Update: I have a lot of advice for aspiring music performance majors on the Contrabass Conversations podcast, including interviews with major double bass teachers like Paul Ellison, Kurt Muroki, Alex Hanna, David Allen Moore, Bruce Bransby, and many others. Check it out!
If you are interested in learning more about this subject, check out the follow-up post to this article here.
I have a B.M. and M.M. in Double Bass Performance from Northwestern University. Although I had a good financial package for my undergraduate degree and had a full-tuition fellowship or my graduate degree, I still owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for these degrees. I am glad that I did both of these programs, but if I would have one single piece of advice for an aspiring music performance major it would be to realize this:
Music performance degrees are completely superfluous to your pursuit of a music performance career.
I love college and learning, and this essay is really not about me.I wouldn’t trade my education for anything, and I am actually starting a new degree program in the next few months.I did not follow the advice I am giving here.Am I still happy?Yes.Am I a successful music performer?Some would think so.Am I at the top of my profession?No.
This advice is based on what I have learned playing with and speaking with countless individuals from major symphony orchestras. It is not advice on how to be a well-educated, happy, balanced musician and person. In fact, the advice I have may make you a neurotic mess, but it is, I feel, the way that a majority of people that land major professional symphony positions achieve this goal. If you want to play in the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra or Boston Symphony then follow this advice.
Also, although this advice pertains to all instruments, it is mainly about the double bass. It is also based on my experience and knowledge of the American orchestral audition system (not for solo instruments or non-U.S. orchestra auditions). Auditions in other countries may work quite differently.
Finally, if you ever plan on doing anything at all outside of music performance (and very few people are interested in only music performance, even professional symphonic players) then a quality, well-rounded education is essential. I have used my Northwestern degrees to better my life and I feel that having these degrees has really helped me. Still, I know that all of my playing achievements had nothing to do with where I went to school. I could have never have gone to college and only taken private lessons and be doing the playing I am doing now. Most of my colleagues have no idea that I went to Northwestern (or that I went to college at all).
#1 – Your private teacher is everything–college is optional
Does this mean that I shouldn’t have gone to college? Certainly not. I do, after all, have two degrees from a prestigious university, and I like to think that the education I have gotten from these degrees has helped me in my life. I feel that it is very important for a student considering a pursuit of classical music performance to realize that there is one (and only one) thing to consider—your teacher.
The quality of the music school, the location, the cost, the academic rigor (or lack thereof), the actual degree you are receiving—none of these things matter to a real student of music performance. To land a full-time salaried position in the insanely competitive field of classical music performance one needs to study from the best in the business, and there are only a handful of people for each instrument that qualify.
How do you identify these “super teachers”? Karl Olsen of the Louisville Orchestra has since 1997 kept a list of all the winners of salaried orchestral double bass positions and where these individuals went to school. Study this list:
Winners of all major US auditions 1997-present
This list comes from Karl Olsen of the Louisville Orchestra. Check out his posts at TalkBass.com (his handle is KPO), and check out Karl’s biography and teaching information here. Karl teaches at the University of Kentucky and is a valuable contributor to the double bass community. He has contributed countless helpful posts on that website about practicing and orchestral auditioning, and he keeps updating this list.
December, 2005 Update:
Minnesota Orchestra: no winner
Cincinntai Symhpony: Boris Astafiev (Columbus Sym)
Oregon Symphony: Jason Schooler (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music)
Minnesota Orchestra: Matthew Frischman (Curtis Institute)
Utah Symphony: Asst. Principal audition was won by Corbin
Johnston, a student of Lawrence Wolfe and Edwin Barker (In addition a section bass position was won by Tom Zera (Juilliard) at the same audition)
Los Angeles Philharmonic: David Moore (Houston Sym)
Louisville Orchestra: Kingsley Wood (Peabody Conservatory)
Houston Symphony: Ali Yazdanfar (Peabody, Rice)
New York Philharmonic: David Grossman (Student of principal/Juiliard)
Colorado Symphony: Jonathan Burnstein (Rice U.)
Charleston Symphony, Principal: Charles Barr (Curtis)
National Symphony: Ali Yazdanfar (Houston sym.)
New Mexico Symphony: Kathy Olszowka (Indiana University)
San Antonio Symphony: Zlatan Redzic (I.U.)
Kansas City Symphony, 1-year spot: Ju-Fang Liu (I.U.)
President’s Own Marine Band: Eric Sabo (Arizona State U.)
Seattle Symphony: Jonathan Burnstein (Rice, Colorado Sym.)
Buffalo Philharmonic: Edmond Gnekow (I.U.)
Tulsa Phil, principal: Dan Johnson (Iowa?)
Dallas Symphony, principal: no winner?
Columbus Symphony: Jena Huebner (Peabody)
Houston Symphony: Burke Shaw
Cleveland Orchestra: Charles Carleton (Juilliard/Curtis)
San Francisco Sym., principal: Ali Yazdanfar (not retained?!)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra: Kingsley Wood (Peabody, Louisville Orchestra)
Alabama Symphony: Long Luo (Juilliard)
Oregon Symphony: no winner (for 2 spots!)
Florida Philharmonic, principal: Shigeru Ishikawa (member of section )
Louisville Orchestra: Karl Olsen (I.U., U-Wisconsin)
Cleveland Orchestra: Eric Harris (principal St Louis) won, then left for SanFran;
…the runnerup Charles Barr (Curtis), got the job.
Montreal Sym., principal: Ali Yazdanfar (now going back to National)
Charleston Symphony, principal: Scott Pingle (Manhattan)
National Symphony: cancelled; they welcome Ali Yazdanfar back
Baltimore Symphony: Mark Huang (Nashville Symphony)
Oregon Symphony: Paul DeNola (I.U., U.S.C.)
San Francisco Sym., principal: Eric Harris (not retained?!@#!?)
Indianapolis Sym., principal: Ju-Fang Liu (I.U.)
Boston Symphony: Ben Levy (Rice U., New England Conservatory)
Calgary Philharmonic: Jeff White (I.U.)
Grant Park Orchestra: Andy Anderson (I.U.)
Nashville Symphony, principal: Joel Reist (member of section)
resulting section spot was offered to runner-up, Ryan Kamm (I.U., Boston)
Louisianna Philharmonic: Colin Corner (I.U.)
Naples Philharmonic: Matt Medlock (Boston, Rice)
New York Philharmonic: Satoshi Okamoto (San Antonio, Juilliard; student of principal)
Louisville Orchestra, principal: postponed
San Francisco Sym., principal: Hired noone again!?
San Diego, Principal and Asst.Principal: Jeremy Kurtz, principal(Curtis, Rice), Susan Wulff, Asst. (member of section, USC)
San Fransisco, Principal, YET AGAIN!:Scott Pingel, on a Trial Year? Ira Gold, runner-up?
Chicago Lyric Opera: Andy Anderson (I.U., Grant Park)
Vancouver Symphony, associate: Colin Corner (IU, Louisiana Phil)
Detroit Symphony, Principal: No Hire….
San Antonio Symphony, Asst. Principal: Doug Balliet (Harvard)
Louisville Orchestra, Principal: Burt Witzel (Curtis Institute)
St Louis Symphony: (2 positions) audition delayed finished until May 2005
Winnipeg, Principal: Merideth “Bob” Johnson, I think, was the winner?
Ottawa: National Arts Center, Principal: Ben Jensen (I.U.) not retained after trial weeks?
Milwaukee Symphony: Principal AND Ass’t Principal: Zach (?) = assistant?
Detroit Symphony, Principal: again, not even any finalists?
St Louis, 2 positions: Sarah Hogan (IU, Rice, SLSO 1-yr sub!) and Dave DeRiso (Rice, New World, SLSO sub-runner-up!)
Grand Rapids, Principal: Joe Conyers (Curtis)
Alabama: no winner?
Metropolitan Opera Association: Dan Krekler (IU, Minn., MSM)
Seattle: Joe Kauffman (UNT)
National Symphony, 2 positions: Ira Gold! …other position remains open
Calgary Philharmonic: Tom McGary (IU)
Florida Orchestra: Aaron White (SMU, Duquesne)also 1 yr. Asst.Principal here in Louisville!
Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, Principal: Tom McGary (IU)
Ottawa N.A.C... Joel Quarrington appointed principal? confirmed? not on website yet?
Detroit Principal 3x – still in trial weeks?
Minnesota Orchestra: Ass’t: Fora Baltacigil(Curtis), Section: Colin Corner (IU, New Orleans, Vancouver)
Kansas City Symphony: Jeff Kail (IU)
Do you see any trends? Notice how over half of the people on this attended Indiana University, Boston University, Rice University, or the Curtis Institute? Study at these schools—that’s the simplest way to be successful. Ed Barker, Hal Robinson, Bruce Bransby, and Tim Pitts have a proven track record of turning out job winners, and being in one of these four bass studios at some point in your study is a very good idea.
If you do not study at these schools, can you still get into the Chicago Symphony as a double bassist? Absolutely! Notice that even though a preponderance of successful candidates went to these four schools, there are many other schools represented. It is possible to succeed regardless of where you go to school and study with. These four schools are simply the four powerhouse bass schools at the moment.
Understand that intelligence and music performance ability do not have to go hand in hand, and neither do traditional education and music performance development. When an orchestra holds an audition the only thing that matters is your playing ability. Education, personality, communication skills, and virtually every other skill that traditionally factors into a job interview process don’t matter for an orchestra audition. This is something that is difficult for non-musicians (like parents, relatives, and friends) to grasp. No one cares where you went to school! Do you like to shoot rats at the dump and scream obscenities at people? It’s all good if you can play a great audition.
#2 – Study with a professional orchestra player if you want to play professionally
Examine the above list one more time. Do you see many teachers known as soloists on that list? I sure don’t. Bass players wishing a career in orchestral performance need to study with people who either are or have been in professional orchestras. If you want to be a bass soloist, great! Starbucks is always hiring (aspiring bass soloists can get a head start by downloading their application here), and I’m sure those expensive degrees and those Bottesini showpiece chops you developed will help you there.
#3 – Put your instrumental development before everything else
Classes don’t matter. Again, I personally do not agree with this at all. I am an educator, and I got a ton out of my various music and non-music classes that I put into use every day, but the unfortunate truth is that going to Music Theory class will not help you to land that salaried orchestral job. It just won’t. It will make you better educated, well-rounded, and better able to comprehend what you are playing. It also will likely make you a better colleague, a better educator, a more valuable member of the musical community. Many of my job-winning colleagues never went to class. I always went to class (seriously—I don’t think I ever missed a single class in my undergraduate or graduate study). I am jobless. Draw your own conclusions.
#4 – Do whatever it takes to study with and interact with the best in the business
If you aren’t studying with the best of the best, find a way to take some lessons with them anyway. Does it seem crazy to drive from Chicago to Houston for lessons every month or from Atlanta to Houston every week? Well, you had better get used to it, because that is what the audition circuit is like, and if you aren’t willing to do it there are 50 other people playing your instrument that are willing (and doing it right now). You never know when you will get that one golden nugget of information that will fix that shift, bow stroke, tonal snafu, clarify that phrase, or relax that one particular back muscle that is standing in your way. Take every opportunity you can to play for the best of the best.
Double bass teachers tend to be fairly approachable, and the best teachers teach at summer institutes and do master classes throughout the year. Go to Aspen! Go to Tanglewood! A huge percentage of successful audtionees have done these programs at some time.
#5 – Be prepared for a long, hard road
I know many colleagues who did all that I described above and are still jobless. Friends of mine have been auditioning for years without winning a job. Sometimes they make the finals and don’t advance out of the first round the next time. Be prepared to sacrifice family, friends, happiness, and financial security to take auditions. I auditioned for the Minnesota Orchestra last year, and there were 140 candidates. Guess where the two winners had gone to school? Indiana University and Curtis.
Auditions cost a lot of money, particularly for bass players. The expense of flying with a bass, renting a car, and getting a hotel room can easily surpass $1000 per audition. Some auditions make you wait four or five days between the preliminary and final rounds. None of these expenses (at least for the preliminary round) are covered by the orchestra. Expect to lose a lot of cash auditioning.
#6 – Resources
Luckily, you are not alone on the path to a music performance career. Although the road can be long and frustrating, at least there are a lot of resources devoted to this subject:
Many musicians have found success with Don Greene’s methods. Don has an innovative way of teaching coping skills under pressure, and many musicians have found success incorporating his methods. Check out his books here.
This is probably the oldest and best audition resource site out there. I have been reading Doug’s articles since 1997, and I find them extremely insightful and helpful.
His whole website is full of literally hundreds of articles and resources. Here are some of the most helpful:
Check out the TalkBass.com forums for great audition news and advice. Thinking about a particular school or teacher? Ask your question in the forums and you are bound to get some great advice.
4. Aspen Music Festival and Tanglewood Music Center
Audition and participate in these festivals if you can! I wish someone would survey the audition winners on Karl Olsen’s list and see how many of them participated in either Tanglewood or Aspen. I am sure it would be over 50% of them.
Check out the follow-up post to this article here.
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