Orchestra Season Roundup: Calgary Philharmonic

After a long blogging silence, I’ve been roused from my slumber by a pandemic. COVID-19 has shut down basically everything. Since I most likely don’t have another gig to play until December, I feel the need to do something orchestral. So I’m going to critique next year’s season announcements in hopes of having some fun and maybe even not rendering myself totally unemployable as a bassoonist in the process. First up: my hometown heroes, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Continue reading


So long, KWS, for now

This afternoon I played a short concert for visiting elementary students at Centre in the Square featuring a slew of fun selections from The Planets, Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony and The Rite of Spring. Afterwards I gave a talk to a group of visiting students from out of town, and then I packed up and headed home. It’s only hitting me now that I have no idea when I might next play on that stage.

This season’s KWS performances have come to an end and I have a couple weeks of freelance work with other orchestras in the area. I’m on a leave of absence from the KWS next season and moving to Regina, where I’m hoping to pick up a little bit of freelance work and pursue some other creative projects TBA.

I’m looking forward to returning to Waterloo, Cambridge and Guelph this coming November in my first appearance as a soloist on a KWS subscription concert. Curated by my wonderful, musical, and wise colleague Faith Levene, the program is called “Please sir, I want seconds!” and features concerti performed by four second-chair players in the orchestra, including the Vivaldi E Minor by moi. (Other soloists are Kaili Maimets, flute, Rachel Thomas, trombone, and Jody Davenport, viola.)

It’s my first time playing a concerto with orchestra since doing the complete Mozart with Red Deer in 2010, and on that occasion I had less than a week’s notice, whereas this time I have months to prepare. Should be fun!

And beyond that… the future is a big question mark. Stay tuned =)

Full tilt

The KWS is back in action. We’re just wrapping up our second week back at work, three shows a week (plus rehearsals, thankfully!) continuing through next week. I’m playing most of what we’ve done so far for the first time. I’m making more reeds than I’ve ever made before and shockingly few of them work, but those that do work better than ever. I’m taking lessons again. I’m entertaining notions of further academic study of music, something I previously swore I’d never consider.

Things are chaotic, thrilling, full of potential.

Thoughts from the other side of the screen

This season I’ve sat on two audition committees for the KWS. These auditions were my first time on “the other side of the screen” in a professional context, and the contrast between the two sides couldn’t be any more surreal. On one side sits a musician who has just heard the same four snippets of music played repeatedly by different players for an hour. The process on this side is remarkably repetitive. On the other side is a musician who has prepared for weeks or months for this moment. They have been warming up and waiting for hours and will be granted probably less than five minutes in which to persuade the committee they possess the musical skills needed in a modern orchestra. They must do this under extreme psychological pressure. It’s hard to reconcile the almost bureaucratic feeling of the committee with the fear and tension I can remember from the other side from when I came here to be judged by the people who are now my colleagues.

It’s cruel that only one person can win when you hear so many examples of excellent playing over the course of an audition. It’s also tough that you hear a lot of people who don’t seem to measure up to the best candidates, but who play some things extremely well – well enough that you start to wonder if the playing issues you’re hearing are just attributable to an “off day.” I wonder sometimes if I’ve voted down someone who’s actually a better player than I am. At Indiana, Mr. Ludwig used to remind the bassoon studio when orchestra placements were assigned that an audition is not a reflection of your worth as a musician, but a snapshot of your musical abilities [and sometimes the tastes of the panel] at a particular moment in time.

When I was a student I used to talk about “the committee” like it was a single hive-mind entity, and I understand now having seen the process up close that this is far from the truth. In both auditions I sat on this year I was struck not only by the number of cases in which the committee and I advanced exactly the same candidates, but also the cases in which the committee’s will differed totally from my own. Keep this in mind when reflecting on the audition results – they aren’t a unanimous ruling on the quality of candidates. Failing to advance does not necessarily mean that you failed to impress someone on the other side of the screen – you could absolutely blow the socks of four members of the committee and fail to advance if five are a little uncertain about you for whatever reason.

It gets said a lot that an audition has to be note perfect and that’s nonsense, not least because true musical perfection would be physically impossible. When I auditioned for the principal chair in Calgary, their second bassoon, Michael Hope, said something to me to the effect of “you made some mistakes, but what we were looking for was someone so musical that we wouldn’t care about mistakes.” I suspect this is the case in most auditions and anecdotes abound of players winning truly elite jobs despite some extremely blatant and painful mistakes in their audition. In an audition, you hear the mistakes and slip-ups, but IMHO it’s pretty obvious when you hear these errors whether or not they truly reflect the candidate’s musicianship and preparation level. If someone demonstrates both a great command of their instrument and musical sensitivity to the context of the excerpt they’re playing, the little mistakes don’t get in the way of the listener’s enjoyment. (For the record I’ve messed up something significant in the final round of every audition I’ve won!)

To wrap up, a quick word on “no-hire” auditions. As I have mentioned above, the committee is not a unified entity, and an audition that does not result in a candidate being hired may just reflect a lack of agreement on the committee. That being said, the number of vacancies that aren’t being filled in spite of huge numbers of extremely qualified applicants is becoming a concern, and has very little justification. The situation can easily be fixed by structuring the audition process, as defined by the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement, such that a winner has to be chosen. Until a greater number of orchestras embrace this change, nohireauditions.com will remain necessary. Read their calculations of the man-hours – sorry, man-years – of productivity wasted by no-hire auditions. Eye-opening stuff.

Make reeds erryday

Everything I know about reed making I learned the hard way.

The hard way takes a very long time and involves a lot of failure. Failure is part of life, and in a very big way it’s part of being a musician. Part of what makes a great musician is an enlightened response to failure. Learn to live with and love failure, because reed making is one area where even at the peak of our careers we repeatedly encounter failure as we throw out reeds that fail to attain the standards we expect.

Reeds are a numbers game. The solution to most reed making issues is to make a lot of them. The primary factor in how well a reed turns out will be the inherent quality of the cane, which will vary significantly from piece to piece. If you don’t have access to specialized measuring equipment, your best bet is to produce a huge batch of reeds. After the initial cut and scrape, it should be fairly obvious which reeds possess the qualities you’re looking for.

Bad reeds reveal themselves early in the testing. Throw them out. You’ll quickly get to know them. Their crow is weak and lacks a strong fundamental. The tone is muffled, yet hard to control in quiet dynamics, and collapses when pushed beyond mp. High notes refuse to work until the joint health and safety committee has cleared them for duty. Scraping to correct these problems may initially yield promising results, but over just a couple minutes of playing, everything reverts back to its problematic former self. Do not waste your efforts trying to save these reeds. They are beyond your ability to help.

You can boost your output of good reeds relative to bad ones by improving your cane selection process by measuring various physical qualities. A hardness tester just by itself helps a great deal with cane selection by quickly identifying unsuitable pieces. Michigan reed guru Jim Poe tests every piece of cane with a flexibility tester as well as a hardness tester; Cleveland Orchestra bassoonist Barrick Stees augments the hardness measurement with a density testing apparatus. Both approaches acknowledge that while hardness testing alone can eliminate most of the reeds that definitely won’t work, some of the ones that make it through will still lack some other essential quality needed to perform on the job.

The main thing, though, is just keep making reeds, regularly. Set aside some time for it every day. Steadily working at it in manageable chunks of time is all it takes to keep you out of trouble when things get busy further down the line.

Finally, a positive attitude at the reed desk helps. I’m trying to fix a broken relationship with my reed making – I brought so much negativity into that part of my work that I started unconsciously avoiding making reeds, which creates problems in a busy orchestra season! Do whatever works for you – I have friends who make a point of listening to great music at the reed desk, and I’ve actually been working with a heart rate variability monitor while I work on reeds to see if I can maintain  calm and focussed state of mind. So far, broadly speaking, the answer is no, I can’t, but I’m improving slowly!


I always figured I was going to be a highly accomplished expert on all things classical music by the time I won a job. Nope. I was glowing neon green when I won the KWS job. I’d never faced the churn of a full-time orchestra schedule, where we often go through two or even three programs in a week I needed a plan.

I’ll explain the plan, but first some orchestral philosophy – it’s generally understood that a new orchestra member is going to take some time to settle in to their new role, but this mostly covers finer points of style. As a “new guy” you’re still expected to know the core repertoire. If you don’t have experience, you have to fake it. There’s a methodical way of doing this.

[edit: The process I describe here happens independently of practicing the part. This is all about getting the score into your head. Don’t forget that it’s also your job to get the part under your fingers.]

Your prep is both a short- and long-term game. You have to be familiar with the music that’s on the stand at tomorrow’s rehearsal, but on a broader level you want to always be looking at what’s coming down the pipeline. If you have “quiet time” in your schedule, use it to get ahead – even stuff you’re not playing until months from now can be worked into your long-term memory now to give you a leg up later.

When you’re planning your preparation, use common sense and draw on your experience to judge which programs need more or less work. Pops arrangements frequently differ from their source material, so listen to recordings to get a general sense of style, but don’t expect the instrumentation or even the number of bars to be anything like what’s in your part. Works you’ve played before will take much less prep than unfamiliar ones. An early Mozart symphony, or even a whole concert of them, will take much less time to prepare for than a first encounter with a late-romantic monster like Ein Heldenleben or Mahler 9.

Your first step is to gather materials – get the score, part and recording(s) if possible. Many scores in the public domain can be found in digital form at IMSLP, or in hardcopy form at your local library (university libraries tend to have a better inventory of scores than private ones). Get a nice, big, full-sized score that’s easy to read if you can. For recordings, your local library is again an excellent resource, iTunes has a good library of reasonably-priced recordings, and YouTube sometimes has a pleasantly surprising selection of performances depending on what you’re looking for.

A note on recordings – try to find at least three, with different conductors. There are a variety of standard tempi for every piece, and the more different interpretations you’ve heard, the less likely it is that your conductor will catch you off guard with a passage much faster or slower than you were prepared to play it. Since I’m writing mainly with a North American audience in mind, in an ideal situation, at least three of the recordings you listen to would be recent, recorded live, and played by highly regarded North American orchestras. There is a distinct American school of musicianship, which prominently influences most of Canada’s orchestras as well, that emphasizes rhythm, intonation, and evenness of sound. I don’t say this to demean orchestras elsewhere, as it is a common criticism of the American school that its emphasis on fundamentals sometimes comes at the expense of expressiveness and musicality. But strictly as a matter of professional preparation, listening to relatively local recordings makes sense.

Get as organized as you want or need to be. I keep a spreadsheet, and record how many times I’ve gone through each piece with the part and with the score, because crossing things off lists is really satisfying to me. I also split the pieces up on the spreadsheet into movements, because listening to a single movement of Mahler 3 is a much more easy and manageable task than taking 100 minutes to hear the whole thing. That’s what I do, you do what works for you.

On the “first pass” through the piece, assuming I have both the score and part, I skim through the score, following just your own musical line. Even if you’re inexperienced at reading scores, it’s easy just by glancing at a page to judge the relative level of musical activity. Whenever the level of activity drops significantly and your part is still playing, take a closer look and judge whether the moment is exposed, based on who else is playing and the dynamic level (this will get easier with experience). If that passage is exposed, make a note in your part. If you have a solo or a soli with another instrument, mark that in your part if it isn’t marked there already. Analyze the chords in the exposed passage and mark the adjustments you’ll need to make to create just intervals.

As you’re going through the piece and analyzing it, you’ll get a sense of the difficult spots. Make note of them and start practicing them right away.

Then you’re on to listening. For me, I know I’ll be totally confident at the first rehearsal if I’ve listened to a piece three times while following with the score, and three times while looking at the part. Nine times out of ten, if the score isn’t available, just the three times with the part will be enough. Three times means three times successfully following the music with the score/part – if you go through a complicated passage and lose your place and think WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?”, go back and figure it out. Do whatever it takes to understand the passage where you had the problem, because if you don’t, there’s a good chance it’ll throw you off in rehearsal as well.

As you become familiar with the music, you’ll notice passages where you have an important role that may have been missed on the first skim through the score. Keep making helpful notes to yourself as you go. [edit: Don’t be afraid to change your earlier markings. As you study the piece, you will gain insight and understanding that will allow you to make more mature musical decisions than you were able to make when you first encountered the piece.]

We don’t always have a huge amount of time on our hands to do things like listen to every piece we’re performing six times. Sometimes you have to do a certain amount of triage, and focus your energy towards preparing for particular things. Do what you have to do – the procedure above is one for when you have enough time to do something thoroughly and properly. At the end of it, assuming you’re also practicing in a disciplined and intelligent manner, you’ll be able to walk into the first rehearsal with confidence. You won’t necessarily play the piece better than your colleagues who have done it many times in their decades as professional musicians, but you’ll know the music well enough that you can relax a little and open your ears to the unique style and flair that your colleagues bring to the score. You’ll be able to fake being an experienced pro – and once you do that enough times, you become an experienced pro and you can write a blog about it.

Tour Recap part 1

KWS just got back from a quick tour – the last time this orchestra went out on the road was about 20 years ago. Small/midsize orchestras like us don’t get a lot of chances to tour, which is too bad, because tours really bring groups together and build a sense of unity. Lots of folks were reporting the same sort of experience – “I’ve never really spoken to [musician] because [reasons], but we were at this party last night and started talking and it turns out we have a lot of common ground.” Cool stuff.

But there’s also a plus to not touring all the time. The big prestigious orchestras can easily spend a month or more on tour every year. Sounds like a blast to a rookie 20-something like me, but it’s hard on people who have families to be away from.

Anyways. Left KW at 9:30 AM – pleasant to go to work in the morning and not have to immediately summon the focus for rehearsing. Busses were designated “quiet” and “party” – both were pretty sedate on the trip out. Jim has a custom card table the width of a bus aisle that rests on armrests, and spirited games carried on throughout the tour.

All you can really tell about Perth from the map is that it’s small. I didn’t have high expectations going in, but I’d gladly go back there to visit. It’s strikingly beautiful, very calm, and has no shortage of delicious food. As an Alberta boy it’s still weird for me to see a small town of this size with so many wonderful old stone buildings proclaiming a history dating back to before confederation. Many stonemasons from Scotland apparently settled in Perth after emigrating to Canada, and the names of many of the businesses and buildings about town reflect this past. Speaking of history, Perth was the site of the last fatal duel in Upper Canada!

We had a quick soundcheck (20 minutes) at Perth Collegiate’s Mason Theatre – full rehearsals on tour are rare, but we have a provision in our collective agreement for short acoustical tests which serve a twofold purpose. They give the players a sense of how sound behaves in the concert hall, allowing us to adjust how we’re playing so that the audience gets a performance that sounds closer to what we sound like at home at Centre in the Square. They also allow the orchestra to go over some starts, stops and transitions – this was all music the orchestra knows well and has performed recently, but a quick refresher on how we’re approaching the piece this week never hurts.

The audience was incredibly appreciative and supportive. The show ended with our host thanking the people of Kitchener-Waterloo for preserving and nurturing this cultural treasure. Big thanks are also owed to the people of Perth for inviting us, and to the anonymous donor who made the trip possible.

Get better. Practice less.*

*Some restrictions apply

I took some arts administration courses while I was studying at Indiana University, thinking that it might open up some interesting possibilities for future work, or at least give me a greater sense of perspective on the business of classical music. I wasn’t expecting bassoon advice when I signed up for a course taught by Michael Rushton, and I’m sure he similarly didn’t expect to be offering any advice on music performance. One of the key themes of that course was the law of diminishing returns, and two years later it would save me when I had an audition to prepare, but not the time or energy to properly do so. I got the job. Here’s how.

So first off, the law is pretty much what it sounds like. As you invest more resources (time, money, etc.) in a given task, the return you get on your investment decreases. The law doesn’t work for all things but it applies in a big way to practicing. Someone who doesn’t practice is probably not going to sound great. If they spend an hour a day practicing, there’s going to be a huge difference in their musical abilities compared to the non-practicer. If they practice two hours every day, there will be a noticeably higher degree of refinement in their playing, but productivity is going to decline somewhat in the second hour as the mind tires. Three hours a day will yield an audible difference once more, but a more subtle one.

From three hours up, an untrained listener will perceive very little difference in performance from the harder and harder working musician, but negative influences begin to intrude as practice time increases. As daily practice loads reach and exceed six hours, risks of physical and psychological injury become significant. Eventually you get to a point of counter-productivity, where you’re becoming worse with every added minute of practice.

There comes a point where a rational person declines to practice any further, and instead devotes their time to other activities. During my undergrad years I wasn’t a rational person and practiced as much as physically possible. It was a dumb way of doing things and I wasted a lot of time while constantly living at the physical and mental breaking point. I got a little less dumb in grad school.

When I was preparing the KWS audition, I didn’t have a lot of energy to spare. I was facing the stress of a very low-income existence in an expensive city, and I was deeply depressed and burned out. I kept falling short on my practice goals until I finally accepted that two hours a day was the realistic limit for my playing, at least while I was working full-time at a coffee shop.

The time limit made audition prep an exercise in extreme efficiency. A vast amount of mental focus had to go into every note, since there was no time for excessive repetition to build the correct neural pathways. I was forced to jump more frequently between excerpts, in order to cover the complete list every two or three days, and the jumping taught me to quickly “change character” between excerpts, just as I’d have to do in the audition.

I used some of my time that was freed up by me practicing less to plan out practice sessions in detail so I would be free to get straight to work during the sessions themselves. After every session I would take notes on my practice and check if I met my objectives – if not, I’d make changes to the plan for my next session until I found a process that worked. One of the most important implications of the law of diminishing returns is that if you put resources into something you aren’t already putting resources into, you’re going to get more bang for your buck than if you put the same resources into more of what you’re already doing. By taking a half hour a week I was using for practice and using it to planning, I got to the point where I was accomplishing in two hours of playing what used to take me four.

I put some more of the time I used to spend practicing into score study, listening and generally forming ideas about how the excerpts should sound without the bassoon in my hands. This completely changed my confidence in presenting the excerpts – since auditions are alien and freakish experiences unrelated to normal music making, I like to imagine a ghost orchestra around me playing along with the excerpt so I don’t feel so alone on the stage. The more detail I could put into my mental picture of the accompaniment, the easier it was to make music in the audition room, instead of just playing  bassoon by myself behind a screen wondering when the panel would put me out of my misery and send me out to drown my sorrows at the pub next door.

As I started to really learn the excerpts as pieces of music away from the bassoon, something truly frightening happened: I started having my own opinions about things, about how the excerpts should be played, and those opinions were formed from my years of experience with music rather than by what famous bassoonist X said in a masterclass one time. Then it hit me that the panel wasn’t looking to hire someone terrified of disappointing their teachers by using the wrong amount of vibrato in Bolero, they wanted to hire a musician who was not just flexible and competent, but who would play music, not just excerpts, without having to be told to do so.

Anyways, to make a long story short, if you’re not where you want to be, and you think the answer might be to do what you’re already doing, but more of it, maybe consider attacking the problem from other angles. When you come at an issue from more than one direction, you’re literally building stronger physical connections in your brain. You are building a better brain for yourself. How cool is that?!?


Reach out and touch someone

The KW Symphony just wrapped up our second stretch of outreach concerts in the community. We did seven shows in eight days at venues all over the city and at all times of the day. We played entirely in spaces that were not designed with an orchestra in mind – this presented some logistical challenges but also made for some highly pleasant surprises. The meeting room at Google’s Kitchener HQ had remarkably good acoustics, and there’s a visually and sonically gorgeous theatre at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo that I’d love to play a recital in.

Outreach is a ridiculously broad term that encompasses a variety of activities, but the basic principle is using the orchestra to engage with people in a positive way outside of the concert hall. It’s a bit of raising awareness of who we are and what we do, a bit of bringing music to people who can’t necessarily come to us, and a bit of just going out and giving music to the community because that’s what we should be doing. It’s a tricky thing to do well, because “the community” isn’t a homogenous entity but a crazily diverse body of people with vastly different needs and expectations. Our assistant conductor, Daniel Bartholemew-Poyser, really takes ownership of this problem and adjusts the programming and his speaking to reach whatever group we’re performing for. He also sings “Bad Romance” in front of an audience remarkably well. His presence on the podium makes these shows a great deal of fun.

A major quirk of the past week’s outreach effort is that I wasn’t scheduled to play anything that Dan was conducting – my contribution was limited to two movements of chamber music. Not that I’m complaining! Chamber music can be a very playful and joyous experience – you get to really react and respond to the musical gestures your colleagues make, and contribute your own musical ideas that a sensitive colleague will then absorb and spin out in their next phrase. The piece as a whole might be thoroughly rehearsed, but that kind of fine musical interaction is a totally live and spontaneous musical experience. You swing back and forth between being a leader and a follower and mentally engage with what you’re doing at a higher level. It’s a full-brain workout and it feels great.

Outreach being concluded, we’re moving on to our Yuletide Spectacular. Very few tickets left for all four of these shows, and a packed house brings a really wonderful energy to a performance.

Soon to come at mikeybassoon – more shop talk! I’m in the process of getting together some thoughts on everyone’s favourite thing, auditions! More to come…

A sort of stable chaos

A respectable blanket of snow has arrived. The abrupt shifts in weather mirror the entropy of the symphony season. Conductors, concert programs and venues fly by – we ended October with an “outreach week” that saw the orchestra playing in six different spaces over four days, and last week’s Baroque and Beyond program saw us rehearsing in Kitchener before performing shows in Waterloo, Guelph and Cambridge. Against this chaotic backdrop the disciplined work that happens outside of scheduled “working hours” stays constant – searching for weaknesses in technique, preparing for particularly fierce musical challenges in the months ahead, scraping reeds.

It’s a bit like Donkey Kong Country. Everything’s moving really fast and is risky and dangerous, but you have to keep your eye on the future and find the next exploding barrel to jump into or you get nothing done.

My feelings about the state of things aboard the good ship KWS have been given a considerable lift of late, with two key announcements on the organization’s leadership. After a year of searching we have an executive director, whose enthusiasm about this orchestra is incredibly contagious. We’ve also been searching for a concertmaster since before I joined the orchestra, and everyone is delighted to hear that we’ll have a fabulous musician taking up that position in the new year. Onward and upward.

The next folder on our stands is an intriguing one, a collaboration with Canadian authors Miriam Toews and Wayne Grady – writers responding to musical selections, and musicians responding to written selections. From there, on to the November Signature program, after which I can finally shake out the hand cramp from the third movement of the Barber Violin Concerto. After that the holiday season is upon us and the perennial challenges of the Nutcracker (the KWS is back in the pit at CITS for the first time in many years!) beckon, followed by a “holiday” woodshedding the Stravinsky Octet and the Brahms Violin Concerto.

The 2015 schedule is unusually dense – two programs a week virtually every week until the end of the season. Bring it on.