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!


Anonymous said...

I think I can speak for all the bass dorks that read this- we love the tangents about excerpts and preparation! Keem 'em coming!

It is fantastic that you live in such a community where you are surrounded by people you can play for and receive such helpful comments, in addition to all the visiting artists! That's a recipe for success if I've ever heard one!

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