About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, July 28, 2014

Perfection versus Musicality

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

An article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune of July 20, 2014, titled "A classic case of tryout panic," delved into the audition process that aspiring symphony players must go through to win a job in an American orchestra. The article, written by Donna Perlmutter, focuses on the difficulty of winning an audition in an American orchestra today and the process involved in auditioning. What struck me most were quotes from several orchestra members stating that musicians auditioning today must be perfect. "'Today perfection is a requirement,' says David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 'You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.'"

This theme of needing to play perfectly in an audition and the negative side effects has popped in a number of places recently, one of them being a remark by Glenn Dicterow, the retiring concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, in a New York Times article. "'It's a given that you're supposed to play perfectly, virtuosically,' he said. 'But maybe there's a bit of the generic quality in music making - people don't have as much individual style. I think that's just a product of the age we live in.'" Here in Chicago those great musicians with individual style included Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, Ray Still, and Dale Clevenger. You would not mistake their playing for someone else's.

A talented young musician of my acquaintance who has been taking auditions commented in frustration that at a time when orchestras are worried about selling tickets and continuing to have an audience for classical music, that the newer musicians joining orchestras are perfect, but boring, players, because that is what orchestras are looking for and hiring.

The Tribune article went on to discuss the audition process and how it has changed from an informal audition with the music director, often in his hotel room, to a structured process with much more involvement of the orchestra's members. Auditions today are behind a screen until the final round. Aspiring orchestral musicians spend endless hours practicing excerpts, the small parts of pieces that include solos and difficult parts for the instrument.

I was taking auditions 30-some years ago, mostly for smaller orchestras. Screens were becoming more standard at that time, which almost immediately increased the number of women in orchestras. Getting a job in an orchestra was becoming more competitive and difficult. I remember my teacher in college telling me "in the old days" orchestras would call up and ask him to send some players to an audition in order to give themselves enough to choose from. Part of the increase in competition when I was auditioning was from women, who dramatically increased the number of professional musicians when orchestras started hiring women more. Another factor was probably more graduates from more music institutions.

One of the auditions I took was for the Portland Symphony; probably 2nd or 4th horn. They were also auditioning for a trumpet position on the same day. The horns went first and took longer than the audition committee had expected, so they announced the finalists (including me!) and that they would hold the trumpet preliminaries next, then have the horn finals. After waiting hours for the trumpets to finish, the committee decided to continue with the trumpet finals, so we continued to wait, into the evening.  Once we had finally all played, the committee talked and then announced that they couldn't decide. They would let us know later and we should all go home. My impression that day was that the orchestra was astonished at level of the musicians who had come to the Portland Symphony audition and this was why they had such a difficult time making a decision. In the end, they chose the local horn player who had been filling in.

The number of outstanding players has only increased in the years since. It appears to me that with all these wonderful players, orchestras have grasped at perfect playing as a way  to pick musicians. What is lost, at least sometimes, is musicality and personality. The quote at the top of this post is attributed to Beethoven. It is undoubtably true. But to young musicians looking for a position today, it may sound like a luxury.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Technique and Interpretation

Last week I had the opportunity to hear a short recital by a former student of mine. He was preparing to appear on the WFMT radio show Introductions, which features pre-college musicians. He is a percussionist and played marimba on this recital program. He chose a varied program that was very enjoyable.

One of the pieces on his program was the Prelude from the Bach Cello Suite No. 1, which I have been working on, off and on, and which I wrote about earlier. He played it technically very well and also did some lovely phrasing with ritards and dynamics. When we talked with him afterwards I complimented him on how musical that piece was, and he said that the interpretation was the challenge for him. He had learned the notes in about a week, he said, but then his teacher had him listen to numerous recordings and work on making it musical.

I know that technique is different on different instruments -- what's easy for me on horn is hard for you on some other instrument, and vice versa, but - a week! Of course, he spent much more time on everything that comes after you learn the notes and rhythm. That got me thinking about why we choose the music we choose to learn.

The Bach Suite is an excellent technical challenge for me - it's so difficult on horn. It's also been an opportunity for me to listen to recordings of the Suites and think about how to play this very notey music expressively. However, until I have more command of the technique, I can't really do much with the musicality. On the other hand, when I played the Symphony #4 by David Maslanka this past year, the notes were simple. But making musical sense was a big challenge. This extremely demanding work for band begins with a solo for horn alone. It is 29 measures of mid-range playing with easy rhythms and lots of long held notes. (The technical difficulties come a little later.) There aren't many expression markings. I was quite nervous about the whole piece, but mostly those 29 bars, so I got some coaching from a teacher. He didn't know the piece at all, but was a huge help in thinking about ways to use dynamics, articulation, and silence to create an effective introduction to the piece. I was happy, the conductor was happy, and hopefully the audience enjoyed it. I worked as hard on this solo as I am on the Bach, but in a different way.

The point of playing a piece is to make music and to communicate with your audience, and both technique and interpretation are important in achieving that. The balance of challenge between those two elements varies from piece to piece and from performer to performer. I knew this already, but sometimes there's a reminder, like my student and the Bach Suite.

If you'd like to hear the Maslanka symphony, there is a very good YouTube recording by the U.S. Navy Concert Band, conducted by Mallory Thompson. There are lots of great recordings of the Bach Suites, including ones by Yo-Yo Ma, Pablo Casals, and Mstislav Rostropovich.