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Coaching an instrumentalist for an orchestra audition

July 9, 2018

In today’s incarnation, “Irving” is a bassoonist rather than a pianist.   He is about to audition for a local orchestra.  The required excerpt for the audition is the opening of the second movement of Scheherazade.

I listened to him play the solo through.   The notes were there, but overall it lacked a sense of the presence in his imagination of the other instruments playing at the same time, and the effect that would have on how he sounded the passage.

He had played the same solo a year or so earlier in an orchestra.  So I asked him “what instruments were accompanying you during the solo?”

He thought about and said “the woodwinds?”

I said, “No, it is actually four solo double basses.”*

He played the solo again, but this time I played on the piano the chords played by the four double basses.  This caused a sudden change in his playing.  One thing that happened was that he fine-tuned both the pitch and the feeling of his notes to better fit in with the chords.  In tonal music, no note has a single, abstract, or ideal pitch.  It varies in small amounts to best fit in with the harmonic context in the form of the chord that is sounding at that moment.  Each chord in turn has a certain feeling, which if recognized and felt fine tunes the timbre or tone quality of the bassoonist’s note.

No longer was his playing an island to itself, it had a broader context.  The trick, I said, is to make these modulations to the sounds even when you are playing by yourself without the other instruments, which can only be heard in your head.  The person auditioning you is listening to see whether this broader musical context shines through the notes that you play.

“How do I do this,” he asked?

Let’s start with knowing when in the solo the chord in the basses changes.  He didn’t know.  I said: let’s play through it again, this time listening specifically for the changes in the chords.  It shouldn’t be too difficult to do because, based on how he had played the passage when I played the chords at the piano, he was already subconsciously responding to them.

Next I asked him if the first chord in the basses seemed to last a surprisingly long time before changing.  If so, what beneficial effect did that harmonic inflexibility have on the effect of the solo?  He said that it made the bassoon solo seem more “frozen and static.”  I agreed.

Was he, I asked, aware that this first chord contained only root notes and fifths and lacked the third of the chord, the note that which would determine whether the chord was a major chord or minor chord.   It was incumbent on the bassoonist to make that choice clear to the listener, and to be especially aware of when the bassoon made up for the deficit of the third by momentarily playing the third himself.

Later in the session I wanted to demonstrate, in a more general way, how the ‘color’ of a note depends on the chord to which it belongs.  And how this color could change, depending on whether he was playing the root, third, fifth or seventh of the chord.

I had him hold a single note for as long as he could, while I surrounded his chord with first one chord then another.  I started with the three major chords and the three minor chords that contained the note he was holding.  Then I went on to seven-chords that contained his note.  Then I gradually shifted to chords that didn’t contain his note, which therefore caused his note to be dissonant – but always dissonant in a specific enough way to create a definite and peculiar color to the dissonance.

Though he held the bassoon’s pitch relatively constant, he instinctively changed the timbre and the intonation to reflect the way his note fit (or did not fit) in the chord.

* albeit an odd orchestration, but an inspired choice given the shape and mood of the solo.

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