Opera Navigation

If you look at the top menu of my blog, I have added an “opera navigation” tab– I have finished with my first opera and will be uploading the timing notes I made on it, in case anyone else finds it helpful to have a video reference of an opera divided up into sections for listening purposes.

Big Music

Right now I am in the middle of getting familiar with some music that comes in chunks larger than I’ve ever played before.

The first one is the Nutcracker, which the TBSO is performing with the Minnesota Ballet soon; 34 pages, all of it… well, written by Tchaikovsky. I went back and read Barry Stees’ post on the subject, where he says:

This juggernaut of a piece for the orchestra confronts many musicians at this time of year. If it were played just occasionally it would be universally hailed by musicians as one of the greatest pieces of ballet music. Instead, many musicians look upon it as a chore.

This strikes me as incredibly true. This performance will be my first time paying the piece, so I don’t feel any of the “ugh, this again” that lots of people seem to feel. That response seems to be pretty much the standard from musicians to the Nutcracker, which objectively doesn’t make a lot of sense. This is a piece that demands to be taken seriously; it’s difficult, long, written by a famous and well-loved composer, and performed every single year– what other piece of music gets to be performed on that kind of a schedule? But familiarity breeds contempt, of course, and for people with permanent positions in ballet orchestras… well, I would imagine they get pretty darn familiar with it.

I’m also working slowly but steadily on an entirely new set of repertoire: my first opera audition! Opera, and opera auditions, seem to occupy a somewhat unusual space in the lives of orchestral musicians, especially younger ones. For some reason, the orchestral excerpts one is expected to learn at music school rarely include opera excerpts. Thus, whereas at this point in my life I generally expect one or two new-to-me excerpts on a list for a major orchestra, this, my first opera audition, features a whopping nine new excerpts to learn (and a few more that I’m only vaguely familiar with.) Then, of course, there’s the issue of listening to recordings of the excerpts. Thus far, the only way I’ve found to reliably locate an excerpt in the middle of a recording is to listen to the whole opera with a score. So, I figured that as long as I’m doing that, I might as well be organized about it. For each opera, I am going to choose a video reference and an online score (oh god, I hope I can find scores online for all of them) and take notes on the recording; where various landmarks in the score happen, and so on, so that I can easily come back to the excerpts later, and also locate other parts in the opera more easily, if I ever need to play an excerpt from the same opera, but in a different place. Ideally, I will end up with a collection of easily navigable video references for operas with common bassoon excerpts, that will also be useful to me if I have to actually learn the whole opera.

So far, I am almost done with Cavalleria Rusticana. As well as timing notes, my document on it also contains a lot of notes about cuts the recording takes (which takes an extreeeemely long time to figure out, when you’re going along merrily and all of a sudden the recording is somewhere else…) and also errors in the score, such as pages being omitted or uploaded twice. So, a large part of the difficulty is dealing with the pedagogical shortcomings of the available materials. But, since The Orchestral Bassoon website doesn’t have most of these opera excerpts yet, someone’s gotta do it! Of course, it will also pay off in that I’ll be better prepared for an opera audition the more thoroughly I know the repertoire. And, of course, better prepared should I get an actual opera job!

Basically, it seems like opera auditions have a higher barrier to entry than symphony auditions, because not all of the people who are familiar with symphony lists are familiar with opera lists. So I want to use this audition as an opportunity to break into the “people who can comfortably do opera auditions” club, and after having done the huge amount of initial work on this one, every opera list after this will have fewer and fewer new excerpts to learn from scratch. Perhaps after this I should get familiar with some ballet excerpts too… although, it seems like I’m doing that now– the only list turned up through a google search for “ballet bassoon audition” is all standard symphony stuff, plus generous helpings of the Nutcracker!

Minnesota road trip

Over the weekend, I went on a roadtrip to Minnesota! I had a lesson with John Miller Jr, principal of the Minnesota orchestra, on the rep I will shortly be recording for a prescreening, and heard the Minnesota Orchestra play in the evening. I also got to stay with a friend from McGill, Alana, who lives with her husband about an hour each way in between Duluth and Minneapolis.

My faithful travelling/cuddling companions, Square Bunny and Medium Noodle Raccoon, handling the navigation at a rest stop in Grand Marais.

My faithful travelling/cuddling companions, Square Bunny and Medium Noodle Raccoon, handling the navigation at a rest stop in Grand Marais.

Alana and Justin warned me that if I left the door open, the cat would come in during the night to lick my hair. So I closed the door, but it still found a way to taste-test my hair in the morning.

Alana and Justin warned me that if I left the door open, the cat would come in during the night to lick my hair. So I closed the door, but it still found a way to taste-test my hair in the morning.

This guy was busking in the overpass leading between Orchestra Hall and the parking lot for the same. Sounds good man.

This guy was busking in the overpass leading between Orchestra Hall and the parking lot for the same. Sounds good man.

I am moderately certain that I saw an elk in here somewhere?

I am moderately certain that I saw an elk in here somewhere?

The frozen waterfall at Gooseberry Falls State Park

The frozen waterfall at Gooseberry Falls State Park

Having a snack on the edge of Lake Superior, just south of the border

Having a snack on the edge of Lake Superior, just south of the border

It was cooooold in Minnesota– Saturday morning it was -22 when I woke up, but only -11 in Thunder Bay. Now it’s starting to get colder here as well. I’m half-doing nanowrimo–I’m not going to get to 50 000 words by the end of the month, especially since I didn’t write anything on the trip. But I’m still going to meet-ups and writing words occasionally, so there’s that!


I occasionally like to watch live feeds of various space exploration-related things– I follow NASA and the Canadian Space Agency on Twitter and they often post live videos of launches, various craft docking at the ISS and so on. So I was actually watching the live feed of the Antares lifting off tonight, expecting to watch a little-heralded, unmanned supply rocket take off, think “cool!” and be on my way. I didn’t actually realize what was happening at first– I thought to myself, “gee, is there always that much fire on the ground? Are there trees or something on fire?” Nope: it exploded, which is pretty obvious upon a re-watch:

By far the most affecting video, though, is this one, taken at the press site:

It’s odd; it feels very different to have watched this happen in real time than it would to just find out about it afterwards. Ultimately, although this was a failure, it was also a success. According to reports, a person with the title of “flight termination officer” performed their job admirably, and triggered the self-destruct before the rocket actually hit the ground. How incredible: a rocket ship turned into a giant fireball, and nobody was even injured (although I would expect some ringing in the ears tomorrow for those press guys… hope they were wearing earplugs.) In a gratifying gesture of transparency, the live feed was left running long after the explosion and a press conference scheduled a few hours later– not that there was much information available, since there’s still burning rocket fuel on the ground and thus not much opportunity to collect data. But the data will be collected, and space flights will be made safer because of this incident.

I was reminded tonight of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, which I read a few months ago. He discusses extensively the way that NASA learns from its mistakes almost obsessively, debriefing and improving upon every detail of even a seemingly successful operation. So, in a way, the Antares explosion is a gift. It has pointed out a fatal flaw in, well, something, which can now be investigated and fixed, all with no loss of life. Perhaps it would even be accurate to say that the Antares explosion saved lives, if they can now prevent whatever happened today from happening on manned flights.

So, congratulations to Orbital Sciences Corporation and NASA on an unsuccessful, but necessary, launch. I look forward to watching more launches in the future.

Thunder Bay

I’ve been in Thunder Bay for two weeks now! So far we have played two concerts. The first was a show with Sarah Slean, who played her own songs the first half of the concert and sang Christos Hatzis’ Lamento and Parasol in the second. I realized after the concert that we are actually playing Lamento on the final Masterworks concert in Niagara this year as well! The second concert was John Estacio’s Bootlegger’s Tarantella, Afternoon of a Faun, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from Gotterdammerung, and Scheherazade. For that concert, there were quite a few extras who came in from Toronto as well as from Quebec and Manitoba, which was fun. Now we have one more week here– Schubert 5, pieces by Oskar Moraetz and Paul Haas, and an amazingly cool piano concerto by Poulenc that I had never heard of before– Aubade, Concerto Choregraphique pour Piano et 18 Instruments. Then, in a week, we are going on Tour! I’m actually not entirely sure where– the schedule only says “East.” So, I’m assuming various towns vaguely to the east of Thunder Bay.

Last week I drove out to the township of Oliver Paipoonge, which is just 10 minutes along the trans-canada, to go to an archery practice! Unlike the archery team I was on in high school in Toronto, where we used recurve bows and trained for indoor competitions, the club I went to here uses exclusively compound bows and competes outdoors. Being in a more rural area, I guess it’s natural that the archery traditions come more from hunting practices than in Toronto where it was more of a nerdy/historically-focused pursuit. (A membership at the club here also automatically gets you a year-long membership to the Ontario Association of Anglers and Hunters.) The compound bow took some getting used to– it’s more difficult to draw initially, but about halfway back it suddenly becomes much easier as the pulleys help you draw the weight of it. So it can store more energy than the equivalent recurve bow, an obvious advantage if you were, um, shooting bears or something.

I also bought a membership to the sports complex that’s right beside the hall where we play, which gets you access to the gym, pool, and an unlimited number of drop-in classes. So far I’ve gone to yoga, kettlebell, and a core class.

Today I am going hiking with some friends from the orchestra to the Sleeping Giant, a mountain formation made of a spirit who was turned to stone when white people found out about his silver mine. Whoopsie.

More Chicago!

When I was in Chicago, I stayed with a flutist that I met at a summer festival. Her roommates were another Canadian flutist, and the other flutists’ boyfriend, a violinist playing in Chicago Civic. Civic were having an open rehearsal, so in the evening after the audition he got me ticket for that. it was a very neat idea– when I heard it was an open rehearsal I assumed it was just a normal rehearsal that the public was allowed to come to, but in reality it was more in the vein of a performance, but with a lot more talking. Riccardo Muti is utterly charming to the audience and he spoke for a long time about the piece, both for the benefit of the audience and the orchestra, and rehearsed very thoroughly for about an hour and a half before doing final “performance” run and calling it a night. It was clearly intended to be educational programming, but never felt patronizing the way some “inside the orchestra”-type concerts can be.

I stayed an extra day after the concert, figuring it would be silly to go all the way to Chicago and not hear the CSO play. Luckily there was a concert on the day after– Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, La Mer and Tchaik 4. The performance got me thinking about aspects of concert hall design besides acoustics. I had been warned before the audition that the acoustics in the hall were fairly dry– not really a problem for this orchestra, who of course have no problem making themselves heard and understood. (But annoying for some auditionees, including one player I spoke to who said it came as a shock to him since he owns, lives and practices in a church!) However, my assigned seat was on the right side of the floor, very close to the stage, meaning I had an excellent view of a few bass players’ legs, but not much else. Although I could still hear the rest of the orchestra, if not see them, it was undeniably not a good listening experience. Why? Why is it so important to see the people making the music at a concert? Is it just because that’s all that separates the experience from staying home and listening to a recording? Hilary Hahn recently wrote a post suggesting “Things to Watch in an Orchestra Concert“– one example being brass players’ eyebrows! Often orchestral concerts choose to ignore or deride the visual element of music, possibly to our detriment. As if, if you need a visual element to appreciate the music, you must not be truly appreciating it. Well, I like to watch real human beings play, with my eyes. I moved to a balcony for the second half where I had spotted some empty seats.

The rest of that day I also did some touristy things– the house I was staying in was near a little neighbourhood where I went walking a few times:








I went to the Art Institute of Chicago during the day, and although I don’t know a lot about vidaul art I did recognize one painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the subject of the Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George.


I also saw some paintings that I couldn’t get quite as excited about.


Near Symphony Hall and the Art Institute are some landmarks… IMG_1220


Noe that that’s done, I’m leaving for Thunder Bay in just under a week! I went to a University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert last night, and will go to some masterclasses and Nuit Blanche before leaving.

Chicago Symphony audition: internalizing the process cues

I just got back from Chicago!

I was in Chicago for the same reason every other bassoonist was– to audition for principal bassoon spot of the Chicago Symphony. This was something I decided to do during the Brott festival, more as a scheduling decision than anything else. I had all of September free, the audition was at the end of the month, and I figured I needed something motivating to do for the month after Brott ended and before Thunder Bay started. So, that was it. I booked a plane ticket from the computer at camp, once I decided I didn’t want to give myself the option of not doing it. (Sure enough the week before the audition I was cursing/thanking my past self for not giving my pre-audition self the option of backing out…)

My audition was on the 29th. There were, I believe, 80 people who played on that day, and there had also been two other days of preliminaries. They worked in groups of 8 people, announcing after every 8 who was invited back for the next round in January. Nobody in my group advanced, and I only know the name of the one person who advanced from the group before me, so I don’t really have any idea of how many people might be invited to the finals.

However, as we all know (do we all know this? Gabe Radford said this at NYO, and I think it’s true. You’ll know now!) the most important part of an audition is what you write and reflect upon afterwards.

(An aside, a quotation from Gabe’s audition seminar handout:
“Simply going to the audition is often the biggest hurdle. What will keep you going back to auditions with a happy and balanced approach is how you react to success and failure.
Start writing down some thoughts. You will never have greater clarity on the level of your performing than in the days after an audition. Refer to your notes before your next audition.
Whether it is a certain technical concern that keeps cropping up, or something specific that phases you on the day, if you jot it down after an audition, it will help you immensely for the next one.”)

For me, this audition had an element that I had never encountered before (besides, you know, being for an orchestra so famous that it feels ridiculous even to say you’re auditioning for.) Instead of giving you the excerpts that have been chosen shortly before you go onstage, and letting you put your music in order and warm up accordingly, they just told us that the first item would be the Mozart concerto, and we were to take only that on stage. All of the excerpts were then the CSO’s copies placed on the stand by the proctor during the audition.

This outlined a fairly serious flaw in my audition procedure: I rely way too much on visual cues! On one hand this can be a strength. Usually what I do is write a set of instructions on the music or on a sticky note on the page, which I read before beginning an excerpt every time. This has the advantage of a) reminding me of what I need to do to play the excerpt successfully, and b) providing a mandatory “downtime” between excerpts, where I can get into the mood of the next one. This is technically known as a “process cue” in sports psychology, although often mine also involve instructions that aren’t necessarily process cues (for instance, reminders to check the status of my whisper lock, Ab-Bb trill mechanism, or blow out my bocal.) So, these little notes I believe generally do me good. However… what happens when I can’t see them?

Usually, at auditions, I am very deliberate about the time in between excerpts being a good preparation for the next excerpt. But somehow, with the whole routine of my excerpt binder/process cue note thrown off, I suddenly became very bad at using my time in between excerpts. When the proctor placed the first movement of Tchaik 6 on the stand after Figaro, instead of calmly moving to switch reeds I felt sudden shock and panic: “oh god I have to use a different reed now shit my water container isn’t open oh god what if I drop it I wonder if it’s still soaked from the warmup room, better dunk it just in case oh god I’m taking too long they think I’m a moron, they’re wondering what the hell I’m doing that’s taking so long, look at this place I can’t believe I’m even here, hmm I wonder what it would be like to actually play Tchaik 6 in this hall, okay jam that baby on I need to start this damn excerpt right now let’s go…” Needless to say the first note of Tchaik 6 was not all that I hoped it would be.


So, based on that experience: writing stuff down is great, and if I were advising a young student on how to prepare for an audition with known repertoire I would probably advise them to give my note system a try for a while. However, after a certain point– say, maybe the point where you start auditioning for the Chicago Symphony– maybe a process cue needs to be able to be solely internal. The key to internalizing the process cue, however, will need to be doing it every time. There can be no skipping of steps in practice, because if I do, I might forget the step in performance. As an example, my process cue note for Rite of Spring looks something like:

-Lock off, Knob off (“Knob” is how I refer to by Ab-Bb trill mechanism. Because that’s what it is.)
-Blow out bocal and reed
-Hear first 2 bars in head for tempo
-Breathe 2 beats out, 2 beats in, begin note with no tongue but distinct beginning.

(When I actually played Rite of Spring, my instructions to myself got a little out of control, to the point that the 2nd bassoonist commented on the “novel” appearing at the top of the page. I erased the whole mess, simplified and re-wrote it, recognizing his important (if perhaps unintentional) point: if your process cue is too long or complicated, when you get to the performance, your adrenaline is going to prevent you from actually reading/internalizing the instructions. At least personally, I know that Performance Me doesn’t have a lot of intellectual power, so simpler is better.)

The first instruction– “lock off, knob off” is something that appears at the beginning of all excerpts: these two things I always check. (Obviously, it doesn’t always say “off”; sometimes it says “on”, for the ones where, well, I want one or both on.) That’s easy to internalize: before beginning any excerpt, at any time, practice or performance, I will always check the status of these to “presets” of my instrument. No exceptions, or I’m training myself to forget.

“Blow out bocal and reed” are similarly generic instructions, although might not be necessary for every excerpt (more planning and reflection needed on this count!)

The third instruction is different for every excerpt, but similar in form; I always choose a set number of bars to hear, so in this case I just need to remember how many bars of what I want to hear in my head. I don’t always choose the beginning of the excerpt; if it’s more appropriate I’ll choose to hear another instrument’s line, or a section from later in the piece (for instance, for the sixteenth notes in the last movement of Symphonie Fantastique, I hear the theme starting at 64 to get the tempo, instead of trying to pull the tempo of the bassoon part from thin air.) So, that element is different for every excerpt but memorizing what to hear in my head before I start playing can be made part of the process of learning the excerpt.

The last instruction is similar, in that it’s different for each excerpt but I always decide in advance the number of beats I will breathe out and then in.

When I’m practicing excerpts, though– and here’s the challenge with internalizing the process cue– I don’t always go through the whole process. Most often, I skimp on the “hearing” step; after all, I reason, if I just want to practice being able to play the excerpt, it doesn’t matter if I don’t hear it first to the exact extent that I’m planning on doing so in the audition– right?



Like I said– Performance Me is dumb. All she knows how to do is mindlessly reproduce whatever happened over and over in the practice room. And hey, that’s fine! As long as she can do that reproduction accurately, Practice Room Me can take care of the rest. Which means giving meticulous instructions to Performance Me by doing it the same way, every single time. (Unless the first way sucked, in which case she has to change the way, and then do the better way the same every… blah, blah, blah, you get the idea.)

So, that was one of the things that I took away from this audition! Obviously there were many other thoughts I had, which I recorded in my physical notebook immediately after the audition ended. This was the first time that I had been to an audition of this size, which is of course normal since there aren’t that many auditions of this size– which is partly why I felt compelled to go, and see what the real world is like.

In Canada, we are both privileged and in some ways hampered by our system of national/international auditions. On one hand, national auditions are great, and overall I think a positive force for music in Canada: they give orchestras the chance to find a qualified person in Canada first, which is awesome! Often people are frustrated when orchestras don’t hire from the national audition, but I prefer to think of it this way: National audition went nowhere? Cool! All the Canadians just got the advantage of having not just a mock audition, but a whole practice audition before the real audition, complete with the real performance space, list, and panel. How sweet is that? And then, of course, sometimes they do hire from the nationals, and that’s awesome.

The downside of the system, for me and people my age, is that it gives young Canadian musicians starting out in the audition scene an unrealistic idea of what the competition is like outside of the country. Canada has fewer people in it than the US, and thus proportionally fewer musicians on any given instrument competing for a job. Which is sometimes great! But then, it can be a bit of a shock to the system to go from Canadian national auditions for major orchestras that pull in maybe 20 bassoonists– all of whom probably know each other– to a big American orchestra like the CSO, which based on the number of people were on my day of preliminaries, I would guess had between 200 and 250 bassoonists audition. This is probably why there’s a strong tradition of Canadian musicians (and probably people in in other professional, merit-based fields) doing undergrads in Canada and graduate degrees in the US: it’s good to see what’s out there. Because it seems like mostly what’s out there is… a hell of a lot of other people.

Me reflected in the Bean in Millennium Park, where there were also a hell of a lot of other people.

Me reflected in the Bean in Millennium Park, where there were also a hell of a lot of other people.

The difference between an orchestra and robot spam

Like every other blog on the internet, I get a fair amount of robot spam popping up on this site. Most of it gets caught in the spam filter and I never even read it, but today (after an extended blog absence– sorry!) I logged on to my admin panel to find this comment awaiting moderation:

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.15.55 PM [Text: I see a lot of interesting posts on your blog. You have to spend a lot of time writing, i know how to save you a lot of time, there is a tool that creates unique, SEO-friendly articles in couple of seconds, just type in google – k2 unlimited content]

I usually wouldn’t waste my time reading spam comments on my little-used blog, but– wait, what? This was a spam robot commenting (ironically, on my post about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) complimenting my “interesting articles” and… proposing that I use a an automated tool to write blog posts for me? Even better– “unlimited content”! And best of all, it’s “SEO-friendly”; optimized for being found by search engines. It must be every lazy blogger’s dream!

To gain more recognition and reward for less effort and output– that’s the idea that whoever thought this bit of spam was a good idea assumed I– or at least someone– would buy into. Don’t bother writing your own content, and use search engine optimization to become a star and rake in the dough! If only orchestras could apply the same concept to… oh wait…

Yesterday, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were locked out by their management. In 2012, after a short lockout, the musicians agreed to a 14% pay cut, a reduction in forces and reduction in the length of the season, with a promise that the pay cut was a one-time-only affair meant to balance the budget once and for all. It didn’t work. Now negotiations are back, and the management are out for blood, it seems. The ASO is trying to seize the right to change, at any time, any aspect of the musician’s health care plan or even the orchestra itself. As in, if they decide that the orchestra should consist of a string quartet, amplified chainsaw and electric banjo, then the orchestra is a string quartet, amplified chainsaw and electric banjo. (And them chainsaw players aren’t even in in the union!) No, but in all seriousness, this would be dangerous news for an orchestra during a time in which the buzzword is “new model.”

Q: Use the buzzword “new model” correctly in a sentence.
A: “Our organization plans on thriving in a new model in which we pay an insufficient number of musicians an insufficient amount of money to play an ever-shrinking number of concerts, more and more of which should have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual symphonic repertoire.”

Or, in the words of the ASO president: “While we value the art and the artists of the ASO enormously, we believe we must develop a new model that will allow us to balance our artistic and financial needs. Clearly, that is not the model we have today.”

Is it not? Why not? The ASO management seemed to think that the “new model” would take shape after the 2012 cuts. The players did as they asked, and trusted them to hold up their end of the bargain. Why should anyone believe it this time?

As Scott Chamberlain says on his blog : “No business thrives by diluting and diminishing their core product. And since the musicians are your core product, I would advise changing your frame of reference to reflect that.”

The core, if humble, “product” of this here blog–such as it is– is words written, or arranged and commented upon, by me. Thus, it is clearly nonsensical for my robotic spammer to suggest that the blog would thrive more by containing fewer words written by me, less often. In the same way, it is nonsensical to suggest that the Atlanta Symphony, or any orchestra, will become more successful by having fewer musicians, having them play fewer and smaller concerts, and paying them less for it. You cannot SEO-optimize* music.

Orchestra managements– stop using the techniques of crude internet spammers to try to run your organizations.

(And everybody else– please see Rob Knopper’s post on the Met Orchestra Musician’s blog about what all of us can do to help the musicians of the ASO!)

*I am aware that “SEO-optimize” is redundant, but it sounds dumb to say “you cannot SEO music.” But, for the record, you also can’t do that.

End of Brott Festival

Three days ago I played principal on both the Firebird and the Rite of Spring in the final Brott Festival concert– did I do that? hey cool, I actually did!– and then the next day my house began the slow process of de-Hamilton-izing.

In front of our house

In front of our house

This was our guard pig. He guarded the house valiantly while wearing this newspaper hat

This was our guard pig. He guarded the house valiantly while wearing this newspaper hat

Or sometimes this stop mute

Or sometimes this stop mute

Eventually Julie turned his hat into another piggy to keep him company

Eventually Julie turned his hat into another piggy to keep him company

Then he photobombed our house picture

Then he photobombed our house picture

Backstage before the second half of the final concert

Backstage before the second half of the final concert

This house played a lot of board- and card-games. Others more so than me because I usually get really angry when I play games.

This house played a lot of board- and card-games. Others more so than me because I usually get really angry when I play games.

Our house had a HUGE backyard!

Our house had a HUGE backyard!

This week I’m reading some quintets with some old friends from the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra days, playing in the orchestra for TaiwanFest at the Harbourfront Centre, and then going up to teach at the Interprovincial Music Camp for the last week of August!