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.


Jill Cathey said...

The suspense is killing me! But I love how you are telling it blow by blow - even though I'm not familiar with the particular excerpts I can relate. Can't wait for your next installment!

Anonymous said...

I agree. This blog is really new to me, but every post is interesting and informative. It's really great to get behind your thought process Matt! On with part VI!!

Vegan Ambrosia said...


I would like to invite you to a blogger meetup. Please email me @

Miami Vegan