Friday, July 27, 2012

The Audition

While I was driving back from Massachusetts on Saturday evening, I hit a spot between mountains where I could tune in to All Things Considered on NPR. One of the stories was about a percussionist, Mike Tetreault, and his audition for the Boston Symphony.

A Musician and the Audition of His Life

I hope I don't spoil the story for you by telling you that after practicing for a year (while juggling all the other jobs typical of a freelancing musician) he did not get the job, and in fact was voted out after the first round after playing for 10 minutes. The slant of the NPR story was in a positive direction, but I did a little more Internet searching after I got home and found this article in Boston Magazine that was a bit more sobering:

The Audition

"Civilians" (i.e., nonmusicians) are always shocked when they hear the nitty-gritty reality of what is involved in an audition. They don't quite believe how tough it is, though these days when even an experienced computer programmer can't get a job they are a little more understanding.

I have not done a lot of auditions. None on the piano -- though really, the piano is a different beast altogether than the cello; I imagine not too many piano auditions involve learning a few snippets of some impossibly difficult ensemble part that when actually performed cannot be heard individually. Think, for example, of the opening of Strauss's "Don Juan" -- that famous up-swooping arpeggio played by the entire orchestra -- and then imagine playing that on the cello in front of a screen, behind which sits a committee marking down every mistake. I did one audition when I played this, and the principal cellist who was on the committee sarcastically asked me to play it again, "This time with the right notes." This was for a regional orchestra in a small southern city; I was a poor college student at the time, and I had driven down there and stayed in a crummy motel at my own expense and then trundled over to the audition site, which turned out to be an unairconditioned church (the audition was in the summer). I think the job paid less than $10,000 a year. They ended up not hiring any of us who auditioned. IIRC, they hired the principal cellist's wife.

However, though one can bitch and moan about the awfulness of auditions, what other way is there to do it? One hopes at least to be treated with some respect, but in the end the results are the subjective opinions of human beings.

This has been on my mind recently because I have been considering taking a local professional audition that's scheduled for the end of August. It's a good job, full time with benefits. The various civilians I've mentioned this to have said variations on, "Oh, you must do this! What do you have to lose?" And in a way they are right. But at the moment I am very far from being able to play the required repertoire, which is extremely difficult. I would like to prove that I could play it beautifully rather than imagining that I could, but the reality is that a month is not enough time for me to prepare properly, especially given the fact that I only have a few hours for it in the evenings (after a full day at work). I don't begrudge time spent practicing the cello when I know I'm actually going to perform, but an audition is a poor substitute for playing in front of a real audience.

The other part of this, though it sounds arrogant to say so, is that in my heart of hearts a job like this isn't my preference -- not as something to do for years on end, night after night, playing in a section, and not playing the kind of music I'm really interested in. In that way I am different from Tetreault, who says it's always been his dream to play in the BSO. Though of course a percussionist is always a soloist, whereas a section cellist is never one (except by accident!).

What are the things I love to do musically? I love playing the piano; playing the cello in small groups, including folk and jazz; and teaching receptive students. I've been enjoying taking piano lessons with my current teacher. I do appreciate playing in a good orchestra, but it's not at the top of the list. And so I have decided to pass on the audition and put my energies elsewhere.

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