Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

More Matt

Matt Heller has a real cliffhanger of an audition story going on at his blog. Strange to say that even though I know how it all ends up.

Anyhow, for those of you who can’t get enough Matt Heller, he has submitted another question in our ‘youthful enthusiasm vs. jaded professionalism’ blog exchange.

Matt writes:

My next question is based on an anecdote that's been passed around for a while, and I can't remember the specifics. A young violinist is auditioning for a title position in a major orchestra, and in the finals she is asked to sight-read. She refuses to do it, saying, "I don't sight-read. I always come fully prepared to every rehearsal." The committee accepts her refusal and offers her the position anyway - she proved herself the strongest player, even without attempting to sight-read.

I'm not sure that the story is true, and I would never have the guts to say such a thing in an audition - even if I did consider myself that well-prepared! Anyhow, I wonder - does that square with the reality of your life in a professional orchestra? Is there a certain threshold of preparation that you strive for, and that you expect everyone else to attain as well? And is sight-reading really so unheard of? At New World they are generally very good about making parts available in advance, and even providing recordings of new and unfamiliar music. But even still, situations do arise - a new composition arriving at the last minute, an encore hastily added to the program - and I think of sight-reading as an essential skill, to prevent embarrassment if not all-out disgrace!

The Calgary Phil has just posted their repertoire for next season on the website ( - I'll hopefully be able to get all the parts and start studying them over the summer. Still, I imagine having all those parts on my stand might feel a bit overwhelming. Any advice on how to focus and structure the preparation would be much appreciated!


I have never heard the anecdote about the violinist refusing to sight-read so I have no idea if it ever really happened. The only thing I have witnessed remotely similar was at a CSO audition (not for bass, thank god). The candidate struggled through the concerto and one or two excerpts. Clearly the person was unqualified, but as a committee we had agreed to let everyone play three excerpts. Before the third and what for that player would be the final excerpt (I think it was Ein Heldenleben) there was an unusually long pause. Finally the proctor spoke up. “Uh, the candidate declines to play this excerpt.” On the other side of the screen, we exchanged incredulous looks. We asked for and got confirmation. “They don’t want to play that one.” OK. Thank you. Audition over. Needless to say, that person is not working for us.

Sorry for that lengthy aside. Your question has two facets, as I see it. We rarely need to sight read anything. Parts are almost always available weeks in advance and, to tell the truth, after several seasons most of what we play isn’t new anymore. However, the reality is that there is a fair amount of sight-reading going on. Each player has it on their own conscience as to how much they will look at an unfamiliar piece. There is some ‘winging it’, or as I have heard it described, ‘learn as you earn’. It kind of depends on the concert. A newly commissioned worked conducted by the music director will probably get more practice than a pops program.

My own routine is to go to the music library and at least look at the music a week or so in advance if there is something on the program I don’t know well or have the part for in my own collection. The only exception would be pops concerts. If I’m not sitting principal, I never look at the music in advance.

When I got into the CSO I considered myself a pretty good sight-reader only to discover that all of my new colleagues were much better. Sight-reading is a useful skill in that it makes it easier to learn new pieces quickly. One thing I wanted to show in my blog was the amount of repertoire an orchestra covers in a season. That was probably the steepest learning curve for me to get over. Being a quick study is a definite asset in this job.

All of the said however, I do see a place for sight-reading in an audition. Not the kind of sight-reading where a fiendish passage is put on the stand to see how many players fail to play it. That is just plain cruel and yields results that are probably arbitrary.

The kind of meticulous preparation that goes into preparing an audition can be antithetical to real live music making. I have always felt that ‘audition playing’ occupies a sort of no man’s land between orchestral and solo playing. The only time to play that way is at the audition. I am curious if this will be your experience as well, but after winning a job I couldn’t play the way I played at the audition and fit in – not even close. The purpose I would see in having sight-reading at an audition would be to try and get a sense of the player minus some of that meticulous preparation. In other words, more like how they will play from day to day. To that end, I think the most useful ‘sight-reading’ might be something any player would be expected to know already – so not truly sight-reading – or if something obscure, then a selection not so difficult as to merely reward the players who might stumble through it unscathed, but something simple enough that the performer might have a chance to make music out of it.

Once I read an article about an expert in the field of art forgery. He explained his technique for spotting a forged painting was not to focus on the central part of the painting or where the original artist had spent the most time. Instead he would study little, seemingly insignificant details in the background, things the original artist would have dashed off with less conscious effort. Those that tended to reveal the unconscious mind of the creator were hardest to reproduce by the forger. I would look at sight-reading in such a light – to see the performer not so much as they wish to be seen, but as they are.

At the risk of going one analogy too far, I would say taking the audition is like climbing a pinnacle and having the job is like walking along a plateau. In my case I think the plateau is actually higher than the pinnacle I reached when I won the job. That is probably true for a lot of players. Being part of a good section tends to lift everyone’s playing, not to mention the fact that standards are always going up. Nowadays I don’t spend so much time practicing the parts as I used to, but to keep the plateau from sinking below sea level I tend to isolate some facet of my playing and work on that in the abstract.

Obviously as a new player, you might need to spend more time learning notes, but my advice (since you asked) would be to focus on some general things in your playing. And that dovetails very nicely into what is my first question back to you. Winning an audition is an affirmation. It is easy to make too much of it. But you seem to be taking the responsibility seriously and not resting on that affirmation. So I want to turn that around and ask what about your playing do you want to improve most, and how do you intend to go about it?

1 comment:

Matt Heller said...

Thanks so much for this answer, and as to the question... Hmm. Everyone else has been asking how I'm going to find an apartment, what's the exchange rate, or will I start talking with a Canadian accent - I guess I can count on my teacher to ask the really tough questions!

I've been mulling this over for a while already, but I still might need a couple days to formulate a good answer. I'll do my best to come up with some creative analogies, trying not to stretch it into an 8-part series.