World Masters Gymnastics Championships 2017


My second year as an adult gymnast; my second World Masters' Gymnastics Championships! If you want to compare to last year (hint: it compares favourably! Grown-ups can improve at stuff! :D) that post is here.

We'll go in Olympic order because why the heck not.


Well hey, this is a big improvement in that I actually trained vault this year! Vault was my worst event of a not-very-impressive all-around lineup as a kid. As far as I recall, it usually consisted of me running, putting my hands down at the front of the table, piking up to handstand, walking on my hands across the table so as not to smash my spine on the back edge of it, and flopping off onto my feet. It was SUPER IMPRESSIVE. So anyway, in the past year I've figured out how to get over the thing successfully at competition height, which is a win! I still pike up a bit, and my elbows bend to propel me off, but these two were good vaults for me and I was happy!



This was the event I was most proud of. Not because it actually met the requirements for the level I was competing in (it didn't.) But what you just watched was the fulfillment of probably the most epic struggle of my entire young life... THE KIP. For the uninitiated, the kip is the movement by which gymnasts, from moderately skilled recreational athletes all the way up to the Olympics, get from hanging beneath a bar to supporting the body on top of the bar.  The specialness of this particular movement, as physics professor Rhett Allain wrote for Wired, is that "the gymnast starts in a position with low potential energy and ends at a higher potential energy (here I mean gravitational potential energy in the Earth-gymnast system). How does this work? Clearly the gymnast must do some work, but her arms don’t even bend."

Indeed! And not only is the kip an fascinating, beautiful and elegantly simple movement, it's also one that's pretty damn hard to learn if you're a jiggly, uncoordinated goober, like like my thirteen-year-old self, and not a wiry, obedient six-year-old. And having gone through the recreational, not competitive stream of gymnastics as a child, as a young teenager I found it to be simply beyond my abilities, physically and intellectually. So when I quit gymnastics at fourteen, despite many years and countless times of being told I was "so close!" to finally ending up on top of the damn bar, I never did get my kip.

I finally did get it, about ten years after my supposedly-final Kip Defeat, at an adult open gym practice at the Thunder Bay Gymnastics Association: 

 It took me almost another full year to get my other kip-- it turns out the same skill on the high bar feels vastly different from the low bar version-- but at WMGC I finally fulfilled a long-held dream of having a bar routine with no pullovers in it.

The other new skill in my bar routine is the dismount, acquired this summer; flyaway was a skill that seemed impossibly far away as a kid, and turned out to be relatively easy for me to learn now. (Shout-out to the parkour dudes at open gym who effectively taught me a flyaway with the following advice: "It's easy, yo, that's like, the first gymnastics trick I leaned. Just let go of the bar and flip.")


Beam is the one event where I haven't caught up to where I was as a kid, only because I used to have more back flexibility and thus back walkover on the beam came fairly easily to me in ye olden days.  Still, I thought this was pretty solid (and the dismount was new!)


I am a terrible choreographer, wow. But my choreography was marginally better than last year's! Part of my problem is inordinately ambitious music... this years' was heavy metal Shostakovich, last years' was the Stranglers' Golden Brown, and for next year I am terribly tempted by Tanya Tagaq's Uja. Perhaps a dance class should be part of my activity schedule next season!

I did the same back tumbling (roundoff back handspring back tuck) but it was much less terrifying than it was last year, and I can now do it out of two steps, not two million, so I fit it in vertically across the floor just to be weird. The front tuck is new but I landed on my ass. But I also landed on my ass in last years' front handspring, so... yeah.

The final "events" at WMGC are the extras: the timed rope climb, and the (this is the real name) Back Tuck Circle of Rainbows and Happiness. I didn't compete in either of these last year. This year, I actually got up the rope (and am now working on my foot-less rope climb as a goal for next year) and I DID THE BACK TUCK CIRCLE, because I learned a standing back tuck this year! Another new, not re-acquired, skill. I only got five rounds in before landing on straight knees and bouncing onto my hands-- disappointing since I wasn't even tired! Just means there's lots of room for improvement.

"Lots of room for improvement" sums up my gymnastics pretty well; and I mean that in a joyous way. How would my frustrated, ineffective pre-teen self have felt about the idea that she would finally start improving at the rate she had been waiting for long after she had aged out of "normal" gymnastics classes?

And who cares about her opinion, anyway?

Just like fine wine... the adult gymnastics facebook group

How to win an audition

I have no idea. Yeah, I won one last week, but I still exited with a longer "to improve in my preparation process" list than a "things I did awesome on" list.

I'm still gonna write down everything I know about auditions, though, because the one thing I do know is:

you have to go to them.


~Winning my job~ was not the surreal, magical experience I imagined it would be while I was in school. There's a mythology about that idea, and that phrase, at music schools. "She won a job!" "Back when my teacher won his job..." "If I win a job..." or, for the cockier, "When I win my job..." We spend years imagining how we're going to feel on that day.

Winning my job felt normal.


I started taking auditions in third year of undergrad, which was the first point at which I had even a basic level of control over the instrument. In my final year of school, I won a tenure-track position in a small regional orchestra-- where only two people showed up to the audition.

I didn't win because I was an super-duper player and totally ready, I won because, on that specific day, to that specific committee, I was preferred over the other candidate. That's it; a relatively small thing, but it had an outsize effect. Besides a lot of street cred back at school, I suddenly had a small foothold in the freelance scene, a calling card of "I play here." I had a window into the lives of working musicians, the kind who aren't in the Montreal Symphony. Two years later, that orchestra moved from playing in a university lecture hall to a brand-new, gorgeous, city-owned performing arts center that rivals the best in the province. I've played principal parts with that orchestra that I would never have had the chance to do, as an out-of school freelancer: Tchaik 6, Don Juan, Bolero. We once played every single Beethoven piano concerto in the same concert. Next month, we're doing Mahler 2. Beyond the playing, I ended up on the Player's Committee; through the PC, I attended the annual conference of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, and became the delegate for my orchestra. A year after that, I became a member of the committee to re-negotiate our collective bargaining agreement. This is not exactly standard fare for the first few years after graduating from an undergrad in music.

In the middle of that, I won an audition where I WAS THE ONLY PERSON WHO SHOWED UP, for a one-year position in a small but full-time orchestra. Because I was the only person who bothered to do the audition, I ended up with the immense advantage of having the experience of doing a whole season, full-time, with a professional orchestra, straight out of my undergrad. What I learned is that the difference between being a freelancer, and being a musician with a pile of folders on the stand from the same orchestra, is HUGE.

I also learned that the things that seem easy in music school become not-so-easy as soon as you're not in music school. At McGill, I took for granted that I would practice at least 3 hours a day or so. Why on earth wouldn't I? All my friends were doing it. The practice hallway was the social and community hub of the school. I would arrive there around eight in the morning and start warming up. As people arrived, they'd check in on their colleagues-- you have a lesson today? What are you going to play? How's the face feeling? K, have a good warm up. Skipping classes to practice was de rigueur. The cafeteria would clear out at around 1 or 2 PM when stragglers finally managed to convince each other to get get back up the stairs to the practice wing. If I ever felt bored in the evenings, I knew I could walk the two blocks back to school, noodle around a bit on the bassoon, and chat with whoever else was still hanging around. Life was good-- practicing itself was never easy, but the idea of needing motivation to practice was laughable.

HA. HA. HA. Living in a basement apartment, playing second bassoon to a level that was pleasing to the people around me and thus mostly uncommented-on, suddenly I found myself struggling to sit down and get in an hour a day of focused practice. It turns out that, just like the act of practicing is a skill, the act of planting your butt in a chair with the intention of practicing is also a skill, and one that atrophies fast.

I'm still not up to the same level of consistent, quality practice that I was at McGill-- but if I'm being honest, I think it's probably pretty universal feeling among professionals about their student days. And I do regret all the lost practice time in the past few years, especially when I contemplate how most of the people who show up to the same auditions as me went to grad school, and thus have at least two more years of intensive practicing than I do under their belts. But I also have the experience of making the transition, and having it be shitty at first, and then gradually better. That, too, was an education. To a certain, still small extent, I know how to transition into a job.


So when I won this audition (which had a regular number of people at it, for once! :P) it felt totally natural-- as if there is such a thing as a career path, and this was the logical next step in mine. I didn't freak out. I just did what I had learned in Gabe Radford's audition seminar, way back in NYOC 2011, to do in the event of a successful audition, and what I had practiced twice before-- smile, say thank you, and shake hands with your new colleagues.

Realistically, my A+ audition advice of "just make sure to show up to really sparsely populated auditions!" isn't exactly practical for the vast majority. Especially those that play instruments more popular than the bassoon, and people who aren't Canadians with the benefit of national auditions. SO while you can't control the second part-- "sparsely populated auditions"-- you can control the first. JUST MAKE SURE TO SHOW UP. How many people could have snatched my first two, crucial jobs out from under me if they had bothered to try? Honestly, probably a lot. They just didn't.

So there, that's my audition advice. JUST GO. Even if you think you suck, even if you're not sure you want the job, even if one of your keys starts making a weird buzzing sound two days before that might have been all in your head (*raises hand*), even if your Tchaik 6 reeds develops a crack the day before (*raises hand again*), even if you have to fly back the day of the audition to be at an 8 AM madrigal-learning session the next day (*bangs head against desk*), even if you have to fly to the audition the morning of (actually not me, but MAJOR kudos to one hugely determined candidate at the audition last week for getting up at 3 AM after a gig the night before to fly across the country and play an audition.) JUST GO.


And now, a world premiere

The thing about playing in a symphony orchestra, which fact is so obvious as to barely even need stating, is that often you're playing music written a long time ago. Something I do often, especially while playing music that I'm somewhat in awe of, is to imagine the circumstances and feelings of the person who must have played the part I am playing for the first time. Some are fairly mysterious; but some pieces allow for a decent amount of extrapolation just based on the context of the piece. It's safe to assume, for instance, that the bassoonist playing in the orchestra at La Scala for the first performance of La Gazza Ladra was feeling something in between annoyance and panic, seeing as, according to legend, the overture was only completed in time for the performance when the producer locked Rossini in a room and forced him to write, handing pages out the window to the copyists. (I know I certainly was the time that I had to play the principal part of that on ten minutes' notice.)

Others are more mysterious, but intriguing. Consider the bassoon solo in Shostakovich's 9th symphony: 


The 9th symphony is, for the most part, a light and cheerful work, with the bassoon solo as the glaring exception to the mood of the piece. In the Bulletin of  the Moscow State Philharmonic for 1945, Shostakovich is quoted mentioning (and complimenting) the bassoonist by name: one Vorobyov. How did Vorobyov feel, in the hanging moments of silence before the beginning of the fourth movement began, knowing that he was about to play not only probably the biggest orchestral solo of his life (there are, indeed, very few bigger orchestral solos available)  but one that-- at least in the interpretation of most modern bassoonists-- carries dangerous political undertones? David McGill, in his "Orchestral Excerpts for Bassoon" CD, ascribes the text "Free-dom!" to the first two notes of the solo, and describes later motifs as "fooling the authorities" and "a strong undercurrent of pointed sarcasm."  Stephane Levesque, when giving a short class on his interpretation of the piece when I was at McGill, described his imagination of an individual alternately speaking out against injustice, then being cowed at the dangers of doing so and retreating. 

It's difficult to imagine that this interpretation hadn't occurred to Vorobyov. Was the thinking about totalitarianism and dissidence, as he took a breath for that first F? Or was he only thinking about the hope that his embouchure wouldn't tire before the end of the movement?

This line of enquiry is a preamble, basically, to the point that it's easy for modern musicians to imagine that we have lost something that previous generations once had. The vast majority of modern musicians, if asked who their favourite composer is, will name someone whose music they will never premiere, for obvious reasons. When mainstream orchestral musicians do give a premiere, often we're not too happy about it. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is a kind of time-based quality bias: if "good" music is music that has stood the test of time, then every generation is going to end up premiering a relatively large proportion of total garbage, of which only the cream of the crop will ever be heard by subsequent generations. The second possible explanation is that music has simply gotten weirder and less fun to play over the past hundred years. I will leave the merits of that theory up to people who have the energy for spirited debates about the essence of contemporary music. 

The point is-- it is a rare and unusual thing, to give a premiere which makes you think, "this must be how it felt to play [other piece that I like] for the first time." To play music that is a) good, b) situated unmistakeably in the sound world of the present day, and c) likely to receive repeat performances and become part of an actual body of repertoire, is a very unusual thing.  

I had the opportunity to play such a piece the other night. The piece was Ecstasy by Christos Hatzis, with text composed and performed by Sarah Slean. If these names sound familiar together, it's because Ecstasy is a companion piece to the first collaboration between Hatzis and Slean, Lamento. I actually had the opportunity to play Lamento twice,  first with the Niagara Symphony and then with Thunder Bay, and it is a piece with an enormous emotional impact and an incredible musical inventiveness. You can watch the premiere of that piece, with Symphony Nova Scotia, on CBC:

The TBSO commissioned Ecstasy as a kind of counterpoint to Lamento, as the names would suggest. They also commissioned another piece from Hatzis, which they will perform in October 2016.

Although it would be rude of me to say I hope to be there-- since my being there would require someone else's getting sick-- the impact of Hatzis' music, and the experience of being the first person to get a part, hear it in the context of the whole, and be present for the creation of something both new and lasting, is almost enough to make me want to say it.  

Some athletic pursuits

Around nine months ago, I went into the University of Toronto Strength and Conditioning Centre during the Women's-only hours, and used 20 seconds of courage to ask the woman beside me how to adjust the supports on the squat rack. 

That day I managed-- barely-- to squat an empty barbell, bench press a 30 lb EZ-bar while lying on the ground, and do something resembling a barbell row with the same. I wrote that shit down:

By January 2016, I had progressed: I could squat 95 lbs, press about half my weight, and deadlift 20 lbs more than my weight.

So I made an impulse purchase. Well, an impulse purchase I had only been waiting for ten years to make: I signed up for a gymnastics class.

I stopped doing gymnastics-- like most people-- in my teens. I was never particularly good. I did advanced recreational and interclub classes, never able to progress beyond level 4 in competitions because the kip, a foundational skill on bars, constantly eluded me. So I left with unfinished business... if nothing else, I want to get that one skill before I die. 

So, after years of saying I was going to and occasionally dropping in on open gym sessions in Montreal and Thunder Bay, I finally bit the bullet and signed up for an actual class, once a week, at Toronto Gymnastics International-- the gym that I first went to a birthday party at when I was seven years old, and stayed until I was fourteen. 

"There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." (--Apparently Nelson Mandela? Who knows.) It turns out that six months of lifting heavy (for me) things and and intentionally eating lots of food had changed me a lot. It's noticeable when your body is more capable than you assumed it was. When, in the warmup of the first class, we were told to do a line across the floor of handstand walking, I kicked up to handstand and was surprised, a few seconds later, to find I was at the other end without ever having fallen. By the third class, I got back on the tumble track-- a kind of very long trampoline-- the most advanced tumbling line I had ever done on floor as a kid (roundoff-backhandspring-back tuck.) Most of all, my body just felt different than I expected it to-- in a good way.

Aw yiss! It's only been... um... ten years? #gymnastics #trampoline #tumbling #fitness

A video posted by Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on


So when I saw a post on titled "Call to Meet! Masters Competition in Ontario, Canada!" I clicked. ("Masters'," for those unfamiliar with athletic categories, is a euphemism for "old," not an indication of the competitors actually having "mastered" anything in particular (besides their own post-adolescent biology.)) It was clearly something I was interested in: the rules for the meet included things like, 

"Awards: As you are adults, adult awards will be given. Large bottles for 1st-3rd, smaller bottles for 4th-6th . Awards for younger adults (and those who don't like bottles) will be available. NO AWARDS CAN BE OPENED IN THE GYM! Next year's competition depends on it." 

and, although this didn't affect me this year: 

"For men and women ages 25+. Don't want to compete against young'uns?!? Don't worry; back by popular demand is “Mulligan Money!” Gymnasts ages 25-34 get one Mulligan dollar, 35-44 get two, and 45-54 get three, etc. Not enough? Buy more at the competition. All proceeds go toward Multiple Sclerosis research through MS Canada. Give these to the judges and they will “look the other way” that time that you had two dismounts on the beam, took an “extra” warm-up vault, “extended” the boundaries of the floor, needed some “help” getting above the rings, etc."

So I signed up. It turns out, a lot has changed since I last competed in gymnastics. Like, in the rules. Levels 1-5 now have compulsory routines, meaning each routine is a list of skills that you have to do (in that order, in the cases of bars and beam.) Old skills that weren't being done much when I was a kid were suddenly on-trend, like the stride circle, a bizarre faceplant-y thing with the bar in between one's legs, which I learned when I still thought that I would be able to compete different levels on different events:

Once I realized that you did, in fact, have to compete the same level on all events, I was conflicted: I wanted to compete my back tuck tumbling line on floor. That would mean competing level 5; but I didn't have the compulsory skills on any other event for level 5. (Still don't have the kip, for instance :P) So I called the meet director; he informed me that a) it was fine if I didn't have the compulsory skills, lots of other people would be in the same boat and b) since there were fewer people in level 5 than prizes, there was no point in not competing on an event just because I couldn't do it-- all that would do would give up free prize booze. 

Getting tumbling from the tumble track to the competition floor involves two upgrades: putting it on rod floor, which is a boucier type of floor, and then putting it on the spring floor, which is, well, the floor. 

I got it onto the rod floor

but was still having trouble with the real floor:

I also missed some classes as I was playing some concerts in Thunder Bay. I did what I could to practice.

Finally, in my last practice before the competition, I managed to put it on the floor with no spotter and run through my routine:

The competition was so much fun, and full of amazing people. There was a man in his sixties competing. There were two women doing the "super all-around," aka competing all 4 womens' events and then all 6 mens' events. There was a rope-climbing competition where almost everyone scampered up without even using their legs. Most of all, there were people of all ages and body types doing gymnastics, proving that this sport is for everyone. (Don't believe me on the "everyone" count? Check out Johanna Quaas at 86.)

Here are my routines. I didn't get a video of me vault, because I wasn't planning on doing it until the judges told me I could use a mini-trampoline instead of a springboard. I did land on my feet without falling over for one of my vaults, though, which I was pretty proud of considering I hadn't trained it :P

I also hadn't been planning on competing beam until the week of the competition. So my beam "routine" ended up being more of a "list of things I can still do on beam on ten minutes' practice."

Bars was kinda the level 3 compulsory routine with some added high bar stuff. 

Floor! I ended up getting 2nd out of 6 competitors on floor, woohoo! My single-minded focus on my first tumbling line meant I barely worked on the second one and ended up falling on my ass. Oh well. 

So... there ya have it, that's what I've been doing while not blogging (basically, I've been Instagramming.) Music stuff? Yes, also that too. Despite the fact that I actually started strength training in order to pass a lift test for a day job (which I eventually did, yay!) I haven't scheduled any shifts in a while as I actually have enough work to be a full-time freelance musician right now and for the next few months, which is pretty rad. 

Guess what else is rad? Skwaaaaats. Soon I'll even be able to use a real full-size plate for them :P

Just another few months and I'll be able to use real plates for my squats :P #fitness #xxfitness #nerdfitness

A video posted by Anna Norris (@nichteilen) on



Bread, circuses, and symphonies

By now, most of the people who care have heard about the accident at the Toronto Symphony Cirque de la Symphonie performance on Tuesday. For the uninformed-- and anyone who didn't see the youtube video of the incident before it was pulled down by a copyright claim (I'm sure they were reeeeal worried about the copyrighted material in that video)-- a circus performer crashed into a cellist in the middle of an act. Nobody was injured (and no instruments harmed), but it has set off some debate about the amount of acceptable risk for musical performers. (Warning: link contains Slipped Disc comments section, proceed with extreme caution :P)

The TSO has this to say for itself:

We put the safety of all artists first and foremost. Cirque has an excellent safety track record. And today a safety review was also conducted post incident and their performance was altered to ensure no future potential risk to the audience, musicians, performers or instruments.

This is a pretty disappointing statement coming from a group of people who supposedly know something about music and art. "No future potential risk" is not a thing. Ever. People make mistakes. Musicians know that; no matter how good the player, sometimes something happens that wasn't supposed to. Sometimes you go to the Toronto Symphony and someone misses a note. It's not a big deal; nobody is hurt and the sun rises the next morning. 

The acrobat made a mistake equivalent to a musician making an embarrassing cack: he misjudged, and a noticeable mistake followed. Not because he's incompetent; because he's human. Any group of people doing difficult things with their bodies is going to have this happen every so often. If you're lucky, all that results is a shaken cellist. If you're unlucky, someone dies.

The TSO statement is disingenuous because it doesn't recognize this reality. When you sign up to be an acrobat, you accept a certain amount of physical risk. Circus performers know this, and their management knows this. Cirque du Soleil, for instance, has three levels of insurance on the performers in each show: their own extensive corporate liability policy, the required liability policy of every Cirque venue, and the organization also covers life insurance for all performers. (Source) Risk exists. It's up to every individual to decide the level of risk they're comfortable with before signing on  to a risky job-- and, crucially, it's the responsibility of the employer to inform the employee of the level of risk. 

So the problem is not that an acrobat made a mistake. That's fine and normal. The problem is that the people affected by the mistake never agreed to the level of risk they were being exposed to. "Be hit by flying limbs every so often" is in the job description of an acrobat, and it is not in the job description of a cellist. Apparently, nobody on the management level of the orchestras booking this show have ever considered that mounting an acrobatic production in a space not built to accommodate acrobatics is going to involve an increased level of risk to workers who normally do not experience that particular level of risk.

Which brings us to questions of responsibility moving forward. What does the AFM think of all this? Health and safety is a traditional part of the interests of many unions, but seeing as musical venues tend not to be the sort of workplace where, for instance, WHMIS regulations apply, it's probably safe to assume they're a little rusty on that function.  And it's not exactly the kind of situation that's made provisions for in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, as far as I could tell from a casual browse of the document, which I have to say is not exactly light bedtime reading. 

Finally, it's also pretty unlikely that any orchestra would have specific enough contract language to have any sort of a basis for dealing with this kind of issue. So... should they?

Brave new world, that has such contracts in it!



Music school, freelancing, and "winning"

Here’s the thing about freelancing. 

In music school, you learn how to do auditions. You learn how to do auditions because you do a lot of them; at least one a year, maybe two, just to be ranked in your core ensembles, plus plenty of others; youth orchestras, summer festivals, big solos, professional orchestras. If you do it right, you get pretty good at auditions. You acquire an internal locus of control vis a vis auditions, and maybe even start to enjoy them. 

By the end of music school, though, you’ve acquired not just an aptitude for auditions, but some specific ideas about their outcomes. Because school auditions aren’t like other auditions. One person doesn’t win and the others walk away with nothing. One person wins, more or less, and the next few people still get something pretty good, and the rest get a place at the bottom of the totem pole. If you school experience works for you, it’s likely that you start right at the bottom, and work your way up to the top, or near the top, as you advance. It’s a real good feeling. Having a hierarchy can be scary— but it can also be comforting. For the duration of your time in music school, you can point to a list of names on the wall and say “look! This is me. This is where I fit. I am better than these people, and these other people are better than me. If I keep working, I will keep rising. Life is fair.”


The real world doesn’t work that way. First of all, obviously, that’s not how professional auditions work. The bottom 90% of candidates aren’t ranked; they’re just told to go home. The top 10% may well fall into a ranking (who got to the semis/finals/got a trial) but only one positions really matters, and it’s #1. 

Freelancing also doesn’t work like that, because not only is there no ranking, there’s no winner at all. Sure, there are people who get more gigs than other people. But how do you decide who wins? Is it the person who makes the most money? (Are they allowed to have a day job?) The person first on the sub list for the most prestigious ensemble? (Who decides what’s most prestigious? Does a symphony orchestra beat out an opera orchestra?) The person with the most students? (Are they actually a good teacher, or just enterprising?) There’s no way to decide. The ranking simply doesn’t exist. Everyone is just humans, trying to strike a balance between survival and artistic fulfillment. 

For a recent graduate of a music school with a defined system of ranking, this isn’t the relief one might think it would be. It’s like having the carpet yanked out from under your feet. Suddenly, you’re not owed anything. There’s not even anything you can do to become owed anything. And if you don’t wise up to that fact, things can get ugly. 

Instead of focusing on your own improvement, it’s easy to become subconsciously obsessed with reconstructing a ranking that never existed. Who’s in town? What gigs are they getting? Should I have gotten that gig? Wow, that person has a damn fine-lookin’ website. That person went to a better school than me, so they win over me. I once played with that person while they were having a bad day, so I win over them. Am I winning as much as I should be? How can I win more? A preoccupation with winning a nonexistent competition can be paralysing. When abstract victory is more important than concrete self-improvement, practice suffers. And when practice suffers, you guessed it… it sure don’t feel like winning.

Is this music school’s fault? Nah. The system by which most schools rank and place students in ensembles is fair, and for many people, effectively motivates improvement. It’s just one of those many ways in which school can’t, and maybe shouldn’t prepare you for the real world. 

So, folks, time to log off and go practice.

I august, you august, they august

I started the month of August feeling somewhat nervous over the fact that I had almost no gigs lined up. Fortunately, it picked up somewhat, and I've actually been pretty busy. 

On the 4th, I played a recital at the Belfountain Music Festival. Belfountain is an area in Caledon, Ontario, where violinist Zachary Ebin has put together an eclectic festival featuring professional concerts in multiple genres of music as well as a student division of Suzuki string students. It all takes place in the Melville White church, one of the few remaining pre-Victorian era timber frame churches in Ontario, which was built in 1837, in active use until 1964 and is now under restoration. I played the 2nd cello suite-- turns out it still hurts the face if you've been playing it for years, folks-- as well as Nussio's Variations on a Theme by Pergolesi, the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No.6 for flute and bassoon, and a Handel sonata fashioned into another flute-and-bassoon duet. 

Two days after that recital, the Belfountain Music Festival featured a string quartet concert with a professionally-led campfire sing-along out back behind the church afterwards, to give you an idea of the kinds of things going on there!

Pretty much immediately afterwards-- close enough to the recital that I didn't feel too guilty about leaving my bassoon at home and calling it "post-recital relaxation," anyway-- I attended as a delegate of the 2015 conference of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Muscians! OCSM is a conference of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM, aka the musicians' union) which counts as member orchestras pretty much all the major symphony orchestras in Canada and many of the full- and part-time regional ones. For the first time, the Niagara Symphony was invited to send a delegate, so I hopped in the car and drove past more windmills than I'd ever seen in my life to Windsor, Ontario, where the conference was held this year. I learned a ton about orchestra contracts, negotiating, the AFM, and the way that other orchestras in Canada do things, met some super people from all over Canada, and had a waterfront view of Detroit from my hotel for five days. Creedance Clearwater Revival was playing some sort of reunion concert in Detroit the first night I was there, and there were people lined up all along the Windsor waterfront to listen.

When I got back from Windsor, I pretty much just stayed on the road and spent a night in Kitchener before spending two days in Hamilton filling out the section for the final concert of this year's National Academy Orchestra/Brott Music Festival. (It not even that much closer, but WOW, is it ever more pleasant driving to Hamilton from Kitchener than Toronto...) We played Carmina Burana, which contains my favourite Latin drinking song ever!

I have two more one-day gigs and some private lessons to teach in Toronto before I go to the Interprovincial Music Camp to teach as a faculty assistant. 

And finally, I am moving for September! Into a slightly more expensive ($630 instead of $554-- all good prices for downtown Toronto), but disproportionately more pleasant (I anticipate), co-op house. Woo-hoo!

Toronto livin'

I've been living in Toronto for a little over two months now, and we're well into the "mostly wasps with a 60% chance of stinky garbage" phase of summer. For better or for worse, most of my gigs at this point are either outside or in churches, meaning a trip to the Salvation Army to get some less-hot black clothes is probably in order! Thus far it's been enjoyable, though, especially since some of the gigs I had in the past few weeks were at Casa Loma. Casa Loma is a large and impressive castle with equally large and impressive gardens built in the early 1900's but Sir Henry Pellatt, who as far as I can tell (mostly by reading the informational signs inside Casa Loma itself) was kind of a pompous dick. Eventually he couldn't pay his taxes and the city seized the castle, although not before it was used during World War 2 as a secret Allied research base-- the sonar equipment used to detect U-boats was developed in the attic of Casa Loma, hidden from the public (who came to the castle for weekly social dances) by nothing more than a sign that said "Under construction, we apologize for the inconvenience."

Anyway, Casa Loma has some pretty rad gardens, maintained by a whole army of gardeners, which includes a closed (and air-conditioned!) glass gazebo in which concerts are held every Tuesday. I didn't take any pictures, but fortunately for once the publicity photo is exactly correct about what it actually looks like: 

Casa Loma set up for a concert. 

Casa Loma set up for a concert. 

The music is great; we played an "Opera Hits" show, Beethoven 7, and the most recent Tuesday, a concert of mostly French Impressionism. The place is always packed-- even the Beethoven 7 concert, when it started pouring rain in the middle of the performance, people who were outside of the gazebo stayed to listen!

Tomorrow I have a different outdoor gig, at the Jackson-Triggs winery. I've played there once before, with NYOC in 2012. Jackson-Triggs has its own amphitheatre and puts on an entire summer concert series: 

On my way through wine country tomorrow, I'm also planning on stopping at a meadery to buy some mead, which I haven't been able to find in LCBOs and have been trying to for ever!

I also have some solo stuff going on; last Friday I played a kids' show of my very own, consisting of the 2nd Cello Suite and Nussio's Variations on a Theme by Pergolesi, with lots of explanations, jokes and tricks in between the movements of each. One of the teachers at the Niagara Summer Music Camp later told me that she had never seen the campers so attentive before for a single-instrument recital!

I'll be playing the same rep again, plus the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 6 (for flute and bassoon) and some Handel duets at the Belfountain Music Festival on August 4th. 

Besides all that, I also got a job at a patient transfer company-- the non-emergency ambulances that take patients between hospitals and from their homes to hospital appointments-- and as a result of the lifting requirements of the job, have finally started lifting weights for real! I have been doing the Stronglifts 5x5 program at the U of T gym. I've been meaning to learn how to lift for... like, years, so this job is the kick in the pants I need :D I start my job training at the company in a few weeks!

On a personal note... I got engaged! Here's a fuzzy laptop picture of my hand with some new bling. (Might do away with the black nail polish for the actual wedding, haha...)

Finger bling!

Finger bling!

That's all, folks. Now, I gotta go work out/warm up/make reeds/ get supplies to make some jam with the huge excess of mulberries on the trees around my house!



  • I was waitlisted for Rice. Considering I started the process resigned to the idea of not even getting past the prescreening, I feel A-OK about that!
  • I participated in my very first concerto competition! A few weeks ago I flew to Toronto for a day to play in the finals of the Orchestra Toronto concerto competition. The winner ended up being a flutist that I went to McGill with (3/4 of the finalists were McGill people, interestingly...) but I was still very happy with how I played. Because of the competition, I ended up pulling out of the opera audition I was going to do around the same time after realizing that the job sounded good in theory but would actually be extremely inconvenient in practice. Plus, I could do the competition without missing out on any services in Thunder Bay, whereas for the audition I would have lost a few days worth of pay for an audition that didn't serve my interests anyway.
  • I went to a barn dance at a farm in Neebing the other night with some symphony friends! Merrie, our principal trumpet, is also a Ceilidh dance caller, and her husband is a celtic fiddler who was playing with a guitar player visiting from Quebec.  It was awwweeesome.
  • The symphony season ends on the 3rd of May, but I am staying an extra week to play a show with my wind quintet! It will be at 3 PM on May 9th at the Foundry. The title of the show is "Music of the Americas," despite my mostly-joking suggestion of "Nothing European." Entrance is by donation.
  • I guess I technically have two symphony seasons to play the ends of-- I haven't been in St. Catharine's very much this year, but I'll be with the Niagara Symphony for the last concert of the season on May 17, in which, bizarrely, we are playing one of the same pieces that we played in my first concert in Thunder Bay-- Christos Hatzis' Lamento, sung by Sarah Slean. This will be our last concert in Sean O'Sullivan theatre at Brock-- next season, we will be moving into the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, the new PAC in downtown St. Catherine's. (FirstOntario is apparently a credit union that made a major donation, but it's kind of a snazzy name for it, isn't it?)

Signature from Mike Hope-- 2nd bassoon of the Calgary Philharmonic-- in the rental part for Hindemith's Der Schwanendreher. I added my own name and orchestra.

My favourite genre of picture, the someone-elsie. Geoff taking a selfie from the top of Mink Mountain, a popular hiking spot near Thunder Bay.

The, uh, small black specks are people taking advantage of the last viable ice-fishing weather a few weeks ago.


Things that having freedom of speech means:

  • The government can't stop you from or punish you for saying or publishing what you want. (Within reason-- no libel, hate speech, etc.)

Things that having freedom of speech does not mean:

  • Your employer has to continue employing you no matter what you choose to say.
  • Gatekeepers have to give you a platform for your ideas whether they want to or not.
  • Other (non-government) people are not allowed to tell you to shut up

(This post brought to you partly, although certainly not exclusively, by the fact that orchestras are not organizations that have any power to grant or withhold the right to free speech even if they wanted to!)

The Astronaut Wives Club & the importance of lipstick

As I sit here on a Greyhound bus contemplating catching up with the most recent episodes of Marvel's Agent Carter, I am reminded of an interesting trend across various forms of narrative media: a lot of the stories told about women-as-protagonists are about women who are able to take on traditionally masculine roles. A lot of the time, when we read books or watch TV shows or movies about women, we're in board because we are absorbing the story of women who are able to do the same things men did, or better things in similar arenas, despite the handicap of massive prejudice against them. This is great! These stories are really important and awesome. (I also just finished the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and expect to have devoured the whole show my the end of March, HELP.) They're inspiring because flying in the face of convention is difficult, and women succeeding in traditionally masculine arenas are doing something difficult successfully. But what the single-minded focus on those stories neglects is that women who successfully carry out traditionally feminine roles also accomplish someting difficult, something just as important and worthy of being remembered. Which flies in the face of several millennia's worth of accepted wisdom about what kinds of stories, especially historical stories, are interesting and valuable. Which brings me to the topic of this post: The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel, which I downloaded from the Toronto Public Library Overdrive site to read on my many planes and buses during this week off from the TBSO.

Let's get this out of the way: I'm not a space nerd like some people are space nerds. I like space. I've read Wikipedia pages. I borrowed Chris Hadfield's book. I coughed up the dough for an Uber out to the Johnson Space Centre when I was in Houston, and got teary-eyed at a speech of George W. Bush's for the first and hopefully last time in my life (they played a recording of some memorial speech of his when the tour stopped in the middle of the field planted with trees for dead astronauts.) But, y'know, I didn't buy the t-shirt, I don't run out and get any new space-related book as soon as it's released, and a lot of the information in this book that was new to me probably wouldn't have been new to someone for whom knowledge about America's space exploration is a more important hobby.

That said, it seems like a lot of people read this book expecting new information about the actual space program, or the astronauts, or something. Those people are dumb. This book isn't about astronauts, and it isn't about space. It's about women on Earth, and how being a woman on Earth can take just as much out of you as being an astronaut in space. And these women had enough of being manufactured personas during their time as 1950s-acceptable "Perfect Responsible American Wives"; they don't need to be transformed yet again into 2015-acceptable "Strong Women."

And that seems to be pretty much where the backlash is coming from. This is a book that refuses to alter its subjects to be palatable to the modern reader. Thus, when I ventured into the wild world of internet reviews to see what people were saying about the book on Goodreads and Amazon, I found mostly things like this:

 How I wanted to love this book. I'm a big space nerd and have read lots about the astronauts. So this seemed like a natural fit: the familiar story but told from the other side. And there was some of that, yes, but unfortunately too much of the book was just one slightly or not-so-slightly humorous anecdote after the other and descriptions of dresses and shoes.

And this particularly nasty one:

How to write a book about the space program that's far less compelling than the one Tom Wolfe wrote on the same subject, in five easy steps.

1) First, make sure to eliminate everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it. The space race was an insane endeavor. Astronauts faced death when they got in those capsules; some of them actually died. Americans became obsessed with nationalist astro-gazing, but in the background buzzed the constant (and not unsubstantiated) fear that Russia would blow us the fuck up. Ignore all of that. Instead, focus on people's hair.

2) Second, write like a middling high school sophomore. It's best if you channel said sophomore as if he had gotten spectacularly high and only then remembered he had to write something (imagine that, by this point, he's three bowls in and not having an easy time getting his neurons to fire appropriately).

3) Organization, schmorganization. Ramble about whatever comes to mind!

4) Provide no information on the historical context, except to mention that, by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in.

5) Don't attempt to humanize your subjects by providing well-researched biographical information. Instead, just find out what they were wearing at the time. That's much easier.

This is nonfiction for the kind of workaday philistines who get their book recommendations from People magazine. The Astronaut Wive's Club is sure to please that demographic: it has a pretty cover, and is a great choice for the type of person who spends their evenings watching The Real Housewives of Orange County while writing inane Facebook posts in which they bemoan their perceived lack of reading time.

Well, ouch. Usually if you want to hear the word "philistines" used in a non-Biblical context, you're going to have to take some undergraduate literature seminars.

It's not that none of the criticisms of the book are valid. Koppel insists on touching on every single one of the wives from Mercury through the end of Apollo, which is a lot of people to keep track of. However, some of them were definitely more vivid than others-- Annie Glenn, who eventually overcame her debilitating stutter, Betty Grissom, who publicly took on NASA and their manufacturer after her husband's death in a ground test for Apollo 1, Rene Carpenter, who ended up with a media presence that eclipsed her husband's when she wrote the syndicated column "A Woman Still" in the Houston Chronicle and hosted TV shows Nine in the Morning and Everywoman, and Trudy Cooper, herself a pilot-- so yes, mostly the Mercury wives got the most attention, and perhaps the book would have been better focusing primarily on them.

However, the complaints about the focus on unimportant things like hair and lipstick are spectacularly missing the point. The whole point is that this book is that it is  not about "everything that's interesting about space, and the politics involved in exploring it." That's not the story being told, because the political story of the time is the mens' story, and it's one that has been told before-- how on earth this reviewer come to be under the impression that this book is about the same subject as Tom Wolfe's? It's not.  The purpose of this book is the acknowledgement  that the hair and lipstick and pictures and publicity that made up the world that these women inhabited hold actual meaning.  Take the story of how "by the first Mercury launch, pink lipstick was out and red lipstick was in." Sure, in itself that piece of information isn't particularly interesting. That's not what that section of the book is about, though. The real story of the pink vs. red lipstick is this: the week after the front cover of Life Magazine featured the seven Mercury astronauts, it featured the seven wives attached to them. This was the wives' introduction to America; they had a responsibility, placed on them by NASA and by their husbands, to represent themselves as the perfect all-American women. The image that would be placed on the cover of the magazine meant a lot-- it had to be a statement of not only who they were, but who all of the wives of America should be. If you are a woman, a lot of your power to be understood within a particular identity comes from how you look. And even if you choose to delude yourself into thinking that this is not still the case today (and you would be deluding yourself), it certainly was in 1959. And in 1959, lipstick-wise, pink was in; not just due to a random whim of fashion, but because the particular pink the wives chose to all wear for the cover photo was the signature colour of the First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower. The choice to wear pink lipstick was the choice to present themselves as sturdy, responsible, and respectable. When they got their first glance at the cover of the actual magazine, though, the ladies were horrified: their lips were red! The editors of Life had decided that Mamie Pink was too old-fashioned and wanted these, the women living on the bleeding edge of the Space Age, to usher in a new era of bold fashion. So, they darkened the hue of the lipstick in the photo to red. It was the beginning of a time in each woman's life during which she was the human behind an intensely manufactured image.

So, Goodreads reviewers, don't try to tell me that lipstick isn't an important part of the story. The ladies knew it was important, the editors at Life knew it was important, and America knew it was important.

 And, if you'd like to read something with a refreshing respect for the stories of women operating within historically feminine boundaries, you can get the book from your library or... okay, this is 2015, you know how to buy a book on the internet, nobody needs me to actually link to where you can buy this book from. It is also, apparently, being turned into a 10-episode TV series by ABC, which I will be watching for. 


I had been putting off buying clothes: somehow I have spent half a season in a full-time symphony and still only have one concert outfit, which is... kinda gross. So I went to the Salvation Army today, and shall share the finds in what is known, in the slang of dem kidz, as a haul. Work clothes: Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.15 PM Black pants from Guess, $9.74

Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.22 PM Rather wrinkled black pants from Reitmans, $3.99 (hmm... I don't have an iron... I could have gotten one from the Salvation Army for $2.99... ALSO, there was a SLOW COOKER for sale for $4.99! Unfortunately I already have one of those.)

Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.24 PM Black shirt with lace collar from Jessica, $7.99

Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.29 PM This dress from Oasis looked black on the rack, and then in the dressing room it looked more blue, so I was like "BUT WHAT IF I DO NAO AGAIN???" and bought it anyway. (Most concerts at NAO the ladies wore coloured gowns.) Someone tried to do a DIY job on the straps to make them fancy and crisscross-y, which I'm pretty sure I can just snip off and sew them back on so they go over my shoulders. Besides... it was $9.99.

Not work clothes: Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.26 PM I currently own 3 pairs of jeans: one with a giant hole in each knee, one with a hole in the side seam from where my bag rubs against my leg, and one where the fly will not stay zipped for more than five minutes. So YAY: Jeans from Guess, $14.99

Photo on 2015-02-19 at 7.36 PM Dress from xhilaration, $9.99

plastic bag: $0.05

total: $56.74

into the washing machine with y'all.

Tuesday afternoon music

For the TBSO's Music in the Classroom program, today I was in schools with a wind quintet. Among many other things we played the Adagio from Hetu's wind quintet, and the kids were asked to think during the movement about what kind of scene would belong to that music in a movie. One tiny kid confidently raised his hand and said, "D-Day." Hear for yourself:

The Cost of Auditioning for Grad School

One of my favourite blog-type websites is The Billfold.  In its own words, the site is:

The Billfold is not another personal finance site. A personal finance site is a site for people who have decided to overhaul their financial lives, and want help doing it. We are a site about money. We are interested in people’s lives and how funds make those lives awesome, and not-so-awesome.

The Billfold aims to do away with the misbelief that talking about difficult money issues is uncomfortable, and create a space to have an honest conversation about how we save, spend and repay our debts. We are going to break one of the last taboos in our culture—talking about what you earn, what you spend, what you owe.

One of the ways they do this is with a series called The Cost of Things, in which a large variety of writers explain the costs of various things they did. Some of them are things that sound expensive in the first place, like The Cost of Crossfit/Lifting. Some of them are things that sound expensive and scary but you would have no idea what all was really involved before actually going through it, such as The Cost of Getting Settled in the U.K. And a lot of them bring out into the open expenses that might not be considered strictly relevant on a more finance-y website, but that are still expenses incurred by individuals that should be recognized as part of the cost of something, like the fee paid for streaming Korean dramas in The Cost of Getting Your Wisdom Teeth Removed at 30.

So, here is my own version: The Cost of Auditioning for Grad School. This was just one school--Rice-- and I'm including basically everything even tangentially related to it, so of course this is not  "The Cost of Auditioning for Grad School For You." Obviously if you are more frugal or more selective of what costs you choose to include in your tally of audition-related costs, your final number will be significantly less (it will also be less if you avoid having to pay almost all costs in a currency suddenly and inconveniently worth a bunch more than your own...) And if you audition for a whole ton of schools and have to fly separately and stay in a hotel for each one, it'll be more. (But use airbnb, guys, I promise you will never want to stay in a hotel again.)

Okay, here we go:

Application fee, the one you pay for the privilege of filling out a lot of online forms: $85 US,  $99.49 CAN in December 2014.

Accepd fee, payed to the third-party website that handles the uploading of prescreening videos: $19 US, $22.32 CAN

Bottle of wine for accompanist who refused to accept money for recording the Elgar romance for my prescreening video: $39.95 (this was the most expensive bottle on casual display at the super sketchy LCBO closest to my apartment)

Trip to Minnesota to have a lesson with John Miller on my prescreening rep (closest major symphony orchestra to Thunder Bay!): $319.85 Gas: $85 (approx.) Lesson: $100 US, don't know exactly what the exchange rate was on the day I got the cash but guessing around $115 Lodging: Free, stayed with a friend from McGill who I honestly though I would never see again once she got married and moved to rural Minnesota, but life is good at proving you wrong sometimes. Minnesota Orchestra ticket: $19.85 Misc. cash spent on food for me and wine for friend I stayed with: $100

Trip to Montreal to have last (I think?) remaining owed lesson of my undergrad with Stephane: $188.16 Bus: $111.05 Lodging: Free, stayed with a friend and hostess gifts consisted of cookies and wine from party the day before, and a Liddell and Scott Ancient Greek Lexicon I had from my past life that she needs for her current one. Lesson: Free, or rather, already paid through tuition to the school I no longer attend. Food: $71.11 JAYSUS CHRIST. This was not a long trip, either. Thank goodness the McGill music school never had that awesome new Asian place in the basement while I was there, or else... this. STM tickets: $6

Plane tickets to and from Texas: $655.24 (I went to Austin first and hung around Texas for a bit longer before the audition, both for funsies and for my reeds to spend some time with the temperature and humidity difference between northern Ontario and Texas in February.)

Airbnb from Feb. 2nd to 7th: $484 (The Austin one was fairly cheap, but I went all out and booked a $100/night airbnb in Houston because I wanted to be walking distance from the music school, which it turned out I wasn't, because it seems like pretty much nothing is walking distance from anything in Houston, but it was still a super swell airbnb.)

Megabus ticket between Austin and Houston: $3.50 US, $4.17 CAN ($1 ticket, $1 prime seat reservation because I was so pleased about finally finding a $1 megabus ticket after FIVE YEARS, $1.50 "Booking fee," as if there's some other way to acquire a ticket besides booking it and being able to book it is some special extra service.)

American cash withdrawn before I left: $200 US, costing me $261.76 CAN ($#*%@!)

Realizing that my airbnb in Houston was not in fact walking distance to Rice, trying several buses, giving up on the bus system, realizing I wasn't going to have enough cash to take taxis everywhere, and discovering Uber, which I used liberally for the remainder of my time in Houston:  $101.12 US, hasn't come through on my credit card yet but probably about $127. A good chunk of this was transportation to and from the Johnson Space Centre, which was far away (and thus expensive) but totally worth it. And, just like I will never use a hotel again now that I have airbnb, I will never take another taxi in a city that has Uber.

Money lost from TBSO services missed: $1155. Ouch.

GRAND TOTAL: $3357.06

Obviously, there's a lot to quibble about in what I chose to include. The single largest cost on the list was the cost of not being at work-- is that an expense? (The main reason I went down to Texas so far in advance, besides the reed thing, was that the TBSO was playing a ballet the week before, so my only choices were a) play the ballet and fly to Texas the day before the audition, or b) book off from the entire ballet and have a ton of free time to go down early. As it turned out, it would have been moderately disastrous if I had chosen option a, since my luggage was delayed and although I got it back fairly quickly as these things go, if I had gone down the day before I wouldn't have had any reed tools, nice clothes or clean underwear in time for the audition.) Then, not all of the actual outgoing dollars were necessary expenses related directly to the audition. For instance, the trips to Minnesota, Montreal, and Austin were only about half audition-related, and practically speaking, a ticket to a Minnesota Orchestra concert or pho lunch in the McGill music caf have little to do with an audition at Rice. And maybe me factoring in the costs of the lessons I had and the travel expenses incurred for them is inaccurate anyway, in the same way that it would be inaccurate for someone in school to factor in the amount of their tuition money that went towards degree lessons in which they played audition repertoire-- it's not really a direct expense, more the result of your choice about where to direct money in general, in your life. However, whatever you choose to include, I think it illustrates well the same thing that the Billfold articles of this nature illustrate, namely, trying to do things that benefit you or your position in the world is expensive, which is obvious, but sometimes it is expensive in unanticipated ways.

So that was my Cost of Auditioning for Grad School. I had a lot of fun in Texas as well, and I have pictures and stories for another post!

Mozart in the Jungle: Fifth Chair

Maybe you remember this:iuWritten by former oboist/person-who-tried-to-poison-Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy's-garden Blair Tindall, it chronicles how, with diligent use of poor sexual and substance-related choices, any promising young musician can succeed in succumbing to a fate fit for a rock god.

Now, it's on TV!


The pilot episode came out in the summer, and the 6 of us at the Brott Qvintetthaus (we had a full woodwind quintet, plus another horn) proooobably watched it... about five times. Every time someone came over to our house, they would have to sit down and watch it: the young oboe student texting his friend that "I wish my dick was a woodwind," actual Joshua Bell playing with the not-so-actual New York Symphony, the young and ambitious Maestro Rodrigo (take a guess), and a party featuring some kind of excerpt spin-the-bottle game and a device called the "ganjanome" (it's one of them old-fashioned metronomes with a joint tied to the arm). When we left our heroine, the young oboist Hayley, she had just rushed to a surprise New York Symphony audition on a rickshaw (making a reed on the way-- hey, nice Landwell.) The audition ends before she gets there, but she decides to play to the empty hall, where Rodrigo is still lurking, making out with his assistant. The episode ends with him in awe of her amazing oboe skillz.

I am going to have to watch the rest of the episodes. It's gonna happen. No turning back.

So, what happens in the next one?

Coming back to reality somewhat, Gloria-- the NYS's head honcho who seems to be simultaneously all administrative positions at once--  remembers that musicians are unionized, and you can't just replace oboists at random. Dudamel Rodrigo says fine, we'll just play Mahler 8, and hires Hayley as fifth oboe. She skips down the street, which is also what I would do if I were playing Mahler 8, so +1 realism point. -1 that same realism point for the fact that Mahler 8 has no 5th oboe part.

Hayley's roommate has a somewhat flawed understanding of what practicing entails, and is irritated that hearing the same passage of Mahler over and over distracts her from her extremely important bong hits. (Hayley is practicing oboe, not English horn... the plot thickens!) So Hayley goes to make out with a dancer she met in the last episode instead.

The all-important first rehearsal! Hayley's cellist friend (the principal cellist in the prestigious New York Symphony who inexplicably has to take weird off-Broadway musical gigs after symphony concerts, which appears to be how she met Hayley) introduces her to various characters, such as the dudes effectuating drug transactions backstage (the seller offers her propranolol "on the house", how nice!) and a guy who complains about the change in repertoire and worries that opening the season with "a composer suppressed by the Nazis" sends the wrong message. Oookay then. Yes. That is the only relevant piece of information about Mahler.

Hayley meets the principal oboe, who informs her that "I had tits once, I just didn't play my oboe with them." Buuuurn.

Ah yes, and here is Hayley sitting in her 5th oboe chair, which is located somewhat suspiciously right next to the principal oboe. Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 12.52.58 PM

Then the concertmaster stands up and for some reason the rest of the orchestra does too. Then a parrot appears and poops on Rodrigo's shoe. Then the 2nd/5th oboe gives the A while the 1st makes a masturbatory motion with her oboe, and rehearsal can start. Seems legit.

Due to sweaty hands (WIPE THEM ON YOUR PANTS, GURL) Hayley manages to throw her oboe on the floor and yell "motherfucker!" Yeah, I hate when that happens. The episode ends with our heroine packing up her oboe on the steps of the hall while mouthing swearwords.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 1.49.39 PM


Better luck next time, I guess.

Into the Woods

The first time I saw Into The Woods was at the very first production put on by Music Theatre Montreal. It was late 2011 and a strike of the unionized support workers at McGill meant that all of the campus groups that had bookings at Moyse Hall-- the main theatre in the Arts building-- were out in the cold as far as spaces for their shows went. Since I was on the executive of such a group-- The McGill Savoy Society, which usually books Moyse for a two-week run of Gilbert and Sullivan in February-- this was obviously concerning. MTM was the first theatre group to have to face the problem, and despite every expectation that the show would be canceled, everyone involved in the production pulled together and managed to book a different venue and put on the show, a great success. I remember wishing that I was playing it, but since I was doing both Sweeney Todd and The Gondoliers that year, I wasn't too deprived on the musical theatre front. The second time I saw Into The Woods was a few days ago, a Disney blockbuster with actors so famous, even I had heard of some of them! Okay, two-- Anna Kendrick, who might as well have been filming an audition for the role of Cinderella with the music video for "Cups" (aka the Carter Family's "When I'm Gone"), and, of course, Johnny Depp. My dad said that he thought Johnny Depp was becoming a caricature of himself: possibly true, but I don't know what else can be expected of him from the role of pedophilic forest animal.

The best thing about this movie, I think, is that it exists. Although it might seems a little bit pessimistic to say, I think it's true that a lot of people who would never buy a ticket to a production of a Sondheim musical will see this movie. And that's not necessarily because of any antipathy in modern culture for live music; it could be just price. Pretty much the only way to mount a top-notch production of a show and sell the vast majority (IDK, possibly excepting IMAX or whatever premium movie theatre tickets some people might buy) of the tickets for $10 or less is to make it a movie.

There were some parts of the movie, too, that not only did the musical justice but actually improved on anything that could be done in a theatre: probably the highlight of the entire movie for me was the song "Agony," in which Cinderella's and Rapunzel's princes compare their hardships as the true loves and saviors of their respective difficult women. The song is over-the-top and ridiculous, and the ability to make it ridiculous in a cinematic way only improved on the humour. (They splash around in a waterfall overlooking the kingdom, striking poses and ignoring the water damage to their presumably expensive riding boots.)

The main problem with Into The Woods as a movie, then, was that it was just too damn long. Or rather, too damn long to not have an intermission. The structure of the acts in the show basically demands an intermission: at the end of the first act the characters all get their wishes and everyone lives happily ever after. Applaud, go buy a $6 Häagen-Dazs bar from the concession stand, and rally for the next act, which has a lot more weirdness and body count (which was diminished by one for the movie: Rapunzel lives.) With both acts run together, I was wishing it was over about 45 minutes before it actually was.

With both Into the Woods and Mr. Turner-- a movie about British artist J. M. W. Turner-- in theatres now, I eagerly await Hollywood's take on Sunday in the Park with George.

Opera Navigation

If you look at the top menu of my blog, I have added an "opera navigation" tab-- I have finished with my first opera and will be uploading the timing notes I made on it, in case anyone else finds it helpful to have a video reference of an opera divided up into sections for listening purposes.

Big Music

Right now I am in the middle of getting familiar with some music that comes in chunks larger than I've ever played before. The first one is the Nutcracker, which the TBSO is performing with the Minnesota Ballet soon; 34 pages, all of it... well, written by Tchaikovsky. I went back and read Barry Stees' post on the subject, where he says:

This juggernaut of a piece for the orchestra confronts many musicians at this time of year. If it were played just occasionally it would be universally hailed by musicians as one of the greatest pieces of ballet music. Instead, many musicians look upon it as a chore.

This strikes me as incredibly true. This performance will be my first time paying the piece, so I don't feel any of the "ugh, this again" that lots of people seem to feel. That response seems to be pretty much the standard from musicians to the Nutcracker, which objectively doesn't make a lot of sense. This is a piece that demands to be taken seriously; it's difficult, long, written by a famous and well-loved composer, and performed every single year-- what other piece of music gets to be performed on that kind of a schedule? But familiarity breeds contempt, of course, and for people with permanent positions in ballet orchestras... well, I would imagine they get pretty darn familiar with it.

I'm also working slowly but steadily on an entirely new set of repertoire: my first opera audition! Opera, and opera auditions, seem to occupy a somewhat unusual space in the lives of orchestral musicians, especially younger ones. For some reason, the orchestral excerpts one is expected to learn at music school rarely include opera excerpts. Thus, whereas at this point in my life I generally expect one or two new-to-me excerpts on a list for a major orchestra, this, my first opera audition, features a whopping nine new excerpts to learn (and a few more that I'm only vaguely familiar with.) Then, of course, there's the issue of listening to recordings of the excerpts. Thus far, the only way I've found to reliably locate an excerpt in the middle of a recording is to listen to the whole opera with a score. So, I figured that as long as I'm doing that, I might as well be organized about it. For each opera, I am going to choose a video reference and an online score (oh god, I hope I can find scores online for all of them) and take notes on the recording; where various landmarks in the score happen, and so on, so that I can easily come back to the excerpts later, and also locate other parts in the opera more easily, if I ever need to play an excerpt from the same opera, but in a different place. Ideally, I will end up with a collection of easily navigable video references for operas with common bassoon excerpts, that will also be useful to me if I have to actually learn the whole opera.

So far, I am almost done with Cavalleria Rusticana. As well as timing notes, my document on it also contains a lot of notes about cuts the recording takes (which takes an extreeeemely long time to figure out, when you're going along merrily and all of a sudden the recording is somewhere else...) and also errors in the score, such as pages being omitted or uploaded twice. So, a large part of the difficulty is dealing with the pedagogical shortcomings of the available materials. But, since The Orchestral Bassoon website doesn't have most of these opera excerpts yet, someone's gotta do it! Of course, it will also pay off in that I'll be better prepared for an opera audition the more thoroughly I know the repertoire. And, of course, better prepared should I get an actual opera job!

Basically, it seems like opera auditions have a higher barrier to entry than symphony auditions, because not all of the people who are familiar with symphony lists are familiar with opera lists. So I want to use this audition as an opportunity to break into the "people who can comfortably do opera auditions" club, and after having done the huge amount of initial work on this one, every opera list after this will have fewer and fewer new excerpts to learn from scratch. Perhaps after this I should get familiar with some ballet excerpts too... although, it seems like I'm doing that now-- the only list turned up through a google search for "ballet bassoon audition" is all standard symphony stuff, plus generous helpings of the Nutcracker!