Audition Daily Blog, the sequel – part 02

Battling Inertia

So, as I suggested, I’m not blogging daily right now. No, in fact I’m battling inertia. For a few weeks around the end of the year, I got totally out of the practice habit and routine and I’m finding it hard to get underway again.

I’m finding something numbing about practicing these same excerpts, again. The Grant Park Festival Orchestra plays what I’ll informally call ‘traditional’ orchestral repertoire[1], and their audition list is similar to audition lists from all the orchestras I have ever auditioned for. There might be one excerpt on the list that I haven’t worked on before. The excerpt list for the Lyric Opera Orchestra was almost all-new to me, which made it more interesting for me.

So I pick up the bass and the bow, and look at Mozart, and wonder about the wisdom of the fingering I worked out years ago, and wonder if there isn’t something else I could do, either with my fingers . . . or my time. Tough.

I did take the opportunity of the long weekend to have a coaching/lesson with David Murray in Indianapolis, Indiana. That was a good thing to do. I can’t say that I filled in every technical gap that I have. But I did get some new perspective; the most important of which is to focus on the bow, not the fingerings.

When Pinchas Zuckerman played with the Civic Orchestra during one of my seasons in that group, I remember that he said the bow was the most important part of producing sound. It makes sense, of course. But I had never taken that to heart as a section player. David pointed it out to me. We worked on the bass solo variation of Hadyn’s Symphony #31, starting with “how will you bow this,” and only after settling the bowing (by singing the part and air bowing) did we move on to what the fingering would be.

Very interesting. And yet, when I pick up those old excerpts, I find it hard to break down the old habits. Or maybe frightening to think of scrapping everything that I think I know and starting from zero. Which leads to . . .

A Crisis in … Confidence? or of Heart

(In Spite of Advice for the Better)

Well, this is the thing that worked its way into my head early this morning. Do I really feel confident in what I have committed to, taking the audition for the Grant Park Festival Orchestra?

When one is in Conservatory, one is encouraged to take as many auditions as you can. “You need experience taking auditions.” A few years ago (or maybe more than a few) I decided that the experience of playing badly in front of people who knew better was not an experience that I found valuable. And so I stopped taking auditions.

BAM! Enlightenment moment: Do you see my mistake? Instead of stopping auditioning, I should have stopped playing badly, right?

Okay, easily said, right? “Just stop playing badly.[2]”

Honestly, as I’m writing this, I think I just gobsmacked myself. But no, I wasn’t a dilettante about my practicing in those days, I was making sincere efforts to improve, and to play those excerpts the right way. It’s unfair (see footnote 2) to suggest that I could have simply “stopped playing badly.”

What I really wanted to get to in this part of this blog post was the idea of confidence in what one is playing. See “play those excerpts the right way” in the previous paragraph. I am always, it seems, looking for someone else’s authority to tell me what is the “right” way to play a passage. That attitude might be a boon when one is a member of a section–cohesion and unity being important to creating a good ensemble–but it can certainly be a hindrance when one is preparing an audition.

Both David Murray and Andy Anderson have placed hints in my brain that–at least when preparing an audition–one should treat each excerpt soloistically. That is, not to take wild liberties with tempo and phrasing, but to interpret the passages with the mindset that you know what you are doing, that you have an opinion about how this piece goes and that you are confident in expressing the excerpt in your way. It should be internally consistent, it should be well-executed, but it doesn’t have to be done just the way someone else would do it.

I guess when you think about it from the outside, that makes sense. Although you may know who the conductor is, s/he may not be present in initial rounds so trying to pander to their taste doesn’t necessarily buy you anything. The audition committee is behind a screen. You don’t know who they are so you can’t guess what their tastes or opinions are. The best thing you can do is play what you believe to be your best interpretation of the excerpt.

I’m trying to wrap up this blog post, but it’s a huge issue, confidence. Knowing what to do. Knowing that you can do it. I guess I’m a person who really values, even relies upon feedback. That’s probably why, in my ‘day job life'[3] I really like ‘agile’ development methods: the frequent and regular feedback from trusted teammates reassures me that I’m doing the right things and have made the right choices. Auditions are NOT the place to get frequent and regular feedback. (n.b.: lessons, studio classes and coaching are those places.)

Fine. For a blog post, I’ve rambled a bit, but still reasonably close to the two-point outline suggested by my headers. No conclusion. We will see what is brought by the next few days, the next after that and so on. Wish me luck. No, not luck, confidence. No, don’t wish it, give me your examples of how you find confidence.



[1] Under their current musical direction, the Grant Park Festival has definitely included modern/new works on their programs, so it would be unfair to let the word ‘traditional’ suggest that they are uninteresting, staid or boring. I merely need a way to quickly contrast concert hall repertoire with opera repertoire. Any expediency I granted myself by using the word ‘traditional’ has now been erased by writing, and asking you to read, this footnote.

[2] To be fair to myself, I really should not describe myself as “playing badly.” I play better than an awful lot of people: I have practiced in order to develop what natural talent I have. And I did graduate from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music — not a slouch school for music. But so far, I haven’t always played well in auditions. And I don’t play better than everyone who is taking those auditions. There’s room for improvement, but I don’t actually play badly.

[3] I’m an interaction designer or a user experience architect or whatever you want to call it. Here’s my LinkedIn profile, and my rarely updated agile coaching blog.

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3 Responses to “Audition Daily Blog, the sequel – part 02”

  1. Leah says:

    It’s an interesting conundrum – having to practice something repeatedly, and yet practice brings on boredom that makes you not want to practice. I think it is one of the reasons that I finally gave up playing music (something I regret).

    One of the tricks I used to relieve boredom (granted I was in my teens at the time) was playing pieces I was practicing along with a recording of the music I was practicing. Just like I was already part of the orchestra. Obviously, it can’t be done all the time, but it may be a way to jump start your practice with the pieces that are “old friends” (if you haven’t already used this method which you very well may have :))

    • Jacque Harper says:

      Thanks for the thought – familiarity breeds contempt, eh?
      Your comment reminded me of an item I do have on my to-do list, to make just such a play-along playlist. It served me well for the Lyric audition.
      I feel that–for the benefit of other players–I have to point out a danger to be wary of with the play-along. Jumping too quickly to the stage of playing along with a recording, at full tempo, can lead to deciding too quickly on what fingerings or bowing to use: choosing something that you can ‘make work at tempo’ rather than choosing something that’s ‘best’ and improving your technique to the point where you can play that at tempo. There are some excerpts where that’s not a problem, and others where there’s a real risk of getting sloppy.
      But no doubt, playing along with something is instructive and at least has a semblance of working with others. And since the best music IS made WITH others, that’s a good thing to work towards.
      Again, thanks! Great to have your encouragement.

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