Beginning My Orchestral Career with the Edmonton Symphony by Bianca Chambul

Beginning My Orchestral Career with the Edmonton Symphony by Bianca Chambul

BEGINNING MY ORCHESTRAL CAREER

WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY

By Bianca Chambul

BREAKTHROUGH

“We’d like to hire candidate number one.”

In an instant, my life had changed.

I had broken through what I believed was the biggest barrier to having a career as an orchestral musician: winning an audition.

PAST CONNECTIONS

It was the middle of May 2019.  I had just finished one year of my Master’s degree at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and had tied up loose ends by putting all my belongings into storage until starting my second year that August.  Just before we had wrapped up the semester, word had spread through the studio about a second bassoon vacancy in the Dallas Symphony and I decided to apply since the last professional audition I’d taken had been during the previous year.

Seven summers before, during my time with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, a faculty member shared with us eager young students, “The people you meet today will be your colleagues for the rest of your life.”  The following NYOC season, I was assigned to a chamber group with Max Cardilli, a member of the double bass section that year, to perform Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat.

National Youth Orchestra - Stravinsky
National Youth Orchestra of Canada (2013).  Left to right: Blake Pouliot, violin; Max Mauricio-Cardilli, double bass; Dave Burns, percussion; Gregory Burns, trombone; Tazmyn Eddy, trumpet; Bianca Chambul, bassoon; David da Silva, clarinet.

Fast forward six years and this connection ultimately resulted in a pivotal turning point for me when I received a message from Max the day before the preliminary round in Dallas.

All he sent was a picture of a newly-released audition notice for a bassoon vacancy in the Edmonton Symphony, below which he had typed, “Please consider taking this audition!”

I hadn’t been keeping a close eye on audition announcements in the last year and wasn’t aware of this opening.  It piqued my interest since it was a principal position and the orchestra was also in my mom’s hometown, where I have many extended family members.

The audition date was scheduled for June 24, 2019, about six weeks away. That sounded like just barely the right amount of time.

ballroom practice session
My ballroom practice session setup in the Dallas hotel before the audition, ca. May 12, 2019.

The next day, I found myself back in a hotel room in Dallas after not advancing past the first live round.  I had had doubts about taking the audition, which I had learned about fairly last-minute, but tried to convince myself that I needed to break my non-auditioning streak somehow.  What was missing was a truly vested interest that results in the drive to do the work.  Because of this, I wasn’t as disappointed as I had been in previous unsuccessful auditions, but it still felt anticlimactic.  I called my mom to share some things I had learned about my eighth rejection.

“I know one thing,” I said to her, pacing outside the orchestra’s concert hall on a beautiful day: “I’m getting out of the first round next time.  This isn’t happening again.”

SLIVERS OF TIME

I reached out to my teacher, Benjamin Kamins, to let him know both how my audition went and the news about the available seat in the Edmonton Symphony.  With Dallas behind me, I could focus my attention on this upcoming audition.  What complicated things was that the big day was scheduled a week into Santa Barbara’s summer festival, Music Academy of the West, which I was looking forward to attending.

The question was, would my absence request be approved for a couple of days, especially right at the beginning of the festival?

Following Mr. Kamins’ advice, I contacted Music Academy’s administration and Dennis Michel, second bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony, who would be teaching at Music Academy along with Mr. Kamins.

Mr. Michel encouraged me to take the audition and within a few days, the administration graciously granted my request.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, analyzes why certain people stand out and succeed while others don’t.  There is often only a sliver of time to take advantage of the right opportunities, and I had the right support system to follow through.  The Music Academy gave me their blessing to go ahead with the audition, and then my parents agreed to cover my travel and accommodation expenses.  Without these two elements rapidly falling into place, this chance could have slipped through my fingers.

SIX WEEKS TO GO

The Edmonton Symphony audition was the ninth time I applied for an orchestral position.  I started taking auditions during my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto when I had no clue how to reliably prepare for one.

In 2015, I purchased an audition course created by Rob Knopper, percussionist at the Metropolitan Opera.  I didn’t seriously dive into it until two auditions came up in 2017, a year after I had graduated from the University of Toronto.  When I began implementing Rob’s principles in auditionhacker, I finally broke my streak of not getting out of the first round to making the finals in one audition and advancing in another.

To summarize, it involved steps that may seem obvious to experienced players, but ones that I didn’t think of: using timelines to realistically schedule in the required work, creating a playlist, thorough excerpt research, making repertoire booklets, a rigorous self-recording and note-learning component, and mock auditions.

Rob Knopper

For anyone who is serious about pursuing a career in orchestral performance or even modifying their process for learning solo repertoire, I would strongly recommend looking into Rob’s course.  He also has a Facebook group called “the auditionhacker alliance: a place to talk about auditions” where people share audition advice, ask questions, and Rob provides short videos on key topics available on his YouTube channel. His website features a blog that addresses specific topics about the industry and his organizational methods.

noa kageyama

Another worthwhile course I invested in was Dr. Noa Kageyama’s Beyond Practicing home-study course. Dr. Kageyama teaches performance psychology at Juilliard and is the author of the Bulletproof Musician blog.  This is where I began learning more about centering, which was another contributing factor to passing the first round of those two auditions in the fall of 2017.

Once I returned home from Dallas, I jumped into the process yet again for the Edmonton Symphony.  I usually like to focus on one large task at a time, but now I had to juggle learning solo repertoire for Music Academy of the West in addition to preparing audition excerpts.

This resulted in an over-practicing injury.  I made the mistake of more or less recording myself for an entire day, bar by bar, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at ten in the evening.  While I did take breaks, it was still far too long, and I had to take a few days off afterwards, losing momentum in the process and making it harder to get back on track.

Although I recovered, it definitely wasn’t worth it.

When I travelled to Music Academy of the West in mid-June (ten days to go), I gathered up some friends who were willing give constructive feedback for mock auditions.  One time it was totally unexpected: two of the bassoonists came into my practice room spontaneously and asked to hear some excerpts, without warning.  Stuffy and sharp, the reed I was using was barely good enough for a practice reed, yet here I was playing on it anyway.

Oops.  I went along with it and decided that it would be good adversity training.

After playing a few requested excerpts, I said, feeling humbled, “I know which reed I won’t be using for the audition.”

I’m grateful they showed up that day.

music academy
My three bassoon buddies at Music Academy in the summer of 2019: Luke Fieweger, Kipras Mažeika, and Nicolas Richard.

DOUBTS

Over the phone, likely during a homework call, a friend of mine in middle school asked, “What if you don’t want to do music anymore?”

The thought that I might pursue a different path at some point had never even occurred to me.  “I’ll decide then,” I replied, not missing a beat.

My confidence was unwavering.

Fast forward about a decade later, and the doubts crept in during the two years out of school after finishing my performance undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto.  I developed a heavy freelance schedule coupled with teaching.  While this was a fun year, I realized that I definitely wanted an orchestral position, but was beginning to feel directionless.  If I was living at home with my parents with no audition breakthroughs, did I really have a shot at this?  And if I realistically had little chance of succeeding, why was I upstairs trying to practice and figure out reeds?

It was the first time I had ever felt like this about the bassoon and a career in music.

It was the summer of 2017.

On the night of August 5, 2017, at one o’clock in the morning, I came downstairs to find my mom in the family room, and I shared my feelings of serious doubts about the career path I had chosen and had once been so certain of following.

As usual, she listened empathetically, encouraging me not to give up yet.

Her prediction was that a breakthrough was just around the corner.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to perform as a substitute doubling on third bassoon and contrabassoon with the Toronto Symphony for Mychael Danna’s score to Life of Pi.

The day after that performance, I made it to the finals in a principal audition for the first time and advanced to the semifinals in another audition the following month.  In early 2018, I was accepted into the Masters programs and summer festivals of my choice.

Life of Pi soundtrack

That feeling of uncertainty ebbed and flowed, but with each of these culminating successes, it became less and less powerful.  Through this experience, I learned one thing: sometimes, when you’re on the verge of giving up, you may be closer to achieving your goal than you think.

rice bassoon studio recital
Rice bassoon studio recital in Duncan Recital Hall, March 2019.  From left to right: Julia Paine, Julianne Mulvey, Corinne Crowley, Tucker Van Gundy, Kai Rocke, Isaac Schultz, Kipras Mažeika, Bianca Chambul.  The attire theme was “funky socks.”

THE DAY BEFORE

At about four o’clock in the morning, I took an Uber to the area where the Santa Barbara Airbus would pick me up to drive to the LAX.  The flight to Edmonton was several hours, and after I arrived I checked into the Westin hotel.

When I took out my bassoon, I had a heart-stopping moment where the reed was hopelessly flat and free.  It felt awful, just like any day before any of the previous auditions I’d taken.

At least it responded though.  I made a few tweaks to it and then practiced a bit.

The reed was only two days old at that point – too new for an audition – and it was the best I had in the case.

When I told the concierge why I was here, he kindly asked if I wanted some tea before bed so I could wind down.  I thanked him and he sent it up to the room.  It was one of those seemingly small but impactful gestures that made me feel a little less alone.

This was after I had practiced until past nine o’clock in the basement computer lab.  I ran my excerpts and recorded them, still not feeling so great about tomorrow.

AUDITION DAY

The Westin was a short walk to the hall.  I had to get there earlier in the morning, around nine o’clock, to draw numbers.  This was only the national round, so there were thirteen candidates there.  Number fourteen was a no-show.

We were in a comfy lounge.  Privately, I would have preferred to keep to myself, but I knew some of the candidates there and ended up having some light, casual conversations with them while we pored over our music and waited for the draw.

The personnel manager came into the room and shared the list with us beforehand.  This was where things really took a turn.

The first round was the first movement exposition of the Mozart concerto, either the opening or recap of Figaro, Bolero (no repeated Gs), and something that made my heart stop.

An unusual excerpt from Pulcinella.

It just so happened that that was the one excerpt on the list that I had not studied.

That’s actually an understatement.  I hadn’t even listened to a recording of it.

In other words, I had flown all the way from Santa Barbara, spent my parents’ money, and didn’t know how one of the excerpts on the first round went.

I was mortified.

Then came the draw.

Not number one, I thought as we were invited to gather around the table and pick our poison.  I already had a strike against me.

I unfolded the piece of paper.

A fateful vertical line broke up the whiteness of the sheet.

vertical line

Shortly after, I was escorted into a private dressing room by the personnel manager.  A coded door revealed a large, well-lit space with some lockers, a table, and a counter in front of mirrors surrounded by lights.

I believe the audition was scheduled to begin at ten o’clock, which left me with about half an hour or so to warm up.

I didn’t play much.  I felt confident about the first three excerpts, and just practiced starting them several times.  The reed I had worked on yesterday was responsive and seemed to be working, which was a miracle.  Knowing me, it was probably quite unstable, but I liked how freely it took the air.

Once I felt all right about starting the first three excerpts, I decided it was time to listen to Pulcinella.  According to my watch, it was about 9:40 a.m.

The WIFI password was posted on the wall.  I opened YouTube on my phone and searched for the excerpt.

pulcinella

This isn’t the exact recording I found, but it does contain the excerpt.  The original clip on YouTube was also played either by the LSO or another British orchestra.

Rob Knopper outlines a detailed excerpt research component in his auditionhacker course that involves studying multiple high-quality recordings and how to select the best reference recording to add to a playlist.  It’s a very thorough process, and something I had done for the other excerpts on this list.  In this case, I would realistically barely have time to listen to even one recording of this Pulcinella excerpt.

The first thing I thought when I heard the track was, This is faster than I thought.

Not off to a great start.

The second thing I noticed was that there was an unwritten rit. at the very end of the passage.  Based on the time constraints I had, I guessed that this was likely a performance practice.  I decided to take the chance and incorporate it, perhaps not as much as on that recording, but enough that the committee would know that I knew there might be an opportunity to take time there.  I also made a note not to perform the excerpt as fast as I heard it, just comfortably.

I played it through, remembering a brief discussion of the grace notes during one lesson.  They were essentially just actual written sixteenths.  I worked on those a tiny bit, and started the other three excerpts again to make sure they were very solid.

It wasn’t ten o’clock when the knock came.  Time to go onstage.

Enter candidate number one.

I was introduced to the proctor backstage, who said a few words and asked me if I was ready before opening the door to the stage. Before me lay a red patterned carpet that led to the center of the hall, which was a stunning space.

winspear stage
View of the Winspear stage from the audience.  This photo was taken by videographer Erik Visser during a recording session for Jean-Daniel Braun’s Largo-Double-Largo and Capricio.
winspear view from stage
View from the stage. Erik Visser captured this photo during a recording of Beethoven’s second duet for clarinet and bassoon, with the clarinet part performed here by ESO first violinist Ewald Cheung.  Ewald and I played this piece regularly during outdoor summer chamber music concerts during the pandemic.

There was a screen in the audience that didn’t fully cover the width of the ground seating, but I saw no one.

Even though the orchestra provided a copy of the excerpts, I chose to use my own music.  It was unusual to see familiar parts typed using different engraving, so I had chosen to make my own packets using screenshots from IMSLP editions that visually looked familiar to me.  I had the list of excerpts written and each excerpt tabbed (again, as per Rob Knopper’s course), so I was as ready as I could be on this front.

“This is candidate number one,” said the proctor as soon as I was seated. From behind the screen, a warm male voice welcomed me and let me know that I could begin whenever I was ready.

I took some time to center.  I found a red exit sign as my focal point and focused on removing the tension from certain muscle groups, particularly my arms, by doing a little stretch and rotating my wrists, maybe a little shoulder roll.  I heard the opening of the excerpt in my head.

mozart

Time to play.

My sound effortlessly filled the hall.  It was more reverberant than what I was expecting.  It was kind of unusual, and I tried to focus on playing rather than being swept up by this beautiful resonance around me.

The Mozart passed, seemingly without incident.  No one spoke.

I centered myself again, not analyzing what had just happened, but noticing that there hadn’t been a train wreck.

Figaro.  Whisper lock on.  Here we go.

Okay.  It was done.  Again, no comments.

Center again, another stretch, hone in on the focal point, hear the opening measure.

Bolero.  An I like this one kind of tune.  It was on the list for rhythm, and hopefully I wouldn’t crack those repeated high D flats and not accent the final unaccented D flat.

Bolero

Check.  Still not a word.

Now for Pulcinella.

pulcinella sheet music

Center once more.  I can’t remember if I looked over it a bit before beginning.  Just a comfortable pace plus that unwritten rubato, and the grace notes as straight sixteenths.  That’s all.

Off I went.

And then it was done, finishing with that tiny slowing up of time, not quite as much as in the recording, leading up to the high A.

“Thank you,” said the nameless voice.

I collected my belongings, stood up, and approached the proctor.  Once we were backstage, she gave me a compliment and I thanked her, assuming that she said that to everyone.

I wasn’t sure of anything.  All I could think was that if I advanced, I would understand why, but if I didn’t, I could find every reason for the committee to eliminate me from the pool of candidates.

It was kind of a hazy limbo.  Things just felt okay but not great.

I now had to wait for twelve other people to go after me.  I went back to the lounge and looked over excerpts, and spoke with some other candidates who were waiting for their turn.  I understand now why it’s wise to bring a snack.

When the personnel manager entered the room again, my adrenaline shot through the roof.  Since I pulled number one, I would know instantly whether I had advanced or not.

“Thank you, everyone,” he said.

Stop my beating heart.

“Candidates one, eight, and nine have advanced,” he said.  “The rest of you are free to go.”

What?

I advanced, I thought, stunned.  I had survived pop-up Pulcinella?

Someone else from the administration came by with the list of excerpts for the second round.  Although I’ve forgotten the exact order, I remember thinking to myself that it was quite a bit of music.

It started with the opening of Tchaikovsky 6 and finished with both solos of The Rite of Spring.  In between, there was Shostakovich 9, two excerpts from Beethoven 4, the opening of the Mendelssohn Scherzo, plus the solo and cadenzas from Schéhérazade.

So I had somehow managed to dodge a bullet by the skin of my teeth in the first round.  I approached the personnel manager and asked, “Will we be re-drawing numbers?”

“No, you’ll keep your same numbers.”

It felt like another bomb had dropped.  Now I had to start the second round too?

I had done it once, but could I do it again?

Once more, I was escorted into the same dressing room to warm up.  I am not sure that I had a full thirty minutes this time.  Thankfully each of these excerpts were all standards.  Like the first round, I played the opening of most of them and looked at specific points that were typical traps for me.  The main thing was being able to start the Tchaikovsky.  That opening always feels like two excerpts, kind of like the syncopated donkey slurs in the third movement of his fifth: you think you’ve survived it, but then it comes around again and you’re not out of the woods until you’ve been through it a second time.

Once more, the personnel manager came to get me.  I don’t remember what time it was.

Once more, the proctor led me, bassoon and booklet in hand, reed on bocal, to the stage door before she opened it and allowed me inside.

Again, I was told to begin when I was ready after the proctor announced my number.

Here comes the solo bassoon recital.

Tchaikovsky to start.  Both low E entrances seemed to go smoothly.  In context, it probably should have been softer, but I went with what came out and adjusted from there.

Schéhérazade is such a lovely melody.  It was my chance just to sing without too much fear in the first solo.  The cadenzas can be scary, but they ended up happening without incident.

Beethoven 4 is an excerpt that feels like it’s over before it even starts.  The requested portions were the tutti passage from measure 20 to the downbeat B flat in measure 25, along with the famous solo.  I managed to avoid the exploding fireworks aesthetic that threatens to surface in these bars every time I have to play them.

Shostakovich was wonderful to play in the space.  The acoustics gave me room to lean into the hall during the wailing solo of the fourth movement and allow my sound to open up and project to the last rows of the audience.  A comment I’ve received in the past is that I play the fifth movement staccato eighth notes in too much of a pecky manner, and this is something to look at if I ever play the solo in concert.  My goal was to go for a sarcastic character, but if more than one person mentions similar tendencies in your playing, it’s likely something to reconsider.  I am not sure if I played them particularly short in this context, but the acoustics of the hall probably would have made up for it.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first minor blip on the radar that I noticed.  I became slightly tongue-tied during a single group of repeated sixteenth notes, and a wisp of a thought flew through my mind: They’re not going to count that against you.  I wasn’t afraid.  I recovered from that split second of feeling unseated, kept going and finished.  The excerpt otherwise seemed all right.

Mendelssohn midsummer nights dream

Now for The Rite of Spring.  The last two excerpts on the list.

I centered for the opening as I had done with all the ones prior to it.  I played from the beginning until three measures after rehearsal 3, and that was when I became distracted.

It felt like the best I had ever played The Rite of Spring cold on the first try.  Even though I had been physically playing beforehand, I hadn’t done several attempts at that opening C prior to starting the solo.

I had managed to stay calm after each excerpt up until this point, but my elation was causing me to lose focus.

One more to go: the reprise.

I centered for the final time. The high B came out nicely.  Time to develop it with vibrato and then move.

That was when everything got crunchy.

I completely butchered the next beat, including the B flat to C flat grace notes. Out of tune because of uncoordinated fingers, plus a cracked sharp G flat slurred to from the B flat.

Needless to say, I was absolutely mortified.

Keep playing, keep playing.  I recovered by the time I played the last high B flat in the first measure.  I just had to get it out of my system, I figured.

Had I just ruined my best professional audition playing to date with that single excerpt right at the very end?

As soon as I was done, I immediately whipped my head around to the proctor and began frantically mouthing, Can I do that again?

“Would you like to try that again?” a different voice asked mercifully as I was having my silent meltdown.

Now was my chance.  I was grateful for the lifeline, but I had to remind myself not to answer the panel in order to preserve my anonymity.

I centered again, one more time than I thought I’d have to.

I restarted the reprise.  Maybe the B was too present, but I went with it.  I felt it was okay, but not brilliant.  At least nothing blew up in my face this time.

“Thank you,” said the same voice.

The proctor complimented me again once I got up and we exited the stage.  I thanked her, still believing that she was just being polite.  Again, nothing seemed certain at all.  If I advanced, I’d understand why, but if not, I’d also understand why.

More limbo.

Back at the lounge, once the other two candidates had played, the three of us had a pleasant conversation.  One candidate and I talked about all the tricky bits of the excerpts and how things can just feel rough overall.  I mostly listened and agreed.

Then the personnel manager came back in.

There went my adrenaline.  Who would they cut this time?

“Thank you, everyone,” he said.  “We’d like to hire candidate number one.”

It was the first time in my life where I understood it was possible that someone might faint after hearing shocking news.  I felt dizzy.

“Whoa …” said one of the other candidates.

Standing next to a table, I reached out and held a chair for balance.

“Do you need a moment?” the personnel manager asked.

“Sorry?” I said.

“Do you need a moment?” he repeated.

I knew he was speaking English but I couldn’t seem to hear or process what he was saying.

“I’m sorry?” I said again.

“Do you need a moment?” he said, slightly louder.

“Yes, yes,” I said, still holding onto the chair and changing positions.

But suddenly that moment was gone, and the personnel manager was asking me if I wanted to go meet the committee.  Of course, the answer to that question was yes.

I was so very much not all there that he had to show me the stairs, which were in plain view, since I was essentially going to walk off the stage.  “The stairs are there,” he said, pointing.

“Oh, right,” I said.

(Yes, you really did just hire me.)

I ascended the stairs and then turned left to walk down another flight that led to the audience level.

As Rob Knopper says, there should be a Taking Auditions: Do Not Operate Machinery warning label for all candidates.

Once I was on the other side of the screen, each panel member introduced themselves and congratulated me.  I was barely processing anything, in total shock.  I remember looking at the ESO’s chief conductor, Alexander Prior, realizing that I was seeing him in the flesh and would actually be working with him after having watched an interview of him on YouTube backstage at the Winspear.

I shook hands with each member of the committee and thanked them, trying to maintain my composure.

alex prior
Max Cardili
Max Cardilli (Photo credit: Dale MacMillan)

When the greetings were done and I turned to leave, Max Cardilli shot out from behind the curtain with a huge grin on his face.

I’m so grateful that he told me about the audition.

I headed back to the dressing room to pack up and make some phone calls.  Mom nearly collapsed in the pasta aisle at NoFrills when I told her I’d won the job.

I then reached out to Mr. Kamins.

“Hi, Bianca.  How are you?” he said, sounding intentionally unhurried.

“Mr. Kamins,” I said seriously, “I won the job.”

He congratulated me and gave me some advice: “Bianca, really make sure that you take the time to just enjoy this moment.”  We spoke further, but that was the main thing I remembered, and in hindsight, I wish I had savoured the aftermath a little more.

BACK TO REALITY

One of the main lessons I learned is how quickly you have to come back down from cloud nine after a victory. The reality is that I had to fly back to Santa Barbara the next day and play in a masterclass.

I walked back to the Westin.  As I entered, I saw the same concierge who had sent up the tea for me the night before.

“How did it go?” he said with a smile.

“I got the job!” I said, unable to contain my excitement.

Messages from friends and family started flooding in, along with a few more calls.

It’s funny how fast word spreads.  Within two days, the news was posted on both the Meg Quigley Competition and Music Academy of the West’s Facebook pages.

It was a whirlwind.

Bianca Chambul

I had an interesting mindset shift post-audition.  Mr. Kamins said to me, “People are going to look at you differently than they did before.”  It’s like time was split in two.

What might have been a potentially self-sabotaging idea was the realization that I was in some way representing the Edmonton Symphony and that I magically had to be so much better overnight.

Unfortunately, I wound up falling on my face somewhat after a long day of travel when I arrived at the Music Academy bassoon masterclass that afternoon.  Mr. Michel was, ironically, directing a class on less commonly-requested excerpts (cough, Pulcinella), and I was scheduled to play the solo from Verdi’s Requiem along with the end of Figaro that isn’t always asked.  The Verdi was also on the ESO audition, so at least I had spent some time looking at it.

Verdi one
verdi two image

I had had a chance to try my reed in the warmup space beside the main chamber where the masterclass was held in Hahn Hall.  It was a beautiful space with lots of light and minimal clutter, just like the entire property.

The reed seemed okay … or rather, I was trying to convince myself it would be.

But when I got out there to play, it was a different story.

My audition-winning reed wasn’t so flashy today.  In fact, it had transformed into one of those condemned pieces of cane that feels simultaneously too weak and too strong.

How precisely was this happening?  I had just won an audition – wasn’t I supposed to be amazing and faultless?

The reality is that nothing had changed.  I still had the same hang-ups that I did before the audition.  There was no magical overnight transformation.

REEDS CHANGE

Mr. Michel was nice, my playing not so much.  That was also what made it even worse: Mr. Michel shared with the audience of patrons that I had just won an audition.

I had brought out my pliers and was, as casually as I could appear, adjusting the reed during the class while he was speaking to everyone and to me.

Then came time for Figaro.

Another oh dear moment on this reed.

Figaro music

I crashed my way through it, still in disbelief that I had used this precise reed to win the audition when it currently sounded like I had picked it up off the floor after having stepped on it.

Please don’t ask me to play this again, I thought, once the ordeal was over.  It isn’t going to get any better.

Mr. Michel asked if I could do something slightly different, though I don’t remember what.  I braced myself to play the excerpt again on this useless piece of arundo donax, accepting that it would be what it would be.

Sure enough, it wasn’t much better.  At least I was surrounded by friendly faces, but that somehow also made it more humiliating.

Once the four of us had each finished playing our assigned excerpts for the class, it was time to thankfully relax and have dinner at the cafeteria.  One of our Compeers (festival donors who are partnered with Music Academy fellows) came up to me from the audience and asked sympathetically, “Are you tired?”

It was a rude awakening after the high I had been on the previous day, but my spirits weren’t dampened for too long.  (I managed to shake it off once I was playing contrabassoon for Shostakovich 11 that evening.)

This was the biggest aha moment where I truly understood that cane changes with humidity and elevation.  I had adjusted that reed to suit 2,200 feet above sea level with the dryness of a desert and had returned to a climate that was perfect weather with higher humidity.  No wonder it freaked out.

I have no idea where that reed is, and I’m not even sure if I still have it.  I just remember that it was coated in sparkly purple glue.

TYING UP LOOSE ENDS

The rest of my summer was spent juggling Music Academy activities, trying to stay afloat amid rapidly deteriorating reeds (and a frighteningly low number of functional ones that were coming up the proverbial pipeline), while being in communication with the ESO and figuring out how I would organize an international move from Houston up to western Canada.  In addition to that, I had to file for a leave of absence from Rice and contact the school’s Office of International Students and Scholars to terminate my visa status.  Being able to discuss the load of tasks with Mr. Kamins helped ease the overwhelm.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

One of the highlights of Music Academy’s program is their partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra.  The Keston MAX Fellowship selects twelve instrumental musicians by audition to spend two weeks in England performing alongside LSO musicians and taking advantage of masterclasses.  At the Music Academy of the West, students also benefited from having the LSO members play side-by-side with us in the orchestra.

I thought of taking the audition, but there was one snag: the trip to London overlapped with my Rossini concerto performance at Rice in April 2020.

I spoke with Mr. Kamins about this, and he assured me that we would work something out if my audition was successful.

CENTERING 2.0

My preparations for the audition resulted in a connection with trumpeter Bill Williams, who specializes in the mental skills required for high-pressure performance situations.  He offered weekly thirty-minute sessions for Music Academy students for a number of weeks and combining those with the package he handed out to us helped me step up my centering game even further.

The first time I signed up for a session, Bill asked how he could help since my process had worked for Edmonton.  I asked if he could read through the steps of centering so that I could actually focus on doing them properly under his guidance.  I was specifically working on the four or five standard excerpts that were required for the LSO Keston MAX Fellowship.

I had shown up with a reed that wasn’t particularly great.  It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wanted to be playing on something different for the real audition, and I explained that to him.  I knew that as a trumpet player he couldn’t assist me in that direction, but I went with what I had that day.

Bill guided me through the steps (“make sure you have your eyes open”) as I was honing in on my selected focal point below eye level.  The excerpt I had chosen to play first was the opening phrase of the Mozart concerto exposition.

Bill Williams

Bill Williams (photo courtesy of the Music Academy of the West)

When I was ready to go, I just went for it.

“How did that feel?”

I was surprised.  “I haven’t practiced this excerpt [since preparing for the ESO audition] and the reed I’m using isn’t particularly great.  But that felt so easy,” I said.

We talked about the experience and tried a few more things.  In another session, we worked on Beethoven 4 and that also was noticeably improved.

Practicing these mental skills is like exercising a muscle, much like how we practice our instruments.  It’s something we can get better at, and I had seen enough of what this trumpeter and performance psychologist had shared with me to realize that there was a way to take this set of skills to the next level.

THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME

There were two rounds of the LSO fellowship audition.

The first round was done in typical blind audition style for a panel of Music Academy faculty.  I was one of two who advanced.

The second round, held about a week later in front of two London Symphony musicians, was where I committed to putting my new centering skills to the test.

As I went through Bill’s centering process, I felt much more secure at the beginning of the audition rather than feeling like I was warming up as I was playing.  When I got to Beethoven 4, it was the best I had ever played it using that process.  What a feeling.

It wasn’t a perfect audition, but it had been an overall pleasant experience because of the mental quiet that the centering techniques provided.

Soon afterward, the results were announced.

I had won the bassoon fellowship.

THE ROSSINI CONCERTO

While at Rice, I had competed in the winds category for the concerto competition in March 2019 and had been awarded the opportunity to perform with the school’s chamber orchestra in April 2020.  When I told Mr. Kamins about winning the LSO fellowship, he informed the Rice administration and delivered some surprising news.

One of the faculty members at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music was scheduled to perform a piano concerto with the Rice Chamber Orchestra at the end of September.  He offered to switch his performance date with mine in April, which was terrific.

shepherd school of music
Snapshot of the Shepherd School of Music concerto competition semifinals for winds, brass, percussion, and harp, held on March 6, 2019 in Stude Concert Hall, where I collaborated with Eliza Ching for a panel of faculty members.

I could now take advantage of the opportunity to actually participate in the LSO fellowship, and perform the Rossini concerto in Houston before the Edmonton Symphony’s season would start.  The catch was that I went from having nine months to prepare the Rossini to now only having two.

But there was no other way around it, and it’s a miracle that it worked out.

THE INTERNATIONAL MOVE

Fast forward to the end of the festival, when I had to fly to Houston to meet the movers to take everything from storage and send it all the way up north to Edmonton.

Use your imagination to fill in the blanks of the classic moving debacle, from an electric gate that slammed shut on the moving truck, to having to dig through all my perfectly packed and sealed boxes when I was advised that no liquids would be accepted (what about my shampoo and mouthwash?  Help).  You get the picture.

international move

My mom flew to Edmonton from Toronto mere days ahead of me and, by the time I arrived, had already secured a cozy apartment with the help of a family friend.  What a wild ride.  Mom was gone in less than three weeks and I was finally settled in.

Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

With the festival and the move behind me, I began practicing the Rossini concerto in earnest and worked on reeds.

At the end of August, I attended an outdoor concert as part of the ESO’s Symphony Under the Sky (SUTS) series and met some colleagues after the concert.

I was finally here, but the big hurdle was now travelling back to Houston for a week of rehearsals leading up to the performance of the Rossini concerto.

The ESO had graciously allowed me to begin in early October even though the season officially started at the end of August with the SUTS programs.

I prepared to fly back to Rice for the final time for a week in September to perform the Rossini concerto.

I didn’t feel ready.

I had options for reeds that were responsive and resonant, but they still felt unstable.  I knew Mr. Kamins would be able to help me with them.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra 2019/2020 season

Once there, I was able to sit in on the Monday and Wednesday studio classes, and as usual, learned so much.  Catching up with my former studio mates and meeting the newcomers was also fun too (and I even played recorder in Collegium, Rice’s introductory class to period instruments, after one rehearsal).

It was a challenging week for me.  I learned some difficult lessons about practicing and my performance was not as strong as the two rounds of the competition back in March.

I talked with Mr. Kamins about it, saying that I wished I could have swapped the dress rehearsal for the performance on September 29, 2019.

“I’ve been where you are,” he said.  “But in terms of character, did you accomplish what you wanted to get across?”

“I’d say about eight out of ten.”

So maybe there was some hope there, some small solace.

Rossini Concerto ESO

 

My parents, friends, and teachers celebrated with me.  It was a beautiful way to reconnect and say goodbye for the time being.

My swansong.

Benjamin Kamins
With my teacher and reed guru, Benjamin Kamins.
Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall
With Mom and Dad in Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall.

Shaking hands with trumpet professor Barbara Butler and greeting friends.

No one saw a pandemic coming half a year later.  If Rice hadn’t made these alternate arrangements to accommodate the LSO opportunity, this performance might not have happened until well into the future, if at all.

I had taken advantage of another sliver of time without realizing it.

 

THE FIRST DAY

The morning of October 2, 2019 was my very first rehearsal with the ESO at 10:00 a.m.

I was on cloud nine again.

What a beautiful space. I could finally enjoy a concert hall like this for more than just ten minutes at an audition.  What a treat to open with Symphonie Fantastique.

Everyone was so friendly.  I shook many hands that day (back when that was a thing).

At the conclusion of the rehearsal, a woodwind colleague said, “You fit right in.”

My week was made.

 

the first day image

ON THE JOB

Rice University prepared me well for life after school, but nothing could have fully prepared me for the rigours of an orchestral position other than physically being in the seat, expected to play principal on everything.  Suddenly all of my reeds seemed so inadequate; you can compensate for them as a student (or rather, you can trick yourself into believing you can), but when a conductor places ever-growing demands to play softer and softer and you’re exhausted at the end of a long rehearsal or performance, you need to know you can play what’s on the page and do the job.  It took nothing less than actually sitting in the chair to understand why playing in tune and in time were two of the most critical aspects to being a professional orchestral musician, and why Mr. Kamins constantly stressed response and intonation in our reeds.  I like to play on reeds that take the air very freely, but they were quite unstable and I felt that I had to work too much to play in tune with those around me.  Anything you can do to take that out of the equation is paramount.

One of the biggest adjustments when I was at Rice was having to make a minimum of six reeds a week and being expected to play on a new reed for every lesson.  I had never made that many reeds at that point, but it paled in comparison to the amount I had to make in Edmonton.

ESO on the job
Getting ready for Peter and the Wolf (the fuzzy boa is supposed to be a beard). November 23, 2019.

I am guessing that the low humidity in the hall has something to do with why my reeds tend to close down and not last very long.  It was a pretty shocking realization that I couldn’t play on the same reed for the entire week, and that an “old faithful” would suddenly become useless a lot sooner than I expected.

William Short, principal bassoonist of the Metropolitan Opera, talks about how he aims to scrape two-day ones per day, which would amount to fourteen reeds a week.  Even then, he says he still feels like he is barely on top of things (and he sounds incredible).

A psychological approach to Reed Making
Click image to watch video.
Evaluating a Second-Day Reed
Click image to watch video.

I’ve tried this method, and so far it has been the way I’ve managed to only just stay afloat.  It does help having the Herzberg profile, which I’ve put on my gouger made by Greg James. (Just make sure it’s not too thin, or you’ll run into the same trouble I did at the Music Academy of the West when an alarming number of my freshly-clipped blanks felt simultaneously weak but strong and therefore unusable.)

reed making desk
My reed desk and workspace behind my bassoon.  Mom and I found this handy unit at HomeSense as I was settling in.

What I love about the Edmonton Symphony is the same thing that I find challenging: I get to play principal on everything, which means I have to play principal on everything.

Enter the pandemic.

We had a particularly full week in March 2020 with a programme featuring Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, the Sibelius violin concerto, and a contemporary opening work.  Since beginning with the orchestra in October 2019, it felt like the days stood still while the weeks flew by.  Those strenuous several days felt unusually long and also included some important lunch meetings.  I remember feeling in over my head and struggling to keep up, thinking, I just need this to stop, even for a moment.

A couple of weeks later we weren’t at work, and things would grind to a halt for months.

I had a conversation with an Uber driver about this, and he said, “Oh, so the pandemic is all your fault.”

COLLEAGUES

What Edmonton lacks in temperate warmth, it makes up for in the warmth of its people.

This is a particularly nice group of musicians.  Not only am I inspired by my colleagues every week and wanting to grow and be better because of what I’m hearing around me, but I was also supported in a time of need.

At the beginning of my second season, I had a recording scheduled to perform Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, typically played on cello, at the Winspear Centre with Alexander Prior, the Edmonton Symphony’s Chief Conductor.  The date of the recording was September 8, 2020.  Leading up to it, I had been nervous and very concerned about the condition of my reeds, especially since I would be collaborating with Alex in a chamber music setting.  I worked on a number of them to no avail, and thankfully an old faithful pulled through.

Winspear Stage
Recording Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words with Alexander Prior, ESO Chief Conductor, on the Winspear Stage.  September 8, 2020.

The next day, I had a wind quintet rehearsal since we were preparing to perform five short concerts at the Art Gallery of Alberta starting on September 10.  I had been concerned about that rehearsal since my main focus was preparing for the recording.  It ended up being a fun session, though it was three hours long.  It was a nice day so I walked home.

Moments after I closed the door to my apartment, I began experiencing an unexpected dizziness.  My vision of the world seemed to be perpetually tilting.  As I walked around, it seemed to worsen.  I figured I would lie down and sleep it off.

That didn’t work.

This became alarming when it continued to increase past midnight without showing any signs of subsiding.  Our first concerts were the next day and the prognosis wasn’t looking too good.

It got to the point where I would be lying still and the world felt like it was turning on its axis.  I was horribly nauseous and deeply concerned I would be physically sick.  I didn’t dare move.

When I had to slink off the bed to take what would normally be about seven strides to my bathroom, I wobbled uncontrollably and had to slowly crawl on all fours in order to reach it.

To top it off, my phone battery was at one percent and my charger was nowhere to be found within reach.  I needed to tell the quintet that in this state I wouldn’t be able to make it for the concerts.  (Thankfully my laptop had some life left and I was able to contact the group through email.)

The way the four of them rallied around me was very comforting.  A member of the orchestra who lives several blocks away graciously brought food and Gravol right to my apartment.  The concierge carried the bag up to me along with some cookies that were available.  I had to crawl on the floor to answer the door and accept the package.  He asked me quietly, “Do you need me to call the hospital?”  I thanked him and told him no, but that I’d keep him posted.

Another member of the quintet called me and offered to take me to the doctor.  I initially declined, but within half an hour called her back as this was my only option.

She does not live close to me, but drove to my apartment and came right up to the suite so that I could have a human crutch to lean on as we headed to her car.  After we drove to a walk-in clinic, the doctor told me it was vertigo and sent me off with a prescription.  My good Samaritan colleague picked up some food and then drove me home, again acting as a crutch until she was sure I was safely in my apartment before leaving.

mixed chamber music friends
Playing mixed chamber music with friends: Stephanie Morin (flute), Douglas Ohashi (bass), Ewald Cheung (violin), July 2020.

It spoke volumes to me.  The two other musicians checked in on me through text and email, assuring me that I could reach out if I needed anything.

I’m fortunate to have the support systems, both musically and socially, that Edmonton provides.  It’s a double win.

You think you’re invincible until you’re not.  Anything can happen to anyone at any time.  I don’t know specifically what caused the vertigo, but I think it’s safe to say that both my lack of sleep and the level of stress may have been the thing that pushed me over the edge.

Things don’t fall apart overnight.  Despite the treat of regularly performing chamber music with friends in the two months leading up to the incident, I was feeling pretty spent by the time our thirty-plus summer shows were over.

The lesson here?  Pace yourself.  I had heard this advice repeatedly from ESO musicians with decades of experience behind them. 

Did I listen?  Not until I learned it the hard way.

Edmonton Symphony Wind Quintet

The Edmonton Symphony Wind Quintet.  Left to right: Elizabeth Koch, Principal Flute; Bianca Chambul, Principal Bassoon; June Kim, Principal Oboe; Julianne Scott, Principal Clarinet; Allene Hackleman, Principal Horn.  An outdoor rehearsal in Sherwood Park near the end of summer 2020.  Our portable venue was the blue tent in the lower left corner.

In our quest to pursue that dream job, we often underestimate how vital our working environment is and how that contributes to our emotional well-being.  You can’t put a price on surrounding yourself with quality people.  I have the best of both worlds here.

EDMONTONIANS AND THEIR SYMPHONY

In addition to wonderful colleagues, it has been encouraging to see how much Edmontonians value the orchestra.

The first major programme I played was Shostakovich 11, which was scheduled in early November 2019.  I was still buzzing from the final show and had gone across the street to my local grocery store at 10:30 p.m.  As I was shopping, a woman approached me and asked, “Were you playing in the orchestra tonight?”

Bassoon?  Celebrity status?  Is that a thing?

Pleased, I told her my instrument and confirmed that I had performed that evening. She shared how much she enjoyed the concert.  It felt like a real win that night, in addition to the adrenaline rush of performing such a challenging work.

I had a similar experience with a cashier at the drugstore who reacted enthusiastically when she found out I played with the ESO.  I thought of Sophie Dervaux with the Vienna Philharmonic: she mentions in a YouTube video how classical musicians in Vienna are treated almost like celebrities.

Even on such a small scale, it is validating.

A RIDDLE

I’m not sure where the time has flown – my audition was already two years ago now.

So here’s the riddle: how am I entering my third season and yet only have five months of experience on the job?

Answer: a pandemic.

There were opportunities to perform chamber music with people I otherwise would not likely have worked with.  In addition to a mixed quartet (pictured here) and the wind quintet, a few of those collaborations were trios with either bassoon, violin, and harp, or bassoon, horn, and harp, and we would break the groups up into smaller configurations, like duos.  It was encouraging to see how many people from Edmonton showed up to support these outdoor concerts.

Mixed Chamber Music Quartet
The mixed chamber music quartet, moments before being rained on. We had to run for cover and finish the show on our hostess’ balcony.  July 2020.

Despite having time off away from a regular season, things still somehow seemed busy.  With the shift to online learning and digital content, I found myself involved in something I didn’t expect to enjoy this much: creating YouTube videos.

The ESO does segments on each musician with personal anecdotes and charming Q and As, called ESO 101s.

As Mr. Kamins noted while I was in Houston, “Bianca … when [you’re asked] to do something, you tend to … do it all the way.”  (It was in Houston where I learned what the word “extra” meant.)

In typical fashion, I went a little crazy on my ESO 101 submission, pictured above, which my mom affectionately dubbed my “covideo”.  After having to re-film it, it took me eleven days to create the finished product, and at that point I was a little loopy since I had stayed indoors the entire time.

I know the word pivot essentially became profanity during Covid-19, but I really did have to stay on my toes in case unusual opportunities for recordings – whether chamber, orchestral, or even solo – showed up.  Besides filming and editing videos on iMovie, there were occasions to record performances at the hall, which were filmed by a professional videographer, Erik Visser.  These performances comprised the ESO’s Live at the Winspear series.  In addition to Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, I was able to record two solo pieces by Jean Daniel Braun and Mathieu Lussier’s second caprice for unaccompanied bassoon as part of the ESO’s Virtual Stage subscription series.

So here we are, eighteen months later, with many people fully immunized.  I’m not sure what the future holds, but I am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and staying creative.  There’s never a dull moment, and I am grateful to be here as I enter my third season with the orchestra.

EPILOGUE

As I reflect on what was going on this time two years ago, I’ll close with an anecdote from Edith Stacey, the ESO’s assistant principal bassoonist and contrabassoonist.

Back to June 24, 2019: audition day.

It was only after I met Edie that I realized she was the person behind the miracle voice who offered me the chance to redo the second iteration of The Rite of Spring.

I don’t remember greeting her when I met the rest of the audition committee behind the screen, but I do remember speaking with her after the audition in Barney’s Lounge, which was where the candidates had been waiting.  Edie told me a part of the story that I have no recollection of.

She had offered me a sandwich and I cheerfully took the entire platter.

“I figured you were a poor student who hadn’t eaten in days.”

At least I said thank you, so the story goes.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I wasn’t all there after the news.  And it really is no joke that candidates shouldn’t be operating any machinery, much less interacting with their future colleagues beyond pleasantries, on audition day.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

For the moments in our lives that we wish were different, we often forget that removing one seemingly insignificant detail in our path could dramatically alter the course of our trajectory.  If Max hadn’t reached out that day in May, I likely would not have heard about the ESO vacancy at all, or found out too late to prepare.  Despite performing poorly at the Dallas audition and wishing at the time that I hadn’t taken it, I might not have had the same level of resolve to advance past the first round in a subsequent audition and channel that energy into my preparations for the Edmonton Symphony.  I would have instead found myself moving back from Texas to my childhood home in Thornhill, Ontario to complete my Master’s degree online rather than being part of the ESO family as we navigated a pandemic that blindsided the world.

This piece of writing has been a year in the making, and I hope that it has been an enjoyable and useful read.  I wish you success as you move forward in your own journey.

– Bianca Chambul

Photo credit: Dale MacMillan

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Rhythmic Displacement in the Study of Orchestral Excerpts – Nadina Mackie Jackson

Rhythmic Displacement in the Study of Orchestral Excerpts – Nadina Mackie Jackson

Talent Drills and Rhythmic Displacement (with a bonus transposition!)

Dedicated orchestrally-trained bassoonists spend thousands of hours refining and drilling orchestral passages for auditions and concerts. As Christopher Millard demonstrated on the first episode of Let’s Talk Bassoon, transposition is a wonderful way to explore the bassoon and all its tendencies by moving away from the original key. This has the effect of giving us new perspectives, new challenges and often make the original key seem so much more accessible once you return. It is more about exercising the mind which in turn, frees the power of the body to play the passage in the best way possible.

Likewise, you can use the concept of rhythmic displacement and different articulations to expose well-worn spots and tendencies for unevenness.  In each rhythmic permutation, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenths etc, we successively move the passage over by one unit. While this is initially disorienting, over time and with practice, we build flexibility, strength, and confidence. It is particularly valuable to move the strong beats to a weaker point in the bar and see if you can maintain evenness and musical direction. Add different articulations to enhance the challenge (see Figaro below). And in low register excerpts, leave the whisper key off to encourage steady and connected air supply.

Use your metronome, start slow, stay steady and over time, build each increment to concert tempo.

Take a look at the Talent Drills and give it a whirl!

For pdfs (best image quality) click on links:

Talent Drill Ravel Piano Concerto

Talent drills for Marriage of Figaro

Talent Drills for Beethoven Symphony no. 4

Beethoven4_BMajor