Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The amazing three cellos interview

There are no words* . . .

*Well, maybe there are, but we can't use them here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Audition

While I was driving back from Massachusetts on Saturday evening, I hit a spot between mountains where I could tune in to All Things Considered on NPR. One of the stories was about a percussionist, Mike Tetreault, and his audition for the Boston Symphony.

A Musician and the Audition of His Life

I hope I don't spoil the story for you by telling you that after practicing for a year (while juggling all the other jobs typical of a freelancing musician) he did not get the job, and in fact was voted out after the first round after playing for 10 minutes. The slant of the NPR story was in a positive direction, but I did a little more Internet searching after I got home and found this article in Boston Magazine that was a bit more sobering:

The Audition

"Civilians" (i.e., nonmusicians) are always shocked when they hear the nitty-gritty reality of what is involved in an audition. They don't quite believe how tough it is, though these days when even an experienced computer programmer can't get a job they are a little more understanding.

I have not done a lot of auditions. None on the piano -- though really, the piano is a different beast altogether than the cello; I imagine not too many piano auditions involve learning a few snippets of some impossibly difficult ensemble part that when actually performed cannot be heard individually. Think, for example, of the opening of Strauss's "Don Juan" -- that famous up-swooping arpeggio played by the entire orchestra -- and then imagine playing that on the cello in front of a screen, behind which sits a committee marking down every mistake. I did one audition when I played this, and the principal cellist who was on the committee sarcastically asked me to play it again, "This time with the right notes." This was for a regional orchestra in a small southern city; I was a poor college student at the time, and I had driven down there and stayed in a crummy motel at my own expense and then trundled over to the audition site, which turned out to be an unairconditioned church (the audition was in the summer). I think the job paid less than $10,000 a year. They ended up not hiring any of us who auditioned. IIRC, they hired the principal cellist's wife.

However, though one can bitch and moan about the awfulness of auditions, what other way is there to do it? One hopes at least to be treated with some respect, but in the end the results are the subjective opinions of human beings.

This has been on my mind recently because I have been considering taking a local professional audition that's scheduled for the end of August. It's a good job, full time with benefits. The various civilians I've mentioned this to have said variations on, "Oh, you must do this! What do you have to lose?" And in a way they are right. But at the moment I am very far from being able to play the required repertoire, which is extremely difficult. I would like to prove that I could play it beautifully rather than imagining that I could, but the reality is that a month is not enough time for me to prepare properly, especially given the fact that I only have a few hours for it in the evenings (after a full day at work). I don't begrudge time spent practicing the cello when I know I'm actually going to perform, but an audition is a poor substitute for playing in front of a real audience.

The other part of this, though it sounds arrogant to say so, is that in my heart of hearts a job like this isn't my preference -- not as something to do for years on end, night after night, playing in a section, and not playing the kind of music I'm really interested in. In that way I am different from Tetreault, who says it's always been his dream to play in the BSO. Though of course a percussionist is always a soloist, whereas a section cellist is never one (except by accident!).

What are the things I love to do musically? I love playing the piano; playing the cello in small groups, including folk and jazz; and teaching receptive students. I've been enjoying taking piano lessons with my current teacher. I do appreciate playing in a good orchestra, but it's not at the top of the list. And so I have decided to pass on the audition and put my energies elsewhere.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Piano camp

When I arrived at Williams College for the Midsummer Adult Piano Retreat last Saturday after a long and tiring drive, it was hot. I discovered that my room was on the third floor of an unairconditioned dorm and the practice room pianos in the 1970s-era concrete-constructed music building were entry-level Yamaha uprights.* That first night I couldn't fall asleep until 3 a.m., and I was thinking something along the lines of, "I've been to music school; I have a nice piano at home; I could have stayed there and taken the week off of work and just practiced, so why the heck did I come?" But there was also the anticipation of the unknown and the stimulation of being on a bustling college campus and the excitement of being handed a crisp information package with times scheduled for everything. So I gave myself up to the moment.

The moment consisted of

  • morning lectures on various topics, specifically Alexander technique by Debi Adams, piano technique and history by Alison Barr, and free-flowing music appreciation by Peter Mose
  • afternoon practice (involving some scuttling around finding the best pianos) and private lessons;
  • evening discussion sessions and other activities;
  • lots and lots of enjoyable and stimulating conversation (over meals and coffee, with wine at the dorm at night, and in between all of the above).

The group was small (limited to 20 students), and the ages ranged from 40+ to 70+. Some were retired, some still working, and two were even music teachers. Most came from the Boston and Toronto areas (because that is where the three teachers were from), but one person was from California, one from Colorado, one from Texas, and another from Louisiana. They were all really great people; I can't remember another occasion when the company was so congenial. We were all very different and had different backgrounds and playing levels, but the common thread of enthusiasm for playing the piano was strong and created a real bond right away.

Most human social groups tend to get competitive in some way, but this one did not (at least from my perspective). I think this was a factor of the more mature age group and that this experience was specifically designed to be nurturing and noncritical. There is a fine line between that and treating students like kindergartners, but I felt the retreat masters managed to walk that line successfully, for the most part. Even the less successful attempts, such as sculpting the scapula bone from Play-Doh or trying to pass rubber balls around the room in time to the Pachelbel Canon, at least made us laugh. 

I think everyone appreciated the way the various activities were tied together. For example, Debi and her duo partner, Mike Serio, performed a recital one evening; there was a class on the technical problems of playing four-hand piano the next day; and throughout the week students worked on duo movements together and then those who wanted to played them for the group informally on Saturday morning. Another example is the Brahms recital at Tanglewood by pianist Gerhard Oppitz that we attended: Peter acquainted us with some of the musical material early in the week; the day of the recital, Alison gave a brisk lecture on Brahms with more detailed discussion about the music we would be hearing; and then the next day we had a group discussion about the concert.

So these were all tangible things I can describe, but I would categorize the less concrete, though perhaps more important learning as the emphasis on listening -- to oneself, to the music, to others; on body awareness -- what is comfortable, what is not, and why; and on music as a human experience, with all the weaknesses and foibles that entails as well as the good stuff. 

People were not required to perform. We were given a few opportunities to play for each other, which some of us did -- I took every one possible -- but there were some from whom we never heard a single note the entire week. But, as Stuart Smalley would say, that's . . . okay. 

Somehow I have come away from this feeling more comfortable at the piano. Perhaps it's the cumulative effect of being immersed in it for a week and in having so much of what I've been doing validated by what I was hearing (both verbally and by example). In any case, staying home and practicing would not have been the same.

*In case anyone is reading this and considering signing up for next year who is perturbed by my description of the facilities: Except for that first unusually hot night, the room was very pleasant. I slept well and I woke up every morning looking up into the branches of a huge maple tree outside my window. As for the pianos, in addition to the practice room clunkers (which at least had been tuned for us), there were several very nice Steinway grands in the teaching spaces that we could practice on when they weren't being used. The one in the recital hall was wonderful, and I was able to play for several hours on it during the week.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Side by side

Last night, after pondering my playing experience in the afternoon, I decided to record the Bach on my own piano, playing from memory. It was about midnight. I kind of zipped through it a couple of times, and done.

When I got home from work this evening, I listened to my "live" effort from the afternoon, and though you can hear the tension (a few missed notes, a bit of rushing here and there, some uncontrolled sound), it does have that vitality of being played in front of other humans.

So for anyone who has the interest or patience, or both, here are both versions.

WTC II, Prelude and Fugue in D minor, "live"

(If you listen carefully, you will hear it start to rain outside at the beginning of the fugue.)

WTC II, Prelude and Fugue in D minor, "studio"

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Shaky foot!

I performed the Bach today. I felt relatively well prepared. The audience was small and sympathetic -- mostly the other performers and their SOs. The piano was okay; nothing special (a Boston baby grand) but adequate, and the room was pleasant.

Leading up to  recital time, I felt eerily relaxed -- knowing I would have the music in front of me seemed to take away most of my nerves. They had put me second after the intermission, so I had to sit for an hour, waiting my turn, but I was calm, my hands were warm and dry, and all seemed well.

However ...

When I finally started playing, as I proceeded, my right foot started shaking uncontrollably. I have never experienced anything like it. It was like all of my nerves went straight to that foot, and nothing I did could stop the shaking. My hands were fine, but I was so unnerved by the shaking foot that I missed a few notes here and there because I was wondering how to get it under control. I guess I should have just put it on the floor and stopped trying to use the pedal, but I kept thinking I would calm down. Instead, it got worse and worse.

I did manage to complete the piece with some finesse in spite of this, and at least I did not rush. I got lots of compliments afterward. But it was disappointing because it could have been so much better. The recording tells the tale of the stunted performance. I don't think I'm going to post it -- at least, not until I've had time to think it over.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Recital ahead

In response to a note from a concerned friend on Facebook, our electricity was restored on Monday (yay!), so we're not sweltering in this 100+ degree heat.

Assuming there will not be another storm that knocks the power out again, my musical endeavor for the week is an Adult Music Student Forum recital this coming Sunday, for which I'm playing the D minor Prelude and Fugue from WTC II. I can't believe I've been working on this for almost 4 months, and relearning it at that. But I realized that my stage on the piano is such that learning any piece involves more than being able to play the notes or even develop an interpretation. What I mean is that I've been learning an almost entirely different way of playing, and though I think it is getting to be more natural for me is not quite there yet.

I have been going back and forth for the past month about whether to play from memory. I could do it; however, I decided that I want to feel relaxed enough to be able to apply what I've been learning about how to play the piano without having to worry about missing notes. I have enough things to think about that are new -- among others, how I'm using my hands, pedaling, and what my teacher is going to think (even if he is not at the recital, I'm sure he will hear reports) -- that I was afraid I would fall back on old habits of tensing up and grabbing at the keys or whatever it is I was doing before. So, with music it is. It feels like a bit of a defeat, but I console myself with examples like Richter, who used music at the end of his career though you know he could have played without it had he wanted to do so.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Practicing by candlelight

We are once again in thrall to PEPCO's whims and weaknesses -- about 60 hours and counting. So no electricity in our house. I am writing this from the air-conditioned comfort of my office while sipping ice water (two luxuries we won't have for the rest of the week at home, if PEPCO's website is to be believed).

The storm hit Friday night, and the lights went out immediately. A half hour later, they came on again, and relieved, I went downstairs to practice the piano. While I was playing, the power went out again, and this time it stayed out. Since I was sitting there in the dark playing, and there wasn't much else I could do at that point, I continued. A few times I peered down through the darkness to make sure I was starting in the right place, but otherwise was playing by feel. Interesting that I was able to do it without missing any more notes than usual. I guess there are lots of blind pianists.

So that was Friday; on Saturday and Sunday, I either practiced by what natural light was available or used a candle in the evenings. I find it almost impossible to sight-read in such low light, but playing music I know well and basically have memorized is no problem.

Because my piano is in our basement, even though it's been close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, the temperature is not a problem, though I am afraid to look at what the humidity is down there.

If we had a decent way to store food, this lack of electricity wouldn't bother me that much. Except for not having a telephone. Or access to the Internet. Or ... well, on second thought ...