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...