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“I Bet No One Plays the Bass”

From her elementary school classroom and the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music to the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra stages, Hannah Novak ’18 has chased and excelled in her love of music since childhood.

Words: Grace Kenyon ’22

Wheaton College IL Conservatory of Music alumna Hannah Novak stands with her bass instrument.

Photo Courtesy of Hannah Novak ’18

As a student at Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music, Hannah Novak ’18 already had one foot in the professional world. During her senior year, she was a substitute in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, an orchestra for young professionals hosted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). Eight to ten times each month, she would wake up at 6:00 a.m. to practice in the Conservatory, report to her job at the campus bookstore, then take the train for late-night rehearsals in Chicago, string bass in tow.

She sat in the handicapped section on the metro because it was the only place her instrument fit. She had wheels on her case, but even so “it’s a spectacle,” Novak said. After rehearsals, she took the 10:40 p.m. Metra from Ogilvie to Wheaton and tried to go to sleep so that she could do it all again the next day.

Long before she was lugging a bass around downtown Chicago, Novak gravitated to music. She started piano lessons with her next-door neighbor at age 7. A few years later, Novak already knew that she wanted to pursue music seriously, but realized that with an instrument as common as the piano, it would be hard to rise above the competition. “I had the long game in mind,” Novak said. “I didn’t want to fall in love with something and then not be able to do it if I wanted to do it.”

Her elementary school hosted an event to teach students about different instruments, and Novak chose the most unusual instrument she could find. “I bet no one plays the bass,” she remembers thinking.

Growing up in Wheaton, the Conservatory had always been on her radar. In high school, she started taking lessons with Wheaton faculty and was even chosen to perform in the Wheaton College Symphony Orchestra when they needed an extra bass player. It was almost a no-brainer for Novak to pursue a bachelor’s in double bass performance at Wheaton, where she would continue to fall in love with her craft.

The highlight of her Wheaton education was working with her private teacher, Andrew Anderson, a guest lecturer in the Conservatory and a bassist in the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra among other ensembles. Novak said Anderson gave her the insight of a professional musician and would always push her to do her best—and to be good enough to enter the professional music world.

At the same time, Novak remembers Anderson as caring and generous with the time he spent training his students. Her most formative lessons were spent simply playing short passages back and forth, Anderson modeling the precise sound he wanted and Novak echoing until she had it down perfectly.

As for her time at Wheaton, Novak said her study in both business and music prepared her well for post-graduate studies. After graduating from Wheaton, she earned a master’s degree from Rice University and is currently working on a post-master’s certificate from DePaul University. She is grateful for professors who taught her how to pursue excellence in her craft while staying true to her values. Professional musicians face stressors that often cause them to cope in unhealthy ways. Amid this environment, Novak cares for her colleagues by taking the time to listen and understand what they are struggling with, an approach she says was modeled to her by people she knew at Wheaton.

Novak still remembers the first professional rehearsal she attended, as an undergrad at Wheaton who was also freelancing all over Chicago. She was playing with the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the Civic Opera building with Andrea Bocelli, and the perfection of the sound made her realize that she wanted to be doing this for the rest of her life. “When everybody does the same thing, really well, at the same time—it’s hard to describe, but it’s just the best feeling in the world,” Novak said.

Now Novak is auditioning for orchestras around the world. She credits her success, in part, to taking full advantage of the opportunities offered at Wheaton, from the concerto competition (a bass soloist is a rare sight, and she won her senior year) to the chance to study with world-class professors who chose Wheaton as their home. She encourages other aspiring musicians to glean as much as they can, where they are right now. “You have to conquer the things that are in front of you first,” she said.