Imagine a typical summer at Music Academy of the West. As expected, the sounds of music are almost inescapable. Perhaps a vocal masterclass in Hahn Hall features a young singer performing an operatic aria or maybe a bassoonist plays a sonata in Lehmann Hall. The sounds of lessons drift outward from faculty teaching studios in Claeyssens and Hind Halls. The public attending events and wandering the campus are treated to all of this, the beautiful, overlapping not-quite-a-cacophony that perhaps more than anything else represents the invigorating busyness of the Summer School and Festival.
Beneath it all, though, there’s another sound. Although it might later, at this moment it isn’t coming from the stages, nor from the studios. Maybe there’s a small ensemble rehearsing in Yzurdiaga Hall, but it isn’t coming from there, either. It’s coming from the lower floor of the Luria Education Center or from a U-shaped hallway in the Lehrer Studio Building adjacent to Hind. Or maybe it comes from the Baja Studios, whose blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance is off a pathway behind the Marilyn Horne Main House. These areas, none of them frequented by the public, all house practice rooms. The sound doesn’t drift so much as it pierces, forcefully making itself known. A trombonist plays the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Die Walküre. Maybe you know it from the opera, maybe you know it from Apocalypse Now, or maybe you know it from countless other uses in popular culture, but the point is you know it. After they finish there’s a brief pause, followed by the click of a metronome. They play it again. The metronome stops. They play it again. And again. And again…
It takes a lot to win an orchestral audition. It takes years of dedication, study, and patience, countless hours spent in a practice room obsessing over technique, tone, intonation, rhythm, and other minute details. It also takes an immense, intense, and nearly instinctive knowledge of orchestral excerpts. Orchestral excerpts are short segments of frequently played symphonic repertoire, and for those who play orchestral instruments they make up the bulk of the required audition materials for conservatories, festivals, and orchestras. Although there is sometimes overlap, each instrument’s standard excerpts are unique, taken from important (or difficult) moments that feature the respective instruments. Besides “Ride of the Valkyries,” for example, trombonists are expected to know the famous solos from Ravel’s Bolero and Mozart’s Requiem, just to name a couple. For violists the list includes sections of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; for horn players excerpts from Beethoven’s Third and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel.
The lists, too long to adequately name here, are a major part of any aspiring orchestral musician’s training. People toil at these musical snapshots for years, focusing on—obsessing over—each little nuance. Is every note in tune? Does the tempo waver? Is the rhythm perfect? There is no conductor here to hold in check any tendencies to rush or drag the beat, no other musicians to reference for tuning. It is a very exposed endeavor.
During yesterday’s Fast Pitch Competition, oboist Lauren Keating, whose project was a comprehensive orchestral excerpt book for the oboe, described working on excerpts as being similar to the way elite athletes practice. This is an apt comparison. Like athletic drills, preparing orchestral excerpts is an exercise in pure technique. In many ways the drills are sterile exercises. They are removed from the passion of the game and often involve just a few players. They strip away the complications of real-life competition in order to focus on the execution of minor details. The idea is that countless repetition will make these details automatic and increase the chances of success during an actual game.