Chatting with Bruce McGillivray about the German bow, music and rehabilitation

After a short stay in Mt Sinai after collapsing in early September, my mother went to Bridgepoint Hospital for rehab, gradually seeking to re-cover her mobility with the help of physical therapy. The beautiful view through the window lifts patients’ spirits.

My mom’s room-mate at Bridgepoint was Geraldine McGillivray, which is how I met Geraldine’s son Bruce McGillivray, on one of my visits to my mom.

Bruce has been playing double bass with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony since 1976.

And he speaks Hungarian rather well, for a non-native speaker. Having noticed my mom’s surname he ventured to speak Hungarian on one of his visits.

I’m very grateful for the conversations Bruce had with my mom, at a time when she was in rehab, amusing her with his friendly banter. Bruce’s kindness is quintessentially Canadian, a neighbourliness we may take for granted. It’s a beautiful thing.

In November everyone parted company. My mom went home from Bridgepoint in late November, Geraldine having been released about ten days earlier. This interview with Bruce was my chance to follow up. Questions of music and rehabilitation run through this interview, as you’ll see.

Bass player Bruce McGillivray

BARCZABLOG: Would you say you’re more like your father or your mother?

BRUCE: I think I’m more like my mother and her family, because her parents listened to classical music. My mother is named after an opera singer: Geraldine Farrar. Her sister was given the task of naming the new baby

BARCZABLOG: So would it be fair to say your mother encouraged your musical studies?
Or both your parents did?

Bruce McGillivray They were both non-musical. I just did it.
Let me clarify. When I was 12 I bought my first piano

BARCZABLOG: You bought a piano at the age of 12?

Bruce McGillivray My mother signed the cheque. I worked on the morning paper-route to pay for it. And I saved up from zero. It was quite an ancient piano. I’ve often seen them in old movies. It had like a carved fret-work with velvet behind it. It was a Nordheimer. It could have been from the early 1900s.

BARCZABLOG: Cool. So tell me do you still play the piano?

Bruce McGillivray: I have a piano… (giggling) I’m not really playing piano music for pleasure. Just kind of doodling on it.

BARCZABLOG: So Bruce I saw your bio on the KW Symphony website.
Bruce has been playing with the KWS since 1976. He has played with the St. Catherine’s Symphony, and Symphony Canada. Bruce developed a children’s solo show for Double Bass, which he has performed in schools across Canada. When not busy performing, Bruce enjoys photography, gardening, and listening to music.

Bruce McGillivray I have a new biography. It talks about how I went to Berlin. I had a coaching with one of their bass players at the Berlin Philharmonic on the German bow grip. I want to send him a letter, thanking him, because 20 years later, I’m still playing and I have no pain.

BARCZABLOG: Did you used to have pain?

Bruce McGillivray: I did, oh yes I did in the 1980s, I had the same pain. It’s regarding volume production. The way you get it with a French bow is that you press, and with the German bow, you pull. You’re not pressing down on a wooden stick.

BARCZABLOG I looked up a comparison of French vs German bowing online, finding a discussion on this website that tells you more.

So where did it hurt, when you were using the French bowing? the wrist? maybe the shoulder or back?

Bruce McGillivray The wrist, and i recall having tendinitis at times. Possibly the forearm. I’ve been without pain for so long, I can’t remember.

BARCZABLOG: is it easier on the shoulder?

Bruce McGillivray Oh yes it’s easier on everything. And actually you get more sound with less effort.

BARCZABLOG: A teacher taught you?

Bruce McGillivray Martin Heinze, of the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s an interesting thing. In certain countries –Germany, Austria and countries east—they only teach the German bow. They don’t teach the French bow: because they think it’s inferior.

BARCZABLOG: Would you agree?

Bruce McGillivray Well: yes! Certain other countries – France, England—they’re more French bow. There are some excellent players. But for me, it caused pain. And the German bow cleared it up.

BARCZABLOG: Your bass. You play it mostly for the pieces you’re playing for KW Symphony?

Bruce McGillivray Well, my friend Sean Bennesch and I…We also busk. We’ve been busking for some years. At the Kitchener Farmers’ Market. We’re called the Wilhelm Duo. For example we play “Eleanor Rigby”.

Bruce McGillivray I live on Wilhelm Street so….”The Wilhelm Duo.” (giggling) Very original.

BARCZABLOG: What is the best thing about what you do?

Bruce McGillivray The best thing is we perform in the Centre in the Square in Kitchener, which is an acoustical gem. And we love it.

 Raffi Armenian Theatre, Centre in the Square

Everyone who comes there , orchestras from Europe, and they finish in Toronto. And word always came back that they liked it better in Kitchener.

BARCZABLOG: Yes. The fact it can be configured…. It’s truly a multi-purpose hall. In the old days multipurpose was a euphemism for “generic”, a design that wouldn’t work too well for anything, as in the old O’Keefe Centre.

Bruce McGillivray You know, when they make a recording, they take those towers away. And it’s a huge cathedral-like structure in front of us and behind us. That is one of the favorite things.

BARCZABLOG: So tell me… I want to talk about the Bridgepoint experience, when you met my mom. How did you learn Hungarian? It’s one of the most difficult languages to learn.

Bruce McGillivray: In 1989 I went to Hungary as part of a European trip on my own. Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia (as it was then known). And ending in Hungary. And I didn’t know how long I was going to stay.

BARCZABLOG: But you didn’t just pick up a language in a couple of days. You’ve got a good accent and vocabulary in one of the toughest languages of all. I guess your German is pretty good too.

Bruce McGillivray The German got me through it. I lived with a Hungarian family for a week. I was actually going to an event there. It’s quite a miraculous thing that happened. Here I was, a Canadian coming, and there was a co-ordinator there, sending them to their billets. There was this Billy Graham event. I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t read anything, and I looked kind of lost and he asked me “are you here for Billy Graham”? And I said “yes!

But I didn’t know what that all entailed. Before I knew it, I was incorporated with a group of three Bulgarian people who couldn’t speak Hungarian. And we ended up in the dark at the billet’s house near Budapest.

BARCZABLOG It’s so nice to hear you pronounce that correctly. So now, so many years later, you still speak the language. Did you have a chance to practice decades later?

Bruce McGillivray I have to tell you, this is really interesting. I was at that special event. And then I get a letter back from these people, and I can’t read Hungarian so I searched around at church for someone who could translate it for me. My friends Ferenc and Irenke… Irenke talked to me a week later, after she read it. And she said “we know these people!” I was just at a funeral for their eldest son. I’m considered as a member of the family. I don’t know when I was incorporated. But I’ve been at every Christmas

BARCZABLOG: natural segue.. so there you were in Bridgepoint with your mom, and you start talking to my mother. You’re a friendly kind of person I guess. I don’t know how to say that, without it sounding unorthodox. But most Canadians are polite but shy and distant.

Bruce McGillivray That’s my specialty, language. Ferenc and Irenke Molnar in the early 90s: they were teaching me. We were working from this really hard book.

BARCZABLOG: yes, your Hungarian accent is as good as mine or better. I talk to my mom, I did a bit to my children. But mostly my mom speaks English. Like most of the Hungarians I’ve known, when they came to this country they want to fit in, so they learn English.

Bruce McGillivray Frank had an awful time with English. Not everyone is linguistically inclined.

BARCZABLOG Hungarian is a hard language. Could you describe for me…? I’m trying to picture what seems like a magical moment. When did you start speaking to my mom? How did that happen? Did you just say hello to her and listen to her accent?

Bruce McGillivray Probably the first day I came in, I was coming in pretty regularly for my mother. And I saw the name on the name –plate at the front. And I said to my mom “I think that’s Hungarian”.

And your sister Kaci was there, and I said “jo nappot kivanok”.
[like “hello” but literally it’s “have a nice day” in Hungarian] ,

“hogy vagy?” [OR how are you?]

And then she looked at me with large eyes.

BARCZABLOG did she answer in Hungarian?

Bruce McGillivray I think so. And then I think she told your mother that I speak Hungarian.
I have to keep it up. I have another specialty language, Armenian. I can’t even read the letters

BARCZABLOG: But it’s use it or lose it, right?

Bruce McGillivray that’s right, I have to keep using it.

BARCZABLOG we joke about this with my mother. There’s a song for instance that my brother found, that’s a popular song from my mother’s youth, from the old days when she lived in Hungary. We did it for her. I played the piano, my brother Peter sang it: for her 100th birthday.

It’s a flirtatious song, perhaps risqué for the 1930s? But she isn’t speaking Hungarian as often as she used to. Who would she talk to ? All of her siblings and friends are either deceased or assimilated Canadians like my siblings and I, speaking English most of the time.

Bruce McGillivray could i add one point that helps me practice? I call the Kitchener’s farmer’s market my language school. So when I go to buy my kenyér (that’s Bread in Hungarian), it’s the Hungarian baker, And one of the people who works with her, he speaks German too, fluently. So I could be talking Hungarian, and when we come to a dead-end we flip over to German. That’s how I can practice all of these languages. I used to help out at the Kitchener Farmer’s Market. And I remember there was one instance, a lady came to me who spoke no English. She was Hungarian. I figured out the whole transaction. And I was exhausted after that. But I figured it out with no English. I made the sale, the person was happy…

BARCZABLOG So… where do you live?

Bruce McGillivray I’m in downtown Kitchener. It’s an interesting street because in 1910 or so, it was the last street radiating from the city centre in the direction of Waterloo. And then there would be the forest.And when the forest ended: it would be Waterloo. So gradually the forest disappeared … and you can’t tell where you are.

BARCZABLOG You have been coming to look after your mother. You’re part of a team, right?

Bruce McGillivray Yes, there are PSW who come in the morning and evening. And my sister comes when she can. Generally once a month.

BARCZABLOG anyone else besides you, your sister and the caregivers?

Bruce McGillivray Yes we have our neighbour , on salary and she fills in the holes when neither of us are available. She’s like the glue . When someone has to come open the door for the PSW, she can do so.

BARCZABLOG right. Interesting. We have a lockbox on the front of the house, the kind real estate agents use. You can buy then at a hardware store, and it’s a box that holds the front door key, but you have to know the combination to get into the box to get the key. That’s what we do, although some mornings it’s hard to do, when it’s cold, hard on the fingers.

So –changing the subject– how many hours do you practice?

Bruce McGillivray It depends on the program. There are two types of practice. There’s practicing away from the instrument, and then you practice it on the instrument.

BARCZABLOG So you can actually practice without the instrument?!

Bruce McGillivray When I’m in Toronto, i can’t really bring it, because i have a whole car full of clothing food, ….

BARCZABLOG aha ,i was going to ask you if you bring your bass to Toronto, and i think you’ve just indirectly answered my question.

Bruce McGillivray No i can’t.

BARCZABLOG Wow you can practice without your instrument? (jaw dropped)

Bruce McGillivray I can practice, I can work out fingerings. I can try to work out difficult passages. If the piece is not known to me, I can at least work out a fingering. And when i come to the bass, finally, see how that thought works.

BARCZABLOG so right now, you’re preparing for your concert?

Bruce McGillivray I haven’t got the music yet. My next one should probably be in March. I’ll get the music maybe on the weekend. The big piece is going to be the Elgar Enigma Variations. And there’s a concerto.

I’ll tell you this, I’d probably practice one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon, one hour in the evening, because it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality.

BARCZABLOG We were talking about Haydn. Are you curating a concert at some point?

Bruce McGillivray It’s delayed, it will be in 2023. It’s part two of the History of the Symphony I curated in 2018. I was thinking “that could be part one”. And this all-Haydn concert would be part two. And this has me thinking, the concluding one will be part three, it will be a trilogy.

BARCZABLOG There’s a lot of Haydn that’s for sure. When you eventually have that concert, please let me know.

Bruce McGillivray That will not be presented at the Centre in the Square but First United Church in Waterloo. That’s the one I would get you to come to.

BARCZABLOG do you play any other types of music?

Bruce McGillivray Yes in our programming we do film scores. We do pop concerts which could be any type from Latin to ballet…There’s even like a Cirque du Soleil, where the people are hanging and we can’t look, because it’s making me nervous, way up there swinging…!

BARCZABLOG so long as you’re not doing that.

Bruce McGillivray no….! I’m a bass player, i want to be on the ground!

When I was busking we switched it up. We’d be doing Mozart one minute, and then Sean would say “let’s do Paranoid”.Or “Black Dog“.

Bruce McGillivrayand the younger listeners would say “we didn’t know you could play that”.

BARCZABLOG Do you have anyone you admire as an influence, or anyone you want to thank?

Bruce McGillivray I want to thank my original conductor and music director Raffi Armenian. He molded me for 18 years.

Raffi Armenian former Artistic Director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra

And in that time he was so instrumental in getting Centre in the Square built.

BARCZABLOG did you ever speak to him in Armenian?

Bruce McGillivray maybe a couple of little things. Not really. My Hungarian is way better.

BARCZABLOG is there any teacher you want to acknowledge?

Bruce McGillivray I started off with my wonderful Toronto Symphony teacher Jane McAdam and then I left for Kitchener. Janet Auger was the Principal of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony; I ended up studying with her at university.

Then I’d have to say the next teacher is the one in Germany, Martin Heinze, Berlin Philharmonic, who coached me on the German bow. That changed my life. And no pain.

Bassist Martin Heinze of the Berlin Philharmonic


Last time I chatted with Bruce he was telling me how his mother Geraldine walked a short distance that day without a walker, which is a positive development. Rehabilitation and relief of pain continues to be a recurring theme for us. I didn’t mention my own arthritis pain to Bruce. But all four of us (Bruce, his mom Geraldine, myself and my own mother) have worked to get past pain.

You can’t let it stop you from living.

This entry was posted in Food, Health and Nutrition, Interviews, Music and musicology, My mother, Personal ruminations & essays, Popular music & culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chatting with Bruce McGillivray about the German bow, music and rehabilitation

  1. Kirk says:

    Great conversational interview, meandering through many topics and concerns! Thanks for posting.

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