Thursday, March 28, 2013

Auditioning via DVD

A few days ago, I spent part of my morning reviewing auditions for this summer's Kent/Blossom Music Festival.

Each summer, three bassoonists are chosen to attend the Festival.  Included are private lessons, chamber music coachings, chamber music concerts, free tickets to Cleveland Orchestra concerts at the Blossom Music Center and a chamber orchestra concert and side-by-side concert with the Cleveland Orchestra.

This will be my first summer as bassoon instructor and I'm very excited to be part of the Festival.

Like many other places, Kent/Blossom has begun requiring recorded auditions in the DVD format. While this adds time and expense for the students in what is already a demanding pursuit, the format gives the institution more flexibility.

To review the applicants I don't have to wait to receive CDs from admissions or go to a room to listen with others to playback.  I can just visit a website (Kent/Blossom uses Decision Desk), log in as an administrator and start listening and watching.

Another advantage of this system is that I can look at a person's complete application including contact information and recommendations.  No need to collect files with hard copies and return them.

Scoring is done on the site and there is a place for comments as well.  Rankings can be adjusted later if need be. Administrators can view my rankings immediately and act on them.

CIM has also begun using this format in its audition process as a precursor to live auditions.  Outgoing Admissions Director Bill Fay says the time commitment and preparation required to put together a DVD audition may discourage some less-serious applicants who are just "window shopping" from applying, saving them time and expense and saving us time by eliminating some applicants who are either not up to the standard or not serious about CIM in the first place.

I found the process interesting and want to share my impressions.  Maybe what I have to say will help those of you making these DVDs present yourselves better to those adjudicating your talent.


Since I'm not a videographer, I'll just make a few comments about the video aspect.

1. Position the camera so the viewer can get a good look at you.  An angled shot is best, especially if there is a music stand directly in front of you.

2. A video shot from the seats in a large recital hall tells us nothing about how you play.  We can't see fingers, hand position, embouchure, posture, etc. Conversely, don't opt for an extreme close-up.  A shot that includes all of you and a bit of the area around you is best.

3. Try to choose a location that is good acoustically and visually.  While this is not always possible, you want to sound and LOOK your best.  Treat the recording like a face-to-face interview.

Having said all this, I feel that the visual aspect of your presentation is secondary compared to HOW YOU SOUND.  When I view these recordings, most of my attention is on listening, not watching.

Sometimes, though the video will corroborate something I hear in a person's playing.  If the playing sounds tight or forced, maybe I can also see something in the body language that reinforces this perception.


The sound quality for the Kent/Blossom applicants varied greatly from person to person.  While this shouldn't make a difference, it really does.  Spend the time and funds necessary to reserve a good acoustic space (recital halls are best), get someone to operate the equipment who knows what they're doing (a recording engineer) and someone to be your recording session "valet".  This person can sit in the hall with the music and help you with comments on different takes, get water, help move equipment, etc.

Now that technology is so advanced and readily available, it's tempting to just record yourself on your phone and submit. Of course we'll listen to you, but all things being equal, if you were judging these things which would you choose -- a professional level recording or one done on a phone?

Try to eliminate things that would distract from the impression you're trying to make. These include excessive key noise and embouchure leaking.


Of course, the most important component in someones recorded audition remains THE MUSIC. I think most people can ignore a less-than stellar audio and visual recording if the playing is compelling.

In reviewing the submissions for Kent/Blossom this summer, I was impressed by the high quality of the playing.  As has been the case for many years now, there are great bassoon players at more music schools than when I was a student.

The required repertoire is:

Mozart: Concerto K. 191 (first movement exposition and second movement)
Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (recapitulation)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (2nd movement final solo)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (second movement and cadenzas)
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (opening)

Here are some general comments on what I heard:

1. The players I liked the best were the ones who adopted a different style, sound, etc. for different excerpts. These players exhibited a versatility of approach that made it clear they weren't just "playing the bassoon", they were playing the music.

Let me elaborate.

Dynamics are a good example.  In the above repertoire, only the first movement of the Concerto and Sheherazade have a full range of dynamics.  Marriage of Figaro has only extremes (pp, p and ff) and I would say the ff is not a Mahler or Strauss ff!

The 2nd movement of the Mozart, Tchaikovsky 4th and Rite are NOT LOUD excerpts!

One more: Sheherazade and Marriage of Figaro are worlds apart in style.  They should not sound the same. Figaro does not need a lot of dynamic shaping to its lines.  It should just be a quiet, accurate murmur. Sheherazade on the other hand should demonstrate the full range of espressivo in a person's playing.

2. Since it's possible and advisable to record excerpts, listen back and re-record, there's really no excuse for an erratic pulse in any of these.

3. Double tonguing in Figaro needs to be smooth and even with no stuttering and not at a tempo that is different from the slurred runs that preceed it.


Lastly, there are a few picky little things to mention.  I wouldn't bother with these if I hadn't noticed them in other situations as well (e.g., our recent Second Bassoon Audition).

These things are like having bad breath.  You may not notice it yourself, but if someone mentions it to you, you are embarrassed to realize you had without knowing it and vow to put a stop to it immediately.

1. Do not place a fermata on the last note of the second movement of Tchaikovsky 4th.  Occasionally a conductor will ask for this, but let's not volunteer this ourselves.  Pretty soon everyone will be asking for it if you do -- and it's not in the music.

This is how it appears:

The fermata is on the REST, not the F.  When the excerpt is played by itself, the long F should be counted out carefully with a slight sense of ritard, cut off at the end of the quarter note and that's all. 

2. Playing the quintuplet figure in the Rite of Spring as a sextuplet with an eighth note on the C. Well, it's certainly easier to play this way, but the rhythm is not correct.  The emphasis in the phrase is on the B after the grace notes, anyway. Grace notes tend to preceed important notes in a phrase.  They highlight stresses in a phrase's structure.

Correct is:
3. Playing the end of the recap of Marriage of Figaro with a crescendo and accents on the lower octave A's.

The octave displacement of the A's at the end of the phrase should serve to relax the intensity.  They come after the culmination of the tongued passage and merely serve as a bookend to the phrase.  No need to shout here!

4. The F quarter note at the end of the phrase in mm.10 and 33 of the second movement of the Mozart Concerto should not be played full value.

In the score, you can see that holding out the final F in the solo line will cause it to clash with the F# in the bass line -- a very un-Mozartean dissonance!

Milan Turkovic suggests changing this F to an eighth note in his notes to the Universal Edition of this piece.  For more on the Mozart Concerto see previous posts in this blog.

I think Turkovic is right.  We don't have the manuscript of this piece, so we'll never know if this was added later by someone else, an omission by Mozart or sloppy copying, but it's clearly wrong to observe the quarter note here.

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