Sunday, December 12, 2010
Some of the most cogent comments on this were made by my former colleague Ali Yazdanfar, principal bass of the Montreal Symphony. He pointed out a lot of great things that people concerned about this topic should be aware of. Ali is one of the most successful auditioners our there so we would all be well advised to follow his advice!
It’s understandable that no-hire auditions make folks angry, cynical, and frustrated. I feel some of those things and I didn’t even take the Chicago audition, although several colleagues and friends did. I have no access to anyone on the committee, so my thoughts are purely speculation combined with my own experiences doing auditions and being on committees. But perhaps I can offer both some general and some specific reasons why this sort of thing happens.
Whenever I look at the modern audition process, I remember the Churchill quote about democracy: that it is “the worst system of government except all the others that have been tried.” Despite all its flaws and failings, improving the audition process is a far trickier business than it initially seems - an improvement in one area often leads to more problems in another. in particular, the structures surrounding fairness and accountability in auditions can sometimes seem to conflict with artistic goals.
It seems likely to me that many of the problems in this recent audition are just more severe versions of ones that often lead to no-hire auditions: committee members are divided by some fundamental issues regarding either:
- the qualifications of the candidates;
- the way the audition was structured (invites, timing, audition list, etc.)
- the music director’s preferences;
- or some totally unrelated conflicts that may be job-related or may be entirely personal.
I very strongly doubt, as some have suggested, that the committee didn’t enter the audition wanting to hire someone. No one goes through the long and sometimes tortuous process of organizing and audition and sitting through days of preliminaries unless they have some sincere desire to find the right player for the job. It’s just too much work (and not enough fun) to do as some sort of exercise in futility. That doesn’t mean that some committee members might not have felt that no one was qualified! It simply means that I suspect everyone entered the process with a sincere openness to hiring.
Another very real factor that can enter into orchestral auditions relates to the organizational structure and power dynamics of orchestras in general. Before I discuss this factor, I want to emphasize that I am by no means saying that this is what caused the recent result in Chicago! I have no idea what issues entered that particular process. However, I have seen this factor occasionally affect audition committees, and it is something that can be hard to see from the auditioners’ viewpoint.
The life of a section string player in an orchestra is not one of power and might. You are the lowest ranking member of a system that is still totally hierarchical and top-down when it comes to artistic matters. Your job for the most part is to play well and to follow orders, which is fine in general but can sometimes be frustrating when it comes to your artistic differences with your principal or with your music director - or even with your fellow section members.
And yet there is one place where your artistic voice is important - the audition committee. In most orchestras, you have the exact same amount of power as your principal in hiring a new player. In some orchestras, you even have power over the music director! As a result, section players may use audition committees for displays of artistic frustration, sometimes about things that are totally unrelated to the audition itself. This isn’t fair to the player’s colleagues, and it is especially unfair to the auditioners themselves, but it does sometimes happen.
As long as I’m throwing some unpleasant audition truths out there, I will throw one more into the mix to conclude this post: As long as there are so many talented musicians out there, trying out for so few orchestral positions, the odds of orchestras not hiring will stay high. There is little or no risk to the Chicago Symphony in holding another audition; they can be sure that many musically qualified candidates will appear. The laws of supply and demand give orchestras little incentive to strongly consider the feelings and needs (or expenses) of auditioning musicians. That is unfortunate for orchestras in general, but it is a a reality that players will have to contend with.
Monday, November 15, 2010
If you could go back in time and tell your 18- to 22-year-old self something, what would it be?
Take a break! I worked diligently during those years, almost obsessively, perfecting my craft and giving up social opportunities to practice as much as possible. However, there is something to learning about the world, what is happening in your community, and being a part of something outside of your own schedule. I wish I had been more involved in the BU community, maybe even explore Boston more. The friendships and musical bonds that came from my years there are forever lasting, but sometimes you only live in a place once - take advantage of what a city has to offer you.
What changes have you seen in the last 10 years in the bass-playing world that have most surprised you?
Well, my youngest student Ruby, who just turned 9, can play some tunes in thumb position. Yes, that is a true statement. Through the George Vance method, students are exploring the instrument in boundless ways that I didn't experience until the age of 14 or so. I'm sure this has been going on for a while, probably as far back as the late 1980's, early 1990's, but for me, seeing it first hand now, it's extraordinary. I think strings like the Corellis and Bel Cantos have improved young students ability to make a quality tone at an earlier age. Another interesting factoid is how many Rabbath educated or inspired students are landing jobs in orchestras, and what that means for the future of the orchestral bass world. I personally believe that Francois' message of playing with ease, having a bass that is set up to accommodate every note on the fingerboard, and the use of thumb for many of our fast orchestral passages is allowing us to elevate the standard of orchestral playing. Hal Robinson has noted this before, but in conjunction with the ease of play, recent audition winners are also the finest solo bassists. This is what you see with violin and cello winners, bass has moved in to this arena. It is so exciting to be part of this, and see where it goes.
What challenges do young bassists face today that you didn't have to face when you are in school?
I'm sure the competition has always been there, but it seems that there are so many more incredible players now. Between ISB, national workshops, classes, and symposiums, the high standards of educational institutions, and the level of bass playing in orchestras, the culture is shifting. We are living in a bass renaissance, and are so fortunate to be interconnected while it's happening.
Another point I hear about is that traveling with a bass is becoming more difficult and stressful. I had my flight trunk all through my school days and flew everywhere for auditions and sub work. Airlines have changed their policies about weight restrictions for bass, and this has made booking flights with certain airlines from certain cities impossible. I know AFM is working through petitions to correct this, but the process is probably complicated.
What sort of music - other than classical music - do you enjoy listening to?
I go through phases, but rock is always there. I'm a sucker for 70's and 80's rock, something about the whole culture seemed limitless and unleashed. Classical musicians, although under this veil of sophistication, care, and refinement, need to consider when to "explode" or "erupt" an articulation or gesture in the music. I think there is much to learn about emotion through all styles, genres, and configurations of music. Rock gets at the primal nature of sound in a way that we don't experience in orchestra.
Friday, October 29, 2010
I’ve been meaning to blog for awhile about our newest Peabody faculty member, Ira Gold. Ira has been teaching some of our orchestral repertoire classes for the past year at Peabody, but this Fall he has also started his own private teaching studio. We’re excited to have a player of Ira’s talent, background, and skills joining our team, and I think that Ira’s background and approach will be of particular benefit to Peabody bassists. I have pretty good perspective on Ira’s playing and musicianship, having worked with him on my orchestra (the National Symphony Orchestra) for several years now. He’s also a friend of mine, and we’ve been able to talk at length over the years about many topics related to music, teaching, and playing the bass.
Ira’s educational background has exposed him to many of the most renowned and important teachers of bass working today; in particular, his work with Ed Barker in Boston and with Paul Ellison at Rice University have informed many aspects of his playing and teaching philosophies. He is of course an incredible bassist and musician himself, as the evidence of his playing career attests. However, the thing that truly separates Ira from a lot of other young, talented bassists is the degree to which he has thought about how to teach and effectively communicate these skills to others. It’s a truism of music that to be a good player is not always to be a good teacher - the profession is full of folks who have skills to play very well, but for whatever reasons struggle to explain to others how to follow on the path that led them to those abilities. Ira has done the hard work of thinking through and organizing his approach, and he can provide valuable and easily understandable resources for his students to grow and improve.
Ira recently agreed to answer a few interview questions for me, and I certainly found out a few new things about him. Here is a portion of the interview; I’ll post more of it in the near future.
Tell me one story about an experience that you had with one of your own bass teachers that inspired you or changed you as a musician.
When I was a student at the Tanglewood Music Center in 2003, we had a side by side July 4 concert with the fellows sitting next to Boston Symphony players. I had the honor of sharing a stand with my teacher, Edwin Barker. We performed Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and to say it was thrilling, incredible, goosebump-esque, out of this world, would be an understatement. I witnessed, professionalism, care, the highest level of bass playing, and musical sophistication in seeing how Ed played, gestured, and connected with me, the section, and the orchestra at large. He is by far one of the most thoughtful and engaging musicians I have ever met, and his teaching incorporates the same level of awareness and mindfulness when making executive technical and musical decisions. Since this concert came at the end of four years of study, it was a culmination of all the ideas we had worked through, to finally experience first hand the fantastic being that Ed Barker exudes. When the concert finished, I thanked him for the privilege and experience of sitting together, and he said very simply, "I could hear you, Ira, you sounded great!" Thank you Ed, I will never forget the experience.
When did you decide to become a musician? Did you have other career interests or goals that competed with music for you?
I have been playing music since I was three. I played violin, studied the Suzuki method, and quit around the age of 10. After a short battle with drums for a year, I picked up the bass at 12 and have never looked back. It wasn't until the age of 15 that I seriously considered applying to college as a music major, with the dream of going in to the profession. The goal was to attend a fine music school and study with a teacher that had orchestral experience. I thought that if I did that my study of the orchestral repertoire would give me the best opportunity to land a job in a great orchestra. Little did I know that I played my cards right and everything unfolded the way I had anticipated. The specifics of school, teacher, summer festival, etc worked itself out, but the content of that was a visualization turned realization. Like other young men, I played sports, and had interest in them beyond high school. When it came down to deciding about a career, music resonated more strongly with me as something I could do for many decades, as opposed to a short athletic career.
How long have you owned your current bass/basses? What do you like about them? What do you wish were different about them?
My first Italian bass, circa 1850, has been in my life since 2002. I acquired it shortly before my last semester of study at Boston University. I played my senior recital and the Boston Symphony Section Bass audition with this new instrument, and it was a huge leap from the modern Romanian bass I was playing at the time. The Italian, formerly known as Tyrone, now known as Tyra, since having the Laborie endpin hole installed, is a beautiful chocolate brown color, and the sound is similar in description. The shoulders are extremely easy to get around, despite the bottom bout being much wider.
I have had numerous successful auditions, recitals, and competitions on this bass, and it has been a friend to me. The ironic part of all this is that it was previously owned by H. Stevens Brewster, the former Principal Bass of the National Symphony before Hal Robinson took the post in 1985. Mr. Brewster sold the bass to a student, who, went to grad school at Rice University, studying with Paul Ellison, and then became an established jazz musician in Houston. Then the bass goes back to Rice University, but now in my hands, as I study with Mr. Ellison, and then back to the NSO in 2005.
I recently purchased another fine Italian bass, also from the mid 19th century. This one is even smaller than Tyra, and also a wonderful sound throughout. It was owned by the late Kenneth Harper, former Assistant Principal Bassist with the Colorado Symphony. Ken was my teacher for two summers at the International Festival Institute at Round Top, and we stayed friends for years. Ken was one of those guys that just stayed engaged in lessons, conversation, concerts, without any notion of not being present. He was the most giving teacher I've ever had, and he taught me so much about music, life, and the orchestral world. Ken's bass brings me joy, not only because it is one of the finest basses I've ever played, but because Ken's spirit is very much a part of the sound, vibration, and character of the instrument.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
This year is going to be an action-packed one at Peabody Bassland as per usual. 22 bass students will be haunting our little square block in Baltimore this Fall, attending classes and generally being amazing. As things are currently structured, there will be either a recital, solo repertoire class, or teaching day with Hal Robinson once every two weeks. And that's just for starters - once students begin scheduling degree recitals, playing in chamber groups, and thinking up other crazy projects, the schedule will grow even denser. And that's not counting all the weekly lessons, orchestra classes, and orchestra rehearsals.
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Do I have what it takes?
In this part, we’ll look at the next step in the process:
After we ask ourselves, who else should we ask this question?
I think that the best way to start looking at this is to flip it over and look at it from the other side. What do we need to have in order to succeed as a professional musician? Here are few I think are important. Some are more essential than others, and some aren’t strictly necessary, but they all make success in music more likely:
- Musical talent, including but not limited to a good ear, a sense of good sound, and rhythmic skill. We all can work to improve in these areas, but if you have major deficits in any of them it can be very tough to catch up to the necessary levels for career success.
- An ability to effectively organize one’s own work and practicing.
- A strong drive to succeed - this can mean having a competitive nature, but it primarily means an intense need to complete any task that one starts, and a desire to always do one’s very best.
- A supportive family and friends.
- Adequate financial resources to help pay for school and to afford a good instrument and necessary supplies.
- Good academic skills so that your school work doesn’t take up too much time or effort.
I’m sure that you can think of more things to add to this list, but these are a good group to start with. Ask yourself: Who from among my friends, teachers, and family knows me well enough to tell me whether I have some of these things? The answer may be different for each item on the list. Your music teacher is probably a good source for an assessment of your musical talent, but may not know much about your financial situation or your academic talents. Your parents may be highly supportive and you may have lots of financial resources, but they may not be well qualified to tell you whether you have good intonation.
As you think of people whom you feel could offer you some insight on these questions, go ask them. When you do, try to be specific and explain that you’re trying to figure out whether to choose a music career - this way they can make sure their answers reflect on your goals and don’t end up getting off topic. I encourage many students to ask for answers in a written form - usually email. Face-to-face or telephone conversations by their nature can sometimes make it difficult for people to express thoughts that they might be uncomfortable with, and it can also be harder to organize your thoughts when you’re in a conversation with someone. You want to person you’re asking to have a chance to reflect and pick the right words to express their feelings and opinions. It also can help to have a written text to refer to later. When we don’t have a written record, we can forget or even unconsciously reinterpret what someone said to us.
No one person knows everything about you or completely understands you, and you shouldn’t base your decisions about your career on any one person’s opinion. It’s even possible that someone may give you an incomplete, biased, or even dishonest answer to your questions, for reasons good and bad. But it’s just as true that none of us can ever have a totally accurate picture of ourselves! We need the opinions of others to help us make important decisions, and by collecting the views of others we can start to get a sense of whether our own self-image is accurate or whether we need to reconsider some of our beliefs about ourselves.
In the next section, we’ll take a look at how to start to use all this information and self-reflection to make the best decision we can about our futures in music.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Saturday, March 13, 2010
I’ve addressed a variety of topics here on PBDB, and almost all of them are based on conversations with bass students that I have had over the years. People ask me for advice on music school choices, technique questions, instrument purchases, teacher options, and almost any other question that could possibly seem relevant to a young bassist who is looking for ways to grow and improve as a musician. I certainly don’t always have the best or even a useful answer to their questions, but I try my best to be as helpful as I can based on my own experiences and knowledge.
However, there is one question that students very seldom ask me. This question is incredibly important, so much so that sometimes I choose to ask it of the students themselves. It’s no surprise that this question is often avoided by even the most inquisitive students. It’s a question that we all ask ourselves, but seldom do we feel sufficiently comfortable with anyone else to ask them:
Do I have what it takes to be a professional bass player?
I want to look at three aspects of this question:
- what keeps us from asking it in the first place,
- when and to whom we should and shouldn’t ask it,
- and how we can evaluate others’ responses to find the best and most complete answer.
The short answer to what keeps most of us from really asking this question is a four-letter word that starts with F - fear. If you’re even asking this question of yourself, you probably already want to be a professional musician on some level. Our society generally doesn’t steer lots of people into classical music or jazz careers. Even if you have a supportive family or teacher who are encouraging you in music, there are still lots of other societal pressures pushing almost all of us in the other direction! Asking ourselves this question means that we are acknowledging that there might be an answer other than “yes,” and no one likes to hear the word “no” when they truly want something. This is actually even more true when our own teachers and parents are telling us that we do have what it takes for a musical career. These people are usually people that we love and respect, and their opinions mean a lot to us. Asking ourselves these questions might also mean confronting the possibility that these revered authority figures might be wrong, or at least misinformed, about something important to us, and that can be a scary realization in and of itself.
This question is also hard to ask because it is fundamentally a question that asks people to tell us what they really think of us, and regardless of who we are and what our passions and interests are, that is a tough thing to do! It requires some trust and even intimacy with the person we are asking. If we feel that we are organized and mature people, and someone tells us that they think we aren’t, that can affect or even destroy our relationship with that person. For most of us, our feelings about music are deeper than our feelings about our skills at arithmetic or essay writing. Music is (among other things) about expressing ourselves and communicating our deepest feelings to others. Our self-image and our self-esteem can be intertwined with our feelings about our musical abilities, and finding out that others’ image of us isn’t the same as our own self-image can be a jarring and sometimes painful experience.
FInally, another reason that we hesitate to ask this question is that we are asking ourselves and others to predict the future with this question, and we all know that predicting the future is a highly inexact science at best. My best friend in college and I used to periodically play at predicting where each of us would be in twenty years’ time or so. We tended to get pretty ridiculous with our fortunetelling, often seeking to transplant one or the other into some bizarre, exotic location or weird relationship. I speak for both of us when I say that our lives and musical careers have both turned out in ways totally different than either our “realistic” predictions or our bizarre fantasies! No one who heard me play bass when I was 17 years old could ever have been accurate in judging the course of my musical life. However, many of the predictions that my private teacher and other musical authorities in my life at the time offered have largely come true. The collective wisdom of the people who truly knew me as a person and a musician was largely trustworthy, and I’m glad I listened to it and took it.
So, should we ask this question? Yes! If we want to have the courage to pursue a musical career, we need to have the courage to overcome all the obstacles that I’ve listed
above and collect the information that will help us make a good decision. Success in music requires us to “grow up” faster than a lot of our non-musician friends. High schools and colleges are designed to help and support students who are unsure of what they want to do with their lives. In fact, they are organized around the idea that you will use high school and college to begin to figure out what you want to do with your life. To decide to go into music as a career usually means that we need to make these sorts of decisions - and have these sorts of tough conversations - years before our society makes most young adults decide on a career path. It takes maturity and a realization that you’re on a slightly different path than everyone else to go into music. Looking at your suitability for this career in an honest way is essential.
In the next chapter, we’ll look at the next aspect of this topic: Whom we should ask this question, and what specific questions we need to ask to make sure we’re collecting good information that can help us sort out our choices.