NY Phil Audition Challenge Weeks 4 & 5

When I advance in auditions, I know it.

I’m led in. My mind is calm. The next few minutes are all that exist. I have a task to complete.

I close my eyes before starting. I imagine the music I’m about to play, the sound I will get. I breathe. There are always a couple important things to remember; I remind myself that they’re coming, and how I will do them. I take my time to get comfortable with the instrument in my hands.

I play. The things I’ve imagined remain in my mind. They’re already there for me; when I do them, it’s like reaching out and grabbing something hanging in front of me. Nothing is left to chance; it’s simply in my hands. 

I walk out feeling clear. And when they call my number in the waiting room, it’s only a confirmation of what I already knew—I played exactly how I meant to.

So as it turns out, I’ve been practicing visualization for a long time. Not in so many words, and not in any formalized way. But that process that I described in my audition recap post? That’s ultimately what visualization becomes when you add the instrument back in. But I’ve never had a well thought-out approach, and it’s never been a consistent part of my routine. I would either achieve that mindset or not, but it’s been highly dependent on external factors.

Nathan Cole’s description of how to visualize reminded me very strongly of the method outlined in Audition Success by Don Greene. If you haven’t read it, you must. Seriously, download it right now and read it through—it’s only about a hundred pages. I’ll wait. Because honestly, I had kind of forgotten about that part of the book until I read this week’s challenge. The first time you encounter an idea, it doesn't always make a big impression—but if it shows up again, in a different context, you know you have to pay attention. So obviously, I had to go back and re-read the whole book. And highlight things this time. But it was completely worth it, because now is the perfect time in my preparation to implement these methods.

The Challenge focuses more on mental practice without the instrument, whereas Audition Success dives straight into playing. But the biggest overlap between the two methods is this idea of key words or “process cues” (Don Greene’s term). These are words or short phrases that put you in the right mindset for each excerpt.

Since I’m two weeks away from my real life Indianapolis Symphony audition, I just went ahead and assigned process cues for the entire list.

Excerpt Process cues / keywords
Hindemith Der Schwanendreher
vast, expansive, descending
Bach Suite No. 3 Sarabande
simple, loving, second beats
Beethoven 5 - II
spinning phrases, elegant
Beethoven 5- III
tumultuous, bouyant
Brahms 4 - II
warm, glowing
Brahms 4 - III
joyous, weighty; big fat dancing Brahms
Brahms 4 - IV
like breathing, rhapsodic, contrasts
Mendelssohn Scherzo
light, precise
Mozart 35 - I
gallant, clever
Mozart 35 - IV
dignified, winking
Daphnis 158-166
dawning, transparent
Daphnis 212-216
quiet energy, waves, springing
Don Juan
sweep, swagger
Tchaikovsky 6 - I
intimate, tense, on the brink

I tried the visualization exercise (week 5's assignment) on Hindemith, honestly because I’ve been neglecting actually practicing it. But the concerto does set the tone for any audition—if it doesn’t go well, it’s harder to set yourself up mentally for the rest of the excerpts.

When I first tried it, I was fixated on how my right shoulder sometimes feels tight before starting, so I don’t feel I have the weight I need. It happens sometimes when I’m actually playing, too, so that feeling didn’t come out of thin air. My first word, “vast”—which I picked both because of the sound and because the title of the movement translates to “Between Mountain and Deep Valley”—seemed like the perfect word to solve this problem. And how could I make that opening sound more “vast”? Sinking into the bottom two notes, crescendo through the top two, and making sure my arm is free and never constricted through the rest of the phrase.

It only took a few repetitions to feel MUCH more comfortable with the opening. Now to do this with every single note I’m going to have to play at the audition…!

This week, though, I just had to record a few excerpts. I'll be honest, I was supposed to include the Mahler excerpt in this video and I didn't. I don't think I'll be touching that excerpt until after the Indy audition, actually—it's not on the list, and the last thing I need right now is extra distraction.

(I totally didn't just forget that I was supposed to record it while making the video. Definitely not.)

In the video:

  • Hindemith (0:00) - This will need some individual attention, but concentrating on those process cues really does help me stay in the right mindset. I'm pleased with the path this is going down.
  • Mendelssohn (1:13) - Maybe a little slow, but not unreasonable. I've had the process cues for this one for a long time, so the approach isn't so different than my usual one here.
  • Brahms 4 (2:30) - I'm least pleased about my sound in this excerpt. Also, I was a little too concerned with holding the tempo back; it gets uneven after the long note. Needs a little more "giocoso" and a little less "fat."

As requested, this was one take. In fact, it was the only one I did. Always strive for authenticity, right?

None of these excerpts is actually all of what's asked for Indianapolis—the Mendelssohn will be the entire movement, and there are actually four other little parts of Brahms 4 that I haven't even touched on here. So! In the next few days, I'd like to do some kind of performance of the Indianapolis excerpts that I haven't gotten to share with you yet. I could easily just put up an extra post here, but I've also been very interested in trying out Facebook Live. What better way to add in those real live audition nerves than to actually play for invisible people who may or may not give a damn?

Either way, I'll let you know in plenty of time. So stay tuned!

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Week 6

Greetings from beautiful Fort Wayne, Indiana!

It's very grey, wet, and suddenly fall-ish here, but it's okay because I'm finally back at work.

At least, I wish it were that simple. I wish I could say I were simply back at work at one of my three very stable (if annoyingly far apart) jobs, but that's not exactly the case. In the past week, I've attended a very contentious contract review meeting for EACH of my union gigs—Orchestra Iowa and, this morning, here at the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. That's far more labor disputes than I ever hoped to be part of, especially all at once.

Luckily, Orchestra Iowa looks like it's going to be okay. But in Fort Wayne, well. I'm starting my second full season without a contract, but they'd been playing without a contract for about half a season before that. They took a massive 17.5% pay cut in the last contract (plus five weeks chopped off the season, and two violin positions eliminated) in hopes of balancing the budget after nasty recession-induced losses, with the understanding that the next contract would start to restore what had been lost. So far, though, they haven't been able to agree with management on what "restoration" should look like. Both sides have points where they don't want to budge, points where they can stretch, and hope for a sustainable future for the orchestra. It's just that the two sides' visions still don't match up, after almost two years of negotiation.

It's nerve-wracking.

We're not the only ones. The Fort Worth Symphony (Texas, not Fort Wayne, Indiana, as I'm often reminding people) recently went on strike after their contract negotiations broke down. More and more orchestras are finally making gains in their contracts again, after losing HARD in the recession, but many smaller orchestras are still struggling.

Musicians just want to make music for the people in their communities, and they don't want to starve while doing it. But nobody wants the music to stop just because of money. So if you're near any of these orchestras (or you just want to give them a boost), please consider supporting the musicians of Fort Wayne or Fort Worth on Facebook.

But for now, we keep on playing. Our season opener is on Saturday, and barring some catastrophe, we'll be performing same as always. This weekend, I'm staying with a wonderful couple who are deeply involved with the Philharmonic, and the musicians are wearing these tee shirts every night to rehearsal in the name of solidarity.

There are going to be some crusty shirts by Saturday!

I wish my position in Fort Wayne were full time, because I really like the orchestra and the people in it. But since it's not, I'll keep working toward my own personal goals—which, this week, means practicing Daphnis and Chloe (my replacement for La Mer) obsessively in my hosts' guest room (even though this week's program is all Russian).

In the video:

Daphnis. Nothing but Daphnis.

(Of course, after I finished this, I practiced Tchaik 4 like a good little paid musician.)

That's it for this week! Next week, I'm going to skip straight to week 4, which is all about visualization. And I may try out a new way to do mock auditions... stay tuned.

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Weeks 8 & 7

Now the real work begins.

Over the past few weeks, I've been all over the place. I posted my last entry from the car as we drove across Oklahoma (I think). I went to Burning Man, visited the country's smallest town, spent one night in Vegas, went through Fundamentalist Mormon country and was warned to just keep driving, saw the Grand Canyon, Marble Canyon, the Petrified Forest, Petroglyph National Monument, the Painted Desert, stayed in a Navajo-run motel, heard cows lamenting their imminent deaths in Oklahoma, visited the WalMart museum in Benton, AR (possibly a creepier atmosphere than the Mormon enclave), wandered around Branson and wondered why people visit, and drove through one of the year's last big summer thunderstorms to get back to Chicago.

But yeah. Pretty much none of that involved playing my instrument.

Now, I’m back from vacation. I’m starting to get music for my actual jobs. Seasons are starting. People are starting to expect things from me in real life, not just on the internet.

Oh, and the Indianapolis audition. That’s six weeks away.

On one hand, gigs starting again in earnest is nice in that I’ll have money again. I’m also excited to start my two (TWO!) new positions in Iowa and Kentucky. (I won Iowa back in June, before I started writing here.) I’ve been playing in professional orchestras for about ten years, and I was principal in Civic, but combining the two feels wholly new. I’m supposed to send in bowings, like, now, but I’m a little intimidated—I don’t want to do a crappy job and have to be changing a bunch of bowings during the first rehearsal. That’s a terrible first impression to make. And so is not knowing the music inside and out, so I’ve been haphazardly attacking three full-length programs in the past week, on top of the Challenge and my audition repertoire. Seriously, Brahms 4, Beethoven 6, Beethoven 7, Mendelssohn 4, Tchaik 4, AND ALL THE OVERTURES AND CONCERTOS THAT GO WITH THEM. Why did it all have to appear in my mailbox at once???

This little episode brought to you by Erin’s Professional Anxiety(TM).


It’s taken me a little time to get back on track, with coming back to so much reality all at once, so I’ve combined week 8 and week 7 in today’s video. (Also, my iMovie kept cutting off during recording because of "dropped frames." If anyone knows what the hell that means or how to prevent it, PLEASE enlighten me, because I had to do each of these excerpts about five times over before getting a full take.)

In the video:

  • Mahler 10 (0:00) - The first requirement for week 8. I had already attempted several full run-throughs, so I don't actually remember this run specifically. I made the big shift in the middle, though, I'm pretty sure...?
  • Mozart 35 (0:51) - The second requirement for week 8. At this point, I was so frustrated with the video cutting out that I turned toward the computer and just stared it down. It might be creepy to watch, but it did make it through this take.
  • Brahms 4 (1:48) - The only requirement for week 7! This one was a challenge because, well, Brahms is always hard for me. The style is intimidating—it's big and Romantic with a capital R, but it's also elegant and never overwrought, and the rhythm has to be precise and strict without ever feeling rigid. It's really, really hard to find the right balance. (Plus, the fast notes are hard.) Nathan Cole's video on this excerpt was very helpful in guiding my phrasing, but I definitely have a ways to go before this one's audition-ready.

I'll be back later in the week with week 6, and then we should be back on schedule!

BONUS POST: A real audition recap!

As you may know, we’ve been in a lull in the official challenge for the last couple of weeks. You’ll be happy to know, though, that I didn’t just immediately run off on vacation (not immediately). In fact, in my first week off, instead of recording a new post for you guys, I took a real, live audition instead.

And I won.

I know, right???

It was for a regional orchestra in Kentucky, one that I used to play with regularly when I was in school. Since I moved to Chicago, though, it was a little far away—I just couldn’t justify driving six hours for section pay comparable to what I could find in and around Chicago. So I had only played with them occasionally since graduating: a Christmas concert here, a Fourth of July there. But this audition was for a principal position. That’s a whole different ball game.

Now, I had a couple other encouraging signs I could win besides the fact I used to play in the section. I knew the person who had had the position before, I knew the general level of my competitors, and I had heard the conductor liked my playing. But most important, I had taken this audition before. When I was just finishing my master’s and moving to Chicago, the principal position was open, and the list was basically identical. I was a runner up that time—they chose someone they felt would be more permanent. Three years later, I’m still in Chicago, and the position opened up again. I’d be almost negligent not to apply.


Despite feeling like I had some advantages going into this audition, I actually had a pretty big disadvantage, too—I didn’t get the list until eight days before. It wasn’t advertised in the AFM International Musician (not a union orchestra), but they had sent out a local notice, which I guess I wasn’t quite local enough to receive. But luckily, the audition ended up being on a day that I was free and, luckily, the list touched on a lot of things I’ve been working on through this challenge.

But if I thought my first week off would be easy or undirected, I was dead wrong.

The list!

As you can see, the list wasn’t very long. There wasn’t anything I had to learn from scratch, either. But since I basically only had a week, I still had to be strategic about my preparation. That meant I focused mostly on solidifying the technical. I know all these pieces fairly well, so I wasn’t too worried about making ludicrous musical choices—I just focused on playing it safe. What I missed most was the mental preparation. In my experience, that’s a whole other layer of preparation, on top of the technical and the musical, and it makes all the difference.

Usually, once I can physically play the excerpts at a high level, I take what I’ve learned through practicing the notes and make a little plan for where I want my brain to be at any given moment in each excerpt. It helps keep my mind from racing ahead when nerves are trying to take over. I don’t have to worry about what’s ahead because I’m just concentrating on playing this triplet in first position really, really well. Now shifting to third; another triplet, checking my placement in the bow; another triplet, keeping the crescendo going; shifting in the middle of this triplet; now one sixteenth, spend a lot of bow! And three sixteenths under a slur, keep the sound good, more pressure to make up for the slower bow speed. Play each note in this next beat of sixteenths and shift, and finally, vibrate that high D!

And that’s just a few bars in Don Juan.

For me, keeping my mind under control like that takes just as much practice as my fingers. It’s not entirely separate, but as we know, the best way to execute something reliably is to practice it in isolation, and I just didn’t have the time. So I had to rely on work I’d done before—with varying success.

But we’ll get to that.


How many auditions have I taken now? Fifteen? Twenty? Something like that, and I’ve (now) won three. Every single one of them has been different.

This time, I drove in that morning and arrived at the hall about an hour and a half before my assigned time. They were still hearing principal bassoon auditions when I got there, but I was able to get a practice room right away, which was lucky. Our times were assigned ahead of time and I was second, so I didn’t even go into the communal waiting room until after I played. There were six or seven of us (many of whom it turned out I knew), and they had us all play the whole list straight through, which meant there was only one round. There was also no screen (again, not a union orchestra), but I actually like that—it’s easier to connect with the panel when they’re real humans in front of you and not disembodied voices just waiting for you to fail.

Since I started seriously taking auditions, I’ve been recording them on my phone. I just make sure I’m wearing pants with pockets, start the recording when I get to my private warm-up room, and stick it comfortably in my back pocket as I usually do. (Side note: I believe in dressing comfortably for auditions—no reason to make things harder on yourself, as long as you can be comfortable without looking like a slob in case you win. That means I often wear dark jeans and a nice top. Semi-professional, but enough like what I normally wear to not be distracting.) I’ve never had a problem, and the recordings are incredibly valuable. Seeing how things change between the practice room and the audition stage is… illuminating, to say the least.

So, in that spirit, here are a few of my excerpts side-by-side, from my run-throughs in the practice room directly before the audition, and from the audition itself.

Hindemith 1st page, practice room

Hindemith 1st page, audition

Beethoven 3 Scherzo, practice room

Beethoven 3 Scherzo, audition

Mendelssohn Scherzo 1st theme, practice room

Mendelssohn Scherzo 1st theme, audition

Shostakovich 5, practice room

Shostakovich 5, audition

Don Juan, practice room

Don Juan, audition

So that's my audition. Hopefully these comparisons are as informative for you as they are for me—because, oh man, do I still have some work to do.

Not immediately, though. A few days after this audition, I ran off to Burning Man. Did you know they have an orchestra?

I went and joined the Playa Pops for a week—I did NOT take my good instrument!

I'm on my way back to real life now, and with it will come a new Challenge post. Stay tuned!

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Week 11

For the first year I lived in Chicago, I worked at one of the major violin shops in town. I was surrounded by Strads and del Gesus, playing different instruments for several hours a day, five days a week. When a new viola came in, I was often the person to play it when it first came out of the luthiers' shop and advise on the setup.

At first, I was tentative. I was worried people were listening to me, judging my playing through the walls. Everyone else seemed to have a routine of little excerpts to test instruments and bows, but I had no idea what to play. I mostly showed violins, but (having grown up around violinists) playing viola repertoire sounded ridiculous to my ear. But I was supposed to be the authority figure in the sales room, showing whatever it was in its best possible light. And none of my colleagues seemed to care how I played, just what I thought of the instrument. So I developed a set of things I played to test different attributes of bows and instruments. I figured out how to laugh and say, "Forgive me, I'm a violist" before playing Stamitz or Bartok or Mendelssohn or Roman Carnival or whatever a fifth too high. I learned how to say "We're asking $500,000" with a straight face.

And, during that year, I got comfortable switching instruments at a moment's notice. I once took a Vuillaume viola and Kittel bow to Atlanta to show a client, but I barely got back into town in time for my gig that night. So I just bought some black clothes in the airport, took a cab from Midway to Evanston during rush hour, and played Transfigured Night on the Vuillaume. (The bow was nice—what little I remember about it—but I prefer my own instrument.)

My favorite page from the Universal Dictionary of Violin and Bow Makers, which I spent a lot of time with that year.

There are lots of great things that job did for my performing. It forced me to be comfortable playing at my own level, and even making mistakes, in front of musicians I admired. It forced me to prioritize practicing in my free time. And it forced me to learn how to understand different instruments' sounds within a few seconds of picking them up.

Nowadays, some of those skills have stuck with me, but every time I go back into the shop and get to try the shiny new instruments that have come in, that one skill feels real rusty. And it reminds me that people take instruments out specifically for auditions, with a week or less to adjust. I even used to do that. I did it a couple times with varying success—in fact, I first took out the bow I now own to use on a major audition. But I didn't win one with it until I had had it for over a month. I would never feel comfortable doing that now—partially because I'm happy with what I have, but mostly because I'm not in shape in that particular way anymore. And I would strongly caution my friends (and anyone reading this) against it, unless they had sufficient time or were used to adjusting to different instruments quickly. Even if it costs more, it doesn't mean you're going to know how to use it.

ANYWAY. That's just a long-winded way of saying, HALLELUJAH. MY BOW IS BACK.

I know I said it before, but honestly, it's hard to describe how demoralizing it was trying to practice with my second bow. At a certain point, I was learning things wrong to compensate the bow's shortcomings, like placement and distribution. I was wasting time that could've been devoted to goals that would've been applicable in the actual audition. I get to learn exactly where in my bow I need to be, in Mozart 35, to go from the long scale into the recap of the theme. (Which, in the video, I didn't even execute very well, because I've been doing it on a bow that's weighted VERY differently and reacts VERY differently. Learn from my mistakes!)

This week, I was supposed to play the first page of Don Juan, and my classical-era-dynamic-contrasts-replacement-excerpt (Mozart 35, 4th movement). So let's see how I did.

In the video:

  • Don Juan, first page (0:00): This was... all right. Nothing was as pretty or as easy as I'd like. Got to pick it apart slowly a little more.
  • Mozart, written dynamics (1:34): Since the original challenge was to play the first 12 bars of Schubert, which contain subito dynamic changes between piano and forte, I decided to mimic the original challenge by playing through the first forte statement (about 16 bars, I think). Unfortunately, this excerpt doesn't switch back and forth, but I'll get plenty of that when we get to Daphnis.
  • Mozart, all forte (1:58): This felt much more secure than the previous run. Part of it, I'm sure, was just that it was the second time through, but I think part of it was also that my right hand felt stronger, so my left hand did too. That damn separation of the hands—gotta keep my left hand forte all the time, no matter what the right is doing!

There's no official challenge next week, but I think I'll have a little surprise in store. Stay tuned...

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Week 12

Guys. This has been a good news/bad news kind of week for me.

The good news is that I got to take a last-minute trip to Tahoe with my boyfriend. It’s amazingly beautiful here, and we’re staying on the Nevada side, so if I get tired of striking natural beauty, I can go gamble at the casino downstairs. (I won $5 at video poker last night—which I played so I could get a free Coke. Oh yeah. I’m a high roller.)

The bad news is that I caught a nasty cold the night before I left, so I’ve spent most of my time so far wrapped up in blankets in the hotel room, watching the Olympics. I’m super congested, half-deaf, and hopped up on cough syrup as I write this. And in the video. Believe me, you can tell.

So, you know, enjoy that.

 As penance, I offer you the sunset over the lake last night.

As penance, I offer you the sunset over the lake last night.

My good bow is also STILL in the shop. It turns out, my bow guy was on vacation last week... (How DARE he.) This is probably the best time of the year for me to have my equipment out of my hands, since I'm hardly performing at all. But still, the sound and feel of this bow is SO different. I know it sounds precious of me, but I don’t feel like myself as a player when using this bow. I’m fighting to play things well that are usually easy, and that’s pretty demoralizing.

But you know what? The concert will happen no matter what instrument you’re playing. The audition is going to happen whether you’re healthy or not.

So I made the video anyway.

In the video:

  • C major scale in thirds (0:00): I dunno what to tell you. I'm pretty high on cold meds in this part, and I haven't settled in yet. I played two octaves, and the high one is... yeah. It's times like these that I wish I had an E string. ENJOY!!!
  • Mendelssohn Scherzo (0:58): I mostly focused on keeping the tempo steady, because MAN do I love to rush this excerpt in auditions. I'm actually pretty pleased with how the stroke came out, reminding me once again that it's not the bow doing it. It's me. (But god, does the bow make it easier.)
  • Don Juan beginning (2:19): My G string decided to mutiny right as I started this the first time, so I spared you my re-tuning. (Altitude and humidity changes!) I played the first 8-ish bars of this. In the original challenge, he only asked for the first four, but we have a few more rests than the violins, and I've been cut off at this point and told to skip ahead in auditions before.
  • Mahler 10 (3:13): He only asked for part of the excerpt in the original, but the one I've chosen is so short that I just played all of it. The tonality here is such a moving target, it doesn't really need to be longer. (Since I realize many of you may not be familiar with this posthumous and only partially completed work, here's a fantastic recording of Bernstein and Vienna if you'd like to hear it in context.)

And now I'm gonna go lie down.

See you next week...!

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Week 13

And we’re back—now with 100% more relevant audition repertoire!

The challenge was fairly light this week, compared to last week. There were only two requirements to record: the concerto exposition, and the scherzo (but all slurred). As I mentioned last week, a real audition I’m taking requires one of our standard 20th century concertos, so I decided to switch from Stamitz to Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher. But I was lucky this week, because I’d recently performed both pieces. I did Der Schwanendreher on my Civic Fellowship recital back in early April, and Civic performed all of Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream in mid-May.

Now, that’s not to say I picked them back up and they were immediately perfect—quite the opposite, actually. It’s amazing how quickly things fall from performance level. (Amazing, as in, kind of depressing and baffling.)

Take Hindemith, for example. I’ve been playing this piece off and on since I was 17. I played it for college auditions, but I never got to perform the complete piece until my recital this year. But my standards have changed so much over the past ten years (thankfully) that, every time I return to it, I find new things to improve. Of course, there are some things that stick (finger patterns in long strings of weirdly enharmonically written, awkward notes) but there are some that I always have to re-solidify (the opening double stops).

I‘ve vacillated between using Hindemith and Bartok for auditions, but I think I’ve landed on using Hindemith from now on. Opening an audition with an octave might be daunting, but I prefer this piece to Walton (too slow a start and too many sixths), and everybody plays Bartok. Seriously, I had a friend who was sitting a viola audition committee a couple years ago. They posted a tally of which concertos got played, and it was about 80% Bartok. So I like to think that I can immediately stand out, just by virtue playing something different.

Practice strategies and challenges:  

Well, where to start? For a week where I had very little planned, I actually ended up doing a lot that wasn’t practicing. Isn’t that always the way?

This week, I had another gig—one I had planned in advance this time, but required that I be out of town for longer. The program included Beethoven 5, which was great, because the second and third movements are on the Indianapolis list. But two-service days make it really hard to practice sufficiently, as do long drives.

While I was at my gig, the protective tape on my bow started to slip off, and eventually came off entirely, leaving me with sticky residue crap all over the wood and my hands, and no protection for my bow. My dad, who was playing the gig with me, was planning to go to the violin shop as soon as we got back to Chicago anyway, so I gave it to him and played the concert on my backup bow. I still don’t have my good bow back—the backup bow is what I’m using in the video. I’m just glad I didn’t have to perform any spiccato this time.

When I got back from my gig, it was time to move! The last few days of this week were full of packing and unpacking. So in my practice log, you’ll see a blank day—that’s why.

Onto strategies! I focused on intonation and rhythmic integrity in both pieces this week. The Hindemith, of course, starts out with a big ol’ E octave. I had somehow gotten in the habit of tuning my Es to my A string (I think because I was taught to always anchor my pitch with a perfect interval, maybe?), but that doesn’t work with the way the E functions in the chord. It’s a C major chord, after all! Tuning it to A made the E sound quite high in context. Tuning it to open G instead makes a HUGE difference—it’s amazing how different a pitch can be and still be an E, isn’t it?

In Mendelssohn, I did also spend some time adjusting my right elbow height, especially in passages with a lot of string crossings. The intonation challenges mostly came from shifting and keeping pitches consistent in different positions (the two Fs at the beginning of the theme, for instance).

In the video:

  • Hindemith Der Schwanendreher (0:00): My new concerto, updated for the requirements of the Indianapolis audition! I played basically the first two pages, up to rehearsal F, because that's as far as I've gotten when I've played this in auditions before.
  • Mendelssohn Scherzo (3:37): The first page, all under slurs. The first line sounds kind of strange because it's all repeated notes. But MAN does this reveal any little inconsistencies in your left hand.


I loved playing Mendelssohn slurred. I’ve done a lot of different things to that excerpt, but it’s so easy to get caught up in the challenge of the right hand, because you KNOW that, in auditions, the stroke is what they want to hear. So it’s been a long time since I focused so intensely on the actual notes. I knew them, I played them in the right order and generally in tune, and that was basically good enough. But this week forced me to examine only my left hand—and (unsurprisingly!) I found some unevenness, some sloppy shifting, and some uncovered/unprepared fifths that had been hiding in the spaces between spiccato notes. This exercise has definitely earned a spot in the permanent Mendelssohn practice rotation. I can’t wait to get back to playing separate and see how much easier it is to play evenly when my left hand isn’t holding my right hand back.

Also, playing with my backup bow helped remind me how much of what I do works because I’ve improved my technique, not because I’ve bought a better bow. When I worked in a violin shop, I was used to playing multiple different instruments and bows in a day. But since then, I’ve gotten very, very comfortable using only my own instrument and my own bow—which are both very, very nice, if I may say so. Going from my beloved Ouchard (that I scrimped and fought and sacrificed to pay off early) to my $1500 Shar bow was… actually terrifying. It shouldn’t have been, I know. But I’ve worked out my bow distribution and strokes in Beethoven 5 so specifically that, during the concert, I would look ahead and think, Oh crap, that part! Is this going to work? Every time it did, even in spite of the drastically different bow, was a tiny victory.

All these challenges I had finding practice time just make me realize, once again, how little time it actually takes to get something accomplished. When I was in high school, I saw a masterclass with Roberto Diaz. He advised that everyone has time to practice if you just look hard enough. “Even if you only have ten minutes,” he said, “use those ten minutes.” It can be tempting for me to dismiss practicing if I don’t have a full three hours to devote to it, but looking at my practice log, I tend to get things done in 10- to 30-minute chunks. Doing something small really is better than doing nothing.

And finally, neither of these pieces is currently sounding as good as it did even a few months ago. But I had put in the work then, in a different context; this time, for this challenge, I haven’t yet. The best thing I’m finding about this challenge, though, is that I feel like I have time. I have time to dive deep into the minute details, and it doesn’t matter if it’s perfect yet. It just matters that I’m getting better.

See you for week 12!

NY Phil Audition Challenge: Week 14

Until this week, this was my most recent experience with an etude.

Standing in a very early morning lesson, in a studio in one of the world’s ugliest music buildings, with my teacher. I’m in grad school, relearning yet another piece I studied in middle school. It’s Kreutzer 11—an etude my teacher calls “the Diamond Etude,” because, he says, if you play it well, your instrument will ring and shine and sound like diamonds. Apparently, I am not playing it well. My head is cloudy; I’ve been up for hours already, on way too little sleep. My teacher stops me every time he disagrees with my intonation. I start over, over and over again, trying, and constantly failing, to make it sparklier.

The next week, I brought something else.

I have a (possibly unsurprising) confession to make: I haven’t practiced real etudes since I was in school.  I’ve done scales and intervals and shifting exercises and bow exercises, but the prospect of picking out an etude and spending practice time on something akin to repertoire, but which I would never, ever use… Well, I would think about it, think about the many miserable lessons I’d spent slogging through Mazas, Kreutzer, Rode, Campagnoli, about the hundreds of choices contained within those books, and decide that maybe I should just tackle my technical challenges in context.

I know, I know, I’ve probably been shooting myself in the foot.

But you know what? It wasn’t as bad as I remembered. In fact, it felt a lot like working out—that same kind of satisfying, disciplined work that's so easy to forget you can enjoy once you stop doing it.

In case you missed it, these are the week 14 requirements. First three pages of Schradieck, Kreutzer 9, Rode 6, some preliminary spiccato exercises, and the Classical concerto.

Oh, and creating a practice log!

I just took some weekly planner pages and added them to my excerpt binder. I labeled them and dated them (a great way to waste time, by the way). I've never been so diligent about logging my practice time, even though I find it helpful, so I'm going to continue to share my practice logs in the coming weeks. (Eek.)

Practice challenges and strategies:

PSA: the viola edition of Kreutzer on IMSLP has the etudes numbered differently. My physical copy of Kreutzer is buried deep in some pile somewhere, so I practiced the wrong “#9” for a few days, all the while thinking it didn’t seem right. That was dumb, but lesson learned—always double-check that you have the right music, the right excerpt, the right edition, everything, before committing significant practice time to it. However, practicing the one called #9 in that edition (which is actually #10, an arpeggio exercise) was definitely still good for me. It's never bad to practice arpeggios.

I also didn’t practice Dont for the first two days because, honestly, I had to wait for it to be delivered. Somehow I skipped it when I was young and just never studied it, so I never owned a copy (until now). I always felt kind of cool at summer festivals when my friends were stuck in Dont and I was already doing Kreutzer. Currently regretting that superiority. Maybe it's just because it was new to me, but I actually found this more challenging than the Kreutzer.

I didn't spend a ton of time on spiccato, but what I did was efficient. You can see the details of what I did in my practice log, but I did several different rhythms, with the metronome set between 60 and 92.

Overall, I probably devoted the most time and brainpower to Schradieck. It just feels nice to play through—a nice kind of meditative concentration, a little like yoga.

I faced the most common challenge ever this week: I got called last-minute for a gig. So I spent a day driving and sight reading the music of the Supremes, rather than practicing my own stuff as much as I liked. Such is the freelancing life.

I also received my first real audition list for the fall this week! The Indianapolis Symphony has two section positions, with auditions in October. The repertoire list is here, and it includes the Brahms, the Mendelssohn, the Mozart, the Ravel, AND the Strauss that I've chosen for the challenge! So I feel pretty freaking ahead of the game on the excerpts. However, the concerto is an issue—like many viola auditions, they only want one of the major 20th century concertos (Bartok, Hindemith, or Walton), so I may have to ditch Stamitz in favor of one of those.

In the video:

  • Schradieck (0:00): I didn't do this as fast as possible because I feel like that's not really the point. I played all three pages through, but no repeats, because nobody wants to sit and listen to me do that. Doing it without repeats means you have to split the bowing, though, so you can hear I wasn't quite comfortable with my bow distribution at the beginning.
  • Kreutzer (3:59): Also not as fast as humanly possible, but I did play the whole thing.
  • Spiccato (7:35): I decided to give myself a little break from finger-twisty exercises for a minute and do spiccato next. (You'll notice a cut in the video here, but only because I had to stop my cat from ruining something. This was all one take, just cut for the sake of brevity.) I did triplets, 16ths, and sextuplets at 72 and 80 (my target tempo for the Mendelssohn Scherzo).
  • Dont (8:47): I only played up to the first fermata, about half of the etude. I was getting tired and figured anyone watching might be too, but it still gets the point across, I think!
  • Stamitz (10:02): I didn't realize until after I was done that I didn't actually need to record this. Oh well. It was a little fast and the high runs were a little sloppy, and there's another cat-induced cut here. (I think I'll kick her out of the room next week...) But thanks to Indianapolis, this may be the only time I spend with Stamitz anyway. So, bonus, I guess!


I'm now very aware of my fourth finger/wrist relationship. It feels absolutely fine, but the way it works now makes my wrist look very uncomfortable and... wrong. And I've noticed I do tend to work out my fingerings to avoid using fourth finger unless I absolutely have to, which can get over-complicated. I've been experimenting with centering my frame around my fourth finger, but so far, it feels wrong and completely undermines my intonation, especially in first position. So, yeah. That'll take some time.

I'm definitely going to continue using these etudes as part of my practice routine throughout the challenge. And I'd like to do updates where I play them again—let's say around week 10!

See you for week 13!

Nathan Cole's NY Phil audition challenge—on viola!

Summer is a slow season me these days. I've sort of outgrown summer festivals as a student, but I don't have a job with a substantial summer season yet. In mid-June, my Civic Fellowship ended, I ran through a gauntlet of big auditions, then flew to Europe for my first actual vacation in I don't know how long. (My only obligations were nights at the opera and dinners in castles. Thank GOD.) Still, I took my instrument, because as soon as I got back to the States, I had to scramble to Brevard for their 80th anniversary alumni reunion weekend to play two concerts there.

 See the case on my back as I pose by a Roman aqueduct in Spain? Yeah...

See the case on my back as I pose by a Roman aqueduct in Spain? Yeah...

Now, I'm back in Chicago, with nothing substantial on the horizon until September. That's two full months that I could sit back, drink beer and catch up on Game of Thrones. But, let's be honest, if that's all I was doing, it still wouldn't fill the entire two months, and I'm not used to sitting still that long. 

(Not that practicing for a few hours a day would keep me from TV and beer... I've seen season one and season six of GoT and NOTHING IN BETWEEN. But I digress.)

So! I was fascinated with Nathan Cole's New York Phil audition challenge when it began last year. Unfortunately, it was centered entirely around a violin audition—since I'll never take a violin audition (especially for the New York Phil), I reluctantly dismissed it while it was going on and focused on my own challenges, even as it occasionally popped up on my facebook feed. Still, I always thought it could easily translate on viola.

Now, with my completely open schedule, I need something to keep me in shape. This could force me to focus on fundamentals and maybe give me the boost I need to do better on my next round of real auditions. So, now seems like the perfect opportunity to give it a shot!

To preserve the integrity of the original challenge, I will follow each week's instructions/exercises and post a progress video at the end. For reference, this is the original Philharmonic audition packet. Nathan Cole added a few additional etudes and scales on top of the required concerto and six excerpts. I will try to stick as closely to the original list as possible—otherwise his advice, and some of the interim challenges, would be kind of useless.

Here are the original requirements, along with what I've chosen as the viola analogues.

Original Challenge
Viola Version
Schradieck, 1st three pages
Kreutzer Etude No. 9
Dont Op. 35 No. 6
2-octave C major scale in 3rds
Mozart Concerto 3, 4, or 5
first movement exposition
Stamitz Concerto in D Major
first movement exposition
Strauss Don Juan, first page
Schubert Symphony No. 2, I.
Allegro vivace-1 before B
Mozart Symphony No. 35, IV.
mm. 134-181
Brahms Symphony No. 4, III.
mm. 1-63
Debussy La Mer, II.
Ravel Suite from Daphnis et Chloe
Mahler Symphony No. 5, IV.
mm. 2-54
Mahler Symphony No. 10, I.
Schumann Symphony No. 2, Scherzo
mm. 1-54
Mendelssohn Scherzo from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

I think these excerpts generally present the same challenges, and they're all VERY standard, just like the violin excerpts. I still have a week or two before I even touch the excerpts, though, so if there's a better analogue that I've missed, don't hesitate to let me know! I have a feeling I'll reconsider some of these, since I don't know the violin excerpts nearly as well, but we'll see.

Well, that's it! I'll see you for my first progress video, week 14!