Variations on the Auditioning Process

For the fourth day in a row you wake-up at 5:30 in the morning. You crawl out of bed after five hours of sleep and chug some coffee, all in the pursuit of finding the ever-elusive practice room. You practice for two hours – a solid two hours, every minute filled with intense, mentally draining work. You grab an early lunch because the lines at the sandwich shop around the corner (it may or may not be Subway) are short, and because it allows you to get back into the hunt for practice rooms just as everyone else heads out for the traditional lunch hour. Another two hours of practice down, and it’s only 1:30 in the afternoon. You’re exhausted. You think about the people working a 9-5 in the towers and skyscrapers down the street. You ask yourself, “how much work do they actually do in a day?” You try not to think about the houses they live in, or the weekends they spend doing things like relaxing, or traveling, or cleaning. …and then you try not to think about how you can’t even remember the last time you vacuumed.

“Isn’t there an interesting concert tonight?” There’s no time to think about that now. You listen back to your recordings from the previous night and your rhythm in that notorious Beethoven excerpt still isn’t quite right. The metronome comes back out. Click, click, click, click. That’s the sound you hear; the one coming from your instrument is secondary — your beautiful, incredibly expensive and specially selected instrument. Maybe not even secondary, because you also hear your friend down the hall flying through their concerto and they sound good. Really, really good. “I need to do more scales,” you say to yourself, but you know there’s no time. The 30 minutes a day you spend playing anything other than short, non-contextualized snippets from some of the most famous works ever written, are dedicated to the music you need to learn for the upcoming concert (and, of course, warming up). “The CSO is performing that piece you’ve always wanted to hear live.” No — you must put that out of your head. There’s something funky about your phrasing in the one random opera excerpt on your list, so you spend the next 10 minutes trying to get it to sound, well, you don’t really know. Musical?

To paraphrase the novelist Carson McCullers: Preparing for auditions is always the same, but each person prepares for auditions in their own way. I’ve heard dozens of audition rituals: from color-coded folders to bound and tabbed booklets; from those who singularly focus on excerpts, to those who still spend copious amounts of time on scales and etudes. Some musicians spend time singing through the more lyrical passages while others create playlists with every excerpt on their audition list cut out from the rest of the piece, generating an hyperactive listener’s dream of 30-second sound bites featuring diverse and often dissonant music. There are some constants, though. Everyone practices with a metronome. Everyone records themselves and listens back to try and find the smallest flaws that could easily get them cut in the earliest rounds of an audition. Everyone practices…a lot.

It’s winter here. Audition season begins during the coldest months of the year. Music schools require pre-screening tapes to be submitted by the first of December. These tapes determine who even can audition for those schools. Then, as the winter wears on, those schools listen to thousands of applicants for undergraduate and graduate positions. And, invariably, professional orchestras begin to hear from their musicians who are retiring or moving on to different positions. The whole world seems to open up in an instant – just last week I heard of three new job openings for clarinetists, this is in addition to the half dozen spots that already have been advertised. (A quick side note – if you aren’t a working musician and are currently thinking to yourself, “Isn’t this guy being a bit over-dramatic about nine job openings?” Remember, there are only around 300 full-time spots for orchestral clarinetists in the entire country).

And here I am, in the midst of preparing to take some of these auditions, significantly lacking in the time that everyone stresses as the core requirement for winning a job. And it leaves me wondering: What am I to do when the various forces in life seem to be pulling me in too many directions to adequately focus on the somewhat inherently singular goal of winning an orchestra job? Gone, for now, are the hours of free time in the middle of the day; gone are the days of ample practice rooms right at your fingertips; gone are the days of everything taking place in one building where the ease of hopping into a practice room in between classes made it near impossible for a motivated student to not find enough time to practice a list of orchestral excerpts for six or more hours.

I could choose to look at this as a deterrent. There isn’t enough time to make sure I can practice every detail of every excerpt every single day. There isn’t time to be certain that I could not possibly miss a note, nor that I could possibly play a phrase any way other than the one way I have decided. Some days I can practice until I literally cannot play anymore, and others I can barely play outside of rehearsals. But on a positive note, I spent an afternoon playing a wind quintet recital in a previously abandoned space that had been rebuilt as a community for artists. And even though I can’t practice at 8:00 a.m. anymore, I did memorize (for the first time in my life) 20 minutes of music and a 45 minute script for a long presentation for children, engaging them in one of the most profound ways I have ever experienced.

The question then becomes, how do I apply these experiences to the very rigorous and unnatural task of preparing for a professional audition? How do I take an eclectic assortment of experiences and apply them to my interpretations of these famous works that, nonetheless, must be by the book? In many ways, I am still finding out the answers to these questions. Without a doubt, I can’t stray too far from the middle of the road when preparing orchestral excerpts – any teacher, any musician who has ever won a job or been on a committee will say this. But I am approaching these auditions from a new perspective, and with each piece of music I am trying to find a way to connect it to the real world. Maybe this is something others have already been doing. I have never won a professional audition, so maybe this is an aspect of preparation I previously have been missing. Perhaps this is something many forget about as we spend hours trying to nail down the perfect articulation in that infamous Mendelssohn excerpt.

Whether or not this approach will bear any fruit remains to be seen. I still have my color-coded folders and a list of which excerpts are tricky, which ones aren’t, and which ones fall somewhere in the middle. I still spend time – maybe too much – listening only to the requisite snippets of seminal works. I’ll probably still practice a lot. But for the days when I can’t dedicate six hours to preparation, I’ll take some comfort in knowing that those pieces of music that once seemed foreign to me, or unapproachable, have a new context, and hopefully said context makes preparing them just a little bit easier. Or, maybe I’ll keep waking up at 5:30 in the morning.

By Gordon Daole-Wellman

Cover photo by Todd Rosenberg