Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Peabody Faculty-Artist in Residence Harold Robinson

Here is the official announcement from our Peabody website:

Peabody is pleased to announce the appointment of Harold Hall Robinson, principal bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra and instructor at the Curtis Institute, as Peabody Artist-Faculty in Residence. Beginning in Fall 2009, he will join current Peabody double bass faculty faculty Paul Johnson and Jeffrey Weisner in this newly created position. Mr. Robinson will visit Peabody multiple times over the course of the year for day-long classes, presentations and intensive group lessons with Peabody bass students. Each student will work collaboratively with both their primary teacher and Mr. Robinson to develop their own artistry and musicianship.

We'll have more news on this appointment and what it means for the Peabody bass program soon, both here and on our official website. Feel free to email any of us in the meantime if you have questions.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Does it matter if your teacher doesn’t use the same bowhold as you?

This is a question that is always rattling around out there in Bassland. Many students stress out about the role that the teacher’s bowhold should play in their choice. Many parents of students seem to stress out about it even more than the students!

As with so many questions of this sort, the answer.... depends. However, I will certainly say the following with great certainty: You don’t have to study with a teacher who uses the same bowhold as you. You can learn very effectively from a teacher who uses either bowhold. How do I know? I, who played German bow pretty much exclusively until about four years ago, never studied with a German bow-playing teacher - they’ve all been Frenchies. I know of more than a few successful professional players who can say the same. So it’s certainly possible to develop an effective bow technique from someone who doesn’t use “your” bowhold.

That said, my story is certainly not the norm - most folks play the same bow as their teacher, and most folks keep studying with a teacher who uses the same bowhold even if they go on to study music in college. For their initial teacher this makes perfect sense - of course their teacher will initially train them on the same bowhold that they primarily use if at all possible. For one’s later teachers it is a bit more complex. I suspect that folks gravitate towards later teachers with the same bowhold because they suspect they’ll learn more, plus the teachers tend to more actively recruit students with the same bowhold because they feel they can teach them more effectively. This doesn’t tell us whether these people learned more effectively from these teachers because of the similarity in their bowholds. They might have learned just as much from a teacher with the opposite bowhold. All we know from this is that folks tend to use the same bow as their teachers.

So, which is it? Do bassists tend to study with a “similarly-bowed” teacher because it’s better for learning? Or do they do it out of habit, tradition, or an incorrect belief that it’s better for learning? Or are they one and the same? If you believe a teacher is better for you because they use the same bowhold, won’t you learn more simply because this makes you feel more motivated to learn?

Wow, we’ve gotten deep into the weeds on this! Most of these questions are not really answerable, since to my knowledge no one has done a long-term research study on the topic. I hereby offer it up to any enterprising education major who wants a dissertation idea - let me know your results....

Let’s pull back for a minute and focus instead on a more concrete situation that folks often encounter in the real world. You’re a French bow player applying to music school and you got into two schools that you really like. You’ve checked out both programs and you have met with the teachers you might be studying with. You like what they’re both have to say. One of them plays German and the other French - which one should you study with?

First, you should ask the German bow teacher about his or her views on teaching a French bow player! The teacher may have some good information to offer - perhaps they play both bows very proficiently and just prefer German overall, or perhaps they don’t play French at all and don’t seem to have much interest in exploring it. Either way, you’ll get more information to help you out.

Second, you need to think about how you learn - and more specifically, whether learning by visual imitation is a central part of your learning style. If you need to see someone demonstrate a skill in order to effectively understand how to do it yourself, you may be more of a visual learner. For some, visual learning is a key element of their studies; or others, it is much less important. Some learn more by auditory imitation - they try to reproduce the sound they are hearing from their teachers. For others, learning is more cognitive - they need to understand intellectually what they are trying to accomplish in order to make the most effective progress. For others, learning can be more related to touch and the kinesthetic sense - the sense of where their bodies are in space. Everyone learns by a combination of all these senses, combined with their own experimentation with what they learn.

If you are a more visual learner, then it may be more important for you to actually see your teacher demonstrating things using the same bowhold as you. Without this element, you might have more difficulty learning bow technique. If you don’t focus as much on what you see when you’re in your lessons, but rather how your teacher sounds or what they are saying to you, then it may be less important that your teacher play the same bow as you.

Having spilled so much (digital) ink on this subject, I’ll leave you with a quick summation: In my opinion, it’s not at all essential that your teacher play the same bow as you! I and many others out there who play the bass studied with folks who played a different bowhold than they do, and I think it’s far wiser to study with an excellent, highly respected teacher who plays a different bow than you than to play with a less qualified teacher who plays the same bow as you. However, if you’re choosing among several good teachers, what bow they use could be a factor in your decision, especially if you’re a more visual learner.

What do you think? Write me a comment - I know there are some strongly-held opinions out there on this subject....

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The SAT's of Music continued: Test Prep

Last year, I did some posts about auditioning and how to approach it. You can read them here and here, but to recap the main points:

- Auditions are standardized tests like the SAT.
- Like any standardized test, they don't just test your skills and musicianship, but they also test your skills at taking that particular type of test; just as a very smart person can do poorly at the SAT because it isn't a type of test they excel at, so a good musician can audition poorly because it isn't a type of performance they excel at.
- When we audition, we need to be good at both the material of the test (the music itself) and at the skills that this particular test requires.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm always happy to beat a dead horse a few times, so I'm going to keep working this SAT analogy a bit farther in this post and see if it yields any helpful ideas for auditioners.

How do we prepare for the SAT? Well, the first way is by being good students in the first place. The SAT tests our general knowledge levels and comprehension abilities, and we all acquire those abilities over many years of schooling and life experience. No matter how many test prep courses you might take, you can't get a good SAT score unless you can read, write, and do math.

The other way we prepare is by prepping for the test itself. We learn what sorts of questions get asked. We take sample tests to get a sense of how to approach answering the questions. We work on the questions with a timer to improve our response times. We drill ourselves over and over on the test questions so that our responses to them become more smooth and automatic. If needed, we can take all sorts of organized test-prep courses in which we can get expert assistance at doing all of these things. This side of test prep can often seem annoying and even a waste of time, especially if you know that you have already taken care of the first part of prep (being a good student with good skills). But it's still needed, since the SAT is a required test for most colleges and there is no real alternative offered.

Hmmm, I think this may have been a good dead horse to beat at - these test prep techniques are pretty analogous to what we need to do for auditions!

The first part of SAT prep is about acquiring and internalizing the basic skills that the SAT is testing for. In our work as musicians, we need to have mastered the basics of good playing to be competitive in auditions. We have to be able to play in tune, in time, and with a good basic sound. We need to have mastered all the core technical elements of our instrument. In the case of strings, this would mean bowstrokes, bow distribution and placement, and various systems of fingering and left hand technique. I would say it also means having an understanding of phrasing concepts, music theory and history, and harmony. In other words, it isn't something you can cram for. It takes years of study and work to acquire these skills for all but the most talented few. And unlike the skills we need for the SAT, we aren't all required to learn them to become successful members of society. We have to decide to put in the work to acquire them on our own at some point.

The second part of SAT prep is about learning the structure of the questions, developing a system to answer them, and drilling ourselves so that we will be efficient test-takers and not be hobbled by anxiety or inefficiency. This matches up with most of the "audition prep" techniques that people use to prepare for auditions. We practice the audition material over and over so that it becomes more automatic. We play for people to reproduce the stress levels of an actual audition and to get comments on how to improve. We record ourselves to evaluate the details of our playing. We do mock auditions to practice the exact type of surroundings and situations that the real audition might offer us. And we consult teachers and coaches for expert advice on how to better do all these things.

If we aren't doing as well as we like in auditions, just as in the SATs, we need to ask ourselves whether our problems lie more in the first part of test prep or in the second part. Do we have our core technical skills in order? Are we using our instruments and bodies efficiently and naturally? If not, we may need to spend some time correcting technical problems before we tackle professional auditions. Or do we feel our playing is solid, but nerves or preparation errors are getting in our way? If so, then we need to focus on part two of our prep - making sure that the format and structure of the audition process isn't getting in our way and keeping us from presenting our best work when we audition.

I have encountered students struggling with this issue many times, and have often found that much of their frustration is that they are focused on the wrong half of their audition prep work. They may have done lots and lots of mock (and real!) auditions without addressing a problem with their underlying technique that is holding them back. Or, they may feel like they aren't good musicians when in fact they are - they just need to look at how to keep the audition process from overwhelming them. Making sure that we are not beating our own dead horses when it comes to audition prep can bring better results, and better musicianship overall.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Jeff Turner Master Class next Sunday

Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Bassist Jeffrey Turner will be at Peabody on Sunday, Nov. 9 to present a master class from 1-4 pm in the Cohen Davison Family Theater. Jeff is one of the best players and teachers out there, and has built a fantastic program at Carnegie-Mellon University, as well as Duquesne University. I did some guest teaching there earlier this year and blogged about it here. The class is open to the public so please join us if you're in the area!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Shopping for a music school Part VI - Grad School

Most of the issues that music students face when applying to graduate school are the same ones that undergraduate students face - researching teachers, figuring out what you want from the programs, learning about ensembles at the various schools, etc. But there are some issues that are more unique to grad school applicants, and certainly some issues are far more important to grads than to undergrads. I'm going to create four "case study" grad music school applicants to look at the different issues that they bring up. All of these categories of grad applicants are based on the grad school applicants that we often see at Peabody, as well as on my own student experiences and the experiences of others I've met over the years.

#1: Plugging the Holes

This grad applicant has usually attended a solid undergraduate program and has a good grasp of most technical basics. He or she has also done a pretty good amount of playing over the years in his school ensembles, as well as probably participating in some summer music festivals. However, #1 may have a couple of technique issues holding them back from being ready for professional work. Perhaps they don't feel they've ever mastered their spiccato bowstrokes, or maybe they have difficulty controlling their vibrato. For this applicant, they need to focus first of all on finding the right teacher that can help them work through these issues, and then help them incorporate these changes into their solos and excerpts. It's probably not as important that they be at a school with a great orchestra program, or lots of fascinating music academics (see more on this below). Their two years at grad school will be very teacher-focused, so that should be their emphasis.

#2: Liberal Arts Convert

Applicant #2 went through a liberal arts program, planning to do their music on the side as a hobby, or perhaps as a minor. But at some point, they got bitten by the music bug and decided they wanted to switch to a music focus. Perhaps they did in fact switch majors, or perhaps they finished their original major choice while practicing more on the side. Their playing may be quite strong, and their commitment to music ensures that they will keep strengthening their technique. What they need more is the chance to work with a good ensemble and/or chamber music program, and also that they have opportunities to get some good music theory/history classes in. While they of course will seek a strong teacher, they should probably put extra emphasis on looking into the playing opportunities that they will have at various schools.

#3: On the Circuit

This applicant pretty much has it together professionally: good training, good ensemble experience, and good orchestral audition prep work. They are looking for an environment that will support them as they take orchestral auditions. They need a teacher who can be a great audition coach - a teaching skill that is very different from the skill set you need to work on more basic technique. Some teachers have both of these skills, while others are stronger in one or the other. They also need a school program that will not place a lot of demands on their time so that they will be able to practice, go to auditions, and hopefully seek professional freelance work to pay the bills. They should also consider school location carefully - flying to auditions in expensive and unpleasant, and choosing a school in the Midwest or on the East Coast will place them within driving distance of a lot more professional orchestras.

#4: Playing Catch-Up

Perhaps this applicant wasn't at a very strong undergrad music progam. Perhaps they just slacked off a lot in school. Perhaps their progress was hindered by illness, injury, or personal problems. For whatever reason, they may be arriving at their grad school application process lacking some core technical elements, or needing more ensemble experience. This person needs to first make sure that whatever issues were holding them back in undergrad are worked out before they go to grad school. They don't have the option of wasting time in grad school - they will need to hit the ground running and work hard to make it. They need to do what applicant #1 did, but on steroids - finding a teacher who can give their technique and musical knowledge a full-body workout, and making up for lost time in acquiring ensemble experience.

While of course no student will match any of these categories perfectly, many will find similarities with their experiences. Consider what you really need grad school for and make sure that you have as good a chance as possible to get what you need.

Now, for some general thoughts. Money is usually a stronger issue for grads than undergrads. Parents are often not able to help with graduate school tuition, and students already carrying loans from undergrad don't want to add on even more debt. Besides the standard strategies on getting financial aid, look for schools that are located in places with relatively low costs of living, and research what the gigging opportunities are for you, especially what sort of driving you might have to do to get to those gigs. Gigging can be relatively lucrative, but not if you're spending all your time (time that you should be practicing) driving to gigs in traffic!

Another way to reduce costs and increase your available work time is to look into programs with minimal academic requirements. Many schools - Peabody is one of them - offer some type of degree that offers all the performance requirements of a Masters' degree with few or no academics. This degree is usually cheaper and, for an applicant who doesn't have a strong need or desire for more academic work, can be a great way to get the teaching and ensemble work you need. Peabody's degree is called the Graduate Performance Diploma, but at other schools the name is different; be careful not to confuse this type of degree with an Artist Diploma, which is usually very competitive and oriented towards those contemplating solo careers.

Finally, consider whether grad school is really the right thing for you. If you can find a way to get high-quality teaching on a private basis, you might be better off freelancing - or even working at a non-music job - and practicing independently. This option certainly isn't for everyone, and you shouldn't undertake it if you're not extremely motivated and able to work independently.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Shopping for a Music School, Part V: The Culture

Around this time I like to point readers to the series I wrote about looking at music schools - the various parts are here, here, here, and here. Many seniors in high school and college are looking at their school choices and planning research trips around now, and hopefully some of the ideas I mention in these articles might help.

Upon rereading the series, I've decided to add some new chapters this Fall touching on some other topics related to choosing a school. I'll be doing a chapter especially for grad school applicants later on this month, and one on taking school auditions as well. Here are some thoughts on a mysterious and hard-to-define thing: the culture of a music school.

Any institution as large and long-lasting as a music school develops a culture - a shared set of attitudes and beliefs - that last and are transmitted through the students, faculty and staff of the school. Within that culture are all sorts of subcultures that interact with each other in various ways. Peabody has a culture. Orchestral instrumentalists at Peabody have a subculture. Bassists at Peabody have another subculture. The same is true of every conservatory and music school. That culture colors and effects the experience of students in various ways. In a school with a culture of competition between students, those who thrive on striving to do better than their colleagues do well. Students who thrive in a more collaborative environment may feel isolated and stressed. In a school with an inward-looking culture, students with a strong need for community and continuity will excel, while those needing lots of stimulation and input from the outside world will be frustrated.

What makes up the culture of a music school? Some answers include:

- The personalities and beliefs of its teachers
- The culture of the place where it is physically located
- The history and famous graduates of the school
- The physical characteristics of the campus
- The cultural origins and socioeconomic backgrounds of the students

The degree of importance given to these (and other) categories for each school depends on an impossible-to-define blend of history, choice, and dumb luck. Defining the culture of an institution is a tricky thing, and of course no school or group of people can be simplistically labeled or pigeonholed; every school has people and attitudes of all sorts. And I'm sure that some would argue that even trying to define or discuss these matters is useless and counterproductive. But I feel that trying to understand the basic tendencies of a particular music school can help you consider whether that place would be a good fit for you.

Here are some elements that are often part of music school cultures. You can use them as yardsticks to consider elements of the schools you are looking at. Some of them are offered with more than a little tongue-in-cheekiness.

Community: Do students value their social time together? In some schools, the music students (or bass students in particular) socialize and hang out together outside of classes and practice time; in others, students' social lives may rotate around a wider circle of friends and acquaintances. Some students want the chance to mix with a wide group of friends, while others love the intensity of friendships that can be formed among a smaller group of dedicated fellow musicians.

Competition: Do students feel that they are competing with each other to be the best in the school, or that they are each helping the other to achieve their own personal best? Are there particular venues of competition - juries, concerto competitions, orchestra seatings - where the students focus their competitive fire? Competition is a big part of life as a professional musician, and any school worth attending is going to have chances for students to compete against each other. But for many students, too much competition can be anxiety-producing and counter-productive.

Tradition: Does the school emphasize that its students are joining a great ongoing tradition, or does it focus on how students will impact the future of music? Some students feel pride and belonging in joining a historic tradition, while others enjoy a culture more focused on change and innovation.

Teacher as Mentor/Teacher as Advisor: Do students see their teachers more as mentors to revere and study, or more as advisors or even co-collaborators in their learning? Some students thrive in an atmosphere where the boundary between teacher and student is more sharply and traditionally defined. Others prefer a culture where they can have a more relaxed atmosphere of dialogue with their teachers.

Nerdiness: Let's face it, some of us are just bigger music nerds than others. Hopefully you are at least somewhat music nerdy - you're applying to music school, after all - but maybe you're not as hard-core as that guy in your youth orchestra who literally stays up until 2:30 am listening to bass soloists on YouTube. Some people love an environment entirely focused on their instrument and it's every minutia, while others want to take time off from music nerdiness now and then.

Partyosity: This is of course related to Nerdiness, but certainly isn't always correlative - some of the nerdiest music schools are also big party schools. The key here is not only whether you like to party, but rather how the partying affects the musical life at the school. Some schools have a "work hard play hard" culture where intense partying coexists with intense work. At others, the partying may end up interfering with your musical efforts.

This is of course not an exhaustive list, and it bears repeating that no school is black and white on any of these cultural traits - indeed, people at the school may disagree passionately amongst themselves about whether or not their school has any of these characteristics. Still, it's worth asking students and faculty at the various schools that you are considering about these cultural traits and seeing if their answers tend to match up or not. If they do, it can provide you with some interesting and informative data for your school research. In this area in particular, I recommend not taking any one person's views too strongly. People's attitudes about a place can change over time and be affected by their mood or by minor events. Try to get as large a group of opinions about the school as you can, and then take the average of the opinions you've collected to get an overall sense of things.

No one wants to spend years in an environment that may be stressful to them or that works against their own best path to musical growth. Learning about the culture of a school can give you a sense of what your life might really be like at that school that no amount of glossy brochures from the admissions office can ever reveal.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Know Your Brand

I am a hopeless political junkie, and especially in this election season, I manage to waste astonishingly large amounts of time reading a huge array of political blogs and websites. I pore over polls, read analyses and insider reports, and watch video clips of candidates and pundits. (What can I say? I guess living in DC gets to you after awhile.) Beyond just following the latest news and horse race data, I'm always trying to understand how the "average" voter, if there is such a thing anymore, thinks about politics and elections. I have already figured out that I am an atypical voter - very interested in politics, and generally much more informed about the issues and candidates than most. Because of this, I often feel like I can't understand why the parties and candidates make the choices they make. "Why is Bush saying that? Hasn't everyone seen that clip from the last Judiciary Committee session?", I think. The answer, of course, is that he's not speaking to me and the other 25 nerds who were checking C-SPAN last week. He's speaking to the folks out there who spend very little time following politics, and whose political views are often heavily influenced by the brief soundbites they catch on the TV news.

One thing that political strategists often discuss is brands and branding. In our consumerist society, every candidate and political party is a product, sold in the same way that cars and computers are. A political brand is a gut sense of the basic characteristics and style of a candidate or party, and is a stronger indication of how a voter will behave than are the actual views of the voter on the issues of the day. People have political brand loyalty: A young person who votes Democratic in two elections in a row is very likely to remain loyal to the Democratic "brand" for most of their life. Brand identity can change over time, but only very gradually as events conspire to create a new narrative associated with that brand: some pollsters argue that more and more voters today associate Democrats with fiscal responsibility, certainly a change of brand for the "tax-and-spend" party of old.

There is an analogy here to our playing (you knew there had to be one, right? Why else would I post this?). We each have a "brand" to our playing - a basic set of sound and style characteristics that hold true through everything we play. That brand is created from our core technique elements, the influence of our most important teachers and mentors, and our most basic musical preferences. I make the type of sound that I do on the bass because at some level I like it - it feels right to me, for reasons that I honestly can't even define exactly. It developed through my early years of study and my student days. Even as I have developed a more diverse palette of tone colors and styles in my playing, I still keep one foot (or at least a toe) in this core sound concept that I bring to my musical work.

Most successful politicians are able to connect to voters because they are true to their branding and they believe in and like it. John Kerry was not trusted by many voters because they didn't believe that the brand he was being sold as (tough-guy war hero) was the brand they were hearing when he spoke to them (nerdy policy wonk). Likewise, when we try to play in a way that is too far from our brand - too different from the core sound we like and believe in - we can come across as not "solid" or "consistent" in our performance.

Our brand can change over time. When we hear a performance that deeply affects us, we may incorporate elements of it into our own playing, and as we become more comfortable with those changes, we gradually "own" them, incorporating them into our brand of sound. When I first heard cellist Anner Bylsma, I was transfixed by his musicality and sound concept in his performances of the Bach suites. I feel that my "brand" of Bach playing has changed as a result, although I still don't play Bach exactly like him - that would have been more rebranding than I was comfortable with. But there has definitely been an effect.

Our brand can change over time, and if you are a student player just starting out, you may not even fully know or understand your brand of playing yet. You may not yet have the technique to fully realize the sound that you want. You may still be experimenting with your sound and style. But over time, each of us has to accept and learn to "sell" what truly moves us as musicians.

This is NOT to say that we should adjust our sound and style to the music that we are playing, or that we should play everything the same way! Successful politicians have to sell all sorts of ideas to all sorts of people, and they switch up their style to suit. But in the end, they always come back to their core brand. Likewise, we have to make musical choices that are informed by the history and style of the music we are playing, and by the style and temperament of those whom we are playing with. But if we are always trying to play in a way that we don't really believe in, it will be hard for us to "sell" our performance to the listener.

When talented students who are preparing for orchestral auditions come to me, I often end up addressing this topic. These players usually have great technique, and have studied the excerpts carefully. They know just what is involved in the preparation of every part of the audition. They may have already made it to the finals of many auditions. They are looking for the final ingredient to push themselves to the top and win an orchestra job. In many cases, that ingredient is making sure their playing doesn't veer too far away from their core style and sound. Sometimes players will hear that a particular orchestra likes a certain sound - that they are a "ballsy" orchestra, or a "chamber-music-ey" bass section. They will then try so hard to change their playing to match that concept of sound that they end up losing their brand - the very thing that makes their playing distinctive and enjoyable. I encourage these players to dial back these changes and instead focus on authentically selling what they are about as musicians. In the end, I feel that an audition committee will always be more sold on a sincere presentation of one's core brand than they will by someone trying to sell a playing style that isn't coming naturally from them.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept.: Sound in Motion

Sound in Motion: A Performer's Guide to Greater Musical Expression. By David McGill. Indiana University Press.

Having introduced everybody to the influential and important American pedagogue and oboist Marcel Tabuteau in my last book review, I thought I should review a couple of the books that focus on his teaching and playing methods. Certainly one of the most informative and entertaining of these is “Sound in Motion,” by Chicago Symphony principal bassoonist David McGill. While not a student of Tabuteau himself, he is a Curtis grad who was exposed to Tabuteau’s methods through his own teacher, Tabuteau student John de Lancie, and through his general influence in the Curtis and Philadelphia communities. The book is a well-written and opinionated treatise on almost every aspect of the art of musicianship, taking as its basis the methods of Tabuteau, but moving well beyond into discussions of auditioning, intonation, and an extended section on the Baroque performance movement.

His discussion of the Tabuteau system takes up the first half of the book, and is definitely the most approachable of any I’ve read. He organizes the chapters of this section around core musical concepts - rhythm, harmony, motive, and musical function - showing how Tabuteau’s concepts can help organize and structure each facet of musical analysis. His frequent and clearly organized musical examples are especially effective in showing the many ways that Tabuteau’s system and clarify the musical structure of any line. He shows both idealized examples that work perfectly in the Tabuteau system and real-world excerpts that show that no perfect, all-encompassing “rules” can ever completely define how to approach musicality.

In the second half of the book, he moves gradually away from Tabuteau and into his own views on a vast array of musical topics. A section on specific issues of woodwind playing then moves into a long section headed, appropriately, “Controversy.” In this section he lays out his views on vibrato, tone, intonation, ornamentation, and engages in a long discussion on Baroque performance practice. Without going too extensively into his views on any one of these topics, I would characterize his overall musical worldview as conservative in character and evolutionary in outlook. He idolizes the style of the early- and mid-20th Century Romantic master performers such as Fritz Kreisler and Maria Callas, and has a dim view of most, if not all, of the Baroque performance movement. He makes many valid points about some of the more dogmatic and thoughtless exponents of Baroque style, but in my opinion goes way too far in his criticism, often getting more than a little strident and polemical as he goes after even the very idea that performing on original instruments can be musically equivalent to performance on modern instruments, much less superior:

The baroque performance practice movement of the late twentieth century resurrected many of the original instruments used centuries ago. It is interesting to hear what these extinct instruments sound like with modern players... It can also show us quite clearly why these instruments were improved.

Note the use of the words “extinct” and “improved.”

McGill’s is not an unusual view among many musicians, and few can deny that the rich tradition of performers like Callas and Kreisler are priceless resources for us all to draw from as performers. McGill seems reluctant to consider that the alternate styles that come from Baroque instruments - that indeed come from the very nature of these instruments - can be as enriching and profound in their way as more Romantic styles can be in theirs. He is clearly an intelligent person and a strong advocate for his position, but I come away from the second half of his book with the feeling that he views the evolution of ideas of phrasing and musical expression that differ with the late-Romantic styles of Tabuteau and Callas as distasteful, unnecessary and even dangerous to music. From the section on his recommended listening:

When I tell people about the recordings of the musical artists whom I most admire, I am often met with the question: “Yes, but who do you like who’s alive?” It is disconcerting to hear this question because I believe that, through their recordings, the great performers of the past are as alive today as they ever were.... Their greatness is not related to fad or fashion. It is timeless....

McGill sees an evolution of musical ideas through history (peaking with artists of the early and mid- twentieth century) that, in an almost Darwinian way, led to “better and better” musicality. However, this approach neglects the role of culture and society in musical style, and can turn changes or developments in style - which are real and important - into “improvements” that mean that what came before is by definition inferior.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It has been some time since I have seen any book on musical style and phrasing this good. While I encourage readers to seek out a variety of views on the topics he lists in his “Controversy” section, none of them should be a reason to turn down the opportunity to learn from Mr. McGill. Thought-provoking, well-organized, and well-written, his book is an invaluable resource for anyone who wants to seriously apply themselves to learning greater musicality. Indeed, McGill’s most important point throughout the book is that, by studying the structural elements of music, and by analyzing the core principles that guide great performers like Tabuteau, we can apply basic principles to our own phrasing that can dramatically improve our musicality. Interpretation is not primarily about “feeling” or “talent,” he writes, but about study, logic, and hard work:

Musical expression is not just the posession of the chosen few. By virtue of our innate intelligence and human capacity to express and feel our emotions, we are all born with the potential to be musically expressive... The real talent that leads to musical expression is intelligence. The development of expression is the development of the intellect.

This smart and inspiring book is one that any serious music student or performer should seek out and read.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Great classical music post - what is "elitism?"

I just read this post by Anthony McCarthy on the blog Echidne of the Snakes - a (lefty) political blog in general, but with some occasional fascinating bits of cultural commentary as well. I love what he has to say about the worst part of being a classical musician:

... there is, in fact, a snob audience for classical music who consider it their property, or at least their exclusive franchise. Anyone who has worked in classical music will have run into them. Some who aren’t musicians imagine that one of the greatest pleasures of being a musician, practicing, is the worst part of it. Actually, speaking for myself, it is the after concert reception that is the most brutal form of torture inflicted on musicians. The snobs who frequent and often are the reason for those events can be some of the most trying and obnoxious people in the world and you have to experience them at a time you are absolutely demolished by the experience of performance.

I have often experienced a similar sensation myself at various receptions. The difficult truth that musicians need to always deal with is that many classical music snobs in fact are the reason for the performance - at least financially. When you work in a business that is in perpetual financial crisis and is fueled by the donations of the (mostly) well-to-do, you literally can't afford to in any way alienate anyone who might be in a position to support your performances. And sometimes you get the feeling that what those supporters really enjoy, even more than the performance itself, is the chance to make you listen to how much better than others they are for having attended it. This is by no means the norm for me - most classical music supporters are sincere fans who love and support the art form in many ways, and they usually aren't snobs at all - on the contrary, some of the biggest financial supporters of my orchestra are some of the most down-to-earth and non-elitist people I know. But there are certainly snobs in the mix as well, amongst both donors and listeners to classical music.

Anyone who works in classical music, or who wants to, has to deal with the perception of many that our art form and our work is "elitist." By this they usually seem to mean that we (classical musicians and music lovers) feel that our music is inherently better than other forms, and that by listening to it we place ourselves in a superior cultural position over others. The mistake they make is in conflating complexity and elitism. Classical music is, generally speaking, more complex than most other forms of Western music, harmonically, rhythmically, and structurally. The only other Western musical genre that can equal it is jazz, another art form that is sometimes considered an "elite" taste. But far more important to refuting the elitist charge is to look at a crucial aspect of classical music that is absolutely equal to other forms of music: it can provide the listener or performer with intense emotional and/or even spiritual experiences. I think that the difference between a classical music snob and a classical music fan is that the fan doesn't imply that the emotions one experiences when listening to a Mahler song are any more or less valid than the emotions that one feels when listening to a Bob Dylan song, or a Madonna song for that matter. The fan may argue that the emotional world that the Schubert song can reveal is more rich and complex than the Madonna song, precisely because the musical materials being used are so much more rich and complex. But all music can transmit emotion and express ideas - I have had profound musical experiences while listening to pop songs, jazz sets, and operas. The snob tends to feel that the emotional experience of the Mahler is by definition better than the emotional experience of Madonna because the emotions produced by the Madonna song are "lesser" than the more "refined" emotions of the Mahler. By defining the music as base and common, they make the emotions it produces base and common. But emotions aren't high- or low-class. The experience I have while hearing a pop song I like is just as valid as the experience I have hearing Mahler 5th Symphony, even if one is very different from the other. Classical music elitism, like all elitism, is relativistic; it is obsessed with ensuring that classical music is defined by how much better it is than other types of music. I'm a fan; I just really, really love the stuff, think it reveals unique and important truths, and I want everyone else to have the chance to experience it.

So next time you find yourself at a post-concert reception with a musical elitist, try to respond with some fan spirit! Maybe you'll turn 'em into a fan. It's happened before....

Saturday, August 23, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept.: Marcel Tabuteau - How Do You Expect to Play the Oboe If You Can't Peel a Mushroom?

So who the heck is this guy? Why is this book worthy of any bassists' attention?

If you are interested in anything related to woodwind playing, string playing, phrasing, music education, orchestral performance, musicianship, the history of American orchestras, rhythm, sound, or the Curtis Institute, the name and teachings of Marcel Tabuteau are worth your attention. Marcel Tabuteau was one of the most influential figures in American music teaching from the 1920's until his death in 1966. As one of the founding teachers at the Curtis Institute, he trained generations of leading musicians. He was an oboe virtuoso in his own right and played in many of the great American orchestras, finishing with 49 years in the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski and Ormandy; however, he was not only hugely influential as an oboe teacher. He also taught classes in woodwind and string ensemble work that resulted in his impacting almost every student at Curtis. His ideas of how to approach phrasing and rhythmic groupings are legendary. I've always been very interested in how great teachers approach the challenge on transmitting purely musical concepts of phrasing and musicianship to their students, and Tabuteau's ideas in this area have always piqued my interest.

I was first made aware of Tabuteau years ago through a friend of mine who attended Curtis and was later was a graduate student at Peabody. She wrote her dissertation on Tabuteau's influence on string players at Curtis and awakened an interest on my part in learning more about him. Unfortunately, at the time there wasn't a whole lot of material available that provided any primary source information on Tabuteau. Now, that situation has been corrected, and in spectacular fashion. Laila Storch, one of Tabuteau's only female students during his years at Curtis, has written a massive and surprisingly entertaining book examining Tabuteau's life and career. An intriguing mix of scholarly research, extensive interviews with musicians and family members in the U.S. and France, and Storch's own reminiscences and contacts with Tabuteau over many years, this book delivers a wealth of information on Tabuteau in a format that will intrigue both oboe scholars and musicians wanting to learn more about this amazing teacher and musician.

Storch covers the material relating to Tabuteau's childhood in France, his training at the Paris Conservatoire, and his arrival in the US mostly as a historian and researcher, since there are few friends or colleagues still alive from that time to provide much eyewitness information. But as soon as he arrives in America in 1905, the scholarly tone of the opening chapters slowly begins to mix with interview fragments and reminiscences from former colleagues, students, and friends of Tabuteau. by the time you reach the years when Storch was a student of Tabuteau's the book has transformed into a memoir, featuring reprints of the many years of (often hilarious) letters she wrote home to her parents while studying at Curtis. Then, as Storch graduates and moves on to professional oboe positions and a long teaching career, the book gradually morphs back into a primarily historical document. It's a difficult format to pull off, and the personal memoir material could very easily have been a cloying distraction from the main topic of the novel. (I greatly disliked Martin Goldsmith's book Inextinguishable Symphony for this very reason - his personal commentary on his parents' lives and how they affected him always seemed to intrude into and interrupt the narrative of their experiences as Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany.) Storch manages to mostly succeed where Goldsmith failed, using her personal story and the reminiscences of others to provide insight and revealing anecdotes about Tabuteau, rather than turning the reader's attention towards her.

In fact, Storch's letters home from school are my favorite portion of the book. They provide a first-hand window into the intense, "old-school" teaching environment cultivated by the largely European Curtis faculty, and are also interesting reminders of life during the war years, when rationing and the draft colored everyone's life (the only reason Storch was at Curtis was that there weren't enough available men to recruit due to the draft - she was literally the Rosie the Riveter of oboe!). All the students at Curtis in these early years recall being in constant terror of displeasing their teachers, and it is made clear to all of them that they have essentially no rights or boundaries as regards the faculty - Tabuteau makes his students get his dry cleaning and pick up his groceries.

And they also provide a reminder that there was a time when Curtis was a brand new school struggling to establish its reputation, rather than the eminence grise it is today. Interestingly, much of Tabuteau's teaching methodology came not from the great talent of the Curtis students he was working with, but rather from their often astonishing lack thereof! Tabuteau had to find a way to systematize the teaching of phrasing because there were so many Curtis students in need of his help.

The book is not specifically a textbook dedicated to explaining every detail of Tabuteau's teaching techniques, although it describes many elements of them. The book does include a bonus CD featuring a recording of Tabuteau at the end of his life, playing orchestral excerpts and discussing his musical ideas; it's very hard to discern what he's saying on this recording, but Storch helpfully includes a transcript in the book.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone wanting to encounter and learn from one of the great pedagogues of all time.

Welcome Back

Hi all - PBDB is slowly waking up from its summer semi-hiatus. We're putting some coffee on and getting some new posts set up for the new school year. We're gonna have a busy year at school, with a big and talented incoming class of freshmen and some good recitals and special events in the offing by both students and faculty. We'll be blogging all of that, plus whatever else may cross our minds. Coming up soon: some reviews of a few interesting music-related books I Read on My Summer Vacation. See you soon!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Emergency Summer Blogging - Must See Ira Glass Video

Hello PBDB followers! I apologize for the unannounced summer blogging hiatus. I've been neglecting the blog, but my teeny brain has been churning away with new blog ideas for the Fall. There will be some new posts coming soon, including a book review and more ideas on double bass socialism....

However, as soon as I saw this incredible video on Jason's blog, I had to get it up here ASAP. What Ira Glass says here is a fantastic distillation of what every artist of any sort has to go through in their lives. In the bass world, this video reflects a conversation I've had with many of my students about the meaning of "technique" and why we have to work so hard to get it. Our ability to play the bass is the "how" of our lives as musicians - our means to an end. That end is making the great musical ideas that we have inside come alive for ourselves and our audiences. That end is being able to be a great advocate for our instrument and for the music that we love and feel passionate about. The better our technique is, the more we can give of our musicianship.

That said, it's damn hard to do, and often thankless and frustrating. And that is what Ira Glass describes so convincingly in this video.

Listen to it, and pay extra attention to his advice at the end of the segment. That advice is pure gold.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Double bass socialism Part II: Equipment Fixes for Cheap

by JW

In my last post I looked at the systemic problem: Having great instruments and bows can help you become a better player, but to have the income to afford those instruments, most folks have to already be great players (or independently wealthy). So, what is the young or not-so-young bassist of modest means to do? Over the years, I’ve tried to notice the little things that folks do to their basses to improve the sound and playability of their instruments. Some of these were shown to me by my own teachers, some by my professional colleagues in the NSO and elsewhere, some by random bassists I have met in my travels, and others by various repairpersons and luthiers. All these things are relatively inexpensive things that can improve the equipment that you already have. None of them are going to magically transform your Chinese bass into a priceless old Italian instrument, but they can help, and sometimes by a surprising margin. These fixes don’t all work for everyone, but it’s likely that at least a few of them might help you.

Please note that, by “relatively inexpensive,” I don’t necessarily mean super-cheap – some of the items I mention could cost hundreds of dollars. However, compared to the cost of upgrading your bow or bass, they’re all pretty affordable. I have ranked them in rough order from cheapest to most expensive.

1. Go Balls Out – No, I didn’t name it that! “Balls Out” is shorthand for flipping the ball ends of your strings (the ends that fit into the tailpiece) around so that, instead of being behind the tailpiece, they are on the outside of the tailpiece. This makes the angle of the strings over the bridge sharper, which changes the pressure exerted by the strings on the top of the bass and can have an effect on the sound. My string gurus and advisors recommend only doing this to the upper three strings, for reasons a bit too arcane to go into here (it has to do with relative string tensions – I barely understand it myself).

2. Good Rosin – I often see students with horrifyingly old, dried-out rosin cakes. No matter what sort of rosin you use, if the surface of that rosin is getting dry and powdery, or cracking off in small pieces, then it’s probably time to invest in a new cake. This is especially true with Pop’s and other lighter, softer rosins.

3. Protect your Rosin – To prevent problem #2, keep your rosin in a plastic case with an airtight seal. Some rosins are sold in plastic cases, but many are sold in cardboard cases that can let the rosin get too dry. Put these rosins in a small plastic container with a snap-on lid – I use a small size Gladware container myself. I’ve seen similar size containers at stores like The Container Store.

4. Lead Tape – If your bow doesn’t bounce well or get the sound you want, it might just need a little weight added at the tip or frog for better balance. A great way to do this is to use some of the lead-lined tape that tennis players use to adjust the weight of their rackets. It’s adhesive-backed and can be cut to precisely the right size and shape. (If you use it on your frog, you might want to cover it with adhesive tape so that your hand won’t be rubbing up against lead all day…) Experiment with your teacher to find the right amount and location. It’s inexpensive and sold in tennis shops and sporting goods stores, and you won’t need much.

5. Close those Seams and Cracks – Lots of basses can pop open here and there. Some instruments have certain seams that open on a regular basis. Gluing these seams shut can improve instrument resonance, as can of course fixing any cracks.

6. Basic Setup Issues – how long has it really been since you had your soundpost checked by your trusted luthier or shop? Soundposts and bridges can migrate quite a lot on some instruments, and we need to keep them in line. Make sure that your soundpost is the correct length as well, and that it’s in good, firm contact with the top and bottom of your bass.

7. The Endpin – The materials, size, and shape of your endpin can have a surprisingly large impact on the sound of some basses. The first, and less “invasive” option, is to replace your steel or other metal endpin with a carbon-fiber endpin. There are several types of these endpins, most of which are designed to fit the 10 mm Goetz-style endpin housings. They come in different densities and lengths. Find a shop that carries them and try one out to see its effect on your bass. I find that they can be especially helpful with basses that might be a little tight or unresponsive, opening up the sound and giving the strings a slightly looser feel. The second and more involved option is to consider obtaining a Christian Laborie-style endpin for your bass. This involves drilling a tapered hole into the endpin block at an angle and inserting a wood or carbon fiber endpin into it. More and more shops and luthiers are able and willing to do this alteration in your instrument, but it will require some significant adjustments in your playing and should only be considered if you are working with a supportive teacher who can help you with this. By the way, you can often use a Laborie endpin for either sitting or standing….

8. Saddle Up – the tailpiece rests against the bottom of the bass on a beveled piece of hardwood called the saddle. Most saddles are very low, snuggled right up against the bass. By putting a new saddle on your bass that sticks up higher off of the bass, you create a more shallow angle of the strings relative to the bridge, which can reduce the pressure on the top and improve the openness and volume of your instrument.

9. Wear Nylon – Replace your metal tailpiece wire with a nylon or other non-metallic wire. This can change the pressure on the top.

10. One Wire – Some luthiers will set up your tailpiece with only one wire with loops on both ends, rather than having two wires that meet to make one large loop. This allows the tailpiece to move more freely and can affect the sound.

11. All Wire – Some teachers, most notably Albert Laszlo of Juilliard, advocate removing the tailpiece completely. A wire runs directly from the saddle to a set of four wires that hold the balls of the strings.

12. Strings, Strings, Strings – It is sad that this option has become the most expensive way to explore your instrument, but such are the ways of exchange rates and economic ups and downs. The only good news in the area of strings is that there are more and better choices available to bassists today than ever before, and there is probably a string set (or combination of string types) that will get more of what you want out of your bass. Hopefully I’ll be able to blog a bit more on strings in the future – they deserve a post unto themselves.

I hope at least a few of these sound like things you could try out yourself. If you know some more cheap fixes for your instrument or bow, please don’t keep it to yourself – drop me a line or just comment on this post.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mock Audition Day

The trees of Baltimore are leafy, the cars covered with a thin coating of pollen, the weather is balmy and delightful. This can mean only one thing – the Spring semester is almost over! Which can also mean only one thing – it’s once again time for Peabody Mock Audition Day and juries! It feels like the orchestral classes have really flown by this semester for some reason.

Here’s the list of pieces we covered this semester in orchestra rep class:

Beethoven: Symphony no. 7
Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection,” 1st mvt.
Haydn: Symphony no. 88
Britten: Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra
Haydn: Symphony no. 31 “Hornsignal,” bass solo
Haydn: Symphony no. 8 “Le Matin,” bass solo
Brahms: Symphony no. 2

From these pieces the following excerpts were selected for the “short list” that will be required for the mock audition:

Beethoven: 1st mvt., 8 after G to 22 after I
Mahler: opening to reh. 2
Haydn no. 88: 1st mvt., opening to double bar after “A”; last mvt., 10 before B to 15 before C
Britten: Variation H complete
Haydn no. 31: complete solo
Brahms: 1st mvt., A to B, E to F; 2nd mvt., 2 before C to 4 after D; 4th mvt., 8 before L to M

Mocks and juries are next Monday, May 12th. I’ll report back on the experience then.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Double Bass Socialism

(crossposted at

I am often most frustrated as a teacher not by anything about my students or about myself, but by my students’ instruments and bows. Sometimes my students fail to do the things they need to do, and sometimes I don’t manage to communicate what I think to my students. But sometimes the magic happens: I manage to give them a great new concept or musical idea, and the light goes on in their heads: they get it! And then the magic is ruined by the inability of their equipment to actually transform this great new idea into sound. Student instruments and bows often lack the qualities that enable students to expand their technical and musical palette. When the tone of your bass is always harsh and scratchy because the instrument is too tight, learning a light, floated sound is a challenge. If your bow is improperly weighted towards the tip or frog, it’s hard to learn a good spiccato stroke. It drives me crazy to see my students working so hard to grow as players and musicians, but be constantly bumping up against the limitations of their gear.

And what frustrates me more is that, when I grab their basses and bows, I can often produce the very sounds and strokes that they are struggling to create. This is due partially to my own abilities and the many more hours of practice that I have under my belt than they do (I’m generally a lot older than my students, after all!). But it’s also due to the fact that I play on much better instruments than they do. When you use good gear, it helps you understand and master a wider range of sounds and techniques. And once you’ve mastered them, it then becomes easier to understand and get around the limitations that inferior gear puts in your way when you want to do them. Because I have learned and mastered spiccato on great bows, I’m able to pick up a lesser bow and immediately know what I’ll have to do to make it produce a decent spiccato. I can of course let the students use my gear so that they can get the feel of what the stroke “should” feel like. But that’s not the same as having that bow at your disposal 24/7 to explore and experiment with.

What’s the answer to this? The simplest is of course to have my students get better gear, and I often advise them to do just that. But economic realities often get in the way of that solution. They may simply lack the resources to purchase better gear, even if parents and/or relatives are able to help them out. Sometimes I loan my gear to students so that they can use it for awhile. But that isn’t always practical – I have to play all the time and I need to use my instruments and bows! I don’t own so many of either that I can have tons of them out on loan and still be able to do my own playing.

The other day I came up with my ideal answer – double bass socialism, or more properly, double bass communism, as exemplified by the Marxist slogan:

From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.

The second clause being the relevant one. The folks who really need the good bows and basses aren’t those players who already have great careers. They’re the students who need to master the elements of a solid technique. They should be the ones with the great gear. Once they’ve used these great bows and basses to develop their technique, they should pass them on to the next generation and play on less exceptional stuff – even though they won’t sound as good, they’ll still be able to sound fine because they’ll know how to get the most out of that gear.

Like all communistic principles, this would of course be totally unrealistic and could never work in real life. After all, who would determine exactly who got which instruments? (I nominate…. me!)

I’ll be posting in the future on some more realistic solutions to this problem: namely, how students can maximize the sound and playing quality of their instruments without having to spend huge amounts of money on high-end stuff.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Truth Moment

For some, it happens when they’re very young. For others, it may not happen until they’re teenagers. For many, it happens in college. For some, it may not happen until graduate school or later. For a rare few, it may never happen at all. It’s rarely a pleasant moment (at least at first), but it’s one that shapes all of us forever once we experience it.

What am I talking about? That moment I call the Truth Moment: the moment when we realize that, as musicians, our natural talent and existing technique isn’t enough to carry us where we want to go. The moment when we realize that the habits and patterns of playing and thinking that we’ve been carrying with us for most of our lives, often without even knowing it, are holding us back. The moment when we realize that we’re going to have to take a deep breath, summon up our courage, and push ourselves and our playing to a place beyond where we’re currently comfortable.

The Truth Moment is more than just realizing that we need to practice hard, although that can certainly be part of it. It’s realizing that we have to let go of something old and embrace something new that makes this moment so unique and defining for each of us. It’s often a moment when we, for the first time, honestly look at where we are as players as face up to our deficiencies.

For me, my primary Truth Moment as a bassist happened when I was in the New World Symphony. I was doing very well in New World, playing principal and doing lots of chamber music. I had good friends and was having fun. But I was not doing well in professional orchestral auditions. In audition after audition, I was not making it past the first round. At a certain point, I realized some hard truths:

- There was something about doing well in auditions that I didn’t yet really know or understand.
- Some of this thing had to do with technical problems I had as a player. My teachers had told me about these problems, but I had never fully dealt with them, and my abilities were strong enough that I had made it to New World anyway. But without fixing these problems, I probably wouldn’t succeed in professional auditions.
- I wasn’t able to fully figure out how to fix these things on my own, or with the help of my NWS colleagues.
- There was no point in staying in NWS, no matter how much I was enjoying it or how well it was going, if it wasn’t giving me the tools I needed to achieve my ultimate goal.

So, I applied for and was admitted to Hal Robinson’s studio at Peabody, where I felt I would be able to grow and improve effectively (and I did!). This was not easy for me: I was musically very inspired at New World, plus I had somewhere to live and received a small but very regular paycheck. But I had to give those things up if I was going to succeed professionally.

A student of mine recently had a major Truth Moment, and watching them go through the experience reminded me of my own history. There are very few musicians who can achieve their personal bests without having to confront a moment like this; in fact, most of us have a series of these moments over the course of our lives.

So, let me know: Have you had your Truth Moment yet?

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Karr-Koussevitsky Bass comes to Peabody

Peabody Senior and guest PBDB poster Lee Philip contacted the ISB and arranged to have the legendary Karr-Koussevitsky Bass loaned to him for his upcoming performances of the Bottesini Concerto with the York, PA Symphony. It's a thrill to have such a great and historic instrument visiting us at school. It's a tiny bass, and incredibly easy to play. The sound is amazing, and it looks good too! Gary Karr and Serge Koussevitsky are probably the two most important American bass players in the history of our instrument (Koussevitsky was a naturalized American, of course), and to play the same bass that these two giants used for so many years is a great way for our students (and faculty) to connect to that history.

FYI, Jason Heath used this bass as well and blogged about it here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Musings on Gearheads, Part II

Writings relating to gear and setup in the bass world are usually of two categories. One is the standard "Here's what I like" variety. In this sort of article or blog post, the writer basically lists what equipment they use and describe why they like it. This question is often also asked in interviews of bassists. I'm not a big fan of these, and here's why: I'm not that person, I'm not playing that bass, and I may not be making the kind of music that that person wants to make. Some bass player telling me they use two Flexocor Originals and two Eudoxas with their Kolstein All-Weather Rosin tell me virtually nothing about what sort of equipment I should be using when I play on my bass and bow. The only solid value this information has to me is in aggregate; if I see everyone trying out a new string or rosin that might mean it works well enough for enough people that I should try it out. Otherwise, it's not very helpful. Even if I know how this bassist sounds and like it, there's no guarantee that my bass would make the same sound with those strings and rosin.

The other variety of gearhead writing is of the review/advocacy type. Someone reviews or tries out some new stuff and comments on it. This has many of the same problems as the "Here's what I like" category in that I can't understand what that equipment would do for me. Plus, this sort of writing can be colored by bias or conflict of interest if the person has a relationship with the maker of the product.

The writing I want to see about bass gear would:

- try to achieve some sort of objectivity in its presentation of what gear does; and
- try to describe how gear would react to certain types of basses, especially student level instruments that are readily available. That way I could understand how the gear might work on my bass, since I can readily compare my bass to the readily available "control" instrument.

I try not to complain about something unless I can contribute in some way to improving the situation, but in this case I have to confess to not being able to do much to improve the quality of bass gear writing. I simply lack the passion for the topic, and the thought of sitting down and writing something meaningful about what a certain set of strings does for me makes my insides shrivel up. It's tough enough for me to sit down and write something (that doesn't suck) about things I am passionate about. So, consider this a shout into the void of cyberspace: Where are you, person who could blog meaningfully about strings and other gear? Why do you remain silent while generations of bassists ache to hear your mighty voice? Come forth and save us from crappy strings! Recital Blogging

I'm doing a multipart series at about what we can all do to help create new music for our instrument. Check it out if you'd like here.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Jeff Weisner Bass Recital: New Music for Bass by Peabody Composers

Peabody Writes for Bass
A Recital of New Music for and with Bass by Peabody Composers

Jeffrey Weisner, Double Bass

with fellow Peabody double bass faculty Paul Johnson and Michael Formanek, and Peabody students Kyle Augustine and Lee Philip

McGregor Boyle: Yahanney Inlet (world premiere)
Evan Rogers: bass quartet no. 1 (world premiere)
David Witmer: Bass Quartet (world premiere)
Michael Hersch: Caelum Dedecoratum (East Coast Premiere)

Friday, April 11, 2008, 8:00 pm
Griswold Hall, Peabody Conservatory

I'm excited by how this project has come together, and I'm looking forward to being able to share this new music, created by the compositional community at Peabody. I'm doing some posting about the larger topic of new music for bass right now at, so check it out if you're interested.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Student Recital Mania!

Yes, it's that time of year again... As the year draws to a close, Peabody bass students are preparing their graduate recitals. There will be great bass playing, some cool music that you may not have ever heard before, and lovely receptions afterwards. Come on down and check them out!

Angela Hamilton
Sunday, March 30, 3:30 pm, Cohen-Davison Family Theatre

Bach - Cello suite No. 1
Bottesini - Romanza Patetica
Lancen - Concerto pour Contrebasse et Cordes
Misek - Sonata in d minor op. 6

Kyle Augustine
Sunday, April 13, 2:00 pm, Cohen-Davison Family Theatre

Bach - Cello Suite no. 3
Faure - Elegy
Proto - Caprice
Vanhal - Concerto in D

Lee Philip
Sunday, April 20, 6:30 pm, Griswold Hall

Bach - Cello Suite No. 1
Bottesini - Concerto no. 2
Henze - Serenade
Mozart - Per Questa Bella Mano

Monday, March 10, 2008

Peabsters Write Blogs

The things one can find out trolling the internet... Casey Middaugh, BM '07, student of Paul, went off to study at the Guildhall School in London last year. It turns out she's been blogging it the whole time!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Doing the Lab Work

by JW

One of the struggles of being a young bass player is that we're so popular. I don't mean this in a personal sense (although I do of course find bassists to be an altogether superior group of human beings in every way!). Rather, I mean that there are always too few bass players around to meet the needs of your average school, youth, or community orchestra. In most youth orchestras, there are as many violin players as in most professional orchestras, while there are often only three or four bass players. What this means is that we are always being asked to play in virtually everything. And most of us want to say yes in reply - after all, if you're into playing, you want to play!

As a result, most student bassists end up playing some very difficult music very, VERY early in their studies of the instrument. Within my first year of bass lessons, I was in a youth orchestra that was playing Beethoven's 8th Symphony! For those of you who haven't played it, that is an incredibly tough bass part - I still find elements of it challenging today when I play it in the NSO. I shudder to think what I sounded like back then..

These experiences can be inspiring and fun, but what they are not is good for our playing. Let's compare the above story to the average violinist's studies. The odds are good that any violin student playing Beethoven in a youth orchestra has probably had many years of lessons, and played in lots of ensembles where the music was a lot less challenging. These experiences have laid a foundation of good technique and ensemble skills that help prepare them for the challenges of difficult orchestral music. The student bassist, on the other hand, often has comparatively little experience playing the bass, either alone or in an ensemble of any kind.

So what does the bassist do in these situations? They get by, with a combination of creativity, selective faking, and other coping techniques. They often have to try to play stuff that they just aren't ready to play yet, and in the process they can inadvertently teach themselves some very poor technique. I have had many students who have had to break bad habits that they learned by playing music that was far too difficult for their technical level.

What's the solution? There are many possible ones. The best one by far is to build integrated teaching methods, like the Suzuki Method or George Vance's method, which help students have playing opportunities that better match their technical progress. Another is to simply learn to say no when asked to play in groups that you're not ready for. This is a tough thing to do - as I said, we all want to play, and the temptation to play music you're not yet ready for is a strong one.

I think that one of the best ways we can keep our technical progress going strong and not have it be derailed is to make sure that, when we practice, we use awareness and intelligence and not let bad habits creep into our work. With my students, I use a special regimen of scales and bowing exercises that I call the "Lab Work." When they are doing the lab work, I explain that they need to focus on doing everything well - maintaining accurate intonation, observing the positions of their hands and bodies, using their bow efficiently and in a relaxed manner, and listening attentively to their sound. By doing everything "right" during this portion of their work, they counteract any counterproductive habits they might acquire in the rough-and-tumble of the real performing world and strengthen their technique so that, when some challenging orchestral passage is suddenly thrust upon them, they can better know how to deal with it in a way that doesn't teach them a bad habit.

When you're out there in your youth orchestra and you start to feel like you're in a little over your head, remember good technique and find a way to play that keeps your good playing habits from being lost in the shuffle!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

I love Hella Frisch

I know that many PBDB readers may already be aware of it, but one of the finest classical music blogs out there is Hella Frisch. Calgary Philharmonic bassist Matt Heller's musings on all things bassistic are fascinating. Matt has blogged through both sides of the audition process, from being in New World through to his current gig in Canada, and he's a great writer. Plus, any bass nerd who can drop some Persepolis references is a winner in my book!

His latest on some great yoga/musician connections is a must-read...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Peabody Audition Day Wrap-Up

by JW

Peabody Audition Day 2008 for bassists was this past Monday, Feb. 18. First of all, thanks to all the Peabody bass applicants - everyone played well and we enjoyed meeting you all. Second, I want to apologize for my failure to do two things I had hoped to accomplish on this blog - doing a pre-audition photo or video tour of Peabody Bassland, and doing some liveblogging on Audition Day itself. The first project failed because I forgot my camera before I went on tour had thus had no images for the post; the second failed because Peabody's mighty WiFi did not penetrate our audition room (sigh).

This is my third Audition Day, and I gain some new perspective on the music school application process each time. I think my big revelation this year came from asking applicants about their audition schedule for all their various schools. The competition for slots at top-level schools is often pretty intense in its own right. But even more intense is the competition to not only get in, but to get in with a good enough audition to get substantial financial aid. (This is even relevant to Curtis and Colburn, the two free conservatories in the US, as their lack of tuition makes them two of the most competitive schools). I'm also noticing a more and more "nationalized" audition process, where more and more applicants are willing to travel farther and farther from home to audition. Lots of music schools used to have a more regional base of applicants, because travel was more difficult and people tended to stay closer to home. (It also helped that there were more job opportunities - after all, when one has to compete nationally for work, one feels less committed to staying in a certain area...)

When one combines these factors with the constantly improving level of bass pedagogy all over the country, you end up with school auditions that are feeling more anad more "professional," with a stronger feeling of competitiveness and a heightened sense of frustration and anxiety for many applicants.

I want school auditions to be precisely the opposite - an opportunity for applicants to play in a relaxed atmosphere, to not feel like they have to play better than everyone else, but rather to feel like they can show their development and interest to the schools they are applying to. That said, I don't really know how to do that within the current system of school applications and still maintain any sense of fairness. Music schools and their applicants are unfortunately at the mercy of market forces beyond our control.

So here are my questions for those who read this:

- If you are a music school applicant, do you agree with my assessment? Or am I off base in my opinion?

- What if anything can be done to make music school applications a more positive and relaxed experience?

Drop me a line and let me know what you think!

Monday, February 11, 2008

I've made the big time!

- of bass blogging, at any rate. Bass blog overlord and PBDB inspiration Jason Heath has kindly invited me to do some guest posting on I'll be posting over there on a variety of topics, plus perhaps crossposting some stuff from here. My first post is about a great touring program my orchestra does - feel free to check it out, and while you're there enjoy the immense amount of interesting and helpful material that Jason is always adding to his new media offerings.

Orchestra Auditions: the SATs of Music, Part II

by JW

I thought I might expand on this post I wrote awhile ago about my audition analogy:

Auditions : Being a good musician :: The SAT : being a smart person

In other words, like the SAT, auditions are standardized tests, and like the SAT, they are not a complete picture of what they claim to test. One can be a great musician and struggle with auditions, because auditions do not test all aspects of musicianship. In fact, auditions test for some skills that are seldom used in any real-life performance situation. At my recent Carnegie-Mellon class, we attempted to make a list of these “secondary” skills. Here’s some that I came up with:

- In auditions, you need to shift between many styles and eras of music in very rapid succession. There are few if any times in one’s real life as a musician where you have to play 35 seconds of Bach, followed immediately by 1-2 minutes of a romantic concerto, followed by 20 seconds of Mozart, then 40 seconds of Strauss, 1 minute of middle-period Beethoven, and finish up with 35 seconds of more Bach! All of these composers call for a certain range of sound and style to be musically appropriate and appealing, and in auditions we have to be able to “change up” rapidly and without any transition time between styles.

- In auditions, you have no control of your final performance timing. While you can hopefully warm up and prepare adequately before you audition, once you taken to the room or hall to audition, you must audition then, even if you have been waiting offstage for several minutes. While there can be similar circumstances when one plays a solo concert or recital, they are generally far less restrictive – one is usually much more in control of the timing of one’s recital or solo performance, and can usually warm up or do whatever else one wants to do until very shortly before you play.

- In auditions, we need to have accurate intonation and rhythm without being able to refer to any external context. Anyone who’s played in orchestras at any level knows that orchestral playing is about constant adjustment. We need to find our intonation and rhythm relationally – to the other bass players, to the cellists, to the melodic line, to the conductor, and to the soloists if any. We can’t rely on any one of these as our only guide. On the contrary, great orchestral playing is about the constant and nearly instantaneous negotiations and compromises being made all the time in order to keep the ensemble together and in tune with itself (this, IMHO, is what makes it fun!). In auditions, we cannot test this skill at all. Instead, we have to remain in tune and in time with ourselves, even during passages where it’s a lot easier to place the rhythm and intonation in context with other players. A great example is found in the second half of the Trio of Beethoven’s 5th. The basses play a G octave figure over and over for several bars before finishing off with a series of moving 8th notes. These G octaves are often rushed by auditioners, but I suspect that many of these same players wouldn’t rush this passage in the orchestra. Why? There are moving 8th notes being played all around the basses during these octaves, and most players would cue into these 8ths to maintain their tempo.

- In auditions, you cannot see or know anything about your audience. The connection between the performer and the listener is at the heart of what performing is all about, and that relationship helps give context to your performance. I find that remembering and focusing on my audience and playing “to” rather than “at” them when I perform relaxes me while I play. While you can do this in auditions, you have to do it without any ability to visually connect with them.

- In auditions, you need to perform orchestral excerpts in a style that is not the way you would actually play the same excerpt in the orchestra. This is a frequently overlooked and very important element of audition playing. When I play certain very quiet orchestral passages – rehearsal #40 in “Ein Heldenleben” by Strauss is a good example – I would often play them much more quietly in the orchestra than I would in an audition. In fact, when playing this passage in the orchestra, I wouldn’t be very concerned if for a moment I stopped making any sound at all. It won’t make a hole in the sound since my seven NSO colleagues will probably still be playing, and in fact the conductor will probably want us to play more softly even if this does occur! Conversely, later in this piece, say during the infamous “Battle Sequence,” I might play certain spots in performance in a way that might sound a little too rough in an audition. With two or three trombones and several bassoons doubling the bass part, I figure that the forward edge I can provide to the sound with a little extra “crunch” will probably be a better contributor to the total orchestral sound than a lovely, round tone that will be completely swallowed by the surrounding cacophony, especially in a hall like ours that can lack clarity in the low end.

However, in auditions, we can’t use these extremes of sound. If I let my tone get too thin during #40, the committee might think I had lost control of my tone or even made a rhythmic error. If I am too crunchy during the “Battle Sequence,” the committee might think my sound is ugly or that I lack bow control. I instead need to produce a sound in these passages that recalls the sound of the entire section playing, or even of the entire orchestra playing. This is a crucial distinction that I’ll discuss more in future posts.

Well, there are a few of the significant differences between orchestral playing and orchestral auditioning. In my next post, I’ll flip this around and look at ways that auditions and other solo playing are similar. Then, we’ll look at what we as players and auditioners should do about all this. Don’t let it get you down – there are solutions…

If you can think of some more differences that I haven’t thought of, drop me a line or leave a comment!