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!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Subbing in Pittsburgh

Last week, I had the pleasure of being a substitute teacher. While substitute teaching can be a nightmare if you’re talking eighth grade math, it’s a blast when you’re subbing for the amazing bassist and teacher Jeff Turner. Jeff invited me to teach his students at Carnegie-Mellon and Duquesne Universities while he is on tour with the Pittsburgh Symphony for a few weeks. I drove up to Pittsburgh on Sunday, and taught that day and Monday, teaching a private lesson to almost all of Jeff's current students and doing a studio master class. Jeff has clearly fashioned a top-flight program at these schools, and his great teaching has attracted some very talented and hard-working bassists. I had a great time and (as often happens) learned a lot myself from the students. Jeff structures his studio classes somewhat differently than the way we do at Peabody, and I’m always interested in seeing the pluses and minuses of how different bass programs are organized and run. Jeff’s studio has many more graduate students than the current Peabody bass student body does, and as a result the classes are structured a little more openly than ours are. This makes sense as many more of our students are approaching repertoire for the first time, while most of Jeff’s students have already been exposed to a lot of standard orchestral and solo rep.

There was only one amusing glitch in the whole process: when Jeff sent me the schedule, I was surprised to see that he had scheduled a studio class for the exact time of the Superbowl! While impressed with his and his students’ dedication to their craft, I couldn’t help wondering if there was going to be some grumbling when I got there. Sure enough, students were clearly very unhappy to have to sit through my musings on their Bach Bourees when they could be having a brewski and watching the Pats and Giants do their thing. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule for Monday night and make everyone happy.

Thanks to Jeff and to all his students for a great time in Pittsburgh!