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Nathan Cole

Joshua Bell at an orchestra audition?

May 15, 2014 16:17

Watching Josh Bell play Sibelius Concerto in rehearsal with the LA Philharmonic today, from my usual seat two feet behind his back, I remembered a statement I’ve heard many times: “You know, most soloists wouldn’t get past the first round of a section audition.” This is one of those statements where truth is less important than intent. In other words, who’s making the statement and why? I smiled as Josh did the things he does, which will add up to great performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon.

To me, the quote itself strikes me as somewhat silly, akin to saying: “NASCAR drivers couldn’t pass a driving test, just look at the way they drive!” So what’s really behind the statement? I always imagine a sallow, paunchy cellist delivering it, for some reason. Maybe such a person really did say it to me once. He could have meant several different things: committees are made up of idiots and that’s why they would never pick someone good like a soloist; most soloists aren’t as good as we think they are and therefore couldn’t pass an orchestra audition; auditions are capricious and arbitrary things, and there’s no order to how they come out; or, if someone came to an audition playing like a soloist, their style wouldn’t be accepted.

Each of those interpretations is true on occasion. Now and then, a committee will have a high crazy-to-reasonable ratio, and I would expect that committee to make crazy choices! And some soloists coast more than they should, and don’t consistently demonstrate the control you need to play in a top orchestra. The last two interpretations are closer to the mark, though. Let’s assume that there’s always some reason that an audition comes out the way it does, or else there’s no point in having this thought exercise! So, if a great soloist came in and played (as themselves) at an audition, would they pass the first round?

It’s important to remember what an audition is: a lightning-quick job interview, not unlike speed-dating, where a committee hopes to learn in five minutes how suited you would be for a job in their orchestra. Can you get off the ground in a solo piece? Can you play pianissimo? Can you play pianissimo and rock-steady? Also in tune? How about off-the-string strokes? All of these are vitally important on the job. You have to be able to do these things or you can’t do the job.

In theory, a top violinist should have total control over every aspect of playing the violin. No tempo, no dynamic, no stroke should be beyond her command. But every player has weaknesses. An audition hopes to answer, among other questions, “what are this player’s weaknesses, and would they prevent her from doing this job?”

Let’s take Perlman as an example, since he is someone who has long inspired me, both live and through recordings. He has physical weaknesses that are obvious to anyone who sees him get on stage. The manner in which he has refused to let these prevent him from having a glorious career is legendary. But the weaknesses don’t just go away, and they do affect his playing. For years he has had to work around his particular set of limitations, as we must all eventually do. Some of those would undoubtedly put him at a competitive disadvantage next to someone with no limitations in those areas. I’m thinking specifically of excerpts that require long bows in a slow tempo, held to the quietest dynamics: Mahler and Shostakovich symphonies. So do we revoke his soloist’s card? Do we stop being inspired by him? Of course not! We might not even notice these weaknesses because as a soloist, Perlman chooses a different bowing or fingering, a slightly different dynamic, a slightly different tempo. He solves the problem and delivers a compelling performance.

But what about Perlman’s style? Would that work in front of a committee? Remember that most string auditions begin with a concerto. And contrary to what you may have heard, audition committees like solos to sound like solos. In other words, committee members would be thrilled to hear their favorite soloist come in and play their version of a concerto. That would show that the candidate is a first-rate player and musician. Control over the various aspects of playing required by the excerpts would then complete the picture and let the committee know that the candidate was suited for this orchestra. Well, maybe that candidate would be too good… let’s vote them out. Just kidding! A little committee humor.

So what this really comes down to are strengths and weaknesses. Does our particular soloist demonstrate great playing in a variety of styles? Does she have any weaknesses of technique (intonation, rhythm, dynamic control) that would prevent her from playing in unison with 15 other people? If the committee likes the answers to these questions, then she should pass. If not, then… a lot of great playing gets cut because of specific technical weaknesses. Like it or not, a string section simply can’t accept someone who can’t (or won’t) play precisely with others. Some are willing, others are able, and a few manage to combine the two. Committees always hope they recognize those few and pass them along. And by the way, if a soloist did pass a first round and went on to the finals, then look out! Her immense performing experience would give her the upper hand, since in a final round, specific questions of technique become less important. Personality and strength of conviction take the prize.

So how about Josh Bell, since he started this whole train of thought? That would really be up to him, I imagine. Would it interest him to prepare a book of excerpts at very specific tempi and dynamics? To play them the same way every time? To face the possibility that his one chance might not be his best? He’s certainly shown that he can do everything required at an audition, and then some. Would he want to? One answer is: probably not, since he’s currently playing to packed houses as a soloist, choosing what, where and when he wants to play. One thing is for certain though: he would give a committee a Sibelius concerto to remember! I can see it now: Number 45, what a Sibelius! Sounded like a soloist, that one. Some tone. Would have been interesting to hear in the finals. But that Mahler, that wasn’t anywhere near pianissimo! And who told them they could rush in the Mendelssohn scherzo? Too bad! Now, put that Sibelius with this Mendelssohn, and you’ve really got something! I remember when I auditioned, this was back when you had to sight-read everything, you understand…

Nathan Cole's School of Violin at ArtistWorks is here.

3 replies

Say yes!

May 9, 2014 15:12

Since Lang Lang is here with the LA Phil this week, I thought back to a time in school when I said "no" and should have said "yes". Actually, there were many of those moments, so take this post as free (if unsolicited) advice, especially to those still in school or just about to be.

I grew up in a smallish place, at least when compared to the musical capitals of the world: Lexington, Kentucky. As an adult I've come to appreciate the great cultural foundation I received there, as well as to marvel at all the great Suzuki teachers that worked there as I was growing up. But that's another story. Suffice it to say that I was pretty nervous heading to Curtis after my senior year of high school. I had always been the best around, or close to it, and now I was decidedly not going to be the best. Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz were going to be just two of my classmates and that was that!

Therefore I became concerned with surrounding myself with the "right" people: namely, people who appreciated how wonderful I was, and who would reinforce my own beliefs about my playing! This worked great at first: I found that I had a special affinity for string quartet playing, and I was invited to play with a group of older students that had worked regularly the year before. I had found "my" crowd, and we spent many hundreds of hours working together. Sure, they were tough on me, but coming from them, I could take it.

The problem was that I had drawn a box around me that included my new friends and, though I didn't realize it, shut others out. I wasn't much interested in the new students coming in, or those in my year who played with groups I thought inferior to mine.

None of this was intentional, of course. I considered myself a nice guy, and I really did want to learn and improve. But only from the right people. I had underestimated the value of exposure: to new ideas, new directions, just new people. This new person knows a burger place you haven't heard of, this new person knows a great recording you'd like. Or more to the point, this new person knows another person who could really show you a thing or two.

When a new piano student, Lang Lang, came to school everyone already knew he was a big thing at age 14. So when a fellow student asked if I wanted to read trios with him, what possible reason could I have had for saying no? I said no. Maybe I felt busy that day, but I don't think that was the reason. I overthought it. I felt that by saying yes, I would be doing it just because he was thought of as a "big deal". I would be feeding the hype. I would be reading with a talented kid when I could be reading with a serious musician.

Well, what would have been wrong with any of that? It was reading trios, for crying out loud, not asking him to go to the prom! I had forgotten something a semi-pro uncle had told me about tennis: "Nathan, your problem is that you don't want to play with anyone who's better than you. That's a sure way to stay the way you are." The worst-case scenario: Lang Lang would have been stuck up, unprepared and I would have had two hours of mediocre music-making. But the best-case scenario? Pretty much what would have happened if I had said yes: Lang Lang would have been a great guy (true), totally prepared (true) and I would have had a blast.

And you know what else? The next time he wanted to perform trios, who would he have called first? The people he had just read with. And even if he didn't, what did I have to lose? The connections you make in just one afternoon might transform your life.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't feel that my life took a wrong turn that day! That was one decision out of many that shaped my life and career. Some I look back on with pride, and others (like that one) with regret. But I feel lucky to share the stage with Lang Lang this week, and to reminisce a bit about school. He's a great guy after all, and a superb pianist as we know.

The point is this: seek out greatness. If you believe in talent (that's a bit of a sticky topic these days), search for it and be open to it. If you want to call it something else - facility, mastery - search for that. Learn from other people. Not because they're famous or on their way to being famous, but because they're better than you right now. Don't draw a box around yourself unless you want to stay in there for the rest of your musical life. I spent some time in there, and I can tell you it's lonely! And not the lonely-at-the-top kind of lonely. The kind that stunts your growth. I broke out eventually, but I want you to expand from the moment you get to school.

You don't yet know everything about who you're going to be in four years. Or ten. So you can't hope to know that about anyone else either. Seek them out, and make music with them. Eventually you'll be so busy with great projects that you'll have to say no. Then you'll know that you said it for the right reason.

2 replies

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