musings of a professional bassoonist

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Minute to Win It (bassoon-specific audition tips)

About imageA couple of years ago there was a TV show entitled Minute to Win It in which contestants were given 60 seconds to perform ridiculous, outrageous feats for the chance to win a million dollars.  Maybe the concept is not all that different from what we bassoonists go through to win auditions......certainly most audition candidates are given a bit more than one minute to prove themselves, but not much more.  Most candidates do not advance beyond the preliminary round, which often lasts just a few short minutes for each candidate (after countless hours of preparation!).

My former teacher K. David Van Hoesen told me recently that "back in the day", orchestral auditions were very different from the way they are now.  Bassoonists were invited to play for the conductor and maybe a couple of orchestra members.  In stark contrast to today's staggeringly lengthy audition repertoire lists, there was NO list of required repertoire.  There was no official announcement of job openings - auditions were held by invitation only, so anyone who wanted a job had to be already known.  The candidate would show up in a hotel room or at a hall and play whatever the conductor asked for from memory.  That's right - there was no printed music.  And there were no restrictions on what the conductor might ask to hear.

These days, orchestras must figure out ways to handle very large numbers of audition candidates. It's not unusual for auditionees to be sent to a large mass warm-up room upon arrival at the audition site.  It can be baffling, especially for stressed-out auditionees, to figure out the best possible use of time in that situation.  It might be difficult to hear oneself because of the number of bassoonists playing, yet it can also be daunting to expose oneself in front of competitors if there happens to be a moment in which the others stop playing.  Unless you have a very clear mission to accomplish in the mass warm-up room (such as running through your usual warm-up routine, or testing reeds) then it might be best to just sit calmly in (or outside of) the room.

Next, each candidate may be offered 10 minutes in a private room, at which time the excerpts to be performed will be identified.  At this point there is a fork in the road.  If you plan to use your own music, then you must spend/waste valuable minutes frantically sorting through pages and pages of repertoire to get to the required material, and you may even have to mark the specific measures in your part.  If, on the other hand, you have chosen to use the orchestra's provided parts which will be set up on stage, then all you have to do is briefly and efficiently prepare yourself for each excerpt to be performed.  For example, if the Marriage of Figaro Overture is one of the excerpts to be heard, maybe you'd calmly, quietly and slowly play the first few measures.  The real preparation has been completed by now, so you are just offering yourself brief reminders.

Chances are, you have memorized each excerpt, and it's possible that you typically play those excerpts with your eyes closed.  Why, then, do so many of us insist upon using our own parts during auditions?  For those who are particularly visually oriented, it may be disconcerting to see a different edition on the stand at an audition.  If you are that way, then it makes sense to use your own music.  The fact of the matter is that during the audition, most of us probably do look at the music, even for memorized excerpts.  Try to figure out in advance if  you will come undone at the sight of a part which is laid out differently from the one you are accustomed to.  Have you ever practiced at home using your own part and then used a visually different part during rehearsals?  Did that faze you?  Make your decision for auditions based upon your tendency.

When you are summoned to go onstage, if you have elected to use your own parts, you must juggle your music along with your reeds, water, bassoon and seat strap.  If you are nervous enough, there is a chance of dropping/dumping at least one of those items, and hopefully it won't be the bassoon.

One you have arrived at your chair onstage, each second matters.  Speaking from the perspective of an audition committee member, I can say that the committees are sometimes bored and tired.  It's not easy to remain alert for hours on end to fairly evaluate potential new orchestra members.  Because of that, it's advisable to move at a reasonable pace rather than taking too much time.  But don't rush yourself through your excerpts!  It can be challenging to find the right pacing, and that's where experience (auditioning experience) can prove to be valuable.  It's not unusual to hear about musicians who took 50 or 60 auditions before finally winning.  (Imagine the cost of taking that many auditions!)

Should you play a few warm up notes or not?  The answer is that you must decide well in advance.  Some audition winners do not play any warm-up notes before beginning their excepts, and some do.  If  you decide that you will, then by all means PLAN your warm up, make sure it sounds good, and do not stray from that plan.  

If you are planning to switch reeds at any point, have the reeds ready (soaked and wrapped in damp paper towel, for example).  Of course, it's ideal to use the same reed for each excerpt, but here's one example of how playing an audition is very different from actually doing the job.  On the job, for example, I would definitely have a special reed (one with a 100% reliable low E) for the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6.  And I'd have a high reed for the Rite of Spring.  Reed needs vary from player to player depending upon reed style and the characteristics of the specific bassoon, but for me, specialized reeds for high or low solos are best.  Yet I will be the first to admit that for an audition, it's somewhat preferable NOT to switch reeds, since switching is risky and time-consuming.

And what about the perennial question of  whether or not to take a beta blocker such as Inderal?  Many musicians believe that usage of Inderal in small dosages can reduce the anxiety associated with taking an audition.  Nervousness will still be present, but anxiety will potentially be reduced.  Some musicians report a decline in the emotional aspect of their playing while on Inderal - that may be a stiff price to pay for the reduction of anxiety, and that's why each individual must decide for him/herself.

I do believe that anyone taking an audition would benefit from some sort of stress reduction technique.   Deep breathing is particularly beneficial to wind players because our breathing is constricted by nervousness.  There are many deep breathing exercises which may benefit us, such as the one presented in this video:

As bassoonists, we have additional worries associated with air travel.  Many of us, myself included, have experienced the nightmare of being told upon boarding an aircraft that we may not carry on our bassoons.  This problem is more common these days with many flights being booked to capacity, thus reducing the amount of available overhead storage space available to each passenger.

There are ways to reduce your chances of being stopped from carrying on your bassoon.  If you're lucky enough to be flying on Southwest Airlines, you have the option of paying a nominal additional fee for early boarding.  That ensures that you will gain access to overhead space.  On other airlines there may also be ways to ensure earlier boarding.  On Delta, for example, some flights offer Priority Boarding for a fee, which ensures access to overhead storage. 

Be sure to check on the size of the aircraft before you purchase a ticket.  Smaller planes do not allow ANY carry-ons!  Also, limit your carry-on to your bassoon - if you attempt to carry on another item as well, you are reducing your chances of carrying on the bassoon.  This probably  means you will pay a fee to check a bag, but all of these extra fees pale by comparison to the price you'd likely pay, monetarily and otherwise, as a result of your bassoon being placed in cargo!

There is one very  important factor which we bassoonists must consider which other musicians don't have to worry about for auditions.  If you are traveling to another area for the audition, which is nearly always the case, then your reeds will be different at the audition site.  It's best if your schedule allows enough time to arrive in the audition city with adequate time before the audition to test and adjust  your reeds.

Of  course, this leads to the next problem we bassoonists face.  If you fly to your audition, don't try to carry on your reed-making tools!   The TSA does allow sheathed knives in checked baggage.  However, the TSA warns that "It’s important to know that even if an item is generally permitted, it may be subject to additional screening or not allowed through the checkpoint if it triggers an alarm during the screening process, appears to have been tampered with, or poses other security concerns. The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items on the plane."  In other words, there's no guarantee that your reed knife will make it through the screening process.

There are many valuable books written about how to ace an audition, and there are numerous successful  audition coaches offering their services. (Don Greene is one of the best-known.)  But bassoonists face extra challenges well beyond the norm of an already overwhelmingly stressful undertaking!

Good luck to each of you who face future auditions.  In spite of everything brought up in this post, somebody will win the audition.  It may as well be you!



Tim said...

Though I'm only an amateur bassoonist, I thought your advice sounded both thorough and useful. I also never thought about reed-working tools not being checkable. Ironic, don't you think? You can check an unloaded handgun in your luggage, but not a tool made specifically for working double-reeds.

B.S. said...

Tim, the TSA restrictions make very little little sense, for sure! Traveling with a bassoon and its reed tools should not be such a stressful and risky undertaking.


Jolene Masone said...

Hi Betsy, I love your blog, and read it quite a bit, but I have probably crossed this country about 20 different times with my bassoon, and I check my reed tools every single time. Knives and razor blades just have to be sheathed and/or in something so they don't hurt baggage handlers. I've even had my bags "random bag checked" and they've never taken my knives, razor blades, diamond files, or even my duco cement, which could be considered flammable. I think that list just tells you what is prohibited in your carry on. The real list on the tsa website is much clearer.

vgellin said...

Excellent article. I won my job in the "old" days. Actually not that long ago. Everything you played was what you had in your head or available in your music. Anything was asked including tutti parts to the Soccerers Apprentice, which aren't easy. I won the job, but I actually would prefer the earlier way. You had to be a better player more adaptable and quick on your feet. It is a skill we lack these days.

B.S. said...

Hi Jolene - I'm glad that you've been so lucky with checking your reed tools. I know an oboist who ran into problems recently with a checked reed knife (in a sheath). You're right about the wisdom of going directly to the TSA website. I did see a warning on the site about knives possibly causing concern and not being allowed in checked baggage. I'd be afraid to check my knife because it's an old Herder knife which can't be replaced. I'd risk my back-up knife, though, after learning of your success.


B.S. said...

Vincent, I was thinking the same thing. It sounds to me as though bassoonists in past decades had to be true masters of the instrument and of the repertoire in order to be able to play an impromptu audition. It would have helped to have been good at playing by ear, too, in case one was asked to play an unfamiliar excerpt with no music.

You had to play tuttis from Sorceror's Apprentice!!?? How brutal! Bravo for winning that audition!


B.S. said...

Jolene, I thought you'd be interested to know that I did change the wording of my warning about knives based upon the information you provided.



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