Saturday, September 29, 2007

Shopping for a Music School, Part III: Orchestra and Chamber Music

by JW

As a music performance student, you’ll probably spend more of your “work” time practicing and working on your private teacher’s assignments than on anything else. The thing you’re likely to spend the second largest block of time on is your orchestra or other ensemble classes. School orchestras are often misunderstood. Students often see their orchestra requirement as:

- a “gig,” something they need to do to appease the school and earn their scholarship. When you’re grinding through a boring opera rehearsal it can certainly seem that way.

- An activity, something they enjoy and do primarily for their own musical enjoyment. We all want orchestra to be fun, but it probably won’t be all the time.

- A PR organization, presenting concerts to encourage community involvement in the school, get in the local paper, and entertain the trustees.

Parents and school administrators can also see orchestra as one or more of these things, although they may assign them different values than students. For example, to a college administrator, the school orchestra is indeed sometimes a PR organization or scholarship requirement. That's fine, but that has to do with the orchestra's role is satisfying their needs, not yours.

The thing I encourage all prospective (and current!) music students to remember is that your school ensemble is a class. Playing in a large ensemble requires developing specialized skills – figuring out how to find and agree on tempo with 100 other musicians in an instant, learning which notes on the bassoon tend to be sharp, learning how to hear and adjust your pitch while everyone is playing fortissimo, and many others. Your school ensemble should help you acquire these skills, and hopefully the conductor should focus his rehearsal time not only on learning the music in front of you, but on teaching you how to learn the music in front of you. Sadly, some college orchestra programs fall short in this area; finding those that don’t can mean the difference between a great orchestra experience in school and an OK one.

If you can work it out, go see a rehearsal of the orchestra or other ensembles at the schools you are interested in. Try to contact students and ask them about the orchestra experience at the school. Try to see if the orchestra is something that you can see as a learning experience, and not just a place to play through orchestral rep.

Many of these same principles apply to chamber music. Almost all schools have a chamber music requirement for undergraduate and graduate students, and that program should also ideally be a learning experience for you. Inquire about it as well. How many coachings do you get with the faculty? Who are they and what is the experience of working with them like? All these questions can help you glean some important nuggets of information as you consider your choices.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Awesome Power of the Intertubes

by JW

Truly the Internet is mighty! This morning over coffee I finally made successful Ichat Video contact with Peabody bass student Mr. Lee Philip, who was just preparing for a night on the town, that town being Singapore, where he is spending the semester at our sister school, Yong Siew Toh Conservatory. As his tiny, grainy image appeared on my screen, I thought, "Yes! Finally this damn thing is gonna do what it's supposed to!" Then we discovered that, while Lee could also see me, he could not hear me at all, resulting in our having the immensely pleasurable experience of watching each other type IMs to each other on opposite sides of the world. I could hear Lee, so I was treated to the gentle click of fingers on keyboard. We're going to try again with Skype and see if we have better luck.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


by JW

I get inspired by music from all sorts of places. I have long been a big fan of Bjork, the Icelandic singer/songwriter, so when I learned of Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra I knew I had to check it out. This big band plays original arrangements of Bjork songs and has made appearances all over the place. So, I hauled myself down to Annapolis on Sunday night after a long day at Peabody to hear them do a set before a small but appreciative crowd...

The show was a lot of fun, with some great playing from the band. The arrangements were a mixed bag, but it was really fun to hear Bjork in this context. If you like Bjork, or even if you aren’t sure if you do, check ‘em out!

The thing that truly inspired me about the concert was seeing someone being truly creative with the material and really finding some great musical ideas in it beyond what I already had experienced. I knew all the Bjork originals that the band used quite well, but hearing these arrangements opened up some great elements of these songs that I had never really considered. Their version of “Joga” from “Homogenic,” for example, opens up the richness of the harmonies, and the intensity of the horn sound gave the music an energy that the more sedate, dreamy string sound on the original doesn’t have.

As a classical musician, I play a lot of the same music over and over. In fact, a core value of a lot of classical performances is precisely how exactly they reproduce what we “expect” from the music. Lots of classical ensembles and players aim for precisely this, resulting in a string of unmemorable and repetitive symphonies and concerti squeezed out of the classical toothpaste tube. As a teacher, I teach a lot of the same material over and over as well, which is not a bad thing; there’s a lot of music that we need to learn as bass players to function professionally, and there are certain pieces that are great teaching tools for certain key concepts. Also, when we’re at a stage in our development where we are focusing on our technical work, we often need to favor consistency over variety in our sound and style!

It can be all too easy to slip into habitual and unimaginative playing of repertoire standards. I need to remember to dig a layer down and find some new stuff to explore. The music I play is some of the greatest in history, and there’s plenty of stuff to work with. Even when the music is not my favorite, I still need to do the work to find some good ideas in there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Harmonics and the Bow

by JH

A favorite topic of mine is about harmonics. Harmonics are where science and nature meet music. We are lucky as string players and especially as bass player that we are able to see the harmonic divisions occurring. Harmonics help us organize fingering systems. Harmonics also can help us to determine optimal bow placement.
1. The note that is two octaves above any open string is at a point which is one- quarter of the string length away from the bridge. Bowing an open string at this point creates a very pure soft sound since the string is vibrating mostly in one, two, and four parts.
2. Another fairly pure sound is created by bowing at the point which is one-sixth of the string length away from the bridge, the place of the harmonic which is two octave and a fifth above the open string. Bowing the string at this point causes the string to vibrate mostly in one, two, three and six parts.
3. Another pure yet brighter sound is created by bowing the open string at the point which is at the three octave harmonic, or one-eighth of the total string length away from the bridge.
Obviously if a note is stopped, the string length is shorter, and the fractions of that stopped string length are smaller. To maintain a consistent sound, the bow needs to travel nearer and further from the bridge, in order to stay at the two octave, two octave and fifth, or three octave mark above the stopped string length. The sound in #1 above is appropriate for an excerpt such as the opening of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. #2 is good for fuller dynamics when a fast bow is desired. #3 is good for strong dynamics and requires a slower bow. This is good placement for an excerpt such as #9 in Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben”.
There are other bow placements that work for other sounds, but knowing these three sounds is basic. Maybe next time I will share some ideas about how this relates to right hand placement for pizzicato. Practice well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Shopping for a Music School, Part II: Researching Teachers

It is a truism heard by most music school applicants at some point: “Don’t worry about the school, just get the best teacher.” It’s a statement with a lot of truth to it. Music performance is an art that stubbornly resists efforts to turn it into a classroom subject. It is such a complex and all-encompassing discipline that it has to be taught in a one-to-one setting. Your studio instructor will be the center of your musical education, and to be successful you need to find one who will guide and support you.

What do I think we need to look for in a teacher?

- Successful and satisfied former and current students. Talk to current and former students of the teacher. Did they come to that teacher looking for the same things you are looking for? Do they feel they got those things? What are that teacher’s students doing after they leave him or her? Are they things you want to do eventually?
- A teacher who comes from good teaching. No one is (or should be) a carbon copy of his or her own teacher. And some wonderful teachers and players can come from a less-than-fantastic teacher themselves. However, we are all influenced by our teachers, and your future teacher probably was influenced by theirs. Who were they? What was their philosophy and style?
- A teacher who will be dedicated to your goals. Many good teachers will give us good advice and explain good technical and musical concepts to us, but not every teacher will stick with us as we go through to hard work of internalizing and perfecting those concepts. Is the teacher interested in their students’ goals, and do they individualize their approach for each student?
- A teacher you can trust and respect. For all of us, there are times in our learning process that we need to simply take what our teachers say on faith. Often it will take months or even years of work before we can fully internalize and understand a concept that we are taught. If we harbor doubts about the basic trustworthiness of our teacher, it makes that faith difficult to maintain, and hampers our growth.
- A teacher you like. You’ll be spending a lot of time alone with your teacher, and you’ll enjoy the process of learning more if you don’t grimace at the thought of spending an hour alone in a small room with them! This isn’t absolutely essential, and music lore is full of stories of the famous, cruel teacher and his terrorized students, who all adored him. I’m not sure all those stories are accurate, but even if they are, they don’t constitute the majority in my opinion. It certainly doesn’t hurt to like your teacher!

Which brings us to Prof Weisner’s Second Rule:

When it comes to teachers, test drive and check the ratings before you buy.

As much as possible, I encourage music school applicants to have at least one trial lesson before applying to a particular teacher’s studio. Many teachers are busy people and this can be difficult to do, but do your best to make it happen. In conjunction or separately from the lesson, have an extensive discussion/interview with the teacher. If they are too busy for a phone conversation, email can be a great method here. Based on your thoughts about your goals and issues, ask the teacher what he thinks about them and how he might help you work on them. I often recommend writing down a list of questions for the teacher before you speak with them so that you are sure that you’ve covered all your questions. You should also try to contact current and former students of the teacher and ask similar questions. I recommend trying to talk to more than one former or current student, and not placing too much weight on any one student’s opinion. Every teacher has certain students that they had a special bond with, and others that just didn’t ever work out well. Some of that may be the teacher’s doing, some may be the student’s, and some may just be other life circumstances unrelated to either person. By speaking to a group of students, you can hopefully get a more balanced perspective on their teacher.

Some of this may sound a little nosey or inappropriate; I don’t think it is at all. You and your parents are making an important choice for your future and you need to understand your options as thoroughly as you can. I’ve heard more than a few horror stories of students who graduated from a particular school bitter and unhappy about their experience after they made a teacher choice without meeting or learning about them. While there are no guarantees in life, there are more and less informed decisions and you owe yourself an informed one on this important topic. You have every right to know what you can and can’t expect to get from a teacher.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shopping for a music school - Intro and Part I

by JW

Around this time of year, we start getting calls and emails from bass students who are interested in Peabody. They have often heard about the school either by reputation or through an alumnus or current student. Or they may know of a particular faculty member in which they are interested. They often want to meet with one of more of us for a lesson or just to discuss their options.

A lot of these students aren’t really sure of what they are looking for in a school. This is understandable. While high schools have lots of resources available to help students seeking a traditional academic degree, the student who wants to pursue a serious career in music performance is often pretty much on his or her own. Many guidance and college counselors don’t know what is involved in selecting a teacher or program, and sometimes even offer actively unhelpful advice. Parents, assuming they support their child’s musical passions at all, are often not musicians themselves and don’t always have a lot of experience to draw on. If you are a serious music student interested in a performance career and looking to attend a top music program, both generally and for your instrument or voice, you are often have to do a lot of your own heavy lifting when it comes to researching your school choices. Even your music teachers, who can usually offer the most support and help in your search, may not have the breadth of knowledge you ideally need.

I’m going to be posting intermittently over the next few weeks on this topic. As someone who went through this process myself when I was a student, and now participates in it on the other side at Peabody, I hope to offer some ideas that can minimize the stress and confusion and help you focus on what options really work for your needs.

I’m not going to focus much on the issues that all college applicants have in common, such as:

- Large vs. small schools
- Regional preferences
- Academic requirements
- Affordability and financial aid issues
- Applications and essays etc.

There are plenty of resources available for learning about these topics and music students should certainly consider them seriously when choosing a school. I will instead take a look at the issues of musical curriculum and learning that your average college guide won’t mention. I’m going to use bassists as an example when necessary because that’s who’s most likely to be reading this site, but most of these ideas apply to all music performance applicants.

Part I: What do you want?

Saying “I want to be a musician” can mean a lot of things when it comes to the choices we make in life. Choosing a musical career path means dedicating oneself to a lot of hard work, personal discipline, and sacrifice. It also usually means some disappointment and frustration, no matter what area of music you’re in. The number of musicians who have built a successful and happy career without going through some periods of struggle and difficulty is unfortunately pretty small.

There’s lots of talk in the music world these days about how today’s performers need to be more ready to work in a multifaceted and increasingly complex job market. The hot buzzwords of the day are “diverse” and “adaptable.” There is a lot of truth to these statements! Jason Heath’s excellent blog series “Musician Without an Expense Account” offers some very interesting perspectives on this topic. (I don’t agree with everything he says in this series, but that’s a topic for another day….) The number of full-time symphonic jobs is certainly not getting much larger, and the competition for them is only getting tougher. The same is true for full-time teaching positions at colleges and universities.

However, this diversity approach can neglect one key truth: while you may have to be able to do more things to be a full time musician, you still have to be able to do what you needed to do back in the “old days” when orchestra jobs were more plentiful – play well. If today’s young musicians have to play (and teach) all styles of music and run a website/company/teaching studio as well, they are going to have to be even stronger players than past generations were. Which leads us to Prof Weisner’s First Rule for Prospective College Musicians:

Look for a school that will best help you build the core skills you need to play the types the music you want to play professionally.

Attaining the technical standards expected of musicians today requires a lot of work. A classical bassist needs at a minimum:
- excellent intonation
- solid rhythm
- a command of all bow strokes
- an appealing and flexible vibrato
- and an ability to understand (and perform well in) a wide range of musical styles

Jazz players also need great improvisatory skills, plus an even greater command of pizzicato techniques.

Look at this list. Where do you see your strengths and weaknesses? What does your teacher tell you every week that you need to work on? Be honest with yourself – before you can pick the right school you need to know what you need! I am always impressed by applicants to Peabody who honestly tell me what their problem areas are when I ask them at their audition (and I almost always do). They usually have solid, realistic long-term goals and are mature enough to achieve them.

Putting in some time to understanding what you want is one of the best investments you can make in your education. Many schools (including some of the most prestigious and well-known ones) may not in the end be the best environment for you to grow in. Being able to ask the right questions as you research schools and teachers will bring you the answers you need.

In Part II we'll look at private teachers and how to find ones that will work for you.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Year Begins - Seating Auditions

by JW

The first official event of the year for the bass department is seating auditions for the two Peabody orchestras. All the students receive the required list of excerpts over the summer and play them, along with a solo, for the faculty, the orchestra conductor, and the chamber music coordinator. After everyone has played, we consult together and work out assignments for orchestra seatings.

Auditions are seldom fun for most folks, but it's a good way to start the year on many levels. It lets us see what all the students have been doing bass-wise on their summer vacation. Some students have been at various music festivals and camps, while others may have just stayed home and practiced. In any event, it's always fun for me to see the progress various students have made. Sometimes, getting away from school and its constant workload and pressures is just what a student needs to make a huge leap forward.

I also like starting the year with an audition because it says: back to work, everyone! Auditioning well is a key part of what we are teaching here, so why not begin the year by reminding ourselves of what that experience is all about?

Afterwards, we have a department meeting in Bassland. We cover various items of business and take a department photo. You'll see it up soon somewhere on the front page of the Peabody bass department website ( Then, Paul Johnson asks THE QUESTION. It is always interesting, sometimes mysterious, and occasionally downright disturbing. I cannot reveal this year's version here - it is a secret only for the initiates. THE QUESTION itself changes every year, but it always begins the year for us at Peabody, and no one can ask it but Paul....

Sunday, September 2, 2007


Hello and welcome to PBDB! This blog is, to our knowledge, the first group blog by the entire bass faculty of a music school. We’re making history! (Well, bass blog history, anyway.) We hope to use this space to share our thoughts, experiences, and views on a wide range of subjects related to bass playing, learning, and teaching. We’ll also be posting about what’s going on bass-wise here at Peabody. And, given our natures, I wouldn’t be surprised to se a few posts on some random topics only marginally related to music. We’ll also be having some student guest bloggers from time to time.

Our goal in starting this blog is sort of twofold. From our direction going out, we want to share what we do and think about here in Baltimore, and share it with folks. But we also hope to get some flow from the outside in as well, hearing from you about what we write, or just sharing your thoughts and questions with us. Conservatory faculty traditionally have a stuffy and sort of unapproachable quality – that classic ivory tower feel. Perhaps we can use this blog to demystify ourselves a bit and let you all see what we’re about.

We will each blog under our own names, although certain posts of a more informational nature can be assumed to be from all of us. Mr. Weisner, who already spends way too much time online reading blogs, will be the “lead” poster and will do most of the maintenance work.

We already have some good material lined up for the blog. Mr Weisner will be posting a multipart series about what applicants should look for in a music school, which is a hot topic for a lot of people this time of year. Lee Philip, a senior at Peabody and a student of Mr. Hood’s, is spending this semester at Peabody’s sister school, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in Singapore. He will be guest blogging about his experiences here. Mr. Johnson has promised some interesting thoughts on some books he’s read that have applications to our musical lives. Plus, I suspect some photo and video content may appear on the site fairly soon.

We should mention at this point that Peabody has an excellent website at where you can learn a lot about the school and about us. Our departmental site, found under “strings,” has lots of general info about our program. Mr. Weisner briefly blogged on that site, but he is closing that effort down to focus on PBDB.

Enjoy and thanks for checking us out.