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....