Wednesday, August 31, 2005

downtown Tacoma, with Mt. Rainier in the background Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 29, 2005

Collapse and new college football nicknames

The college football season is upon us, which is not that exciting in itself. Now that the NCAA governing council has announced guidelines restricting the use of Native American-inspired nicknames, though, I have a newfound sense of anticipation. I'm hoping that some of the schools will take the example of the USC Trojans and adopt the names of failed or destroyed civilizations, such as those described in Jared Diamond's extraordinary Collapse: How societies choose to fail or to succeed. These names might help to promulgate sociological and ecological awareness among college football fans. Everyone knows how the Trojans fought valiantly before being tricked and brutally slaughtered; but if these schools take my suggestions, several less well-known but equally unfortunate societies will get their rightful recognition as well!

Mississippi State Mangarevans

With too many people and too little food, Mangareva society slid into a nightmare of civil war and chronic hunger, whose consequences are recalled in detail by modern islanders. For protein, people turned to cannibalism, in the form not only of eating freshly dead people but also of digging up and eating buried corpses. Chronic fighting broke out over the precious remaining cultivable land; the winning side redistributed the land of the losers. Instead of an orderly political system based on hereditary chiefs, non-hereditary warriors took over. The thought of Lilliputian military dictatorships on eastern and western Mangareva, battling for control of an island only five miles long, could seem funny if it were not so tragic. — Collapse, p. 132

If those Lilliputian military dictatorships were battling for control of a hundred yards of gridiron, though, it might make for some smash-mouth football!

San Diego State Dorsets

Each of us can imagine our own scenario for the end of Dorset culture. One guess of mine is that, among groups of Dorset people starving in a difficult winter, the women just deserted their men and walked over to Inuit camps where they knew that people were feasting on bowhead whales and ringed seals. — p. 260

Sort of like the wives and girlfriends of dedicated Dorset football fans!

Florida State Easter Islanders

We know of not more than a hundred pukao [tall cylindrical monuments], reserved for statues on the biggest and richest ahu [enormous stone platforms] built late in Easter prehistory. I cannot resist the thought that they were produced as a show of one-upmanship. They seem to proclaim: “All right, so you can erect a statue 30 feet high, but look at me: I can put this 12-ton pukao on top of my statue; you try to top that, you wimp!” — p. 98

Tallahassee may be nowhere near the South Pacific, but those huge heads would look great on a football helmet!

Virginia Tech Vinlanders

According to the sagas, the first Indians that the Vikings met were a group of nine, of whom they killed eight, while the ninth fled. That was not a promising start to establishing friendship. — p. 209

'Skraelings,' the Old Norse word that the Norse applied to all three groups of New World natives that they encountered in Vinland or Greenland (Inuit, Dorset, and Indians), translates approximately as 'wretches.' It also bodes poorly for peaceful relations if you take the first Inuit or Dorset person whom you see, and you try stabbing him as an experiment to figure out how much he bleeds.... These first contacts go a long way towards explaining why the Norse did not establish a good trading relationship with the Inuit. — p. 261

The Vinlanders might have poor trading relations, but they'd do a great job of recruiting sadistic teenaged linebackers!

Of course, Collapse discusses several more successful societies which also deserve recognition as college football mascots. Here are a couple of those:

Texas Tikopians

Tikopia chiefs each year carry out a ritual in which they preach an ideal of Zero Population Growth for the island, unaware that an organization founded with that name (but subsequently renamed) and devoted to that goal has also arisen in the First World... Much commoner than...explicit suicide was “virtual suicide” by setting out on dangerous overseas voyages... For instance, [anthropologist Raymond] Firth learned in 1929 that a Tikopian man named Pa Nukumara, the younger brother of a chief still alive then, had gone to sea with two of his own sons during a severe drought and famine, with the express intent of dying quickly, instead of slowly starving to death on shore. — p. 290-291

If they could get a few guys like Pa Nukumara on special teams, the Tikopians would have it made!

Navy New Guineans

New Guineans are more curious and experimental than any other people that I have encountered. When in my early years in New Guinea I saw someone who had acquired a pencil, which was still an unfamiliar object then, the pencil would be tried out for myriad purposes other than writing: a hair decoration? a stabbing tool? something to chew on? a long earring? a plug through the pierced nasal septum? — p. 285

The New Guineans' ingenuity will surely inspire some new football plays, as well as new ear and nasal decorations, not to mention stabbing tools!

Jared Diamond's book demonstrates how our civilization is threatened on many sides, like a quarterback facing an all-out blitz: environmental mismanagement, lack of cooperation, overpopulation, climate change, and hostile relations all threaten to sack us deep in a backfield of catastrophe and suffering. If we want to draw up a playbook to avoid this outcome, we don't necessarily need a bunch of 300-lb. linemen, but we will need all the innovation of a pencil-chewing New Guinean, and all the proactive solutions that we can set in motion.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

morbid noises in a lovely room

my Dad and step-mom's conservatory in Lakewood, Wa. Posted by Picasa

I've just been practicing in this beautiful little glass room at my Dad and step-mom Theresa's house. While I am here visiting, a friend of Dad's named Bob was nice enough to loan me his bass, on the condition that we replaced its snapped G-string. Dad, Bob, and another friend named Mike meet regularly to jam in what they call their "hootenannies".

As nice as it is to have a bass to play, it's sort of wretched to listen to. We went to Hammond Ashley yesterday and got a nice Helicore G-string - the problem now is the big, dead gut D-string next to it, which produces a sound something like a small rodent being strangled to death. So my rendition of the 'Arpeggione' sonata suggests a melancholy baritone, lamenting his unhappiness while violently asphyxiating a squirrel. The view of the golf course is very pleasant, though.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Hurricane Katrina passes through Miami

I stayed in Miami during the storm last night, which lasted several hours and knocked out the power. Our electricity just came back on - listening to the news this morning, I realize Katrina did a lot of damage elsewhere in the city. Here, things seem okay so far. People in my building used it as an excuse to have a hurricane party - I took some pictures which are unfortunately quite dark (see below).

I'm planning to travel to Tacoma today, if my flight is not cancelled. Katrina is now in the Gulf of Mexico, sulking around and reconstituting herself for an attack on the Gulf coast. Thanks for checking on me!

Dan flashes gang signs while struggling to keep a bag over his head Posted by Picasa

John looks at me like I'm the crazy person Posted by Picasa

Kristy enjoys the beach, and Dave's plastic covering Posted by Picasa

the next day's wreckage on 21st Street Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

family, revelations, and burdens

I think I've always been pretty open-minded and tolerant of other people's religious practices. I was even briefly part of a weird cult-like organization once myself, so I'm usually hip to any ritual I happen to stumble into, even if I have to mumble along to the words. Which made my reaction at a shabbat dinner at my sister's house earlier this summer seem exceptionally strange - I felt completely alienated and distanced from what they were doing. I couldn't have been much more rude if I had stuck a post-it note saying "not a Jew" on my forehead.

My sister Zoe and my brother-in-law Elliot aren't really hard-core Jews either - it's more a matter of ethnic heritage and family ties, which are becoming more important for them as they raise my nephew Isaac. Their shabbat ritual consists of some tasty sweet bread, which Elliot makes fresh each week, and they light some candles, chant some Hebrew, and pass around this challah bread and some wine for everyone in the house to share, including the baby and their two dogs. After I told them how uncomfortable I felt they were able to set me at ease and explain it all and make me realize that it's all very sweet, a celebration of the life and family they have together.

That prompted a fascinating conversation about our family - my brother Dan was also there visiting, and we realized how the three of us had taken away very different attitudes towards Judaism. Our mother is Jewish by birth, while our father is sort of non-denominational whateverish - still, it was he rather than Mom who got us started going to a Jewish temple school every Saturday morning when my brother and I were 4, my sister 6 or 7. Unfortunately, this was around the same time their marriage was splintering. One of my clearest memories of that time was waiting for what seemed like hours one Saturday outside the temple - Dad had moved out of the house, and apparently had forgotten to pick us up that day.

Divorce meant confusion, fighting, and disorder for me, and my brother and I both seemed to take out a lot of our hostility in that temple class. We were being taught there about all these miserable victimized people, wandering through deserts and drinking their own tears - the last people we wanted to identify with as angry 4-year-old boys. So we drew lots of dirty pictures and made nuisances of ourselves until we got kicked out of the class.

Interestingly, my sister told us about her very different experience of that time. For her, at 7, Judaism wasn't about wimpy passivity, but a lost ideal of familial togetherness and bliss. After we had settled into our very secular life with Mom, she said, she still longed for that sense of tradition and ritual that she remembered from the Jewish temple. When she married Elliot, who grew up in a reform Jewish family, it was she who wanted a traditional Jewish wedding, and who was most determined to raise Isaac according to Jewish customs.

a souvenir yarmulke from my sister's wedding Posted by Picasa

For my part, I've always been pretty skeptical about organized religion. I realize that according to tradition I am Jewish, since my mother's side of the family has always been, but I figure that if I didn't recognize those traditions I needn't identify myself as Jewish - sort of a catch-22. I had one experience in high school that made me wonder about that assumption, though.

It was my sophomore English class, and Ms. Clark was asking us for examples of evil to write on the eraser board. This was 1994, and it's hard to remember what we came up with - no one there had ever heard of al Qaeda, I'm sure. One thing that certainly was on the list, though, was the Holocaust. That is, it was until an evangelical Christian girl raised her hand and explained that since the Jews had been responsible for Christ's death, the Holocaust wasn't really evil. Amazingly, Ms. Clark actually erased "Holocaust" off the board and went on with her lesson.

I was probably the closest thing to a Jewish kid in that class, and I was almost certainly the only person who was going to speak up - still, it was kind of daunting to take on that role. It turned out that the Christian girl also felt terrible about it, she hadn't meant that at all, and Ms. Clark was happy to use it as a teaching point on cultural sensitivity. It also helped me write a really effective college admissions essay, so that was good.

So, returning to the dinner conversation at my sister's shabbat - we were all talking about our attitudes towards being Jewish, and Elliot had some ideas about that as well. He explained how he felt this awesome sense of responsibility to preserve the Jewish faith, knowing the price so many had paid for it. I wondered how, not knowing a word of Hebrew, I could ever take that responsibility, and why I would ever want to. Still, he said, he hoped I one day would, and that I would realize the joy of being part of something so much greater than any individual.

I kind of took exception to that, since in one way or another I think my whole life is devoted to being part of things greater than myself - an orchestra, a tradition of music and literature and ideas, etc. Still, I can see how religion in so many cases gives people's life an added dimension of meaning beyond any of these other things. So it made me wonder, if one day I were in a position to sacrifice myself for a faith, whether I would - or whether I would even have a choice.

Sorry to burden my loyal readers with such a long, navel-gazing post - it's been on my mind a lot lately, though. I recently discovered a wonderful essay called "On Forgetting" by Nicole Krauss which I would recommend to anyone. It's about family history, memory, writing and her own recent novel, which I am anxious to read. As she writes, "There is the burden of memory, but there is also the burden of those who know they must remember but cannot" - that's me, I guess.

Monday, August 22, 2005

a day in the life of bassist Ben Levy

Today a friend forwarded me an article about Ben Levy, a bass player classmate of mine at New England Conservatory and currently a member of the Boston Symphony. The article, "Bass of operations", follows Ben around a day of rehearsals at Tanglewood.

Strangely, I had just been practicing an excerpt book which Ben had borrowed and which still has some of his markings - most mysteriously the phrase "* passive vibrato", which is written repeatedly. I'll have to ask him about that some day. The article makes a big deal out of how wildly successful Ben has been and how much money he is earning, but he seems to have stayed modest and grounded, with the same self-deprecating sense of humor I remember. Ben used to love to enter a conversation on a bizarre tangent, wander off into an even stranger subject, and then end abruptly by announcing his "no pointer". When it came to his playing, though, Ben always seemed to cause people to sit up and listen, and he played with such energy and focus that it was impossible to not get enthused as well.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

my Beethoven Septet group, last Sunday in Kent Posted by Picasa

gimmicks and quandaries at the symphony

There is an interesting article in today's New York Times, "New Overtures at the Symphony" by Daniel Wakin, discussing some of the latest promotional ideas to attract young audiences - cocktails, networking, free t-shirts, video games, dinner, films - as the sub-headline wonders, "Do orchestras want to inspire us, or date us?"

One of the orchestras mentioned is the New World Symphony, which is experimenting with 20-minute long programs, repeated hourly - something to pull in tourists and window-shoppers on Lincoln Road, I imagine, without the commitment of a two-hour concert. I love the idea of attracting new audiences and making orchestral music more accessible. The challenge is always to deliver music of the highest quality, and give people a reason to come back for the full experience.

I got to see another of the promotions mentioned in the article - the Cleveland Orchestra's sci-fi night, with Also Sprach Zarathustra and Holst's The Planets accompanied by space images on a video screen. It was a fun evening, the orchestra sounded great, and there was an enormous crowd - all signs of success. Still, I worry that a generation is being indoctrinated to view orchestras as background music.

We need to find ways to not just pull people in, but help them to listen actively, passionately, and imaginatively - a delicate task, made even more difficult if we've cluttered the concert hall with distractions. As one orchestra official remarks in the Times article, if we depend on gimmicks and giveaways for orchestras' survival, "We are in a lot of trouble."

Friday, August 19, 2005

audition habits, part IV

This is the fourth post on the audition wisdom of Thomas Freer (TF), assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist in the Cleveland Orchestra. TF has developed a unique and practical method of audition preparation, which he explained in two seminars at this summer’s Kent Blossom Music Festival, and which I’ve tried to summarize here. If you’d like to catch up you can read the previous post, or jump back to part I.

The beauty of TF’s approach is that, by practicing the audition as realistically as possible, the event itself will seem familiar and ordinary. This is not to say that auditions will become boring - the excitement and energy should come from the music, not from anxiety about what it will feel like to walk on stage and play to a screen. A few pieces of practical advice from TF may help keep the day of the audition even more comfortable and focused.

1. Be self-sufficient

Sometimes the waiting at an audition can be as stressful as the playing - you can also prepare to wait, though, and bring whatever provisions you may need - food, water, reading material, etc. You often may have limited opportunities to leave the audition site during the day, and it might be preferable to stay in any case. Being ready to wait will give you the flexibility to focus on one round at a time.

2. Be friendly, but don’t treat it as a social function

It is easy to get involved in long catch-up conversations with other players at an audition - your first priority, though, is to win the job, not to network. You don’t need to stonewall your friends - just say, “Great to see you - let’s catch up later - now I’ve got to get ready.” If you are playing late in a round, which TF recommends you try to do - see below - you may actually be able to quiz your friends. Ask what they played, how the hall responded, what they were asked to play differently. The list will almost always remain the same throughout the round, and if you ask the right questions (and your friends answer honestly!) you can gain a lot of useful information this way.

3. Be ready, but don’t be early

Getting plenty of sleep, a good breakfast, and a thorough warm-up - these are all common wisdom for any important performance. An audition is one performance, though, in which it may not be to your advantage to show up a half-hour before you are expected. In fact, TF suggests showing up 45 minutes late if you are given an early time in a cattle call audition - you can always make a plausible excuse, and get to play later in the round. This will give you more time to look at the list, which is frequently announced just before the first candidate plays. Later players also benefit from a panel which has heard a lot of people and has learned what to expect and where to focus.

4. Be assertive and responsive in repeating excerpts

If something goes wrong, and you know you can play an excerpt much better, don’t be afraid to ask to play it again. Even if the proctor is resistant, the panel will usually be happy to hear you - as long as they can hear a difference. Likewise, if the panel instructs you to repeat an excerpt with a different tempo or character, be ready to make a demonstrable difference. You can test yourself at this in your mock auditions - have your panelists give you an instruction, and play it back to see if you really made the change.

While you want to be adaptable and attentive to anything the panel says, don’t read too much into it - it doesn’t mean you screwed up, they may just be trying to see how responsive you will be. Just like in your mock auditions, you need to rely on your own observations and quality control, and play to your own ideals. Of course, the more thoroughly you’ve prepared and learned the excerpts, the better you’ll be able to present a convincing interpretation, as well as to adjust when asked.

5. Be single-minded, and single-pointed

One last bit of intriguing advice - TF mentioned how when Tiger Woods prepares his golf swing, he doesn’t look all around. His vision pattern follows an extremely simple path - ball, hole, ball, hole, etc. We don’t have quite as clear and visible a target to aim for, but if we focus our vision on a single point, and move our eyes slowly between points, we can often calm and quiet our scattered thoughts.

Many thanks to Tom Freer for all his help and advice, and thanks and congratulations to any readers who managed to navigate through my first serialized posting! Please feel free to comment with any additional audition suggestions.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

the last road trip of the summer

This summer I had four long road trips, and the longest one was earlier this week - from Kent, Ohio to Miami Beach, Florida. It took me 35 hours (21 driving, 14 eating/sleeping/staring forlornly at road atlas), covering 1,230 miles. I didn't take too many photos, but I have a few to share.

my car Otis at a rest stop in West Virginia Posted by Picasa

Most of the pictures I took, including the ones above and below, were at a rest stop in West Virginia. This was one of the most interesting and beautiful stretches of highway, running through the mountains, and I found a pleasant place there to stop for lunch.

West Virginian nature, just off I-77 Posted by Picasa

My credit card was getting brutalized at the gas stations, but luckily I found a cheap motel to stay Monday night - the Plantation Inn of Ridgeland, South Carolina. So many of the motels on the highway try to lure you in with "Wireless internet! Free hot breakfast!" Clean and cheap was enough for me - and I got 1 of 2 at the Plantation Inn.

the cheapest motel in South Carolina Posted by Picasa

This little photo show perhaps doesn't quite do justice to the tediousness and boredom of driving across the country by yourself. Still, you can share my joy in the next photo, which I took while operating the steering wheel with one knee.

finally arriving in Miami Beach Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

wasting and hoarding

Yesterday I returned to Miami, and moving back into my room here has been a little like living in a stranger's home. Not that I've changed so much, it's just that I've gotten used to living with the same few possessions, which as the summer advanced has gotten to be more than a few. I gathered all kinds of things - a bunch of cd's, concert programs, a computer, a suitcase of stuff I'd left years before at my sister's house... So now I have to sort through all the new stuff, and combine it with the old stuff, and then there is the even older stuff, hiding in the recesses of my closets - somehow it all needs to fit into a tiny studio apartment in an orderly way. It's all very overwhelming and mind-numbing work, like being an archaeologist, archivist, museum curator, interior designer, and janitor all at once.

I can't help but seeing the process of sorting through this stuff as a metaphor for identity, which is perhaps why it's so difficult for me to throw any of it away! As unlikely as I am to wear my old Catalina Marathon t-shirt, or re-read that Phillip Roth novel, giving them away seems somehow like a betrayal of the person who was so immersed in that goal, or that story. If anything, books are more difficult for me to give away than clothes - most of my old socks pretty clearly aren't getting any better with age, but I worry that I might need some of those short stories again in the future. Those characters might come back and haunt me, and will I be able to find them? Will my memory be enough to contain them all?

I guess a lot of this struggle over stuff comes from insecurity about memory - why else keep all those old articles, pictures, books, if not for fear that my recollections of them will fade, and I'll lose all the wisdom and beauty and joy they represent to me? For that matter, why write in this blog, other than to somehow hold off the inevitable decay into obscurity of all my thoughts and impressions? And yet, the more data I manage to store electronically or in my closets, the more feeble and vulnerable my own memory seems.

Whenever I'm surrounded by boxes and suitcases, I think of that scene in Dante's Inferno, with the wasters and the hoarders screaming at each other, "Why do you waste?! Why do you hoard?!" I'm not really sure why I do either, or even which one I am doing at any given time - for all my regrets, I never can seem to help myself though.

I just discovered a brilliant essay by Nicole Krauss on this subject, titled "On Forgetting." To read it online, click here.

Friday, August 12, 2005

audition habits, part III

This is the third part in a series of posts summarizing the audition advice of Thomas Freer (TF), assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist in the Cleveland Orchestra. The previous post covered some strategies to streamline the preparation process before you even enter the practice room - categorizing the list, compiling recordings, studying tempi, marking your parts. The majority of TF's audition advice, though, was very much concerned with the kind of day-to-day work necessary to prepare for an audition - specifically, how to recreate the experience of taking an audition in obsessive detail; or as he put it, how to "practice auditioning".

1. Consistency: the hobgoblin of successful audition candidates

At its most basic level, to “practice auditioning” is simple common sense: of course we should make every effort to simulate the audition situation, so we can make that situation as comfortable and familiar as possible. You may not have an hour to warm up - so practice being ready to perform in 15 minutes, or with no warm-up at all. You won’t audition in a tiny practice room, so play in different acoustics, and get used to projecting in a larger space. If your audition is scheduled for 10 am, reserve your most intense practice sessions for the morning, so you’ll know how everything feels at that time. Wear clothing similar to what you’ll be wearing on the audition day - you don’t want to be thinking about how funny your shirt feels or how your shoes make you an inch taller than usual. The more ways you can find to approximate actual audition situations in your practice, the better prepared and more confident you will be.

clear the stage, I'm trying to practice auditioning! Posted by Picasa

2. You need lots of warm bodies; comments can be nice, too

In order to truly simulate an audition, of course, you need an audition panel to listen. Most people would agree that “playing for people” is a vital step in developing audition chops - however, the usefulness is not so much in the feedback as the presence of people, and their ability to throw you unexpected demands. Give your audition panelists the clipboards and excerpts, as they will always want to write comments. But don’t let it become a masterclass situation, and don’t reduce your pool of panelists to people who play Don Juan better than you can - their job isn’t to solve your problems, but to sit behind a screen and force you to solve them yourself.

If you play as many mock auditions as TF recommends - as much as 90% of your practicing as the date approaches - you’ll amass an overwhelming array of comments, more than you could hope to absorb. You’ll also inevitably find a few which are helpful, and which you'll want to assimilate into your playing - if every comment sheet has the same criticism, they all might have a point! In general, though, you want to trust yourself, your teacher, maybe another musician or two whose input you value highly - and take everything else with massive doses of salt.

3. Trusting yourself means watching yourself

No matter how many brilliant musicians you are able to corral behind a screen to listen, the most helpful corrections will made by listening to yourself. Therefore recording and reviewing practice sessions, and especially practice auditions, is invaluable. TF highly recommends using a video camera whenever possible, as there are some problems that are just easier to fix if we can see them. Audio recordings can also reveal plenty of intonation, articulation, or rhythm problems, but video makes the process of diagnosing and fixing these problems much faster and more exact.

In either case, a recording is only useful if we are able listen to it and analyze it carefully. As TF said, as musicians we tend to not record ourselves enough, and when we do record we tend to listen back in a haphazard way. He recommended reviewing each take at least four times, emphasizing a different element on each playback:

  1. Time - compare your tempo to what you intended. If the excerpt is in a strict tempo, check to see if your recording will sync with a metronome.
  2. Rhythm - listen to rhythmic relationships, paying particular attention to the solidity and character of the rhythmic gestures
  3. Intonation - concentrate on your pitch
  4. General musicality - now that you've isolated several elements, take a big picture view - are the sound and phrasing, appropriate, and can you hear the orchestra?

Since attending TF's classes, I've listened to a few of my practice recordings in this way, and it's given me an incredible amount of useful information. My previous habit was to listen exclusively to sound quality, or just form a general impression - "I cacked a note on the Mozart, but the Beethoven rocked." Using TF's more systematic approach, I've been able to glean much more constructive criticism - "The Mendelssohn drags in the quarter notes, and the Brahms needs a clearer sense of direction." I'm sure that using video I could give myself even more useful comments, addressing bow placement, left hand technique, and general tension - I may even want to play back the tape a couple extra times to check for grooming errors and dumb facial expressions!

The next installment of "audition habits of a highly effective percussionist" includes advice for the day of the audition, plus some stuff that I didn't manage to fit into the first three installments. Thanks again to Tom Freer for all his help, and feel free to comment with your audition advice and suggestions!

"what a difference a bass makes!"

That was the first thing that Herbert Greenberg, the retired concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony, said after my group played Arthur Foote's A Night Piece in a coaching yesterday morning. Like the Martinu Sextet, which I wrote about a few weeks ago, this is a strictly optional bass part; the score says "a string quartet is sufficient". It's very flattering, though, when a distinguished musician like Mr. Greenberg thinks I've contributed something!

I joked in that earlier post about being a non-essential chamber music employee, but really I've felt very essential here at Kent/Blossom - being the only bass player means a lot of responsibility, and it means being noticed when I screw up! I think it's all too easy to sit in the back of the orchestra and become invisible - to blend in to the point of blandness. Playing a lot of chamber music and orchestra music as the lone bass player has made me more aware of my contribution, giving me opportunities to add my voice to the musical conversation, rather than just mumbling in the background.

a bass section at rest Posted by Picasa

Mr. Greenberg was talking about bass players in European orchestras, whom he sees as much more actively and intellectually involved - he described bassists there as being "professorial", and much more central to the orchestra's identity. Some of the most brilliant people I know are American bass players, like Don Palma, Jeff Turner, Paul Ellison, Ed Barker, etc... Still, I'll never forget playing a 5-hour sectional with Janne Saksala, the former principal bass of the Berlin Philharmonic, working in minute detail on every note of Mahler's 5th Symphony. So I can see Mr. Greenberg's point - there is a certain kind of obsessively engaged musicality that seems to be a unique characteristic of great European bass players.

Ironically, the stereotype I often hear of European bass playing is that they are completely preoccupied with solo playing - all they practice is Dittersdorf and Rabbath, to the exclusion of basic, solid orchestral technique. Whereas the stereotype of American bass players is that we practice nothing but the Scherzo and Trio from Beethoven's 5th. Both stereotypes have their examples, I'm sure, but those examples are mostly to be found among students, trying to figure out how to get somewhere in auditions, and not in major orchestras, where bassists on both continents tend to be well-rounded musicians.

It was nice to hear Mr. Greenberg compare me to all those "professorial" bassists in Europe, and he asked me if I'd every thought of trying to work there. I have sent tapes to orchestras in Norway, but I've never had the confidence to actually fly overseas for an audition. Mr. Greenberg gave me his e-mail address and promised to let me know if he hears of any opportunities. I'm not holding my breath or anything, but maybe I'll brush up on my Norwegian, just in case!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

the flower garden at Blossom Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

a humble proposal

Yesterday I read an interesting post by Davis of blogic, entitled "My evening with the Cleveland Orchestra". I wrote a post on the same topic this weekend, which he kindly linked as well. What especially interested me, though, was the comment that someone in Davis' family sent, correcting his misuse of the word "they're". I've made many similarly silly mistakes, and I'm always glad (if a little embarrassed) to have them pointed out to me.

It reminded me of an idea I had recently - there should be a league of freelance editors and fact-checkers, trolling the blogosphere and editing people's blogs for a modest fee. I'm sure there are hundreds of retired schoolteachers who would love to do battle against cyberspace illiteracy, and maybe earn a few dollars and some recognition as well. I sort of envision it as becoming a competitive, slightly subversive thing, like hackers but with better spelling. The best, fastest blog editors might even attain celebrity status - I can imagine posts like this one popping up:
Can I just tell you how cool it is that the star blog editor redpencil37 visited World Wide Fred today?! In just, like, 14 minutes, she fixed all my wack-ass grammar, and she even noticed that I had spelled the name of my dog Phishy four different ways, all for just $5 a post! Now all I have to do is go back and find all the places she wrote in "[sic]" - that must stand for "so incredibly cool!"
Anyway, I hope my idea some day becomes a reality - in the meantime, I guess all the bloggers out they're will just have to edit there own work. So their.

some friends playing ultimate frisbee in Kent Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 08, 2005

an artful tailor of bass lines passes on

Check out NPR's Morning Edition today for a great remembrance of Keter Betts, a jazz bassist who had a brilliant career, accompanied Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, and died this past Saturday at age 77. I love his analogy of the bassist as a musical tailor, designing a suit in just the right style and fit to clothe the singer, who would otherwise be "buck naked". You can listen to the story online.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

audition habits, part II

This is the second in a series on the audition advice of Thomas Freer, assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist with the Cleveland Orchestra. In the first part, I tried to set out some of his ideas on basic attitude, resumes, and getting past tape rounds. Some of Tom Freer's best advice is about organizing your parts and your practice time to be maximally efficient and productive in your audition preparation.

1. Bring your A list - wipe out your Bs and Cs

A first step after you get a list is to divide it into three lists: the A list, containing pieces you know very well, have performed, feel confident about; B, pieces you have some familiarity with, need some work on; and the C list, pieces you barely know at all. Categorizing in this way can help prioritize your practice time, making a long list of excerpts seem more manageable. The idea is to concentrate most on the B and C lists, with the goal of quickly getting everything into your 'A' list. Ideally the last 30 days can be used to practice auditioning, having already learned all the notes, bowings, articulations, etc.

In order to get there, it is helpful to actually design a practice schedule; focus your most intense practice time on the excerpts that need the most work, and be very disciplined about following your schedule strictly, even setting an exact amount of warm-up time, for example. If you know you only have fifteen minutes to work on something, find a single phrase or concept that you can focus on and bring it to A material.

If you have any "maybe" excerpts, things you hope they won't ask, not only will it test your luck, it will undermine your confidence going into the audition - you want to have an attitude of "bring it", ready for anything they could ask.

2. If you don’t know the tempo, you're wasting a plane ticket

One of the things TF was most adamant about was the need to develop tempo awareness and memory, just like pitch awareness. Playing an excerpt too slow will work against you - they'll think you're unexperienced, overly careful, boring - and playing too fast will be even more harmful. No one wants to sit next to the person who rushes like crazy in difficult passages, and committees hate asking people to "play it again, slower".

The solution TF offered was to be extremely fastidious about checking tempos, finding several different recordings and using a metronome with tap function to accurately measure the tempos in every section, then marking those tempos clearly in your parts. That way, you won't be practicing a vague idea of what the tempo might be, you'll be working from a tempo that a reputable orchestra actually used. Knowing precise tempos can also help evaluate recordings of your own playing, since you can set a metronome and see where you stray from the pulse.

In order to demonstrate that tempo memorization is an achievable goal, TF asked us to give him a metronome marking, just off the top of our heads. 131, someone said - he made little percussionist motions, imagining some piece - then tapped a Dr. Beat four times and turned it to face the class - it said 131. Someone else said 73, and the same thing happened, he hit it exactly. In the second class, he was given 42 and 147, and he wasn't quite as accurate - still, he was only off by 1 on each.

Another suggestion was to play along with recordings, and study the scores so you can really hear the rest of the orchestra when you play. A great tool is an iPod or other MP3 device, which can store clips from several different recordings for easy reference and study. TF told us he has at least five different recordings of each New York Phil audition piece on his iPod.

3. Organize the parts, erase the panic

Another often overlooked step is to organize and clean your parts. Every list is different, but in most cases it is a good idea to have two notebooks, one with the full parts and another with just the excerpts you know they will call. Most of your work will be on the short list book, but the full part book will help you to gain a familiarity with the whole piece, and be ready should they ask you to sight-read a non-standard excerpt.

After compiling your books, you might need to do some more secretarial work - in addition to marking accurate tempi, get rid of all the cluttered, gratuitous markings you or others may have added to the part. We've all seen these markings - don't rush, vibrate, the little tuning arrows, the cryptic scribbles... Last week I saw a horn part on which every phrase was labeled with some kind of dairy product: skim, heavy cream, buttermilk, etc. - apparently this is some kind of breathing system. If it isn't your bowing, phrasing, articulation, or beverage visualization tool, though, it's just a recipe for panic and distraction - erase it!

meticulous annotation, or fear writ illegibly? Posted by Picasa

The next installment contains more of Tom Freer's advice on audition preparation. Click here to read part I of audition habits of a highly effective percussionist. And many thanks to Tom Freer for the advice and editorial help!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

playing with the Cleveland Orchestra

This weekend my colleagues in the Kent/Blossom program and I get to play with the Cleveland Orchestra, under the direction of Jahja Ling. We had a rehearsal on Thursday in Severance Hall, and all the orchestra members were very welcoming. One of the violinists, Erich Eicchorn, even found me at the break and complimented our Hummel last Tuesday!

another look at the Cleveland Orchestra's Severance Hall Posted by Picasa

I sat right in the middle of the bass section, between Kevin Switalski and Scott Haigh, the two assistant principals; Max Dimoff, the principal bass, is playing the Koussevitzky Concerto tomorrow, so he'll sit out the rest of the program. The bass players introduced themselves and asked questions about me, as well as letting me in on some of their inside jokes. It was altogether a really friendly, relaxed vibe, though at one point there was something that wasn't together with the horns and cellos, and everyone suddenly got very intense for a moment, trying to solve the problem. It struck me as an orchestra full of people who enjoy themselves when they play, but also take their music-making very seriously.

I was reminded of my first time hearing the Cleveland Orchestra, when they toured to Chicago in October 2002. It was one of the most powerful concerts I have ever attended - I was so entranced by their performance of Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, I barely registered what was happening when a man two seats down collapsed and had to be carried out in a stretcher. I didn't find out until a few days later that he had died.

Somehow the combination music and mortality that night left me intensely moved. I went upstairs in Orchestra Hall after the concert and locked myself in a bass storage room, where I practiced in the dark until 2 am, trying to recapture some of the sounds still resonating in my memory. I had a Civic Orchestra rehearsal there the next morning, and I thought about just staying through the night, but I decided that was a little overly fanatical so I took the 'L' home.

I'm not expecting anything quite so cathartic or deadly when we play Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol andl de Falla's Suite from The Three-Cornered Hat tomorrow evening. Still, it will be more than a little bit exciting to share a stage with such an incredible group of musicians!

Friday, August 05, 2005

audition habits of a highly effective percussionist, part I

The past two weeks at the Kent/Blossom Music Festival, Thomas Freer, the assistant principal timpanist and section percussionist in the Cleveland Orchestra, gave two presentations on audition preparation and techniques. Mr. Freer has had tremendous success in auditions, and is currently in the finals for principal timpanist in the New York Philharmonic, which might have led me to dismiss him as an obscenely talented freak.

However, I was greatly impressed by his ideas - he seems to have developed a system that takes much of the mystery and indeterminacy out of the audition process. The steps he outlined are challenging and time-consuming, but they are also extremely practical and effective. This is my first installment of a series of postings on the audition advice of Tom Freer (TF).

1. An audition = a competition for employment

Audition preparation demands an attitude of fierce determination, but often musicians go without a clear sense of purpose. The primary goal, obviously, is to win a job, with important secondary goals - to make good music, entertain your listeners, have fun. As TF puts it, an audition is like an exam in which you already know all the answers. Your job is to prepare yourself to regurgitate those answers in the most interesting and effective way imaginable.

2. Resume and tape rounds - be professional, not altruistic

Contact with the orchestra begins with your resume and, in many cases, a tape round - since you have more or less infinite opportunity to perfect these, they should be impeccable. In the case of the resume, this means simplicity, brevity, clarity - the name, address, and instrument need to be right at the top, easy to find, and the next thing should be what your professional experience and what you are doing now. Avoid padding with extraneous gigs and audition results - these can paradoxically make you look less experienced. Audition coordinators appreciate if you write your instrument on the outside of the envelope as well, but don't bother with the cover letter - a one-page resume with your contact information and instrument is all the explanation the audition coordinator needs.

TF’s advice on preparing a tape is first of all to recognize that this is an unfair system - anyone can digitally edit a tape to utter perfection, therefore perfection is the standard that orchestras expect. This means that you cannot afford to spare any expense in producing the highest quality CD or DAT recording - minidisc dubs are not good enough. Practically, this requires a concert hall or other high quality acoustical environment, the highest quality microphones available, and a recording engineer and/or a knowledgeable friend who can save time by operating the equipment and cutting you off on flawed takes. You want your job in the recording session to be just a musician, not worrying about supplies and production.

Orchestras may forbid digital editing, and even ask for an entire audition recording to be done in a single take. Until they begin asking for digital video recordings, these requirements are unrealistic - an imperfect audition tape may be a testament to your honesty, but it will also be a waste of time and postage.

Coming up: Dr. Beat, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tap Function Posted by Picasa

My summary of Thomas Freer's audition advice continues in a later posting - click here to read it. You can read a related post I wrote about a masterclass by Philip Myers, principal horn of the New York Philharmonic.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra Posted by Picasa

WCLV reviews Kent/Blossom's orchestra concert

Last Wednesday's orchestra concert was reviewed by two critics from Cleveland's classical music radio station WCLV 104.9. Their reviews are also published on the web; click here and scroll down to read them.

My favorite comment from Jerome Crossley's review is "what the pizzicato "Scherzando" section of the Allegro assai lacked in polish it made up for in pertness." Classical music critics love to damn with faint praise. The other WCLV reviewer, Kelly Ferjutz, writes that in Beethoven's Symphony no. 8 "the 27 string players were again evident, although seated differently than they had been for the first half." Thanks, Ms. Ferjutz - we do our best to be evident at all times. She had a terrific blurb for my roommate here, who was the concertmaster of the orchestra:
The first-chair violinist, Jakub Cernohorsky of the Czech Republic, exhibited all the makings of a future concertmaster. His solos were assured and tuneful.

my assured, tuneful roommate Jakub Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

following up on last night's concert

After writing yesterday about our performance of the Hummel Piano Quintet (see below), I realized that two other musicians in the group, violist Davis and violinist Morgan, also blogged eloquently on the same subject. We're still searching for the blogs of the page turner and the noisy marker art guy in the audience, but at this point it seems safe to say that in terms of web visibility, we pretty much kicked that Smetana quartet's ass.

I've recently adopted a policy to restrict my blog profiles to people who are dead or can't read English, so that I won't offend anyone or incite stalkers. (I might need to be careful of zombie foreigners, though.) I'll make an exception for Morgan and Davis - these are two of the smartest and funniest people I have had the good fortune to meet. And both from Kansas, oddly enough.

some memorable Kent graffiti Posted by Picasa

Davis is an evangelical Christian, which caused some awkward moments when I first started raving to him about Jose Saramago's novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which is fantastic and quite blasphemous. However, he explained to me that he could not be offended - whatever anyone might say, he could either accept it as true and learn from it, or dismiss it as false and forget about it. I suggested that maybe if someone told him they were going to go burn his house down, that might be offensive; so we agreed that the only really offensive statement is one that presents an imminent threat of harm to oneself or others. I didn't mention to Davis at the time that by that standard most of President Bush's platform could be considered hate speech.

I originally met Morgan at Spoleto in May, then I met her again here in Ohio, and was beginning to wonder why I kept meeting people named Morgan until I realized she was the same person. She sort of has this way of metamorphosizing into a different person without warning. Or maybe I'm just really dumb. No matter which person she happens to be, she seems to always remind me how wonderful it is to make music - at our dress rehearsal, she announced that she was planning on picking out someone nice in the audience, and pouring her heart out in a personal statement to just that person. I asked, what happens if they leave halfway through? I guess next to Morgan, I'm a jaded cynic.

Bassist blogger San Bei Ji added to the flurry of Hummel-blogging at his excellent website.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Schoenberg and Hummel in Kent

I've been trying to think of a good analogy for being the bass player at a chamber music festival. It's a little like being the pinch-running expert on a baseball team, or maybe the sommelier at a restaurant, or a tax preparation specialist - we're not needed all that often, and when we are it's pretty much always for the same few things. Maybe an anesthesiologist at a hospital, or a bouncer at a bar - except I can't break up fights, and I do my best to avoid putting anyone to sleep.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that the past couple weeks - really, the whole Kent/Blossom festival up to this point - has been the exception to the rule. I've played all sorts of strange unfamiliar stuff that I'd never done or even heard of before this summer. This includes the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony no. 1, op. 9, which I performed last night, as well as the Hummel Piano Quintet this evening.

The Schoenberg is a piece I had heard before, but I was never lucky or brave enough to attempt to play it. Luckily, we had an able conductor here, Cleveland Orchestra Assistant Conductor Andrew Grams, and a lot of talented and motivated musicians. The Opus 9 seems to stretch every musical parameter to its breaking point, from tempo to tonality to the very definition of chamber music - there are 15 parts, sometimes scored as densely as any Brahms symphony; yet just one musician is on each part, and the piece requires the flexibility and transparency of great chamber music playing.

Our coach for the piece was the Cleveland Orchestra E-flat clarinetist Dan McKelway. he had a great story - speaking of stretching to the breaking point - about performing the piece on a tour of Musicians from Marlboro. In every one of their six performances the second violinist broke a string on the same note, a fortissimo pizzicato midway through the piece - which really pissed the horn players off, because it meant starting the piece again from the beginning. At the final performance, in Carnegie Hall, the stagehands were not around to open the stage door to let the violinist get a new string. So he sort of wandered around the perimeter of the stage, pushing on the wall panels to find one that would open.

Our second violinist didn't break any strings in the performance, though if he had, I would have been happy to start over again, because I had a great time playing the piece. I only wish our performance had been a little more settled, less jittery. Our horn player Mike said something I agree with, that a piece like that is easy to make sound hard - the real challenge is to make it sound easy and fluid. Sort of like when a great sculptor makes you forget that marble doesn't come out of the ground textured like flowing silk, it has to be meticulously chiselled to look like that.

Tonight we played the Piano Quintet by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, which was a lot more exciting than you might think. Our violist Davis blogged amusingly about it last week. I admit I was a little skeptical of the piece at first - after we first read it I said, "This piece is sort of a joke, right?" and I found ways to sneak the word "trout" into most of my subsequent comments. The piece has the same instrumentation as Schubert's famous Trout Quintet, and in fact Schubert wrote his quintet for a group that he heard rehearsing Hummel's piece. I'm sure Schubert meant it as a tribute to the older composer, but it probably had the effect of driving Hummel's piece into obscurity.

Like his piece, Hummel seems to have spent much of his life associated and often eclipsed by greatness. He studied piano with Mozart and composition with Haydn, and eventually took over Haydn's job at Esterhazy. For a while he was a minor celebrity in Weimar, as the New Grove Dictionary of Music reports:
Hummel settled into a thoroughly bourgeois existence, complete with house and garden. Through Goethe he met the leading figures of the intellectual world and soon became one of Weimar's tourist attractions: without seeing Goethe and hearing Hummel play, no visit to the town was complete.
He had something of a rivalry with Beethoven for a while - they were the most respected pianists and composers of the time, and their disciples had a little bit of Viennese gang warfare going. They patched up their differences, though - Hummel seems to have been a very pleasant guy, which shows up in his music in a tendency to give everyone a nice melodic solo towards the end of the piece, except the bass player. Hummel was a pallbearer at Beethoven's funeral, and at a memorial concert he performed an improvisation on the prisoner's chorus from Fidelio. It must have been a touching moment, sort of like the end of West Side Story, when the Jets and the Sharks decide to get along, or when they spill the bottle of malt liquor over the grave in that Boyz II Men video.

I'm maybe getting a little sleep-deprived and stupid, so I'll spare you my commentary on Hummel's later years. Performing his Quintet was really a delight, and we all developed a great fondness for the piece. We decided that all it lacked to reach the Trout's popularity was a good fishy nickname, so I proposed calling it the Gefilte Quintet - like gefilte, it has a sort of a pungent mixture of textures and styles. We were coached by pianist Jerry Wong, an insightful chamber musician and fashionable dresser in all seasons.

Jerry Wong and the fishy five Posted by Picasa