Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bach video

As promised, here's a clip from my first experiment with digital video. It's the beginning of the Bach First Suite Prelude. Please excuse the camera work (I filmed it myself), the truncated length (YouTube cut me off), and the intonation (my fault!)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Calgary story links

In order to facilitate easier reading, here are links to all the parts of my Calgary audition story. Thanks to Jason Heath and to a bunch of musicologists for linking, and to everyone for reading!

part I: months before
part II: weeks before
audition aside: thoughts on practicing
part III: getting there
part IV: the day before
audition aside: the waiting game
part V: the prelim round
part VI: the semifinal round
part VII: the final round
part VIII: parting thoughts

waving away the flies

Obviously as a new player, you might need to spend more time learning notes, but my advice (since you asked) would be to focus on some general things in your playing. And that dovetails very nicely into what is my first question back to you. Winning an audition is an affirmation. It is easy to make too much of it. But you seem to be taking the responsibility seriously and not resting on that affirmation. So I want to turn that around and ask what about your playing do you want to improve most, and how do you intend to go about it?

- Michael Hovnanian, from a post on CSO Bass Blog
This question has been rattling around for the last two weeks, searching for a suitable answer - thoughtful, entertaining, maybe slightly amusing, but without being glib. You can see I have the tone all picked out, but I'm still at a loss about the substance!

This last week my new camcorder arrived, so I've gotten to watch and listen to my playing - in excruciating digital clarity and 5.1 channel surround sound. Seriously, it can be a major shock to actually watch myself play, all those bizarre gestures and facial expressions. Once I figure out how, I'll try to post some video up here, so you can all share my embarrassment!

A little humiliation and self-loathing can be good things though, at least in small doses; they drive out all the complacency! Maybe that's what Michael was going for with that question, actually. I'll write a proper answer soon, I hope - please let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions!

An empty mirror and your worst destructive habits,
when they are held up to each other,
that's when the real making begins.
That's what art and crafting are.

A tailor needs a torn garment to practice his expertise.
The trunks of trees must be cut and cut again
so they can be used for fine carpentry.

Your doctor must have a broken leg to doctor.
Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested.
Whoever sees clearly what's diseased in himself
begins to gallop on the way.

There is nothing worse
than thinking you are well enough.
More than anything, self-complacency
blocks the workmanship.

Put your vileness up to a mirror and weep.
Get that self-satisfaction flowing out of you!
Satan thought, "I am better than Adam,"
and that better than is still strongly in us.

Your stream water may look clean,
but there's unstirred matter on the bottom.
Your sheikh can dig a side channel
that will drain that waste off.

Trust your wound to a teacher's surgery.
Flies collect on a wound. They cover it,
those flies of your self-protecting feelings,
your love for what you think is yours.

Let a teacher wave away the flies
and put a plaster on the wound.

Don't turn your head. Keep looking
at the bandaged place. That's where
the light enters you.
And don't believe for a moment
that you're healing yourself.

- from a poem by Rumi, The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks, p. 141-2

Monday, May 21, 2007

Seraphic Fire's "Sway"

Yesterday afternoon I heard Seraphic Fire, Miami's professional chamber choir, performing a concert of Baroque and contemporary music, mostly sacred and by Latin composers. At first glance they seem a lot like the New World Symphony for vocalists, with exciting programming and young singers just launching their careers. Unlike New World though, most of Seraphic Fire's members live outside the area, and they fly in for a week of rehearsals and concerts every month or so. It's a bit like the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra, a group I got to play with in Boston.

The program was entitled "Sway", and it gave you an idea how a Sunday afternoon in Lima, Peru in the 1690's might sound and feel (the air conditioning in the church was broken, so that possibly contributed to the atmosphere). A lot of gorgeous, soaring music came at us antiphonally from all sides, and then a secular song praising the sun, accompanied by guitar. Later in the program they featured a world premiere by Seraphic Fire member Alvaro Bermudez, and another by Sydney Guillaume, a young Haitian composer living in Miami. And they were joined by the Coral Reef High School's choir in a contemporary mass setting by Ariel Ramirez, Misa Criolla, with operatic solo tenor and baritone voices over a swaying Latin beat, accompanied by guitar, churango (a smaller guitar, like a mandolin), and bombo (a drum). Sacred or not, the music was grooving, the choir was swaying, and you almost wanted to get up and start dancing along.

Next season Seraphic Fire will be back performing in Miami Beach's Community Church, along with churches in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables, and their debut in the Carnival Center with Handel's Messiah. They'll also sing a Schubert Mass with the New World Symphony, next April at the Lincoln Theatre.

that conduciveness thing

The New World Symphony just got written up in the Toronto Star, by classical music critic William Littler: "An attitude conducive to music-making". Littler found some Toronto natives to outline the program's assets:

"I want to be an orchestral musician and the New World Symphony is preparing me. I couldn't be in a better place at this moment," says 27-year-old Toronto violinist Ann Okagito.

Toronto clarinetist Robert Woolfry [sic], 29, agrees, pointing out that "we are all here trying to get a job and having a great experience at the same time. I already hear my playing improving because of the high standards."

That should be Robert Woolfrey (shown here), and I guess he and Ann are both better at sticking to talking points than I am! Or maybe Dan Wakin worked harder to dig past all the application-brochure stuff. Littler goes on:

"I knew there were great musicians being trained in Toronto," says Michael Linville, dean of musicians. "But we aren't just interested in people who play at a high technical level. We are looking for people who have a lot of personality in their playing and a good attitude."

Ah, yes, attitude. Symphony orchestras are notorious repositories of cynicism and discouragement. It was his discovery of this truth, Linville suggests, that helped motivate Michael Tilson Thomas to found the New World Symphony Orchestra all of 19 years ago.

One of the continent's foremost conductors, Tilson Thomas has stayed loyal to his Florida project despite demands of an international career and the music directorship of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He has done so with the not-so-hidden agenda of vanquishing negativity in the mindset of symphonic musicians.

"When I was a young musician," he recalls, "among veteran players in orchestras I noticed many were dissatisfied and blasé, yet there were others who, after 30 years, were still inspired. So I asked myself, how do you get to be like the people who still have joy in their work? And it turned out that they were the people who were in love with the process of music making.

"I see that attitude with my young colleagues here. Every member of our faculty feels the same way. And they realize that music making is not just about them as individuals. It is about communicating with a larger world."

I have heard MTT describe this before - he sometimes sounds a bit like Peter Pan, wondering why all the other children had to grow up and get so jaded. I'm ususally pretty idealistic myself - I wonder if that got me in? - yet I had never thought of New World as specifically addressing this issue, or selecting for positive outlook and attitude. It sort of gives a new meaning to 'affirmative action', doesn't it?

I wouldn't make too much of the attitude factor though, or suggest applicants start walking into their New World auditions with grins plastered on their faces. I doubt Tom Hadley will be impressed, and as he knows, it's very hard to accurately screen for a love of music making. We all have that love, but the audition process itself can often grind it away and obscure it - and here at New World, where the audition process never ends. If you're not taking one, the girl next door is, and she probably wants to play some excerpts for you and hear what you think. So we depend on our fellow musicians to give us encouragement - in addition to corrections and criticism - and to help us maintain a positive attitude.

Often, I feel like that's the most important thing I can offer someone, especially a harp or clarinet player whose techniques and excerpts I barely understand. I still love to listen to them, and I try to ask helpful questions - what kind of character and color do you want to create here, what is the committee looking for there, do you have an image or a story that helps you start this one? Okay, maybe your rhythm went haywire there, but what is the style and groove you want to project overall?

For the past few weeks since the season ended, New World has felt less like an orchestra than a support group for audition-afflicted musicians! I feel much less afflicted than I have in the past, though I also have a lot of new goals and plans I'm trying to realize. Even if none of them work out though, I hope that I always maintain the qualities of joy and inspiration that MTT talks about, even when I'm far from Florida and way past Peter Pan age!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part VIII

...this is a continuation - the last! - of Calgary audition odyssey, part VII...

After Tim announced the committee's decision, they all congratulated me, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. They asked me how long I had been down at New World, where I had gone to school, etc... It was kind of strange - I had spent months preparing for this day, deliberating over all the musical details, and issues of how I wanted to present myself to these people. And now here they were, introducing themselves, and I couldn't think of anything to say, except "Thank you!" I wished I had a speech prepared, because I thought if I tried to express what was on my mind it might sound like a ecstatic Howard Dean scream!

That night I came back to the hall to hear the orchestra's concert, with Music Director Minczuk conducting Dvorak 9, the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F with soloist Stewart Goodyear, and a piece by Canadian composer Harry Freedman. It seemed like a relatively adventurous program, with the jazz influence tying into the symphony's 'New World' subtitle, and the orchestra sounded fantastic - I may have been biased, but I was really impressed!

I was sitting in the stage left choral risers behind, looking down directly over the bass section. The second movement of Dvorak 9 begins and ends with a chorale for the bass section soli, and they had a beautiful sound and intonation. They all play French bow, and I had been told that 4 of the 5 studied with Lawrence Hurst at Indiana - all of which seems to make me the odd duck in the section! Still, I liked their sound and energy so much, and I hoped I'd find a way to mesh.

I spent a lot of the concert trying to attach names to faces and get to know the musicians before I met them personally. I think you can get a sense of musicians' personalities by watching them perform, though in an orchestra there's a certain amount of melding and blurring of personalities. The next day as my connecting flight was about to land in Houston, I struck up a conversation with the people next to me, asking them about Calgary, and the man behind us overheard - it turned out he was the principal trumpet in the Calgary Phil! I had been sitting in front of him the whole flight without even recognizing him. He was very nice, a Houston native who has lived in Calgary for 30 years, and he described the orchestra as a big family, with all the fun and closeness and dysfunction that implies.

It occurred to me that joining a new family isn't something to be taken lightly - we can't help but change the group, and it changes us as well. Still all flushed with audition victory, I started thinking, what could I contribute to this orchestra, and to this city? Those questions have always been there, and I like to think I've made a slight positive impact on New World and Miami. We're so focused and driven on advancing our careers, though, that the larger purpose can get lost.

I sort of feel like a guy who has been lost at sea, trying to swim to any ship he could find. And now I've found one, and it's pulled me on deck - but who knows how seaworthy the ship is, whether the navigator has a map, or if anyone on board knows how to cook? And where are we all headed, and how are we going to keep the cargo from getting moldy? Of course I have the highest hopes, and I feel like I'm joining an awesome group of people - but still there's a sense that I won't have done my job unless I can make it even better.

My other analogy - I promised some analogies in this post! - is that an audition is a bit like the process of conception, at least the part that takes place in the Fallopian tube (I'll leave the nudity and the groping for another time). There are all these sperm, focused on a single goal. Some of them get lost or sidetracked on the way, others do everything right but just come up a bit short - and an incredible amount seem to get wasted. They all go on to other goals and victories though (unlike actual sperm) - and even the one that does reach the goal has lots more work to do. In some ways the real work hasn't even started. There's a whole lot of combining, sorting, dividing, and developing yet to come, and all our training and preparation are like the genetic code: they might determine our eye color, but they won't teach us how to look and see and understand.

To get philosophical for a second: the real work, that of becoming good musicians and good people, has been going on all along. I think it's important to have a larger mission in preparing for an audition, but that mission didn't begin when the list came in the mail. It began before we picked up the instrument, maybe before we even existed - not in our zygotes and chromosomes, but in ideas and insights that we've learned and absorbed, from our teachers and our lives. We're just passing on the ideas and the habits we've learned from others - always trying to refine and renew them, through the filters of our own experience - and that work keeps going, long after the audition odyssey ends.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

procrastination explanation

I've been putting off writing back to Michael Hovnanian, and writing the last installment of the Calgary audition story. This time I'm not on a Facebook bender or any similarly obsessive behavior - well, okay, I have been hooked on Sex and the Beach lately - but mostly, I've been sorting through my music library (shown above).

It's been taking up most of my floor all week, I just consolidated it into this big stack. I was inspired by Jason Heath's most recent conversation with bassist Ira Gold, who talked about the materials he studied and still uses in his teaching and practice. I realized I have a ton of music, some of which I've barely looked over - and much I had forgotten I owned!

I've been cataloging my collection on my computer, and it's been a surprisingly fun project. I've pulled out several things I want to study and perform soon, like Peter Askim's Edge and Hans Werner Henze's Serenade, both for solo bass. I'm going to try and put together a recital in July, somewhere in Las Vegas. Also I've been looking through the Rabbath method books, which my colleague Jory Herman kindly loaned me.
I think it's a fantastic method - and maybe I can discover the secret of why Jory sounds so good, since he obviously worked the covers off of them!

My other recent addiction has been the new album by Pink Martini, "Hey Eugene!" Yes, that's a woman with a beehive hairdo crouching in a bathroom - they're just that stylish, that they can pull that off, and then do songs in French, Japanese, Arabic, and Russian. All the languages would be a gimmick, except they do those songs so well, with sparkling arrangements, tight grooves, and a fabulous singer named China Forbes. Check out any of their albums, you won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part VII

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part VI...
Audition flashback: May 2003, the morning after the Chicago Civic Orchestra's last concert, I fly down to Naples, Florida for the Naples Philharmonic section bass audition. I catch a 7 am flight, and I am scheduled to play at 1 pm the same day - unfortunately, my bass doesn't arrive! I find out it was left behind in Chicago's Midway airport.

Having nothing else to do, I rent a car, drive to the audition, and explain the situation. The orchestra staff is unbelievably nice, they tell the committee and one of the bass players offers to let me use his bass. He'll go and get it at the lunch break, so I'll have an hour or so to practice on it before I play. In the meantime, I study my excerpts, trying to imagine how I can possibly bring them off on some unfamiliar bass. I borrow a German bow from a friend at the audition, go in without expecting anything, and just let it fly. They advance me to the semifinals, and then later to the finals.

I'm one of four finalists, and each of us plays through the Beethoven 9 recitatives with music director Christopher Seaman conducting. It's the farthest I've ever gotten in an audition, and this bass and I have barely met eachother - somehow though, I'm pulling out all the stops and playing beyond myself.

Not far enough, though - the position goes to Matt Medlock, who has been subbing in Naples for most of the season, and they name me runner-up. The next morning I drive back to the airport and take home my unopened bass trunk, which has just arrived for its first brief visit to Florida...

As I unpack my bass in the warm-up room, I'm trying to remember all the positive aspects of that audition four years ago - and not the disappointment of being runner-up. It's a fantastic accomplishment, making the finals and all; but I spent months afterwards trying to figure out how it went so well, and why it just wasn't good enough. The conclusion I reached was that my instrument couldn't make or break me - without it, I had to focus more on the musical qualities I wanted to project, and that was liberating. But how to recreate that experience, to depend entirely on your ear and intuition without worrying over technique? It seemed as though I would have to let it go as a freak occurrence, the discovery of a great potential I could never really tap into again.

But now I'm in a strikingly similar situation, about to play the same recitatives conducted by the Calgary Phil music director, Roberto Minczuk (shown here). Can I summon up the freedom, let go of all the technical nuts and bolts, and be in the music as I was back then? There is a certain amount of baggage handling that goes with playing the same instrument every day - this string needs extra tweaking, this note speaks funny, or that stroke won't start without a certain nudge... We become like tinkerers rather than artists. Without sacrificing my sound and facility, I want to let all that tinkering go, to become a vessel or instrument myself, so I can follow every nuance that Minczuk wants.

First, though, I have to play Mozart 40 - some of the most technically tricky excerpts in the literature. It's the main theme of the movement, but now transfigured into a call and response between the basses and the violins, interspersed with driving eighth note passages. My NWS colleague Matt Way came back from his Rotterdam audition (where he was also - yikes! - runner-up) raving about how they play Mozart in Europe - all of the passagework so active, full of dynamics and life and direction, even when the only marking is a simple f. I don't want to be over-the-top, but I try to bring out the direction and shape, leaving some room to develop the rising scales all the way to the peak, and then phrasing with the violin theme through all those repeated A's.

The last movement excerpts are even faster, and just as thorny technically. My fingering was a gift from Paul Ellison, one of those fancy thumb maneuvers that I never would have thought of on my own, but it actually works wonderfully. It saves me some nasty string crossings as well! Paul talks about achieving such fluidity in these licks that he actually dared the conductor to go faster - wave your stick as fast as you can, I'll still nail it. I wouldn't go that far, but I do play them both pretty damn fast, so that when I finish I'm wound up and a little breathless.

And now comes Beethoven 5, the Trio only - which was in the prelim, and I felt good about. Could there be some twist, something they're looking for that didn't come across the first time around? I don't want to second guess the committee, though. I play it around the same tempo, the same articulation and try to emphasize the direction in all those quarter notes, and the bounding 3-1 quality of the time. And they don't say anything - Maestro Minczuk rises from his seat, and joins me onstage.

This is one of the strangest moments. As an orchestral bass player, I'm most comfortable at a distance of 20 feet or so from the conductor - I've almost never sat closer than 10. And yet, now he's about 5 to 7 feet away, off to my right, and I'm turned towards him so the committee is watching both of us in profile. I briefly consider where to put my music, and decide I'm not going to look at it anyway, so the less obtrusive, the better.

He raises his baton, and gives me two quick preparatory beats - here we go! His beat is very clear and incisive - sitting so close, I feel like my sound is almost dragging behind, but I try to keep the singing quality and fill out all the notes. After the first recitative, he puts his hands down and gives me some directions: a longer quarter-note upbeat, more sound and direction to the low G, longer quarter-notes at the end of the phrase. Almost before I have time to process it all, he raises his hands again and gives me another chance.

I'm glad I can play these from memory, because keeping up with his hands and directions is taking all of my focus. Each statement is the same pattern, a run-through, a series of instructions, and another try - and as much as I try to anticipate what he wants, there's always something more. Smoother connected eighth notes, a more soaring line, longer quarter-notes - always the quarter-notes longer, until I almost feel I'm hanging over into the rests. MTT often talks about how we musicians tend to make tiny corrections, whereas an actor will grossly exaggerate, take things to an extreme, before bringing it back. I want to be tasteful, but still show a range and flexibility, a willingness to accomodate to his unfamiliar interpretation.

I finish with two very long quarter notes - they sound with a nice resonance in the hall though. After playing alone all day, trying to show my personality and intentions without a guide, it's a completely different experience following a conductor. It feels good, if a bit mentally draining - Minczuk asks for a lot, focusing on details of articulation, shape, and phrasing, and I think I could really enjoy working with him.

As I pick up my things and prepare to leave the stage, a member of the committee asks me a question: why didn't I play those low octaves in the Ein Heldenleben excerpt? I try to formulate the least damning answer possible, but it still comes out sounding bad. I didn't realize until the moment I was on stage that the excerpt continued through 13, so I wasn't really prepared to play those extra lines, and I sure wasn't going to attempt any extension-opening stealth maneuvers! Maybe admitting "I wasn't prepared" was not the best way to end my audition performance, but I still leave the stage feeling satisfied, happy to have survived and made the most of this day.

Now comes the moment of truth, time to wait for the final verdict. Or else they still might want to hear some more - it's fairly common to hold several final rounds, bringing the same two or three candidates back until they're completely worn down. Some orchestras will even bring all the finalists onstage at once, and have a sort of excerpt shoot-off, or hold an interview round.

Today though, I have a feeling the last note has been played. I shake Theodore's hand and we introduce ourselves. He goes to school at USC, and I tell him that my twin brother Dan also works there. Dan does graphic design work for the various schools, as well as the website - I try to explain all this, and how until recently Dan worked in the undergraduate library, but very rarely left his cubicle or met any students! He still does play the bassoon though, and occasionally goes to concerts at the school of music.

I'm still babbling about my brother when Tim emerges - the committee has reached a decision. He brings us both just off stage, where the committee members are all gathering. I can see now that they aren't so many, maybe 6 or 7 people. One of them winks at me, I think I notice... could it be?

Like all orchestra personnel managers and TV reality hosts, Tim begins his announcement with a series of polite remarks - thank you for coming, the committee was impressed and appreciative of the high standard of playing, etc., etc. We're both standing there uncertain when to breathe, when the news is going to break. Then Tim turns to me and says, "They have decided to offer you the position," and shakes my hand.

I'm overjoyed, but I don't know what to do or say. Looking over at Theodore, I can feel all the disappointment of coming so close. We shake hands and hug - whatever the outcome, even if we've never heard each other play, we've shared a whole lot today, and gone through the same experiences, hopes and challenges.

The other members of the committee crowd around: Charles Garrett, the principal bassist who asked me about my Heldenleben transpositions; Sheila Garrett, the assistant principal and wife of Charles; Donovan Seidle, the assistant concertmaster who I played with in Chicago Civic; bassist Graeme Mudd; and bassist Trish Bereti-Reid, possibly the one who winked. There may have been more as well - but I'm not really counting, just shaking hands and beaming.

(One more installment to come, thank you for reading and please visit again! - MH)

letters, stories, and housekeeping

Thanks to everyone who has been reading and commenting on my Calgary audition story! I'll have another installment later today, and then maybe one more to wrap it up before the weekend.

In the meantime, check out Michael Hovnanian's CSO Bass Blog, for the latest part of our inter-blog dialogue on transitioning to life in a professional orchestra. This week, Michael answers my question about standards of preparation and sight-reading - I was really curious about this topic, because I am trying to become a better sight-reader, without sacrificing all that intense and detailed practice we do for auditions. Michael has a great answer, and manages to reference art forgery, rock climbing, and a cringe-worthy audition story of his own.

Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog also linked to an older post I wrote, "eavesdropping on a French horn god." I had forgotten I wrote this, but I think it has some excellent advice - and as one reader pointed, even the typos are pretty good.

One last piece of housekeeping news: I'm going to the ISB Bass Convention in Oklahoma City next month! It's being held at Oklahoma City University's Bass School of Music - just in case you needed a little more bass. I'm looking forward to meeting some people, hearing some performances and talks, and probably blogging about it as well. If you're planning on coming, please drop me a message or say hello if you see me. Thanks!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part VI

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part V...

Tim Rawlings, the Calgary Phil personnel manager, told us that the semifinal round would start right away. The committee would hear this round without a screen, and they would have us begin with a concerto movement - excerpts would also be asked, but again we wouldn't know which ones until 10 minutes before we were to play. They would keep the five semifinalists in the same order as we had played the prelims, meaning that I would go last, and my friend Karl Fenner would be second.

It was exhilarating to get advanced - sort of like a delayed applause after a performance you aren't certain went over that well. In this audition especially, I really wanted to perform for the committee and to convey something of myself, not just show how the notes lined up on the page. It may be a subtle distinction, but I think sometimes we try to be safe, color within the lines, make the most standard choices, and just hope we do this better than anyone else! As a result, I think we risk sounding boring, careful, and rigid, and we create a lot of extra pressure on ourselves. Because when you take a cookie-cutter approach, every stray lump of dough sticks out, and mars that illusion of perfection you're trying to create.

Of course, I would like to play perfectly as well. I've realized, though, that my best playing comes when I'm really trying to communicate the music, not just execute it (what a terrible word!) It's difficult to communicate when you're getting nothing back - the committee had not spoken in the first round, so the announcement that I had advanced was my first signal from them. I don't need constant applause and compliments - I'm not that insecure, really! - but I think that we do depend on our audience to help sustain our performance. We read their facial expressions, their body language, whether fidgeting or yawning or leaning forward, and those reactions do affect us as performers. All this is to see, I was very happy to have advanced, and excited to play without a screen. I felt now I would be able to open up a little more, show some personality, and make a case for myself as a prospective colleague.

First though, I was concerned that I hadn't eaten since 8 am, and now I would be playing at 2:30 or so. I had brought a couple of apples, thinking I'd at least have the time to go across the street and buy a sandwich. Strangely, though, it seemed like the only way to leave the building was to cross the stage itself - where the semifinals would begin any minute! - and there was no easy way to re-enter either. So I was basically stuck there for the duration. I dug out all my Canadian coins, bought a granola bar in the vending machine, and hoped that my adrenaline would keep me going, even if my stomach couldn't!

Back in my dressing room, I looked over all the excerpts I hadn't yet played. There were some scary ones - Mozart 35, the 3rd and 4th movements of Schubert 9, the march from Beethoven 9... And all those first round excerpts could still be asked again - I tried starting the Beethoven 5 Scherzo a couple of times, and reminded myself how all those Heldenleben arpeggios worked! Mostly though, I just wanted to take it easy, not get too tense or tired, since I had already played for 2 hours or so. Put the bass down, take some deep breaths, get centered again...

It was around 2:30 when they called me down to the on-deck room. Meaning each person was taking around 15 minutes, somewhat longer than the prelims. Just as in that round, there were three excerpts on the stand: Britten's Young Person's Guide, the Scherzo from Schubert 9, and the recitatives from Beethoven 9.

I was feeling pretty good about everything - my sound seemed open and warm, the tricky arpeggios in Schubert 9 and even the high stuff in the Vanhal Concerto seemed mostly under control. Of course, I had left my music for the concerto back in Miami, and all I had were photocopies of the first two pages. If they wanted to hear more, though, I thought I had it memorized pretty well. Tim Rawlings came in, along with another proctor - apparently they had decided that carrying my stool and helping me onstage was a two-man operation. I must have been flustered by all the attention, though, because I dropped my metronome off the stand. It went caroming off the side of my bass and fractured into several pieces on the floor. Tim and the other guy seemed a little freaked out, but I wasn't going to let it break my composure. We found all the scattered pieces, left them in a little pile there, and headed towards the stage.

As we were about to go on, Tim asked me how I would like to be introduced. Did I want him to say I was from Miami, Florida? I told him to say I'm from Tacoma, Washington, and that I play in the New World Symphony in Miami. Maybe it wouldn't make any difference for the committee, but I wanted to be at least clear and honest about where I come from!

I looked out and smiled at the committee - they were kind of a blur, 6 or 8 or maybe 12, I wasn't certain - but at least they were real people! And I recognized Donovan Seidle, a violinist colleague at the Civic Orchestra of Chicago who is now the associate concertmaster in Calgary. I thought of a comment someone had given me at a mock audition: can the concerto sound more inviting? I didn't quite know how I was going to do it, but I wanted to make the Vanhal into a big, joyous, welcoming invitation - I'm nice, please get to know me better!

I played through the exposition, then went on to the development, the end of page two, they still hadn't stopped me! I wasn't going to look at the stand, because I knew the notes I was playing weren't written down anywhere there - I still felt like I was communicating, sending my sound out, and getting some resonance from the hall though. I reached the last chord before the cadenza before they stopped me. I think I must have missed a note or bungled a phrase or two somewhere, but honestly all I remember is that great feeling of performing!

If the Vanhal was my chance to be outgoing and welcoming, the Britten was where I was going to be fun and maybe a little silly. It starts off hesitantly, not quite sure where it's going, then lands decisively in G major for this big, exuberant theme. When I played for Harry Shapiro, back in February, he wanted me to sing that theme as loud as I could, really shout it out. When I play it now, I always remember the two of us, me and this 92-year-old retired BSO horn player, belting that theme at the top of our lungs!

Next was Schubert 9, one of my favorite pieces, but one of my scariest excerpts. It starts fortissimo with sforzandi on each downbeat, leaping across the strings, and then lands surprisingly in distant D-flat major, whispering up a series of arpeggios before swelling and returning to G major, even more powerfully than before. That drop to piano always feels a little like opening a parachute in mid-dive - you hope it will open, and you'll sail securely on, but there's always a risk of crashing and burning! This time, the parachute opened, I got that hushed sound I was going for, but I had to remind myself not to lose tempo, to keep it rolling and dancing along through the last three notes.

Of all the excerpts on the list, Beethoven 9 was the one I felt most eager to play. I'd been singing recitatives in the shower for the past two weeks, trying to find a flexibility and a sense of urgency in each one. Charles Carleton suggested I think of the time as a big rubber band - each recitative starts in tempo, stretches, and then recovers momentum again. Beyond that, listen to a lot of Baroque recitatives, he said, like those in Handel's Messiah: "And I will shake the heavens, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land..." In the end though, I didn't really have time to imagine the Messiah, or test Charles' big rubber band; I just had to trust all his good advice had been absorbed, and make the music as I felt it in that moment.

The whole round felt really solid and gratifying, though of course there are no sure bets in an audition. I though I had presented something personal and heartfelt, though, and if they didn't like it then I could accept that. Because I did like it, I would have advanced myself - and that's the highest standard I could hope for. I packed my bass again, gathered up my metronome (all the pieces fit back together again, luckily), and headed down to the lounge again to wait.

I was actually the oldest of the semifinalists - the others were all in their mid-20s. One was a student of my former teacher, Don Palma; another was Karl Fenner, my friend from Spoleto and an incoming member of the New World Symphony; Ellen Stewart, who goes to the Cincinnati Conservatory; and a student of Dennis Trembly at USC named Theodore. A couple of bassists who'd been cut earlier were still around too, waiting to hear the results I guess. It was odd being the elder statesman in the room, telling everyone about New World and life after college. They all seemed like great people, and I was hoping I could convince some of them (besides Karl) to want to audition and come down to New World.

I think I was describing the wonders of Oktoberfest, our biggest annual party, when Tim Rawlings came down again. Everyone was around except Theodore, who I think had found some way to get outside and smoke a cigarette. In a moment he was back, though, and Tim made the announcement.

The committee had decided to advance two people to the finals: Theodore, and me. They had determined that both were qualified, and so one of us would definitely be offered a job today. The excerpts would be Mozart 40, the Trio to Beethoven 5, and the recitatives from Beethoven 9. The music director would be present, and he would possibly conduct the recitatives.

And they would start immediately - first Theodore, and then me.

Jason Heath and "still other things"

Jason Heath published a fascinating essay on the perils of a music performance degree:

Road Warrior Without an Expense Account Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees

I've been lucky to stay out of serious debt, but only through the kindness and generosity of many people. And I was out of school for two years before joining the New World Symphony, and another 3 years before winning the Calgary Phil audition this spring.

Jason made me think of a passage from Rilke's letters, and since I didn't want to clog up his comments I'll post it here:

I once stood on a bridge in Paris and saw from a distance on a road leading down to the river a suicide victim wrapped in oilcloth. He had just been pulled dead from the Seine. Suddenly I heard someone next to me say something. It was a young blond carter in a blue jacket, very young, strawberry blond, with a smart, clever, pointed face. On his chin was a wart from which sprouted almost exuberantly a stiff bunch of red hairs like a paintbrush. Since I turned toward him, he pointed with a nod of his head toward the object that elicited our attention and said, winking at me: "Don't you think, this one over there, since he was able to manage that, he surely could have done still other things as well."

I followed him with my gaze, astonished, while he was already walking back to his enormous cart filled with rocks, for truly: what would one not be able to achieve with exactly that strength that is necessary to untie the strong and mighty bonds of life! Since that day, I know with absolute certainty that even the worst turn of events, that even despair is only abundance, that it is an onslaught of our being that could be forced in the opposite direction with one single decision of the heart. Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand always already quite near its transformation.

- Rainer Maria Rilke, The Poet's Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke, p. 108

Friday, May 11, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part V

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part IV...

The night before an audition, I tend to have strange nightmarish dreams: I've overslept and missed the audition... I've gotten lost on the way to the hall... or I've forgotten my music, my bass, my bow, my clothes... Or maybe everything is going fine, until they decided to hear me play my concerto with piano. But as I begin to play, I realize that I'm playing in a different key than the piano (this actually happened to me once). I suppose my subconscious likes to prepare me for all the worst possible scenarios; so when I wake up, realizing that none of these things have happened (yet!), I almost feel relieved!

On Saturday, March 31st, I woke up around 7 am. It was one of those mornings where I had to practically force myself to stay in bed, since I was wide awake long before the alarm was set to go off. As I showered and dressed, I tried to stay positive and relaxed, and clear out all those nightmare scenarios. I started thinking about the committee I would be playing for, and it occurred to me that these are people who love music, and who love great bass playing. I didn't need to sell them on those things, or convince them of the value of my career choice - I just needed to play the music the way I felt and meant it, and show them that I love it too. As frightening as a committee can sometimes be, I thought, they're more like a bunch of my blog readers than some random assortment of strangers - they understand the challenges, they're willing to be patient with me, and most of all they just want to hear me play my best.

The audition letter said that warm-up rooms would be available at 9:30; numbers would be drawn at 10:15; and the first candidate would go on stage at 10:30 am. The weather was a little colder than the previous day, around 40 F, but I didn't have too far to walk. I had some breakfast at the Tim Horton's down the street, then came back to the hotel around 8:30 am and started to warm up.

Lately I've been using the Carl Flesch scale and arpeggio patterns a lot in my warm-ups, and I'll try to get at least halfway through the circle of fifths, so that I've covered most of the keys I'll be playing. Jeff Turner recommended this to me, when he came to Miami in November - previously I would just focus on one key a week, and do a lot of shifting drills and scales in that one key. Jeff pointed out, though, that if you only work on one key your brain and fingers aren't going to be ready to make all the adjustments necessary in all the other keys - it's sort of like trying to run a race having only stretched your left quadricep. You can do a lot of variations with the Flesch system - different bowings, fingerings, articulations, tempos, using a drone, etc. - but the most important thing is to familiarize yourself, as much as possible, with the harmonic as well as the technical terrain that you're going to cover.

Downtown Calgary has a train that runs down 7th Avenue, stopping just a block or so from the hall, so I wheeled it down to 7th and got to the hall just around 9:30 am. There were already a lot of other bassists there - they were starting to double us up in the dressing rooms. The other guy was playing through his Bach and concerto, and stopped to say hello and introduce himself (I'll call him Fred, since I can't remember his real name.) He seemed like a nice guy, but I didn't really want to talk much or listen to him play. I started playing some more Flesch scales, and then tried starting my own Bach, slowly. It didn't feel so good - I felt like I was playing so as not to hear Fred, not playing to produce my own music!

I was kind of relieved when the proctor, Tim Rawlings, started calling everyone to draw numbers, just after 10. By this time, Fred and I were sort of waltzing with eachother, trying not to play the same excerpt at the same time - though often the person next door was already playing it! The walls were pretty thin, and I had already heard enough strangers' excerpts to last me a while. One of these strangers started asking me about my bass, as the proctor was giving us instructions - I was kind of flummoxed, since I was trying to listen to Tim and still be polite to the other bass player. After I'd told him what my bass was, he asked me, "Is it loud?" and I said, "Well, it's maybe not the loudest bass under the ear, but I think it projects pretty well in a hall." I wasn't sure if he was trying to psych me out, or if he wanted to trade!

At this point 17 bassists had arrived - an 18th would get there a bit later - and we all gathered around Tim in the musician's lounge downstairs. It was a large, fluorescent-lit room with a few TVs and couches, tables and vending machines, and a couple of computers. Of the other bassists there, I knew Karl and a guy who I've played with here in Florida, Hideki; some others looked vaguely familiar, since I'd probably seen them at other auditions. Tim passed around a bowl with some folded pieces of paper - I drew number 17, dead last. Tim told us that we would play our Bach solo in the first round, and excerpts which would be given to us in the on-deck room, 10 minutes before we played.

I decided there was no way I was going to spend another 3 hours upstairs in warm-up land. Much better to take my binder and my iPod and just sit down here in the musicians' lounge, as far from other bassists as possible - at least until Fred, who was number 8, left our dressing room. (Yes, I know it's pathetic that I forgot his name but still remember his number!)

I listened to some more of Ian Bostridge's Schubert Lieder, and then the Bach B Minor Mass - I was starting to feel human again, not like some excerpt-playing insect drone! I opened up my binder and tried singing a couple of phrases of my Bach, the 3rd Suite Bourrees, and it felt much better than when I'd tried to play it against Fred upstairs. As I was sitting there, the people who had played started drifting in, talking or reading or watching TV. Around 11:30, Tim came down to announce the results of the first six - just one candidate had been advanced. The guy sitting next to me was reading with his headphones on and hadn't noticed, so a minute later I had to tell him that he hadn't been the one.

I went upstairs a little later, around the time that 10 or 11 was going on. The upstairs dressing rooms were starting to clear out, and I felt like I could focus better now that I wasn't competing against 3 different Heldenlebens. There was enough time that I could play a few more scales, take some of my problem spots at a slow tempo, try starting a few things. I heard that the second group had been given a verdict: one advanced, my friend Karl.

It was almost 1 pm when I was called down to the warm-up room. Another proctor helped me take my stool and binder down the stairs to what seemed to be the conductor's room: a nice grand piano, lots of framed photographs, and bar of Toblerone chocolate on a desk (yes, I was starting to get hungry, but I wasn't going to risk eating the maestro's chocolate). The excerpts were there on the stand: the first page of Mendelssohn 4, the Scherzo and Trio of Beethoven 5, and #9 from Ein Heldenleben. I tried to remember all my cues and ideas for each one; started them each a few times, checked my tuning, and went up and down those arpeggios in Heldenleben a bit.

Given the choice, I would much rather play to people than to a screen; I always feel somewhat wooden when I'm playing for a piece of wood! As Tim ushered me onstage and brought my stool - I have an incredibly cumbersome stool with a foot-rest sticking off of it - I tried to remind myself that there were people back there, nice bass-loving people (even if they'd already heard 16 of us that morning.) We had been told no repeats on the Bach, but I had decided that unless they stopped me I would take the D.C. and play the first Bourree again. It always feels better to finish off that piece in the major! The first sounds seemed a little pushed, maybe over-excited, but I stuck with it, made some phrases and turns that I had chosen, and got all the way through the D.C. without being stopped.

So now just excerpts - the first, Mendelssohn 4, starts with a series of fast, quiet, off-the-string scales, coming off of an 8th rest. When I played it for Charles Carleton two weeks ago, he had impressed on me how important those rests were. I needed to feel an accent on each one so I wouldn't distort the time or rush forward. I took a couple of deep breaths, heard the violin theme in my head for a few bars - and dove into that first scale! The tempo seemed in control, the stroke was bouncing a fair amount - is this a dry hall? do I sound too picky? - I tried to just focus on the big beats and the music I was laying a foundation for. At the end of the excerpt, the basses take over the theme, so we suddenly shift to a melodic, upper-register voice. I did my best to sing through the dotted quarters and lead with the 8th notes, but pushed sharp on the highest note of the phrase, a G-sharp - a lousy way to finish, but otherwise it went well.

Starting Beethoven 5 is always a challenge - I had to empty out all my frustration with that G-sharp if I was going to have the focus I needed for the Scherzo (which reaches the same high note, spelled as A-flat, via some twisty harmonic maneuvers). I thought of honey dripping - a smooth, slow, sticky texture - and started the first long legato phrase. Soft excerpts kill me sometimes - I felt like I was not drawing a good tone, not clearly on pitch - but I kept it going, trying to spin out the sound until I could find something to hold onto. Those loud chords - finally, some strong downbeats! - gave me my sound back, and now I felt I was able to react to the hall somewhat. The high A-flat sailed by, and I finished the excerpt feeling in control - now on to the Trio. Lately this excerpt had been my friend, maybe since Charles Carleton pointed out that the first phrase leads all the way to the fourth measure, and now I was starting to find a groove and to feel comfortable with my sound.

When I turned the page to Heldenleben, though, there was a surprise. I had been diligently practicing the excerpt from figure 9 to 11, but hadn't given the next section much thought - I hadn't even looked closely enough in the warm-up room to realize they wanted more of it. But clearly marked on this copy was figure 9 to 13 - another 16 measures, including 2 more big arpeggios and notes I would have to open my extension to reach. Right off I decided that wasn't going to happen, I would read those notes up the octave and not worry about flipping levers.

The day before I had been reading Don Greene's Fight Your Fear and Win and came across a great passage in his chapter on courage. He writes about race car drivers, and how when they take the tight corners not only can they not break, they have to accelerate - even a slight backing off the gas pedal could send them into a tail spin. You could probably imagine #9 from Heldenleben as a series of hairpin turns, flat stretches in which you're tempted to rush. I wasn't going to play like a race car driver in terms of tempo - rushing this excerpt would be suicidal - but I wanted to play with as much courage as I could on those arpeggio hairpins, even the ones I hadn't looked at until now! I filled out the sound in all those rising triplets as much as I could, even though one of the register shifts threw me a little bit - and I finished without getting too rattled. "Nice job," Tim told me as he helped me off stage, "Really nice job, actually."

I had messed up enough things that I knew I might get cut, but I felt I had given my all, I hadn't given up, and I was happy that some things had gone quite well. I packed up, found my bag and put my sweater back on, then joined the little throng of candidates waiting for the last group's decision. Now I felt like I could talk to people a little bit - there was one guy there from Malaysia, others had driven across this continent to get there. And the one topic we all had to discuss was air travel - trunks, oversize fees, horror stories about being charged a fortune or denied travel. The college basketball tournament was on the television, and I realized that I hadn't followed this year's tournament at all. I had no idea what round they had reached, or who was playing - which actually made me feel good, since in the past I had let sports distract me from audition preparation. (see the previous post, "audition aside: the waiting game")

Tim Rawlings came in and looked at the TV screen - "Who's winning?" he asked. When the proctor comes in though, everyone forgets what they were just watching or saying - conversations die mid-sentence - and all anyone cares about is, who's advancing? Tim thanked everyone for their time, and then he announced that the committee had decided to advance #15. And #16.

And #17. I breathed a sigh of relief, shook some hands, and headed back towards my bass. Semifinals would begin immediately.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

audition aside: the waiting game

When I was preparing for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra audition a while ago, they asked some excerpts from the Wagner operas Die Meistersinger and Die Walkure. Luckily, they asked very specific places and sent out music; less luckily, that music was not clear about where in the opera those excerpts occurred. So I ended up listening to the whole operas, following along in the libretto as I waited for the bass section to plunge into those dreaded passages. As my friend Spot can attest, those are some long operas.

I remember thinking at the time how well Die Meistersinger relates to the audition process. There's the hero, a young tenor in love, with his noble old teacher Hans Sachs - he enters the singing competition, even though he has barely heard all the rules, and prevails over the petty, rule-obsessed villain, purely through his inspiration and love.

The more I thought about it though, the more I decided the better parallel was with Die Walkure. The hero is beaten, insulted, and abused, chased by dogs through a fierce storm - he doesn't even have his own name, but gets called "Woeful". He collapses in some random, unfamiliar house, begging for rest and water - only to find his arch-nemesis lives there, ready to insult him some more and challenge him to a duel the following day. (In the meantime, he falls in love with his sister, which is kind of weird and irrelevant to this analogy...) Anyway, Woeful doesn't even have a sword to defend himself with, but finally and just in time, he finds one - an amazing, powerful sword meant just for him. A fierce argument ensues, about whether he'll even be given a chance in the upcoming battle. He won't - after about 4 hours of opera, the battle lasts roughly 35 seconds (during the bass excerpt, actually!), and the hero (now named Siegmund) gets cut down by his own father. No Valhalla for you.

Anyway, the point is that huge time differential - hours and hours of talk, negotiations, threats and prayers and sword-tugging desperation, and then 35 seconds of action and it's done. I think one of the great challenges of auditioning is filling all that dead time, on the plane, in the hotel room, at the audition itself, without killing yourself with over-practicing, over-thinking, or just overly distracting behavior. One of my good friends recently made the finals in the Pittsburgh Symphony's viola auditions, and he told me that what messed him up was the day of waiting between the semi's and finals. All these incidental thoughts started parading through his head - what if I win this, where will I move, how will I spend all that money? - and he spent a day of frantic viola-clutching madness. He wished he had just gotten out for a walk, gone to a movie or the zoo to relax - anything but the panic-stricken practicing.

I've struggled with the same things at auditions: too much practicing, or too much unfocused, mindless practicing. Or too little - it's amazing how you can waste hours of time reading newspapers, watching sports, searching the internet, or wandering around looking for good restaurants. One audition I took was the day after the Super Bowl, and I should have seen that coming and avoided following football at all. But when the day came, my hometown team was playing (the Seahawks) and I couldn't resist watching them get clobbered by the Pittsburgh Steelers - just as I got clobbered by Mozart 35 the next morning!

I think that we need to strategize how we're going to fill that empty time, just like we plan how we'll pace and shape our solos and excerpts. What can I bring to read that will get me inspired and energized, not sleepy and dull? - what can I bring to listen to that will keep me enthusiastic and musically engaged? And what should I bring to eat that's going to sustain my energy without producing nausea?

I know I'm inviting parody, with all this obsession over mundane details. And I sometimes can become a caricature with all the ecstatic, divine-inspiration musical gobbledygook - I do realize that to win an audition, you have to be more than just in love and inspired! Still, I want to lay out my own strategy for filling time, the thoughts and sounds that helped me to function my best. For me, one of the most demanding and rewarding challenges has been to fill time positively and with intention - both while waiting and while on stage.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part IV

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part III...

And so dawned my first day in Calgary - Friday, March 30th, the day before the audition itself. I didn't set the alarm, figuring that I would get as much sleep as possible, and get myself rested and ready for Saturday. I slept in until about 8:30, which is way late for me, especially with the 2 hour time difference. I felt at least semi-normal, though, and decided to find out how I sounded.

Unpacking the bass in a strange hotel room is always an interesting experience. Travel and changes in climate and time zone can mess up a person, but they can really mess up a bass. There's no telling what is going to be tight, awkward, and uncooperative. Or maybe the instrument will actually prefer the new weather, you never know... Sometimes buzzes and wolves disappear, or temporarily migrate to new areas, so it kind of feels like opening your mouth and hearing a foreign language come out!

I'm not a great fan of the unfamiliar, I guess. I usually have to force myself to start the discovery process, even though I would rather not spend two hours with a touchy bass right away! I made a little deal with myself, I would unpack and play a few scales, then go get some breakfast. That seemed to help me to feel satisfied that I'm not postponing business, but still not too trapped and scared - a relatively happy compromise with myself, as well as my instrument!

So the scales came off relatively well, and I even started my Bach and a couple excerpts, just to find a sound, until I started to hear my stomach growling its own harmonies. My friend Roslyn the horn player had told me that there was a Tim Horton's restaurant right near the hotel - even though I'd never heard of this chain, she made it sound like some great providence, so I thought I would look for it. Calgary was overcast, a little cool but still comfortable with a sweater and a couple of undershirts on. The 5 Suites Downtown is on 5th Avenue and 5th Street SW, making it very easy to find, as long as you don't pick the wrong quadrant. Calgary is laid out in 4 quadrants, radiating out from Memorial Drive and Centre St. - most of downtown is in the SW quadrant though, so I guess Centre St. isn't really that central.

It's a nice city to walk around in - cars seem to obey the stoplights, and amazingly, pedestrians do as well. I picked a direction at random, and within two blocks I had sighted a Tim Horton's. I later learned that I could have gone any other direction and found another Tim Horton's equally quickly, but at the time it seemed like amazing luck. There was a line of college students, construction workers, and young professional types coming out the door - every Tim Horton's I visited had a similar line, but they moved pretty quick, and everything I ordered was there surprisingly good and quite cheap.

So after breakfast I wandered up the main pedestrian avenue, Stephen Ave. It's lined with shops, some American chains but mostly places I had never heard of before. There are malls along both sides of the avenue with connecting passageways, so you can actually walk the length of it without leaving indoors. The weather was nice enough that morning though, and there were crowds of people around some temporary street hockey courts that had been set up. As I got closer I found it was a Corporate Street Hockey Tournament, so all these bankers and securities analysts were warming up in their skates and pads.

I was still marveling at the Canadian-ness of it all when I saw my friend, bassist Karl Fenner, emerge from a McDonald's restaurant. We were both headed in the same direction - towards the Calgary Phil's space, Jack Singer Concert Hall. Not to break in or anything, but it's nice to get a feel for the building, how to get there, and what is around. Along the way, we compared notes on our trips so far - he had flown Continental and paid a lot more in oversize fees, which concerned me because I was ticketed to fly Continental home. The big news around New World had been the announcement of 4th-year offers to some of us - I was one of the fortunate ones - among a large number who were not invited back. Karl told me he had just been invited to join New World as a fellow the next year as well, so we would get to play together, unless one of us had an audition victory in the meantime...

This is almost an inevitable part of the audition experience: you're going to run into some friend or acquaintance, who you may not have seen for months or years. He's going to have some great news to report - he's been subbing with the Chicago Symphony, or just won the audition for New World - and your mind will start racing back to how good he sounded the last time you heard him, and now he's only gotten better! Suddenly all those positive vibes, confidence-building mock auditions, and the encouraging comment from the customs official at the airport, they all begin to evaporate and the sad path to disappointment appears instead. I don't have an easy solution to all this; except to realize that we all think that way, and the only escape is to have faith in yourself and your musical mission!

Well, I got back to my hotel room after seeing Karl, and if I'd thought about resting or channel-surfing before, I was definitely going to start practicing now! I had gotten through my warm-up scales and arpeggios when the housekeeping lady knocked on the door and came in. I was going to stop and wait, but she said, "Please don't let me interrupt!" and so I kept playing scales for a couple of minutes. Then it occurred to me, this might be my last chance to perform for someone before the audition - so I checked my tuning, took a deep breath, and performed my Bach Bourrees for her! Then I did some Mozart 40, Beethoven 5, Heldenleben - all my nemesis excerpts. They didn't all go perfect, but she was very appreciative and complimentary, and I started feeling confident and secure again.

I didn't want to spend the whole afternoon practicing - and I wanted to make sure the practicing I did was focused, intentional practicing, not scared and obsessive-compulsive! I broke up half-hour chunks by resting and meditating, reading from some books I had brought (The Wisdom of Rilke, Fight Your Fear and Win by Don Greene, The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks), and sorting through my parts and excerpts. I'd brought a big stack of photocopies, which I would give to people listening to me on mock auditions - these had gotten all mixed up though. After putting these all in order, I realized I'd forgotten something else important: the solo part of my concerto, the Vanhal. I had the piano score, and photocopies of the first two pages, but if I had to play any more than that, I would be doing it from memory.

By 6:30 or 7, I had practiced more than enough, and was actually a little concerned I had overdone it. So I left the hotel room - the sun had come out from behind the clouds, and the city was lit by a golden sunset color. I walked across a bridge over the Bow River (it's actually the shape of a bow, sort of) to a neighborhood called Kensington, which reminded me of cool neighborhoods I'd been to in Boston and Chicago. There are lots of funky shops and ethnic restaurants, young people walking around in groups and couples. After some wandering and indecision I chose an Ethiopian restaurant - I love Ethiopian food - which took a ridiculously long time but gave me an hour and a half to just sit by myself, relax, eat some good food, and brace myself for the next day!

I got back to the hotel room about 9:30, read a book for a minute, then put on my earphones and listened to Ian Bostridge's recording of Schubert Lieder. I didn't want to think too much - just drift off to sleep with some beautiful melodies.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part III

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part II...

In the last part of my audition story, I was still in Miami Beach, stressing over every last note of every excerpt. (As well as every first note, and all those in between!) Among the biggest stresses of an audition, and the hardest to prepare for, is that feeling of being exposed - presenting yourself, warts and all, to a group of people you don't know, and whose reactions you can't anticipate.

We hope to project enough good qualities in our playing - precision, care, tastefulness - so that if they quibble with some detail, perhaps they'll ask for us to play it differently and we can show an ability to adjust. However, my horn colleague Roz who took the Calgary audition in March told me that through all three rounds she played, they didn't ask to hear a single excerpt to be played again. She just played down the lists in order, they said thank you, and when afterwards the decision was announced - they would not offer a position to any of the finalists at that time - she was obviously very frustrated!

The last bassist I played for was Charles Carleton, a young member of the Cleveland Orchestra bass section. This was just a couple of weeks before the audition, so my foundation had been laid, for better or for worse! I sometimes wonder if a lesson that late in the game will even be of any help. I'd like to be ready to embrace a new and better idea, but there is a point at which you just have to ride the horse you brought with you! His comments and ideas were invaluable to me, though, and they focused on things I could benefit from: clearer phrasing ideas, stronger and more secure beginnings, more rhythmic excitement, and a real singing quality wherever possible. To cite just one example, he challenged me to phrase the Vanhal Concerto in a classical phrase structure - four bar phrases with alternating heavy and light inflections on each measure - and he sung it that way until I could appreciate the charm and grace of that phrasing. Now every time I play that piece I kind of dedicate it as a tribute to Charles and his very generous teaching!

The last teacher I have to mention is one I didn't actually play for, cellist Stephen Geber - though I asked to, he was just too busy helping all the cellists! Because I was hoping he would give me some of his time, I decided to give some of mine, and listen to his masterclass the weekend before my audition. I was glad I did, because he structured it as a sort of audition self-therapy workshop! He asked each of the cellists about the last audition they took, how they felt they played, and what kinds of mental and technical issues they felt were weaknesses for them. The whole class was a revelation for me, seeing how little fears and personal demons can so often disable a great player. And one performance stood out for me, a cellist who played the Beethoven 9 recitatives. He played them quite well, with a lot of fire and energy, but Geber asked him to take a completely different interpretation - faster tempos, more driving, following the composer's instructions more strictly, still keeping the passion and authority. It wasn't an interpretation I had tried before either, but it unquestionably worked, and I was impressed to see the cellist take it on so quickly!

The last week before the audition was an especially light rehearsal schedule - some members of our orchestra had a chamber music concert and a Musical Xchange concert that weekend, but for me there were just two readings, Wednesday and Thursday morning. Our conducting fellow, Steven Jarvi, rehearsed Verdi's La forza del destino Overture, the Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan and Isolde, Mozart 35, Prokofiev Classical Symphony, and the Brahms Haydn Variations - all fantastic pieces to play in orchestra, though Mozart 35 was the only one I was preparing for Calgary. After we finished up the Brahms, it was 1 pm and I had a plane to catch at 5:30 that afternoon.

It's always a strange feeling, leaving your locker and room for the last time before an audition. I find myself thinking things like, "Next time I see this pencil (or rosin dust rag, stack of music, pile of unwashed dishes, etc.) I'll have played my audition - it'll be over!" Then I start thinking, "Have I brought all the music, pencils, supplies I need? Do I have time to wash those dishes, and if I don't what will be growing there?" It all gets pretty hectic and complicated, which is only made worse by my usual habit of booking ridiculously early flights. I'm pretty accustomed to waking up early, since I usually go to a 6 am yoga class, but still there's something especially cruel about the sound of that alarm clock, going off at 4:30 am, telling you to finish packing and drive to the airport! Those flights are always the cheapest and the easiest to book, but there's obviously a reason for that.

So I was very happy with myself that I had paid the extra bucks and gotten an afternoon flight. Of course, flying late in the day has its own problems, especially in a traffic nightmare city like Miami. I left home at 3 pm or so, figuring I would be safe - things quickly started looking bad though! There was some huge construction thing going on Alton Road, and the 41st Street route to the causeway was backed up all the way to Collins. I ended up driving up Collins all the way to the next causeway, which is in a neighborhood I don't know well, and even though I got downtown reasonably fast, I was still crawling along trying to get onto the freeway! The whole thing was really stressing me out, and I was trying to stay focused and positive, singing some excerpts, not getting too freaked out, but it wasn't working very well. Also, I realized en route that I had forgotten my winter coat, and I only had a sweater and my dress shirts to keep me warm in the frigid Calgary weather.

I think I made it to the airport around 4:30, and there was no time to move my car to the long term (cheaper) parking lot, which is my usual practice. I was alright with that though, just as long as I could get my bass checked in successfully! Other instrumentalists think we're exaggerating, but for bass players the whole airline check-in process is just as stressful as the actual audition. The situation is especially tense because we know that we're technically breaking the rules - a lot of airlines don't allow any baggage over 100 lbs, and most charge exorbitantly for anything over 70 lbs, in addition to oversize charges. So they could very legitimately charge me over $200 or not allow me to fly at all. I try to smooth the situation somewhat, by being as nice and cooperative as possible and telling them politely that last time I paid $80. Of course I'd rather get on for less, but if volunteering to pay will make them like me and (please!) not ask me to put it on the scale, it's well worth the price!

This particular flight was on Northwest Airlines, connecting in Minneapolis, and things went great - I paid my $80, they got someone to wheel it away, and a breathed a big sigh of relief. The only problem was that they only allowed two free checked bags - one of which was my stool - and I had a suitcase as well as my backpack. No problem, I thought, I'll just sort of consolidate and carry all my stuff onboard. I was pretty bummed out, though, when they found a full bottle of sunscreen in my suitcase - the one I had planned to check - and threw it away. It wasn't the only bottle of liquid in the suitcase, and it seemed pretty dumb that I was bringing all this sunscreen with me to Canada in the first place. Still, I had to tell myself to not cry over spilled SPF 50 - after all, it was just a $6 bottle I could easily replace when I got back! It's crazy how little stuff like this can affect me sometimes.

The other stressful thing about my flight was that I hadn't changed currency yet - I had tried the day before, but my bank didn't carry Canadian dollars, and it would have taken days to get some by mail. So I was fretting about how I was going to get a taxi to my hotel at 11:30 pm, with no local currency. Also, I realized that my passport was about to expire - the audition was March 31st, my passport expired April 3rd - but I didn't get a chance to renew it beforehand, and I didn't know that they often refuse people whose passports aren't good for 6 months after the date of travel.

I reached my connection in Minneapolis without incident (though I did have to watch my bass slide up the conveyor belt to the plane, balanced in its bridge - why, airport baggage handlers, why?!) and I called my Dad from the gate, to tell him I had almost left the country and share all my worries. He had thought the audition was the day before, so when I called he started out by telling me they had been crossing their fingers yesterday, and asked me how it had gone. Somehow it's reassuring to talk to my parents about these things, even when they have no clue what's going on - perhaps for that reason, they seem to get even more stressed out over the whole thing than I do! I really do my best to explain things to them, yet when they read Dan Wakin's NY Times article, they both told me there were things in there they had never even imagined!

Luckily, all of my worries were cleared away once I reached Canada - the customs and passport officials were very polite, and even asked me about the audition, since I had noted it as a business trip rather than a personal vacation. She asked me if I won the job, would I begin work right away, and I told her no, I would be returning to the US on April 1st in any case - though it was a nice little confidence boost having this Canadian customs official considering my prospects of winning a job! My bass arrived intact, and there was even a foreign currency exchange still open in the airport, so I could pay the taxi driver in Canadian dollars. The weather was surprisingly mild, so that even though I had forgotten my winter coat, I felt like I might survive this weekend after all!

I got to my hotel, the 5 Suites Downtown, just around midnight, and tipped both the taxi driver and the doorman a little more than I had intended. Somehow those two dollar coins confused me, and I handed them out without realizing they were worth way more than quarters. It was all right though, the Canadians all continued to be extraordinarily nice to me, especially those hotel employees. The word must have spread that I was a tipper, and they were extra attentive the whole weekend!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Finales, sandwiches and pickles

Tonight is the final New World Symphony concert of the season:

Dvorak Carnival Overture, conducted by Steven Jarvi
Strauss Four Last Songs, with Renee Fleming
Sibelius 2nd Symphony

The Strauss and Sibelius are conducted by MTT, and I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful and moving concert to be my last! I don't have much time to write now, but I want to draw your attention to some interesting recent posts at the CSO Double Bass Blog by Michael Hovnanian - he writes about new music programming and the tendency to package those less familiar pieces besides, or even within, the standard rep warhorses.

And Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog, always pushing the frontiers of technology and interaction for the bassist community, has just made a new inroad - onto the sidebar of hella frisch! You'll find something called a "Podcast Pickle", which will play you Jason's fantastic interviews and tastefully chosen recordings as you skim for readable portions of my blog!

More to come soon, including the next installment of my Calgary audition story!

Friday, May 04, 2007

audition aside: thoughts on practicing

The other day I noted Andy Anderson's diligent practice habits, with a mixture of guilt, envy, and horror. I probably should have talked a bit more about my own practice habits though, and how they might differ from Andy's. If I had to complete Andy's sentence about preparation, "I don't feel like I really know the piece until....", I would say this:

I don't feel like I really know the piece until I've explored several bowing and fingering combinations, and settled on the most functional; I've learned the harmonic and rhythmic context of my part; I've chosen a direction and shape for every phrase; I've found an image or idea to associate with each passage, to give me a feeling for the character and style; I've played it for several people, and established a level of conviction and comfort with my performance of it. I want to be able to sing my line with as much confidence as I play it - and to have my ideas come through with the same clarity, even in my pathetic, untrained singing voice!

Those are my goals - I'm not saying I achieve them all, but they provide a destination for my preparation. I feel like practicing is a kind of alchemy, transmuting a page of notes, and instructions into physical gesture, intellectual clarity, and emotional impact. It's obviously in our best interest to use certain tools along the way - not just the metronome, tuner, mirror, and tape recorder, but our own pedagogical foundation, all the instructions and guidance we've been given over the years by teachers and friends.

All of those people and things can make for a crowded practice room! Sometimes I imagine my teachers looking over my shoulder, telling me to move my bow towards the bridge, use flatter hair, rework that shift, etc. At some point though, I think we have to recognize that these are just tools, the scaffolding in which we are creating something with form, power, and life. Andy noted this as well - when we overly rely on tools, we end up sounding robotic, stiff, and tool-like ourselves! So I think it's vital to keep the finished product in mind: a performance that is not only precise, honest, and faithful to the score, but dynamic, spontaneous, flexible, and responsive to all the fluctuations inherent in any performance.

Readers have mentioned that they appreciate all the geeky excerpt advice I have to offer, and I'm very grateful to have such readers! I'm afraid, though, that if I started to write out all my ideas for every note and phrase, either all the life in those ideas would dry up or whither, or else I would never finish writing. Since every page of music feels different each day, I feel like the really exciting thing is to just keep deepening one's knowledge of those pieces, one's familiarity with those composers - and always looking for new ways to relate your own personality, mood, emotions, and the physics of the space you inhabit to what you're playing. Just to leave you with something though, here are some of the pieces on the Calgary list, and some words that helped me to get into the spirit and set it in motion.

  • Bach Bourrees: rustic, joyful, simple, unaffected; 2nd Bourree, melancholy, falling and resigned, but still reaching and yearning
  • Vanhal Concerto: elegant, Mozartean - articulate, joyful, welcoming
  • Beethoven 5 Scherzo: a dark, floating sound, maximum contrast - always feeling the impulse of 3-1; Trio: joyful, decisive, direction carrying through to the 4th bar
  • Beethoven 9: a proclamation to mankind - bold, imploring and compassionate - a sense of stretching and returning to form, like a big rubber band
  • Britten Young Person's Guide: joking, fun, playful - a sense of surprise and foiled expectations
  • Mendelssohn 4: beginning light and boisterous, feel strong accents on all the rests!
  • Mozart 40: a sighing lament, but now it's become bold and strong - think of the dialogue with the violins, following the intricate harmonies
  • Schubert 9: dancing, propulsive, direction of 3-1; feel the harmonic motion
  • Strauss Ein Heldenleben: the hero's signature theme, courageous, full-throated, every note purposeful and singing

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part II

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part I...

Just yesterday I listened to an interview with bassist Andy Anderson, on Jason Heath's podcast Contrabass Conversations. I know Andy from Spoleto, but I had never realized the awesome lengths he's gone to perfect his excerpts. Here's an Andy quote: "I don't feel like I really know the piece until I've arranged it as a MIDI file, cut it up and equalized all the A's from live recordings, adjusted the tempos to the tempo I want..." Earlier in the interview he mentions in passing, "If I'm practicing Beethoven 5, I like to spend a nice leisurely 4 hours or so." Is that in a week, I wondered? Because if I were to spend 4 hours of a single day on Beethoven 5, I think I would want to shoot myself.

Not to go on another tangent (sorry, loyal readers!). I just wanted to make the point that everyone finds their own approach to audition preparation, and no one approach is ever perfect or conclusive. I might envy someone like Andy, who practices systematically for up to 10 hours a day - but realistically, I don't think that I could ever survive that kind of practice schedule!

So getting back to those weeks before Calgary - I had decided that my biggest mistake in preparing for Cleveland was that I just hadn't played for enough people. I tend to record myself a lot in the run-up to auditions, sometimes 3 or 4 times a day. But I find that when I'm the only one listening to myself, I can sometimes get trapped in a negative feedback loop, getting down on myself and my playing, to the point where the whole process becomes a drag. So my goal for Calgary was to make playing for others a priority.

From the time I got back from Cleveland in January, I had a lot of opportunities to play for people. My undergraduate teacher at New England Conservatory, Don Palma, came down to give lessons and also listened to a mock audition. I've changed a lot since college, and it was awesome to see Don again and recognize all the hurdles I've gotten past. We can't always see our own development, but it was very gratifying to have it pointed out by a wise, honest musician I respect completely! And even after so much time, Don still showed me subtle technical changes, like an alteration to the angle of my bow arm elbow, that opened up my sound tremendously.

I was also getting together with other players in the New World bass section, especially Jory Herman and Matt Way. Jory has been preparing for the ISB competition, while Matt was getting ready for an audition in Rotterdam - so the three of us found the time to meet every week or so. It was nice at this stage that we were all preparing for different things, so none of that competitive jealousy was involved. And I felt like listening to Matt and Jory, and trying to give them my most helpful and musically perceptive ideas, was beneficial to my playing as well.

Around the middle of February another former teacher of mine, Michael Hovnanian, came down as part of the Chicago Symphony's Florida tour and gave a masterclass. Having both my principal teachers come to visit felt a little like the ghosts of Christmas past - I was grateful to see them both, but there was also a strong pressure to show them I'd been working hard! I didn't feel like I played my best for Michael - I kind of lurched through some Mendelssohn 4 excerpts, and he helped me settle on some strokes and articulations. He also said my tempo sounded "constipated", which hurt a little bit, but with Michael even his harshest comments have the sting of reality!

The next week I played for another musician I respect tremendously, retired BSO horn player Harry Shapiro. Someone pointed out to me recently that Harry actually played in the premiere of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, back in 1945 - there are probably few musicians with as much experience or love of orchestral music as Harry. Playing for Harry, you know he's going to ask for the biggest, most singing, passionate playing you can possibly produce - and usually he'll find a way to make it even bigger than you thought possible. At times I felt silly, playing everything twice as slowly and three times as loudly as I usually would - and yet the qualities he was drawing out of me, the sound and life and incredible intensity, were exactly what I needed. Harry's comments were all about opening me up, getting me to show more personality and speak in a surer, more confident musical voice - starting with my preparatory breaths, which he got me to take deeply and through my mouth, just as a horn player would!

I was clearly very lucky to have all these great people to play for, one right after another. These lessons and masterclasses kind of gave me milestones to work towards and measure my progress. In the next few weeks I would also play for Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassoonist Danny Matsukawa, Cleveland Orchestra bassists Max Dimoff and Charles Carleton, and a lot more of my non-bassist NWS colleagues. Probably few situations besides New World would have provided so many varied and insightful listeners - still, I've had similar opportunities in the past and never taken full advantage. I think the difference this time was that I took each opportunity to perform my audition rep seriously, made my best efforts to perform it well, and to take as much as I could from each person's comments.

I was also more pro-active about creating those opportunities - approaching someone like Harry Shapiro or Charles Carleton I really wanted to play for, or getting hall time and rounding up a few violinists and percussionists to form a mock committee. NWS musicians are all very busy, but what I've found is that if you set up a time, give them the opportunity to play as well, people are generally very agreeable. And as you approach the audition and are clearly excited and playing your best, other people get excited and enthusiastic about listening to you - they can feel that you're making progress and reaching a high level, and they want to tap into that energy.

I've written two long posts and not yet even left Lincoln Road. Next time though, I promise I'll at least get to the drive to the airport. Thanks to everyone for reading, and for your kind responses!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

reflections upon the polished surface

I have my dead, and I have let them go,
and was amazed to see them so contented,
so soon at home in being dead, so cheerful,
so unlike their reputation. Only you
return; brush past me, loiter, try to knock
against something, so that the sound reveals
your presence. Oh don't take from me what I
am slowly learning. I'm sure you have gone astray
if you are moved to homesickness for anything
in this dimension. We transform these Things;
they aren't real, they are only the reflections
upon the polished surface of our being.

- Rilke, from "Requiem for a Friend"

I opened by book of Rilke's collected poems at random and started reading this one this evening. Almost immediately I had that sense of reading my own experiences and thoughts, only written much more beautifully. Lately more and more I feel like music is something that actually haunts us - some visitor from another dimension, perhaps, or a memory from another lifetime. In any case, it comes to us like a dream, but one so urgent it makes this waking life seem like the illusion.

Reading further into the poem, I realize it's a very deeply felt and personal message to a friend Rilke lost - perhaps it shows my peculiar obsessiveness that I most readily connect these sentiments to music, not to any actual person! Still, it strikes me as a very close analogy to my relationship to music - it can sometimes feel like a close friend whom I've lost, but who I knew so well that I am able to recreate her presence on some level. Maybe it doesn't happen all the time, maybe hardly ever, but in those rare moments when this lost person comes alive in me, it makes all the struggle worth doing.

My apologies to anyone who was hoping for the continuation of my audition story today. I seem to have gone all pensive and philosophical instead, but I promise to take it up again tomorrow!