Monday, February 26, 2007

lessons learned (at NEC)*

*all quotations are loose paraphrases of mine

I'm still not sure what to make of my audition yesterday at NEC. In semi-defiance (and semi-for-Curtis-audition-preparation), I offered my full audition repertoire (minus 1, Il fervido desiderio, which is, more often than not, still a ridiculous tightrope walk) despite NEC's injunction: "no opera arias [and just 3 songs]."

This policy kind of makes no sense to me, since they were amenable to hearing oratorio arias, which are often just as hard if not harder to sing than operatic ones. With this being the case, I can't really figure out why it is that they would not want to hear opera arias? Whatever. Not the point.

I had gotten on a plane to Boston the day of my audition, which was late in the day at 5:20, essentially the last singer. I warmed up dutifully, noting that my voice was in stellar fettle. The accompanist and I worked through my big stack of music before being called into the audition room, which was fairly large and had its own stage. I walked up and took my place in the little cove of the piano.

"Would you mind taking off your glasses? So we can see your face."

Lesson #1. I should have seen that coming. I had eschewed my contacts because I was going to be spending the night in Boston and didn't want to deal with the airport security hassle of liquids on carry-ons. Nor did I want to tangle with checking luggage for what was essentially a daytrip.

I made some quip about not being able to see anything, and the faculty made a joke about not falling off the stage. My opening song went pretty well, a weird tempo thing at the beginning notwithstanding. I've realized that I just need to take a firm stand with tempo. My penchant for fitting myself to another's rhythm (learned as a pianist and often-times accompanist) needs to be rooted out because with an accompanist, it can devolve into mush if I adjust to his adjustment to my original adjustment. Lesson #2.

That finished, they asked for the Handel, a zippy, coloratura-laden piece from the oratorio Joshua (my knowledge of Joshua is limited to this aria and the gem, O had I Jubal's lyre). I was excited about it, for the singing of it itself as well as the chance to try it out in a more demanding setting than a lesson. Then the crazy stuff started to happen.

"Could you start at the B section and stop after you repeat the A section?"

I was confused. My accompanist was confused. "Where is the B section?" I asked the faculty, still blurry-eyed and blind without my spectables. "Where is the B section?" my accompanist echoed, flipping through the pages.

There is a section of the aria where the thematic material changes, but it's not a da capo aria and there is no change of tempo or mood. Throughout all of this, the faculty are stony silent. I couldn't read their expressions, so I was imagining the worst: "Does this kid not know his own repertoire very well?"

Finally, I decide that the closest thing to a B section would be at the words "The fatal day of wrath is come." We would start there, finish the aria and use the cadence at the end of the piece to transition back to the duplicate one which heralds the entrance of the vocal part at the beginning. I finish discussing this with the accompanist when the chair of the faculty calls out and asks that I just sing. They'll stop me.

So I'm still thinking that the plan the accompanist and I have discussed will be our game plan. Judge my shock when he gives me two bars before my entrance at the beginning of the piece. Rocky start. I miff the melodic figuration of my entrance, though the upward melodic minor scale emerges gracefully and the high note is spot on. But I've already unnerved myself. I'm no longer performing; I'm just surviving. Surviving and observing myself outside my consciousness, cataloguing what is going wrong yet also vaguely (and thankfully) registering what is going right at the same time. Further, I begin to doubt how well I know this piece, resulting in shaky entrances and another flub at the end, missing an entrance and having to make something up a half bar later.

I'm blushing with shame as I finish, somewhat grateful that I can't see the faces of the faculty without my glasses on. The perfunctory "Thank you" from the chair feels cutting as I take my leave.

Outside the hall, the accompanist, perhaps trying to be nice, said I sounded good. "A flub at the end -- who cares?" I pack up slowly, making chit chat about where else I am auditioning, etc. The voice chair walks out en route to the admissions office and quickly apologizes.

"Sorry about the confusion about the B section in an aria that doesn't have one!"

I tell him it really threw me, but he is already gone.

So I packed up and left. I had originally planned to stick around for the 6pm meeting on opera at NEC, but I think I would have exploded in shame. So I called up my mom and gave her the details. While thinking it over and talking it through, the part of my memory that recalled all of the good stuff (every single coloratura passage was pretty great; the tone quality pretty good as well) kicked in. She reminded me that this wasn't a competition, so maybe it wasn't as dire as I had imagined, especially if there were good points. It wasn't news to me that if I thought I had sung poorly, that would obviously complicate my reading of the faculty reaction.

Speaking of the faculty reaction, my mother had some choice words to share with me. First and foremost, she was kind of outraged that the faculty remained silent when I asked where the B section was (and even when I offered up a half-voiced singing of the thematic material I thought could be construed as a B section). At the very least, she contended, they might have piped up that they were mistaken or something, anything to alleviate some of the pressure that they had to have known they put upon me. Subsequent conversation with a close friend echoed her sentiments (Mom: "If the faculty are like that, you don't want to go there anyway, so who cares?") by going further: "If they thought you were stupid for not knowing, that's one thing -- but it seems pretty clear that they had no idea what you were singing. There's a really big problem when teachers think that the way to deal with their ignorance or mistakes is simply to do nothing and hope it doesn't matter."

I wish I had the presence of mind to say either: "I don't believe there is a B section," or "This is not a da capo aria." Lesson #3: I actually know what I'm singing and should be confident of this fact.

We'll see what happens. Onward to the Curtis audition! (will post thoughts on Onegin [and now, on Lohengrin as well] later).


Embly said...

Audition committees can be so passive aggressive...yes they're listening to young singers all day, but please at least look at me when I sing...
I'm auditioning for vocal performance grad school too, though I'm coming out of a music theory degree. Let me know how Curtis is, I didn't apply there because I found their material very off-putting...but then I can not say really why I applied where...good luck!

Valerie said...

Alex- your entry made my heart bleed! I've played for many an audition and heard many horror stories too! A (very talented) friend of mine flew to Paris to audition at Opera Garnier and when the accompanist began her Strauss aria (Komponist), the tempo was about half speed. The intro is very short, so before she knew it my friend had begun the aria, hoping to indicate the correct tempo as they went along. Accompanist continued at same tempo. Friend soon realized she should have stopped and begun again but felt it was too late by this time, so manfully attempted the whole aria at the wrong tempo. When we met in London the next day, she was still sweating. She didn't get a callback. Lesson? Stick up for yourself-- sometimes you're the only one who will!
Toi toi toi for Curtis!

alex said...

Aw guys! Comments!

Thanks for your well wishes. Curtis has now come and gone -- I think I'll post an audition-process summary thing later this week when it sinks in.

Embly - good luck yourself! I'll have to read through your blog and figure out/guess where you're applying :) I'm finding it somewhat daunting to "break in" to vocal performance having not really done it before. At least not in any way that mimics how I eventually want to do it. How are you finding the process? Let me know how your stuff goes!

Valerie - thanks for the advice! I'm slowly coming to realize this simple fact. One thing I'm really appreciating from my teacher is that so much of what I want to do and am doing I control ("What are you planning on singing at X?") So while it'll be harder in the beginning as I make rank beginner mistakes, I will at least own them completely without a way to avoid responsibility.