Am I Crazy?

July 13th, 2017

You knew this was going to happen.

Just a few days ago, I was looking through the latest International Musician (the publication of the musician’s union) and saw that the Detroit Symphony has an opening for Section Bass. Auditions October 16-18.

So here’s the question. Given that I have sort of taken on a project to rebuild my technique, starting over with Gary Karr’s elementary bass books (I’m up to “shifting!”) and mixing in a self-taught take on Rabbath’s method (I bought all of his books two years ago), can I get from page 63 of the book for beginners to the Detroit Symphony in 95 days?

Am I an optimist or a lunatic?

Am I being fatalistic and self-defeating if I said “honestly there’s no way I could win such an audition–there are so many great players out there, one of them would easily surpass me in a final round?” Is it setting too low a bar to say “I’d just like to play well in the first round.” (Although that of course is true.)

I got a big boost out of preparing for the last set of auditions I took. Although ultimately I was disappointed by my performance in the actual auditions. Am I thinking about doing this for the right reasons? Would it be possible to wipe from my mouth the bad taste of my last auditions by doing this? If I don’t actually commit myself to appearing in Detroit ninety-five days from now … look at it this way: with a concrete and tangible goal (“get through the audition”) and deadline (October 16, 2017) I will really work hard. Without those things, it will be easy easy easy to let practicing slide a couple times each week, and I won’t make the same progress.

But what is progress? If we accept as a given–and I think in will insist that it is a given, many of you will agree–that there are better players out there, who will ultimately defeat me in a final round, is winning an audition of this level a quixotic goal? Is it quixotic even to make the attempt? In business, we talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals, where the A stands for achievable. Again with the given I have just stated, this is NOT a SMART goal. Is making “progress” towards the impossible really progress, or is it effort that would be better directed at some other goal?

I might be talking myself out of this.

At the same time, for a few years now I have been carting around with me a yellow sticky-note with the phrase “look beyond what is reasonable” written on it. At the moment I can’t remember where I first encountered the phrase. It inspires me. It doesn’t say “be insane crazy and live outside the norms of society and abuse those around you” it just says don’t accept that things have to be just the way everyone else sees them. The audition doesn’t have to be won by the young conservatory grad with the gold medal at an international competition–the reasonable assumption. It could go to the guy twenty+ years out of school who just has a lot of heart and is going to make himself put in the work.

Do I really want to do this?

What if we took a poll? Put your vote in the comments. And please leave a comment with some of the reasoning behind your vote. If you’re reading my blog for the first time, it’d be lovely if you took in the backstory for this question by skimming the “audition” tag and the “Practice and Skills” and “Personal Preparation” categories.

Meanwhile, a few observations on the first steps in Gary Karr’s method.

  • Initially, getting a good sound on the “Koussevitzky” harmonic at the marked tempo and bow length on the E string was crazy hard. But it got better over several days of practice.
  • Really, what a brilliant approach to focus so much on bow speed as the primary concept to master when first picking up the instrument. (For me, I think poor control/consciousness of bow speed is a major underlying factor in many of the other awkwardnesses of my playing.)
  • My science brain wants to geek out on exactly what the speed ratios need to be when going from this note to that or one string to another. Practical musician brain has to intervene and remind us to get a good sound and go with it.
  • The shifting exercises, like focussing on bow speed as a fundamental skill, are quite smart. The bass is a huge instrument. Instead of initially working on shifts of a minor third or so, the initial shifting exercises very quickly cover shifting from very low to very high positions: Take on the biggest challenge with “beginner’s mind” rather than waiting until the third book of your method (meaning like second year of student study) to introduce the ‘scary’ concept of playing in the ‘hard’ positions. Master that sh*t early on, the rest will be easy!

More and more I’m thinking that I want to take these books to students of my own. I have resisted teaching for a long time. But I feel like the students I know of would really benefit from approaching the instrument this way. And that I would benefit from teaching them.

Starting Again

July 3rd, 2017

A few weeks ago, I listened to the very enthusiastic Jason Heath interview Gary Karr. I learned some stuff.

As often happens when I listen to Contrabass Conversations, I was simultaneously inspired and crushed (by the greatness of another bassist and their ideas and journey, and by my own relative lack of accomplishment in spite of my big dreams). Not having much work and not having much playing time doesn’t help.

In discussion later on Contrabass Conversation’s Facebook group, I was surprised to learn that Gary Karr has a method book. I shouldn’t have been, of course, how stupid of me. But I went to the International Society of Bassists website right away and ordered the whole set.

I am now going to go through them. I probably won’t linger; I am hopeful that it won’t take me as long to understand the concepts as it would a beginning student. But I’m going to re-evaluate as much as I can about my own current technique.

Karr writes “All instructional manuals are but an aid in helping us teach ourselves or others. Therefore whether you are a student or a master player I have chosen to address you in these books as teacher.” I actually get a kind of optimistic feeling from that idea. It does describe where I am. Although I suppose it doesn’t correct the statement in my tweet above, haha.

After reading through the first book on my commute a few days ago, I started over. Really the first thing I have noticed is my terrible tendency to lose focus. Given instruction on how to cradle the bow, to play using specific bow speeds on the different strings, to keep the bow in one place between fingerboard and bridge and the use of the arm, wrist and back–plenty to keep track of!–as soon as I begin to play a whole note G harmonic, my mind wanders to what I’m having for lunch or any other of a thousand things. It’s maddening.

After a few days, I felt I could allow myself to advance as far as page 29, the short piece “Gliding Home (A Major).”

I suppose I could say more about what my technique is or isn’t doing or how it has or hasn’t improved from three days of playing only whole note harmonics (what Karr calls the “Koussevitsky” harmonic). But I don’t really know, haha. Beginner’s mind and all, I’m trying to just play the harmonics and keep the bow in the right place at the right speed.


September 25th, 2016

For what seems like a year, but is really only about 10 months, CBE has done next to nothing: no rehearsals, no performances, no get-togethers. And even before that, there was little activity that I could brag about. I had a line on a precious few performance opportunities, but life being what it has been, I wasn’t able to execute and bring them to life.

I wanted CBE to be a performing group, not a rehearsing one. And while Doug, Michael, John and I did spend a lot of time to our benefit ‘just rehearsing’ back in earlier days, it became clear that they also wanted to perform more than we did–more than I organized and led towards. So the lack of regular performances probably led to the mostly-disbanding of that lineup.

But one of my other (admittedly undeclared) goals was to play with others who were my equal or better, and in doing so, learn from and be inspired by them. So, to that end, I’m going to take CBE in the direction of being a regular ‘workshop’ for the time being.

Those of you who went to music school will recognize the concept of studio class: all the students of one teacher (or several teachers of the same instrument) gather regularly to play for each other, demonstrate and learn technique and repertoire and work on chamber works together. For the immediate future, Chicago Bass Ensemble Workshops will have two areas of focus: individual development and repertoire exploration. The former will be about learning from each other and improving skills. The latter will be about playing chamber music for basses and soliciting compositions or composition sketches (works-in-progress, ideas) from composers writing for the bass.

I’m glad that I’ve finally announced this idea–it’s been much too long that I’ve let this idea foment in my mind without taking action.

If you’re a bassist, especially one living in the Chicago area, please get in touch with me to be invited to participate. (This will be open to all.)

And if you’re a composer or someone interested in trying out musical ideas with a group of basses, please get in touch. I welcome the opportunity to try out your ideas and give you feedback.

And everyone, I welcome your comments here or via the contact form on the website.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – That’s It

September 23rd, 2016

first draft: 10 September 2016. Rewritten on

23 September 2016

First off, congratulations to Johann Schuster and Jason Niehoff, who won the fourth and fifth chair spots in the audition.

As you know, the audition which was at the center of this round of “Audition Daily Blogging” took place Tuesday, 6 September. I had been feeling pretty positive, fairly excited, rather optimistic about my preparation and my possible success.

I failed.

That is a pretty blunt way of putting it. We can discuss nuances about what went right and wrong, about the inner successes within the greater failure, but it would be hard to completely ignore the fact that the outcome of one’s effort at an audition is evaluated as one state of a binary solution: you succeed and are offered the job or you are not offered the job.

By now I have had plenty of time(1) to reflect on what I’m feeling. I wrote a long post on the tenth, and have pared it down for publication. Nonetheless, if you don’t like this sort of thing, you’ve got the jist of it and you can stop reading now. Although I do invite you to read another perspective on auditioning.

Frustration, tinted with Anger

I made simple and dumb mistakes. I thought I had done enough preparation, including a couple of mock auditions, to eliminate those from my playing. Like Pascal writing his letter, I think I had not taken enough time to make my practice efficient, so I worked hard but not well. I didn’t make full use of the good information in the BulletProof Musician course, which I had spent money on. And finally I’m frustrated and kind of angry that auditions are conducted as they are — the assigned numbers, the sneaking into the audition space so the committee won’t know who you are, the waiting around to hear results — I’m never this nervous when performing, why am I being tested about my ability to play when nervous?


I also feel a kind of gave-it-my-all exhaustion. Like: “why bother to do this again?” Like: “I’ve answered the question ‘can I do it,’ the answer is ‘no.'”

And at times I wish it were that simple. Done, move along, nothing to see here. But I’m not content with that … so see “frustration” again.

Self-Doubt with a side of Worry

I should come as no surprise that self-doubt is a big part of the mood. I’ve pursued music for a long time and, especially when I’m down, feel that I have little to show for it. Am I good enough to ever have something more to demonstrate? Do I work hard enough–not just at the skills, but at the understanding and drive? Have I been on the wrong road, did I leave my path when I stopped playing jazz–and casuals gigs–twenty years ago?


I bragged in a previous post that “I won’t lose the skills I’ve (re-)gained in preparing for this audition … I’ll audition for Cirque du Soleil.” But where’s that going to go really? (See the self-doubt and resignation creeping into that question?) Maybe I really do need to switch directions. Or drop the goal-oriented behavior for a little while and just let curiosity lead? Take off blinders, drop pretensions and airs, just find out where I can go with what I have?

I really wanted to believe that I would stay positive and groovy no matter the outcome of Tuesday’s audition. And I’m pretty confident that I will return to form. But it’s not happening quickly. And I can’t decide if I have too much going on in life right now (new job, family events to participate in, checkbook to balance, etc.) to have space to allow this to settle, or not enough going on to whisk my energy up.


Honestly, I did take the time to make this a shorter letter. Nonetheless it’s pretty long and personal. Thanks for making it to the end. Ugh. I actually don’t intend for this to be The End, I just don’t know exactly what’s next.




(1) For those who don’t know, I was “on the beach” after my contract as a user experience architect at a well-known business school ended on August 31, until earlier this week (September 20) when I started a new job.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – The End (Short Version)

September 11th, 2016

11 September 2016

I started writing a long blog post, attempting to process through the emotions and thoughts I’ve had since the audition last Tuesday. Here’s the short version, because I don’t know if I can get the long version out: it’s starting to feel too personal and involved. So, the short version:

I messed stuff up in the solo piece and the excerpts. I did not advance.

And I’m not at all happy about that result.

The long version of this post might yet appear in a few days.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – part 9

September 6th, 2016

6 September 2016 – Audition Day

It’s 5:30 am, I’ve gotten up early to get ready. My audition time is in the 10:00 am group; I’ll have to leave at around 7:15 am in order to get there by 9:00 to have time to decompress from driving and warm up.

In the past I’ve found that I am playing my best–most connected, loosest, good sound etc.–when I’ve been playing for a while, like several hours, as weird as that seems. I haven’t focused on finding a way to shorten that time. I won’t figure that out today, but maybe that’s a good subject for future study.

Yesterday afternoon and evening I was definitely feeling the symptoms of nervousness. Nothing major, but I could tell that I was less interested in conversations, kind of wanting to just be away from everyone. Sunday evening I had done something to my back and since it didn’t go away overnight, much of yesterday was painful. I saw a massage therapist, and that helped a lot, although not immediately. I slept well last night, and although I haven’t yet tried to play this morning (others are still sleeping, right?) I’m optimistic that the back will not be a major factor today.

So now I’m just getting ready to go. And while I’m still feeling optimistic, in general, my mood is tempered by something that’s a hybrid of realism and fatalism. I don’t play any of the excerpts perfectly. Perfectly is the thing that would guarantee a win. I’ll just have to play less imperfectly that other auditionees. The idealist would like to play perfectly. The realist recognizes it’s just as much about who else shows up as it is about one’s own preparation. The fatalist mopes, knowing it’s not in his own control.

I’m honestly not sure what’s the healthiest attitude … although as I write those words, I know “more positive” is a better kind of attitude than “more negative.” But I don’t want to walk out of my house this morning whistling a cheery tune and dancing a jig in a kind of hyper-cheerful way. That would be setting myself up for disappointment. At the same time, a dour, gloomy grimace is not the right face to take to the audition.

I’m sure that from the outside of this process there is some mood or attitude that is obviously the right one to take. But I’m inside the process right now, so I’m just chugging along doing me. Even a moments’ reflection reminds me that I’ve staked a lot of “who I am” on being successful in music. And to be frank, I personally have had only glimpses of the kind of success that I want in my life. The decision something like 18 months ago to jump back on the audition train was a decision to put myself back out there, to risk my ego yet again in the hope of resuming that voyage to musical-career-achievement that I have chased with more or less–and more often, less–vigor for most of my adult life.

We’ll see a little later today what has come of this latest chapter in that life. That’s heavy, heavy sentiment to bring with me today–so I hope that by writing it here, I am leaving some of it behind, that I won’t have to carry it into the audition with me. It is, after all, pretty maudlin and dramatic, all that stuff in the previous paragraph. So I’ll say it again, as I have several times before in this blog: I’ve gained (and re-gained) a lot during the preparation for this audition, and the others I have recently taken. Even if I crash and burn during my performance today, nothing will take away the skills I’ve developed (and re-developed). And I’ll use those skills in whatever is coming next.

Alright, enough. There’s preparations to be done, and printing the map, and packing the music and gathering up headphones and lunch and all the various bits . . .

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – part 8

September 4th, 2016

(10 minutes, starting . . . now!)

4 September 2016

Okay, that thing I said in my last post about writing every day? Didn’t do it.

Also didn’t write a second entry that day … got carried away with other things. I wish I could say that I got carried away practicing, but it was other stuff.

Practicing has been going well. Some of the nasty hard shifts in Strauss (Ein Heldenleben), Beethoven (Symphony 5, third movement) are going maybe better than they ever have. The twisty tricky and fast fingerings in Mozart (Symphony 40, fourth movement) are still hit and miss, but the hit:miss ratio his higher than it’s ever been. I’d like to say my confidence is 100%, but it’s not, due to those misses in Mozart and also to the required Bach ‘cello suite movement. While I can play the Bach reasonably well sometimes (and performed it during the summer, but to a crowd of tipsy classmates at my college reunion), sometimes there are parts that completely crash and burn. I’m working to make those fewer and far between, but if I miss one of them during the audition my confidence will be shaken, for sure.

But my sound is strong, and in places where the fingerings aren’t the stuff of contortionists nightmares, articulation is good and clean. I hope I can continue this work … one thing I’ve been meaning to do for some time is work up the audition materials for Cirque du Soleil … once I’m done with this audition, it will be time for that. Would I really run away to join the circus? No. (Unless it pays a whole lot better than I think it does.) But it sure is fun to imagine it.

Lately I’ve taken to writing the name/location of each excerpt on a slip of paper, then tossing the slips of paper on the couch and picking them up randomly, then running through the excerpts in that order. It’s a great exercise to try to be ready for anything: fast gentle passages immediately after raucous loud ones, etc. Keeps me on my toes. I recommend it.

I’m also finding that pausing between repetitions is helping me work things out faster. Sample: play the excerpt not quite up to tempo (don’t make mistakes!). Close your eyes and wait five seconds before doing anything else. This lets the neural pathways in the brain assimilate what you’ve just done. Repeat. It seems to be helping.

There, that’s my ten minutes. Audition is day after tomorrow.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – part 7a

September 1st, 2016

1 September 2016

Okay, it’s been a good couple of days. I actually feel like things are hitting a groove. I really don’t know if the way I’m playing right now is audition-winning, but it is the best I’ve been playing all year … really for eighteen months or more, since I started working towards last year’s Lyric Opera orchestra audition. I actually feel pretty good.

Thinking about that link to the first “Audition Daily Blog,” I haven’t been blogging as much as I did during those last few weeks. But I remember that that daily ritual, limited to about 10 minutes, also felt pretty good. It was a chance to sum up the day, the current mood, whatever.

So, since there are now only five days remaining until the audition in Elgin on 6 September, I will resume the truly daily blog, 10 minutes. This is basically the sprint, folks. Will this be my Gwen Jorgensen moment? (I happened to watch the last parts of the women’s triathlon–I was transfixed, and so happy for her when she won.)

I had some other thoughts, about

  • having time to practice now that I’m unemployed (hopefully just temporarily)
  • working on meditation techniques to improve my concentration (for instance, Shinzen Young’s Five Classic Meditations)
  • how to prepare for a morning audition when you have to drive an hour to get there (ugh!)

but for now, back to the practicing. Adding “a” to the numbering of today’s entry, because I already feel like I want to make another entry later today.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – part 6

August 30th, 2016

A very short post.

Things are feeling good.

I hope I didn’t jinx it. Audition is next Tuesday.

Audition Daily Blog, The Return – part 5

August 20th, 2016

I am having a serious case of why-am-I-doing-this.