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by Mateo Estanislao

Ian Hallas, a recent addition to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra bass section, is one of the most accomplished musicians and teachers in the Chicagoland area. Prior to his appointment to the CSO bass section in the fall of 2023 he was the principal bass of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He also maintains a private studio and is on the faculty at Northwestern University. CMPI has been fortunate to have this amazing teacher available for the past three years.

Early Music

Ian_HallasIan started playing bass in third grade through the public school system in Evanston and later started taking private lessons with Jason Heath in seventh grade. While he initially didn’t practice seriously, his turning point was when he did a summer festival with the Midwest Young Artists Conservatory before starting high school. He was introduced to some really challenging music, rather than simplified arrangements, and was inspired with a new level of artistry. Being faced with really great music that he couldn’t play but wanted to play more than anything fed his hunger to be the best.

“I remember absolutely tanking my high school orchestra audition, my freshman year, and I was new anyway. They knew I was in MYA, but I had just started serious so I had no idea how to practice, but I was playing a lot. I went in playing a concerto movement and just bombed it. I was next-to last chair and I remember feeling completely ashamed. The point is – it was a total disaster and that gave me even more hunger to prove I was not that bad.”

By the next year, Ian was sitting where he wanted to be in the orchestra and was trying to play as much good music as he could. In addition, his lessons with Jason were immensely helpful to his development. With the selfless enthusiasm of a great teacher, and countless hours of practicing, Ian was able to get into some good schools.


Ian’s first year of school was completely overwhelming with the realization that he didn’t know anything about how to be a musician.

”I certainly didn’t know how to practice – that came way later – I was just beating my head against a wall for a good four years. Just playing a lot, so I got incrementally better every day, but it wasn’t a drastic life-changing improvement.”

Along with not understanding how to practice, Ian also struggled with learning right-hand technique, which became a greater point of stress. He was told of this weakness in his playing, but seeing this in practice from his peers was overwhelming.

“At that point I think I broke a little bit because I still worked hard, but I was so lost for a minute that I didn’t know how to get better. Part of that was I was at the wrong school and a transfer was necessary.”

This prompted Ian’s transition to Rice University, under the guidance of Paul Ellison, where the building blocks for a positive career began. Ian firmly believes he would not be as successful without the mentorship of Paul Ellison, being in one of the most competitive bass programs in the country, and playing in the best university orchestra.

When the time came for Ian to apply for a master’s program, he was confronted with two main options, stay at Rice or pursue another path at USC under the tutelage of David Allen Moore.

”The easy decision would have been to stay at Rice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision…I would have had all the opportunities I wanted [at Rice], but they wouldn’t have given me what I needed. To go to a different place, start from new, and play for some very different ears in the LA Philharmonic section – I kind of knew that’s what needed to be done.”

Ian decided to study with David Allen Moore at USC because he knew David was able to offer the kind of teaching necessary to expand his capabilities despite Rice having such a rich orchestra program. He opted to study with the teacher who had a different perspective to mold him into the kind of musician he needed to be.

”I think that’s necessary for a master’s because the focus is far more singular. I needed a bit more fine tuning – it’s not like I was ready to start taking auditions immediately – but I knew there was more work to be done.”

Professional Career

Ian started auditioning for professional jobs while pursuing his master’s degree and discovered how unforgiving an audition can be under pressure. With his first audition requiring complete works, it was necessary to know every note in case the panel wanted to hear every note. Ian realized, like many other first-time auditioners, that he was completely out of his depth.

“You need to be ready for the process, but you also need to understand that the process takes time anyway. An audition is a skill set that you only learn while doing that one thing. You can do all the mock auditions, you can do all the rep classes, you can nail everything to the wall, walk on stage and be a completely different person. You have to learn what kind of person you become and how to deal with that.”

Ian was told that he was ready to win auditions in the second year of his master’s program, but he didn’t come close to winning anything that year. He understood the process of auditioning unfolds differently for everyone in their own time.

After getting a trial for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra section that didn’t work out, Ian decided to step out of his comfort zone again and audition for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

”I took it because it was in Chicago. I never thought about playing in opera – I wasn’t an opera buff before playing opera and I hadn’t really listened to any of it – but preparing that list and having no baggage; there was no Beethoven 5, there was no Heldenleben, no Mahler 1 solo. I think that was the best thing for me to do to win a job.”

Ian took a whole new approach to this audition because he had the opportunity to start from scratch. With the finals being three months after the preliminary round, he started over and pretended like he hadn’t played any of those excerpts before. By getting another opportunity to play the same list of new and exciting material, Ian won his first audition with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“What I found later on, through other auditions, is that [opera excerpts] are incredibly helpful for the other excerpts. When you play an excerpt in Db minor, then Beethoven 5 in C major doesn’t seem so bad. That definitely helped my symphonic chops, which helped my opera chops, and everything just gets better. That paved the way for me to do well after that. Definitely for the CSO audition – I wasn’t going to win that out of school, but I needed other things to make it easier.”

Leading up to Ian’s successful audition for the CSO section, he lost ten and won six other auditions – including his prior attempt for the Chicago Symphony bass section. Despite meeting some resistance before getting his stride in auditions, Ian firmly believes those challenges were integral to his success.

“The best thing we can do as musicians is fail sometimes. Whether you deserve to fail or not, we need thick skins. We can’t be bothered by something that doesn’t go our way. Thick skin is everything in this field because it’s so subjective. Just because someone doesn’t like your playing doesn’t mean you’re bad, it just means it’s a bad fit. And do you want that fit to be a part of your life? Probably not.”


Ian was approached by James Hall in the Summer of 2021 about teaching CMPI fellows. Due to coming out of the pandemic and his prior employment at the Lyric Opera, Ian had much more time available to him and was excited at the opportunity to teach some bass.

“I was really impressed with James. I think James is doing a terrific job. He’s very respectful. He’s very organized. He understands how to support students in every capacity. Whether it’s tough love or soft words, James is amazing.”

The resources available to CMPI gave Ian a lot of faith that they were really taking action to support their message. Funding for college visits, auditions, and buying instruments – more than just the private lesson fee – made Ian believe in CMPI.

”Every student is different, but working with you [Mateo] and Dante was incredibly fulfilling. You guys sought out the program – it didn’t seek out you – so you obviously wanted to be in the room. It’s easy to teach folks like that. You guys are intelligent and you understand hard work. It was easy.”

“It’s important when you think about diversifying an orchestra – it’s not a top down project. You need those resources at the ground level and that’s where, over time, we will start to see the positive impact of what it’s doing. It might not be tomorrow, but it will be down the road.”

Equity Arc

With opportunities like the National Pathways Festival Orchestra available to some CMPI fellows through Equity Arc, there is an invaluable experience for those selected. With Ian seeing the impact of his student being in the 2023 NPFO in Cincinnati, he is so happy for his students to have such an enriching experience.

“That was such an excellent opportunity for you [Mateo] to have a really big goal and meet it. The prospect of auditioning on the national spectrum and then playing with a top 10 orchestra – those opportunities are pretty singular. It’s a unique opportunity that needs to happen annually…A national event celebrating your work is great.”


Being one of Ian Hallas’ students has been both a privilege and an honor that changed the course of my life. Prior to this interview, I always respected Ian’s understanding of my own personal challenges with bass, but that respect has only grown since our discussion for this article. To understand that a role model has persevered through a multitude of challenges really puts into perspective what it means to be successful in this world. It’s daunting to see the full scope of adversity that comes with this career, but it’s also relieving to know that it’s an adversity that’s not exclusive to our own experiences. It inspires a healthy anxiety for what’s to come, but also a determination to achieve our goals. I have never been more proud to be one of Ian’s students.


Ian Hallas headshot from the Bienen School of Music

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