Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Getting the Most out of Orchestra, or: You're Already Sitting There, Right?

Any music student of even a moderate degree of seriousness ends up spending some time in orchestra rehearsals. In fact, usually they end up spending a LOT of time in orchestra rehearsals. There’s lots of very good reasons for this. Many bass players are drawn to orchestra for the artistic pleasure of playing the great orchestral repertoire. Others are “made” to play in orchestra for a variety of reasons: parents or teachers make them, they have orchestra as an assigned course in school, or perhaps they’re even sent off to a music camp or festival where they need to play in orchestra.

Playing in orchestra is at the heart of what bass playing is about for a lot of us, and the orchestral repertoire offers us a chance to play some of the greatest music ever written. I got into music as a career because I wanted to play in orchestras, and that is still true of most of my students. I’m happy to say that I still love playing orchestral music after quite a few years of doing so, and I hope to still be enjoying it 30 years from now!

However, loving orchestral playing and orchestral music is not the same thing as loving every single orchestra rehearsal and concert that I’ve ever been involved in. Despite one’s best efforts, sometimes playing in orchestra can be a total drag. Conductors can be clueless or boring. Repertoire can be uninteresting or just something you’ve played a few times too many recently. Your fellow musicians can be grumpy, clueless or just plain bad at their jobs, or you can simply be distracted by illness, tiredness or life events.

I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at finding ways to make my time playing in orchestras as personally productive as possible. I realized fairly early on that it was asking too much to expect every rehearsal to be an amazing experience. Once I figured that out, I decided to try to find some way to get something worthwhile out of orchestra even if that thing wasn’t always artistic bliss. While I haven’t always been successful, I’ve been pretty good at finding useful things to do while the conductor is droning on at the first violins or the brass are finding new ways to play very very very loud.

During orchestra we can focus on a few areas beyond just playing our part and following the conductor. Four of my favorites are: our own playing, the playing of the orchestra musicians, the conductor, or the music itself.

Our playing: A famous description of armed combat says that it consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. Orchestral bass playing can often match this description pretty well! While there are certain difficult passages that require our full concentration, there are often long stretches of playing that are not technically challenging for most of us. These stretches can feel like a long, boring eternity of half notes in half position, but they can also be a great opportunity for us to practice. This is especially true for students who are working on some element of their technique. Are you working with your teacher to correct some element of your bowhold? Focus on doing it during your orchestra rehearsal! Are your shifts too fast? Coordination not what it could be? Use your orchestra parts as left hand etudes! It’s amazing how much quicker we can make needed changes when we keep our brains on during orchestra rehearsals, correcting technique problems as we play. After all , we may be in orchestra for literally hours a day - often a longer span of time than we actually practice by ourselves...

The playing of fellow musicians: During the long rests, tacets, and whole notes that so often occupy us in orchestra, look around at what your orchestral colleagues are up to. To play well in any orchestra or other ensemble, we have to have some sense of how the other sections of the orchestra work. I always pay close attention to the wind soloists and principal strings in particular. What little motions does the principal oboe make as he/she starts a solo? Maybe you notice that, when the principal viola is absent, that the viola section seems to play more together. What is the assistant principal doing (or the principal not doing) that is helping the ensemble? When the percussion section plays especially well together, are they looking at the conductor, or at each other, or at their music? Orchestras are very complicated machines, and figuring out some of how they work can help us do a better job as orchestral members - and can improve our own ensemble work.

The conductor: They are mysterious creatures indeed, those conductors. It is our responsibility as musicians to follow them and to do what they ask of us, yet sometimes they seem like a hindrance rather than a help. We all need to figure out what makes for a good conductor and what makes for a less-good one. When I’m working with a conductor I like, I try to figure out why I like them. Is it their clear beat? Their expressive gestures? Their cruel, caustic comments about our playing? Their LACK of a clear beat? The funny stories they tell during rehearsal? Even trickier than analyzing why I like them is trying to figure out if their ideas and gestures are actually creating a good performance or not. Sometimes, I’m having an awful time in rehearsal, but then when I just focus on what’s coming out of the band I have to revise my opinion of the conductor upwards! Since the ultimate goal is not just to make the musicians happy, but to create great musical performances, it’s important to figure out not just what makes me feel like I’m making great music, but rather what is making great music for the audience.

The music: Besides just enjoying the music itself, we also need to learn how the music fits together and “works” if we are going to be able to play it well. Listen to the playing of the orchestra and figure out what you really need to listen to in order to fit in with your colleagues. I often listen in particular for two things: Where the melody part might take some rubato, and what is happening rhythmically in the inner voices. Once I figure out what these parts are doing, I can often cue into one or the other of them to make sure that I don’t lose tempo. There’s too much going on in orchestral music to focus equally on everything, so we need to work out how we can be a help to the ensemble rather than a hindrance. The benefits of this kind of listening can pay off in unexpected ways; if you get called at the last minute for a gig and you know what to listen for in the piece, you can manage to pull off a solid performance even if there’s little or no rehearsal time.

By focusing on all these, perhaps you can turn those hours of orchestra into useful hours of musical work and practice.... Or at least reduce the boredom level when it starts getting unbearable!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Care and Feeding of the Bass Teacher, Chapter 3: Should You and Your Teacher Break Up?

Okay, so you’ve analyzed your teacher type and you’ve studied the owner’s manual. Things are going great with your teacher now, right? Everything’s humming along nicely? What, you say things aren’t perfect with your teacher? You feel some vague dissatisfaction? Or perhaps it’s more than that; perhaps you even feel like your teacher may be failing to help you achieve your goals? Not sure what to do?

If you spend enough time with almost anybody you’re bound to find something that you don’t like about them, and your teacher is no exception. From their hairstyle to their teaching style, parts of your teacher’s personality are virtually assured to annoy you eventually. It can be hard to figure out what things about your teacher are just annoying and what things may indicate bigger problems. Here are a few broad guidelines for assessing your teacher conflicts.

Eeeew!: The first category of teacher annoyances includes anything that is definitely not music-related and not inconvenient to you in any way. This would include odd clothing choices, gross personal habits, weird odors, or bizarre accents. If you are otherwise happy with your teacher, it’s usually wise not to let these kind of things bug you too much, since most of us only see our teacher once a week at most. It’s also a good exercise in kindness and forbearance, as all human beings have some weird quirks that others have to tolerate. You can regale your friends with stories of the one ratty sweater that your teacher wears to every lesson, or the smell of cabbage that permeates their studio. That said, there are indeed some things that might be so gross, or push your buttons so badly, that you can’t concentrate or learn around them, so in extreme cases this might be a deal-breaker for you.

Stuck in Traffic: These annoyances are not music related but are problematic or inconvenient for you. Some teachers are definitely worth spending an hour in traffic each way, or shelling out $125 per lesson, or climbing six flights of stairs, but some just aren’t. We all have limited amounts of time and money and we nee

d to find a teacher that can be a part of our schedule rather than a drag on it (and our budget!). These issues are tough, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up about them; often your teacher will understand and can help you find another good teacher in these circumstances.

Big Jerk: We discussed the Dictator teacher model in part I, and of course dictators as a rule tend to not be that nice overall. but Dictator teachers are often very kind people; they reserve any dictatorial tendencies for musical activities only. This category instead includes teachers who are just plain mean or rude, who say unnecessarily disparaging things about you, who put you down as a person in some way, or who make racist or sexist comments. There may be a few teachers out there whose musical gifts are so great that you will decide to grit your teeth and put up with them, but overall I think it’s wise to not stick around with these sorts if possible. Again, I’m referring mostly to non-musical issues in this category, although musical bullying can be a problem as well.

Goal Disconnect: This is the primary music-related problem that we’ll address, and it’s the most important one. Why are you taking lessons? Are you an amateur looking to have fun and learn some new rep? A beginner starting out on your instrument? A young professional taking auditions and trying to get work? If your teacher is trying to teach you something different than what you want, and they don’t seem to be able to recognize your goals as their goals in your lessons, you may be ready to change teachers and find someone who will give you your money’s worth. Sometimes your goals change; you start to realize that you want to take music more seriously, or the opposite occurs and you decide to make music more of a hobby in your life rather than a passion or a career choice. Many good teachers can make the transition with you to a different lesson style, but some can’t or simply don’t want to.

Not my Style: Like any two people, sometimes you and your teacher are just really not that compatible. Most of this topic is covered in Chapter One; you need to figure out whether your teacher type is the best one for you. One additional wrinkle of this can play out in a purely musical way. No matter how objective your teacher tries to be in their work with you, they themselves have certain musical preferences that can affect how they teach you. If you love Bottesini and your teacher hates it, you may have to be more proactive to get your teacher excited about working on Bottesini with you. This is seldom a huge problem since we need to be able to play in a wide variety of musical styles and it’s impossible to find a teacher who likes them all. In fact, it is often good to have a teacher with different musical tastes than you so that they can expose you to new stuff. Still, it can occasionally be problematic depending on the intensity of your teacher’s preferences (or yours!).

So, how do we deal with these conflicts? The same three basic ways that we deal with any relationship conflict:

- Talk about it with the other person,

- Just put up with it,

- Or end the relationship.

The most important question to ask yourself before you decide which of these goal to pursue takes us back to the “Goal Disconnect” issues I mentioned before. Are you getting what you want and/or need from your teacher? Are you seeing improvement in your playing? Are you enjoying your musical life? If so, you should probably try to put up with as many annoyances from your teacher as you can stand. If you aren’t sure, then maybe you should discuss your concerns with your teacher. If you are pretty sure that things are not progressing well for you, then perhaps you should consider switching teachers.

If you do decide to consider other teachers, make sure that you know what the consequences could be! If your teacher is the only good teacher in your town, consider how far you may have to travel to find another. If your teacher is a well-connected and influential musical figure in your town, then consider what consequences might befall you if they don’t take your decision well for some reason. If you are in college and want to switch studios within your school, consider what your fellow students might think and be prepared to provide a clear explanation of your decision. Please note that I said “could;” often teachers are more than willing to help students move on if the relationship isn’t working. In many cases the teacher turns out to be feeling the same way as the student! No one likes being in a relationship that isn’t working.

This will probably be the final chapter of this little series. I hope it’s given folks a few insights into obtaining a teacher and keeping it happy!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Catching Up Report

OK, so as always with my blogging goals, I have failed utterly.... In this case I’ve dropped the ball on my efforts to create a weekly report on what’s going on at school. Life events intervened and kept me from keeping up with my pledge. So, in time-honored fashion, I’m gonna play catch-up by doing a catchall midterm report now and then try to get back on the horse next week with regular updates.

Things are certainly busy these days at school. Lots of things instrument-related are happening. We’ve had visits from two top bass makers this month - first came Chris Threlkeld-Weigand, followed soon after by Kai Arvi. They each brought instruments for our students to try out. We have several folks here who are currently on the hunt for a new bass, and it’s wonderful that these excellent luthiers are able to make time in their schedules to drop by school and bring their instruments right to us. I certainly recommend that anyone looking for a top-quality modern bass check these two makers out.

Another exciting bass-related event here at Peabody happened last week with the delivery of our new school bass. About a year and a half ago, a generous donor offered to give the school an old instrument for our use. The bass was in need of a total restoration to be physically sound and playable. Tom Wolf, an excellent bass maker and restorer, agreed to take on the job. Tom was a recent prize winner at the ISB convention for one of his bass and is a fantastic luthier and repairperson. Besides his excellent work on basses, he is also a world-renowned maker of harpsichords and fortepianos. He did a complete restoration of the bass, fit it with a new extension, and drilled a Laborie-style angled endpin hole into the bass. It finally arrived at school on Thursday and it sounds fantastic! We’re so grateful to the donor and the the school for helping make this possible; having an instrument of this quality available for students that can’t currently afford one is a huge benefit for our program. Here’s a photo of current Peabody graduate student Minh Duc Tranh with the bass. He’ll be using it for the upcoming Nashville Symphony bass audition.

Finally, we are preparing for our second visit from Artist in Residence Hal Robinson this Sunday. This time around, there will be no public events scheduled so that Hal and the students can stay focused and maximize their time together. The theme of this visit is bowstrokes; Hal will be demonstrating the various types of bowstrokes that he uses and then working with the students in three groups on their own bowstroke work. Hal’s first visit had a “get-acquainted” quality as he met and heard the students for the first time. In this class I feel like everyone’s going to really focus and get down to work absorbing all the information and examples that Hal can dish out on this critical topic.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

First analog contact between Jason and I captured on audio...

I had the pleasure of finally speaking live on the phone with bass blogging overlord and PBDB aficionado Jason Heath this week, and he went and made a lovely Contrabass Conversations episode out of it! It was a lot of fun, and I think I did a pretty good job of fulfilling my two primary goals in this interview:

- Don't say anything so outrageously stupid that it gets me fired, arrested or beat up; and
- Speak SLOWLY ENOUGH that people could understand at least a third of what I was saying. (I'm a notorious fast talker, and I spent the whole interview concentrating on slow talkin'.)

Thanks a always to Jason for having me on and for his continued support of PBDB!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Care and Feeding of the Bass Teacher, Chapter 2: Common problems and solutions

Regardless of which teacher type you have acquired, now you have to figure out what to do with it. Teachers have lots of complicated features, and often we just throw our hands up in the air, press the start button, and hope that they work. This is unfortunate, because we can get a lot more out of them by understanding some basic principles. By far the most important of these is what I refer to as the “ownership” rule. It goes like this:

Don’t forget who works for whom.

Your teacher works for you. You bought them in order to get something out of them - better bass playing and musicianship. But in a tricky twist that muddies the whole thing up, it often seems like you are working for your teacher! They assign you things to practice, make comments and suggestions, and often give you various sorts of grades on those same things. On a lesson to lesson basis, it does certainly feel like it’s your job to please your teacher. But on a long-term basis, it’s your teacher’s job to please YOU - that’s why you went out and bought them in the first place, right? This brings us to rule number two:

Know what you want!

Your new teacher has many interesting features, but psychic powers are not currently included on any teacher model. No matter how penetrating and cruel your teachers’ eyes are, they cannot actually penetrate the depths of your soul and discern your deepest musical longings. To fully access the abilities your teacher does in fact possess, you need to find a way to let them know what you want. This isn’t always easy because we aren’t always sure what we want, but even if you give your teacher some vague hints it’s a big improvement over a blank stare. If you hear some music that you particularly like or dislike, let your teacher know. If you have a favorite bass player clip on YouTube and you can’t figure out how the heck they play all those artificial harmonic double stop thirty-second notes, show it to your teacher and see what they say. If you suddenly have a strong feeling about what you might want to do with your musical life - be a professional, be an amateur, never play the thing again, sing sing sing - tell your teacher! If you make your teacher guess what you’re feeling and thinking about music, you make their life harder and often end up paying for teaching that wasn’t really what you wanted in the first place.

The final suggestion to getting the most out of your teacher works on two levels:

Allow a break-in period before you return it.

If, after initial contacts and tryouts, you make the move to obtain a teacher, give it a little time to break in before you think about returning it. Like a new car or cast iron skillet, a new teacher needs some time to tune its systems to you and figure out how you work. Let it have some time to get to know you and figure you out.

That’s the easy part of this third instruction. The tough part of it is that you need a break in period as well. Trust and sincerely try what your new teacher is suggesting! Sometimes, when a new teacher suggests something to us that is difficult or just different from what we’re used to, we decide that it means that the teacher isn’t right for us. Remember: you got a teacher because you want them to help you grow and improve, not to just listen to you play and reaffirm what you already know. Often making changes takes time and we all need to give our teacher a “trust period” so that we can honestly evaluate if their ideas are helping us or not.

In the final part of this series, we’ll take a look at the trickiest question of all: whether it’s time to turn in your teacher for another.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Care and Feeding of the Bass Teacher, Chapter 1: Identify your Teacher Type

Congratulations, you are the owner of an official authorized bass teacher! This may be your first real bass teacher. You may have owned several teachers before and are just now acquiring a new model. Or perhaps you have owned this teacher for awhile and are simply checking the owner’s manual out for the first time to make sure you’re getting the most from your teacher. Or maybe you’re borrowing someone else’s teacher for a couple of lessons. No matter what, you can be sure that you will have hours of fun and learning with your new teacher - if you follow some key guidelines. In this manual, we’ll be looking at several teacher models and addressing key features that you can access to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your teacher.

In this first chapter, we’ll describe some of the basic teacher models that you will encounter out there so that you can make sure you have accurately identified your teacher type. This is important because trying to access certain features is more challenging on certain models, and can even be dangerous if not attempted carefully!

Before we begin, we should note that there are many hybrid models out there, which combine the features of several of the basic models; you may have to calibrate your methods to account for your particular model’s complexities.

The Dictator: This model was very common years ago, and was actually considered the finest model available at the time; its popularity has declined in recent years, but it can still be found and remains popular among certain groups. The Dictator interprets its teaching mission in a very direct way: It is there to give you knowledge, and you are there to receive it. Period. It often has a standard, preset program that it offers to one and all with little variety. This can often be a solid program - after all, much about playing bass hasn’t changed for decades, if not centuries. The big plus of the Dictator model is that it requires you to trust it in order to get the most out of it. This can feel uncomfortable at first, but getting out of our comfort zone and committing to trying something different is often the first step to real growth. The minuses of the Dictator are also clear: If their program doesn’t work for you, you can waste a lot of time and energy trying to play in a way that can be harmful to our progress. Also, if you learn best when you feel that you can ask lots of questions and explore your own path, the Dictator may put a stop to that without considering whether it’s a good idea. Overall: we recommend initial caution with the Dictator until you are sure it will be effective.

The Buddy: This model was introduced for customers unhappy with the Dictator, and enjoyed a groundswell of popularity soon after. The Buddy wants to be, well, your buddy; they want to hear about your life, hang out with you, meet your friends, and be your partner in learning. This can be great for people who have problems with authority figures, as well as for folks who love to explore their own ideas of how to play. The Buddy can help you test and develop

your own distinctive way of playing. However, if you haven’t developed your core technique very well, the Buddy can be problematic, as many students need more structure in their technical work than the Buddy can provide. However, if you have a lot of your technique together, and you have a well-developed sense of how you want to play, the informal style of the Buddy can help unleash your creative juices and help you grow as a musician! Overall: Lots of fun, but look past the fun to make sure that you are really on track to achieve your musical goals.

The Guru: This model combines elements of the Dictator and the Buddy. Like the Dictator, it insists on a high level of trust and commitment to its playing concepts and program; like the Buddy, it wants to know about your life beyond the lesson studio. It fuses these two concepts into a holistic learning approach that looks at how to improve you playing and musicianship in the context of your whole life. Gurus can be hugely helpful for many students who feel “stuck” and need a change of pace. Often looking at our playing as part of the big picture of who we are is just what we need for a breakthrough. The Guru won’t just order you to obey like the Dictator, but it will ask for a real commitment from you, so be prepared to consider things like taking yoga, going to therapy, changing basic elements of how you play, or just having lots of soul-searching conversations. Like all gurus, the Guru can attract a certain personality type for the wrong reasons; they are being told something they don’t want to hear (but know is true) by their current teacher model and are just looking for one who might tell them something else. Some students seek out a Guru hoping for lots of improvement in their playing when all they really need to do is practice! Overall: Often an outstanding teacher, but don’t use it to escape reality.

The Impresario: This model not only teaches you bass, but offers free bonus career counseling services. The Impresario will train you to be a performer, encouraging you to play lots of competitions and auditions. It’s a great coach, helping you figure out how to put together good performances and present yourself effectively - all important skills. The risk of the Impresario is that it will neglect your long-term development to focus on the short-term gains of performing. Students of Impresarios sometimes work for months on solos that are far beyond their abilities, damaging their technical work in the process. An important skill with Impresarios is learning to say “No” to them and insisting that you do the work you need to develop your playing. Overall: Can be great, but needs careful maintenance.

The Factory: This model was designed for mass production of bass students, and boy does it deliver. The Factory has huge numbers of students, and often has to organize giant group lessons and day-long recitals just to fit ‘em all in. The actual teaching style of the Factory can vary, but this model has one major potential flaw: all those students can mean that not much time or attention is paid to your individual needs and goals. This is not always an issue with this model, and some Factory teachers are among the finest around. But students need to make sure that this model is able to give them the time and attention they need. Overall: Often good teachers, but make sure they know your first name.

The Drudge: This model is the one to avoid if possible. They can teach in a variety of ways, and some of them can even be fairly good at it, but they share one big problem: They don’t seem to have been programmed to like music very much! A teacher who thinks music is a chore (or worse, a job) can’t teach you the most important part of being a musician - to have fun and enjoy yourself! A teacher like that will only produce bitter, unhappy musicians, and we already have enough of those, thanks. Overall: Run away.

Now that you've identified your teacher type, we'll move on in the next chapter to specific methods you can use to train up and instruct your bass teacher. Before you know it, they'll be teaching you twice as much stuff for the same price!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Weeks Three and Four

Whew! We definitely win the prize for Hardest Working Bass Program in the Biz for the last 7-10 days of frenetic activity. It's been quite a show - hard to know where to begin.

That's not true actually - it's pretty easy to know where to begin. Hal Robinson's first visit to Peabody in his new capacity as Artist in Residence was a complete and total success. He brought so much to his day here that no one of us was able to keep up with him; I was definitely more tired than he was by the end of the day... As planned, he first gave us a fantastic talk on his core approaches to both sitting and standing with the bass, demonstrated the advantages and disadvantages of each, and also covered some of the key features of how he set up his instruments for maximum effectiveness and efficiency. I found this part of the day the most satisfying. It's pretty rare that you get to hear someone like Hal hold forth at length on how they do what they do!

The afternoon of group lessons seemed pretty successful for most students. Over the next few weeks we will be looking at this format and working on how to make it more effective for everyone. One of the key issues is whether folks get more out of having a small block of one-on-one time with Hal every time he visits, or whether they would get more out of a longer block of time to work with him, even if it means not working with him every time he visits. We also need to experiment with having students of similar ability levels working together, versus having a more diverse group working with Hal.

The final master class in Griswold Hall was a big hit - we had over 50 people in attendance from outside the bass department. Everybody played fantastically well, and Hal brought great insights as usual.

This first class had a "get acquainted" quality to it; now that everyone has met and played for Hal, in future classes and lessons we can move into more in-depth work and build on our great start from last Sunday.

But wait: there's more! Hal's day was only part one of a 60-hour marathon of bass activities. On Monday, we had our usual orchestral rep class on Mozart's 35th Symphony. This was the first class taught by our new rep class faculty member, Ira Gold. Ira is a colleague of mine in the National Symphony, and is a great player and talented young teacher. He's bringing great insights to rep class, many of which come from his studies at Rice University and Boston University; others come from his own explorations of playing and teaching. He maintains his own private studio and also is on the faculty at Catholic University in Washington. We're glad he's on board and we'll probably see him here at PBDB in the near future.

Bassapalooza '09 concluded with another young rising star of the bass: Ranaan Meyer of the group Time for Three. Ranaan is a truly unique figure in the bass world right now - a graduate of Curtis, trained in all the traditions of classical playing, as well as being an accomplished jazz musician, he has begun a career with TF3 dedicated to bringing together all of these musical styles into one seamless whole, along with some bluegrass, country and rock for good measure. It turns out that he also gives a good bass masterclass, as Peabody bass students and I discovered! He helped all of us to refocus our work on the essentials: having fun and making great music all the time, especially when it's tempting to settle for less. We thank him and look forward to seeing him again in the near future....

Well, that's it, folks; just another week of great stuff here at Peab. I'm already tired but I need to get some coffee and get back to work - we've got solo classes, recitals, and more Hal coming up all too soon!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Hal Robinson comes to Peabody: Here's the Plan

Here at Peabody Bass Central Command we are in final countdown to our first day of lessons and classes with our new faculty artist in residence Hal Robinson. Hal needs no introduction to most readers of this site - he’s one of the top players and pedagogues in the country. Paul Johnson and I are both former students of his and he has played a big role in both of our lives and careers. It is truly a thrill and an honor to have him back at Peabody again, working alongside us in his new role here, and to say we are excited is an understatement!

But what exactly is his role? That is a question that he and we have been chewing over for some time. When we began discussing this appointment with Hal last year, we agreed early on on one thing: We didn’t want this to be a so-called “celebrity appointment.” Sometimes, music schools will bring on visiting faculty in a new, highly-touted role, but these faculty will often simply be signing on for a few master classes or other group teaching events. Hal wasn’t excited by the idea of doing a few master classes over the course of the year. If he was going to come to Peabody on a regular basis, he wanted his visits to be more substantial and to have more of an impact. That said, we knew that Hal would not be able to take on any additional private teaching commitments with his current busy schedule. We would have to develop a different format then either of these more traditional ones.

What we have developed for now are a set of teaching days that are oriented around different themes and that combine some elements of private teaching, classes and lectures. Here is how things will be going down for Peabody bassists on this Sunday:

10:00 - Hal will begin a lecture/demo to the students on sound and setup. Many students struggle to get an appealing, consistent, musically appropriate sound when they play. Hal will talk about how to approach making a great sound with a focus on how to get one’s instrument properly set up so that it is a help and not a hindrance in this process.

11:00 - ? Luthier Michael Shank from Shank Strings in Elizabethtown, PA will be joining us for the day to help us put some of Hal’s setup ideas into practice. He and Hal will look together at students’ basses over the course of the day and make suggestions on what if any adjustments could help get them in the best playing shape possible. Paul and I will assist in this process as we move into the afternoon and...

12:00 to 5:00 - Hal will begin meeting with students in small groups for group lessons. These will be in private rather than in the hall so that students can work with minimal distractions. Hal will be evaluating students’ sound and giving them suggestions on how to move forward in their playing between now and his next visit; Paul Johnson and I will be working with them in future lessons on how best to implement these suggestions.

5:00 to 6:30 or so - The final group lesson will take place in Griswold Hall and will be open to the public in a more traditional master class format. We encourage the wider bass (and music!) community to attend and see what we’re up to!

This format is a work in progress and we don’t know exactly how well it will work. We may need to tweak and adjust it as the year goes on to account for many possible issues: The students’ fatigue, Hal’s fatigue, how productive the group lessons end up being for everyone, and other unforeseen factors; we are holding off on determining the themes for the remaining classes until we see how this one goes and determine whether the topic is too broad for the amount of time available. If you attend the master class, feel free to talk to any current bass student (or me) and see what they thought of the day.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Week Two

Week 2 at this Fall has brought that realization that his most college students before long: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We all get excited and wound up for our school “firsts” - first lesson of the year, first orchestra rehearsal, first new bass student that we meet in the hallway, first night out with friends. Then week two arrives and we realize that those were indeed firsts - the first of many lessons, rehearsals, and yes, nights out partying....

I go through this cycle as well. I spend a lot of time over the Summer planning for the school year, working on plans and ideas for my students, organizing class schedules and curriculum, and doing long-term recruitment and planning work. I’m always excited to see my students and unveil my brilliant plans I’ve so carefully constructed for them and for myself. Then, just like my students do, I run into reality. My plans will take time and effort to come to fruition. Some of them my turn out to be unsuccessful. I may have to make some adjustments along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but I personally always find it incredibly frustrating when reality doesn’t match up with my carefully organized plans for it! Oh well, nothing to do about it but pick myself up, dust myself off and get my marathon shoes on....

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Peabody '09-'10: Week One

First, a brief intro: As I mentioned in a recent post, I need to get my blogging game in gear and stop letting weeks go by between posts. Therefore, gentle reader, I hereby commit to a weekly post that will sum up any interesting goings-on at Peabody; said post will appear on Sunday.

School started officially on Wednesday, but Bassland was already fully in motion by the previous Saturday. On that day, we heard auditions for ensemble placements. Your humble blogger was joined by his teaching colleague, as well as Peabody orchestra director Teri Murai and chamber music director Michael Kannen. These auditions are useful for everyone in that it gives us a "baseline" (pun DEFINITELY not intended) level of playing that both I and my students can refer to when evaluating progress over the course of the year. As always here at Peabody, the entire audition was videotaped. Students can log on to our computer in Mr. Johnson's studio and see how the audition matched up with their own expectations and analysis. Being able to look at "postgame films" of your work is something we very much value here; we all need to learn how to honestly evaluate the good and bad of our playing, and being able to see our work is a great help in doing just that.

My first cycle of lessons with my own students was fantastic and I'm excited and looking forward to doing great work with them this year. One big difference for me is that this is my largest Peabody studio yet, and as a result I am having to organize and distribute my time more carefully. One of the main topics that I addressed with all my students was deciding what music they would be preparing for the first Hal Robinson class, which is on Sept. 20; I'll be posting more details on this in the near future....

At the beginning of the year everyone arrives at school from differing situations: music festivals, jobs, vacations. A big part of the first week for me is seeing everyone start to transition and focus on the same goals: learning, improving our playing and musicianship, and performing at the best of our abilities. The image I like is of a fleet of sailboats that gradually all turn to face away from the shore or the other docks and head out to sea...

See you next week!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Jason Heath Kudos, August Quarterly Edition

I’d be pretty shocked if there were any readers over here who didn’t also read Jason Heath’s Bass Blog, or partake in some other form of his vast media empire. Between blogging, podcasting, and ISB convention-ing, the guy is pretty much the Supreme Ruler of the Bass Intertubes. He’s also been kind enough to have me as a guest blogger for some time now, which I very much appreciate.

Over the Summer, I’ve had a slew of “wow!” moments while reading the blog - Jason has had a bunch of thought-provoking posts. In my typical way, each time I read one of them I told myself that I needed to blog about (or at least thank Jason for) sharing his ideas with us. And each time, in my typical way, my heat-addled brain would be distracted by some bright shiny object and I’d never get around to it. Now that my vacation time is ebbing away, I’m going to simply consolidate all those blog kudos into one mega-post under the “better late and consolidated than never” theory....
So, here goes:

- Jason’s post on university websites was fantastic, and certainly hit home for me as someone wanting to use the Web and new media in general as part of the teaching and outreach mission of Peabody. I don’t think there is a single university website out there yet that really realizes the potential of even a basic webpage, much less other more “advanced” options involving media and real-time interaction. I hopefully won’t get myself in too much trouble with my bosses by saying this, but a lot of decisions about how much attention and resources go to university music websites are made by folks who either don’t understand their potential and importance, or who are threatened by their own lack of knowledge about the internet. It will take time for often change-averse universities to really make the investment in time and money that will make their websites truly accessible, open and accurate! I’m happy to note that Peabody has made some great strides in this area, especially in adding more timely and useful video and audio to the Conservatory website, but lots remains to be done.
Frankly, if any university wants some sense of how to do it, they might want to survey what Mr. Heath has accomplished for a few inspirational examples....

- Obviously, this post on blog fatigue was one I read carefully. My own blogging commitment has moved in fits and starts, and revealed all too clearly one truth that Jason doesn’t state openly, but clearly demonstrates in everything he writes - blogging is work! For me, it’s good and deeply satisfying work. I like to write, and I like to have a place to put out my thoughts and observations on teaching and playing. And I’d be foolish to deny that this blog can be a useful recruiting tool for me as a teacher and for Peabody in general - many interested bass students have contacted me after reading the blog, and it provides a sort of online advertisement for my teaching ideas and for the Peabody program in general. However, rather like other good-for-me things that require focused commitment and work (such as, say, practicing...), I’m a master at finding ways to avoid blogging. Jason’s post reminded me that I need to set concrete goals (and schedule time) for my blogging life if it’s going to continue to be rewarding to me, both personally and professionally.

- Finally, I wanted to mention his great post on mixing string sets. I’ve experimented with mixing different types of strings, and it’s certainly something folks should try to do. I generally find the string that often is the most problematic for me in a complete set is the E string. On many basses, the response and sound quality of the E string doesn’t seem to end up matching the other three strings as well as I’d like. On both of my good instruments, I’ve tried out a variety of E strings, and on my big Prescott bass I currently use a D’Addario Helicore long E string alongside three Flexocor Permanent strings.

One big trouble with trying out strings is that’s it can be a very expensive thing to try. Strings aren’t cheap, especially the European-made types. I maintain a “lending library” of strings that I loan to students who are experimenting with strings combos on their basses. While the strings aren’t all brand new, they can at least give students some idea of whether a certain string works for them before they plunk down the cash and buy something.

Thanks Jason for all the good summer reading material and keep it up!

What’s that distant rumbling I hear?....

It’s the mobs and legions of Peabody bass students arriving for the Fall semester!

I’ve been enjoying my summer break to no end, and it’s been incredibly relaxing and refreshing, but I’m also tremendously excited about beginning of this year at Peabody. We have one of our largest incoming classes in years, and are looking forward to a year of great work, music-making, and hopefully a fair amount of fun along the way.

After a pretty moribund summer, the blog is going to be warming up as well. Besides the occasional post from me, we’ll also be exploiting our new media empire as we launch our Peabody Bass Department page on Facebook, and join all the cool kids with our own Twitter feed. We’ll be offering more video and audio content, more contributions from students and alumni, and hopefully some guest posts from our new guest faculty members, Faculty Artist in Residence Hal Robinson and orchestral repertoire class instructor (and my NSO colleague) Ira Gold.

Watch this space for all the details...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Beware the Outliers, Part 2

In my last post, I defined what "outlier" means and how it applies to bass playing. In this post I'll make some comments on how we all can cope with, and learn from, outliers - whether we are one or we are learning from one.

If you are a student, you need to seek out the views of lots of teachers and players and notice when a teacher or fellow student seems to have very unusual ideas about how best to play. It doesn’t mean that those views are wrong, but it does mean that you should be a little more skeptical of those views. The person could have unusual, outlier elements in his or her playing style and those may not work for you. It can feel weird to be skeptical of your teacher. The tradition of classical music instruction is to see the teacher as a godlike figure who must be obeyed without question. However, I don't see that as always being the best model for teaching or learning. While we do need to respect and trust out teachers, we also need to remember that our goal isn't to just obey our teacher, but to become the best musicians that we can be. If your teacher is an outlier in some area, we could actually hold back our progress by being too slavishly devoted to their ideas. (WARNING: just because what your teacher asks you to do is difficult or takes time to achieve does NOT mean that it's an outlier idea! While you shouldn't be a slave of your teacher, you should also remember that your teacher probably knows a lot more than you do...)

The other possibility we need to each consider is whether we ourselves are outliers in some way. We are all subject to the law of averages - what works for the largest number of people is by definition the solution that is most likely to work for each of us. However, if that solution isn’t working for you, you then need to consider whether you are an outlier in that area and need to try something more unusual. There are certain features in my playing that I have been told over and over again are “wrong,” and some teachers and players have helpfully volunteered alternate, “better” options for me. In the past, I would gamely try their ideas, thinking that if they didn’t seem to work for me that it was somehow a lack of effort or understanding on my part. Eventually, I grew enough as a person and player to see that in some of these cases it was simply that my solution worked for me and not for them.

If you are a teacher, you need to be very aware of whether you are an outlier! I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have a highly unusual fingering choice, technical style, or playing posture, you should NOT assume that you have uncovered some great secret of bass playing and need to share it with all your students! While that is possible, the far more likely explanation is that you have found an unusual solution for a playing issue and that it will most likely not be the preferred solution for most of your students. I have certain elements of my own playing that I do not teach to my students because I have noticed over time that I’m one of the only people doing them successfully. Only if they are clearly struggling with the more common solutions do I propose something more unusual. This of course requires more work and focus as a teacher; many folks, consciously or unconsciously, assume that teaching consists of showing your students how you do it and having them copy you. Finding out how and why others do things differently, and presenting those ideas clearly and effectively to your students, is not always easy. It can feel like we are diminishing our own playing style and achievements. However, there’s no shame in being an outlier - being the weird one in the room can be fun and quite liberating!

One final comment on being an outlier: there are real differences of technique in bass (or any instrument), and there are LOTS of debatable points that I’m sure we could argue about all day. True outlier ideas aren’t about whether you stand or sit, or whether you use Bel Canto or Flexocor strings, or which of the five most popular fingerings for the Eccles Sonata you use. But if you use a fingering for the Eccles that no one else you know uses,and that violates some basic fingering principle like “don’t use your fourth finger five times in a row,” and you still sound fantastic, then congratulations - you may be an outlier....

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Beware the Outliers, Part 1

Outlier: a data point that falls far from most other points; a score extremely divergent from the other measures of a set.

I first became familiar with the concept of “outliers” when my brother came home from his new job wearing T-shirt of the company softball team - it was their team name! (This job was at a DC policy think tank so I suspect that a fairly high nerd factor went into the name choice...) The term is a basic one in the study of statistics, and is based around a core phenomenon when one takes any kind of survey, or does a scientific experiment, or simply collects data of any kind on a large group of people. A classic example comes from sports judging. In sports like diving or skating, where the competitors are scored by a panel of judges, the highest and lowest scores are usually thrown out. Why? Well, what if the scores happened to be : [7,8,8,6,1,9,6]? The average of these scores is 6.28. But if I eliminate the highest and lowest scores, the average is 7, which is within one point of the scores of all the remaining judges. In this case, the low score in particular is a classic outlier example - it throws off our ability to see the opinion of the majority of the group.

Alright, enough with the math lessons... What the heck does this have to do with bass playing? Well, in a way our study of music and our growth as players is a huge, life-long research project. We are all observing and studying the playing of everyone around us in search of the best and most appealing ways to make great music on our instruments. As we encounter a great musician, we listen to and imitate the elements of their playing that appeal to us. Most good players share many similarities in their playing. The way the position the instrument relative to their bodies, the way they use the bow, and the way they move their left hand are often similar. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of different ways to play the bass well! Still, I’ve studied with and learned from many talented players whom I respect highly, and I’ve heard almost all of them say similar things about the basics of good playing. The differences between them are usually much more subtle than the points of agreement.

However, I’ve also encountered the occasional outlier as I’ve heard and seen bassists over the years. They seem to be doing everything differently than most players I see. Maybe they hold the bass in a very unusual way. Maybe they use very atypical fingerings. Maybe they seem to have more tension in their body than do many talented players. Yet, despite these unusual characteristics, they sound good or even great. Sometimes this is in spite of their unusual technique, or sometimes it may even be because of it. The point is that their unusual technique works for them.

I emphasize those two words for a reason: We all need to remember that the techniques of outlier players will probably not work well for most people! Sometimes these techniques are not even the most effective for the outlier player; they may simply have the innate ability or personal drive to play well despite them. Or they may have unusual physical characteristics that require unusual technique. Or their brain may simply function differently than most folks. Sometimes outliers are actually visionaries. Their unusual playing choices end up working better for so many people that they actually become the “new normal,” displacing older ideas to some extent. I’m old enough to remember the how unusual many of the techniques of Francois Rabbath once were to most bassists.

Things start to get tricky for students when their own teacher is an outlier in some respect and lacks the self-awareness or training to understand this. The student can end up learning a technique that only works for a small number of players, yet they may be led to believe that this is the preferable or the only way to approach a certain playing issue. I have seen players struggle with their playing for years as they try to master a way of playing that simply isn’t effective, yet seem unable to acknowledge that they need to find another approach.

In my next post, I’ll consider ways that students and teachers can deal with being an outlier or learning from one...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Ira Gold's Audition Strategies

As I mentioned previously, Ira Gold, my colleague in the National Symphony, is teaching some of the Peabody bass students of Paul Johnson while he recovers from some surgery. He is also teaching Paul's orchestral repertoire classes, and the students have really enjoyed all Ira has to share in this area. Ira is an excellent auditioner and has had a great deal of success on the audition circuit, and he presents his strategies for how to approach audition prep in a very clear and systematic way. He recently gave each Peabody bassist a list of his ideas regarding audition prep, and with his permission I present it here on PBDB. There is a lot of great material here for all of us to chew on!

Ira's Audition Strategies:

1. Know the pieces you are going to perform.
If you've performed a complete work in school, music festival, gig, or professional orchestra, this is the best way to experience the work. If you have not, buy a recording. Listen and follow along in your bass part to hear how your part fits in with the rest of the orchestra. Listen for tempo, style, and phrasing. If possible, obtain a complete score of the work and follow along with the recording.

2. When preparing specific excerpts from major works, I like to ask myself the following questions before beginning my practice.
a) What is the key signature? This is directly related back to your knowledge of scales and arpeggios, which should be practiced every day.
b) What is the time signature? Are there meter changes in the excerpt? Does the tempo change when the meter changes?
c) What is the tempo of the excerpt? Work on the excerpt slowly with a metronome. Go up one click a day so your body doesn't feel a radical change in tempo. Start at a slow tempo so you have time to prepare for what comes next. If necessary break down the excerpt in to smaller parts. Work on one or two measures at a time until it is clean and clear. If that is too much, isolate small groupings of notes, i.e. two-six notes at a time so your mind and body has time to process all motion. Use rhythms to help with the left hand. For example, the eighth notes in Mozart 40 first and last movements can all be practiced using dotted rhythms. Put the long note on the first note of a grouping of four, then the second note of four, then the third, etc. When doing rhythms, practice them in slurs and with separate strokes.
d) What are the dynamics? Weight, speed, and bow placement are the key ingredients to dynamics. Amount of hair can also play a role.
e) What is the general style? Style for me translates to choices in sound concept, vibrato use, and bow strokes/note lengths.

3. Self-check your playing.
Are you playing in tune? With a flexible and varied sound palette? With strong rhythmic pulse? With phrasing?
Record yourself and see. Be honest with yourself. The more honest you are in the practice session, the more room there is for improvement.
Fundamentals link back to your technical development. Develop fluency in major and minor scales and arpeggios, an arsenal of bowings, bow strokes, bow lengths, string crossings (slurs and separate), chords (thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, octaves, unisons), finger patterns. Sounds like a lot of work - it is. If you've built a solid foundation, making decisions is easier and more comfortable in the long run. Without it, you can always be scrambling and struggling to find something that works.

4. Relationship between you and your equipment
We have to remember that our instruments are channels for our inner voice. Allow the bass and bow to communicate back to you what it's strengths and weaknesses are. Every bass has a threshold of sound before it bottoms out. Don't go past this breaking point. If your bow is spongy, maybe you have to tighten the hair a little more to play louder, or if the bow is very dense and strong, maybe loosen the hair when playing pp, like the opening of Beethoven 5 scherzo. The key is to let your bass and bow work for you rather than against you.

5. Your body
This is probably the most important part. I am a strong believer in remaining physically flexible, long, and free when I play.
Studying and practicing yoga has helped me achieve better balance, posture, and awareness of my muscles. I am more relaxed and play louder with less effort on days when I've done 30 min. or more of yoga before playing. General exercise is good for the body because it keeps the heart healthy and all of the different body systems alive and kicking. Eating healthy is becoming more important in our culture and we all know what the "junk" is that we eat. Consistent quality sleep in combination with meditation is a great addition to our lives.

6. Perform
Playing for everyone you can find before an audition has been my philosophy for many years. It's partially to get feedback, but mostly to create an environment that resembles the actual audition. After doing this many times for a few weeks before an audition, the day of the audition feels much more relaxing and familiar.

7. Your Mind and Heart

All of us get nervous when we play, including me. The importance here is to have a healthy way to deal with your fears. There is a wealth of material to consult on performance anxiety, particularly the Don Greene books. I am a big fan of Stuart Dunkel's The Audition Process: Anxiety Management and Coping Strategies.
For me, I usually view performances as opportunities, not a danger zone. I see it as a chance to present who I am at that very moment. No matter what my strengths or weaknesses are at that moment, being honest with myself and my listeners enables me to be open and giving to an audience. I actually get excited about playing for anyone and everyone. I feel this is why I am a musician: to share my love of music with everyone and everything around me.

8. Audition Day

After a short general warm up, play through a few passages without stopping.
Don't wear yourself out. Have energy stored for "the big game" - you'll need it when the adrenaline kicks in.
As tough as it sounds, enjoy the moment. Performing is a privilege and a luxury that few have the opportunity to experience, so be thankful. The more fun you have, the better the experience will be. I've been at many auditions where I hear folks practicing in the warm up rooms. Unfortunately, there is not much you can fix or change the day of an audition. The bulk of the work and learning is done weeks and months before. If something isn't perfect at the audition, just accept you are doing your absolute best.
If you prepare thoroughly and efficiently, you will always improve and be better than you were before. A successful audition is one in which you play your best.

9. Moving On

An audition is a snapshot of who you are for just a few minutes. It doesn't define your playing, your musicianship, or even your character. Take some time to reflect on what went well, and what could be improved. Congratulate yourself on the preparation, you did your very best. Now it's time to get back to school, work, or whatever is in front of you for the near future. As you go through the audition process again, you'll have some perspective about who you were the last time - maybe you've changed in some ways, other ways you're still the same. It's a process that I believe evolves as you evolve, continuing to create and problem solve.

Remember that being a musician is a life process, and taking auditions is a kind of quirky skill we have to develop. Your mock audition, while not "real", is very real in the sense of your preparation and performance. There won't be a contract waiting for you after your mock audition, but that doesn't mean that your level of commitment through this process is any less important than going for an actual job. Go for it!


Monday, April 13, 2009

Change is in the Air

I’ve certainly hit a nerve with my post on “no-hire” auditions - it’s produced more comments and traffic here and at Jason Heath’s site than anything I’ve written in some time. I’ve even gotten attention from some big-time symphony bloggers, such as my former Peabody classmate Charles Noble, former ICSOM Chairperson and Milwaukee Principal Violist Robert Levine and arts consultant Drew McManus. While I crave traffic and links as much as the next itinerant bass blogger, don’t expect lots more posts on this topic. PBDB is part of my Peabody life, and I plan to keep most posts here on topics that connect to events at school and on my own bass teaching.

We’re in a state of change in the Peabody bass department on a number of levels. In January, my teaching colleague John Hood announced that he was leaving the faculty at the end of this school year. John has been traveling down from Philly to teach students here since 1996, and the toll of the weekly commutes has finally gotten to be too much for him. He will still be teaching bass closer to home at Temple University. John is an outstanding player, teacher, and colleague, and he’ll be missed around here.

Last month, my other colleague, Paul Johnson, underwent some significant surgery and has had to go on extended medical leave for the rest of the semester. He’s doing well and we’re all wishing him a strong recovery, Two colleagues (and good friends) of mine from the National Symphony, Ira Gold and Rick Barber, are teaching his students and classes for the rest of the semester. It’s certainly a lot of fun for me to have them around school. Rick was a student at Peabody just before me, and having him teaching with me at school definitely makes me feel like the inmates are now fully in control of the asylum.... We will be having some guest blogging from them in the near future.

On top of all that, we’re working to set up the details of Hal Robinson’s series of classes that will begin in the Fall. These classes and workshops will be going well beyond the usual master class format, and we’ll be sharing some details on the website and blog fairly soon.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’re in the grip of all the usual changes that come in the Spring: preparing for the graduation of one class and the entry of another in the Fall. We have three graduating students this year in the bass department. In addition, students whom we have accepted for next Fall are in the process of deciding whether to come to Peabody, so Paul and I have been consulting with the accepted applicants about their decision-making process. The departure and arrival of different players and personalities each year changes the culture of Peabody Bassland just a little - we’re a small enough department that each person plays a nontrivial part in creating the atmosphere around here. Once we know who the members of our incoming class are, I’ll start to get a handle on how Peabody Bass in ‘09-10 will feel.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The "No-Hire" Audition: a view from the other side

This morning, I saw a post on a discussion thread at the site regarding the recent audition for principal bass of the Alabama Symphony. I was seeking out information about this audition because I know two of the finalists - one is a former Peabody student, and the other has subbed with my orchestra, the National Symphony. At this audition, despite having four finalists, the orchestra decided not to hire anybody. The TalkBass poster asked a good question: could anyone form the other side of the screen offer any thoughts on this very annoying practice? I've been on committees at the NSO that didn't hire anybody. I've also taken (and almost won) auditions where nobody was hired. At Peabody, faculty members sometimes don't take on any new students, even when they have space and interested applicants. and I have good friends who have also gone through the no-hire scenario from various sides. Given this variety of experiences, I'm going to step forward and offer a few thoughts.

When an orchestra holds a national audition and hears lots of well-trained, talented and motivated players, it can seem completely incomprehensible when they announce that no one has been hired. For students and auditioners, the message they get from this result is usually something along the lines of:

"None of you bassists are good enough! We heard you all and you all stink. No one is worthy to play in our august ensemble. Go away and resume your pitiful lives."

Not only does this seem insulting to an auditioner, it's also transparently ridiculous. The people in the finals of any major audition in 2009 are almost always all excellent and talented bassists and musicians. They have worked hard and are eminently qualified to play in an orchestra. For any orchestra to reject all of them as unacceptable would be the height of hubris and absurdity. This is especially true when those very same players later attain success in other auditions!

The first thing I can assure you is that this is NOT the message that orchestras are trying to send to auditioners. Orchestra musicians know full well how difficult it is to audition, and as I'll explain below, the reality is that in most cases almost everyone on a committee wants to hire one of the finalists in every audition. The failure to hire someone is not a failing of the players in most cases - it is a failure of the audition committee and the modern audition system to properly function and do its job. Here is the real message you should take away from a "no-hire" audition:

"The committee and music director were too divided by artistic opinion, personality conflict, or lack of mature decision-making to select one person from among the candidates. Because of the requirements of the modern audition system, our only solution is to start again."

Anyone who has been on a committee of any kind knows that getting a group of people to agree on anything is a tricky business. Not only must an audition committee agree on a single candidate for a permanent, tenure-track job in their orchestra, they must also then convince the music director that their choice is a good one. Often, sincere disagreements between committee members can grow sufficiently heated that you end up with a "hung jury" scenario, where there is intractable disagreement between factions on the committee and no one can break the logjam. Theoretically, the music director should serve a tie-breaking function in most orchestras, since in most contracts it is he or she who has final hiring authority. However, often a music director will look at a sharply divided committee and not want to take sides. What if the principal and assistant principal disagree? The M.D. might not want to incur the enmity of either first-stand player. Also, the conductor's job in the audition is much easier than the committee's; he or she usually only shows up for the finals and doesn't attend the hours of prelims. For him or her, doing another audition isn't nearly the huge hassle it is for the committee - or especially for the people who auditioned! Thus, holding another audition might be the path of least resistance for many M.D.'s, rather than wading into the politics of the committee and finding a solution.

How can committees be so divided? There are some very good reasons, and some less-good ones. Art is a subjective matter, and musicians may disagree about the type of sound they want in the orchestra, the technical merits of various playing styles, or even whether a candidate is playing in tune or in time. Some committee members may sincerely feel that, for whatever reason, no one candidate has the combination of abilities they are looking for in a lifetime colleague. Some less-good reasons include personal enmity between committee members, resentment of principal players, a desire to "stick it" to the favored candidate of another committee member, or even simple racism, sexism, or ageism (in orchestras where the finals are not behind a screen). I wish that I could say that I've never seen any of these reasons play a factor, but sadly that is not the case. Orchestra musicians can sometimes be flawed or even cruel people, and they can fall victim to their passions as much as anyone else.

In other types of auditions, such as for festivals or schools, these same factors can come into play in various ways. Teachers at a music school might disagree over the merits of an applicant, or might allow their personal issues to bias their decision making. A music festival audition committee might have similar issues.

Does this mean that it is always wrong when a committee doesn't hire anyone? Not at all. Orchestra jobs usually have lifetime tenure - this means that people on a committee may have to live with someone's musical personality for 30 or 40 years. By ensuring that the person chosen is acceptable to at least half of a committee, the audition system makes it more likely that there will be a harmonious functioning of the orchestra as we work on playing well and making music together. But there are definitely many times when the no-hire situation is a default solution for a divided committee and not the best choice available.

As I said above, the vast majority of people on committees in my experience always vote for someone to win the audition. The committee isn't rejecting all the finalists. Rather they are too divided to select just one finalist from the many qualified players.

I hope this view from the other side is helpful. Don't give up....

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Some Random, Very Scattered, Semi-Coherent Thoughts After a Day of Peabody Bass Auditions

- I wish I had eaten more oatmeal in the morning as we didn't have any meal breaks this year.
- One of the applicants had a really nice grey pinstripe suit, which I coveted.
- 2008 was a big Eccles year; 2009 marked the resurgence of Koussevitsky Concerto.
- Everyone started the scherzo from Beethoven 5th upbow this year.
- I would say I didn't start to really lose my mind until the 5th hour. Next year: lunch break for sure.
- One of the applicants had the same name as a student who was in my class when I was a Peabody student; the applicant would have been four years old at the time.
- I was grateful to all auditioners for their hard work and good cheer!

Monday, February 16, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Auditions...

Tomorrow is a big day for myself and my fellow bass faculty - We’ll be hearing bass auditioners all day and into the night. Some of you reading this blog may be among those we hear tomorrow. Or perhaps you once auditioned for Peabody or are planning to to sometime in the future. Even if you never auditioned for Peabody, the odds are good that a large percentage of readers of this blog either have auditioned for a music school or are planning to do so at some point.

There’s tons of advice out there about how to take auditions, especially professional ones. Lots of this advice is very useful, some less so. My own audition process has been helped immeasurably by the advice I’ve received from my own teachers and mentors, as well as from certain books and articles. But unfortunately, one of the things I’ve found most useful in audition prep was something I wasn’t able to experience until I had already won an audition. That thing was actually being on a voting committee for a professional bass audition.

Before I served on an audition committee, I always imagined them as consisting of scowling, bitter pros looking for any excuse to throw me and lots of other hard-working bassists to the curb; they always felt like some cross between the Supreme Court justices and a group of particularly cruel English schoolmarms. When I first was assigned to a National Symphony committee, I had already begun to realize that my impressions weren’t exactly accurate. But I didn’t fully realize how wrong I was until I actually sat through an entire audition. The first thing I learned was that most committee members were taking their jobs seriously, listening closely to applicants. The next thing I learned was how easy it was to tell if someone just didn’t have the technical elements together at a professional level; you could usually tell within a few minutes whether someone had the quality of intonation and command of the bow to be considered for the job. However, the most important thing I learned, at least in terms of how I approached my own auditioning, was this: The committee really, really wanted each candidate to play well, and in particular to play musically. They weren’t waiting for them to fail; they were hoping desperately that they would play well and be successful.

There were several reasons for this. The committee wanted to have excellent players in the orchestra, of course. They also didn’t want their time and energy wasted on inferior playing. But I think the most important reason was more visceral. Simply put, no one becomes a musician in order to hear unmusical playing. We all enjoy hearing great playing, especially playing that is expressive and communicates the meaning of the music. Anyone who could get up on that stage and achieve that feeling for us had our support. I have been on many committees where the members engaged in silent cheers and pumping their fists for the player behind the screen when that player did something particularly good!

Auditions for music schools and conservatories aren’t exactly the same as professional auditions. The goals of the auditioners and the committees are different in an educational setting, and of course there is not the same degree of anonymity. Also, many factors beyond how you play at your audition may be considered in your school applications. Still, when it comes to auditions, the lessons I learned on audition committees still apply. When any applicant comes through the door tomorrow for their Peabody audition, I and my fellow faculty will be rooting for them to play their very best and to make music above all else. If you’re auditioning for us or for any other music school, you can feel confident that the same is true anywhere you go. Hopefully, that knowledge can help you play your best and have a musically fruitful audition experience.