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Jessica Hung

The audition.

January 10, 2009 at 11:18 AM

This seems to be the place to start as far as the details of my new job: how it happened. Everything came together at my audition in Dayton, but even in retrospect, there is always a sense of mystery around these affairs. Far from glamorous events, they are nerve-wracking and stressful for the candidates—and even for the committee, which bears so much responsibility. As everyone’s individual audition experience is so unique, I can hardly claim to make generalizations about the process, the “best” way to prepare, or anything of that nature, but I can make a list of a few things—both conscious choices and mere happenstance—that may have helped my performance on that particular day:

·         I failed other auditions.
First things first! While there are people who land great jobs on their very first try, those people are few and far between. For most, losing auditions is simply part of the process—but it doesn’t have to be done in vain. I believe there is a lesson to be learned from each loss, even if the lesson is maddeningly frustrating (or perhaps even more frustrating, not readily apparent until some time has passed). For example, I learned that Brahms excerpts are some of the most musically difficult and elusive when I faltered on them two auditions in a row. And I learned that sometimes I actually did the best I could in the moment but I just wasn’t there yet. By “being there” I mean technically, musically, artistically, psychologically, emotionally, even spiritually. That makes it sound like a titanic struggle, but when it really works, it’s not at all. For me, at least, it is when the struggle ends that all the needless inner chatter goes away, and the music comes through.
·         I advanced in other auditions.
This was also a helpful step—a success and a failure (if we define failure as all outcomes other than winning) rolled into one. To anyone taking a multi-round orchestral audition: advancing is always something to be proud of! While it may postpone your night of dejected/elated bar-hopping, advancing is a clear positive sign from the committee. Though the stakes were higher in the next round, I tried to keep in mind that they must have liked something about my playing—sound, style, articulation, phrasing, overall standard, whatever—and sometimes even managed to feel more relaxed in the second round.
·         I prepared early.
All those other failed auditions sure added up, because there is no substitute for familiarity with the repertoire, and feeling like most of the music on the list is “old.” Though familiarity breeds security (and sometimes contempt, if this is perhaps the umpteenth time you need to work up the Schumann Scherzo), resting on your laurels until the last minute renders that sense of security decidedly false. I credit the beautiful atmosphere at Tanglewood for the inspiration and motivation to start reworking old excerpts—and to look at a few new ones—in the middle of the summer about six weeks before. This left enough time to have the whole list in solid shape by the audition in early September, yet it was a concentrated enough period that things didn’t feel overworked and stale. I also rotated the excerpts, not all that strictly in fact, but in the fairly casual manner of looking through all of them at the end of the day and choosing maybe three that I thought were weak or knew I could improve as my main focus for the next day.
·         I used a metronome and a recorder (and not the wind instrument).
Sometimes I get lazy and go without these invaluable tools, but when that happens I always pay.
I try to have a tempo or at least a tempo range chosen for every excerpt, which initially establishes a consistent goal, and by the last week before the audition these tempi should feel practically second nature.
I also try to record myself once I think an excerpt has reached a certain standard, or if I no longer know what to do with it. This is really like hearing your own voice on a recording, or seeing your face in a picture as it really looks rather than the backwards image you are used to seeing in the mirror. Though the parts are all external, playing is still an internal, subjective experience, and recording it and listening to the feedback can be like giving yourself a new set of ears. I even found that I often noticed the same problems my teachers had already told me to fix, but that I had continued to let slip by because I didn’t really hear them.
·         I treat auditions as (highly accurate) performances, with the same joy of sharing music at heart.
I disagree with the opposing mental images we commonly have regarding auditions versus concerts and recitals.  Here is the conventional wisdom: Concerts are happy, festive occasions, where your loving friends and family come to adore you, bringing flowers and having already written cards that say “OMG you were sooo awesome, LOL!” before you even play a note. You play a long program, with plenty of time to get comfortable in the performance space, and if you miss a few notes, no one cares! It’s all chalked up to the thrill and excitement of live performance.
Auditions, on the other hand, can be likened to sitting on death row, where the executioner-music director and his cronies sit shrouded in sinister secrecy behind a screen, counting your every mistake, forcing you to start cold with your cadenza, cutting you off early, saying “thank you” in sarcastic voices, playing with their cell phones, and generally readying the guillotine. Needless to say, you don’t stand a chance in this oppressive environment.
This is all simply not the case. Yes, audition environments are more formal and frequently awkward, and yes, a few minutes is a brief amount of time for a committee to make a decision that could potentially fill a chair for the next few decades. But committee members, even while upholding stringent artistic standards, are still human. They are your potential future colleagues, friends, and neighbors, and they want you to play well—at least, I can’t imagine anyone who sits on a committee for hours or sometimes days on end actually wanting to hear a relentless string of cringeworthy Don Juans.
With this in mind, I play auditions with the same goal as concerts—to communicate, express, share, move, and touch; and to allow my audience to just sit back and relax. Yes, this means having prepared technically so that those committee members who are tapping away and counting every rest are still satisfied with your rhythmic reliability, and those who place a premium on sensitivity to style are not offended by inarticulate Mozart or unsustained Brahms. But the goal of any audition, for me, has been to move beyond the audition, meaning any feeling of a contrived performance—yes, stay within the confines of what’s traditionally expected technically, but absolutely break out of the box artistically. Remember that we play music for beauty, pleasure, entertainment, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, healing, and many other reasons—but probably not primarily for analysis, deconstruction, and criticism. It is a complete 180 from the way we prepare, and requires a real leap of faith in the moment.
That turned out to be a pretty general list rather than a description of my audition day, but the whole thing was rather a blur, so I don’t think I could provide a real blow-by-blow account anyway. I remember sitting around backstage for hours waiting between rounds much more than the actual playing, so even at a successful audition I learned another valuable lesson: prepare to be bored. Bring a pleasant distraction like a book (or in my case an iPhone, though unfortunately it was dying—I even went to my car at one point to charge it, after playing a huge second round that I believe clocked in at close to twenty minutes per candidate). Bring a snack—I ate at the Subway across the street for lunch and dinner.
I think perhaps the most important thing was a kind of Zen feeling I had all day, which I absolutely attribute to past audition experience. Auditions are a crapshoot, much like college admissions and being able to reach your back teeth when you floss. Everyone knows this, but it’s not so easy to accept when you’ve invested so much (or when you really want clean teeth). A couple past auditions stand out as ones I desperately wanted to win, and prepared well for—but in one I completely bombed and was sent home after sizeable hotel and airfare expenses but just one (1) excerpt…and in the other I got all the way to the finals only to stumble over excerpts I had nailed in the first round, suddenly second-guessing myself at the crucial moment. In both cases my Achilles’ heel was the same: allowing the desire to win and corresponding fear of failure to overpower the simple truth and joy of music-making in the moment. It’s not the desire to win itself that is detrimental—in fact, if that doesn’t exist, there’s little point in taking the audition at all—but allowing that desire to rule your emotions and grip your thoughts. Accepting the role of chance, luck, and random factors we may never even know about does at last give a sense of peace, freeing us to take what we can control—merely ourselves—to new heights.
I will say that when the results were at last announced, some ten hours after the start of the first round, I had a moment of confusion because of the system for identifying candidates—we had used numbers in the preliminary round, letters in the semi-final round, and I think we were back to numbers in the final round (though they may have been Roman numerals?  Fancy!). At any rate, the results were announced by letter—the designation from the semi-finals—but as I was expecting to hear numbers, I thought that was odd and simply equated the letter they’d announced to its corresponding number (which might seem even more odd, but it was late and I was tired)…and the number was not mine. It happened to belong to the fellow candidate I’d just been talking to, so I turned to congratulate him. The confusion was corrected in a matter of seconds and I came to realize that it was really my letter from the previous round that had been called. But I appreciate having that mistaken moment to look back on, because I know how I would have reacted—did react, briefly—to another failure: finally, with acceptance. I had played my strongest audition yet, but I don’t know if any audition is ever “perfect.” At least in Dayton, everything came together in that I showed what I had to offer, but harbored no expectations of instantaneous reward and gratification. Of course I am incredibly grateful that the committee did indeed take a chance on me, and that my life has changed because of it. But only in finding the humility to lose did I really find the courage to play my heart out. And sometimes the byproduct is a win.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 5:26 PM

Ten extra points for being very wise, Jessica! :)

From E. Smith
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 5:45 PM

This is a really excellent, useful essay. Thanks for posting it.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 7:50 PM



From Bill Busen
Posted on January 10, 2009 at 10:08 PM

I just shared this for my seniors and MM grads on Facebook.  Very insightful!

From Matt Groters
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 4:52 AM

This is the kind of resource that every aspiring orchestra player should tap into, the success stories and action plans of our colleagues in the field! Not only is it encouraging to see happen, but it is the kind of information that can really have a positive effect.

Thanks so much for posting this!


From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 1:08 PM

Very interesting and so thoughtfully and well written. Please continue to blog on your experiences in the orchestra.

I have asked several professional friends and acquaintances how long it took to become comfortable in the standard repertory. One told me three years, another said that he had played in so many student performances that the repertory itself was no problem but learning how to fit in took a couple of years. 

In the course of time it would be interesting to read your thoughts.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 1:52 PM

Oops. I didn't read your last blog. This isn't your first orchestra gig. You are the concertmaster. Very good.  I take back my question about learning the repertory.


From al ku
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 2:03 PM

jessica, like others have said, what you have shared is indeed a treasure.  even though it is a music related theme, the dissection of the experiences has much wider application beyond music audition.   also, articulation like this allows people to connect not only with a player's music, but also the musical person.   now when we look at or hear your playing,  we will have a new perspective.

because of this blog, i went back to some of your earlier blogs.  very interesting music journey.  that line about meeting your friend in starbucks and then borders is funny! 

thank you again for your brilliance!

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 2:33 PM

What a fascinating blog!  Thanks so much for giving us these insights.  You stopped blogging right before I joined so welcome back, or just welcome.  I'll never have a pro audition but I've started doing some amateur auditions and it's oddly comforting to hear that even someone with your stellar skills and credentials goes through this kind of thought process.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 9:42 PM

Yes, congratulations and thank you for sharing - your insights are quite beautiful, as well as the thoughts that have been shared by many teachers throughout the years!

From David Allen
Posted on January 11, 2009 at 10:43 PM


Thanks for the thoughtful insights into the audition process.  How timely! My niece, who is a first-year music student at college was looking for advice on how to deal with these things. I gave her the usual advice (prepare well) but your essay is so much more specific and current. I will pass your words on to her.

I'll look forward to seeing your upcoming posts.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 12, 2009 at 5:33 PM

Jessica, these are wonderful insights, and sound advice. Thank you!

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