June 6, 2009 16:51
Laurie’s weekend vote on audition experiences led me to do some (moderately painful) recollecting of past auditions I’ve taken, and to consider if I should subject myself to the audition circuit again. One reason that I’ve done so many different things with my life so far related in some way to the violin – performing with a quartet, becoming a luthier, and most recently, conducting an orchestra – is that the audition circuit did not work out for me. The pressure cooker of the audition process hits me in a much different way than performing either as a member of a chamber ensemble or as a soloist. In both of those situations, you are responsible for everything that your part requires, and intent on provoking an emotional response from your audience. A single error in an otherwise beautiful performance is forgivable, even if it ends up being filed in your private "I can't believe I made that silly mistake" file. That kind of pressure I can handle.
But if performances are marathons, then the major symphony audition is a series of wind sprints, or better yet, 110-meter hurdles. A single error, a single moment of touching the hurdle (or worse, knocking it down), can cost you the chance of advancing. And just as a marathoner would never outsprint Usain Bolt, it’s extremely difficult for me to summon the level of extreme short-term concentration that getting through the excerpt list requires. A couple of the more excruciating examples, from my own experiences:
At an audition for New Jersey Symphony, I had the unfortunate pleasure of being candidate number 1 – of 157. A nice leisurely audition time of 8:35 am. (I’m convinced to this day that the audition committee hadn’t gotten through their first cup of coffee yet). On the list is Don Juan, the first movement of Brahms 3, the slow excerpt from the first movement of Shostakovich 5, and the Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo. After playing my concerto (Brahms), the excerpts started in that order. Don Juan – perfectly fine, better than expected, actually. Brahms 3 – no problem. Shostakovich – well……..
Did I ever mention that when I get really nervous, my bow shakes? I mean really shakes? As in, oh-my-God-that-sounds-like-a-constipated-goat kind of shakes?
They let me play through the whole excerpt with a bow arm that sounded like I was attached to a washing machine on spin cycle. Talk about your slow and agonizing deaths! I’m sure that the committee was trying to give me a chance to recover, maybe because they liked the first couple of excerpts, or maybe because they weren’t awake enough to tell the proctor to cut me off faster. But it was a feeling of helplessness I will never forget.
My personal favorite, though, is the Minnesota Orchestra audition that I took about a year later. After the concerto, the first excerpt was the scherzo from Beethoven 3. Okay – this is one of my favorite Beethoven symphonic movements, and I know this cold. Let’s do it! So I start off, playing with the “pianissimo, but not timid pianissimo” that my teacher has always coached me on. Everything’s going great, until….
Did someone just talk in my audition? From behind the screen, the disembodied voice had a vague police-interrogation quality to it.
“Start again please, pianissimo.”
Hmmm…. Okay, I didn’t play soft enough. But they want to hear it again, so that’s a good sign, right? So let’s start again, softer, with more delicacy. Great!
Okay, this is getting ridiculous.
“Start again, please. Softer.”
At this point, I’m thinking, any softer and you won’t be able to hear me over the air conditioning. But I give it my best shot and play at what (to me) was about 4 decibels.
“That’s enough. Thank you.”
Now, I haven’t mentioned the positive experiences I had: making the semifinal at a St. Louis Symphony audition, or a Syracuse Symphony final for a title position. But after close to three years of unsuccessful auditions, I was simply burnt out. And it wasn’t until last summer, almost 6 years after my last audition, that an innocent question from a new-found friend (who happens to be a world-renowned violinmaker) at the Oberlin Restoration Workshop started me thinking about the process and whether it was time for me to try it again. After hearing me play on some of the fantastic instruments that Christopher Reuning had brought for us to examine, the friend asked me a question later over a beer. “You know, you have the chops to be out there in the professional world. Why aren’t you?” It wasn’t a pointed question – he was just curious, after having known me for about four days as a young luthier.
And the final answer, after really thinking about it, is because I haven’t tried again. And maybe it’s time to. Maybe the experience that I’ve gained as a freelancer, a quartet member, and a conductor will allow me to control my inner fears and doubts, and help me bring out the music in those 25-second snippets. But at the same time, there’s a hard question to ask: even if I’m successful, do I really want a job with a major symphony? After all, I love chamber music, and I love my quartet. Becoming a member of an orchestra could make it very difficult to continue that. I’ve also found out in the last couple of years that I really enjoy conducting. Would it be possible to maintain those interests if I was working full-time for an orchestra? And if I had won a position back then, would I have ever discovered that I was interested in them in the first place?
I simply don’t know those answers. But sooner rather than later, I’m going to try and find out. And maybe this time I can leave the spin cycle to my washing machine.
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