The Aesthetics of the Audition Excerpt

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Over the past decade I have attended dozens of clinics and masterclasses aimed at explaining methods for preparing orchestral percussion audition repertoire, and describing techniques for succeeding in an audition environment. I have also read numerous articles in percussion magazines, and viewed several educational DVDs addressing the same issues. Furthermore, professional performers (including myself) and educators regularly present workshops focusing on specific percussion instruments used in concert bands and symphony orchestras. In these presentations the same group of short musical excerpts is generally used for demonstration.

Recently I have become intrigued by the very real and unique aesthetic concept underlying the presentation of these excerpts as music – all by themselves, without any orchestral “accompaniment”, and, many times, without reference to the original musical contexts from which they come. Even though the majority of the excerpts are less than one minute, and sometimes no more than a few seconds long, they are presented with the same intensity, and based on similar kinds of detailed analysis and preparation, as traditional solo concert repertoire. In addition, the “audience” for these performances, whether in a clinic or an actual audition, is highly educated and sensitized to appreciate every detail of execution and nuance of expression in the musical phrases being offered. There is a Webern-like minimalism to the serious presentation of a large number of short, and often, very delicate abstract passages. The attention of a listener, even one who is not a percussionist, can become focused in interesting and unexpected ways. In my experience, the entire clinic may become aestheticized in precisely the same manner as a solo recital performance, except in this case the material being performed was not created originally for such a purpose.

The specific music constituting this body of repertoire is now commercially published in comprehensive multi-volume collections of symphonic percussion excerpts. These collections are expertly edited and annotated in much the same way as published editions of classical music for any solo instrument or ensemble. Many percussionists – students and professionals – will never have the opportunity to perform all of the excerpts live in the original orchestral settings. Still, they practice them with the same dedication and creative engagement as solo pieces specifically composed for concert use. Such percussionists can form a sophisticated and receptive audience for “demonstrations” by well-known and/or highly accomplished orchestra musicians. In fact, it is not really necessary that the performer in this context be a member of a symphony orchestra at all. As anyone who has attended an audition for a symphony job knows, there is currently an enormous pool of very talented musicians who are thoroughly trained and prepared to perform the excerpt repertoire at the highest professional level. Paradoxically, a large percentage of this pool has never held a full-time orchestra position, and it is entirely possible that many never will. Perhaps alternative career options will include that of professional excerpt solo recitalist. Presently, and probably even more in the future, a solo presentation of orchestral percussion excerpts may be a viable and, for the appropriate audience, engaging concert experience.

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