Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thoughts on Another No-Hire Audition

It’s still not the primary topic of this blog, but recent events in a certain large Midwestern city have brought the topic of “no-hire” auditions out for another run around the track. I blogged about this last year in regards to the Alabama Principal bass audition, and already there has been considerable commentary on TalkBass regarding the recent scene in Chicago. In this case the situation is even more severe - not only did the orchestra not hire someone, they didn’t even advance anyone past the first round.

Some of the most cogent comments on this were made by my former colleague Ali Yazdanfar, principal bass of the Montreal Symphony. He pointed out a lot of great things that people concerned about this topic should be aware of. Ali is one of the most successful auditioners our there so we would all be well advised to follow his advice!

It’s understandable that no-hire auditions make folks angry, cynical, and frustrated. I feel some of those things and I didn’t even take the Chicago audition, although several colleagues and friends did. I have no access to anyone on the committee, so my thoughts are purely speculation combined with my own experiences doing auditions and being on committees. But perhaps I can offer both some general and some specific reasons why this sort of thing happens.

Whenever I look at the modern audition process, I remember the Churchill quote about democracy: that it is “the worst system of government except all the others that have been tried.” Despite all its flaws and failings, improving the audition process is a far trickier business than it initially seems - an improvement in one area often leads to more problems in another. in particular, the structures surrounding fairness and accountability in auditions can sometimes seem to conflict with artistic goals.

It seems likely to me that many of the problems in this recent audition are just more severe versions of ones that often lead to no-hire auditions: committee members are divided by some fundamental issues regarding either:
- the qualifications of the candidates;
- the way the audition was structured (invites, timing, audition list, etc.)
- the music director’s preferences;
- or some totally unrelated conflicts that may be job-related or may be entirely personal.

I very strongly doubt, as some have suggested, that the committee didn’t enter the audition wanting to hire someone. No one goes through the long and sometimes tortuous process of organizing and audition and sitting through days of preliminaries unless they have some sincere desire to find the right player for the job. It’s just too much work (and not enough fun) to do as some sort of exercise in futility. That doesn’t mean that some committee members might not have felt that no one was qualified! It simply means that I suspect everyone entered the process with a sincere openness to hiring.

Another very real factor that can enter into orchestral auditions relates to the organizational structure and power dynamics of orchestras in general. Before I discuss this factor, I want to emphasize that I am by no means saying that this is what caused the recent result in Chicago! I have no idea what issues entered that particular process. However, I have seen this factor occasionally affect audition committees, and it is something that can be hard to see from the auditioners’ viewpoint.

The life of a section string player in an orchestra is not one of power and might. You are the lowest ranking member of a system that is still totally hierarchical and top-down when it comes to artistic matters. Your job for the most part is to play well and to follow orders, which is fine in general but can sometimes be frustrating when it comes to your artistic differences with your principal or with your music director - or even with your fellow section members.

And yet there is one place where your artistic voice is important - the audition committee. In most orchestras, you have the exact same amount of power as your principal in hiring a new player. In some orchestras, you even have power over the music director! As a result, section players may use audition committees for displays of artistic frustration, sometimes about things that are totally unrelated to the audition itself. This isn’t fair to the player’s colleagues, and it is especially unfair to the auditioners themselves, but it does sometimes happen.

As long as I’m throwing some unpleasant audition truths out there, I will throw one more into the mix to conclude this post: As long as there are so many talented musicians out there, trying out for so few orchestral positions, the odds of orchestras not hiring will stay high. There is little or no risk to the Chicago Symphony in holding another audition; they can be sure that many musically qualified candidates will appear. The laws of supply and demand give orchestras little incentive to strongly consider the feelings and needs (or expenses) of auditioning musicians. That is unfortunate for orchestras in general, but it is a a reality that players will have to contend with.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ira Gold interview, Part II

Here's the rest of my interview with Ira Gold:

If you could go back in time and tell your 18- to 22-year-old self something, what would it be?

Take a break! I worked diligently during those years, almost obsessively, perfecting my craft and giving up social opportunities to practice as much as possible. However, there is something to learning about the world, what is happening in your community, and being a part of something outside of your own schedule. I wish I had been more involved in the BU community, maybe even explore Boston more. The friendships and musical bonds that came from my years there are forever lasting, but sometimes you only live in a place once - take advantage of what a city has to offer you.

What changes have you seen in the last 10 years in the bass-playing world that have most surprised you?

Well, my youngest student Ruby, who just turned 9, can play some tunes in thumb position. Yes, that is a true statement. Through the George Vance method, students are exploring the instrument in boundless ways that I didn't experience until the age of 14 or so. I'm sure this has been going on for a while, probably as far back as the late 1980's, early 1990's, but for me, seeing it first hand now, it's extraordinary. I think strings like the Corellis and Bel Cantos have improved young students ability to make a quality tone at an earlier age. Another interesting factoid is how many Rabbath educated or inspired students are landing jobs in orchestras, and what that means for the future of the orchestral bass world. I personally believe that Francois' message of playing with ease, having a bass that is set up to accommodate every note on the fingerboard, and the use of thumb for many of our fast orchestral passages is allowing us to elevate the standard of orchestral playing. Hal Robinson has noted this before, but in conjunction with the ease of play, recent audition winners are also the finest solo bassists. This is what you see with violin and cello winners, bass has moved in to this arena. It is so exciting to be part of this, and see where it goes.

What challenges do young bassists face today that you didn't have to face when you are in school?

I'm sure the competition has always been there, but it seems that there are so many more incredible players now. Between ISB, national workshops, classes, and symposiums, the high standards of educational institutions, and the level of bass playing in orchestras, the culture is shifting. We are living in a bass renaissance, and are so fortunate to be interconnected while it's happening.
Another point I hear about is that traveling with a bass is becoming more difficult and stressful. I had my flight trunk all through my school days and flew everywhere for auditions and sub work. Airlines have changed their policies about weight restrictions for bass, and this has made booking flights with certain airlines from certain cities impossible. I know AFM is working through petitions to correct this, but the process is probably complicated.

What sort of music - other than classical music - do you enjoy listening to?

I go through phases, but rock is always there. I'm a sucker for 70's and 80's rock, something about the whole culture seemed limitless and unleashed. Classical musicians, although under this veil of sophistication, care, and refinement, need to consider when to "explode" or "erupt" an articulation or gesture in the music. I think there is much to learn about emotion through all styles, genres, and configurations of music. Rock gets at the primal nature of sound in a way that we don't experience in orchestra.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ira Gold interview, Part I

I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile about our newest Peabody faculty member, Ira Gold. Ira has been teaching some of our orchestral repertoire classes for the past year at Peabody, but this Fall he has also started his own private teaching studio. We’re excited to have a player of Ira’s talent, background, and skills joining our team, and I think that Ira’s background and approach will be of particular benefit to Peabody bassists. I have pretty good perspective on Ira’s playing and musicianship, having worked with him on my orchestra (the National Symphony Orchestra) for several years now. He’s also a friend of mine, and we’ve been able to talk at length over the years about many topics related to music, teaching, and playing the bass.

Ira’s educational background has exposed him to many of the most renowned and important teachers of bass working today; in particular, his work with Ed Barker in Boston and with Paul Ellison at Rice University have informed many aspects of his playing and teaching philosophies. He is of course an incredible bassist and musician himself, as the evidence of his playing career attests. However, the thing that truly separates Ira from a lot of other young, talented bassists is the degree to which he has thought about how to teach and effectively communicate these skills to others. It’s a truism of music that to be a good player is not always to be a good teacher - the profession is full of folks who have skills to play very well, but for whatever reasons struggle to explain to others how to follow on the path that led them to those abilities. Ira has done the hard work of thinking through and organizing his approach, and he can provide valuable and easily understandable resources for his students to grow and improve.

Ira recently agreed to answer a few interview questions for me, and I certainly found out a few new things about him. Here is a portion of the interview; I’ll post more of it in the near future.

Tell me one story about an experience that you had with one of your own bass teachers that inspired you or changed you as a musician.

When I was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2003, we had a side by side July 4 concert with the fellows sitting next to Boston Symphony players. I had the honor of sharing a stand with my teacher, Edwin Barker. We performed Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and to say it was thrilling, incredible, goosebump-esque, out of this world, would be an understatement. I witnessed, professionalism, care, the highest level of bass playing, and musical sophistication in seeing how Ed played, gestured, and connected with me, the section, and the orchestra at large. He is by far one of the most thoughtful and engaging musicians I have ever met, and his teaching incorporates the same level of awareness and mindfulness when making executive technical and musical decisions. Since this concert came at the end of four years of study, it was a culmination of all the ideas we had worked through, to finally experience first hand the fantastic being that Ed Barker exudes. When the concert finished, I thanked him for the privilege and experience of sitting together, and he said very simply, "I could hear you, Ira, you sounded great!" Thank you Ed, I will never forget the experience.

When did you decide to become a musician? Did you have other career interests or goals that competed with music for you?

I have been playing music since I was three. I played violin, studied the Suzuki method, and quit around the age of 10. After a short battle with drums for a year, I picked up the bass at 12 and have never looked back. It wasn't until the age of 15 that I seriously considered applying to college as a music major, with the dream of going in to the profession. The goal was to attend a fine music school and study with a teacher that had orchestral experience. I thought that if I did that my study of the orchestral repertoire would give me the best opportunity to land a job in a great orchestra. Little did I know that I played my cards right and everything unfolded the way I had anticipated. The specifics of school, teacher, summer festival, etc worked itself out, but the content of that was a visualization turned realization. Like other young men, I played sports, and had interest in them beyond high school. When it came down to deciding about a career, music resonated more strongly with me as something I could do for many decades, as opposed to a short athletic career.

How long have you owned your current bass/basses? What do you like about them? What do you wish were different about them?

My first Italian bass, circa 1850, has been in my life since 2002. I acquired it shortly before my last semester of study at Boston University. I played my senior recital and the Boston Symphony Section Bass audition with this new instrument, and it was a huge leap from the modern Romanian bass I was playing at the time. The Italian, formerly known as Tyrone, now known as Tyra, since having the Laborie endpin hole installed, is a beautiful chocolate brown color, and the sound is similar in description. The shoulders are extremely easy to get around, despite the bottom bout being much wider.

I have had numerous successful auditions, recitals, and competitions on this bass, and it has been a friend to me. The ironic part of all this is that it was previously owned by H. Stevens Brewster, the former Principal Bass of the National Symphony before Hal Robinson took the post in 1985. Mr. Brewster sold the bass to a student, who, went to grad school at Rice University, studying with Paul Ellison, and then became an established jazz musician in Houston. Then the bass goes back to Rice University, but now in my hands, as I study with Mr. Ellison, and then back to the NSO in 2005.

I recently purchased another fine Italian bass, also from the mid 19th century. This one is even smaller than Tyra, and also a wonderful sound throughout. It was owned by the late Kenneth Harper, former Assistant Principal Bassist with the Colorado Symphony. Ken was my teacher for two summers at the International Festival Institute at Round Top, and we stayed friends for years. Ken was one of those guys that just stayed engaged in lessons, conversation, concerts, without any notion of not being present. He was the most giving teacher I've ever had, and he taught me so much about music, life, and the orchestral world. Ken's bass brings me joy, not only because it is one of the finest basses I've ever played, but because Ken's spirit is very much a part of the sound, vibration, and character of the instrument.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is it happening?....

Is it true? Has Summer actually ended? Are we actually starting the Fall Semester at Peabody? It would appear that it's actually happening... While details are hazy, I do distinctly recall hearing four hours of ensemble auditions the other day... and my teaching calendar does seem to have actual lessons scheduled on it. Alright, I'm a believer - let's do this thing!

This year is going to be an action-packed one at Peabody Bassland as per usual. 22 bass students will be haunting our little square block in Baltimore this Fall, attending classes and generally being amazing. As things are currently structured, there will be either a recital, solo repertoire class, or teaching day with Hal Robinson once every two weeks. And that's just for starters - once students begin scheduling degree recitals, playing in chamber groups, and thinking up other crazy projects, the schedule will grow even denser. And that's not counting all the weekly lessons, orchestra classes, and orchestra rehearsals.

As with last year, our four days of classes with Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bass Hal Robinson will no doubt end up as highlights this year. While the class details are still being finalized, we're pretty excited about the topics and concepts that he will be addressing with all of us. And I do mean all of us, faculty and student alike - I have absorbed some great new ideas myself from hearing what Hal is exploring in his own playing. Check our Facebook page for all the details regarding Hal's classes - many portions are open to the public and well worth checking out.But Hal's not the only excitement we've got going on. As mentioned before, Peabody bass students are a busy bunch, full of plots and schemes. I'm quite certain they'll be cooking up some good stuff! As far as scheduled good stuff, be sure to make a note of our four departmental bass recitals, on October 17th, December 5, March 6, and April 17th. We'll keep you posted here and on Facebook as other events get scheduled.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Toughest Question, Part 3

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to post! My apologies....

In the first part of this series, we look
ed at things that might keep us from asking ourselves the following very challenging question:

Do I have what it takes to be a professional bass player?

In the second part, we moved on to considering how and from whom we might collect information that could help us answer this question.

So.... it’s decision time! How do we get a grip on this question and start coming up with an answer?

Let’s start with the logic part. Here are some parts of this question that actually have an empirical element - that is, they actually relate to things that we can verify in the real world.

Talent: OK, this is of course partly subjective - there are many parts of musical talent out there and no two people agree exactly on what they are! That said, some aspects of musical talent are not so subjective. If you are consistently told that you play well in tune and have a good ear, that is a big plus for your musical future. If you make relatively few mistakes when sightreading (a skill that researchers increasingly think isn’t all that teachable), that’s another plus in your column. If you can consistently count and play in rhythm, another plus! Please don’t think we’re talking about perfection in any of these areas - no person on Earth is perfect at any of these skills. But people who are still struggling with the basics in these areas, especially by the time they are applying to music school, need to take a hard look at why that is and what that may mean for their future.

Money: This is the toughest part of this decision for me to write about, because it’s inherently unfair (since talent and money aren’t always distributed in equal amounts to everyone!). But it would be unfair to ignore it or pretend that it wasn’t a real factor. Being a musician is expensive. Taking private lessons is expensive. Getting a reasonably good bass or bow is expensive. Going to college is expensive, even if you manage to get a big scholarship. Going to a great summer music festival instead of working at CVS over the Summer is expensive. Flying around the country to auditions with your bass is expensive! While none of these things on their own have to be an obstacle to your musical career, it’s smart to consider what your financial options are, even before you go to music school. Especially in the performance area, you should not assume that you will be making much money in the years immediately following your graduation from school. I have seen bass students go to college with no realistic plans in place for how they will pay for their future instruments or for further training, with frustrating and often embittering results later when they can’t make ends meet. This doesn’t mean that you have to be rich to be a musician (although it doesn’t hurt), but it does mean that you shouldn’t be a Pollyanna about how you will manage your money.

Academic Skills: “Wait!”, you say. “Isn’t the whole point of going to music school that I won’t have to take all those academic classes?” Well, yes, to a point. But the reality is that you do indeed have to take academic classes to get a bachelors’ degree, even at the most elite conservatory. And even if you don’t much care for those classes, you still have to pass them - and you certainly don’t want them causing you unnecessary stress or distracting you from your performance work. And of course, you may be attending a university for your musical studies, where your academic load will be more challenging. Plus, many of the skills that help you do well in academics - organization, quickly ingesting new data - are a huge help in some aspects of music. Besides, no matter how many musicians say otherwise, I feel strongly that having good knowledge of things like theory and music history are actually pretty helpful in building and hanging on to a good performance career. Not to mention being able to do things like write a good grant proposal for your chamber group....

Now, on to the less logical part. These two questions depend on your view of yourself and your personality, as well as how other people see you:

Organization/Problem-Solving: Musicians have to be problem-solvers, always trying to find answers to further improve their skills as a player. Unlike some academic classes, where often merely memorizing and recycling information given to you by a teacher is enough to do fairly well, a musician has to be able to figure out how to use their own body and brain to accomplish very tricky and complex tasks. If you are a more passive learner, this can be make growth and success as a musician more difficult.

Musicality: Are you a “musical person?” This question is meant to cover the non-empirical side of music-making - that quality that shines through in a good performer even if their chops aren’t in the best of shape. Do people like to hear you play? Do people seem to have a (hopefully positive!) emotional reaction to your playing? We need to rely on others’ views of our playing in this area to get a sense of our own innate musicality, but also to remember that this is a very hard thing to get a solid answer on.

And finally, we tackle the big one:

Passion and Drive: It’s certainly one of the most-repeated cliches in the business, but it’s true: perseverance is the #1 trait that I see in successful music students who move on to be happy in their careers. This perseverance can be seen in various areas:

- a passion to have a certain musical career (“I always wanted to play viola in a string quartet more than anything”);
- a passion to perform at the highest professional level (“I’m gonna solo with the New York Phil someday!”)
- a passion to finish what you start (“I’m gonna figure out this bowstroke if it kills me!”)
- a passion to play a certain type of music (“without bebop in my life every day I can’t function.”)
- a passion to play your instrument as much as you can (If I don’t practice 4 hours a day I get grumpy!”)
- a passion that expresses itself competitively (“I wanna be the best player in my school.”)
- a passion for always exploring and improving your playing (“I found four new fingerings for my concerto today.”)

Not everyone will have all of these passions - if you did I think you’d be a pretty unpleasant person to be around. However, most successful musicians have a very deep need on some level that drives them on to constantly work towards their musical goals, especially when that means making personal sacrifices in other areas of their lives. You’ve gotta want it bad!

So: look at all these areas. Do you feel like you’ve got ‘em all covered? If you see some areas where there are struggles, do you feel like you can make a plan to improve in or overcome whatever issues or problems you face? Going into music as a profession is a bold and somewhat foolhardy act, even under the best of circumstances, and no one goes into it with any sort of guarantees of success and an easy cruise to full employment and musical satisfaction. But taking some time to think through your own skills, strengths, and weaknesses can help you figure out if making that leap is the right choice for you.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Toughest Question, Part 2

In Part 1, we looked at fears that keep us from asking ourselves the toughest question that we all must face as musicians looking to have a professional career:

Do I have what it takes?

In this part, we’ll look at the next step in the process:

After we ask ourselves, who else should we ask this question?

I think that the best way to start looking at this is to flip it over and look at it from the other side. What do we need to have in order to succeed as a professional musician? Here are few I think are important. Some are more essential than others, and some aren’t strictly necessary, but they all make success in music more likely:

- Musical talent, including but not limited to a good ear, a sense of good sound, and rhythmic skill. We all can work to improve in these areas, but if you have major deficits in any of them it can be very tough to catch up to the necessary levels for career success.

- An ability to effectively organize one’s own work and practicing.

- A strong drive to succeed - this can mean having a competitive nature, but it primarily means an intense need to complete any task that one starts, and a desire to always do one’s very best.

- A supportive family and friends.

- Adequate financial resources to help pay for school and to afford a good instrument and necessary supplies.

- Good academic skills so that your school work doesn’t take up too much time or effort.

I’m sure that you can think of more things to add to this list, but these are a good group to start with. Ask yourself: Who from among my friends, teachers, and family knows me well enough to tell me whether I have some of these things? The answer may be different for each item on the list. Your music teacher is probably a good source for an assessment of your musical talent, but may not know much about your financial situation or your academic talents. Your parents may be highly supportive and you may have lots of financial resources, but they may not be well qualified to tell you whether you have good intonation.

As you think of people whom you feel could offer you some insight on these questions, go ask them. When you do, try to be specific and explain that you’re trying to figure out whether to choose a music career - this way they can make sure their answers reflect on your goals and don’t end up getting off topic. I encourage many students to ask for answers in a written form - usually email. Face-to-face or telephone conversations by their nature can sometimes make it difficult for people to express thoughts that they might be uncomfortable with, and it can also be harder to organize your thoughts when you’re in a conversation with someone. You want to person you’re asking to have a chance to reflect and pick the right words to express their feelings and opinions. It also can help to have a written text to refer to later. When we don’t have a written record, we can forget or even unconsciously reinterpret what someone said to us.

No one person knows everything about you or completely understands you, and you shouldn’t base your decisions about your career on any one person’s opinion. It’s even possible that someone may give you an incomplete, biased, or even dishonest answer to your questions, for reasons good and bad. But it’s just as true that none of us can ever have a totally accurate picture of ourselves! We need the opinions of others to help us make important decisions, and by collecting the views of others we can start to get a sense of whether our own self-image is accurate or whether we need to reconsider some of our beliefs about ourselves.

In the next section, we’ll take a look at how to start to use all this information and self-reflection to make the best decision we can about our futures in music.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Must-read post on

I had actually just finished the next segment of the "Toughest Question" series when I read this incredible post by Jason Heath. This post is a must-read for aspiring musicians at almost any place in their careers - deciding whether to be a musician, in the midst of their studies, or even an old wizened professional like me! Check it out.... I'll post my new stuff in a couple of days.