Learning to Love Audition Prep

Recently, I finished working at my first-ever Real Person Grown-Up Job™. I worked there for a year, almost to the day—from the end of July last year to the end of July this year. It was the job I had intended to get ever since my boyfriend and I decided to move to Chicago, a job in an instrument shop. Since my minor in grad school was violin history and repair and I LOVED it, violin shop work seemed like the obvious choice for a day job. And, by an incredible stroke of luck, I ended up in one of the most established, well-known, successful firms around today. At first, I was just kind of awestruck that they would have me at all. So I worked the entire last year with regular hours, weekends off, business trips, co-workers, an actual water cooler, expense reports, a work email, and many, many dull hours spent in front of a computer.

There were some parts that had matched up with my expectations, like the day I was told to “get familiar with the inventory” and spent the entire day playing every violin and viola in the shop, from $2000 Chinese instruments all the way up to Strads. It really did take all day, from 10 or so in the morning up until closing. Or, there were the days near Christmas when I was actually making some headway in the sales department—the entire sales team would end the day in the big office, lounging in leather chairs, drinking expensive wine or whiskey and telling stories. There were days when I was given tickets to sold-out symphony concerts, seats I could never afford myself. There were times when one of the senior salesmen would take me under his wing and share little nuggets of wisdom and show me how much more there was to know. And there were days when famous musicians would come in, true virtuosos, and play all day long on the best instruments in the world, usually their rep for their upcoming concerts with the Symphony, and all I would have to do was bring them shiny things and listen to them play.

In some ways, I feel like I wasted the whole year at a job that wasn’t doing much for my career—a job that was often even more frustrating because all my customers had the jobs I could only dream of. I didn’t play nearly as much as I’m used to, and I missed out on establishing myself in the freelance scene because I had such a rigid schedule. But I’ve been thinking about what this year did do for me, and it’s not nothing. I actually learned a lot, things I don’t think I ever would have learned if I were just freelancing.

But then, of course, there were the things I didn’t like. There are lots—probably hundreds—of arcane rules for interacting with customers, from the initial contact all the way through the sale. I got to read the sales manual (a huge binder, 2” or 2 ½”) through once, and, the next day, was sent out of town, alone, with half a million dollars’ worth of instruments and bows to show to some guy I’d never heard of. In fact, I was sent out of town on a few hours’ notice more times than I can count. And the trips were always uncomfortably short—to Miami and back in one day, followed by New York the next day, with a stop in the office in between, for instance. Or that time when I went to Amsterdam and I didn’t even leave the airport because all I was doing was a pickup and they needed the violin back as soon as possible. But in between all this traveling, there were days when I was in the office and no one came in for anything more than a set of strings or a rehair. Days spent on the internet, chatting with my best friend in Germany, waiting for something to happen. Days spent wondering what good my physical presence in the office was doing, longing for the gigs I couldn’t take, wishing I could be playing and showing instruments to people who never would have seen them otherwise. Days spent trying to figure out how I might possibly fit into this job, or if I even wanted to.

As I said, I started in late July. Well, I knew from the beginning that I needed to perform, too. It had always been my goal to be in an orchestra, and I made no secret of my intention to keep gigging. But as soon as I started my new job, it became clear that playing at the same time would be a lot harder than I’d thought. Everyone working there had stopped performing long ago, if they’d ever done any to begin with. They’d come to this job and found satisfaction, a career, something they were just as good at, if not better at than playing. Only one person still gigged at all, as concertmaster of a suburban orchestra (which, as I understand it, is actually a really good gig). They kept jokingly asking me when I was going to sell my instrument (which they do with everyone whose instruments they want in the inventory), often with the implication that I didn’t need it anymore. This did not bode well for me. In fact, by the end of August, I got so frustrated from sitting around all day, surrounded by great instruments but not playing, that I knew I couldn’t stick with it. I felt itchy, antsy, like an addict, and I didn’t know where my next fix would come from. It had already become clear that this could not be a permanent solution.

It’s funny. In some ways, I feel like I wasted the whole year at a job that wasn’t doing much for my career—a job that was often even more frustrating because all my customers had the jobs I could only dream of. I didn’t play nearly as much as I’m used to, and I missed out on establishing myself in the freelance scene because I had such a rigid schedule. But I’ve been thinking about what this year did do for me, and it’s not nothing. I actually learned a lot, things I don’t think I ever would have learned if I were just freelancing.

See, after I decided that I needed to get out as soon as possible, I realized that the easiest way to leave would be if I won an orchestral job. (Yes. I actually thought that word. Winning an audition was the easiest option.) And, lo and behold, early in September, the Chicago Symphony announced section auditions. I’ll tell you right now that I didn’t win, but the preparation was unlike anything I’ve ever attempted. I got up ungodly early every morning and practiced for two hours before I even left for work. (Poor Boyfriend would try to sleep more on our tiny two-seater couch with a pillow over his head—stupid tiny city apartments.) When I got home, I practiced another two hours. On my commute, I ignored all my fun podcasts to listen to my auditions playlist, following along with my excerpt binder if I was feeling really ambitious. (The people sitting next to me at rush hour LOVED that.) I took lessons from the Symphony’s assistant principal, and he was only ever encouraging. And every day at work, I remembered what I was fighting for. The audition was a totem, a secret flame that I carried with me all the time, giving me hope.

I wasn’t perfect by any means, but from September to November last year, I tried to grab even the tiniest scraps of opportunity to practice I could find. It wasn’t fun, exactly, but it was so satisfying. During those two months, it felt like I was doing the work I should have been doing all along, during school, during my whole musical life so far. In those months, I had a purpose.

Of course, I got into the audition and completely mangled the beginning of Ein Heldenleben, but you know.

I’ve never practiced like that before, with such singular focus. In school, I was always stretched thin, in constant disaster mode. (An example from my sophomore year: I’m assistant principal and my stand partner hates me so I have to cram Also Sprach Zarathustra which has way too many notes, but my jury is on Tuesday and it’s going to sound like crap, and I have my first gig with a new orchestra this weekend and I haven’t seen my boyfriend in weeks and my roommates are mad at each other and I think I might cry.) It was all about knowing everything well enough, but I rarely had time to think beyond that. So it was a luxury to be able to focus so completely on one task for so long. This time, after I got up to my usual level of preparedness on the repertoire, I had to figure out what came next. I got to delve so much more deeply and thoroughly into that rep than anything I’ve ever done before, finding details and minutiae that I’d never even considered. Despite my schools’ best efforts, I never learned exactly what it meant to be ready to win a job until I was out on my own. And I’m forever grateful for that lesson.

That level of insanely retentive preparation showed me something else, too. For all the unpleasantness of getting up before six every morning, of practicing the same music over and over when you’re bone-tired and you don’t think your brain can handle focusing on anything more challenging than drinking a beer and watching Mythbusters, the whole experience was also deeply fulfilling. I think it felt, at times, like running a marathon—at a certain point you hate yourself, you’re exhausted, you feel nothing but burning in your legs and in your lungs, you wonder why you decided to do this in the first place, why you paid money for the privilege of getting up before dawn in order to run a really long way, and isn’t this why we have cars now anyway? But you keep going. I kept going, because I had set myself a challenge, and I was going to finish it. Win the job or not, I knew that just doing it was a huge victory.

After the CSO audition, I signed up for more. It was the only logical thing to do. There was San Antonio, there was the Philadelphia substitute list, there was the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. And then, of course, there was this crazy new fellowship for the Civic. That one would be good, I thought—I could play full time, but stay in Chicago, a city I had already come to love. As you probably already know (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing on this blog), I eventually did get the Civic fellowship, and I can’t even begin to express how thankful I already am for it. (We haven’t even had our first concert yet, and already the world seems so much brighter and better than it did a year ago!) But I don’t think I ever would have been up to the task if it hadn’t been for my day job and the motivation it gave me to return to performing.

For all the unpleasantness of getting up before six every morning, of practicing the same music over and over when you’re bone-tired and you don’t think your brain can handle focusing on anything more challenging than drinking a beer and watching Mythbusters, the whole experience was also deeply fulfilling.

Like running marathons, taking orchestral auditions isn’t for everyone. There are some people who go into music, through conservatory, grad school, maybe even the beginnings of a professional career—who eventually find that they can live without it. Lots, in fact. And that’s a good, even inevitable thing. Music is a challenging life. It’s harder than I knew when I chose it, and I grew up on the inside, in a musical family. As for the people who didn’t, well… I’m 25, and I would say that, by now, maybe half the people I went to undergrad with have changed careers. Of the three of us that lived together in my sophomore year, one is now a lawyer and one is working at a bank. The now-lawyer actually made the decision to go to law school in that year we lived together—but she finished her degree in music. Two more years of grueling conservatory work, of taking up a spot that could have gone to someone who actually wanted it, just to end up in law school. It irritated me to no end when she would complain about going to orchestra or doing theory homework or having lessons, because she didn’t have to be doing any of it. She found more burden than pleasure in rehearsing and practicing—but in the end, I can’t blame her. It just meant that music wasn’t what she was supposed to do. And hey, someday, when she’s making big DC lawyer money, she’ll be a great patron for the arts.

But for me, well, it’s pretty clear. I can’t stay away. I’ll take classical music over anything, despite my own pitiable finances, despite byzantine audition practices, despite modern symphonies’ instability, if it means I have the chance to share the music I love with other people. And if it took a year in a day job to hammer that lesson home to me, then there’s no way this year was a wasted one.

by Erin Rafferty