Matt Heller recently emailed me with the good news that he had won the bass audition in Calgary. I had also read about it on his blog. Anyone who hasn’t checked out Matt’s blog should do so. I hope he keeps it up and chronicles the transition into the next phase of his career.
Perhaps in a fit of blog envy – Matt writes well, and with insight – I suggested we might compare notes. His perspective from near the beginning of a career and mine somewhere in the middle might make for an interesting counterpoint.
(Full disclosure: Matt became a success in spite of having studied with me for a couple years.)
Anyhow, he emailed me the following question.
I do feel like this can be a useful exercise though, trying to understand how what we do is seen and judged by fellow musicians. We've all known people who are great players but who we dread sitting next to, or even playing in the same section. So I guess my first question to you as an experienced orchestra player would be - what qualities appeal to you in a colleague? Besides the basics - like be prepared, bring a pencil, don't always be bumming rosin and other supplies - are there any "deal-breakers", or positive signals you look for? When I talked to Max Dimoff, he emphasized that a new player should not be afraid to contribute to the section right away, in terms of their sound, musical ideas, and personality. Would you agree with that, or do you think the greater danger is sticking out too much?
So much of what goes into being a good colleague happens offstage. Perhaps that is something to touch on later. However, most of that is common sense – something I should point out is not required in great quantities to play an instrument well enough to land a job. And yet I find people usually play the way they are. The boorish person offstage usually manifests some of that quality in their playing.
If I had to distill my thoughts on what makes a good colleague down to one word it would be flexibility. The players most satisfying to make music with and the least likely to annoy, whether sharing a stand or across the stage, are those who are both perceptive of and responsive to what is going on around them. Max makes a good point that a new player shouldn’t hesitate to contribute. I would only add that the contribution of any player in a section needs to be balanced between playing and listening.
It is interesting to me that the audition processes isn’t really set up to test for flexibility, or the listening side of the equation, the thing I consider one of the most important factors in finding a good colleague. I know some orchestras have candidates play a duo, some chamber music, or have the conductor get up and wave his magic wand in their face, but those measures are rare, and I’m not sure what they show. Being flexible is almost more of a mindset.
The audition process is probably more about rigidity and discipline than anything else, but the mindset used to succeed at an audition isn’t necessarily one that will be successful later on. To play a good audition means playing consistently and avoiding error. Orchestral playing certainly has those two elements, but the overriding idea is that everyone plays together. Once I started playing professionally I had to adapt my notions about things like pitch and rhythm. As a student I looked at those things as absolutes – pitch and rhythm were aspects of my playing I needed to work on, to correct. Now it’s all relative. The player who slavishly clings to his (or her) notion of rightness in he face of the group becomes a real annoyance.
Perhaps I’ve been at this too long, but the image that comes to mind is of one of those ships with a lot of poor souls chained to the oars. The point is to get the boat where it is going as quickly and painlessly as possible. You may not like the tempo of the guy beating the drum at the back, or the way the guy next to you holds his oar, but if you are gong to get anywhere you all have to pull together. The time for a mutiny, or to make some small obscure point, is not out in the open waters, or in the middle of a Beethoven Symphony.