Benjamin Coy


Audition postmortem

August 29, 2014 at 8:10 pm

When I was in college, I spent embarrassing amounts of time and money taking auditions. I didn’t even hesitate purchasing plane tickets and hotels all over the country to go play my three minutes of excerpts for the panels. In hindsight, I should have saved my money. Not because I didn’t win those auditions — losing auditions is a normal and acceptable part of being a musician — but because I had no idea what I was doing and was wasting everyone’s time. I took mock audition classes and studied excerpts in my lessons, of course, but the actual audition process itself is a completely different game. As a 20-year-old, I simply didn’t know how to play that game.

I took an audition yesterday, and I thought I’d recount my experience in hopes of helping younger musicians out there navigate the waters.

The open position appealed to me for a variety of personal and professional reasons, so as soon as I saw the advertisment, I said to my wife, “I intend to win that job.” Nothing less is a good enough reason to invest time in preparing for an audition or money in taking it. There are enough great players in every community that if your reaction is “let me throw my hat in the ring and see what comes of it,” I guarantee somebody else will want it more than you do, prepare for it better than you will, and play better than you when it matters.

This audition was not local for me, so I travelled in the day before. I got a cheap hotel and went to bed early. My audition was late in the day, so I did not set an alarm, but allowed myself to sleep until I woke up naturally (and theoretically fully rested). I woke up slowly, had a conservative amount of coffee (trying to keep the system as cool and even as possible!), and made my way to the venue for a morning warm-up. I played for only about 20 minutes, just to get the blood flowing to my chops. I deliberately did not even test my high notes, but played a lot of long, low stuff. Then, I packed up my horn and hung out at Panera for the rest of the day. I made sure to drink a lot of water, over-hydrating myself to try and compensate for stage-fright dry mouth.

About an hour before my scheduled time, I headed back to the venue and checked in. Because the performing arts center was very nice, there was no need for a general waiting room, and I was given a private room immediately. I pulled out my horn and calibrated my chops, finding beginning notes and tempos for each excerpt. Then I put my horn down, and limited myself to singing through the excerpts, rather than wearing out my chops. The panel was running about 5 or 10 minutes ahead of schedule by the time they got to me, and the administrator let me know when the person before me started playing so I was ready. On my way to the stage, the personnel manager let me know the order of the excerpts requested by the panel. It was a little unusual not to have gotten that at check-in, but the list was short enough that it wasn’t a major concern.

I got on stage, and refrained from playing any more “warm-up” notes or testing the acoustics of the hall. Every sound the committee hears is evaluated (even if subconsciously), and I didn’t want them to hear anything that wasn’t intended to be judged. I did, however, move the chair and stand into a position I was comfortable with, empty my spit valve, and check my tuning slides. At this point, I realized that my main tuner was all the way in, so I fixed that — but it meant that my “calibration” exercises before were going to be slightly off, and I would have to trust my internal pitch reference implicitly. I nodded to the proctor to let him know that I was ready, and then began with the David Concertino.

My first few bars were pretty solid, but then the reality of the situation hit me. I had played these notes so many times, but this time (and only this time!) it actually mattered. I flubbed about 4 notes in a row while coming to grips with my nerves. Now, I know that a couple of flubs in the solo can be forgiven. But, that can only happen if everything else is solid and the excerpts in particular are clean. So, I brushed that off and continued, trying to put just a little extra sparkle in my stylistic decisions. I continued to my excerpts. Most of them were ok, but I had a few intonation issues, and occasionally I got some raspiness in my sound from the odd things I was doing with my embouchure in response to the nerves. I finished the first round and returned to my dressing room.

At this point, I had no idea what to think. I had won auditions playing worse, and I had failed to advance playing better. It turned out that I was the last preliminary candidate, so I didn’t have too long to wait for the results. Three candidates advanced, including myself.

For the second round, they wanted to hear the entire first round again, plus one other excerpt. Note that the preparation for an audition requires not only the consistency to be able to pick up the horn and play a random excerpt well the first time without any re-tries, but to have the consistency to be able to play that same excerpt as many times as the committee desires. So I played the David again. I played Bolero again. I played everything again. I didn’t make the same mistakes twice, but I did make other mistakes. I chipped different notes in the solo. I missed the first B flat of the second phrase in the Tuba Mirum. But I persevered, because the screen was down, and the 2nd round is supposed to be about more than just the technical facility already proven in the first round. I made a real effort to demonstrate not just rich sound and clean articulation, but historical awareness, stylistic interest, and deep understanding of the music. And then, my nemesis: the last excerpt of the round was Ein Heldenleben, and my brain froze. I played a whole bar of random animal noises in non-positions before pulling it together and finishing out the excerpt. I was done.

“Oh well,” I thought, “at least I advanced.” That proved that I had the basic competence. I just didn’t have the stamina to handle the pressure all the way through. I could work on that.

But then they asked for another round. I don’t know why it was still close between me and the other final finalist, but it was. They asked for two new excerpts, plus Ein Heldenleben again. They were giving me another shot. This is not my first experience getting a second chance. At one audition, I made it to the final round and then decimated the William Tell excerpt. They gave me another shot in an “extra” third round, just like this time. But, I still couldn’t play it, and they gave the job to the other candidate. It’s important to know that committees can tell the difference between somebody who is incapable of playing an excerpt and somebody who played it poorly due to the situation. Some committees are willing to give another chance to candidates they otherwise like. In that case, it is absolutely essential not to screw up again, as I had done with the William Tell. So, I played the other two excerpts, and then took a few moments to gather my wits about me for my second attempt at Ein Heldenleben. This time, it came out reasonably well, and I felt vindicated.

I left the stage, and realized it would take a lot to overcome the number of technical missteps I had had along the way, but I felt good that I had made it to the overtime round and more or less represented the kind of playing I like to do.

In the end, they offered the job to me, so I’m adding another orchestra to my schedule for this season. It was a great experience, and not just because I won. It emphasized the point that panels are made of musicians who are looking for the most compelling performance. A certain level of technique and reliability is necessary, but if a synthesizer was desired, that would be much easier to obtain than a live musician. Mistakes happen. Recoveries ensue. Musicianship is the catalyst. That’s live performance!

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