New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, and 14 made it to the end. What did it really take to make it to the finish line?Three hundred violinists started my
Preparing for an orchestra audition takes it out of you. You get knocked down, banged up, and stressed out. Your chances of victory are slim, since you’re going up against so many others who want the job. The pressure is intense, and it only escalates when the orchestra in question is the New York Philharmonic. So who in their right mind would go through the audition preparation process without actually taking the audition? Why would you put yourself through the ordeal with no chance at the glory?
I’ve written before that you shouldn’t take an audition if you aren’t serious about winning. The possibility of rejection is painful enough that you only want to risk it once you’ve put your heart and soul into your audition preparation. Once you do, of course, you learn truths about yourself and your playing that you can't learn any other way. I've proven that to myself over the course of many wins and losses. So how could I share those truths with others, aside from writing about them and talking about them?
Then it hit me: set up a "shadow" audition to run alongside a real audition: the New York Philharmonic openings in the fall of 2015. I'd call it the New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge. I had no plans to take the real audition. But starting fourteen weeks before the audition date, I showed my Challengers just how I would prepare if I were going to take it. Some things you have to learn by doing, and audition prep is one of them. So why not have fun along the way?
I wanted some accountability though. I knew from my own experience that without a long-term goal, it was all too easy to let one bad week turn into two, and so on until you just decide to give up. So I came up with rules. Everyone has to post videos! They'll score points! I'll name a winner! The final assignment took place on the day of the real New York preliminary round. So the Challengers were right there in spirit with the real audition candidates. They had to record a one-take, first-take video of all the audition material, posted to me that day.
In the end, fourteen violinists completed all fifteen of their assignments, from Week 14 all the way through Week 0. I'll share the winner's story next week. But today I’m proud and excited to share thirteen other stories.
Starting the Challenge
I asked everyone who was interested to register for the Challenge. So when registration closed, I was faced with 300 names on a giant spreadsheet. I didn’t know anybody’s story because I hadn’t asked. I assumed that everyone had their own reasons for signing up, but I never could have guessed at the variety of those reasons! I found them out only after the Challenge was done.
Some were straightforward: Emma Otto, a high-school senior, was auditioning for concertmaster of her youth orchestra at the time, and imagines herself auditioning for professional orchestras someday.
Inna Langerman has taken one professional audition in the past but wanted to know how to better pace her preparation for auditions in the future.
Greg Lawrence, who performs not only the music of Mozart, but performs as Mozart (complete with costume and powdered wig!) has taken tons of auditions in the past but wanted a new perspective, one that he could pass along to his studio of 30 students.
One factor common to many of my finishers was that they wanted to come to terms with nerves. Shirie Leng, who got her violin performance degree in 1991 and had always dreamed of playing with the New York Philharmonic, learned early on that she was terrified of auditioning.
“Eventually it got so bad that I quit music altogether and went to medical school…[so] I decided to face my fears head-on! Having never done a professional audition, I took the Challenge as a way to introduce myself to the process.” Rebecca Faber, who teaches violin and composition in Chicago but also performs on violin with her rock band, considered her greatest weakness to be auditioning. “For a while, playing felt like being in a pressure cooker. Pressure is a type of stress, stress leads to tension, tension leads to pain, and pain is not fun.”
One of my own worries when I announced the Challenge was that, with my performance and practice schedule, not to mention the dreaded “three under three” in the house (three children younger than three!), I might not be able to keep up with the weekly assignments. I should have known that many of the Challengers were worried about the same thing! Anita Felix, who after 30 years away from school just got her Master of Music degree in violin performance, had to write a major research paper during the Challenge. She also had a big trip planned, so she had to practice in hotel rooms with the practice mute on! Angela Hanson, a busy professional performer and teacher in the Twin Cities, wanted to prove that she could set a long-term goal and finish it despite family commitments. “I practice when my kids are sleeping, so every nap time and bedtime I would go right to [the Challenge] so that maybe in the evening I could have some kid-free time afterwards to hang out with my husband.”
One Challenger’s motivation was more personal than I could have imagined. Mary Gerard, a retired member of the San Diego Symphony, “had survived some extremely serious cancer, a rare one that has a very slim recovery history, two major surgeries, eight months of chemo once per week, and an eye surgery necessary for sudden blindness…This eye surgery required me to be face down 21 hours a day for two weeks. I sopped playing all together for a very long time. And I mean years!” I had met Mary the year before for a private lesson, without knowing her amazing story, and had suggested the Challenge to her as a way to regain her skills on the violin.
A difficult journey
During the fourteen weeks, I only knew about my own difficulties: setting aside time from rehearsing, performing and parenting to produce weekly posts and/or videos. Twice during the Challenge, I found myself overwhelmed and had to “punt” by giving a writing assignment rather than a playing assignment. But my Challengers hit roadblocks along the way as well. They found, as I did, that it’s one thing to practice and imagine what you’re going to do; it’s another to actually record a weekly video and hit upload.
For Shirie Leng, just getting in front of the camera for the first video was the hardest part: “I could not believe how nervous just the existence of a camera made me feel!” Inna Langerman had “never recorded excerpts to put them online as works of progress before (I was embarrassed at first), and forcing myself to do that several weeks in a row helped me fight performance anxiety.”
Time management and technological concerns posed obstacles to some Challengers. Emma Otto wrote, “Nearly every other weekend, there was a party with my friends, family road trip, concert or unexpected event that threatened to deter me from completing an assignment. I tried to plan ahead for these to the best of my ability, and would often record videos days in advance so that I was sure to get them completed.” Recording and uploading weekly videos from a cabin with no wi-fi was tough for Angela Hanson: “I was tempted to give up on the challenge, but I had put so much time into it that I wanted to finish, so I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did.”
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Challenge was to fire up everyone’s audition preparation, so the violin playing itself was both motivation and obstacle. Rebecca Faber wrote, “I felt out of shape compared to what is needed for this type of audition prep…getting in a groove while constantly tweaking my process to create those new habits was sometimes jarring.” She added, “Everything had to be scheduled very carefully. Once it worked, it was about making it continue to work through a relatively long, four-month process. Scheduling would sometimes get messed up, and I had to just get back on the horse and keep going.”
The difference-maker: visualization
In Week 5, I introduced a concept that many Challengers had never encountered before. For me, visualization is the key to effective performance preparation, and it’s absolutely critical for auditions, where first impressions are everything. This was my first time trying to describe and demonstrate how I visualize, so there was some confusion among the Challengers. But with practice, and a bit of clarification from me, many found their playing and practicing transformed.
Inna Langerman “found visualization to be an extremely difficult thing to do. In the beginning it was very frustrating and would take hours.” Greg Lawrence “had some difficulty understanding what you were looking for in the visualization…still don’t think I was doing it as you wanted…but did my own version!” That works, Greg! Joanna D., a freelance violinist in Malaysia, had trouble both with playing consistency and the act of visualization, but felt that each one helped inform the other.
Rebecca Faber was inspired by a post I wrote on the Inner Game, about how on one summer day long ago, I first experienced the power of visualization in an immediate and physical way on the golf course. So she “learned not to underestimate the power of life outside the practice room in helping you become a better violinist. I was curious if other activities that strengthened the mind-body connection would have a similar effect. After signing up for a trial month at 105° Bikram Yoga, my mind-body connection was strengthened, I could focus better when practicing, and my body was more relaxed when playing.” I was very happy to hear this, especially when she continued: “Throughout the audition prep process, feelings of discouragement, being overwhelmed, getting intimidated, or losing confidence can pop up at different points. I feel that the Challenge touched on the roots of these issues and provided me with some solutions.”
As I expected, all the Challengers had a much clearer idea of how they would prepare future auditions after completing the Challenge. They could look back through their videos and compare their playing from Week 14 to their final audition in Week 0. But everyone who finished also learned things about themselves as performers and as human beings.
Anita Felix is a self-described late starter, and she “learned that I underestimate what I am capable of. I have always felt behind, but [the Challenge reinforced] that there are no boundaries to life-long learning.”
Rachel Grimes was born in Ireland, and after living in London for years, has come back home to perform in several ensembles. “One of the main things I learnt about myself through participating in the challenge was the fact that mental preparation is crucial when being ‘put on the spot’ and delivering note-perfect passages of music on cue. Coping with audition nerves has been my main concern for some time now and I have to admit that I got used to pressure of having to submit a weekly video so this helped me hugely.”
Joanna D. notices a difference in how she translates thought into action: “I definitely play with more substantial ease. The fast arpeggios in Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor don't seem so frantic after learning Don Juan, and all spiccato string crossings and shifts in other works feel less awkward, comparing them with Schumann Scherzo's awkward bits.”
For Shirie Leng, the lessons were stark: “So many things. I learned that I practiced entirely the wrong way in college. I learned that my ‘head game’, my mental preparation, was virtually non-existent. I learned that recording myself is crucial.”
Debbie Ho, a teacher and performer in Malaysia, doesn’t feel so alone anymore when the nerves hit: “Whether it's freaking out at the next seating audition, or watching playback over and over in hopes it would get better with each pressed play, it's all part of a lifelong learner's process.”
Anne Brüggemann agrees that the lessons from the Challenge will carry through long-term. She studied violin as a teenager, then took up private lessons again after 30 years of being a music lover. “The technical stuff [from the Challenge] also made me more aware of quality of spiccato and issues in left-right hand coordination. I learned that, at least for me, these kinds of concerns are a continuous undercurrent of practice that I can never consider to be completely solved.”
Rebekah May found out how much goes into making a winning impression. “The Challenge taught me to be more engaged in my playing, both technically and mentally. You have to have the discipline to check yourself every time you play, to be sure you are integrating your plans into your performance every single time. I found that frequently I knew in my head how I wanted something to sound, but I didn’t always convey it through my playing.”
Trusting the process
One of the paradoxes of performing is that to get to a high level, you have to be tough on yourself and keep the highest standard; yet to perform at a high level, you have to silence that inner critic so that you can stay “in the moment”. The desire to hit the mark, to “win”, can derail your performance. Rebecca Faber discovered a vital truth: “When focusing more on the process, [rather than the outcome], I was able to approach preparing with more of a sense of curiosity and wonder. In turn, I asked myself a lot more questions when figuring things out and came to a lot more ‘Aha’ moments. This also allowed the room for new information to really synthesize mentally, leading to a deeper understanding than I’ve had in the past.”
Finally, I'm delighted to hear that all the Challengers can look at their next audition with a clear plan. The audition won’t be an unfamiliar beast, but a project that they may even look forward to! Angela Hanson “learned how valuable it is to have a long-term goal and work at it slowly and methodically. I typically procrastinate in my audition preparation, so it was good to learn how to create an audition plan three months in advance and carry it through to the end.” For Emma Otto, “[it was] surprisingly possible to learn a large amount of difficult repertoire in less time than I would have thought. If you apply even some of the techniques that were discussed in [Nathan’s] videos, you’ll see progress. This was very encouraging to me.”
For Mary Gerard, who had already overcome challenges far greater than this one, “life is full of surprises. One morning when I started practicing, everything was suddenly easier…a whole lot easier. I think I had rebuilt more pathways in the brain, much like a stroke victim does when exercising to regain muscle control.” Eventually, as things seemed to come together mentally and physically, “the phone rang…and a quartet had recently lost its first violinist! They called me! And I joined. That is where I am today.”
Mary’s advice is timeless and I couldn’t have said it better myself: “I urge [you] never to give up. Be the drip of water on the rock…it may take some time, but you can make your mark if you persist.”
To read more about each of these thirteen finishers, visit natesviolin.com.
Next week's post will reveal the winner of my Challenge... and how she did it.
Did you miss the Challenge? You can take the Challenge at any time by visiting my introductory New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge post. Spread it out over fourteen weeks like my original Challengers did, or work at your own pace.Tweet
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