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1. Performance Standards: How "good" is "good enough?"
Throughout my teaching career, I have encouraged students (and colleagues) to ever strive for higher standards of performance. I speak a bit about this subject in my article, Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution. However, the subject of standards of performance recently came up on the trombone-l newsgroup on the internet and I contributed a brief comment about my observations about trends I had noticed among some students.
A trombone major at an American University responded to my posting asking for clarification which I happily gave him. Because it so succinctly sums up my philosophy about performance standards and "how good is good enough," I am duplicating my original post, the student's response and my clarification below. I have deleted the student's name and his University affiliation to protect his privacy, and I am happy to report we have had an active and productive email correspondence on many musical subjects, and he has a much better understanding of how important it is to have high standards of performance when studying to become a professional musician.
Another subject for another time is the fact that many students have pathetically low standards and have no idea what "good" is. We are deep into a sense of "false self-esteem" in all aspects of academia, from kindergarten through grad school. True self-esteem is brought about by the satisfaction that comes from a job well done, not from simply doing it.
While the University of Chicago elementary school math curriculum may allow 2+2=5 as long as you feel good about the process you used to get the answer, when it comes to trombone, bad is just bad. And there ought not to be surprise when the job doesn't come one's way. Those who know what "good" really is are few and far between, but as a teacher, I can tell when a student walks in the room and is serious. Alas, it's all too rare, but when it happens, it's electrifying and he'll get the very best I can offer.
I require my bass trombone students who work on vocal pieces (such as Mozart Requiem, Beethoven 9, Haydn Creation ) to write the words under the notes in their part so they can learn to phrase properly (and know when they are playing or singing bass). Incredibly, many return the next week with a host of lame excuses (the most unforgivable is "I couldn't find the score." Right.) Sometimes they ask me for my scores and I have to wonder, "Where is the interest, the curiosity, the commitment?" When I was in school and couldn't afford music, I went to the library and HAND COPIED parts myself. And it was a good exercise that taught me a lot. I didn't make excuses, cry poor-mouth (that's what libraries are for) and belly-ache up the kazoo. In the long run unmotivated students who simply "dig the trombone" rather than "love music" lose out and go nowhere because they simply don't care.
If you need your teacher to get you motivated, if you don't seek out books and scores and study because you WANT to, if you don't go to concerts of music you've never heard then I suggest you set your sights lower (certainly not at an orchestra career) or make your horn into a lamp (if you do it right, it makes a nice ice tea holder). EVERYONE has the time (and money - when I say "I can't afford to buy XXX" it simply means I choose to spend my money on something else) for what is important to them; it's just a matter of how you allocate your resources. In my experience, a student that isn't sufficiently self-motivated in college will rarely become highly motivated outside of the academic situation. I can't MAKE a student get excited. And I wouldn't want to. If it's not on the inside, it won't show on the outside.
Dear Mr. Yeo,
As a student who takes 20 credit hours a semester, and pays his own way through a university, I must take exception to a couple of your comments. I agree that libraries are a wonderful place to obtain materials, but I can not let you get away with infering that all players who claim they can't afford something, really can. I pay my own way through school, and am forced to use less than standard equipment because of the high cost that quality commands.
I must also remind you that your comments do not apply to all trombone players. While I do seek a level of maturity on my horn, becoming a virtuoso is not my highest priority in college. I must place other classes in front of my lessons, mainly because I will use the information gained in them more often. As a future educator, I fear your attitude.
I have nothing but admiration for the devotion that it must have taken you to get your chair, however applying your own goals and standards to other students is always a dangerous operation. In many community college and high school settings it is hard to keep all the trombone spots filled. Is it more important to encourage people to love music, or to only produce the virtuostic playing? I feel that there must be a balance.
The last thing is, of course, I waste time. I talk to friends, read email, drink beer on weekends and love my time spent with my girl friend. I feel that because I am a well rounded human, I am a better player. If life doesn't begin and end at the horn, then I find myself able to accept minor set-backs with a much better attitude than if all day every day is music.
Please do not take offense at the contents of this letter, it is of course only my (admittedly uneducated) opinion. If you would like, I would enjoy continuing this converstion at your leisure as I feel that you have touched on many of the key controversies in music education today.
Dear "John Doe,"
Thank you for your message. I'm certainly happy to correspond with you about this because I believe you have seriously misunderstood several of my points.
Let's look first of all at the issue of libraries and money. Libraries are places where anyone can obtain virtually anything for free. We both agree with that. However my assertion that anyone can afford anything they want is absolutely true.
When I was in college I didn't have two nickels to rub together. I worked three jobs while going to school full time. I worked so hard I came out with no debt. I went through college in three years (including two summers) and took 20-24 credit hours each quarter. But even though I had virtually no money, I made choices. I chose to go hear the Chicago Symphony regularly. I chose to purchase records and scores. I chose not to spend money going to the movies. I chose not to have a high long distance phone bill.
I wanted to buy a new horn a few months ago but didn't have the money to do so. Actually, that isn't true - of course I have money I could use for the horn, but I choose to put money aside for my children's college education instead. So for me to say I "can't afford" the horn is not true, rather I have chosen not to be able to afford it.
You choose to drink beer on the weekends. That's your choice. But if you were to say that you can't afford to buy a score of the Mozart Requiem, that would not be true - it simply is that you have allocated your resources in a way that you choose to do something else instead. Paying for beer is a higher priority than something else. You choose to go to the college you currently attend while there are certainly colleges that are less expensive. You have weighed the advantages of having more disposable income vs. the quality of education you want and you have chosen to go where you are. But that is a choice, and had you chosen differently, you could do different things. Except for the truly impoverished who struggle to have shelter and food, everyone makes lifestyle choices that allow them to afford the things they consider most important. This is an undeniable fact of life.
This is not a bad thing - but it is a choice. And when we make free-will choices, we cannot be victims of those choices.
My comments on preparing for a music career are primarily directed towards those who aspire to full time orchestra careers, and you are right that my comments do not apply to all trombonists. The goal of an orchestral career requires a singlemindedness of purpose that is all too rare. What students who wish to get in orchestras need to do is understand the standards.
Suppose I am retiring from the Boston Symphony. Players from all around the world come to audition for that seat. Who is the competition? The other players at the audition? No. I, Doug Yeo, am the competition. I have set the standard by performing in the orchestra for years. The audition committee will only choose someone who is as good or better than me. They will choose no one rather than choose someone who does not meet their standard. You may think this is wrong and this is not fair. But it doesn't matter what you think - that is the system, and that is how orchestras stay great. You just have to work within the system and play the game. I know this to be a fact because I have sat on dozens of audition committees and have also played 10 auditions myself in my life. I've seen it from both sides and I know this to be true.
This means that when a student who wants to do what I'm doing walks into my studio, he must set his sights on MY level of ability. It will not be enough for him to be as "good as he can be" or "better than everyone else at school" or even "the best player at the audition." He must be as good or better than the standard in the mind of any audition committee member.
This is a harsh, cruel reality, but it is reality nonetheless. You say it is a "dangerous operation" to apply my goals and standards to others. Well, "John Doe," if students don't apply those standards and they want the best orchestral job, they will not get it. They will be living in a fantasy world where "good enough" is not very good. My most successful students have recognized this and have ended up with jobs in major orchestras. Very few people have this kind of drive and discipline, but I think it is not just a matter of talent. Rather, people choose what their goals are and then act upon them.
You have seriously misunderstood my comments if you think I "only produce virtuosic playing." On the contrary, my approach to teaching is the complete opposite. I am not interested in turning out students who are great trombonists - I want them to be great musicians who happen to play trombone. I have said this for years, and I say it in my web site article Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution (you should read it if you haven't, it would likely give you a little more perspective on my views). This is why I encourage students to get out of the practice room and study music, to go to concerts, to play chamber music, to experience life, to see the Grand Canyon. Too many students believe that all they need to do is sit in the practice room 6 hours a day and a job will come their way. No way! Because when it comes down to two players at an audition, the comittee will always take the more "interesting" player and your playing will only be interesting if you have life experience to bring to it. This is the gospel I preach in my teaching.
You may well be a well rounded human, as you say, and that is to be commended. The level of discipline you have set for yourself on the trombone will carry you to a certain point and you may well be perfectly satisfied with that point. And that is FINE! But my deep concern after over 20 years of teaching is that many young players feel that a minimal level of commitment and dedication will automatically result in the highest paying, best quality job. That is naive and uninformed it is also untrue.
Now, if players want to be amateurs, or entry level freelancers, I do not apply that same high standard to them. This is why the first question I ask a student is "what do you want to do?" If they say they want to get as good as they can, do a little freelancing and maybe play in a quintet that does gigs now and then, I apply a totally different standard with that kind of student than I would with a student who said, "I want to play in the Boston Symphony." Neither choice is better or more virtuous than another.
I have two daughters who love to play their instruments (trumpet and bass trombone). They are both music majors in college (bass trombone and trumpet). These are their decisions, not mine. Through their lives as I have worked with them, I have tried to reach them at their level while helping them to challenge themselves to improve and move to the next level. As a teacher, I have a responsiblity to help a student where they are and I have a reputation as being an extremely encouraging teacher who works with his students in ways that help nurture them toward their goal.
Music is my vocation - it is also my hobby. I also do many other things with my life - I am an avid cyclist, I enjoy time on the computer, I write dozens of articles a year, I am active in my church, I do things with my family regularly. My life is extremely well balanced and I encourage others to do the same. I do not practice the horn 5 hours a day. But at the time in my life when I was actively pursuing an orchestral position, my life was not so balanced because I realized that I needed to make major sacrifices in order to attain my goal. I knew that after I attained it, I would then have the opportunity to do things I never dreamed of. Getting in the Boston Symphony has meant making music at a wonderfully high level with the greatest conductors and soloists of the world, a great paycheck, opportunities to see the world, recordings, TV, you name it. When I was a student, I denied myself many of the things my peers were doing in order to devote myself to the study of music. It was difficult to say "no" to them sometimes when I really wanted to do something with them, but I had to balance my goals with the time I had. Obviously it paid off for me, and many of them have spoken to me over the years, lamenting the fact that they did not exercise more discipline at an important time in their lives. They have regrets.
Remember the story of the Little Red Hen?
So, "John Doe," without even knowing you, I have given you a snapshot into a deeper level of my musical philosophy. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion as to what student should do or feel able to do. But your youth and inexperience (you called yourself uneducated - I wouldn't say that) have perhaps caused you to look at my words and view them as too harsh. I don't believe so, because I know from experience that they are true and have worked with many, many students.
I've been doing this for a very long time. When students come into my studio, I ask them to trust me. I ask them to trust that I know a few things about the job market, about playing the trombone, about balancing a life, about allocating resources. My students know that I often give them mutes, recordings, free tickets to concerts. I care deeply about my students. I nurture them as best I can as if they were my own children.
Be gentle, "John Doe." What I've been talking about is based on my own real life experience, but if I was unclear in my original post, I apologize. You have no need to fear my attitude. But you might want to take a look at your own time allocations and priorities.
We can keep this going if you wish; I hope it's been helpful or at least a little enlightening.
College auditions are difficult situations. In most cases, players are allotted about 10-15 minutes to play. Not much time. Most schools ask for two contrasting solos plus a selection of excerpts, either specified or unspecified.
When you have the choice, you have to keep in mind that 10-15 minutes isn't very long. You choose. The committee will usually ask "what would you like to play?" At that point, start with the thing you want most for them to hear, or TELL THEM at the beginning that you have two things you want to play - and then play some excerpts of each.
Committees often don't have to hear much to know how a person plays, that is the cruel reality of auditions. After 2 notes, much can be learned. After 1 minute things are usually clearly in focus, after 5 minutes you have a definite idea. If a player chooses to play a Kopprasch etude first and doesn't cut it, it doesn't matter if his second selection, a Rochut, happens to be better. Players need to play well in all styles. Remember - YOU HAD THE CHOICE - so presumably you chose things that showed you at your best. The audition committee isn't going to trick you - they WANT you to play your best.
Having said this, can I offer a few thoughts on what I heard in the last few weeks of hearing auditions?
In a nutshell, I was impressed with the high level of mediocrity at ALL LEVELS of auditions I heard. I heard so much truly abysmal playing that at times I wondered if there was anyone "out there" who could play!
And I know my experience is not isolated - many colleagues hearing auditions around the country and at other schools have reported the same thing to me this winter - that there is an incredible lack of excellent playing going on at many auditions today.
When I say abysmal playing, I mean:
Now, these are the basics, the fundamentals. If a player has these problems, they are usually evident after 2 notes, and the entire audition can be a painful thing for those of us listening.
In the case of Tanglewood auditions, we were hearing arguably the top level of college and post college players auditioning for a top summer program (Tanglewood is 8 weeks long, fully paid [tuition, room and board] and the opportunity to play under Claudio Abbado, Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, James Conlon and others, masterclasses with Boston Sym players, etc. Repertoire for this summer includes Bartok - Miraculous Mandarin [complete] and Berg - Wozzeck [excerpts]).
But it was not easy coming up with 6 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 tenor trombones a bass trombone and tuba. We did hear some excellent players, for sure, and have built a fine section, but despite almost 200 players auditioning, we heard simply AWFUL playing most of the time.
The most disturbing aspect of this trend is that so many people who played poorly looked like they were completely pleased with themselves and didn't seem to have a clue that they were wasting our time and their time and that they had some SERIOUS remedial work to do before thinking about taking an audition.
Can I pose a theory?
It is simply clear that many people have absolutely no idea what the "standard" is for a given performing situation. If you play in a junior high band and want to be first chair, there is one standard. If you play in a community orchestra, there is another standard. If you want to get into Juilliard, there is another standard. If you want to get into Tanglewood there is another standard. If you want to get into the Chicago Symphony, there is still another standard. You cannot audition for a particular kind of ensemble without knowing what the standard is.
But what is so shocking to me in light of what I've recently been through with auditions is that so many people seem to actually THINK they ARE playing up to the standard when they are really so very far away.
Here's something to think about:
Could we be reaping the negative consequences of a generation that has grown up as recepients of the "self-esteem movement?" A movement that has told children from a young age that "you're special," and "you're doing great!" and "that's terrific," regardless of whether they actually DO something great at all? Could it be that so many people have, for so long, been pumped up by well meaning teachers who have been telling them that simply DOING something is worthy of high praise rather than praising them for DOING IT WELL? Are we seeing the results of sport teams that don't keep score, concert programs that always list players in alphabetical order (so as not to discourage players who don't make "first chair"), and teachers who write embarassing recommendations that state that, "Johnny is the best student I've ever heard on the trombone," when in reality he can't play "Come to Jesus" in whole notes?
I pose the questions because I believe to ask them is to answer them.
And, to go back to the original question, "What are audition judges thinking about?" the answer is simply this:
Before the audition, I am ALWAYS thinking, "Wow, perhaps this candidate will play great."
During the audition, I OFTEN am thinking, "Wow, this player really doesn't have a clue." I am SOMETIMES thinking, "Wow, this player is really doing something special."
Do something special and you ARE special. But wishful thinking doesn't make something that is poor into something great.
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