by Graham Sheen
Principal Bassoon, BBC Symphony Orchestra &
Academy of St Martin in the Fields,
teacher, composer & arranger.
Academy of St Martin in the Fields,
teacher, composer & arranger.
I’m sitting with two colleagues in a room high up in the Royal College of Music. It’s 11am and we are about to start an audition marathon: we will attempt to hear and adjudicate thirteen woodwind candidates before 1pm. It means that each candidate will play for around ten minutes, allowing only just enough time to evaluate the relevant Mozart Concerto and a handful of orchestral excerpts. By the conclusion of the session we will have selected four of the candidates, a flautist, an oboist, clarinetist and bassoonist to take part in the Orchestral Pathway Scheme run jointly by the Royal College of Music and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
The Pathways Scheme is now in its fifth year. The BBCSO and RCM have long operated a sit-in programme to enable students to experience the life and work of a professional orchestra. Before Pathways, however, students would probably come for one or two rehearsals at most before another student would take their turn. There was little continuity therefore and it was quite difficult to match the students’ availability with suitable repertoire. Another problem was that this arrangement was open to students of all ages and abilities. It was decided to formalise the scheme by choosing a single postgraduate student who would then visit the BBCSO on around half a dozen pre-planned occasions throughout the academic year. Each section in the orchestra nominates a mentor or mentors and students attend most, if not all, rehearsals for each project. Mentors offer advice and guidance on aspects of professional life and often prepare the repertoire with students in advance of rehearsals. Free tickets for the performance are always available and each student is encouraged to attend the concert. The students are asked to learn and shadow most of the parts (not just the principal player) and are encouraged to prepare all relevant material. We try, whenever possible, to let our students play one of the parts on their own so that they gain real experience of playing with professionals. At the end of the year each student is invited to play one or two pieces as the sub principal player in (usually) a Radio 3 studio concert. This is not obligatory but I haven’t heard of anyone who has refused this opportunity. A report on the whole year’s work is then written by mentors for the students to see.
The Pathways Scheme is an exciting development, though not always comfortable for members of the orchestra. Doing the job itself is one thing, but quite another when a keen and able young musician is sitting next to you and watching your every move! We usually keep some of the rehearsal time for ourselves, especially if the repertoire is a complex contemporary piece with excessive technical and rhythmic demands. There can also be problems created by having an extra player and chair in the section: if the student sits between principal and sub principal contact between them is naturally impaired, but if the student sits further down in the section then the student might have little contact with the principal. We usually seem to find some sort of compromise which takes into account the nature of the repertoire and best role on any particular occasion for the student. Now and then, if these logistical problems are too great, students are asked to come on alternative dates. The whole scheme is reasonably flexible and all our bassoon students so far have been very sensitive to our fundamental professional task of preparing for the performance.
|Onstage with Pierre Boulez for the maestro's 80th birthday|
Meanwhile, back at the audition, I’m struck by the many challenges we face on these occasions. Indeed, I begin to reflect on the whole process of learning and communicating. Nothing like orchestral sit-ins, let alone a comprehensive course such as Pathways, existed when I was a student. Worse still, it often felt as if we were actively discouraged from contact with professionals. I remember having to lurk in the shadows at the back of Goldsmith’s College hall in order to hear Giuilini and Stokowsky rehearse the (then) New Philharmonia Orchestra. Approaching Gwydion Brooke, who was principal bassoon at that time, would have been unthinkable and having students sit in professional orchestras would have been considered almost ludicrous. At college, our lessons tended to feel quite disconnected from the actual business of music making. Not the fault of professors I hasten to add, but the system. However, despite the many opportunities available to present day students, the gap between individual tuition and ensemble technique is still a challenge. It is still not easy for teachers to hear their students in the orchestral or chamber music situation so that basic technical problems can remain uncorrected. It is difficult to assess the strength of flexibility in someone’s tone without comparison with a larger ensemble. I learn a great deal about students on all instruments from my own repertoire and chamber music classes at the Guildhall School of Music. Think, for instance, of the skills necessary to produce a single perfect chord from, say, a woodwind section: every player must simultaneously produce their note at the required volume, pitch, tonal colour and at a precise predetermined moment. That is a fascinating mixture of technical and aural abilities. It can be prepared in the teaching room but actually achieving it mostly happens in the teacher’s absence. Then there is the whole subject of being aware of what is going on in the ensemble around you and reacting to it. This can be taught in repertoire classes, of course, but how much more effective in a sit-in. When students are asked about their Pathways experiences, the most common response is twofold: professionals play together and for each other and the dynamic range of a professional orchestra is a very great deal wider than the students had been prepared for. I would add that concentration levels are very high also. All these things were a shock to me too when I first started out in the English Chamber Orchestra. Back then, whatever strengths you possessed as player, you had better count quick learning as one of them! Thankfully, my senior colleagues were tolerant and I went on to survive four decades and more in the profession.
Finally, an anecdote about student sit-ins. This is one of those events about which I often wonder whether it really happened. Did I dream this? My colleague Sue Frankel and I often laugh about it. It was way back in the pre-Pathways Scheme days. Let me say that some of the students were more accomplished than others and that one of the less bright ones came to us on a day when we were rehearsing Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Anyone familiar with the work of the BBC Symphony Orchestra will know that we don’t play concert classics like this all that often: our brief is to present a high proportion of new, unusual or neglected work, though that has changed a little over the years. So, the Dvorak represented a bit of a treat for us. (Yes, I can hear my colleagues in other orchestras guffawing over such an idea!) I encouraged the student to join in the louder bits and just leave the exposed stuff to me. That was the normal plan until I had established how good they were, after which I would try to hand over, if appropriate, some of the more important passages. Despite all my persuasive powers, however, I couldn’t draw anything more out of the student than a mousey pianissimo. In fact, much of the time I didn’t know whether he (gender is the only clue to his identity that I will give) was playing or not. I decided to leave well alone for the time being, but it wasn’t long before Sue and I noticed that the student had fallen asleep between us! Even the loudest full orchestra passages failed to rouse him. Peaceful slumber continued until the very moment at which conductor announced “break”. At this point our young colleague immediately sprang up, looked around and said, “Is it always this boring?” I just couldn’t have made that up, could I?
Royal College of Music
BBC Symphony Orchestra