Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Audition recordings

The Cleveland Orchestra will be auditioning bassoonists this January for our open Second Bassoon position.  Applications have been received, resumes reviewed and some have been invited to audition.

Like many orchestras, we acknowledge the possibility that there may be some inexperienced bassoonists who deserve to be heard at the live audition, but may not be invited based upon their resumes.  Therefore, those not invited based upon how they look on paper are given the option to submit a recording of their playing for review and possible invitation.

Those who choose to do so must record a short list of repertoire and send it in before a deadline.  The audition committee for that position listens to all the recordings and makes a decision in each case whether or not to invite.

It would be easy to be cynical about this part of our audition (Are they really listening to my recording or is this just a way of trying to seem inclusive and fair?).  However, two of our most recent hires started their auditions with their recordings.

Today our committee listened to the recorded bassoon applicants.  We heard 25 recordings.  Each person recorded the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart Concerto, Marriage of Figaro Overture, Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony second movement solo and the second bassoon part to the slow movement from the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Out of the 25 applicants, only one person's playing stood out as acceptable. While some of our committee members were unable to listen with us and, based on this a few more may be invited in addition to this one, it was surprising to us how poor the quality of the field was. 

We discussed this briefly afterwards. I thought it might be helpful to some of you to read a summary of the most common faults we heard.

1. Almost all of the applicants exhibited intonation trouble.  The opening of the Mozart can be quite revealing.  The skip from F1 to Eb3 was rarely in tune = F1 sharp, Eb3 flat.  The first trill was generally out of tune.  The low notes in the Brahms were almost never down to pitch.

2. Many players had trouble with keeping a steady pulse in the Concerto and in Figaro.  Lots of rushing!

3. Very few had a good grasp of the Mozart style.  So many people played the first note with no vibrato or life in the sound, landing with a heavy accent on the half note afterwards. We heard lots of heavy, aggressive playing with accented beats and rough articulation.

4. There was a lot of poor phrasing and a lack of legato in the Tchaikovsky.

I'm sorry if this sounds grouchy, but keep in mind everyone who made these recordings had the technology  to record these excerpts over and over and time to listen to the result to see if it was acceptable before submitting.

Thus, there's really no excuse for any of the infractions listed above. 

I'd like to address the rest of my comments to any younger players who will be making a recording in the near future for someone who will judge their playing.

1. Maybe it's a generational thing, but the easy access to recording devices such as a Zoom or other excellent portable recorders has made younger players more casual about the quality of their recordings.  Remember that the most important component of recording equipment is the microphone (or microphones).  There is nothing out there that can compare with the microphones to be had in a good recording studio. Garbage in garbage out.

Many young people routinely listen to music on their laptops or portable devices.  These will never compete with the quality of a good playback system in a good acoustical space.  It's impossible to tell how you really come off without this setup, even using headphones or earbuds.  Many of the sound files people listen to now are compressed or have a low bit ratio, so much of the quality is missing. We have gotten used to this.

We listened to the recordings in the Severance Hall sound control room played through the system speakers.

2. Here's where I really start sounding old. . . In my day of doing this, I used to pay someone to record me --  preferably in a studio where everything, including noise could be controlled.  I still think it's worth it, especially based upon what we heard today.

3. Along with paying someone and going to a studio, it's helpful to have a friend go along who can arrange things for you -- music, water, help move equipment if necessary, make notes during the recording and listen back with you.

4. The recording technician for two of my CDs says to budget recording time this way:  For each minute of recorded music, plan on 10 minutes of recording.  This 10-to-1 ratio will ensure you have the time you need to get a really good take for everything you play.  If you need more time than this, perhaps you aren't ready to do this project.

5. Save enough time to listen to individual cuts and listen especially carefully to judge the final product before sending out.  I'm sure if some of the applicants we heard had really listened to what they sent us, they would have done the recording over.

6. Make sure the beginning of your recording is especially excellent.  This may be the only part that's listened to.  I know we passed on many people today after just hearing the Mozart Concerto.
7. Remember that some of the people listening to you won't be bassoonists and won't know what's difficult for your instrument and, for that matter, won't care!   

8. With that in mind, try to listen to yourself in a more global manner.  There are many parameters used in judging someone's playing.  It seemed at times that many of the applicants we listened to were only concerned with accuracy or with rhythm.  What about a beautiful tone, good intonation, phrasing, etc.?

I'll close this post with a list I stole from a friend of mine, Dan Silver, Professor of Clarinet at the University of Colorado.  It's a great list of what comprises musical artistry.  Whenever I think I've mastered something, I find it helpful to look over this list and see what may be missing.  Thanks, Dan!

Musical Artistry   

·         Command of rhythm, pulse, ability to subdivide
·         Technical accuracy
·         Pattern recognition in reading music (scales, arpeggios, etc.)
·         Beauty of tone
·         Accurate intonation
·         Control of dynamics, large dynamic range
·         Control and variety of articulations


·         Variety of tone color
·         Seamless legato 
·         Even passage work
·         Appropriate vibrato


·         Playing exactly what’s on the page first
·         Clarity of the aural concept (what does the inner ear hear?)
·         Sense of style
·         Points of tension and release in the musical line
·         Control of line, phrasing
·         Use of rubato, if appropriate
·         Knowing context of specific piece
·         Performance practice
Physical and Mental

      • Mastery of the "Inner Game"
      • Body awareness and use
      • Stage presence, presentation
      • "X” Factor

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