in Milan in the 1760s, and I am just a fortunate custodian for a very short part of its journey.”

Sign at the door of the rehearsal room. South Yarra Music Hall.

When asked what made him choose music, Stuart answers with characteristic humour. “I’d like to tell you that I was chosen for my stunning talent on the instrument,” he begins, playing theatrically with his voice and gestures, “but that would not be true.”

He was in primary school, and his music teacher selected him to play the cello because of his size. “I started just because I was big!” Stuart laughs. But soon his talent surfaced. He later moved from the cello to the double bass, and he has never abandoned it.

Stuart doesn’t come from a family of musicians. He considers himself lucky for the support he has always received from them, despite his father’s dream that he would be an athlete. He moved to Australia from the UK in 1995 and, together with his wife and their cats, he now lives an active and busy life in Melbourne.

During his career, Stuart never set his goals too high. Preparing for an audition is a hard task, probably the most challenging moment for any musician, he explains. He gets anxious – but everybody does.

Stuart, however, defeats his anxiety every single time by setting lower expectations and trying to draw something positive from any failure.

“Many tell me, ‘You have to be in that job! You have to visualise being there to beat everybody else and be at the top’, well that doesn’t work for me”, he says. The only thing Stuart worries about is his performance: he isolates himself from the rest, takes long breaths, and then just plays.

Robert Nicholls, one of Stuart’s colleagues now working at Orchestra Victoria, says Stuart is very determined and knows what he wants from his section.

 “He’s really extroverted and loves talking,” he says. “Having freelanced so long, he’s seen much more than many other musicians.”

Robert Nicholls (front right) and Stuart Riley (back left) before Orchestra Victoria’s rehearsal of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – In collaboration with the Australian Ballet.

Not having a full-time position was never a problem for Stuart. His varied and itinerant career actually makes him very proud.

“I have a sugar mommy,” he reveals, jokingly referring to his wife of 32 years, Nicky, who works as a dentist (and is a violinist herself).

The music environment is too narrow for Stuart: he has a degree in civil engineering; he has started a software development business in his free time, between concerts and ballets; he keeps record of his works on his own website; he practices bird photography as a hobby, and has a blog for that, too. 

He teaches, too. Max Rae, one of Stuart’s students who is now at the University of Melbourne, sees Stuart as both a teacher and a friend. 

“He is a big inspiration for me,” Max says, adding that despite the many struggles he encountered, Stuart never made him feel bad, always encouraging him not to give up. “He’s so funny! I think he can’t ever get mad,” he says.

To win in the game of life, Stuart makes sure to keep himself busy. Being often away from his wife, he jokes, is probably the secret of his long-lasting marriage. Wine, nature and good company are the simple things that make him happy.

Everything he does, he does for pleasure. “If I wanted to be a soloist, constantly in the spotlight, I wouldn’t have played the bass,” Stuart says.

“I think there is a clue in the name of our instrument,” he says, with the attitude of someone who is revealing a deep secret. “It’s not the word double, it’s the word bass. We play the base.” And he truly loves it.

Stuart knows one day the game will end. The time to retire will come, and he will have to sell his beloved instruments. “You can take your bass with you in your coffin if you want, but it would be a shame,” he says.

“I’ll be very sad to see them go. I don’t know how it is to see a child leave, but that’s probably the closest I’m going to get.”