In 2013, the Boston Symphony Orchestra welcomed a new member to its esteemed ensemble when talented Shipley alumnus Thomas Van Dyck ’99 joined the double bass section. Chosen from a field of more than 200 musicians vying for the coveted orchestral position, Van Dyck’s varied musical background and dedication to his art have now placed him in one of the finest, most highly-regarded bass sections in the world.
“I’ve led a diverse musical life,” says Van Dyck, whose interest in music took root in the Philadelphia area. A lifelong scholar of music, Van Dyck first picked up his chosen instrument, the double bass, to fill a role in his brother’s rock band and never put the instrument down again.
Thanks to growing up in Center City Philadelphia, Van Dyck was exposed to a huge range of musical genres at a very early age. “My parents were of the generation that dealt with the urban sprawl but decided to stay in the city, which I feel was a really great thing for me,” he says. “I had influences growing up in the city,” he says, “and first started going to jazz clubs like Chris’ Jazz Cafe and Ortlieb’s when I was really young.”
But by the time he was just 12 years old, Van Dyck’s focus in playing his bass turned from jazz to classical music. With access to the marvelous classical musicians of the renowned Philadelphia Orchestra, Van Dyck became engrossed in the world of the orchestra and began studying seriously, learning various repertoire and attending concerts. “There’s a fantastic tradition in Philadelphia,” he says. “It was a great place to grow up, especially in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Though he studied music outside of his schooling, Van Dyck does credit his Upper School experience at Shipley with much of the foundation that contributed to his dedication to his craft. “Shipley was a great community, with a lot of very smart people interested in helping you learn,” he says.
“Part of the reason I was able to do what I did was Shipley’s open-minded approach, which was priceless,” he says. “I am very thankful for the community and the sense of aesthetic, and the people who really influenced me to think creatively and critically. That was huge for me.”
After Shipley, Van Dyck continued to pursue his musical career and was admitted to Rice University’s music conservatory, The Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with distinguished double bassist Paul Ellison, a celebrated player and teacher whose former students hold titled positions in orchestras and universities on five continents.
After four years studying with Ellison, Van Dyck wasn’t fully convinced he only wanted to play in an orchestra, and so he accepted a postgraduate fellowship with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, with Michael Tilson Thomas. “It’s a very good program, designed for people after school to prepare for orchestral careers,” says Van Dyck.
The summer after he began with New World Symphony, though, Van Dyck was awarded a Tanglewood Music Center fellowship, where he received the Maurice Schwarz Prize, and was able to work with Ed Barker, the Boston Symphony Orchestra principal bass player.
After just a year as a fellow, Van Dyck, who was also unsatisfied with the musical opportunities Miami offered outside of the symphony itself, realized he wanted to study more, in particular with Barker in Boston.
Thus, he entered the master’s degree program at Boston University, where Barker is an associate professor in the School of Music. “I learned a tremendous amount from him, which was complementary to what I learned with my other teacher, Ellison, who is a legendary pedagog in his own right,” says Van Dyck.
After studying with Barker, Van Dyck’s regard for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its bass section only grew, driving him to strive to join the ensemble. “Along with the artistic advantages of playing in Boston, which I wasn’t going to find in my section anywhere, there’s a long, great tradition of a bass section, and it’s been really a big inspiration for a long time,” he says.
When a position opened up last year, Van Dyck devoted himself to preparing for what is a grueling audition process. “There are only nine bass players in the orchestra, so a position only opens up about once a decade,” he explains. “I buckled down the last year before the audition.”
After an intense four rounds of blind play in just about 40 hours, the open position in the orchestra belonged to Van Dyck. And though he technically began in January, Van Dyck actually started attending rehearsals and learning the repertoire last October. “I wanted to start right away,” he says.
In addition to his place in the renowned orchestra, Van Dyck is also a member of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), which he joined more than four years ago. An unconducted chamber group, the intimate set of no more than 17 musicians is made up of soloists and players from across the country who perform together in chamber settings around the world.
“It’s a time to slow down and look into each piece more, and get to know our parts better, and also to have fun with friends and colleagues who have a different musical experience professionally,” he says.
Van Dyck’s performances with ECCO offer up an outlet to play contemporary, even rock pieces, too. “I love all kinds of popular music, and we want to incorporate that into ECCO,” says Van Dyck, who hopes to play a song by Radiohead arranged for strings with the chamber group soon.
“I want to take on as much music as I can and expand my repertoire,” says Van Dyck, and fortunately, the talented player has no shortage of opportunities to continue to grow and broaden his musical scope.
Van Dyck doesn’t take his achievements for granted, though, and knows Shipley served as a key step on his path to excellence. “I look back, and it was invaluable to have that kind of a community and that kind of advocacy of learning and thinking, which has really served me so well,” he says.
Looking forward to a bright future, the virtuoso says he simply intends to keep working towards perfection, though he knows that’s unattainable, really. “I’ve made a commitment —day-to-day— to doing my absolute best and making [the music] as good as it possibly can be,” he says.