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.

Takeaways:

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!