It’s the first day of school. Viola—let’s call her Viola—is a new freshman student in my studio, and her first lesson is about to begin. I intend to welcome her warmly and, perhaps, tell her that she is . . . crazy. Intelligent as she is—clearly supported by her high grades and SAT scores—she could have chosen to study something much more practical than music. Engineering or dentistry, perhaps. But she is here because of her unconditional love of music. (As I recall, unconditional love of music was the subject of her personal statement—the only part of a college application I take the time to read.)
I want to tell Viola that I understand and share her craziness.
I vividly remember her audition and want her to know how excited I am to work with her and help her become an accomplished musician, creative artist, and instrumentalist of high caliber. I plan to conclude my welcome speech by saying that for this to happen, she needs to prepare herself for a lot of work, perseverance, discipline, and sacrifice. And patience. Lots of patience.
But before I have the chance to properly welcome her as planned, Viola,
looking and sounding just about terrified, asks me if I can please help her with her orchestra excerpts. The audition is tonight! I assure her that there is no reason to be nervous and that, want it or not, a position in one of the school’s orchestras is guaranteed, a done deal. And yes, I am happy to listen to her excerpts!
Truthfully, I take issue with the need for auditioning our students during their freshman year, let alone their very first day—behind the screen and all! I think it is unnecessary, and sends the wrong signals about why we are here and what we want to achieve.
Viola begins with Beethoven: The Fifth. The Andante con moto is arguably lacking in motion and is too close in tempo to an adagio, and a meandering bow is causing a blemished sound. Worse, I can’t detect any signs of love for this music, or excitement to be playing it. On the other hand, she is properly informed and knows how to make evident that the last note in the fifth bar is a 16th note and not a 32nd. Well, I am not surprised—everybody does! (Actually, not everybody. Back in the early seventies I auditioned for the principal position of the Frankfurt Symphony, didn’t notice that particular rhythm, and had to play the excerpt three times before the orchestra gave up on me ever getting it right. I still won the job—unthinkable today.)
Next is Shostakovich Five (it’s Beethoven’s Fifth, but always Shostakovich Five). Viola’s fingering is overly careful and has nothing to do with the actual music. Like it or not, with everybody using it over and over, this
fingering, which I profoundly dislike and jokingly call “the cowardly violist’s fingering,” has by now become the official one.
Mendelssohn’s You-Know-What: no spiccato, no lightness, no magic. “Have you ever read the Shakespeare play?” I ask, curious. “No, only the CliffsNotes,” is the smiley answer. “A long time ago,” she adds, resignedly. It is clear, though, that Viola did work a lot with the metronome, as she was no doubt instructed to do.
“Now the Tchaik,” Viola announces. “Tchaik” is short for the “Pathétique,” in case you were wondering. “Tchaik?! Are you two that familiar?” I ask.
“I played The Nutcracker…” is the smiley answer. “Twice,” she adds firmly.
Then, on to the Haffner. Because of a number of weaknesses, such as string crossings, the beginning of the famous excerpt sounds impossible for Viola to play and is almost unrecognizable. A would-you-forgive-me face and a
couple of hopeless chuckles remind me that Viola is just a kid.
Here comes the Eternal Don Juan . . .
Observing and listening to Viola’s playing, it is clear to me that we have to work patiently and calmly on a better setup and a straighter bow. She needs to concentrate on that exclusively for a while. Maybe I should advise her to skip orchestra for a month or two in order to get rid of some damaging habits. Unfortunately, a damaging F on her report card would be the side effect of this treatment.
By the end of the lesson, I do get to sneak in some words of introduction and tell Viola that with her intelligence and musicality, plenty of work, perseverance, discipline, sacrifice, and patience—a lot of patience—I can predict a bright future for her. Simultaneously, however, a somewhat darker message is forming in the back of my mind, mixing the hope with a hint of doubt and a dose of reality. But I keep it to myself.
“Our establishment will try to inject your delicate dreams with crude reality. Sorry, Viola. We have to do it as a part of our responsibility in regard to your future as we see it.”
This is what I wish I could tell her:
My dear Viola, you are still very young. Thankfully, your choices and goals aren’t firm; there aren’t too many doubts in your mind—not yet—and the possibilities seem endless. You may have dreams, and I hope you do. They may still be somewhat hazy, but they are beautiful. Maybe you see yourself as a quartet player, a wonderful teacher, a champion of Baroque, contemporary, or crossover music. Perhaps you even have visions of yourself as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, playing the Schnittke, the Walton, or the Arad Concerto. (Just joking! I can’t help it—I also have my dreams . . .)
You may dream of bringing classical music to places where there is none. Your imagination could take you to places that I, your teacher, don’t know exist, places that are foreign to my older generation. Or perhaps you picture yourself as a proud member of a great orchestra. A principal of the section, maybe!
I know that you love playing in orchestra, and that a future in one is the last thing you would want to rule out. Regretfully, though, there is a fairly good chance that you’ll be made to believe that orchestra is the only realistic avenue for you: the only hope, the only choice.
From day one, you will be reminded incessantly that orchestra jobs are scarce and the field is extremely competitive. You’ll be urged to “wake up.” Our establishment will try to inject your delicate dreams with crude reality. Sorry, Viola. We have to do it as a part of our responsibility in regard to your future as we see it. The audition today is but a taste of this wake-up call, the first hint of what you should expect for years to come.
Fear installed, you’ll be forced to work, rework, work again, and never stop polishing the very same excerpts. The Fifth, Shostakovich Five, Mendelssohn’s You-Know-What, Tchaik, Haffner, and the Eternal Don Juan will remain your companions from your freshman year to your graduation and beyond. Mercifully, with time, that circle will keep growing. Jupiter will join Haffner, Silly Sancho Panza will join the Eternal Don Juan, Rach may join Tchaik. And Brahms. A lot of Brahms. Don’t, however, look forward to familiarizing yourself with more than an extremely few (if any) 21st-century companions.
To succeed, you will be encouraged to read instruction books and listen to sample after sample of recorded excerpts. (Tchaik, stop turning in your grave. We do it for your own good!) You will enroll in orchestra-rep classes and learn how to stomach auditions. Mock audition after mock audition, you will try to combat this devil, the one standing there behind the screen, waiting for you to make mistakes.
You will attend master classes and drink the words of experts telling you what to do, what not to do, and which rules to follow. (A former student of mine reached the finals for a position in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and got a written note of glowing congratulations with the attached advice: “In the future, you must count the rest bars meticulously, even if there are five or six of them. That’s the rule.”) In too many instances, you will be firmly discouraged from trying to be an artist, or from expressing your own ideas and your own musical emotions.
In addition to your excerpts, you will have to learn three pages of the Bartók Concerto. You’ll never be asked to play the rest, and you can safely ignore it. We all know that Bartók has nothing to do with the printed dynamics, bowings, or tempi, but do execute these or you’ll appear a troublemaker. The first page of the Stamitz Concerto is sometimes required, too. A nice sound, perfect intonation, and a steady pace are in order (it’s a Classical piece, remember?)—but no troublemaking. (A former student of mine auditioned for the principal position of the Berlin Philharmonic and got a written comment saying, “Your Stamitz sounded wonderful, but that’s not the way we play it around here.”)
By the end of your studies, your collection of excerpts, your mini Bartók and mini Stamitz, and the to-do and not-to-do lists may seem more like a religious rite than live music; exercises that represent a call for blind obedience rather than fun, severity rather than imagination, and prudence rather than enthusiasm.
If by that time (not yet invited to play the Schnittke or the Walton with the New York Philharmonic) you are still on the orchestral track and not reconsidering engineering or dentistry, you will begin to take auditions. You may get a job on your first try, but the journey could also turn out to be quite frustrating and long. (Remember, Viola? We warned you that orchestra jobs are scarce and the field is extremely competitive.)
This journey may take you to New York or Frankfurt, Chicago or Berlin, Walla Walla or Raleigh, Hong Kong or Beijing. You’ll be judged by musicians who got there playing The Fifth, Shostakovich Five, Mendelssohn’s You-Know-What, Tchaik, Haffner, the Eternal Don Juan, three pages of Bartók, and, perhaps, one page of Stamitz. Many of them may expect you to play your excerpts in the exact same way they did for their own auditions a year, ten years, or 20 years ago.
As intelligent and musical as you are, with work, perseverance, discipline, sacrifice, and some patience, you will finish the ride by winning a job. Not, perhaps, the job you were fantasizing about, but a job all the same. I do very much hope that when this happens, you will still be able to reclaim some of your wonderful craziness, and remnants of your dreams and aspirations to be even more of an accomplished musician, a creative artist, and an instrumentalist of the highest level.
I sincerely hope that we, your teachers, are not found guilty of completely killing your unconditional love of music.
I’ll never deliver this speech to Viola, but it does reflect a discomfort I feel about the delicate balance at our music schools between artistic and practical instruction. As time goes on, I see education leaning more and more toward the practical, with the emphasis on teaching how to win jobs and less on pure musicianship and artistry. I want to believe that most of our students choose to study music because of a desire to become artists. If so, our aim should be to guide them toward this goal, not through fear, restrictions, and indoctrination, but by giving them as many tools as we can—technical and musical—in order to be able to express their own artistic voices.
Those among my current and former students who put more effort into becoming well-rounded musicians rather than restricting themselves to orchestral training—those who understand that an imaginative and knowledgeable musician is not necessarily a “troublemaker”—turn out to be the most desirable candidates to orchestras as well as to other music organizations. Let us not forget that, as important as it is to put food on the table, our responsibility and our privilege as teachers, students, and performers is to strive to bring more beauty to this world.
Violist and composer Atar Arad is a professorat Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.