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.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

PBDB Book Review Dept.: How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care)

How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony (and Why You Should Care) by Ross Duffin
W. W. Norton, paperback

“Don’t even start thinking about this stuff,” said my friend, an excellent musician who does a lot of period performance work. “It’ll ruin your ability to enjoy most music that you hear - anything with piano.” The forbidden topic under discussion: the art and science of temperament and the tuning of the Western 12-note scale. While I can’t say that I’ve had quite the full-on crisis that she warned of, thinking seriously about this topic has led my ear and brain to some unexpected places, and it’s changed a lot about how I hear some music and what I want to do when I’m playing certain music. And the best place for most of us to start to come to grips with this topic is this slim volume by musicologist Ross Duffin. It’s an excellent and highly readable introduction to the (almost) lost history of how we ended up with the scales we have today - scales that we’ve all been conditioned to believe are “correct” but that in fact represent only one of many possible ways to tune the chords and notes that we hear.
I had always been intrigued by the belief, commonly held by composers before 1900, that different keys had “colors” that could be exploited by the composer. Since all the notes in the modern, equally tempered piano scale are the same distance apart, I thought to myself, how they they really sound that different? I figured that this difference must have had something to do with the various systems of tuning that I knew had existed before equal temperament (ET). But I had learned what most music students learned - that these systems also made certain keys sound raw and out-of-tune. I had been told that ET made these problems disappear - that it was the most perfect system and had replaced earlier systems in the way that any superior invention replaced inferior ones.
It turns out that ET was none of these things. It is certainly not perfect, in particular in regards to the intervals of the major and minor third. As a result of forcing the octave into twelve equal semitones, the thirds in an ET scale are pulled far away from where they would be in the harmonic series. The major thirds in particular are stretched far beyond what sounds naturally “in tune” to our ears. Furthermore, ET was not universally loved or adopted by musicians once it was first introduced. Duffin discusses at length the alternate tuning systems used on keyboard instruments, tunings which maintained the purity of most of the major thirds at the expense of the more distant ones. Of even greater interest to myself and other bassists, He points out the many tuning systems that non-keyboard instruments used before the 20th century. The most significant difference in these systems is the true tuning of sharps and flats to make the thirds pure. The result of these systems was that string players and singers were carefully taught to play flat notes HIGHER than their enharmonic sharp equivalents, not lower. Yes, you read that right: flats should be higher than sharps. He reproduces several well-known treatises and manuals of the time showing scale exercises that outline the differences between sharps and flats. Once you begin to wrap your mind around these concepts, and actually hear music played in these temperaments, you start to realize how many varied colors can exist in different harmonies depending on how they are spelled on the page.
An even more intriguing aspect of Duffin’s book is his argument about when and how ET became the dominant system of tuning on keyboard instruments. Most historians allege that ET was the dominant system by around 1850, but he claims that what many at the time claimed was equal temperament was not ET in the way we hear it today, and he demonstrates this by several primary sources and research studies showing that many so-called equally tuned pianos and organs from the late 19th century actually had considerable variation in the sizes of their intervals from note to note - changes that preserved more of the old-style tunings and their purer major and minor thirds.
Duffin is a solid and compelling writer, and he has taken on a challenging task in this book. The book presumes a fairly solid level of musical knowledge, but is not a scholarly work and is clearly aiming for a general audience of musicians and music-lovers. He has a lot of work to do in the book to explain complex principles of overtones and harmony to his audience without boring them or driving them crazy. As a result, he concentrates a lot of information into a very small book. He works hard to keep the tone light and accessible through joking asides, cartoons and illustrations, and biographical sidebars about the various historical figures that he references. He is pretty successful in this effort, a little too much for my taste; I often skipped the biographies and other asides in the book in order to keep my focus on the main arguments of the text.
Yes, my friend wasn’t exactly wrong: reading this book and thinking about these issues can make your brain hurt a bit. As bass players, we are all taught to be constantly worried about “playing in tune.” The idea that the very words “in tune” could in fact have a more complex, and more subjective, meaning than we were first led to believe can feel more than a little scary. But it can also be an incredibly liberating experience to realize that no one has ever had a clear or universally held idea of what being “in tune” is. Western harmony is not some sort of divinely inspired, inerrant system to which we must all surrender. Rather, it is a rickety contraption, full of compromises, tricky adjustments, and just plain wishful thinking - like most human creations. Learning about what those compromises and adjustments are, and what we might be giving up by agreeing to them, is important. Intonation and temperament create the core sound of music, and we all need to try to have some sort of opinion on them.
I recommend this book highly and have been passing it around to many of my colleagues, both in my orchestra and among other teachers and musicians. Take a deep breath and learn the truth about harmony - who knows where it might take you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Return of the BLOG.....

Hello all - I’m back from the (blogging) dead and ready to finally get some new posts up.
My reasons for not posting recently are varied but center mostly around lots of other activities which kept me busy recently. As some readers know, I did a big recital at Peabody this past week, and rehearsals and prepping for that took a lot of time. In particular, organizing and scheduling two quintets with different members proved to be a Herculean task indeed. Fortunately, once we managed to all be in the same room at the same time the rehearsal process itself was tons of fun and musically rewarding. Another reason was the meetings and organizational efforts involved in our recent new faculty appointment here at Peabody. This is something I’m incredibly excited about and I plan to be blogging about it soon. The final reason for not blogging is simple: I got lazy and didn’t make time for it. Like almost anything, blogging is lots of fun but can also feel like work sometimes; remind anyone of practicing?....
Anyhow, watch for some new posts soon, including some book reviews and thoughts on what’s going on Peabody these days, as well as whatever else may dribble into my brain!