Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Reeds

I am not a reedmaker. I don't really like making reeds. Sure, the occasional redundant physical activity is somehow cathartic (like gouging or profiling) but mostly I consider reed making a necessary evil of playing the bassoon. It's an inexact science that no one can ever really master due to the uncontrollable factor of the quality of reed cane. Even if your technique is flawless you can still find yourself wasting gross amounts of time working on cane that will never yield positive results.

I find myself in the precarious situation of learning a second reed style. It has many advantages such as learning new general reed making techniques that I can transfer to other styles. The style I'm currently learning is much less labor intensive to finish which is good if I ever have to make reeds for students. It gives me a chance to hone my knife skills in different ways. I am in no way opposed to learning about different reed styles.

However, anyone who has ever played a bassoon can probably agree that not every reed style suits every player. And why should it? Every single player is shaped differently - different heights, oral cavities, lips, jaws. We live and work in different places with different weather patterns. If a reed makes a Fox 660 sound great it should by no means make a 7000 series Heckel sound great. They're two completely different instruments that are not designed to sound the same. Finding a reed style isn't just to find one that suits the player but also one that serves to keep the natural integrity of the instrument on which it plays.

The bassoon is not a perfect instrument by any means. This imperfection requires the player to make certain concessions when it comes to reed making. There is no holy grail of bassoon reeds. There is no reed that you can put on any horn and magically sound like your favorite bassoonist. There is not even a reed that you can put on any bassoon and magically play in tune. We play an instrument with incredible pitch problems designed into it. The player has to do some of the work to manage the pitch and there's no way around it. But how hard you want to work to control the pitch is entirely up to you.

One of the things I really like about the global community of bassoonists is how many different tones we have. The principal of the Cleveland Orchestra doesn't sound like the principal of the NY Phil or the Berlin Phil or the Vienna Phil but they all sound great. And guess what, they all play on different reeds! The reed that you choose to work with is one of the things that contributes to your unique sound. Maybe it means you have to work a little harder to play in tune or play softly or play loudly but I would rather do that then sound just like everybody else.

Reed making is not only a matter of learning techniques. Reed making is about finding a reed that you're willing to work with on a daily basis that gives you the results that you want. It's also about realizing that just because something works well for you does not mean it is the universal reed style that everyone should adopt. Respect the differences between you and your colleagues. After all, these differences are what make colleagues worth having.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

And the Winner is...No One!

I recently read this blog post by Barrick Stees, the assistant principal bassoonist of the Cleveland Orchestra, as he talks about their recent second bassoon audition. It was nice to see what goes on behind the screen but I have some glaring issues with a few things that Stees mentions.

First, I find it difficult to believe that they could not find a single person to fill the position.
"From around 200 applicants, the field was screened by resume --
in some cases, by recording-- to 46 invited candidates.
From that number, 37 attended our audition."
Ok, so, you invited 46. For a second, let's not ask how many of those were hand selected by the committee to even submit resumes. For another second, let's not think about how many capable candidates were denied an audition because of an insufficiently padded resume. When you hand select 46/200, you do realize that you're saying that they are all capable of the job, right? So, why wasn't anyone hired?

Stees takes pains to mention that there are people behind the screen who are NOT bassoonists, as can be expected in any audition. He goes on to give two reasons why no one was chosen: lack of technical control and an "inability to play the hall". The first reason makes perfect sense. A second bassoonist must have control of soft dynamics including pitch and articulation. He should have stopped there but he continued,
"there were a number of players who exhibited a rough, percussive style
in the Mozart Concerto. Accenting every downbeat, emphasizing bar
lines, and using explosive articulation"
Humor me for a moment and consider the opposite of what Stees said here. If a player did NOT accent a downbeat or emphasize bar lines, what is to keep the committee from saying that the candidate has no sense of rhythm, meter, or musical phrasing? Particularly in the opening passage, that emphasis of downbeats is critical otherwise they sound like an anacrusis in a different and incorrect meter! Perhaps the "explosive articulation" was due to the fact that they were playing into a curtain. When you're sitting behind a curtain, even if the hall has excellent acoustics, you can't tell from where you're seated on stage. The divider may not obstruct what the committee hears but it completely distorts what the performer hears. And why should a concerto performance hold so much clout?! When would a second player ever, ever be asked to solo in front of their orchestra?

The second reason, well, to be completely honest, is a completely insufficient reason to cut someone from an audition. Besides the reasons I mentioned in the previous paragraph, even if the candidate is seated in close proximity to the actual orchestral seat, the hall sounds completely different when the entire orchestra is onstage and the house is more than half full. Asking someone to "play the hall" from behind a curtain is ludicrous. You can ask them to do that when you take the curtain away. And if their fast excerpts were a "blur", you could ask them to play them slower. Say nothing of how the candidates may, in fact, have been nervous and it may have contributed to a lack of judgment in tempi.

More importantly, this blog post showed me that the Cleveland Orchestra (and many others) have no idea what they're looking for. They spend so much time worrying about choosing the wrong candidate that they deny capable ones all the time. If you're looking for another John Clouser or Larry Combs, you're not going to find him and especially not for a second position. There are a handful of people like Clouser or Combs in the whole world in all of history. Asking for another is completely unreasonable because that kind of musician cannot be trained. If Stees had stopped with just a lack of technical proficiency, this post could have been written off as helpful in some light. However, his continuation just makes him seem arrogant and this post frustrating to those of us struggling on the other side of the screen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Settle In, Get Comfortable

I love being a musician. There's a few things I don't particularly like about it but, all things considered, I love what I've chosen to do with my life. I love teaching people to play the bassoon. I love playing my instrument. I love making my own creative musical decisions and deciding how to convey them to listeners. I love that inexplicable rush from doing what I love with others who feel the same way. I love having a performance so sublime that people (even performers) are moved to tears. I love talking about music and convincing people that what I do is worthwhile and necessary. I love changing and growing and having aspirations and goals. Those things - I wouldn't have them any other way.

I am also a student. I think that a student's role extends beyond simply learning. I think that a student should challenge the teacher so that they can both grow and improve. I don't mean challenge in a disrespectful way but in a way that causes the teacher to at least think about what he or she is doing. That's probably one of my favorite parts of being a teacher; it sort of guarantees that I will never stop learning.

But, I've been noticing something that I've probably never taken the time to see before - teachers wallowing in comfort. Let me describe to you the qualities of a "comfortable teacher"
  • Tenured - they ran around looking like the most productive faculty member the school has ever seen and they got it - tenure. And if you're at one of those schools that doesn't have tenure review then you're livin' the life until you decide to retire.
  • Mentality - "You're the student, I'm the teacher. I'm right, you're wrong. Get over it."
  • Resistance to academic change - Curriculum review? Preposterous! Schedule change? Unheard of! My syllabus has worked for 20 years! Why change it now?
  • Public neglect to learn new things - This could be anything from using an outdated textbook or course materials, an inability to use technology in the classroom, or (specifically for music) recycling recital/pedagogical repertoire for an excessively long time.
  • Change in physical appearance - anything from going soft around the middle to dressing poorly.
  • Increased use of "I" statements - most specifically, "I can't help you".
That last bullet point makes me want to fly into a rage every time I hear it. I recently heard about a professor telling a student to change their major because they were completely helpless as a student in their current department. Thankfully, the student changed his/her major. If a teacher says, "I can't help you" then they may as well say "I need to quit my job". In the aforementioned situation, why didn't the professor say something like, "what are your career goals?" or "why are you pursuing this degree program?": TRANSLATION: "what can I do to help you?" I cannot think of a single instance when it would be appropriate to tell a student whom you chose to teach that you cannot help them. If you're a teacher and you find yourself in a situation where you don't know what to do, congratulations, you are being challenged.

I'm frustrated. I am frustrated with teachers who think that playing the same repertoire for 30 years is in any way relevant or acceptable. I am frustrated with teachers who are not attentive to the wants and needs of their students. I am frustrated with teachers who allow themselves to be sloppy performers and, by proxy, allow their students that same sloppiness. I am frustrated with teachers who treat students like numbers and don't acknowledge that each and every student is unique and different. I am disgusted by teachers who flex their authority over students just because they can. I can't even believe that graduate comprehensive exams exist, in part, for faculty to be able to tell students "I am the expert and you are the novice" even when they are in different areas of study. I absolutely hate that I know people who are unemployed and struggling to live who are more qualified for jobs that less-qualified people have had for 25 years.

If you are a teacher and consider what you do to be a "job", please quit. If you are a teacher and consider your job to be easy, please, PLEASE quit. Today. Do it for you. Go do what makes you happy because life is too short. Do it for the students because they shouldn't have to put up with you. But, if you are a teacher who once loved your "job", I beg you to go and rekindle whatever it is you loved about it. Don't ever get comfortable. Talk to your students. Reinvent yourself. Make yourself relevant and approachable to your students. Take an interest in them. And if you're a professor, remember that you're training people to be your colleagues. Don't talk down to them. Don't tell them what they can and cannot do. Don't ever limit them and don't ever limit yourself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Put Me In, Coach! I Can Do It!

Hey, you. Yeah, you, behind the curtain. My vibrato sounds ridiculous? Do you know the chord progression under the solo in the second movement of Tchaikovsky 4? I didn't think so. I can nuance the hell out of this solo but if YOU don't know that this is a string of suspensions then there's really nothing I can do to convince you otherwise. But yes, I can see how my vibrato would sound ridiculous if this solo was completely out of context. You want me to play Figaro at 160? Well, I can but I played it at 144 because I can make a convincing argument of why it shouldn't go faster. You want me to play Brahms Violin Concerto SOFTER?!?! No oboist would EVER ask for me to play this soft let alone softer! But right now, you, oh mystery man behind the curtain, are right and I must dance the dance if I want a shot at this job.

Look, I am not a lucky person. Nothing has ever fallen into my lap and I have yet to ever be in the right place at the right time. How am I ever going to win an audition? No one behind that curtain cares how much I practice or study. They don't care that I know these works better than the back of my hand. They don't care that I don't choke in a performance. But, they also don't know that. They ignore the fact that the excerpts they call would never EVER be programmed on the same concert and probably not all in the same season. They ignore that this situation is the most stressful situation that a musician ever faces but they continue to ask marathon runners to break 100 m. dash records. Sure, some freak might do it but that doesn't mean he's the best marathoner.

I am not a machine that plays the bassoon. I am a human being who plays the bassoon. A human being who makes an occasional mistake under extremely stressful situations. I have to play what you want to hear even though I have no IDEA what you want to hear. I can play that solo 100 different musical ways! 100 different ways that you will never hear because you didn't like the ONE that I chose. You don't even ask me why I played it that way! All I get is, "thank you" and I'm out the door. But, but, but...

I'm sure that the blind audition is the most impartial and cost effective method to screen candidates for job positions. Call me crazy but I don't feel that asking me to do parlor tricks is really an adequate representation of my capabilities as an orchestral player. There has to be a better way to screen candidates to see if they can make something musical come out of an instrument. And if there is, I am there. I am there because if you would just let me play with the orchestra just ONCE I know I could nail it. Maybe I could concentrate on making music and having fun rather than trying to hold in my stress-induced nausea. Maybe THEN you would see that I am a viable candidate for this job. Maybe then I would stand a chance of winning a job.

Until then, I need to go work on becoming a machine.

Wintertime is Soup Time

I'll cut right to the chase. I love sauerkraut. It's the little part of my Eastern European heritage that I cling to desperately - a love for pickled [tasting] foods and smoked meats. What better than to combine those two loves into my crock pot and make a big batch of soup.

Most people turn up their noses when they hear "sauerkraut" and probably for good reason. It is frequently cooked badly which results not only in something that tastes unpalatably sour but also stinks up the house for days. Say nothing of how if it's not boiled then it retains all of the qualities of other cruciferous vegetables and unpleasant side effects thereof. We'll save my straight-up kapusta recipe for another day but right now I'm going to tell you how to turn a bag of fermented cabbage into a tasty pot of soup.

First, a disclaimer. If you are not used to eating very acidic foods in large quantities on the regular or are of a weaker digestive constitution then boil the kraut for 20 minutes and drain it before putting it in the slow cooker. Otherwise, it will probably make your digestive system upset.

Slow-Cooker Sauerkraut Soup

Combine in a slow cooker:
2 lbs. sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
2 onions, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced
4 potatoes, cubed
1 lb pork sausage, in 1 link or cut only to fit in the slow cooker
water, stock (I used ham stock), or both to cover
salt and pepper to taste

Cook on low for 8-10 hours. Turn off the heat and stir in 8 oz. sliced mushrooms. Let sit for 30 minutes, slice sausage, and serve.

How can you even doubt a love this serious.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Facebook, Letting Go, and Moving On

I unfriended my ex today. We hadn't really spoken in over a year and he never once acknowledged anything I did on Facebook since we broke up. I like to keep my friends list limited to professional contacts, to the people I talk to, or people I find interesting and he didn't fall into any of those categories. In fact, seeing him on Facebook was the only time I remembered that he even exists. I don't harbor any animosity towards him as I've come to realize that the reason we didn't work out was due to my mistakes. Exactly. Every time I saw him I was reminded of the mistakes I made, how blind I was, and how much I hurt myself. When I think about those things then I'm not focusing on how much I've learned, grown, and changed. I'm not a psychologist but I would venture to guess that such experiences are not healthy.

Why did it take me so long? Visiting his page was the emotional equivalent of cutting my wrists with no intention of suicide. Well, for one, unless I have an exceptionally powerful emotional reason for unfriending someone I usually don't. If you haven't offended me either in person or via some bigoted, racist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive internet behavior I will probably keep you around. But then I came up with another reason for unfriending: because you make me hate myself. If you remind me of a part of my life that I have moved on from then you have to go.

Facebook interrupts our natural cycle of meeting and leaving people. It keeps us connected to people whom we should have parted from long ago. Think realistically about your friends from grade school. Probably the only thing you have in common with them is that you went to grade school with them. Fifty years ago you still wouldn't be in touch with your entire eighth grade graduating class and you're probably only "in contact" with them now because you're nosy. I will admit that Facebook is a great social networking tool but I think we could all afford to think more carefully about with whom we need to network.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Welcome to Graduate School

I'm sitting in a [relatively] crowded upper division/graduate class of about 30. The topic regards something that all graduate students should have a thorough knowledge of seeing as how they passed their entrance diagnostic exams. For this reason, the graduate students are unofficially responsible for "higher level thinking" discussions.

This does not happen.

There are three types of students in this class: the ones who are "tracking" or keeping up with the lecture, the people who are a few steps ahead of the lecture and engaging in "higher level thinking", and the people who...aren't. In regards to this last group of people, to use a hunting analogy, if some people are "tracking" then these people gave up the hunt because they found a nice sunny clearing in the woods.

Here's the kicker: these people will pass this class. These people will also pass their comps. These people will likely receive similar grades to the people who are smarter and work harder.

I don't have to go into why. If you've been tracking then you'll get to my point pretty soon.