Saturday, August 09, 2008

on practicing practically

When it comes to learning long audition repertoire lists, we bassists don't have it nearly as bad as percussionists. I used to manage mock auditions at the New World Symphony, and for most instruments the excerpt materials would be about the thickness of a Time magazine, 40 to 50 sheets at most. When one of our percussionists was playing a mock, though, he would hand me a book the size of the Miami telephone directory, which I would flip through in a daze before handing it to another percussionist to pick out a few excerpts.

Still, there have been some comparatively long lists at recent bass auditions, and even a shorter list can wear you down if you don't budget your practice time intelligently. How many pieces can you expect yourself to practice every day, and really benefit from that work? How much time should you set aside for technique and scale studies, solos and repertoire for your job or school -- not to mention listening to recordings, visualization exercises, and other useful work away from the instrument? And how much should you set aside for rest, recreation, and having a life outside the practice room?

Those are questions we all need to answer for ourselves at some point. It's interesting to hear the approaches other people have used with success, though. I published a series of posts a while back on the audition advice of Cleveland Orchestra percussionist Tom Freer:

audition habits of a highly effective percussionist

and it's worth revisiting some of that advice, even for the person who wrote it!

I've experimented and adapted that advice somewhat since then. I base some of my practice structure on ashtanga yoga, in which the challenges are similar: you learn a lot of poses, each of which demands consistent and detailed work to maintain and develop. Sri Pattabhi Jois solved this dilemma by dividing the practice into several series, practiced on different days of the week, following an opening sequence of postures which does not vary. And at least one day of the week (Saturday) is set aside for complete rest.

So if I were taking this audition (you can download the repertoire list here) I might divide my practice into several modules as follows:

1. Opening sequence: long tones, scale studies, etc.

2. Excerpts: practice one series a day; spend 10-20 minutes on each excerpt, taking breaks every 45-60 minutes (should take 2-3 hours each day)

A series
  • Mozart 40.I
  • Bach Badinerie
  • Brahms 1.II
  • Mahler 2.I
  • Ein Heldenleben #9, #77
  • Mozart 39.II
  • Brahms 2.I
  • Pulcinella
B series
  • Mozart 39.I
  • Mendelssohn 4.IV
  • Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet
  • Mussourgsky Pictures
  • Beethoven 5.III
  • Ein Heldenleben #15, #40
  • Brahms 1.IV
  • Haydn 31 solo
  • Lt. Kije solo
C series
  • Mendelssohn 4.I
  • Mozart 40.IV
  • Otello soli
  • Beethoven 9.IV
  • Brahms 1.I
  • Mahler 1 solo
  • Ein Heldenleben #61-70 (battle scene)
  • Brahms 2.IV
  • Variaciones Concertantes solo
Audition solos: alternate Bach and concerto mvt. (25-30 minutes each day)

Recording: at the beginning or end of practice session (or preferably both) record a mock audition on that day's repertoire

Other repertoire: for work, gigs, or school, or other solo Bach (45 minutes)

After practice: listen and review your own recordings, listen to commercial recordings of the repertoire, do visualization exercises (1-2 hours)

Choose one day of the week to rest completely -- get away from the bass, go outside, and remind yourself that you're a human being
This is just an outline, and would probably need a fair amount of tweaking. As to how you should practice each of the excerpts, where you should focus, what you need to accomplish, that's another complicated and somewhat subjective question. It will probably need to wait until another post!

Please feel free to comment with your suggestions or questions.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

all that wax

I've been living in Calgary for one year as of today, and just a couple weeks ago I moved into my third apartment during that time. I thought I was going to settle down and start living a normal life, but I seem to be just as nomadic as ever.

The bag of cotton swabs shown here was purchased, I believe, in a dollar store somewhere in Chicago in 2003. It has now resided at 11 different addresses, by my count -- that's including 5 different rooms at the New World Symphony's Plymouth Hotel, where people tend to swap frequently. Still, that's a lot of moving for a bag of cotton swabs. According to MapQuest, they've traveled at least 5,000 miles. And it still looks like about half the bag is left.

I'm determined to finish off those cotton swabs before I move again, though. Even if it means I have to clean my ears five times a day. Tina suggested I get some glue and build some cotton-swab architecture, bridges and buildings and stuff, and I think this is a good idea. Just as long as they don't leave this apartment, except covered with ear wax, glue or other gunk.

I think it's a worthy goal -- I'm not sure what the reward will be, other than a new (smaller) box of cotton swabs. Meanwhile, I'm also hoping to use up a bag of 100 "Glimma" tea lights from IKEA that's followed me for the past two moves - just 84 more to go!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Ben Levy and the Glass phase

The thing I would just say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn't as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it felt short, and some of us can admit that to ourselves and some are a little less able to admit that to themselves. But we knew that it didn't have the special thing that we wanted it to have. And the thing that I would say to you is that everybody goes through that, and for you to go through it -- if you're going through it right now, if you're just getting through that phase, or if you're just starting off and you're entering into that phase -- you've got to know that it's totally normal, and the most important thing you could possibly do, is do a lot of work.

-- Ira Glass, from a discussion on YouTube. Watch the original here.

I wanted to transcribe a bit of Ira Glass' little sermon on creative work and the disappointments of the learning phase -- though I recommend you watch the clip on YouTube as well. One thing about Ira Glass: he's kind of hard to transcribe. He speaks in long, run-on sentences, and rather than pausing between them, he actually seems to speed up into the next thought. It's very natural to listen to, it just doesn't always look like it on the page. I wonder if that was part of the reason he seemed so stiff and dry in his early days on NPR -- he hadn't yet learned to sound like himself.

Listening to those early tapes is a great reminder that every artist, even the ones we most respect and admire, went through similarly maddening struggles. Every orchestral bassist at some point wondered if he or she would every play Mozart 35 as fast or as well as that other guy; we all had to humble ourselves the first time we went into a lesson with a Bach Suite.

Having good taste, as Ira describes, may actually make this phase more difficult to work through. We see how badly our results have failed our expectations, and we wonder if it's even worth the effort of trying. Someone like Ira Glass -- by showing how his idiosyncratic style needed a lot of time to develop -- can show that it is worth the effort, that patience will pay off.

At the beginning of my third year at NEC, I encountered an incoming freshman bassist named Ben Levy. He was already a strong player, but I don't know that anyone would have guessed that he would join the BSO at the age of 23. He still had a lot to work on when I first met him, and he was incredibly determined to work on it. He was almost always in the front practice room on the lower level, working on his scales and intonation when I got to school. He practiced compulsively, putting in a lot of hours, as many of us did.

What set him apart, I think, was that he had a very keen sense of how he wanted to sound, and was phenomenally determined to realize that sound. Even in his first jury, in which I think he played an easy baroque sonata transcription, Corelli or Vivaldi, he played it with such a sense of style and detail, it was really a convincing performance. He certainly still had a lot of work to do, and he would have been the first to admit that. But I think he was already laying the groundwork for the success that would come a few years later.

I found out that Ben had won the BSO in May 2003, when I overheard some gossip at another audition. At first, my stomach sunk -- as much as I liked Ben, I would have wanted to be the first to get a job, and this was a huge job. In retrospect though, I think that watching someone like that can only have a positive effect on you, if you realize that it wasn't magic. He did the work, as Ira Glass urged, even when the result may have been far short of what he'd hoped for. He didn't let the results diminish the hopes, and he kept his determination. That's the only sure-fire recipe for success that I know.

Friday, August 01, 2008

bass at the Folk Fest

Seeing the Calgary Folk Music Festival last weekend got me curious about playing in a band again -- I briefly played with some friends in high school, but the decibel levels were a bit too much for me and I quit. Earlier this week I even checked out the used bass guitars for sale on Craigslist. I'd probably better not make any major purchases until I'm drawing some income again, though.

There was a whole lot of great bass playing at the festival -- I won't try and name all the bassists I heard, since I'm not really up on that scene, but they were definitely shaking the island. One of my favorite bass guitarists, Meshell Ndegeocello, made an appearance playing blues with James Blood Ulmer.

There were quite a few upright basses around, too -- I saw one sitting on the lawn when we got there Sunday morning, and it must have found its way to a stage somewhere. We really do play an incredibly versatile instrument, and you could hear upright basses in almost any sort of style and combination over the course of the weekend. Todd Sickafoose joined Ani DiFranco's folk rock band for the closing set on Sunday night, and laid down bass grooves as catchy as anything I heard all weekend, and even drew out a bow at one point. With the right pick-up and amplification, an upright bass can do just about anything a bass guitar can do.