Benjamin Coy

Trombonist

Good enough

May 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm

How good is good enough?

I think the simple fact that I’m asking the question implies the answer that there is no such thing. But, I’d like to give some anecdotal evidence why not.

Full-time positions are rare enough that the competition is always very stiff simply for economic reasons. There are only so many orchestral positions in the country that pay a living wage, and we all want one. That’s why Dave Bilger had over three hundred resumes to review for one position. We’ve come to expect that. But, when applying for a smaller job, surely the standards are lower? After all, it’s the Nowheresville Philharmonic – what kind of candidate pool can they really expect to draw, anyway? However, world-class musical training is pretty common; great musicians live in every community, and you can expect them to show up at any audition you’re considering.

As an example, let’s look at the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, where I play. Springfield is located between Dayton and Columbus, both of which have orchestras that pay far more than Springfield. Regionally speaking, it doesn’t pay all that well. For that reason, it’s a pretty good example of the kind of ensemble where you might not expect much competition. Last season, we held auditions for second trombone. At the same time, the nearby air force base was cutting almost all of its full-time musicians because of a huge budget decrease. Those musicians had built lives around their job in the area, and had houses and families that made relocating unsavory. So, they applied for the Springfield Symphony, just to have somewhere to play. It wouldn’t replace their military income, but it was something, and that’s a lot better than nothing. The competition was correspondingly stiff.

A few years ago, when I won my position, I was competing against several very solid players who are well known (and well-employed) in the area. However, Springfield is my mother’s hometown, and I had external reasons for winning that audition. It was very important to me on a personal level to win that job in my grandparents’ community. I took no shortcuts in preparing the list, and prepared it to the highest level I knew how. I would venture to say I actually prepared it better than I would if it was a six-figure job in a different city, because I had such strong internal motivation. I was determined that nobody was going to play better than me that day, and (according to the committee’s selection) nobody did.

I think the lesson to take from this is that no matter how bad a symphony is, and no matter how little it pays, somebody’s going to have a reason to want that job. Whether or not that person is the best player, their extra motivation is going to make the competition tough. Regardless of how minor a job may appear on paper, if you don’t approach it like an audition for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, you probably won’t win. An LA Phil level of commitment is required to win any professional opportunity.

So, if you look at an excerpt and say something like “well, it’s only the Nowheresville Philharmonic, so even though my intonation on that isn’t quite precise, probably nobody else is going to play it better anyway,” you’ve already lost. Because maybe nobody else has better intonation than you in general, but somebody wants that job badly enough to figure it out for at least that one excerpt. When you get home from a gig or a day job and you’re tired, the thought will cross your mind: “yesterday’s practice went pretty well, so I can probably afford to take today off. After all, who else wants a job that pays so little?” At that point, you have two options: either go practice, or forfeit the audition to the person who wants it enough to practice despite the fatigue.

In undergrad, I was often told that it wasn’t the best player who wins an audition: it’s whoever has the best day or plays whatever style the committee is looking for. That may be true. But, I think it’s simpler than that. The person who wins any audition is almost certainly the person who wants it the most and sacrificed the most to prepare for it.

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