Monday, February 11, 2008

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!

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