In Week 11 of my New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, I'm asking my participants to think about the first impressions they made with last week's assignment of the openings of Don Juan and Mahler's 5th Symphony Adagietto. They'll need to use that info as they record a complete take of Don Juan. Last week we also looked at the New York Phil's audition packet and what information it contains for those who know how to read it!
But let’s look now at the part of the packet we didn’t discuss last week: the excerpt list itself. Since this list is quite compact for a preliminary round, we can be sure that each selection was made carefully and for specific reasons. Certainly there are no major surprises; that’s a courtesy to you, the candidates, so that nobody is put off by a selection that’s out of left field. But these few excerpts plus the Mozart will give a fairly complete picture of a candidate’s playing.
Daniel Barenboim, when he was presiding over our auditions in Chicago, used to lament the fact that he had to hear excerpts at all: “I can tell everything from the Mozart concerto alone!” No doubt that was a subtle jab at what he felt was the rigid nature of our auditions and the Members’ Committee in Chicago. But in a way, he was right. Rarely did we hear a great Mozart concerto and then disaster, or vice versa.
Yet as difficult as Mozart is to interpret and perform, it doesn’t answer all the questions a committee might have. The Schumann, for example, answers this one: “Can the candidate start a fast section cleanly in tempo, then maintain that exact tempo for the duration?” It also answers: “What is this candidate’s idea about how to play brilliantly in a violin section?” The first question has only one right answer! The second is open to interpretation, but there are certainly answers that are unsatisfactory to a committee. Both are important questions for those who will be sitting with the potential hire for decades to come!
The Schubert excerpt, one we haven’t looked at yet, seems similar at first glance to the Schumann: fast and off the string. But while the Schumann is marked mezzo-forte and basically stays there for the duration, the Schubert requires more delicacy in the beginning. It also requires you to shift to forte after a couple of lines; how do you do that while still retaining a classical (non-aggressive) sound?
The Brahms excerpt is not the most commonly asked from the Fourth Symphony, and it’s very tricky technically. A solid fingering plan is a must. Also, it’s difficult to “feel” the tempo in this one: too fast, and the passagework becomes unplayable; too slow, it gets heavy and accented.
We’re holding off on the Debussy for another couple of weeks because it tests so many things at once: fidelity to the written dynamics; sense of sound and style; and ease of execution for the left hand. On the plus side, it’s rarely played well, so if you can gain a foothold in this excerpt you’ll be ahead of the pack!
Finally, the Mahler is the only “slow” excerpt of the bunch. Here, beauty of sound and connection between the notes is everything. So a rigid player will be exposed. But truthfully, such a player will have been exposed already in the Mozart concerto!
You could also look at each of these excerpts from a different angle: what’s the major pitfall in each one? In other words, what does a committee least want to hear, and can you do the opposite? Don Juan is usually scrappy and out of tune; Schubert slow and heavy; Brahms heavy, aggressive and messy; Debussy square and out of tune; Mahler choppy, without line; and Schumann uneven or rushed, aggressive and out of tune. Are you getting the feeling that intonation is important in these auditions?
Your job is to set the committee at ease as soon as you begin each selection. Each member of the committee should breathe a sigh of relief, as if to say, “I trust this player. They know what they’re doing.” If you can convince someone of that, the little details matter a lot less.
By now, some of you will be practicing more per day than you did when the Challenge began. If not, don’t worry! The amount of time is not all-important. There are many reasons to take the Challenge, and we all have our limitations. But the less time you have to work with, the smarter you have to be when you allocate it.
Each day, remember that you have several complementary tasks: to improve the general level of your playing through scales and etudes; to learn new material for the audition; and to review and improve audition material that you’ve already learned. As you go along, the balance of these three will change. Now there is more general work and new learning, whereas toward the end most of your work will be review. Just remember to constantly keep your mind and ear alive. If you lose focus, change material or change tactics. This way, you can accomplish in half an hour what a lazy practicer would take all day to achieve! Use your log to record your day-to-day time breakdown. You’ll find that looking back through the days will be a big help when you decide what kind of work has been most fruitful.
Week 11 assignment
This week’s major assignment is a take of Don Juan. I’ve prepared a video to help you, complete with my own take of this famous excerpt! To keep things fair, I recorded my take at the end of the video, just as I might play it for you during an in-person lesson:
There are so many misconceptions about auditions that it’s hard to know where to start when debunking them! Surely one of the biggest is that you must play absolutely perfectly or you’ll be cut. If that were true, nobody would ever win an audition! Perfection is simply not attainable. It’s a target to aim for, but not a realistic goal. Certainly those players who win big auditions play at a stellar level, but they make mistakes here and there. The question is, where and how?
Another misconception is that everyone comes into auditions playing a great concerto (the old “any kid from conservatory can play a flawless Tchaikovsky” line) but that the real test comes in the excerpts. Some people do play great concertos and lousy excerpts, but that’s actually pretty rare. The fact is that the most important playing of any audition is the first selection. Usually that’s a concerto. For you, it will be the Mozart concerto exposition.
First impressions are crucial in real life. Just think about what happens when you meet someone: within a few seconds you form a mental picture of them. It’s unavoidable! This picture shares some things with the actual physical appearance of the person standing before you; there’s plenty of overlap. But instinctively you emphasize certain details over others. Some you ignore, and others stand out.
Have you thought about what people notice about your appearance at first glance? You’ve been given (or have worked for) a basic body type, and you wear clothes over that body. You may or may not accessorize. You may be impeccably, acceptably or sloppily groomed and made up. And the way you use your voice and gestures could be low-key or flamboyant.
You’ve seen all of these traits in the people you’ve met. And when you make the subconscious decision as to whether you like a person, these traits don’t matter so much individually, unless one in particular stands out so much that it’s impossible to ignore! It matters, though, how the traits work in concert. Therefore, if an audition is like a blind date, or more accurately a “speed dating” session, everything must come together quickly and in harmony. There is a range of generally attractive body shapes, and for each of those there are clothes to complement and hide the inevitable imperfections. Some people can pull off “risky” humor, but there are some jokes that should never be told on a first date, and some never at all! Makeup, skillfully applied, enhances facial shapes. But there is always a point at which the makeup is noticed rather than the face.
The parallels to violin playing, while not drawn exactly, exist nonetheless: sound quality, phrasing, vibrato. There is a range for each attribute that qualifies as acceptable. There are many combinations that qualify as pleasing. And a few could be called great. Greatness, achieved as a first impression and sustained over the course of several minutes, can win an audition.
That’s why one piece of good advice holds for dating and playing: be yourself. It’s easy to spot the person in the room who is wearing something that’s just not “them”. Either their outfit doesn’t fit their body type, or the whole package is just “too much”. You feel a bit sorry for them, and you may even say to yourself, “if only they just toned it down a bit, they’d really look great!” Committees hear this kind of playing all the time. Chicago concertmaster Robert Chen once said of a candidate: “If they don’t stop trying to be [Pinchas] Zukerman, they’re going to hurt themselves!”
It’s even easier to spot dishonesty or fakery in a person. Instead of sympathy, the reaction is usually aversion, even disgust! Dishonest playing, effect without substance, turns off a committee very quickly. Giant swings in dynamics, extreme sound colors, and maximum articulation will come off as dishonest, unless they’re clearly written into the music.
It can be frustrating to “be yourself” in your violin playing. Who are you, exactly? And should you try to change who you are over the course of this Challenge? I suspect that by going through the Challenge, you very well may change certain things about your personality, both on the violin and away from it. But don’t make it a conscious decision just yet. Continue “working out” with your scales and etudes in order to get yourself into shape. And open your ears to a violin sound that pleases you. Chances are, it will be pleasing to your listeners as well. Focus now on quality and comfort rather than execution or perfection.
In the accompanying video I demonstrate some of the exposition of each Mozart concerto option: 3, 4 and 5. I don’t go into every stylistic choice that you can make. Rather, I emphasize the importance of sound quality no matter the dynamic or technical challenge. I pay special attention to the opening, as you should.
The following post originally appeared on natesviolin.com as part of Nathan's New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, Week 13
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Previous entries: July 2015
Nathan Cole is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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