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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Auditioning Singers III - Musicianship/Ear

Another thing to test for in an audition is musicianship: sightreading and ear skills, primarily.
There are several things to test:
  • sightreading pitches
  • sightreading rhythms
  • the ability of the singer to hear something and reproduce it vocally
Given the level of your singers, you will want to choose examples to read that start with something easy (where a singer of yours should be able to sing most notes correctly), then progressively move to more difficult examples. I've usually had 5-6 examples and will often skip some examples if the singer can sightread the first one easily. They progress in difficulty in both pitches and rhythms.
Remember, I'm auditioning college-level singers, so a first example might be one with fairly simple rhythms, a melody without accidentals and no difficult leaps. The next example might have more accidentals, tougher leaps, modulation, etc. The most difficult one should be one that separates the really good sightreader from the average or even pretty good one. I've used a few exercises with accompaniment or little duets as well. P.G. Alldahl has a great accompanied pseudo-baroque exercise he's composed  (used for a number of years with the world Youth Choir), but some little twists that only the best sightreaders would get.
I leave it up to the singer to sing on text (if there is one--often there is not), a neutral syllable of their choice, or solfege syllables).
In some circumstances I've also done separate rhythmic exercises. This has the advantage of better testing the separate abilities to read rhythm and pitch.
With more advanced choirs I've also used exerpts from Lars Edlund's Modus Novus, which lets me know if the singer can deal with non-tonal music and read intervals by themselves without a tonal context. I could also use an example from a work I'm planning to do (unlikely that they'd know it!).
Something that others have done is to have a returning quartet from the choir, who are prepared on the music to be read (excerpts of real music in this case), and have the auditionee replace the one with their voice part. This has the advantage of being more realistic--much more like the experience of actually reading in a choir, since you hear the other parts.
Since many of our singers do NOT read well, it is often useful to test the ear, or tonal memory, of the singer. My feeling has always been that if a singer has an excellent tonal memory, they will have the capability of learning to read more quickly--not to speak of the fact that they will be able to learn their part more quickly even before they learn to read (or read better).
If you haven't done this before, you can find many examples from a quick google search (or, in fact, on choralnet). The idea is again to begin with easy examples and gradually make them more challenging. I've usually done this in addition to sight-reading, others have done it only if the singer doesn't read well. Dale Warland does his with lots of changes of expression (dynamics, tempo, articulation) and looks to see if the singer picks up on those as well. Robert Fountain used to check applicants to his graduate conducting program by playing the first 4-5 notes of a 12-tone row, then keep adding a couple notes until the applicant couldn't get any more pitches.
However, with a choir where sightreading is not expected of every singer, tonal memory exercises can tell the conductor a lot. I suspect the same is true for children's choirs (but please tell me more about what you do).
Any instrumentalist would be expected to read dynamics, articulations, etc. We rarely do this with singers, but a professional choir could expect this. When I conducted the Seattle Symphony Chorale, I remember being startled when an auditionee sang all the dynamics on the page, something no other singer had done. Perhaps with advanced choirs, we should expect more!
So, once you've figured out what's appropriate to use for your singers, what else goes into this part of the audition?
I think most of you know that sightreading in an audition freaks out a lot of singers! So, how best to do it?
When I was at PLU, I did the exercises myself as part of the initial audition. I left the sightreading/tonal memory for the end of the audition--as I said in the previous post, I want to begin with something that the singer will find most comfortable. So the order might be: prepared piece, vocalises, sightreading, tonal memory. At UNT our grad students test sightreading before they come into the room where we hear them, so we simply get a score on sightreading from 1-5. Tonal memory is usually tested only if they don't sightread well.
Of course, you may want to know more, particularly the kind of motivation the singer will have to learn, or whether they even can learn their part outside of rehearsal.
I had an interesting conversation with my friend Richard Nance this summer (I hope many of you heard his fantastic performance with the PLU Choir of the West in Dallas this past March). Richard does two additional short auditions for that choir. One is to assign an excerpt of a piece to be learned that they get about 24 hours ahead of when they'll do it. It's not easy and has at least some counterpoint. The singers are assigned to octets and meet with Richard the next day for a 15 minute rehearsal on the music. This gives him an idea of not only if they can learn their part, but how they respond in a rehearsal. Are they flexible if he asks them to change something? How quickly do they respond/learn? The singers often get together in a larger group the night before to work on the music, but he says that's fine--it just shows their motivation.
In addition, he does a short individual audition with each singer in which he gets to know them better, does the sightreading part of the audition, but also has them play their part on the piano with a piece from upcoming repertoire. This gives him a further idea of whether the singer is able to learn a part or fix a problem section on their own.
I think it's a fascinating and great way to find out more about the potential singers for his top choir.
If you have additional ideas for auditions or thoughts about what I've said, please share in the comments.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Interesting interview with Vasily Petrenko (Liverpool and now Oslo Philharmonic)

Link to the article here.

His viewpoint of what a modern conductor can accomplish with a modern orchestra is fascinating--as is his diagnosis of the different strengths and weaknesses of his two orchestras. And his thoughts about increasing audience interest.

Vasily Petrenko: "We need to break the barrier between orchestra and audience"

He's the young Russian who transformed the sound of the Liverpool Philharmonic, becoming an 'Honorary Scouser' in the process. Now he hopes to do the same with Oslo's leading orchestra. Ivan Hewett meets Vasily Petrenko

Super-conductor: Vasily Petrenko leads the Oslo Philarmonic Orchestra, where he has taken up the post of Chief Conductor
Super-conductor: Vasily Petrenko leads the Oslo Philarmonic Orchestra, where he has taken up the post of Chief Conductor  
It’s well-known that being a top-rank conductor requires more than just musical gifts. Leadership, nerves of steel, an easy way with audiences and an ability to glad-hand sponsors without glazing over are all required. Another vital skill, less often remarked upon, is what one might call cultural flexibility. Unlike theatre directors, who are usually confined to the Anglophone world, conductors can end up working anywhere.

Vasily Petrenko, the straw-haired, perennially youthful Russian conductor who’s become one of the hottest properties on the conducting circuit, is having to exercise that skill for the second time. The first time was back in 2006 when he moved from Russia to become Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. In Russia he had to battle against Soviet-style bureaucracy to get anything achieved. “They asked why the string players needed new strings. When I told them that strings sometimes break, they said why can’t they play more quietly?” Petrenko recalls this and similar lunacies with a mocking smile.

In Liverpool Petrenko had to learn the mysteries of Scouse culture and Premier League football — a test he’s passed with flying colours by being named an “Honorary Scouser” by the Lord Mayor in 2009. He found a can-do attitude in the city and the orchestra that was very refreshing. “They are willing to try anything, and they always want to go further.” After seven years he can look back on some signal successes, in particular an award-winning series of recordings of all Shostakovich’s symphonies.

Earlier this year Petrenko faced a new challenge and another new culture, when he took up the post of Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. Once a little-known outpost of the orchestral world, Oslo’s orchestra has shot several ranks up the league table, thanks in large part to the long tenure of the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons (who Petrenko studied with in St. Petersburg).
Petrenko is keeping his post at Liverpool until 2015, and says the differences between the two cities are striking. “Liverpool is a place of crazy intensity. They really know how to have a good time. Sometimes I see the wreckage of a really good Saturday night out when I’m walking up the hill to the Philharmonic Hall, whereas Oslo seems to go to sleep at about 8.00pm. Also there’s a big difference in the people. In Liverpool people are totally open the first time you meet them. Norwegian people seem much more private, you feel they only share their feelings with a small inner circle. But once you're invited in they're very warm.”

The contrast shows itself at the musical level too. “In Oslo the musicians are more like German musicians. English players are very quick, they throw themselves into new things, but maybe get bored quicker. Here they think about each note, they want to go deeper and deeper.” Are there things about this new city that puzzle him? “Yes, the dark! Oslo is on the same latitude as my home city St. Petersburg, and it has similar very dark nights. In Russia we love to counteract the dark with bright lights, but here they actually like to be gloomy, sitting in a room with one candle. Our hall here in Oslo needs to be brighter and more welcoming. That’s something I want to change.”

The reticence in the national character is something Petrenko perceives in the orchestra’s sound. “This orchestra has fantastic potential, but I feel they are afraid to unleash it. Sometimes they don’t play like a unit, the two sides don’t communicate. There are many things we need to work on.”

Orchestral maneouvres: Petrenko leads the string section (Peter Adamik)
It’s an interesting fact that however distinguished an orchestra, a new music director always spots mundane technical things that don’t seem quite right. Beyond that, Petrenko’s new orchestra faces similar challenges to orchestras everywhere. “We need to break the barrier between orchestra and audience,” he says. “There’s an attitude here that says we are the great musicians up here, you are the audience down there worshipping us. I want to create a different feeling, that we are all in the performance together. It’s a partly a matter of bringing in more youngsters, for example by working with universities, and also schools. We made big strides in Liverpool in this respect, and I think Oslo could learn from this.”

Petrenko has another, larger aim in view, for which Simon Rattle is something of a role model. “I admire the way Simon has changed the deep dark sound of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra to something more flexible, with a greater understanding of different styles. That’s something we haven’t heard from that orchestra since the early days of von Karajan. It’s unfortunate the orchestra itself seems not so happy with the result.” Is that their mistake? “Well, it’s their choice,” he says wryly. “You have to remember as a conductor you can only do what you’re allowed to do. I think these days a conductor’s real job is to achieve timbral and stylistic virtuosity. The old days of an orchestra having one specific sound are gone.”

Working on an orchestra is clearly a never-ending job. “Of course there’s no perfect orchestra in the world, one always has to work. It’s just the top quality bar you have to raise, in other words the best the orchestra can achieve, but also the bottom bar. You have to ensure the orchestra never falls below a certain level.”

Petrenko is a driven perfectionist. Does this mean he’s perpetually unsatisfied? “Well, it’s true I think of myself as a pursuer of truth. I’m trying with this orchestra to get closer to an ideal, and of course that’s something we sometimes get close to, sometimes not so close, but we never really touch. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the players’ efforts, or that I’m in a state of permanent frustration. I can still say after a concert, 'that was great'. But I always want to go further.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Auditioning Singers II

I should have mentioned that I blogged earlier about auditioning. You can find the links here:
I'll do some repetition, of course, but this series will be organized differently. We'll start with figuring out as much as possible about the vocal ability of the singer.
As I mentioned in the last post, what you do will depend on the background and experience of your singers. My initial auditions have always begun with the singers singing something for me. This can range from a familiar song (hymn, Christmas carol, folk song, "My Country 'tis of Thee" -- although when you teach somewhere with lots of foreign students, that's not a given! And I'm not even sure all young people learn to sing it these days), or a piece which they've prepared in advance (if they study voice or have learned an art song of some kind). If singers are studying, then the next question (given level) is what to ask for. In most of my university situations we've requested just one piece, asking students to sing something that shows off the strengths of their voice--that they think they can sing well. In professional groups I ask for two pieces that contrast, often for one in English (surprising how much that can reveal about vowel and diction). When I came to Pro Coro Canada in 1999 they had a tradition of asking for a Bach aria and recitative in their auditions. I continued with that tradition and llked what it told me about both voice (Bach is not the easiest thing to sing) and musicianship (the recit was assigned for each voice part, not the singer's choice, and they got it about a week in advance).
(By the way, I'd welcome comments or even a guest post from those who conduct children's choirs--what do you do to test the voice of a child who doesn't yet have a repertoire or where you can't ask a piece they know? What about middle school? What's your process? This isn't my area!)
I have always begun with something the singer chooses because that gives them the chance to start (when they're nervous) with what's most familiar and comfortable to them. Knowing that the singer is anxious, I want to greet/welcome them when the come in the room, make a little small talk to set them at ease, introduce them to the accompanist (if they don't bring their own) and any other people listening to the audition. I'd then ask then what they'd like to start with and off we go.
In most of my auditions I then follow with vocalises of some sort, although those vary, depending on what I hear in the music: if I don't hear the singer's high range, I may want to test that; possibly check on some vowels with an exercise to hear if they can sing pure vowels in tune; work through the passagio or break to see how they deal with it, etc. While I have a set of "go-to" vocalises, I don't use every one for every singer.
So, what am I listening for and how do I judge what I hear (and how do I remember it, if I hear 150-200 singers)?
Well, I DO listen for musicality (see my posts on teaching musicality from the beginning), but that isn't what this post is about! Vocally I want to listen for:
  • the basic quality of the voice/vocal instrument
  • size of voice
  • color
  • technical skill
  • any problem areas
  • range and tessitura
  • where I'd likely place the voice (S1/S2?)
I'll assume you have an audition form and the singers fill out the top portion in advance (leaving the bottom portion of the form for me)--it should:
  1. give basic contact information
  2. give information about the singer (his/her experience/training, if they've studied voice and with whom, if they play other instruments). This will vary greatly depending on the level of your choir. At my university positions, I've always wanted to know where they went to HS, for example, since this tells me a lot. There's a place for the singer to note what voice part they usually sing in choir (although I'll make my own judgements about what will work best!). You need to know the information that's helpful for you.
  3. gives room and possibly some pre-cast areas for writing/scoring what you hear
Below I'll say something about what kinds of things I write and how I score the audition. Some conductors I know do almost all of this with a point system, perhaps even putting points into a spreadsheet on a computer for quick averaging. That isn't how I've worked, but you have to find what works for you to both evaluate (and more importantly!) remember how singers did so when you go back you have a good idea of what you heard once it's time to make decisions.
There are a wide range of gifts in terms of vocal quality, beauty, etc. One judgement (and we might not all agree--this is in the realm of personal taste, as is all of this!) is about the basic instrument and it's sound. Is it (in my mind) a beautiful sound? How will it fit into the tonal concepts of sound I want for my choir? I usually use a numerical system (1-low--to 5-high) for quality of sound.
Size of voice is also largely a given characteristic (although all things can be improved--to a point) and I want to note if it's a big voice, small voice, or in between. I just note if the voice is small or large, assuming the rest are whatever's "normal" size.
Vocal color is another characteristic on a spectrum from bright to dark. Singers can be flexible, of course, but any singer will have natural characteristics that I'll want to note. If I hear a very bright or dark voice, I may do a vocalise or have them sing a portion of their piece later and ask the singer to modify color (in one direction or another) just to see what they can change and how easily. No notation on my audition sheet unless I hear a particularly bright or dark vocal production.
Connected to this are instrumental concepts that many conductors find incredibly useful for color: flute, reed, etc. Easy to write these kinds of terms down quickly.
Technical skill means vocal technique. Is the sound consistent throughout the range? Are vowels clear and beautifully formed (I know this is subjective and it's hard to describe sound in words)? Does the singer have skill getting through the passaggio/break? What about vibrato? Is it even? Narrow? Wide? Fast? Slow? Again, your taste and desired sound will affect what you hear and how you judge it. I will likely do a senza vibrato exercise to see if it's easy or difficult for the singer (and give hints if they aren't experienced with it to do this more healthily and easily). For some ensembles, I may wish to know how good the coloratura is (in one of my earlier personal blog posts, I mention some conductors who use melismatic passages in Handel or Bach to see how well singers can negotiate runs). In terms of techique I usually note deficits rather than strengths (i.e. my opening assumption is good technique--I'd note things like uneven production or a voice that doesn't move easily, a vibrato that's wide and slow, etc.
Any problem areas will be noted. Sometimes this is connected to the things above: taste again--one person's bright is another's shrill! But whatever I hear that might cause difficulties in the choir will be noted. Intonation will also be noted here: sings under pitch, sings sharp.
Range and tessitura: this is easiest if you have a staff printed on the audition form--that allows you to write the high and low pitch for what I'd consider the comfortable range for the singer, and then in parentheses the pitch that's possible, but not where the singer will live.
I also note what part the singer will likely sing. If I feel confident that this is a Soprano 1 or Bass 2 I simply note that. If a likely Soprano 1, but can easily sing second as well, I'd put: S1 (2). For the opposite: S2 (1). This helps as I'm making final decisions and might really need a fluty S1 to make my soprano section (or a bigger soprano voice with more color). I may also ask the singer a question about this--"would you be comfortable singing alto 1 instead of soprano 2?" "Where does your voice teacher think your voice is going?" (In another post I'll write about who I consult after the audition about the singer--their voice teacher is certainly one of those people.)
In university situations with multiple choirs I often note in what choir I think the singer will be placed. For example, at UNT, the hierarchy of choirs runs from A Cappella to University Singers to Concert Choir (our three mixed choirs) to our Men's and Women's choruses. I'll note with the following options: AC, AC?, US, US?, CC, CC/MC or CC/WC, MC or WC. This is helpful for me, but also in particular for the Concert Choir conductor, who's a grad student and doesn't have as much perspective on where singers will likely end up.
It's always more complicated when you know no or few singers. My first year at UNT was overwhelming, since there were so many students to hear (and remember!), I knew none of them, and I had no idea of the standards--what the level of students was and who'd normally make which choir. Last year, when we switched my choir from a chamber choir of 32 to a larger choir of 65 or so, it meant I had to recalibrate what I was listening for as well.
Of course, the things I'm saying above are what I've done at the college/university/advanced civic/professional choir. The things you'll look for in a children's choir, middle school singer, etc. could be very different. But I think that you can still imagine how you can modify these ideas for your own situation.
This is going long (don't all of my posts?!), so I'll end shortly, but first a link to an upcoming post on ChoralNet's ChoralBlog (you have to be registered and can't read it for another two days) by Joshua Bronfman called Auditions/Sidebar with a link to a fabulous interview with Dale Warland. In it, Dale talks about his audition procedure and Joshua asks about the effect of expectations on our hearing and whether we've ever done blind auditions. Just to answer briefly, yes I have, and the last 10 years or so I was at PLU had a part of the audition process where I didn't know what singer was singing. That can be seen as a tease, or you can "read ahead" and check out my 3rd post referenced at the top.
I found it a very valuable part of my process and very likely stole it from Dale, since in the early 90s I made a trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul to sit in on several days of Dale's auditions for the DWS. An incredibly fun process to watch and talk with Dale about his decisions!
Next time: testing ear/musicianship/sightreading. Feel free to comment, ask questions, add to the discussion!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Valery Gergiev's conducting load . . .

. . . it's a lot! 261 times in the 2012-13 season.

Take a look at Norman Lebrecht's blog post.

Quite amazing.

I prepared the Swedish Radio Choir for a Brahms Requiem with him and the Rotterdam Philharmonic (his swan song as that orchestra's music director, which is on DVD, but I wasn't able to be at the rehearsal/recording with him.

Here's Wie lieblich.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Auditioning Singers I

I'm baaack! Hope you've had a good summer break!
If you missed the end of my intonation series last spring, I'll post links at the end of this blog.
Auditions are something most of us do to evaluate potential singers for our choirs. Some do it in the spring, some in the late summer/fall just before the new academic year/season begins.
Of course, the level of your group will determine how elaborate and challenging your audition process will be. Some of you may not do formal auditions (you may conduct a non-auditioned or "ya'll come" choir), but even then evaluation of your individual singers can be helpful at some point (and potentially helpful to them, too).
Any audition will look to evaluate:
  • vocal ability/skill
  • ear
  • musicianship/sightreading
  • and possibly ensemble skills
In addition, it's important to evaluate the personality of the singer: are they a team player? How motivated might they be to work on music outside of rehearsal? Will they be suportive of other singers in the choir?
I'll take each of these topic in turn. As always, I value your feedback and opinions--you'll greatly add to the dialogue and knowledge base. Read the comments in the intonation series for wonderful examples!
Here are links to the intonation series, in order: