Pacific Overtures

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11 days, 50 students, 3 cities, one country: the 2016 Metropolitan Youth Symphony Tour to China has come to an end.

China is a place of startling juxtapositions. Even in Beijing, you can walk down the main street and think yourself in the toniest district of a major European capital, but turn a corner and find yourself in a 3rd world slum.

The 2nd world continues to exist in China as well. ‘2nd World’ is a Cold War term referring to the territories under Soviet dominion, and it doesn’t get used much anymore since it’s thought no longer to exist, but this trip proved to me that it definitely does. We stayed for two nights in Beidaihe, a Communist Party resort town that used to be the summer meeting place of the Soviet and Maoist governments. The street signs and shop windows still display Cyrillic print and Russian families dot the beach.

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Surprisingly enough, it was in this tiny “village” of 3 million people where we had our biggest success in terms audience reception as well as cultural exchange. We played at Northeastern University at Qinhuangdao to a packed audience of probably 500 college students. They were very eager to hear Western Classical music and to interact with us after the show was over, and their students hastily arranged an impromptu performance by the school’s Chinese traditional orchestra.

What was so totally fascinating about this ensemble was that it was set up like a Western orchestra that just happened to use Chinese instruments (as well as some Western ones like cello, bass, and timpani.) In place of the violin section was a group of 6 erhu players. Bamboo flutes sat exactly where you’d expect to see metal flutes in a classical ensemble. Organ-like brass instruments sat where we would have horns and trumpets. The score was laid out like a symphonic work.

The conductor, Qin Hehai chose to perform for us a piece called “Dreams of Taiwan” or “Imaginings of Taiwan” which, as it was explained to me, is a piece that expresses the hope for reconciliation between the Taiwanese ‘territory’ and the Chinese mainland. I never would have expected such a selection, but I was very glad to hear it.

Final thought: if you go to Beijing and you’re looking for a laid back, non-touristy area to hang out in, head straight to Wudaoying hutong near the Lama Temple subway stop. There’s a bunch of excellent vegetarian restaurants (which cater to the Buddhist monks) and sweet little hipster shops.

Audition tips

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For several years I’ve given audition workshops aimed at high school and college students, and it’s finally dawned on me to share my accrued wisdom on the topic. Here are some helpful tips for auditioning – be it for a college, a youth orchestra, a school program, or even a professional job – that may be of interest.

Before launching into the laundry list, I’ll give my most important piece of advice: Do not let the results of a single audition affect your self confidence or self worth! Remember that the judges are on your side – they want to fill their studios/programs/orchestras/bands with talented members, and they are hoping that you will be an excellent fit. They are not out to exclude you – they want you to succeed. Perform for them and they will be pleased.

What we’re listening for

Scales

  • A musical introduction. These should be fluent and accurate.
  • Aim for evenness of tone and accuracy of intonation.
  • Sometimes specific instructions on scale patterns/articulations will be included. Pay close attention to these.

Excerpts

  • Carefully consider tempo/metronome indications and dynamics.
  • Listen to several recordings of each piece.
  • Try to imagine the rest of the orchestra as you play your part.

Solos (Concerti, etc.)

  • Choose your repertoire wisely. I would much rather hear you play a piece you are very comfortable with at the height of your abilities rather than a piece that is too hard, or that you just began work on, played poorly.
  • Choose a work that has contrasting sections, or prepare a pair of excerpts that show fast technical work as well as lyrical musicality.

Sightreading

Don’t freak out, just prioritize:

  • 1. Pulse: if you make a mistake, don’t interrupt the pulse of the music – keep going so that the meter retains its shape. Pulse is like a conveyor belt that doesn’t stop.

  • 2. Rhythm: even if the notes are giving you a problem, try to perform the rhythms accurately.
  • 3. Pitch: the notes themselves come next. Make sure you’ve memorized the key signature before you begin.
  • 4. Musicality: niceties of dynamics, articulation, and phrasing

Note that I’m not including tempo on this list of priorities. In most cases, it is not important that you play the sightreading at the marked tempo, though that would surely be a bonus. Judges would much rather hear an accurate rendition at a slower tempo than an inaccurate one at a faster tempo.

If you are allowed to choose your own tempo, read through the excerpt first and identify the fastest rhythms/trickiest passages. Determine a tempo at which you could comfortably play these sections and then imagine the music from the beginning with that tempo in mind.

Preparing for your audition

  • Seek advice and assistance from your teachers/mentors
  • Try to mimic the audition scenario. If you know what the audition room looks like, spend time visualizing it and imagining your audition in that space.
  • Mark your scores clearly for the accompanist (esp. singers) and judges.
  • The three electronic aids you should use in preparing for an audition (or for practicing more generally): metronome, tuner, recording device. These are all available on your smartphone.

On the day of your audition

  • Arrive early. Especially if you’re traveling for a college audition, plan for navigating a new city/mode of transportation; traffic; parking; walking from your car/train; navigating the campus/building; check-in; warm-up time; rest.
  • Dress appropriately, neither overly formal nor underdressed.
    • Make sure you can play in what you’re wearing
    • It never hurts to add a unique, but non-distracting touch to your wardrobe.
  • Go with the flow; schedules often run late.
  • Tune directly before entering the room.
  • Introduce yourself and your selections.
  • Be polite, but not familiar with the judges.
  • Have a positive attitude – perform!
  • Be prepared to be cut off, and do not let this effect your performance. Often this is just for time’s sake, to remain on schedule or get caught up.

After the audition

  • I repeat: do not let the results of a single audition affect your self-confidence or self-worth!
  • Some auditions will offer you feedback. If this is offered, use it as a valuable opportunity.

Things such as I have learned about the string bass in recent times

I’ve recently made the acquaintance of a very interesting young artist in Portland, OR, one William Gibbs, bass player by trade, who has taught me about a very interesting practice engaged in by a very slim number of bass players. Namely, tuning in fifths.

Theses players tune their basses exactly as cellos, an octave lower: C-G-D-A. Will’s assertion is that it allows for much more accurate tuning with the orchestra’s cello section (which of course makes perfect sense) and what’s more that it gives a more articulate response on the instrument all around.

We also talked about other tuning systems for the bass, like the D Major or so-called ‘Viennese tuning’, which is demonstrated by my former colleague Owen Lee here:

This is obviously a gag, but to hear the tuning played properly, Owen made another video which you can view here.

Now, Owen claims that this is the way basses were tuned in the classical era of Mozart and Haydn, but Mr. Gibbs complicated this view for me a bit, and told me that bass players historically used a wide variety of tunings, often tuning their instruments to the piece they were playing. We tend to think of low Cs as simply a matter of having an extension or a fifth string, but the idea that bassists would have treated their instruments almost like transposing instruments clarifies a great deal, particularly about the Beethoven symphonies (the 5th and 6th in particular).

Usually I just can’t with all this bass stuff. Bassists tend to be REALLY into bass to the exclusion of all else, and it’s just too bass for me, but this tuning in 5ths is something that I’m really convinced by and I think needs wider mention. I imagine learning it would be like converting from a QWERTY to a DVORAK keyboard, but if certain intrepid bass players would give it a shot, maybe we could get a good sample of data and see if it’s really worth the effort.

This is definitely going on my agenda when I convene the World Association of Musicians, along with converting the double horn from a transposing instrument in F to a non-transposing instrument reading alto clef, deciding the ultimate meaning of the tenuto, and rendering official once and for all the status of the ‘unaccented mark’.

Doings

This summer, two of my new bébés shall be ushered into the world:

Monday, June 13, 7:30 pm
The Dwarf Planets: Band Edition (premiere)
Baldwin High School Wind Symphony
Adelphi University, Garden City, NY

Really looking forward to this one. The concert features new works by SIX composers, including Paul Moravec, whom I consider to be something of a celebrity. Major props to by boy Scott Dunn for his efforts in commissioning and promoting new music. I’ve worked with his students before and I’m really looking forward to doing it again. I’ll be on hand to conduct.

Sunday, July 17, 5:00 pm
Acadia Fanfare, world premiere
The Pierre Monteux School, Hancock, ME

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The Monteux School is really home for me, the place where I learned so much of what I use in my music-making every single day, and I feel privileged to give back with a new piece for orchestra that celebrates the school and the natural beauty of Acadia National Park. I’ll be there the whole week leading up to this, and Monday, July 11, we’ll also do “The Itsy Bitsy Spider“.

IN BETWEEN: I go to China for 11 days with Metropolitan Youth Symphony to cap off my season as their Interim Music Director. I’ve never been to China before, but I’ve been taking Chinese lessons for the past 10 months and I’m boldly going to attempt giving my concert speeches there in Chinese (你门好, 我叫白威廉!) which I think will come off as charming if not intelligible.

ALSO: I will, at some point, recommence making “Ask A Maestro” videos. I have sooo many great topics: How does a composer know when a piece is finished? What jobs can a musician do? How do you know what key a piece is in?

I also want to do a lightning round video at some point where I just answer a bunch of short questions about classical music, so if you have any little ones or big ones or anything in between, you can always submit them on the Ask A Maestro tab above.