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Karen Allendoerfer

First audition in 12 years

August 28, 2008 at 11:27 AM

Last night I auditioned for the viola section of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra. The last time I auditioned for anything was 12 years ago, at Caltech, and those were more informal. While preparing, I resolutely tried to block out memories of auditions from before that time--like the one in high school where I stopped playing and started crying in the middle of the audition. (Oops, apparently not able to block it). Or the one in college where I chose a piece that I wasn't ready to perform and got myself into a mess. But I'm older now, right? And wiser?

I was better prepared for this audition than I ever have been before for an audition. I'd been working on these pieces for a long time. I had them committed to memory. I'd even already performed the Bach in front of an audience, twice, both at church and at the Farmers' Market. And, I'd recorded it and put it on YouTube.

My teacher, bless her heart, was very encouraging at my lesson on Monday. I think she knew it wasn't the time to break anything down and try to rebuild it from scratch. She gave me a few pointers, reminded me of things I already knew, told me I had chosen interesting pieces that the conductor was going to enjoy listening to and that showed what I could do.

If I make this orchestra, the rehearsals are at Harvard Medical School, which I thought I knew the location of. The lab where I work has some collaborators at Harvard near MGH and we've visited them one stop away on the Red line. But actually, no. Harvard Medical School is large and sprawling, and to get to the audition I had to take a bus called the CT2 during rush hour. I left myself extra time, the last thing I wanted was to be late and suffer the effects of being nervous about the bus.

So, I got there almost an hour early. The warm-up room was over-air-conditioned and my fingers were their usual cold and stiff selves. There were several wind players warming up and I had a hard time hearing myself either tune or play. The people running the audition were very friendly and professional. They had a pile of pre-printed audition sheets with everyone's name on them, contact information, and a little blurb about previous music experience. I'd told them I preferred viola but also played violin. That was all there, and my instrument was listed as violin. I crossed that out and wrote in viola. I also wrote in a few other orchestras I had played in in the past.

I warmed up some, played both pieces through from memory, tried to hit the hard parts: the chords and shifts to 7th position in the Clarke, the note that I shouldn't crunch in the Bach, I played the Bach slowly to listen for intonation (to the extent I could hear). I sat on my hands and rubbed them together to try to keep them warm.

Other players came and then were called and went. I saw about 5 violinists. One was warming up on the Bruch and Mendelssohn and doing a very good job. Another was playing fast, out-of-tune, 3-octave scales. Another was playing something really beautiful, I asked her what it was, and she said it was from the Bach C minor sonata. She asked me if I'd been playing Bach too--yes, one of the suites. A few of us got to talking. Another violinist was a postdoc in chemistry who'd heard of my boss. Like me, she'd quit playing in grad school and was just coming back to it and taking lessons. It was 6:50 and she mentioned that her audition was supposed to have been at 6:45. She was called a little after 7, which was my scheduled time.

Finally I was called at around 7:20. They snapped a picture of me. "We're seeing a lot of people," the woman at the desk said, somewhat apologetically. On the way to the audition, she said "I see you do neurodegenerative disease research. Our community partners this year are in that field--Alzheimer's, SMA, and ALS." I told her a little bit about our lab's Parkinson's Disease research. Our reasearch is a bit unconventional, in that my boss is a yeast geneticist by training and we use yeast cells with human proteins inserted to model cell death. Yeast are cheap and easy to grow, and they can be used in high-throughput screening for drug candidates and genetic modifiers. She seems either very interested in this, or very polite (or both), but then it's time.

I am ushered into a classroom where there are 8 men with clipboards and paper. While they appear to be doing their best to be friendly and non-intimidating, I nonetheless start to freeze. One of them asks something about how I'm doing and I mention how cold it was in the warm-up room. He makes sympathetic noises and asks me if the music stand is the right height. I say it's a bit low, and try to adjust it, but I can't move the screw. Another one gets up and adjusts it for me. I check my tuning, because it's finally quiet. It's so quiet you can hear a pin drop.

"So, you're going to be playing the Courante from Bach Suite No. 1 and Clarke Passacaglia on an Old English Tune," he reads off my information sheet. "Yes." I mention I am not going to play the repeats in the Bach and he says that's fine, he "may stop me" anyway before I finish. For some reason this bothers me, even though I know that's a normal thing to do. I launch into the Bach and play the whole thing through without repeats. It only lasts about a minute or a little more. The room is very dead, acoustically. I really dislike the way I sound and it distracts me and throws me off. I also don't like how they are all writing things periodically on their sheets of paper. That distracts me too and I can't stop wondering what they're writiing.

I make it through without any big disasters, but I have a vague sense of foreboding about my overall intonation, and I managed to crunch the high note that my teacher warned me against. It seems to surprise even the guy who is speaking that I'm done so quickly, and he says "okay. And the Clarke?"

My hands are cold, and it shows in the vibrato, which is fast and twitchy. However, at least the tone is strong and the intonation is surprisingly good. Even the shift to 7th position and back is reasonably accurate. I've played the chords better, but I've also played them worse. He stops me before I get to the end of the Clarke, says "thank you," and that's the end. They were right, 5 minutes.

What continues to throw me, and to freeze my brain, is the way I always seem to sound different in the audition than I do in the practice room. I really don't understand this phenomenon, especially because I thought I was getting over it for lessons and other types of performances. I no longer feel the need to tell my teacher at lessons that "it sounded better at home." And at the farmers' market, I played the whole Bach through from memory, my friend recorded it, and what came out of the instrument sounded like what I expected. Even though there were cars driving by in the parking lot, babies crying, and people milling about. But there, in that audition room, it was like someone else was playing. Alien Bach. And not good alien Bach.

The nice woman and one of the violinists are waiting outside. The violinist tells me that I sounded great, and the other woman asks me how it went. I'm coming down from the adrenaline rush and I say "the acoustics aren't very good in there." She says sympathetically, "yeah, people are saying it's a very dead room." I nod and say "Well, that wasn't the best I've ever played those two pieces, that's for sure!" "Oh but you sounded beautiful," the violinist says again. I am very grateful, but I may not be showing it. I say thank you, I tell her good luck. I don't think she needs it--I heard her warming up too and she was playing something fast and accurate that I didn't recognize but which sounded very impressive.

The CT2 bus has stopped running by the time I'm finished, so I have to take the Green Line, to the Red Line, to the bus. It takes me more than an hour to get home, by which time it is completely dark. It's a beautiful, peaceful night, and the crickets are chirping loudly in chorus.

I would really like to be in an orchestra with these folks. They seem like people I can relate to and I'm impressed with the enthusiasm and attention to detail that appears to go into the process. I've been to their concerts, which are great. I have no idea what my chances are. I was the only violist that I saw. But they have two full evenings of auditions. And who knows how many openings. Regardless of the outcome, I think I can say this audition was a success, and I got something out of it. What's more, I'd be willing to do it again.

From Bart Meijer
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 12:02 PM
Have you seen the adverts on this site: "how does bravery really show itself?" That's you!


From Tess Z
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 12:52 PM
Great post, Karen! I will keep my fingers crossed for you.

I'm betting you were terrific and it was the acoustics of the place that left you feeling unsure of your performance.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 2:20 PM
Good luck, Karen! We are rooting for you, although we are sure you will get picked.
From Karen Dotson
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 6:14 PM
I enjoyed reading your blog and I really hope you get in the orchestra. I bet you did great!!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 6:59 PM
"What continues to throw me, and to freeze my brain, is the way I always seem to sound different in the audition than I do in the practice room. I really don't understand this phenomenon,"

I know this, and I think it's just the difference in the room acoustics magnified by nerves. Play in various rooms a little bit, and get used to hearing a difference. Later in a certain room you might do things a little differently, to take advantage of or to compensate for the room.

From sharelle taylor
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 9:55 PM
I'm hanging on the edge of my seat wondering how you went.
Maybe auditory conductors are affected by nerves as well - you know, they mightn't vibrate as easily or something, so maybe that explains why we sound so bad to ourselves when we're nervous. I hate nervous.
But I loved your story and I'm glad you enjoyed the experience, in that funny kind of enjoyment way.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on August 28, 2008 at 11:29 PM
I like Jim's suggestion about practicing in different rooms a lot. I'm going to try it.

Karen, I'm proud of you just for auditioning again. A lot of things go into being a good musician, and playing under pressure is one of them. I'm glad you feel better about auditions now. I feel sure that you'll make it into the orchestra and that you'll be a great addition to the group. However, if you don't make it, you did get something positive out of the audition: you're learning how to override your fears and perform well at auditions.

Best of luck,

From Paul Grant
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 12:44 AM
What a great entry. I can certainly sympathize. I was actually just thinking about this today. My rehearsals and practice are always far better than my performances.

Do tell us how it went. I'll keep my fingers crossed in hopes that you get in!

From Michael Divino
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 1:27 AM
Please let us know~!

I recently had an audition where I played Bach from memory... double stops and weird sixteenth note runs abound.

In warm ups, everything sounded fine.

In the actual room, three places crumbled. (That's an exaggeration, but really, they were good in warm ups, but my mind went blank in three random places. I never stopped, just kept going.) They were simple mistakes, but the hardest part, the double stops were flawless. The acoustics weren't that great, as everything I had just played came back to hit me in the face, a very resonant room. I was listening to myself play, plus the echo. Kind of annoying.

But good job on your accomplishment of auditioning for the first time in twelve years!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 2:06 AM
I'd wager a cake of Bernardel rosin that Karen gets in...
From Donna Clegg
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 3:33 AM
Great post Karen. I'm betting you earned a seat and will thoroughly enjoy this orchestra.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 1:26 PM
Oooh, can't wait to hear the result! I'd wish you good luck, but you're beyond that now. You just need to be wished patience and serenity while you wait to hear.
From Ray Randall
Posted on August 29, 2008 at 3:37 PM
Nice blog. Keep us updated.

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