Monday, January 27, 2014

Columbus Symphony Young Musicians Competition 2014

Last night I had the privilege of adjudicating the final round of the Columbus Symphony Young Musicians Concerto Competition 2014.  Even though the weather was not cooperating, as evidenced by the polar vortex topped off with several inches of falling and blowing snow, the show went on as scheduled. 

Nineteen musicians in grades 8-12 participated in the concerto competition with six outstanding musicians moving on to the finals.  The finalists were Paul Schubert, cello; Blake Giesting, string bass; Alexandra Traini, bassoon; Phillip Nicol, marimba; Michael Chen, piano; and Abigail Bachelor, harp.  The judges were Mark Rudoff, professor of cello at The Ohio State University, Dr. Caroline B. Salido-Barta of Otterbein College, Jack Jenny, Columbus Symphony percussionist, and myself.

So what must a student do in order to participate?  Well, the first task is to fill out and send in the application.   Next is the fun part - the preparation.  How does a student go about preparing a winning performance?

First, it's important to choose repertoire carefully.  Often, a candidate's choice of repertoire influences the outcome.  My recommendation would be to choose your rep considering the audience or judges and the strengths in your playing.   If you are gifted with unusual technical facility, then it might be smart to choose a virtuosic showpiece, for example.

Once  you've chosen it, live with it.  I recall a musician friend of mine stating that when he prepared for a competition, he lived, breathed, ate, slept his concerto.  It became an ever-present focus in his life.   (He was always the winner of any competition he entered, so I took his advice seriously.)

Realistically, though, most students have other responsibilities, like, oh, homework, let's say.  Perhaps a compromise between complete obsession and inadequate preparation is possible.  That means at the very least a couple of hours of practice per day, just on the concerto.  (I believe that many successful young string players and pianists are accustomed to much more than a couple of hours of practice per day, however!)

Memorization is required for this competition.  Most contestants probably would have memorized anyway, but memorization is not always part of standard preparation for wind players.  Of course, it's a reasonable assumption that if a musician is adequately prepared for a concerto competition, the prep will have automatically resulted in memorization.  But like most skills, memorization ability varies from person to person. 

I suggest taking a three-pronged approach to memorization.  First, be able to write out the concerto on staff paper.  Second, be able to sing the entire concerto.  Third, be able to silently finger the entire concerto on your instrument.  If all three aspects are under control, then one can rest assured that memorization is complete.

Concerto prep can be greatly enhanced by endeavors away from the instrument.   Total preparation of a work includes obtaining knowledge of the composer and the background of the work.  What is its historical context?  Are there programmatic elements which may add to your interpretation?

It's wise to listen to lots of recordings and watch Youtube performances of the piece being prepared.   This is not for the purpose of imitating the performances of others, but rather for the development of one's own preferences regarding style, musicianship and technical nuances.

During a competition, it's likely that each contestant will display at least one area of weakness, such as tone quality, intonation, rhythmic, or dynamic contrast.  I think that tone quality is the one most often overlooked by performers and their teachers, since most students are already aware of shortcomings in intonation and rhythm.

I vividly recall a comment on my adjudication sheet from my high school days.  The judge wrote, "Tone is the first basic of any performance."   I don't think he was saying that to indicate that I had properly aligned my priorities - I think he was giving me advice!  Back then, I had no idea how to improve my sound on the bassoon.  (I had all I could do to just get the bassoon to work, since my instrument, a rickety old Linton bassoon belonging to my school, had a predilection for mechanical malfunction.) 
old Linton bassoon
If I had known then what I know now, I suppose I would have made sure that my reed was allowing me to play in tune with a relaxed (not tightly clenched!) embouchure.  I would have spent lots of time with tuners, using both the visual meter and the sound, to learn how to play the bassoon in tune and with a full sound.  I would  have made sure my embouchure was strong enough (from practicing scales and long tones) to sustain pitches at 440 and I would NOT have practiced on the day of the contest to ensure that my embouchure would be at its best.

Congratulations to Philip Nicol, a freshman at Marion Harding HS, whose performance on the marimba took first place.  Philip and his accompanist John Holsinger performed the first movement of the Rosauro Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra.  Phillip will receive a first prize purse of $500, generously provided by the Women’s Association of the Columbus Symphony.

Why was Phillip chosen as the winner?   I'd say it's because his performance was captivating, exciting and did not reveal any flaws or weaknesses.  (His competitors performed at a very high level as well, so Phillip had his work cut out for him!)

When he began playing, I had to glance at his accompanist to see whether the accompanist was playing.  Yes, both were playing - their blend was so amazing that it sounded almost like one instrument with one player.  What an incredible level of synchronization between soloist and pianist!  Philip used four mallets at once in his performance, and it sounded as though each voice balanced perfectly with the others (and also with the piano accompaniment).

My advice to future winners is to just follow Phillip's example.  Play with perfection and commitment.  Make the judges forget about writing on their score sheets - make them put down their pens to just sit back and enjoy your performance!

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Reed Year

 Today is the day to begin numbering your reeds at 1 again.  I highly recommend this easy method of keeping track of the number of reeds you make each year.  My goal is to make a reed a day.   For an oboist, that goal would be more than reasonable.  For a bassoonist, though, that's a LOT of reeds, and I have never actually produced 365 in a year....not yet, anyway.  Usually I make approximately 200 reeds a year.  I sell a few of them, reject a lot of them, and play on the rest, at a rate of at least one reed per week because, as I often state on this blog, I don't like to play on old reeds.  Yes, I do have blanks left over at the end of the year, and for me, that's a necessity.  I must have a backlog (I still have a few untouched blanks from 2011) in order to avoid the dreaded reed crisis.
my first blank of 2014
There are many reasons why it behooves reed makers to attempt to make reeds daily.  I used to have a habit of reed cramming - making huge numbers of reeds in one fell swoop, and then not making reeds again for a long time after that marathon.   But sporadic reed making is not ideal because it's very possible for our reed making skills to become rusty.  For me it's especially noticeable with shaping and also with hand profiling which I always do before using the profiling machine.  (Pre-profiling by hand preserves the profiler blade.)  Also, I'm more likely to forget something, such as applying the bottom wire which I add temporarily during the forming stage, if I'm out of practice with reed making.  Furthermore, my profiler always seems a bit out-of-whack after a period of dormancy.  For me, reed making has to be constant in order for me to really stay on top of things.
this is what my blanks look like when my reedmaking skills are well-honed
And there's another really good (albeit strange) reason to make reeds regularly as opposed to sporadically.  A few days ago, a couple of my tools were suddenly missing.  My (expensive) reamer and rat tail file mysteriously disappeared
reamer and rat tail file

This was a serious problem, since I needed those two tools for finishing my reeds.  I looked everywhere.  Since I had just used those tools the day before, I couldn't imagine what had happened.  Finally, as a last resort, I decided to go through the trash.  Lo and behold, I had apparently tossed both tools into the garbage after reaming and filing the inside of a reed.  There they were,mingling with the unsavory items which really did belong in the trash.
the trash surrounding the missing reed tools
If I had not worked on reeds the next day after inexplicably tossing these items in the trash, my precious reed tools would have taken up permanent residence in the city dump, never to be found.  I took that as a sign that indeed, daily (or nearly daily) reed making is the way to go.

Yet another reason for constant, consistent reed making is that it enables experimentation.  I don't see how it would be possible to figure out which cane or which gouge is working best for you if you are not constantly monitoring your reeds.  The more regular reed making I engage in, the more aware I am of which cane, gouge, and profiler adjustment is really working.  The blanks I made in 2011 will be of some value, since I marked the cane source, but the passage of time has erased my knowledge of certain details such as what particular batch the cane was from, and whether or not the profiler blade was sharp or dull.  I am totally in touch with the blanks I made two weeks ago, and I know that the profiler blade had just been sharpened and that I was struggling with the height of the blade at that particular time.  Those details help me make better reeds because I have access to valuable information about what's working and what's not.  Reed making doesn't have to be a total crapshoot!

May the new year bring a deluge of responsive and resonant reeds to each of us.