March 02nd, 2021
This portrait was done by my wonderful graduate student Maya Abboud. This is definitely Pandemic Steve!! It really captures something!
As a professor, performer, and life-long student of music, I am completely empathetic to the rigors and stresses of college and conservatory auditions. Their requirements and deadlines vary from school to school which only adds to the complexity of the student’s first interaction with many of these musical institutions.
In listening to undergraduate auditions, I try to assess natural ability, level of training, aesthetic, emotional relationship to repertoire, and performative acumen. I am frequently asked about the importance of repertoire selection for auditions. The Jacobs School Viola Department has repertoire guidelines that are not so restrictive. For instance, in regards to incoming freshmen, we ask them to prepare two contrasting pieces. Transfer students are asked to prepare two movements of a solo Bach work and another solo of their choice.
A challenge for high school violists is finding this “sweet spot” of balancing one’s level of playing accomplishment with music selection. Our major twentieth century viola concertos, Walton, Hindemith, and Bartok, require a very high level of technical and musical sophistication. I believe that it is much better to give a commanding performance of repertoire that is less challenging rather than pushing through a harrowing attempt of music that stretch the bounds of an applicant’s abilities. At an undergraduate audition, I am looking for elements to build upon during the typical four-year degree program.
At the graduate level, one begins to look for musical promise for future successful work in the profession. At this point, the audition requirements are much more demanding. Technical abilities, musical accomplishment, and personality are important for review of a graduate level student. Repertoire selection that reflects the standard fare and also that reflects the unique musical tastes of the applicant is important.
Another important part of our application is the written essay. My colleagues and I read this carefully during the process to gauge an applicant’s character and personality. After all, we are training complex young people with which we will have contact on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. I am particularly drawn to students who express their originality, interests, and drive.
Personally, I have been committed over the years to recruit, teach and mentor underrepresented minority students. At the start of their college journey to become their best selves, these students frequently encounter unique socio-cultural and socio-economic barriers. Providing all students support and encouragement enables the development of effective leaders, diverse perspectives, and successful performers. All are critical in sustaining classical music’s relevancy and responding to the culturally diverse needs of the world around us.
The applying, auditioning, and entering an undergraduate or graduate school is an ever more complicated and protracted endeavor. Just know that the faculty who adjudicate these auditions were once students themselves. I can say that everyone involved wants you to do your best and fulfill your promise.
Because of my being primarily an orchestral player at the outset of my career, I have taught, coached, and scrutinized many orchestral excerpts for students and auditioners. I have grown increasingly concerned about the fetishization of the orchestra repertoire for audition purposes. These are often non-musical descriptions of musical passages that are diminished only to a technical category without an artist underpinning. While the most important aspect of a successful audition is the total understanding of the audition music, most only study and prepare these truncated passages or parts of movements. It is the performer's job to find the music of the entire work in the required excerpt. When one starts to find musical indicators like sequences, orchestration relationships, and polyphony, one can greatly improve one’s technical capabilities. The orchestra profession needs thinking and passionate musicians, not overly careful, dispassionate, technicians.
Listening is the most ephemeral of skills. We as instrumentalists regularly strive to correct and improve techniques of the left and right hand. Etudes, scales, studies, exercises, warm-ups, runs and licks are all practiced to refine the physical demands of our instrument.
I have mentioned on another page of this website, that " Music is the Art of the Ears Not of the Fingers". The end result of all of our practice need ultimately to be scrutinized by our careful listening. Perfectly elegant and fluid ergonomics mean little if the audio results are not noticeable.
Sometimes when I am working with a student, I will inquire, "Can you hear that?", "that" being either pitch, tone quality, tone production, nuance of a phrase, articulation, etc......
Surprisingly, I find students not being able to scrutinize with their ears as carefully as necessary. This will lead me to question the student about their listening habits in daily life. Does the student walk around with ear buds in while consuming music walking around? Does the student have music playing in the car? Does the student listen to music, movies, TV during most resting moments?
This generally tends to be the case. What happens in my opinion is that the modern young person experiences " Listening Fatigue". If your ears are subjected to passive listening for hours on end, the sensitivity of your ears and the quality of your listening will be affected negatively. This is true of any physical activity where there is mindless constant actively affecting physical well-being.
As a result, I have my students then participate in a " Listening Fast". They are not to listen to any music or any other electronically generated sound unless they devote a specific amount of time just to do that. For instance, if they want to hear a song or piece a music, they have to sit in a chair, and focus totally on that listening experience. No email checking, chatting with friends, texting, gaming, etc. They only listen. They do though continue their normal practice schedule and routine which I assume they will do with utmost care.
I have found that a week of a dedicated listening fast, improves listening capabilities tremendously. The point really is to appreciate one's hearing and respect the wear and tear that constant exposure to sound can drain your hearing capabilities. Good listening is a skill and the brain needs time to recover so that the sensitive parts of the listening apparatus have time to heal.
Shopping for a Viola
Shopping for a viola is a wonderful and exciting time filled with fantasies of love at first sight or play with your new life partner.......a new instrument. Unfortunately the reality of this journey limited by budgetary restraints, geographic hurdles ( where to go and how to get there to find "your" instrument), and who do I trust. Since music, I would assume is your chosen field if you are reading this blog, then this pursuit of a new voice, and of course that is of course what we are choosing here, can be a very emotional one.
This in my opinion, is the biggest trap of all, which to to pull the trigger on a purchase with a large sum of money on a decision that is based on your feelings. One should follow advice that people get from real estate gurus, don't get emotionally involved with your purchase. Liking a potential new viola and even loving it is a very important thing, don't get me wrong, but in the snake pit of dealers and "dealers" you could be fertile ground for half truths or just hyperbole about shiny brown "old Italian" viola.
First you must first know what you want in a new instrument. This goes far beyond " I want a dark sound" superficiality. Knowing what you want or need only comes from playing many violas and I mean MANY violas!!! You must play the cheap horrible ones, the expensive ones, and all the in betweens ones. As in relationships, "Love at First Sight" does happen, but don't count on it happening to you. If you think it did, you are wrong! Even if you are one of the lucky ones when it does happen, walk away from it for weeks or months and try many other instruments. Your first love will be there waiting for you, despite what the owner tells you.
When you find an instrument you potentially love, get lots of opinions. Seek out the worst insults!!! It is must better to hear the worst case scenario BEFORE you buy it. It will be easy to find people to trash this potential new viola of yours because rival dealers do this for sport.
Here is a short list of considerations that I tell people when viola hunting.
1. How's the size? I DO NOT recommend a viola over 16 1/2 inches even if you have a huge arm span. It will be VERY difficult for you to resell this instrument. I know that selling this new instrument is the furthest thing from your mind but it must be a prime consideration.
2. How easy is the instrument to play? I just don't mean in comparison to the "party favor" you play on now. Check it against many other instruments.
3. How even is the tone? Many viola shoppers fall for a "chocolately dark round sound". This great for playing Bach in your bathroom, but isn't going to be able to deliver Don Juan or Mid-Summer Night's Dream when you are trying to win a job. Make sure the C through the A string have a consistent timbre.
4. Avoid odd ball shaped or looking violas. I would say that Izuka shaped models are the exception to this. You don't want to be know for the viola shaped like a mangled hub cap or a viola covered in decoupage. A common luthier method to to make a viola body large while making a small string length or moving f-holes and the bridge in extreme places. Again be mindful of the potential for reselling this viola. You don't want a mutant viola that is going to be hard to unload.
My final advice is to BE PATIENT!!!! It is easy to buy a viola and hard to sell. The longer you get to know what your needs are, including your likes and dislikes, the more informed consumer you become. Music is a business and so is instrument dealing. Caveat emptor...
SHOULDER PAD OR NOT TO SHOULDER PAD
I actually have had quite an evolution concerning the use of shoulder pads. I will say right off, that this is a very personal decision and I believe there is no set formula concerning whether one should use one or not.
When I first was became a student of Karen Tuttle back at Peabody in 1984, one of her first tasks was to “balance” me with my instrument. This involved cuddling the viola between the chinrest under the jaw bone and the shoulder against the shoulder pad. The shoulder pad could then be customized by adjusting the height and tweaking the fit with small sponges. The purpose was to have the instrument so that one’s left hand could be totally free and relaxed with an energetic, plopping finger action. This worked wonderfully for many years. In fact, I also have replicated this for others in order to relieve people with tension in their necks and/or left hand.
When I studied with Joseph De Pasquale, one of his first requests was that I remove the shoulder pad all together. He did not use one as his teacher, William Primrose, did not. They insisted that the shoulder pad constricted too much sound of the viola. This was always uncomfortable for me since I always felt the viola was unstable and sliding around. This would lead to tensing up my neck and gripping with my left hand. Playing without a pad was something I would quickly abandon.
Only about three years ago, I attended one of the many classes that Kim Kashkashian gives at the Curtis Institute. She for many years has used just a small cosmetic sponge held in place with a rubber band. At this particular class there happen to be not enough seating, so I sat behind Kim and watched the class from behind. This turned out to be a day of great revelation for me. I realized something that had eluded me previously when Joe had me go shoulder padless. Watching Kim from behind taught me that without a shoulder pad one could stabilize the viola without holding it in one place. Her shoulder was assisted by the small sponge for traction.
By not keeping the viola in one set place, she was able to vary so much better the angles of her bow, sounding point, and overall colors in her playing. Surrendering oneself to the flexibility of movement was the key. I had previously been fighting to keep the instrument in one place with the molded pad.
This has been a real journey for me and contines to be so. Currently I use a small rubber rectangle made by "Acoustifoam" by Tamsen Beseke. It is light and gives me the traction I need. I do not use the standard type shoulder pads anymore. Does this mean I will never go back? I don’t know. I will just keep experimenting and encourage all to do the same.
There is a practiced occurrence among students that is incompatible with live performance. That is the habit of stopping during a particular piece or movement of music because either one made a mistake or one was dissatisfied with a particular aspect of one’s performance. Naturally we all need to stop and fix a whole host of things while practicing. We are listening for imperfections of pitch, sound, articulation, dynamics, etc. This stopping, fixing, and starting are good and normal methods of correction. However, we often forget what our goal is, which is a complete and seamless rendering of our repertoire. Since we live in a digital age, splicing and dubbing are normal parts our experience of recorded music. The art of live performance, which is what we train to do at the conservatory level, requires us to always be reminded that our end goal is a performance without interruption. Make sure that this end result is not forgotten or left to the last part of our preparation. This will require then the uncomfortable activity of playing even while there are mistakes being made. Keep going don’t stop! During live performance, important skills to be employed are covering for errors,continuing, maybe even improvisation at some points. Of course, depth of practice on details must remain punctilious, but don’t forget the big picture. If you stop and start regularly during your practice, you have practiced stopping and starting during your performance!
Often when I start a new relationship with a student, I ask them what their ultimate goal in music is. This is what my teacher Karen Tuttle asked me at my first lesson. At the time I answered her that my ultimate goal was to go to the Curtis Institute. She responded that that was a goal, but didn’t sound like an ultimate goal. I dug deeper and told her my dream which was even hard to articulate at the time for fear of incredulousness or mockery. I said that I wanted to play in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
She met that pronouncement not with a “reality check” or other some such lecture on how hard or impossible that was, and said, “Ok let’s get to it!” Every choice and decision I made after that point, including where I was going to spend my summers, how much I was going to practice and what I was going to sacrifice to make it possible, was directed to achieving that goal. I gave up free weekends, alot of late night socializing, and plentiful excuses. The responsibility was mine to make this happened and she as my teacher was going to help me make the journey by showing me how to practice , play better, and make good choices that would affect my future.
Now that I sit in the teacher’s chair I have wonderful perspective of knowing what it feels like to be a student and feel, afraid, overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated and disappointed. I also know that our goals must be long term. It is not about the small triumphs. It is really all about perseverance. The students who make the sacrifices and stick with it until they get where they want to go. Good fortune and a supportive network of people are also crucial of course.
Your career dream and goal should be your motivation. If you can think it then you can do it. Take responsibility for your goals, your practice, and your perseverance.
Concentration is an oft forgotten skill which is required during performance AND practice. One cannot expect to be able to concentrate or focus fully while performing if one’s practice has been erratic and lacking in mental discipline and purpose. We all have those voices in our heads that interrupt our serenity and confidence. It is the ability to return constantly to the task at hand which is what we need to achieve. Some people use meditation outside of the musical work which is helpful to quiet these distractions.
I advise students to have a performance ritual so that every time one begins to play whether in a practice room or performance, one uses the same “mental entrance” into our task at hand. What’s the charater of the piece of music? How’s my posture? What part of the bow am I in? Am I breathing?
The complexity of playing our instrument and delivering a moving thoughtful performance requires us to be monitoring what we just played, hearing what we are currently performing, and shaping the future phrases and sonority. Being able to remain primarily in the present is the real challenge and offers the most benefits.
Spending practice time not just working on the notes, fingerings, bowings, dynamics, is crucial. Mental practice will address all of these elements and improve concentration. Practice without ones instrument in hand can be a beneficial supplement. Mental run throughs are draining and difficult but can offer great dividends. Practice letting go of the chatter of your own doubts and insecurities. This can free up your ability to concentrate. Accomplishing this in the practice room first is a major step in reducing mental clutter on stage!