Some people just aren’t intimidated by trying new things. Take Mark Stefaniw. The lead bassist for the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra enjoys taking on new challenges. For example, the self-described Army brat, who was raised in a Ukrainian family, first got into music when his parents bought him an accordion.
“In a Ukrainian family, an accordion is not a strange instrument,” Mark said. “I grew up seeing it, and I told my parents that I wanted to play it.”
His parents listened and got him one in grade school. Mark took to it instantly and soon he was entering regional competitions and even played with an accordion ensemble. He won third place in one competition when he was 11 years old.
When his family was transferred to a new locale a few years later, Mark and his accordion found a local church choir to join, and started to explore folk music. His early love of instruments didn’t wane as he got older.
In turns he tried his hand at the trumpet, which ended when he got braces, and then by high school he picked up the electric bass and began playing with a garage band.
Though Mark learned to read music when he played the accordion, he largely picked up his new instruments by playing by ear.
By the time he went away for college at the Ohio Institute of Technology, Mark was ready to explore different musical genres and he was playing in a rock trio and a jazz ensemble, soaking up all the music he could get outside of his studies, which focused on computer science.
“I was ushered into the tech realm,” he said. “I’d put together a couple of electronic kits, like a calculator, as a kid, so my parents knew I had a tinkering interest.”
He went to technology school with the idea of doing really hands on stuff, but when the corporate recruiters came on campus, they were all looking for people who could do hardware but software as well.
College didn’t put a damper on his musical interests though. Within his first year, he used some of his savings to buy an electric bass, and he spent part of his free time playing house parties with a band or events with a jazz ensemble.
The year he graduated from college, he also married his wife, Patricia, in a small ceremony at her home in Ohio. Mark pre-recorded the wedding music with a friend for the service.
Despite his passion for music Mark worked as a software developer for 25 years. But he didn’t forget about music during that time. He picked up the string bass just one year after college. “Santa brought me one,” he said. And a few years after that, he had a “life changing experience” when he saw double bass virtuoso Gary Karr in concert.
“I bought a bow and began to self study bowed bass,” he said. He also joined the Raleigh Civic Symphony in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he played for nine years.
A move to Denver for a new job, brought him into the Jefferson Symphony (and also introduced him to work as a volunteer firefighter).
Mark was happy with his work for the next 10 years, but by 2006, he and his wife were ready for a change. They made a big one when they both decided to take an early retirement.
Few people would retire early from an established career in software development for an uncertain career in music, but that’s what Mark did. He took a part-time job as a shuttle bus driver for the Senior Resource Center
“She decided to become a beekeeper, an archer and a gardener,” he said. Mark decided to dive head first into music.
“The career took over for a while, but then I started to going to bluegrass picking sessions and open jazz sessions,” he said.
He threw himself into lessons with Colorado Symphony Orchestra bassist Susan Cahill, who urged him to enroll for a bachelor’s degree in music at Metro State. He did, graduating at the top of his class.
My senior year I practiced so much that my left hand became raw and pink.”
After graduation, Mark launched his second career as a freelance musician and bass teacher. He also won the principal bass chair with the Denver Philharmonic and established his own studio, Low-C Bass Studio. He is now the lead bassist for the Philharmonic, but he also still plays in a bluegrass band and is constantly searching for what’s next.
Music on repeat: Beethoven 7th Symphony, Richard Strauss, bluegrass
Name for his bass: Perhaps something like “James” or “Winston” … you know a good name for the doorman that opens doors for people coming and going somewhere.
Top: Mark, at a DPO dress rehearsal
Second: 2009 MSCD chamber music recital. (Photo by Assunda Phillips)
Middle: Mark at a DPO dress rehearsal
Bottom: Mark, center, with his bluegrass band, Blue Moon Bluegrass
By Meg Satrom. Meg is a poet, journalist and a lawyer.