Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Probably the most wonderful thing to happen for a musician on a professional level is to win a job. It removes the fear so many of us have, questioning if we are going to be able to make a living. When it finally pays off there is a mix of relief and joy, especially if it is a job that one wants!

Musicians tend to put a staggering amount of work into preparing for an audition. But just straight practicing alone does not cover all the bases necessary to be successful, and in my opinion, there are other things one can do to increase the odds of winning. Here are a few recommendations I would make to anyone, whether musician or otherwise, when applying for a job:

1) Always make sure you know everything you can about those who are either listening to you or interviewing you. Never take an interview while blind, since there are always points of connection that you can make with members of a committee – ones that are sincere. Knowledge is power, whether it affects playing style or synergy of interests.
2) Always practice whatever you are going to do for a committee in a mock environment by enlisting the help of friends and by making a video tape of your audition/interview. The video camera is the best tool to help identify how you are communicating, whether musically, physically, or verbally. It’s impossible to be completely aware when engaged in doing a task and many times you will have ticks that can be hurtful when trying to present yourself as authentically as possible under pressure.
3) Make a list of potential questions or requests that might come up at your audition/interview. Surprise is the enemy! If you are playing, then make sure you can play softer, louder, shorter, longer, lighter, heavier, etc… If you are interviewing, make sure that you have responses to tough questions regarding conflict resolution, leading vs. listening, etc…
4) Make sure your style fits the needs of the job you want. You can’t be something that you’re not, and if you win a job in a place that doesn’t let you apply your sensibilities fully, you’ll just be unhappy and frustrated. Research the orchestra, opera company, program carefully and read the job description with ferocious energy – does it truly describe you?
5) Be a good listener in the moment. Many auditions are lost by not following directions carefully or answering questions fully.
6) Be absolutely confident that your references will be completely supportive. As a search committee member I’ve called people in the past who have not been kind to those applying. I’m always stunned when this happens, and it has taught me to be extremely careful. Also, ask people to call on your behalf ahead of an audition. Networking is always helpful, again provided that the person calling is persona grata with a committee and also is honestly supportive of you.
7) Be relentlessly organized in your time management leading to an audition. It’s not the quantity of hours spent preparing in my experience as much as the quality. The other thing organization does is train your mind to be structured in approach, which in an audition is a tremendous asset. If you have practiced enough to have the technique to play what is required consistently in a pristine manner, or you have a vocabulary that allows you to express ideas with specificity and passion, then execution is a matter of mental will.
8) Take time to enjoy the process. Once, one of my teachers made me repeat an exercise over and again until I could do it perfectly. After a series of failures, I asked if we could just move on because I was getting bored. His reply was “don’t be bored.” At first I was a little aggravated to be honest! After calming down, I realized that he was telling me my response to doing this work over and again needed to be a conscious choice. So when doing something that I have to do to achieve a goal, I take time to enjoy it - I choose to do this, even if it is grinding in nature. By allowing myself this luxury, I have found my retention, energy, daily routine, and final results are all much better. A little joy in process goes a long way toward winning.

It is true that you can do everything to the absolute highest level and still lose. But I think that if you take every step to be fully prepared your chances for success are always increased. My hope is that these eight suggestions might be helpful in your journey no matter where you are along the path.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Musical Maestrology

I've been fortunate enough to have a number of people, whether musicians, professors, or audience members refer to me as Maestro over the last couple of years. I must say that this is both flattering and at the same time uncomfortable, despite the intention with which the word is used. I can't help but have an episode of Seinfeld in the back of my mind - the one where a friend of Elaine's wants to be referred to as "Maestro," equating himself to Leonard Bernstein. It's a funny episode, but also one that demonstrates the craziness of the term - ouch!!

Part of the unease the word maestro brings is the implication that somehow you are a master of what you do, when the fact is, most of us who are musicians are striving to get better with some elusive goal of perfection that is unattainable. Mozart was definitely a composer who could combine something resembling perfection with complete humanity, but how many composers or musicians can compare themselves to this maestro? Maybe Bernstein - the 20th century's great composer, player, and conductor?

Simon Rattle had a quote that I love from a documentary chronicling the last days of his role as music director for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: he said that "most conductors are afraid of being found out..." - that we shouldn't be standing in front of such an accomplished group of musicians trying to galvanize a musical idea among tremendous talent. He felt that at some point there is a level of insecurity inherent in what we do that is always lurking, no matter how accomplished we may be. The truth is sometimes a hard thing to admit! Is this great conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, who has released a large number of important recordings, participated in significant premieres, and guest conducted the world's great orchestras a Maestro? By his own words, I don't think he considers himself as such. This is because he is searching to get better as most conductors need to be doing constantly.

When people started calling me Maestro, I would correct them and say this doesn't really apply to me - that maybe when I'm 80 and have learned a lot more than I know now and done considerably more high profile work the term might apply - maybe! After a while I stopped because I realized that this was a kindness from others I should just accept, much like a compliment we perhaps don't believe, but are gracious in receiving out of respect for those who are giving it.

I have also had a number of musicians say they enjoyed playing under me. Even though the thought is so very appreciated, I can't let this go - I tell them that they played with me. Given that I don't make any sound combined with the fact that, as I've said before in earlier blogs, conductors' ideas are so deeply informed by what their colleagues play when putting a piece together, to say that the interpretation of a work is mine is simply a lie. It's collaborative in nature - just listen to the same conductor lead a piece with two different orchestras!

Perhaps I'll change my mind about the use of this term when given in my direction - maybe when I'm 80, but more likely I'll be, with luck, still trying to learn from both the wonderful music I'm privileged to conduct as well as the amazing musicians with whom I get to work.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Simple gifts

When thinking about the gifts one receives on Christmas or Hanukkah, certainly appreciating the gift of family is at the top of my list. There is nothing more precious than someone you love returning that feeling enthusiastically, whether a grandparent, parent, sibling, partner, friend, or probably the most satisfying, a child. No matter what is happening in the crazy economic tsunami that we are all having to endure, there are constants in life that help stabilize our sense of self. I would say that faith certainly factors prominently into this mix as well.

For me, another constant is the gift of music as both listener and practitioner. There is something about organized sound that excites me now more than ever, even after years of working at it ferociously. Part of what musicians do is very grinding in nature, trying to perfect little complications that drift unwelcomed into our musical midst! Some of this deals with awareness, some is just due to the rigors of life. Unfortunately small details can have major consequences when performing under pressure!

But despite the blue collar aesthetic that musicians must use daily to stay in shape much as an athlete, there is something miraculous in the making of and the experience of listening to music in life's diet. It's a journey that is truly full of discovery about yourself and the world around you. Each composer tries to capture a slice of beauty out of a universe of possibility, and even when you play or hear a piece repeatedly, there are both deep and simple pleasures that continue to surround and enter us over and again.

Music remains a constant: life affirming, soul nourishing, humor provoking, emotion tugging, and just fun. It's why I decided early on that music was what I HAD to do. I didn't have a choice even though I had other interests. Along the way we take detours with motives, and in the process of failure in our journey, which happens to most everyone unless you have the lotto gene, it's easy to leave your senses and forget what it's all about.

But somehow this time of the year offers a wonderful opportunity to remember the gifts that keep giving in our lives. Beyond the greatest gift of family and faith, music is at the core of God's gifts in my mind. It's this taste of the divine that keeps me coming back for more, and each year, I seem to more fully appreciate this pleasure.

I wish you a many blessings this year on this Christmas day and hope that your life is full of wonderful, beautiful music.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Music

I recently conducted a holiday program with the Colonial Symphony and the enthusiastically ecstatic response reminded me of the sort of warmth one receives after performing a work like Mahler's 2nd Symphony or Beethoven's 9th Symphony! It's certainly not the depth of the music that provokes people to respond the way they do, but perhaps the emotional experience of simply enjoying something that is readily understandable. This ease of intelligibility can be a facilitator for many in creating room for connection.

I don't know about you, but at the end of the day after running like a madman trying to meet deadlines that seem to be coming from every corner, I'm not in the mood for deep thinking! Most of the time just having a simple conversation with my wife, or if I'm early enough, hopping on the ground and playing with my daughter, or if I'm late, watching a little ESPN with commentators trying to out-hip each other with silly remarks works just fine! It's not that I don't love looking at scores, or doing musicological research, or frankly that I don't at some level enjoy doing administrative work when things are getting done, or thinking about musical aesthetics, or the psychology of music and musicians, or politics, etc..., but the fact is that at some point a lighter touch adds diversity and relief to my life - just listening to Nat King Cole sing holiday music with a glass of wine feels good.

I find that as I get older I have a greater appreciation for music that is considered to be part of the pops canon. When it's done well, the craft level can be quite high, even if the material isn't complicated. This seems like an oxymoron, but in fact it's a fit that has pleased both musicians and audiences for years. Part of it is that we grow up with music in movies, stores, on our cd players, now on our ipods, that is commercial in nature. We're surrounded by stuff we like and don't like, but at least some of this background music has most likely filtered into our listening diet. And this is fine without depreciating art music in any way, which in my mind, is also a complete essential in life.

Many groups have tried to capitalize on this phenomena - the Absolute Ensemble, Ethel, Kronos Quartet, Imani Winds, etc... all seriously gifted groups who have found that by integrating pop genres into their playing they are able to develop both new audiences and at the same time have fun (and this is a good combo platter)! And many have incorporated a wide variety of world music into their performing diets such as Yo-Yo Ma with his Silk Road Ensemble, Bobby McFerrin in both his singing and conducting, Tan-dun in his composing, etc... or pop composers have turned to classical composition such as Billy Joel, Elvis Costello, or Paul McCartney.

Is all of this music at the highest level on every plane of experience? Some of it perhaps is, some definitely not, and this will always be water cooler debate material. However, whether amazing, a little less than amazing, or just bad (or bad for us!), there is music, food, movement, writing, and movies that fit our needs at different moments of a day, week, month, even year. It can be worthy and wonderful in it's own light, whether it is deep or light.

I think what makes all music work are three things: a commitment on the part of performers to play with passion no matter what is on the page; a desire by the composer to consider the audience when writing something true to his or her voice - a bit of a controversial statement (many very modernist composers will admit to this in private, although not all); and an audience that is eager to listen. When this trifecta comes together, the experience can be absolutely life changing, whether the music is of the highest order or just plain good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Virtuosic Listening

I recently conducted a particularly thorny piece by Elliott Carter in celebration of his 100th birthday at the Library of Congress - the Double Concerto, for piano and harpsichord soloists with two orchestras. It is a work that Stravinsky referred to as the first American Masterpiece - a pretty strong statement considering it was finished in 1961 with tremendous American music preceding it!

When I first saw this proclamation I was a bit stunned, especially as a student when I looked at this work, mostly because it made no musical sense to me. I could understand its construction, which was based on musical set theory, because I had a background in advanced mathematics. But on an aural level, there was so much going on that it seemed awfully random as a listener - I couldn't digest the music and beyond, it was so spiky that I didn't find it pleasing in any way. How could Stravinsky say something like this with Copland's Third Symphony or Barber Meditation and Dance of Vengeance, et al...?

I have come over time to appreciate this music, but it has taken time. The reason is that it not only takes virtuosic players to perform it, but also virtuosic listeners of the same order to appreciate it, and for me at least, this has only come in the last few years after over 20 years of performing and teaching. Because there is so much information exploding at times in a performance of a work such as the Double Concerto, I had to study it carefully so I could hear all the lines and how they fit together at times, and competed at others. It's like reading Proust - there is amazing beauty in the detail, and pulling it all together takes tremendous effort. I came to realize that the notes themselves in Carter's complex voice, whether frenetic or calm, required great intellectual effort and ultimately emotional investment in order to enjoy the music purely as a listening experience. But this has been a journey.

Is it worth it?

For me the answer is a resounding yes. I say this because of two reasons: the first is that there is a sports-style satisfaction in being able to appreciate music of this complexity. To understand what is going on as a listener feels like an accomplishment. The second reason is purely an appreciation for both the genius of this man's voice and also the inherent beauty of sound he is able to create - something that relates to the life I've lived, the experiences I have had both positive and negative, the joys and sorrows. I hear this in his music and I find it invigorating, cathartic, ecstatic, angry, sad, hopeful, and ultimately alive. It feels like jazz - improvisatory in nature yet wonderfully organized, with a pulse that can move mountains. In other words, it has much of what I find in Beethoven for instance, or in the music of John Coltrane. I can't imagine my life without the music of both of these composers, and I now feel the same way about Elliott Carter.
I remember as a child not liking spinach for the longest time. I simply could not understand how anyone could possibly like something that slippery and yucky! Now that I'm older I love eating fresh spinach whether cooked or in a salad -my tastes changed and I looked at this food with different eyes and taste buds. In a similar way it has taken me a while to get to the point where I both understand and appreciate Carter's amazing musical voice, and I'm grateful for the gift of years that has allowed me this revelation. My hope is that you as a listener might give thorny sounding music several listenings, especially if people you trust rave about the music itself. It may never turn out to be your taste in the end, but I have a feeling that the way it expands how you listen to music in general might deepen your appreciation for sounds of all sorts and how they can move in many ways.