Juilliard Juries!

gavelA few days ago, I was power walking through the fourth-floor hallway, desperate for a practice studio. Every room seemed to be occupied — typical for a weekday morning. But this time I was feeling extra pressure. My jury was in an hour.

In music conservatories, students are required to take annual juries. We prepare a variety of prescribed repertoire – concertos, sonatas, and unaccompanied Bach – to perform before a panel of faculty. These juries are only ten or fifteen minutes long, but they’re terrifying. At Juilliard, juries are essentially graded auditions that determine whether or not we will be allowed to remain enrolled in the school. Although I’ve never heard of anyone being kicked out for a sub-par jury, it’s scary to think that it’s possible.

The job of the jury panel is to give the performer a numerical grade for creative expression and technical mastery. This quantitative expression makes the artistic experience feel contrived. It’s sort of a performance, but going into it, you know you’re going to be interrupted in the middle of the piece, and the whole time you’re playing, the panel is scratching down comments and critiques.

Jury week means a lot of stress for musicians. Every year thus far of my undergrad career, I have had a meltdown in the week prior to my jury. I somehow convince myself that I’m unable to play the violin, that my fingers and brain are inadequate, that my memory will fail me, that the hours and hours of practice that I’ve put in will not result in an acceptable performance. This year, three days before my jury, I gave a mock-performance for my sister, which ended with me lying face-down on the carpet, moaning, while she tried to pry me off the floor.

So, flash back to the other morning, while I was gobbling down bananas and trying to find a place to warm up. Outside one practice room, I heard a jazz drummer playing, and I had a funny thought.

I should preface this by saying that there is sort of an unfair stigma about jazz players at Juilliard, from the point of view of classical musicians, which is that they never practice. I’m sure this is an unmerited reputation, but it exists. In fact, while writing this, I realized that I used the word “playing” instead of the word “practicing” at the beginning of the previous paragraph, whereas if it had been a violinist or a pianist, I would without a doubt have said “practicing”. Why is it that they “play”, but we “practice”?

As I listened to this student practicing, playing, or in some way preparing for his jury, I said to myself, “God, jazz juries must be so fun, and relaxed. I mean, listen to the music they’re playing! They must be an absolute breeze, because jazz is, like, FUN.”

As soon as the thought passed through my mind, I began to laugh. I was being ridiculous for two reasons. The first reason is that I know perfectly well jazz juries are not all that easy. Apparently, the faculty puts 60 songs into a hat and draws them at random to determine what the student should play. Repertoire determined by lottery – nerve-wracking.

But secondly, how telling was it that I dismissed jazz juries as being no big deal on the premise that the music is “fun”, and meant to be enjoyed, instead of stressed over, whereas I thought of juries for classical musicians as a whole different process? Wasn’t my music “fun” – and: profound and reflective, buoyant and vivacious, and everything in between?

I had been agonizing over presenting myself to this panel of esteemed violin professors, and proving my worth to them – proving that I could play my octaves in tune, and give the nonuplets in the third movement of the Stravinsky concerto the fluid, improvisatory quality that they required.

I remembered, then, why I study music, and what the essence of this music is. All of a sudden, entering my jury seemed less like marching towards an execution, and more like a chance to show my teachers how I felt about the music and what I could do about it.

The moral to stories like this one is always the same, and it feels cliché to say it. And yet I find myself having the same realization repeatedly, usually when I’m so nervous about performing that I feel like I will explode. But it really does always come back to forgetting about yourself and your insecurities, and remembering the music and why you’re there to play. With this in my mind, an hour later I walked into the room to face the panel. I smiled, and raised my violin to play.

Blowing off steam after my jury!

Blowing off steam after a successful jury.

Audition Recording Tips

Mark Gasser

Mark Gasser (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That time of year has come and gone again – the dreary month of January, when you’re suffering from frozen fingers and the post-holiday blues, and all the while facing three more months of winter. Luckily for us musicians, this is also when we get to partake in our most beloved pastime: recording for summer festivals! Nothing cheers you up quite like the agonizing hours spent in front of that mean, little recorder and the joy of picking your least horrible take to submit.

Even though we’re all nearly done with our summer recordings, I think we’re still fresh from the trauma. So here is a list of recording tips from yours truly, to think about for next time!

EAT – but not just anything! We’ve all heard about how important it is to eat a balanced breakfast before taking the SAT. The same goes for recording: we need our bodies and brains to be fueled to work properly! Duh – but the tricky part is figuring out what exactly to eat. Before a recording session last year, I enjoyed a delicious bowl of gazpacho, my favorite cold soup (I really like cold soups…) But although it was refreshing and veggielicious, I believe the lack of carbs and protein were a hindrance to my recording session. I felt a lot slower than usual. Now I’m sure to scarf down something more substantial, not too mention SUGARY, for that extra oomph! (I recommend Trader Joe’s Molasses cookies.)

Book a space well ahead of time. Usually I am able to snag an empty dance studio at Juilliard to record (these make for good recording spaces because of their high ceilings and acceptable acoustics). This year, I casually waltzed into a room that I hadn’t booked – and was promptly interrupted right before my first note, by someone who actually had a reason to use the room (oddly, it was a drama student who needed to practice the trumpet!) I was lucky enough to be able to record in a church without previously reserving it. But book ahead, or you’ll end up dropping your recorder in the toilet while recording in your bathroom.

Perform, don’t just record. One of the worst parts of recording for me is the fact that there aren’t any real people to play for, just a little blinking red dot, taunting you, daring you to mess up. The recorder isn’t such a great audience. If you can, grab a friend and ask them to listen. It adds a more human element to the session. I asked the kindly security guard who opened the chapel for me if he’d listen to my Bach – “It’s so much easier to play for a real person!” He indulged me, and even though he was a complete stranger, having someone in the room to play for made all the difference.

Don’t set unrealistic standards. This is why I always prefer live auditions to recording – you play, you leave. But when you record, you theoretically have an unlimited amount of chances to get it just right, which puts the pressure on like nothing else. Give everything at least three takes. If it’s not perfect, don’t worry about it. In three takes, you’ll have captured your best playing that day, which is all you can ask for.

Stretch it out. On that note, give yourself plenty of time to be happy with your product. If you have lots of different rep to record, consider spreading your recording session over a few days, so you can focus on each piece more intensely on that given day.

Happy recording (if such a thing is possible!)

~ Caeli