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.


Anonymous said...

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Joe Lewis said...

This is such a valuable post, and I'm sorry I haven't been able to comment earlier on this one. I completely agree. Research shows that an organized plan yields far greater results for practicing musicians, and the more organized and methodical you are, the better. (Of course to the point where you spend more time planning than you should, in which case you need to refer to the "one day of rest" step Matt mentions at the end of his post... ;-)

The only thing I'd add to this is to possibly use the one day per week of rest to do an abbreviated technical session early in the day - maybe a half hour only, first thing in the morning - just to touch the instrument and make contact. A second day, opposite this, might be spent more in focus of technique over repertoire, just to spend time focusing on the basics so that we aren't reinforcing bad habits in the desperate pursuit of audition preparation. But your mileage may vary - I don't do auditions and mostly spend my time working on solo and chamber music!

Tor Hershman said...

How do you get to Carrr...., oh heck, I bet you heard that one.

Dorothy said...

Hi Matt! Great discussion! Can I possibly repost this article in an online lifestyle magazine that I'm starting for classical musicians?