Well, I am not the newest member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic violin section.
I will tell you about it without answering the big “what did they wanna hear” question. People will continue to audition for the first round through Monday, so I won’t say anything that would make it unfair.
I did give it my best shot, and I thank the LA Phil for letting me do so. It was by far the most professionally-run audition I’ve ever attended, and I have attended quite a few. After dodging the crazed motorist that nearly cracked up my car on the way over and the major traffic jam caused by a big accident on the highway, I found the time I spent at Disney Concert Hall ran more smoothly than anything else during my day.
The new Disney Hall is quite an edifice, all that gleaming metal dancing with the sunlight. One can’t miss the building. The security guard told me just where to park, deep in the dark reaches of the parking lot, four floors under. I had my doubts about emerging in the right place in this circuitous mass of metal, but the elevator took me exactly to the sign-in desk, where I signed my name right after our own Gregory Lee’s -- small world.
Knowing there were 100-some candidates, I expected the communal warm-up room, with maybe 30 people all playing at once: the Tchaik here, the Sibelius here, all the different excerpts simultaneously at various speeds…Imagine my surprise when I was ushered politely to my own private, sound-proof practice room.
It was an inviting little dressing room, with a sky blue leather couch and a painting of lily pads in bright and peaceful shades of blue and green. There was a T.V. in the corner ceiling, and a nice big mirror in which I could see my sunken eyes and sleep-deprived face. (I finally gave in at 2 a.m. and took cold medicine so I could sleep.) Still, I felt calm, not too nervous.
On the wooden music stand was a letter of greetings, welcoming me to the lovely new Disney Hall and giving me instructions. I also found a very nice copy of the music we were to play, with instructions to put my markings in that music and use it for the audition. Nice idea, actually; it made things go quickly and smoothly. I had 45 minutes to mark in the fingerings and look over things.
Then I was shown to an outer room, next to the hall, where I could continue to warm up. So I didn’t have any uncomfortable moments of standing in a drafty backstage area, getting cold, while waiting to go on stage.
Then, to the middle of the stage in Disney Hall. Wow, all those colorful seats. It didn’t look that big from the center, but I felt how big it was when I started to play and all I could hear was something like a little squeaky mouse. Hmmm, my fiddle sounded a lot fuller in my living room…Here, against my ear, it sounded like the old student violin I had in the sixth grade. Could it be that all the beautiful, lush sound of my fiddle was magically going out into the hall? This was my fervent hope, though I suspected that some of this mousiness had to do with my adrenaline level. I didn’t feel super nervous or panicky, but certainly my heart was pumping and I wasn’t “relaxed.”
They had me play a respectable amount before saying, “Thank you,” though not the whole thing. Though they warned against taking that too seriously, I did perceive it as a death knell.
I packed my things and went to the green room to await the results. It was filled with pictures of giant flute keys, violin parts and piano keys tumbling like blocks. Blue couches lined the walls, and on one sat the girl who had gone before me, talking with someone on a cell phone. One by one, over about 45 minutes, eight more candidates arrived, having just finished their five- to ten-minutes in the sun. After me came a young man with a mop of curly hair, who sat down and pronounced, “Well, there’s nothing like having your entire life reduced to 20 to 30 seconds.” He paused and then added, “Next time I’m going to drink a ton of coffee, stick my hands in ice water, take a bunch of allergy medicine….”
After a while some friends arrived, Lorenz and Sam and some other girls I’ve played with in the Pasadena Symphony. We all knew each other, if not well, by acquaintance.
“It’s a party!” someone said. “Where’s the beer?” People talked and enjoyed the reunion, until the mood suddenly shifted with the entrance of our proctor, Jeff. Everyone fell into an almost reverent silence. Jeff gave one of the nicest speeches I’ve heard on such an occasion, before the inevitable dismissal of some and possible invitation of others to the semi-finals. He thanked us for coming, acknowledged our hard work and expense. Then he announced that three people would be invited to the semi-finals; I was not surprised, by this point, when I was not one of them! I was really happy, though, for my friend, Lorenz, who was invited to the semi-finals. Go Lorenz!
When it was all over, I lugged my violin outside and took a little walk around Disney Hall. I climbed up some steps to the top of one of the jagged edges, where I could see the LA Times building, where Robert works. I called him up and gave him the news. I didn’t really feel sad, happy, relieved, upset…just kind of blank. What now?
I’m sure there will be more auditions. And taking this one has helped me in so many ways. First, I learned the rep well and can now finally play all of the ridiculously long first movement of the Tchaik from memory. Now that’s something I’ve wanted to do since about the age of 10, when our family friend, Doug Bradley, a witty Brit who liked telling long stories and smoking cigars, introduced me to that impossible notion. He gave me the recording of Gene Fodor playing it, and I wore the little cassette until it went blank. So if Doug is watching from the heavens, hey, the freckle-faced kid finally did it!
I also learned how wonderful everyone on this board is. I couldn’t even begin to name everyone, I just know I will leave people out, but here are a few people I’d like to thank: my husband Robert, who does all the programming on this website and has watched the kids, gone to the grocery store, sent me to Denver, and kept saying, “Just do it!” You’re the best, Robert! And from all the encouragement I’ve received from the members of this board, Dimitri (those suggestions were so helpful), Emil Chudnovsky (thanks for keeping your fingers crossed for me! I know it is hard to play the violin that way.), Scott68, Edward Oh, Chris (who sent me the little orange men, banging their heads against brick walls!) Kelsey Z (wow, what a thread!), Carl Fulbrook, Jimmy Vo, Janet Griffiths, Buri, Keith Loke, Kazuyuki Fujita, Greg Socket, Emily Liz, Kevin Daugherty, Gregory Lee (I hope you are still in the running, if so, best of luck!), Owen Sutter, Joseph Franke, One-Sim Lam, violetcat, David Lillis, Lorenzo Z, Lauren Canitia, Brian Foster, Austin Mohr, Ryan Meehan, Ben Poore, Vernon Kirby, Lauri Kotila, Christian Delgado, Marcianne O’Day, Sue Donim, Rick Baccare, Pauline Lerner, Parmeeta Bhogal, Jenny Caelli, Mattias Eklund, Kismet Al-Hussaini, Deirdre Ni Mheachair, Justice Welp and Robert Fuller. More thanks to my fellow Suzuki teachers, especially Fritzie Culick and Julie Bamberger, to my orchestra friends Cathlin Reese, Tom Sender and Marisa McLeod, to LA Times reporter Chris Pasles and photographer Rick Loomis, to all my students who have been patient with me, to my yoga teacher Naader, to my coffee talk friend Ann, and to MY KIDS!
Just making that list is totally overwhelming, and I know it isn’t even complete! Thank you, thank you, to all of you. With each other’s support, we can all do great things. The first step is to try to do it, to shoot high! Even if you don’t reach the specific goal you have set, so many wonderful things will come on the way.
Two days ago, I awakened at 7 a.m. and bolted upright in my bed. "I HAVE TO CHANGE MY STRINGS!" Okay….I had been trying the Evah Pirazzis after being a long-time user of Dominants. I didn't think they were terrible, but they didn't seem to be helping all that much either. As they broke in, they seemed to be getting more fuzzy and even buzzy. But I didn't know I was that upset about it until this sudden jolt.
So I went to the music store when it opened and got a set of Dominants. I came home and put all of them (no, you aren't supposed to change all your strings at once, but what can one do?) on my fiddle. Ah. Way better. As long as I could break them in. But… that D string. Hmmm. It wasn't breaking in. That evening at 5:30 came another emergency epiphany:
"This D string is WRONG! It's messed up!"
I'm lucky enough to live a block away from Barry Hu's Marquis Violins, good thing they are open until 6 p.m. So I walked over with my fiddle. I discovered that I had a non-silver D, so I got a silver one.
I came back and my kids were watching Pocahontas on the T.V., which is right next to my in-the-middle-of-everything studio. No matter, I can change a string to Pocahontas. I loosened the D, and the E went BOING! It broke in dramatic fashion, right at the loop! Must have been the pressure, ooops. I quickly got on the phone and asked if they'd let me in at Marquis again, because it was about 5:58 p.m.
So I went back and bought two E's this time, just in case. I usually get a wound E, but they had none.
Finally I got my fiddle strung, and it sounds totally, wonderfully fantastic. The D is great, and the non-wound E is actually much better. I practiced late into the evening, while kids pounded at the door, "MOMMY! Stop practicing!" But I finished in time to tuck them in.
Yesterday, when I awakened, I turned to say good morning to my husband but heard myself say, "Croak, croak, croak…" It was then that I noticed my eyes, which were leaking like fountains, and my nose, dripping like a bad faucet. I had a recollection from several days back: Two-year-old Joshua, from down the street, with whom my children were playing. As we left his house, he reached up his little arms to me and said, "A hug and a kiss?" Sniffle. Didn't his mom say he'd just recovered from a cold?
I decided to go to yoga anyway. Naader, my wonderful yoga teacher, diagnosed the problem as allergies. "Here," he said, quickly producing eight pills of…of what? Herbs or something? And a bottle of water. "Take these, they are just food. You will feel better for four hours." Hmmm. So I just took them. I don't think they did anything, though I did feel kind of pampered.
I tried yoga, getting increasingly dizzy. Fortunately, I realized that I could concentrate even when I'm sick.
So I got some chicken tortilla soup at a Wahoo's Baja Mexican Grill. Yum!
The rest of the day was pretty blurry, but let's just say I was sick, my husband had to work the night shift, and my daughter had her big school play. I slogged my way through it all.
I resolved to go to bed early. Got the kids in bed and settle down with some hot lemon ginger juice and "Song of the Lark" by Willa Cather. Read a little bit, when 3-year-old Brian came into the room. "Mom, can I have some Girl Scout cookies tomorrow? And I have something to tell you. …" Then came Natalie. "Hi Mom…." This went on well into the night.
Finally, at 1:30 a.m., Robert came home with drugs. I finally got to sleep.
I'm about to eat my soup for lunch, then practice scales. Then I'm off to Disney Hall!
This seemed to be the consensus at Emil’s violin recital Sunday at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where he played with pianist Michael Sheppard.
Emil has been a Violinist.com member since the early days of the website and a frequent contributor to the discussion board, so I was delighted to finally meet him in person. He talks just like he writes (erudite, with a dash of salt), and he plays like…well, this is what I overheard people saying:
“He’s as schmaltzy as Perlman!” and “That’s some good, old-timey violin playing, with a twist!” They loved it, in other words. They certainly didn’t feel this was some young hot-shot with all flash and no soul.
He really is everything I suspected from reading his posts: an intelligent player with outstanding chops, whose comfort with the violin and ease of expression delivers an enjoyable performance.
He played an ambitious program: Brahms, Sonata in D minor; Saint-Saens, Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso; Paganini, Witches’ Dance (Le Streghe); Prokofiev, Violin Sonata Op. 94; Sarasate, Zigeunerweisen; and Ravel, Tzigane. And an encore!
I would have dropped dead after the first half of this, for sure. Not Emil, he was solid to the end.
For all that “schmaltzy” talk, I didn’t find, for example, that his Saint-Saens was exceedingly languid in the Introduction, as I’ve heard it. The Capriccioso was incredibly clean and, I felt it necessary to make note in my program, “REALLY fast!” His Paganini was fun and fiendish. The Prokofiev is one of my favorite pieces, I was glad to hear it played so well. Emil introduced Zigeunerweisen by saying that “Sarasate could not have meant a piece this over-the-top seriously!” then went right over the top. And Tzigane was downright raucous, inspiring a standing ovation in the crowd of about 70. For an encore, he found a great piece I’d never heard by Fritz Kreisler called “Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta,” which summoned a Viennese mood while also being harmonically more interesting than any other Kreisler pieces I know.
I met a cute couple at the recital, Judith and George Greenberg, who had been married for 63 years, having met in a New York music school as teenagers. She was a pianist and he a violinist, who said he’d played on a Strad for seven years. “Oh, the sound of that instrument in our living room!” rhapsodized Mrs. Greenberg, remembering her husband’s Strad days. They came back stage afterwards to meet Emil and see what kind of instrument he played on. He shrugged and laughed, “A no-name!” All were impressed by the sound he had produced from his no-name “wooden girlfriend,” as he called it.
Afterwards, Emil and fans went to dinner at L’Allegria, a restaurant I’d highly recommend. Emil spoke to the waiters in fluent Italian, to his friends in fluent Russian, to everyone else in English. He jovially encouraged much uninhibited eating, drinking of wine, sharing of stories in many languages and the general merriment of all.
I’d have to agree, the guy is an old soul!
I received a letter from the LA Philharmonic: “I am pleased to inform you that we have received enough cancellations that it is now possible to guarantee you an audition for the position of Section Violin with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.”
My turn is on the afternoon of March 20, at Disney Hall. Disney Hall!
I now am working on changing my mindset from being determined just to get this audition to trying to win it. It has been a daunting task, just getting the music in order. Even though I’ve been working on it for three months, there is still plenty to do. I’m sure that no one will mind if I publish the list at this late date, so here is what they are asking for:
A Mozart concerto, first movement
First movement from one of the following concertos: Bartok #2, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Glazunov, Mendelssohn, Sibelius or Tchaikovsky (I’m doing the Tchaik)
Adams, Naïve and Sentimental Music, excerpt from first movement
Berg, part of third piece in the “Lyric Suite”
Beethoven, Eroica Symphony, beginning of Scherzo
Brahms, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, all of it! I love this piece, the St. Anthony Chorale was the tune for my alma mater song at Northwestern
Mozart Symphony 39, movements 1, 2 and 4. (Is this the hardest thing of all? Yes, I think so!)
Mendelssohn, Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, first page
Strauss, Don Juan, first and last page.
It takes me at least two and a half hours to play straight through this music. If I work on things it takes more like four hours. The committee will likely hear about five minutes of it. I have to conquer a lot of neuroses to make those five minutes the most stellar music-playing I’m capable of. No easy task, here!
In order for that to happen, I need to know this music, and every bar of it, so well that I can play it standing on my head and in my sleep. My music has little Post-it notes all over, with the metronome markings that I have been slowly easing up over the last months. I have two metronomes in use, one is the really loud, bang-out-the-beat variety. The other “Mr. Beat” does complicated machinations, like dividing the beat into triplets or 16th notes so that I can get as much as 1,000 beats per minute pounding at my ear. Not that I ever need it quite that fast, but it does help to have the option of subdividing for music like the Mendelssohn Scherzo.
And it is not just my studio that reflects my efforts; the entire house does. It is evident in the piles of washed but unfolded laundry; the children’s toys strewn all over the house; the dishes, piling ever higher; the husband, with a somewhat weary but resigned expression on his face – he has seen this before: “audition mode.”
Well, it’s back to practicing for me. I’ve never been so happy to be doing an audition!
A number of people commented on the picture, and I have to say that the photo shoot was by far the most interesting part of being on the “source” end of a newspaper story. It was taken by LA Times photographer Rick Loomis. I wondered what they would do when the reporter Chris Pasles said, “We’d like a picture of you and your violin and your computer.” Huh? I envisioned the kind of a picture with one arm around your buddy, the other hand holding a beer. Only I’d have my arm around the computer, the other hand holding a violin.
Rick was to drop by the house in the morning, so I got all ready and was keeping busy with scales when the doorbell rang. I opened it to find a guy with all kinds of camera stuff and curly blond hair.
As I scurried around, trying to call up the web page (they wanted that in the picture), he calmly surveyed the place. He saw my violin case and observed the contents within: pictures of my children, parents and sister, a tattered old “best teacher award” made from construction paper by former student Nicole when she was five. He was figuring out how to compose a picture that would get the fiddle case, then through the mirror, me and the computer. Wow.
Then to the kitchen, where he used the blinds for adjusting the light, trying various angles with my violin on the table, me standing behind it, leaning over it, etc. I got a little curious about Rick.
“So, do you take pictures mostly for the Calendar section of the paper?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, smiling. “Not really.”
I guess not. He had just gotten back from Haiti. Before that? Iraq, where a number of LA Times reporters narrowly escaped a car bomb. And before that, Afghanistan, and Israel. In fact, he travels so much he doesn’t even have an apartment.
“I had to take pictures of a restaurant where I’d eaten at least 15 times,” he said of Israel. “It was all blood, guts and rubble.” Disturbing images, but ones that people need to see if we are ever to work for peace in the world.
“What is that, around your neck?” I asked, observing a leather thread peeking out from his shirt.
“Oh this,” he said, smiling. He took it out: a clay amulet that looked like the sun, or maybe fire. “I got that at the Burning Man Festival in Black Rock Desert, Nevada.” It’s a big festival that culminates in the burning of a big “man,” an effigy that can symbolize whatever you want it to. Someone there made it for him.
“And what does it say on the back?” I asked, seeing that there was writing on it.
“It says, ‘Peace,’ in Greek,” he said. “I like to think it keeps me safe.”
He spent two hours with me, and he took some really nice pictures, beautifully composed. Another artist, doing his job.
Yes, after I wrote that blog saying that I was going to play the LA Philharmonic audition despite all the discouragement, I received a call from Chris Pasles, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve been following your blog and we thought it might be interesting to do a little story about all this…”
Really? Well, why not. I was a newspaper reporter for five years, during which I wrote several thousand articles about many, many people. As former Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser said, "If every journalist could have journalism done to him or her, we'd all be better. " Now was my chance to be on the other end of it, a bit of a nerve-wracking endeavor. What on Earth would they write about? Would they misquote me? Would they run some picture of me crossing my eyes? Would they make me out to be an entirely different person?
So Pasles interviewed me over the phone, asking all kinds of questions about the website. He was a good interviewer. I know this because I rambled on and on without restraint – good interviewers get you to do that. And he called back a few times to clarify some quotes.
For the most part, the article was accurate, though there were a few errors. Having been a newspaper reporter myself, knowing how things get altered during the editing process, I won’t blame Chris for the boo-boos. But I’ll correct them here: Violinist.com gets 2,000 visitors a day – and an average of 19,000 daily hits. That’s a little more than the 2,000 “hits’’ the article misquoted me saying. Okay, a LOT more! Also, I have to be standing by for my audition from March 20 to March 24, not March 2 to March 24. – holy cow, that would be 23 days of stand-by. And, the lead sentence of the article implied that I’m one of those typical 20-something bloggers. For all my youthful appearance (hah!) I’m 36 and proud of it.
He definitely caught the spirit of what I was trying to say, though, which is that this violin-playing business can be really frustrating, and that anyone doing anything worthwhile will have their share of rejection letters. Just make a nice, big file to keep them in so you can make your own, personal decoupage wastebasket.
First, I will bring you up to date. After receiving 500 resumes for one section violin position, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has reserved audition times for 183 “invited” violinists, who will be heard over a four-day period, with the possibility of a fifth day being added. I’ve been told that as a “stand-by,” I need to be ready to play any time March 20-23. Wow. And if I don’t “fit into a gap,” there is a possibility I won’t be heard.
The letter said, “We will make every attempt to hear as many of you as can fit into our already full schedule, but I must inform you that if all who have expressed an interest in standing by do so, it is possible that we will run out of time.”
Am I deterred? Of course. But I’m still planning on doing it. As my mother observed, “The violin has been beating you up ever since you were nine, by now you have a tough skin.” I also would add that the L.A. Phil appears to be trying its best to give everyone a listen.
Despite these roadblocks, I have found encouragement from my family, friends, and well, you guys!
First there is Dimitri, a fabulous teacher. I’ve never talked with him in person or taken a lesson from him, but I can tell he is a fabulous teacher by the incredibly useful and detailed advise he’s forwarded to me on how to practice these excerpts. His advice also inspired me to boost my practice time to more like four hours. Thank you!
Then there is my friend, Ann, who gave me a box of “Good Karmals,” exceptionally delicious carmels wrapped in colored papers with little inspirations on them, such as “Expect the unexpected and whenever possible BE the unexpected.”
Many violinist.com members boosted me with their e-mails. Absolutely Insane wrote me to say, “Just know that there is someone else who is also….Absolutely Insane!” Scott68 wrote to say that he’s “really hoping you the best always, even if it means devouring massive doses of Berg.” A reader named Greg wrote, “I hope you knock their socks off!”
I’m happy to report that the readers of this site are not only generous in their encouragement of causes like mine, but they also cheer on anyone’s genuine efforts on the violin. One case that moved me recently was Nada Mogharbel of Beirut, Lebanon, who wrote to our discussion board several weeks ago as a discouraged adult student. So many people overwhelmed her with words of encouragement, she wrote back just two days later: “I don’t know how to thank you enough…one by one, you have all been a great support to me and each of your messages was greatly helpful and enlightening in one way or another…I am so honored to join this site and acknowledge what a great violin community you are!!
“I have no shame in telling you that your supporting messages actually made me cry… first because I have realized how much my teacher affected me negatively in his early judgment and second because it was overwhelming for me to see that I have gained friends worldwide who care for me and give me true advice.”
Encouragement is contagious. We need it at every level, from the day we decide to start sawing away at the fiddle to the day we play our first recital, the day we audition for youth orchestra, the day we audition for a new teacher or college, the day we give a full solo recital, the day we play a solo for an orchestra, the day we take an ambitious audition. The more we support each other in this way, the stronger our violin community will become. In a world full of synthesizers and bad elevator music, we need to be strong!
Laurie Niles is from Pasadena, California. Biography
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