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The Audition
July 5, 2012 12:28 PM   Subscribe

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the handful of orchestras for which musicians the world over will drop everything to scramble for a job, and the audition ranks among the world’s toughest job interviews. Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He's put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly and shut down his personal  life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a selection committee and stand out among a lineup of other world-class musicians. A single mistake and it's over.  A flawless performance and he could join one of the world's most renowned and financially well-endowed orchestras at a salary of more than $100,000 a year. The Audition.

Multipage version Via.

A similar article from 2005, from boston.com, discusses the orchestra about its audition process, as well as the audition of Daniel Han, a violinist who studied with the late, great Roman Totenberg: 6 Minutes to Shine.
posted by zarq (90 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite

 
...and one because a percussionist had been denied tenure, a polite way of saying he’d been shown the door.

... a polite way of saying he'd been fired. I love it when writers trade euphemism for euphemism.

Also, this is a great story. Thanks for posting it.
posted by gauche at 12:39 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.
posted by theodolite at 12:39 PM on July 5, 2012


Brutal. Things like this make me glad I do not appear to have world-class talent in anything, as it allows me to avoid chasing such an unattainable dream.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [19 favorites]


Covered for an oboeist in Mozart in the Jungle.

Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.

True for most of us in this life, isn't it.
posted by Melismata at 12:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Brutal. Things like this make me glad I do not appear to have world-class talent in anything, as it allows me to avoid chasing such an unattainable dream.

Yeah, you really dodged a bullet there.
posted by clockzero at 12:43 PM on July 5, 2012 [17 favorites]


Getting fired by the best orchestra has got to be a killer on the resume. Even if someone else likes you... maybe they missed something the best guys caught?
posted by smackfu at 12:46 PM on July 5, 2012


gauche, you're quite welcome. Glad you enjoyed!
posted by zarq at 12:47 PM on July 5, 2012


Man, violists are weird.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


...and this is why I chose not to become a professional musician.

Wonderful article - thank you for sharing this.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:50 PM on July 5, 2012


One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.

Gotta get that fiddling out of your system.
posted by Kabanos at 12:51 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.

"If he squeezes his glockenspiel mallet too hard, choking the sound, [. . . ] the whole thing will be over."
posted by jeather at 12:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two? Then the ones who didn't get tenure can still brag about being in the select group of finalists--less shame to be beaten by the greatest than to be rejected as in this story.
posted by TreeRooster at 12:55 PM on July 5, 2012


One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.

So he only played half his notes wrong?

I once dated a violinist/violist who knew all the violist jokes.
posted by kmz at 12:57 PM on July 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Thanks for posting. This is a heartbreaking article. The section about Vinson, the percussionist who was fired, is just brutal.

What struck me as the crux of the piece, more than the "take this desire away from me" kicker, was the incredible difficulty of getting out of your fucking head. You hear a lot of stories about epiphanic moments/auditions/performances where everything else vanishes and it's just the musician and the music (or the actor and the character, or the mathematician and the problem, or what have you). But I bet that almost never actually happens. The brain's always churning, and a lot of times it's your worst enemy.
posted by eugenen at 1:03 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


This was a wonderful set of articles. One of my best friends studied with Roman Totenberg at BU, too. Watching his transition from the star player in our high school orchestra, state youth philharmonic, All State, and chamber ensembles, to just one of a set of talented violinists (and he was not the best) was really heart-rending. Music is a crazy, intense, dramatic field. I'm glad it's just something fun for me, not something I have to stake my life on, because I don't think I could handle it.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:04 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


That was great. Thanks for sharing this story. The way it's presented reminds me a lot of this story on the blue last week: it builds until you aren't quite sure how it's going to end.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:08 PM on July 5, 2012


Getting fired by the best orchestra has got to be a killer on the resume. Even if someone else likes you... maybe they missed something the best guys caught?

Getting fired is different than not being offered a permanent position or another contract.

And I can't back this up but I would expect having "played with _top_rate_orchestra_" on the resume (and thus in your bio on the potential new orchestra/ensemble's website or program) would be a selling point.
posted by mountmccabe at 1:12 PM on July 5, 2012


You hear a lot of stories about epiphanic moments/auditions/performances where everything else vanishes and it's just the musician and the music (or the actor and the character, or the mathematician and the problem, or what have you). But I bet that almost never actually happens.

This can, of course, happen to any musician. As a self-taught guitarist who is (at best) spectacularly mediocre, I do occasionally have these moments myself and it's an amazing feeling. What I have often wondered is, is the experience relative to the player? (And I'd bet it is.) Do world class players reach a more 'enlightened' (or however you'd like to call it) place than brilliant players, and so on down the line?
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 1:14 PM on July 5, 2012


Classical music apparently has a tenure system that makes the academic one look sweet and cuddly. At least in academia, if you don't get tenure, you know why (not enough articles/books, etc).
posted by jb at 1:14 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two?

Because a huge part of the symphony orchestra magic is locking into the gestalt of the players. What you're describing won't make a cohesive whole -- you can't just swap out musicians willy-nilly any more than you can major-league team athletes. The orchestra isn't just a bunch of people in chairs, it's its own thing. The Seattle Symphony tried having rotating concertmasters one year, and it was an unmitigated disaster.
posted by KathrynT at 1:16 PM on July 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two?

This does happen.

The Phoenix Symphony also did this with guest conductors circa 2002-2004 until they named Michael Christie as Hermann Michael's replacement. And now that Christie is moving on I wouldn't be surprised if they do it again.
posted by mountmccabe at 1:18 PM on July 5, 2012


Though the link I gave does not describe "a bunch of people as temporary...", just a few scattered people when the initial search does not find someone they want.
posted by mountmccabe at 1:19 PM on July 5, 2012


The orchestra hiring process sounds a lot like applying to graduate school.
posted by pdq at 1:25 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A little bit of glockenspiel* pedantry here: Holding the mallet too tight won't dampen the sound. Not letting the mallet bounce back up will.

*In Texas we just called them 'bells.'
posted by mudpuppie at 1:29 PM on July 5, 2012


I like how the author makes it sound like living in a 625 square foot 1 bedroom apartment is awful.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:30 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


What you're describing won't make a cohesive whole -- you can't just swap out musicians willy-nilly any more than you can major-league team athletes.

Except that's precisely how every single professional team sport in the world works. You have your starters, and a reserved pool of promising talent at each position. If you don't have a designated starter for a position, or your clear favorite cannot play for any reason, you cycle through your reserves until you find the one that "clicks" with the rest of the team. If it works for multi-billion dollar franchises in FIFA, NFL, MLB, NBA and others I fail to see why it would work there.
posted by Freon at 1:31 PM on July 5, 2012


If it works for multi-billion dollar franchises in FIFA, NFL, MLB, NBA and others I fail to see why it would work there.

Because, like you said -- you have your starters. Maybe what you're describing could work for section players, but not for principals.

I don't know a lot about sports. How do you cycle through your reserves? How much practice time does the team have per game? Do they just randomly sub people out in the middle of a game?
posted by KathrynT at 1:37 PM on July 5, 2012


I had a chance to go to Yale for a MA in trumpet performance. I thought long and hard about exactly this scenario: am I the kind of person who wants it so bad that he will practice more than the other dozens of people who also want the seat? No. No I wasn't, and I'm very glad I decided against it. I still play in a community orchestra where the pressure is much, much lower, but the music is great and fun, and if you hit a few clunkers, nobody notices, or if they do they say "don't worry - you'll get it next time". I could not imagine playing in the BSO and enjoying it, at least not as me.
posted by jetsetsc at 1:37 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


This triggered a lot of memories for me and reminded me why I now work in software and just do music as a (mostly) hobby.
posted by Doleful Creature at 1:40 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Holding the mallet too tight won't dampen the sound. Not letting the mallet bounce back up will.

Won't the first directly cause the second?
posted by zamboni at 1:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


BTW -- there are some people who do not know that The Boston Pops is comprised primarily of musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It's basically another 'identity' for the group. They obviously play light classical and popular music, travel extensively, record often and are used frequently by former BSO/Boston Pops conductor John Williams when he is recording his film scores.

Inside Boston Pops Annual July Fourth Show -- "The 75-member Boston Pops' annual Independence Day show has become an iconic celebration of America. Seth Doane reports." [video | 04:22].
posted by ericb at 1:45 PM on July 5, 2012


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two?

Because a huge part of the symphony orchestra magic is locking into the gestalt of the players. What you're describing won't make a cohesive whole -- you can't just swap out musicians willy-nilly any more than you can major-league team athletes


Well if it's similar to major-leauge teams then they should have a whole farm system where each member of the lower level symphonies have their performance objectively tracked and evaluated constantly and move up (or down) solely based on their actual merits. I don't know what the best way to evaluate musicians would be, but the auditions they are talking about in the article would be like watching a few guys play one game of baseball and giving the MLB job to the one that hits a home run.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:46 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Boston Pops: the best classical musicians playing for the worst classical crowds.
posted by smackfu at 1:50 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't know what the best way to evaluate musicians would be, but the auditions they are talking about in the article would be like watching a few guys play one game of baseball and giving the MLB job to the one that hits a home run.

Except that in sports, even really really good players fail on a regular basis. A fantastic basketball player misses lots of throws; a fantastic batter misses most of the pitches he's thrown; a fantastic goalie lets one through now and then. By contrast, there's no opposition to a musician; it's fully expected that, every single time they perform, they will perform absolutely perfectly. So, yes, if it was baseball, you would be trying to find a guy who can hit a home run, on demand, under extreme pressure. Because you need him to in fact do that every time he gets in front of an audience.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:53 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't know a lot about sports. How do you cycle through your reserves? How much practice time does the team have per game? Do they just randomly sub people out in the middle of a game?

A lot of those questions vary wildly by game, so let's stick to a generic ur-sport. Let me make a really bad analogy and see if this makes any sense:

Joe Schmoe is the Tuba player for the Boston Red Sox. He's great and important to the team, and plays tuba for them every game. But oh no! The New York Philharmonic offered Joe more money to play tuba for them! But, this happens a lot so we have two understudies for Joe who practice on the same schedule as him, but usually more with the other understudies. Bob played with the orchestra twice last year when Joe had the flu, so he has more experience and will play in Joe's place when he goes. But Mary is also an understudy and, while younger and inexperienced, seems to have more raw talent. So over the next couple of performances, we'll let them take turns playing in the orchestra and see who does best in a live game, er, concert because it's so different from practice. Meanwhile, we're going to hire another understudy because one isn't enough to be safe.

Anyway, that's basically how sports works... why wouldn't that work for a real orchestra?
posted by Freon at 1:53 PM on July 5, 2012


I don't know what the best way to evaluate musicians would be, but the auditions they are talking about in the article would be like watching a few guys play one game of baseball and giving the MLB job to the one that hits a home run.
But the very best home run hitters hit home runs less than 10% of the time and the very best musicians play without errors over 99% of the time. (On preview, what Tomorrowful said.)
posted by dfan at 1:56 PM on July 5, 2012


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two?

Because then they'd have three times as many employees to pay, with the same budget.

And because the orchestra will play better if it's one consistent group of people.

And because they want the absolute best playing in every concert, not just sometimes.

And for all the reasons already stated here by others.

If it works for multi-billion dollar franchises in FIFA, NFL, MLB, NBA and others I fail to see why it would work there.

It works for multi-billion dollar franchises because 1) They're multi-billion dollar franchises, 2) sports are different from music, and 3) substituting players in and out of a game goes with the territory in sports, where people get injured, fatigued, and kicked out of the game for foul trouble and whatnot. In an orchestra, there's no reason to maintain a fully-compensated bench of players. Players don't get red cards or mid-symphony injuries.

Well if it's similar to major-leauge teams then they should have a whole farm system where each member of the lower level symphonies have their performance objectively tracked and evaluated constantly and move up (or down) solely based on their actual merits.

They do have a whole farm system. It is made up of undergraduate and graduate schools and lesser orchestras and music gigs all over the world.

I don't know what the best way to evaluate musicians would be, but the auditions they are talking about in the article would be like watching a few guys play one game of baseball and giving the MLB job to the one that hits a home run.

It's really more along the lines of deciding who to call up to the majors based on their performance in the minors, but before letting them actually play a major league game, making them do one last tryout under high pressure to see whether they really can cut it under the most extreme pressure possible.

The current system for evaluating orchestra players certainly has its flaws. But not being enough like professional baseball is not one of them.
posted by The World Famous at 1:56 PM on July 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


Well, in a concert, you only have one shot. Getting all the notes and rhythms perfect -- hitting a home run -- is pretty much the minimum qualification even for the "farm team" orchestras, every night, every time. So yeah, you need someone who's not going to make a single mistake even under pressure, because that's the job.

I mean, in the piece we just did -- Berlioz's Damnation of Faust -- the entrance of Mephistopheles is met every time by this little sting in the trombones, accompanied by an immediately damped cymbal crash and a simultaneous hit to the bass drum. That cymbal crash is preceded by something like 230 measures of rest, and it has to be perfect every time or the moment is lost.

on preview: yeah, what Tomorrowful said.
posted by KathrynT at 1:57 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


"A little bit of glockenspiel* pedantry here: Holding the mallet too tight won't dampen the sound. Not letting the mallet bounce back up will."

I wouldn't try very hard to make sense of that and the other attempts to discuss the nuances of percussion performance — the writer had no clue and the best I can figure is that she had the subjects attempt to explain some stuff about their practices and concerns, misunderstood it all, and then expressed that misunderstanding in apparently credible fashion.

There was a part where I came to a abrupt stop, very frustrated with the almost-entirely-but-not-quite nonsensical nature of this sort of detail (I say as a non-professional percussionist with post-secondary training) and then just told myself that this is the way all general journalism is with regard to highly technical things and moved past it. It is a little irksome to think that readers believe they've gained some insight into the concerns percussionists have about their technique, when they very much have not. And it's even more irksome to consider that this is probably true for me and everyone else with regard to similar technical stuff we read every day. But, well, it's not like many of us weren't already aware of this. I try to remind myself of this all the time. Even so, it's a little disconcerting to have one's face rubbed in it.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:58 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyway, that's basically how sports works... why wouldn't that work for a real orchestra?

For one thing, you'd have to start paying understudies. Why would they do that when they can just call up players who currently have other jobs?
posted by The World Famous at 1:59 PM on July 5, 2012


It was so sad last year when BSO Music Director/Conductor James Levine had to step down due to his continuing health problems.
posted by ericb at 2:00 PM on July 5, 2012


I feel so bad for both of these musicians. Coming so close to their dream jobs and then not making it. My heart aches for them.
posted by longdaysjourney at 2:01 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


For one thing, you'd have to start paying understudies. Why would they do that when they can just call up players who currently have other jobs?

See, now I've learned something. I just assumed they had people quite literally waiting in the wings in case someone caught ebola or got hit by a bus or something. What happens in that case? Do they figure, "Hey, we've still got 4 other violinists, screw it we're fine?"
posted by Freon at 2:04 PM on July 5, 2012


Actually, musicians make mistakes on stage all the time. Minor ones that you can't necessarily see, mostly, but even as an amateur if I've studied a piece I can hear deviations from the printed part or intonation problems sometime. Yes, these guys are crazy brilliant great, but they're not perfect.

But here's the thing - if there were only one accountant job for every several thousand accountants coming out of business school, eventually the job interview for accountants would look like this:

Exercise 1: Without using IRS forms or a pencil and paper, examine this pile of documents and calculate our tax liability. In your head.

Exercise 2: Add this 160-row column of numbers on this 1940's era adding machine in 60 seconds without making a mistake.

... and so on.

Yes, the job is tough, but the main driver in the toughness of these auditions is that they have an insane number of applicants to get through, so it's highly geared toward weeding out, rather than cultivating.

I play for a local community orchestra where only the conductor, concertmaster, and principal 'cellist are considered pros. The pay is - less than $100,000 :-) Most people couldn't live on it. And we get untold numbers of audition recordings, of which some get weeded out because they actually aren't that good, and perhaps 30 get listened to by a committee which I've been part of. Each one sounds nearly perfect. Six finalists are selected from that to come do a live audition. Our format is actually that each finalist plays a couple of pieces with a pianist for a live audience. I've been in that audience. Each finalist plays like an angel. At this point it's partly about the playing and partly about how the person impressed the judges - willingness to do the job, interact with the community, etc.

For a community orchestra. For probably less than $30,000...
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:05 PM on July 5, 2012 [11 favorites]


The article mentioned beta-blockers. These are the drug of choice for auditioning musicians as they keep the heart from racing. Having known a number of classical musicians I do not envy their lot. Sad but good article.
posted by njohnson23 at 2:10 PM on July 5, 2012


Yeah, there's not room in the budget to hire "understudies." There are no understudies. There are people they know in the community; Joe's star student, the guy who plays tuba for the Somerville community orchestra, etc. If Bob is good enough to be an "understudy" he'll have another job somewhere else. Symphony budgets are incredibly, incredibly lean, they simply can't afford to have extra personnel around.

"Hey, we've still got 4 other violinists, screw it we're fine?"

Strings are a different thing. The string sections are pretty big. We have 14 each first and second violin players, for example. In the case of a true emergency, like if the principal got hit by a bus on the way to the hall, you'd have the second chair play principal and either scramble to find someone on short notice or play one chair down. Basically we hope that doesn't happen.

Full disclosure: my experience and involvement with this is that I sing in the (volunteer, unpaid, but quite good) Chorale for the Seattle Symphony. I am damn lucky to be able to do so, even for free.)
posted by KathrynT at 2:21 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


As a music school dropout, I'm getting stressed out and having flashbacks reading this.

I still, many years after the fact, having gone through so much in my life, can think of nothing more stressful in my life than the auditions and juries were. I remember the jury process really well... It's permanently inscribed upon my consciousness.

You walk out into the auditorium, and it's just you there - You've been in there several times, but this time, it's just you there - Every footstep echoes beyond belief, every little sound your body makes seems deafening.

In the seats are four people with clipboards staring at you, barking short instructions to you. So, you respond, ideally in a manner appropriate to the way you are supposed to present yourself as a musician, which is something that they do not spell out - suddenly very self aware of your own voice, as well as the dynamics of this room - and you do your thing. You maybe start out with a few scales, and ultimately play some excerpts of a few works, and a couple of works from start to finish. Some with accompaniment, some solo. You may be asked to stop and move on at any time. You cannot show weakness during any of this.

Every nanometer error in the positioning of your fingers is picked up and amplified, and any wrong note, any wrong bounce in the bow, waver in the breath - all of this is echoed, resounding well after the fact, to serve as a distressingly long reminder of your mistake. Any variation in loudness, no matter how subtle it was while you practiced, is suddenly much, much more dramatic than you ever expected.

So you go and play your best, trying to turn off your mind, your inner critic, and all is good until one of these little mistakes happens... And there's no covering it, no undoing it, and it takes all you have to keep your brain from not focusing on this, and to keep yourself from not breaking down as this happens. Your fight-or-flight instincts are all saying GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, and you start seeing your own pulse as your adrenaline kicks into levels you haven't known before.

This was the end of semester one for me - Just prior, I had been a first chair player, and had been extremely successful musically. I had plenty of encouragement to audition for the music school, and plenty of support telling me to follow this dream. I ended that semester by laying on the cold floor of my practice room, waiting for my heart rate and breathing to settle back down to normal levels, having a full blown anxiety attack - knowing just how much better I had to be than I was, and realizing for the first time that this may not be something I can do - and not wanting to touch an instrument again until I absolutely had to.

I made it through about half of the second semester before I couldn't take it anymore - The insanely long practice hours, the constant competition, and the struggle just to keep afloat as the lowest member of the section. I was trying to work and pay my way through school at the same time - This is something I was told not to do by the faculty, that there would be no time for that as well as what music school required. They were correct.

I was a much happier person after I dropped out.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who can get through an audition process like this and not leave it as a broken shell of a person, let alone actually get accepted. Going to a state university nearly killed of all desire I had to actually play any music... I cannot imagine everything that would lead up to an audition for such a highly regarded orchestra.
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:25 PM on July 5, 2012 [33 favorites]


Why can't the orchestra hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two?

I used to be one of those temp players -- it's called being on the sublist, something that requires its own round of auditions. It was a speciality of mine*, working as a substitute. Despite being good at it, it was the hardest and most stressful line of work I've ever done. Web programming these days is a cakewalk.

Strange acoustics, variations in sheet music, borrowed equipment, different conducting styles aside... it still takes a while for a player to get integrated into a group. Orchestras are strange machines -- you've got all these individual, brilliant players with finely honed musical sensabilities, but the hivemind can be an overpowering force, for good or bad. When you play, you are constantly adjusting your performance in response to your conductor and the other players. You need to know things like, "John's English Horn with that particular bocal tends to run flat", or "Jane's upper register is a bit reedy and I need to match the timbre to get a good blend". Look at an orchestral musician's sheet music and it'll be peppered with private notation, sometimes in a language of symbols known only to that player, about how to better blend with their group in certain places.

Sometimes, you're concentrating so much in shaping a musical moment, that anything outside the expected norm has the potential to knock you off the rails. (While preparing for "The Audition" is obviously hugely important for a musician, learning how to recover from mistakes is, sadly, not as ingrained in some players' schooling. Because your entire training is about how not to make mistakes. It's no wonder why people burnout after their first disaster.) Any orchestral musician can tell you about those "brain fart" moments where an entire section missed a cue or whatnot because one player balked. There's a lot of subtle communication going on between players and performers. Communication that is *vital* in the creation of a world-class performance.

My old teacher used to describe orchestral music-making as the art of sounding "spontaneous through the result of repetitive, deliberate practice". Switching up the formula really gets in the way of that.

I'm not saying there's no value to playing looser with personnel (and I do love me my random pickup groups), but when you're in an environment where 100% perfection is expected as not only your best, but also your worst, you don't want to mix things up when it isn't necessary. If we're going to use sports as an analogy: you can make 90% of your shots and still win the game. But if you only hit 90% of your notes in orchestra, you're coming back from break to a pink slip on your stand.

* I made a niche for myself as a sub. One of my favorite stories is, while hiking for the weekend, I got a panicked call from a Bulgarian opera company. They needed me to play principal oboe for a 2 week tour. Kicking off the next day. Oh, and no one in the company spoke any English, was I ok with that. (Of course I took the job. The stage manager spoke Italian and I spoke Spanish, which was good enough for the matters of getting me paid. Everyone in the pit spoke Bulgarian and the music was marked up in Cyrllic, but our conductor was so kick-ass, he got us where we needed to be each night, never mind the poor American sight-reading everything.)
posted by Wossname at 2:29 PM on July 5, 2012 [23 favorites]


Sure it's tough but you gotta be in it to win it. Anyone who WINS a job in a big orchestra would say the same thing: "...it's a huge sacrifice but when you've won you've won, and whoever plays the best will win."

Plus, it's rare for somebody to win an audition their first or even second or third time. You get used to taking auditions, you actually improve at taking them, and then you win.

It's difficult but the reward is mostly great. You basically get paid to do nothing ;)

And yes, that is a musician joke. When we've practiced as much as we have, going up on stage to play a concert is, well.. just another day at the office.
posted by ReeMonster at 2:29 PM on July 5, 2012


"I just assumed they had people quite literally waiting in the wings in case someone caught ebola or got hit by a bus or something. What happens in that case?"

It depends, but if they really need the seat filled, they contact other musicians in the community. (Actually, some orchestras are union, I bet it's pretty clear in the union contract in that case.) In a big city there are probably at least a couple colleges/universities with music performance majors, so there are professors of [whatever instrument] who are well-versed in the classical repertoire. There are broadway and opera and ballet pit orchestras. There are community symphonies. And so on. A lot of musicians are active in more than one group, a lot give lessons, a lot give master classes, so they'll sort-of know who's who in the community, and on down the ladder.

When I was in high school I got to sit in with a university orchestra well-known for its classical music program. One of their bassists got very ill about three days before the concert, and their practice was to invite high school students to sit in when it was possible, as part of their educational development outreach. Their conductor asked around a bit and my HS orchestra had done Schubert's 8th that year, which they were doing at their concert, and he asked a pro bassist with the Big City Symphony, who had taught a couple master classes I had done, and he was like, "yeah, she'll do." So he asked my director and he was like, "yeah, she can manage it and she's reliable." So I went to two days of rehearsals and then played last chair. And they told me all the parts they didn't want me to play, because any fumbling would be obvious. Another kid from another HS orchestra filled in on the other half of the program. It was fun, but particularly exhausting not playing with your regular group.

One of the great things about being a bassist is that the pressure isn't very intense until you're at the very top of the heap, because everyone's always short on bassists, and you don't often have to do things that stand out. So I played in orchestras through college and enjoyed it quite a bit, but I think if I'd played something like trumpet or violin, where there's a lot of competition and you're always so EXPOSED, I would have quit sooner. I loved making music as part of a group, but I definitely do not have the temperament for that level of perfection and exposure. (Which is also, incidentally, why I could not be a top-level athlete: I watch a guy pitching a nearly-perfect game and all I can think is "don't choke don't choke don't choke" ... I'd be 100% up in my own head, and I'd choke. And you do get somewhat used to it, I know, but I'm not tempermentally suited to that type of stress at that high level over long periods of time. I'd be playing my concerto going, "don't choke don't choke don't choke -- FUCK.")
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:34 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, in a concert, you only have one shot. Getting all the notes and rhythms perfect -- hitting a home run -- is pretty much the minimum qualification even for the "farm team" orchestras, every night, every time. So yeah, you need someone who's not going to make a single mistake even under pressure, because that's the job.

That's clearly not the point of the auditions then. If everyone who can even hope to play in a high level orchestra is always perfect, or even perfect 99% of the time, it's extremely unlikely that a significant percentage of 35 performers auditioning will make a mistake in a single 10 minute audition that they've spent a year rehearsing for. If they are perfect 97-99% of the time, then disqualifying anyone who makes a mistake in their audition doesn't really catch most of the people who have the higher error rates and could result in some false positives to flag some people who actually have some of the lowest error rates.

And anyway someone in the audition pool must do something difficult on the level of hitting a home run in order to impress the judges enough to be hired. Performing flawlessly with no mistakes is not what separates the absolute best from the rest of the field, but something does and that particular something might vary from performance to performance. My point with the home run analogy is that a lot of times the difference between the absolute best player and a slightly less capable player is small enough that in a very small sample size of observation you probably won't be able to tell the difference all that well.

It's possible that whatever hard to define attributes of the absolute best performers will always be present in an extremely small random sampling of their performances, so that any time you compare them to random performances of 34 lesser performers they will always come out on top. But in my opinion based on all sorts of evaluations in the world in general, that's unlikely. It would be pretty easy to test this sort thing for repeatability, has any orchestra ever done say 3 sets of auditions, always with the same set of performers, to see how well their evaluations match? I would suspect that very often the "best" performer in repeated blind evaluations would vary based on inconsistent performances and other random factors, the same way that the best player on a baseball team might vary from day to day even though over time there are clearly performance differences. And the number one way to decrease the noise and get a better evaluation would be to increase the sample size dramatically of the observations that you base your decisions on.

The current system for evaluating orchestra players certainly has its flaws. But not being enough like professional baseball is not one of them.

I would say that professional sports are one of the few cases where there is more or less a true meritocracy in terms of people moving up the ranks solely on their ability to perform their task at the highest level. Part of that is because their performance can be much more easily measured. A lot of the practices of other types of evaluation processes would become glaringly inefficient if it was possible to actually measure how effective they were. I would not be surprised if the audition process described in the article is only marginally better than randomly choosing one of the 35 who make the final cut. One of the things sports makes clear is that when you actually measure results accurately, performance is a lot more messy and random than you would think it would be, and even performance forecasts that take into account a huge amount of objective data still have a hard time predicting who will actually do the absolute best job in the future.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:38 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Running joke when I was in music school: "Oh, you're graduating this semester? How wonderful! What restaurant are you going to work at?"
posted by MysticMCJ at 2:39 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joe Schmoe is the Tuba player for the Boston Red Sox.

And Bobby Corno is the horn player (despite his notorious flub and his season solo average of .27355), and of course it's Highwood on the oboe.
posted by The Bellman at 2:44 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


That's clearly not the point of the auditions then. If everyone who can even hope to play in a high level orchestra is always perfect, or even perfect 99% of the time, it's extremely unlikely that a significant percentage of 35 performers auditioning will make a mistake in a single 10 minute audition that they've spent a year rehearsing for.

You're correct, that's not the point of the auditions. Musicianship goes far, far, far beyond "getting the notes and rhythms right." They're looking for far loftier and subtler qualities than that.

The Scherzo movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony has a very critical tympani part. 3 tympani notes are exposed right at the very beginning, for example. A couple years ago, our principal tympanist was on sabbatical, so the tympani part was being played by one of the other percussionists. This other guy is good -- very good; the SSO is not one of the top tier orchestras, but we are firmly second tier, and everyone in the group is a damn fine musician.

Anyway, one night we were sitting on stage, waiting for the 4th movement, and when the scherzo started -- at those 3 exposed tympani notes, my head WHIPPED around, and so did a lot of the rest of the chorus. Our principal was filling in that evening, and the difference in the sound was immediate and obvious. Just from that tiny excerpt, I was like "Whoa, Michael's back!!" What was different? I'm not sure I could tell you. But it was much, much better. THAT'S what they're looking for in that audition.
posted by KathrynT at 2:47 PM on July 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


One of the things sports makes clear is that when you actually measure results accurately

This is one of the big differences between sports and music. There's no such thing as accurately measuring results in music. It's a matter of perception - of taste - as much as of precision and proficiency. A musician is not called upon to merely score points or put up an effective defense or whatever. She or he is called upon to be both technically proficient and emotionally stirring, all while integrating effectively with the ensemble.

Although a musician may fail an audition because of technical errors, the true success is not achieved merely by playing without mistakes, but by exceeding that minimum bar and doing something transcendent and sublime that speaks to the judges.

To return to the sports analogy, it's like if a team insisted that they must not only win the championship every year, but that they must also bring tears to the eyes of spectators due to the grace and beauty of the way they play the game - and if the very financial survival of the team depended on the team achieving both of those goals.
posted by The World Famous at 2:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The National Brass Symposium Takes an Inside Look at the BSO Brass Warm Ups
posted by homunculus at 3:08 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is one of the big differences between sports and music. There's no such thing as accurately measuring results in music. It's a matter of perception - of taste - as much as of precision and proficiency. A musician is not called upon to merely score points or put up an effective defense or whatever. She or he is called upon to be both technically proficient and emotionally stirring, all while integrating effectively with the ensemble.

Well you can't have it both ways. If it's impossible to evaluate a high level musician's performance on any objective level, then the auditions are useless. Just get a bunch of high level musicians together and pick one's name from out of a hat. If it's possible for judges to evaluate who does a better job (in any way that the evaluation can be measured, from computer analysis to completely "gut" feelings), then it's worth looking at how effective those evaluations are.

For example, as the article mentions orchestras generally have the performers audition in front of a screen. And the reason for that is because without doing that, the judges will take into account things that have no bearing on the actual performance they hear like age, race, and sex. It was a good way to improve the evaluation process and it directly resulted in orchestras becoming more diverse. And I don't think the judges in the old system were necessarily being consciously racist or sexist or whatever, they probably would have thought that the white guy who ended up being chosen really was the most "technically proficient and emotionally stirring". The fact that the evaluation criteria is heavily obfuscated due to it being very difficult to settle on objective and accurate methods of evaluation means that the selection process is heavily susceptible to noise (such as variation between performances) and bias (such as subtly racist or sexist selection tendencies), so it's worth designing the selection process around minimizing those factors.
posted by burnmp3s at 3:16 PM on July 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always loved (and hated) this cartoon on the wall at a university music school. I guess I've done a few auditions in my career, but never for something that I really cared about getting.

I'm really glad that this kind of high-pressure auditioning is only important to a small number of music careers.
posted by ianhattwick at 3:17 PM on July 5, 2012


"There's no such thing as accurately measuring results in music. It's a matter of perception - of taste - as much as of precision and proficiency."

It's a matter of fit. To give a much smaller-group example -- I played (still play, I guess) jazz for many, many years. The rhythm is located as much in (I'd even say more in) the bass as in the drums, and you have GOT to have a bassist and a drummer who can play together. I'm told that there are studies, that the "beat" isn't just one instant in time but a few milliseconds, and some people feel the "beat" near the beginning of that time, and some near the end, and you want a bassist and a drummer who feel it about the same place in the beat. Otherwise, they could both be world-class musicians, who when they play together, are a hot mess. The bassist feels the end of the beat and the drummer feels the beginning and the bassist keeps speeding up to catch up with the drummer and so the piece keeps accelerating ... or something like that. And then of course you want the rest of your rhythm section to find the beat where the drummer and bassist have it, and the rest of the band as well. But if the bassist and the drummer just don't "have" the same beat (somewhere DEEP IN THEIR SOULS), the music just won't find a groove. And you can tell the difference, when there's a groove and when there isn't.

Someone could be a world-class musician, but not the right "fit" for the BSO. Which, really, there is an analogue to in sports: Joe Schmoe is a great wide receiver, but they just haven't found the right way to "fit" him in their offense. Joe Schmoe could be the greatest wide receiver of all time, but if the coaches can't fit him in the offense right, and the QB can't pass, and the blockers don't block him properly, he could ride the bench forever. Even in team sports it simply isn't purely objective.

(And really, I think the musician development system in the U.S. looks an awful lot like the sports development system in the U.S., just with a lot less money sloshing around.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:19 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"If it's possible for judges to evaluate who does a better job (in any way that the evaluation can be measured, from computer analysis to completely "gut" feelings), then it's worth looking at how effective those evaluations are."

The article did say that 90% of musicians hired under the BSO's current audition system are given tenure after their "on-trial" year (which is their first year after the audition). So is 90% effective with a one-year probationary period effective enough?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:21 PM on July 5, 2012


Well you can't have it both ways. If it's impossible to evaluate a high level musician's performance on any objective level, then the auditions are useless.

Why are subjective auditions useless? The judges are to assess both technical proficiency and the non-quantifiable traits that they, being highly experienced in the field, recognize as important qualities prized by the audience.

If an NBA team's scout was informed that he was to determine which players have both ideal statistics and also look the most exciting from the perspective of a television spectator, the scout would be able to make that assessment, surely.

Just get a bunch of high level musicians together and pick one's name from out of a hat.

What do you mean by "high level?" If you're eliminating subjective judging at every level, how do you decide which names go in the hat?

The fact that the evaluation criteria is heavily obfuscated due to it being very difficult to settle on objective and accurate methods of evaluation means that the selection process is heavily susceptible to noise (such as variation between performances) and bias (such as subtly racist or sexist selection tendencies), so it's worth designing the selection process around minimizing those factors.

The BSO judges seem to be pretty good at choosing the players who will allow the orchestra to continue to be highly regarded by both musicians and audiences. As Eybrows McGee points out, they have a 90% effective rate with the one-year probationary period. By comparison, what percentage of professional sports players - in any major sport - are starters at the end of their first year playing in the major leagues? (Adjusting for injuries might be a good idea.)
posted by The World Famous at 3:25 PM on July 5, 2012


In the seats are four people with clipboards staring at you, barking short instructions to you

Yikes...I'm flashing back to the Certificate of Merit evaluations I used to endure as a kid. Performing in front of an audience is tough, but performing in front of someone holding a clipboard is an entirely different level of stress.
posted by malocchio at 3:30 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Anyway, one night we were sitting on stage, waiting for the 4th movement, and when the scherzo started -- at those 3 exposed tympani notes, my head WHIPPED around, and so did a lot of the rest of the chorus. Our principal was filling in that evening, and the difference in the sound was immediate and obvious. Just from that tiny excerpt, I was like "Whoa, Michael's back!!" What was different? I'm not sure I could tell you. But it was much, much better. THAT'S what they're looking for in that audition."

and

"This is one of the big differences between sports and music. There's no such thing as accurately measuring results in music. It's a matter of perception - of taste - as much as of precision and proficiency. A musician is not called upon to merely score points or put up an effective defense or whatever. She or he is called upon to be both technically proficient and emotionally stirring, all while integrating effectively with the ensemble.

Although a musician may fail an audition because of technical errors, the true success is not achieved merely by playing without mistakes, but by exceeding that minimum bar and doing something transcendent and sublime that speaks to the judges.


Yeah, and that's the other reason why I was annoyed at the inclusion of faux-technical details about the guy's practice.

I can't speak for professional musicians or even those who graduated from music school. Like, MysticMCJ, I dropped-out of a state university music school. But, even so, what's sort of interesting to me is that my whole prior music education and much of my experience, and my experience with the university education, was all about continuing refinement at higher and higher levels of technical skill — and most of that really didn't have much to do with what made me a good or bad musician.

Because, really, at that time I wasn't a very good musician, regardless of my grasp of technique.

Ironically, it was only as I grew older and wasn't very actively a musician, that I became a better musician. Because, bottom line, real musicianship is in intuition and interpretation and expression and is nearly unquantifiable. The fiddly bits of technical musicianship — in any musical context (whether classical or pop music) — is the smaller portion. The larger portion is artistry. And that's subtle.

I can't quite make myself believe that there aren't musicians working at the highest levels who are, primarily, technicians...because I'm sure there are some. I mean, frankly, extreme technical ability is impressive and occasionally useful in its own right and the culture of musicanship is such that it values it pretty highly. Even so, I feel moderately certain that at these very high levels of achievement in musicianship, artistry comes to the fore in distinguishing one musician from another. I'd wager that it was artistry, and not some particular technical relative incompetency, that was the problem with the percussionist who wasn't given tenure. Indeed, it may have been the case that he was primarily a technical musician and had technique that was apparently flawless and admirable but, still, there was something missing. And such a musician would work in vain to discover his technical flaw when, in fact, it was something else, something he doesn't quite grasp.

This has relevance to the auditioning process and such. And the matter of mistakes, as Wossname discusses. All errors are not equal. Recovery from mistakes is itself kind of a artistry — not a technique. Indeed, being so much in one's head and not as a sort of natural organic piece of the expression of the music is also part of artistry. This sort of auditioning process, I strongly suspect, weeds out technically talented but "brittle" musicians, those for whom their performance is a technical exercise of almost pure calculation. As I mentioned, you can get far by being such a musician because music that requires real training to play demands such technical mastery — we ask for technique first from young musicians because it's both a necessary requirement and, at the lower levels, it suffices. But, ultimately, music performance like any artistic performing art, is not simply about technique. It's just not. Technique is the foundation, but artistry is the structure.

Given that from the perspective of the symphonies, this is a buyer's market, then they can confidently assume that they will have a surplus of candidates with sufficient technical mastery. They are looking for something beyond that, and rightly so.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:41 PM on July 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.

That's one smart viola player.

Orgasm releases a flood of dopamine in your brain, and dopamine is the neurotransmitter used by the substantia nigra, which plays a crucial role in the control of voluntary movement (it's the part of the brain which degenerates in Parkinson's disease).

An L-DOPA patch would have worked as well or better, I'd imagine, but a combination would probably be better yet-- and for a bonus, the patch would probably be an intensifier.

Wonder if PGA golfers know about that.
posted by jamjam at 3:49 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why are subjective auditions useless? The judges are to assess both technical proficiency and the non-quantifiable traits that they, being highly experienced in the field, recognize as important qualities prized by the audience.

I never said subjective auditions are useless, I said that they are useless if "it's impossible to evaluate a high level musician's performance on any objective level". Basically they are useless if the weeding out process that led to 35 musicians being considered gets it to the point that it's impossible to do any sort of evaluation that reliably picks the "best" out of those 35. You can have subjective evaluations that are highly accurate and repeatable, but it's also possible to have very noisy or biased, and a lot of scientific studies have shown that a lot of human evaluation is not as perfect as we tend to assume it is. For example, let's say that instead of 30 people auditioning behind a screen, it was 3 people who played 10 times each. Do you think the judges would be able to tell that they had been tricked, and accurately say that there were exactly 10 musicians that played at the highest level so no clear winner could be chosen? If they weren't accurate enough to do that, what would that say about the accuracy of their evaluations in general? These are very basic sorts of questions that apply to any sort of evaluation scheme.

The article did say that 90% of musicians hired under the BSO's current audition system are given tenure after their "on-trial" year (which is their first year after the audition). So is 90% effective with a one-year probationary period effective enough?

Let's assume the worst case that the audition system is no better than randomly picking names out of a hat. So the pre-audition screening process selects just down to musicians who have a great resume of performing well in less prestigious orchestras and are generally considered in the field to be great musicians after having been observed performing for thousands of hours over their careers. But when 35 of these highly qualified musicians get together in a room and try to win their spot, the auditions results are completely random. If 90% of them don't get fired, all that would mean that the initial screening process was 90% effective in finding a musician that wouldn't perform poorly enough to be fired. Now I'm not saying that's the case, I'm just saying that it could be possible and not be inconsistent with the data. And it's not a completely unreasonable hypothesis if you compare it to other similar fields. If you took 35 of the absolute best actors working today and asked them to audition for the best acting troupe in the world, would there really be a way to say that Philip Seymour Hoffman is objectively better than Forest Whitaker? They are both great actors and if you hired either of them to any sort of acting job in the world they wouldn't get fired for not being good enough.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:12 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, Lee Vinson. He went to my high school. His brother, Ed, is a hell of a tuba player, and overlapped with me by a year. Their father, Johnny Vinson, is a prodigious composer and retired as director of bands from Auburn about five years ago, and his mom was my then-girlfriend's flute teacher.

Hell of a musical family. A lot of pressure. Wouldn't wish it on anyone, even before reading about his experience with BSO.
posted by supercres at 4:12 PM on July 5, 2012


So many oboists in the thread.....keep talking. My daughter is currently at a week long oboe camp, doing very well. She has a real talent and was able to actually use the second reed that she ever made. Only cut her thumb once! :-) Just proud to hear from other oboists.....that's a tough one to conquer....
posted by pearlybob at 4:13 PM on July 5, 2012


But there's "objectively better," and then there's "better for this position." Maybe one auditioner plays in a more Viennese style, while the orchestra is looking for a more French style. Maybe another one plays crisp and light, but the orchestra is known for its thick, rubato sound. Maybe a third plays on the front of the beat, but the conductor likes the orchestra to settle in towards the middle of the beat. None of those are flaws, but they are all valid reasons to choose one player over another.

And yes, the reality is that the top 4 auditioners for the role probably would all be perfectly adequate to the task. But there's only one seat.
posted by KathrynT at 4:39 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do you think the judges would be able to tell that they had been tricked, and accurately say that there were exactly 10 musicians that played at the highest level so no clear winner could be chosen? If they weren't accurate enough to do that, what would that say about the accuracy of their evaluations in general? These are very basic sorts of questions that apply to any sort of evaluation scheme.

The judges may not all be sure that it is only 3 players total but they would certainly know something was up. Probably depends on how much the players were trying to disguise their performances.

Also in this article it mentions a five-note run that Mike Tetreault messes up on but we don't know that that was all he did wrong. Maybe he hit a wrong note that got him spooked enough to mess up on those five notes. Maybe those five were not enough to knock him out but after he knew he messed up he relaxed too much and screwed up more.

The article also doesn't go into what happens in any further round; the listening to 35 people behind screens isn't the entire process.

Also the end result of the audition process does not have to be a WINNER AND CHAMPION. The person that gets the job doesn't have to be the best of everyone who entered. It'd be nice but there's no real way to tell without a process too drawn-out to be reasonable (for those auditioning, the judges, the facilities crew, etc.).

What you need is someone good enough that you don't have to have another call for auditions in a couple years. They are aiming for a decades-long career of excellence but that isn't necessary (and scouts can't tell that in sports, either).


On preview: what KathrynT just said, too.
posted by mountmccabe at 4:42 PM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is one of my favourite threads. Speaking of qualities other than hitting the right tones, that is obvious when you hear student recitals where there are students who hit all the right notes without much musicality and students who might skip notes or err rhythmically, but still make you want to hear what they are playing.

As for the sport analogies, comparing orchestras to team sports like baseball is not ideal because orchestras don't face an opposing team; it would be more like synchronised swimming.

Note: Orchestra-sized synchronised-swimming teams. Make it happen, Olympic committee!
posted by ersatz at 5:23 PM on July 5, 2012


I consider trying to double major in music and computer science when I went to Oberlin. I went to listen to some of the majors and the trumpet professor. They were technically brilliant and musically awful (IMHO - I had a teacher who used arias and thinking about singing parts to work on expression and appropriate application of rubato, something I didn't often hear in their playing). I turned away from any professional aspirations and have been far happier, I believe. Mostly, I think this is due to playing second part in a big band where I was responsible for several dozen solos per night. Stage fright? Gone. Cured. The drive to make music? Still there and burning.

Now as to perfect performances, I know what it takes to get there. Frankly, I don't have the time, although there was a point where I noted when I played a piece with my brass quintet with 0 clams. If I got three of those in any rehearsal or performance, I was very happy. If I had practice time, this number would increase quickly.

Playing a piece cleanly, to me is a mechanical process. The students at Oberlin proved that. Playing a piece cleanly and beautifully is another thing entirely.
posted by plinth at 5:28 PM on July 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


so depressing, actually.

I was in youth symphony for several years in High School, which meant auditioning each year, and then placement in one of 4 or 5 orchestras. The auditions included pieces I needed to memorize, pieces they wanted me to play and then sight-reading something they would bring out at the audition. Lots of private lessons, and up before dawn practicing with the mute on my viola.

I would practice quite a bit the weeks before the auditions, but can't imagine preparing so diligently for a whole year like Mike. But I can see how the pay, prestige and benefits would drive anyone to work so hard for BSO.

I enjoyed my time in the youth symphony, and occasionally join in some community orchestras, but I doubt I'll invest the time or have the desire to audition that way again. (at least for this portion of my life, when other hobbies are more important)
posted by dreamling at 6:00 PM on July 5, 2012


Thank you for the article Zarq, and thanks everyone for sparking off such a wonderful thread.

I know exactly mean about technical versus artistry, Ivan. I was modestly, and moderately talented at piano as a child, but my teacher - though prestigious in her own way - was so aggressively technical. Very much old-school method of teaching.

Looking back, I marvel that I stuck with it as long as I did - I was just an empty facsimile, most of the time. Duplicating a series of notes and tones as instructed, but I absolutely didn't feel the music in any way. Rarely had any strong feelings about it at all. I remember lessons where my teacher would instruct me to strike a certain way, and then demonstrate, saying something like , "It's supposed to sound allegro, lively" or whatever. Never, "your supposed to feel lively" etc. She kept me so bound by the instructions on the manuscript, I never thought about what should be happening off it, in me, etc.

Fidelity like that is great grounding for the demands and rigour of proper classical playing and eisteddfod, but goddamn it's a sterile way to learn for a child, and the terrors of eisteddfod - including one, horrific, incident where I was so nervous my hand-shaking prevented from playing a simple minuet as anything but a shambling cacophony of missed notes - killed any desire in me to play in front of anyone, or to play at all for years. All the while my musical horizons and connection to music - classical and otherwise - expanded so much.

I've been looking at getting a digital piano this year, over fifteen years since I last touched a piano. I'll be interested to see if I can stick to my canons et al with the steely discipline and hours of practice I once did. I'll be interested to see if I need to for what I'm looking for.
posted by smoke at 7:22 PM on July 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've been refreshing for about an hour but the site's down and google's cache only has the first page. Ack!
posted by Rhomboid at 7:50 PM on July 5, 2012


This has been incredibly illuminating. My son plays a string instrument and he's had amazing success in our youth orchestras in town. He was the youngest player in his section this past year in the top youth orchestra in the tri-state area. He has been considering majoring in music (more likely composition than performance) when he goes off to college and reading the article and all the relevant responses has made my heart ache. I want him to follow his dreams and do what he loves but for god's sake, I don't want him to lose his soul in the process.

I won't have him read this, I don't think. This is something he needs to come to on his own.
posted by cooker girl at 7:50 PM on July 5, 2012


Chris Stern, who is the bass/contrabass trombonist of the Scottish Opera posted an interesting insight on how auditions can differ between orchestras in north America and the UK:

There is a difference between the UK and the US and most of Europe.
Here in the UK, the audition process usually ends up with several people that undertake trial periods with the orchestra, then an appointment is made, and the job is yours.
In the US and most of Europe, one person wins on the day, but usually has to play with the orchestra for a year or so before being confirmed in the job.


From The Trombone Forum
posted by Harpocrates at 10:11 PM on July 5, 2012


I was a supposedly talented French Horn player in highschool - I started learning at 13 and at 16 was 'discovered' by the head of the state conservatorium and moved from one end of the state to the other to go to the Con part time while finishing highschool. It was assumed by everyone that I would be a professional musician because of this, and my whole identity for a few years was 'the musician'.
Here's the thing - I was pretty lazy and had coasted on natural ability alone. Going from being the big fish in a little pond to just another fish in a large pond was a shock, but a good one. Yes I auditioned for various university level music programmes, but when it came time to put in the paperwork at the end of highschool for university selections*, I didn't choose any of the performance options because I knew I was just not driven (and probably not talented) enough to make my living as a professional musician. I did two years as an under-grad doing music theory and history but ended up changing to straight history as I found being a non-performer was hampering my studies.
I guess I include this to say a) I get how stressful it can be to try and enter that world and you really really have to want it and live it and breathe it to survive with your soul intact and b) while I sometimes regret not having tried to go further with it, I also feel I dodged a bullet - if I had completely bought in to the 'you're a musician, this is what you have to do' thing (and I saw plenty of kids who did) I probably would have ended up a disillusioned and mediocre musician.

*In my state in Australia you auditioned long before you actually put in what universities you wanted to go to.
posted by Megami at 12:47 AM on July 6, 2012


I won't have him read this, I don't think. This is something he needs to come to on his own.

No, I think you should. There's nothing wrong with being exposed to the good and the bad about any career aspiration, nor in knowing the odds. I wish someone had more fully explained all this to me when I was a promising high schooler.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:05 AM on July 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


"He has been considering majoring in music (more likely composition than performance) when he goes off to college and reading the article and all the relevant responses has made my heart ache. I want him to follow his dreams and do what he loves but for god's sake, I don't want him to lose his soul in the process."

You know, I have any number of friends from high school and college who majored in music, because that's what I was heavily involved in at the time. As long as he's going to a solid school that requires a broad liberal arts education to get a music degree, it will be fine. Some of my friends went into music -- mostly into academia or music teaching at the K-12 level, but a few into performance and/or composing -- but a lot of them went to law school or became accountants or teach English or manage non-profits or do HR at a hospital or whatever. I mean, you've got a BA from Flagship State ... it doesn't matter a whole lot what it's in. And a lot of them continue to play in community orchestras and bands and jazz ensembles and whatnot, and enjoy the crap out of it but don't have to make a living at it.

And then some of my other musical friends were like me, who thought seriously about it in high school but when I actually looked into majoring in music, I realized that I would have to work so hard at it that it wouldn't be fun anymore, and that there were other things I loved and wanted to work that hard at and the hard work would still be fun. So I just kept playing casually.

Anyway, he should go into it with a realistic understanding of what career options there are in music itself, how many of them pay the bills, and how rare it is to succeed at the highest levels. And as he goes through college he should continually assess how likely he personally is to succeed at those levels and if he can cope with the patchwork lifestyle of the second-tier pro. And he should have a plan to get a well-rounded education so he has a "fallback" of "having a BA from a good school without a ton of debt." But none of my friends who majored in music regret it; most of them enjoyed it quite a lot.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:46 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


A tale of great tragedy.

In this city, they keep hiring school superintendants. Selected after careful vetting by people who supposedly know what education is about. They're paid really well - even more than the BSO. The Sups keep leaving after massive mistakes, including fraud. Who are the failing "experts" who've repeatedly chosen these mismatches?

In the end, percentages show that music and money/fame seldom go together. The "people out there making music into gold" seldom have soul. Better to avoid the brutality. Last week I read about "reclusive" conductor Kleiber a lot. Turned down leadership of the Berlin Philly. This article helped me understand that better.
posted by Twang at 9:15 AM on July 6, 2012


Getting all the notes and rhythms perfect -- hitting a home run -- is pretty much the minimum qualification

That is certainly a bare minimum. But a great musician may define what "perfect" is. Simple example: Listen to Horowitz play Schubert's Moment Musicale #3. Every piano student learns to "play" it. Very, very few can reveal something very new and, at the same time, inevitable. That doesn't come from rehearsal ... but from somewhere. It's intangibles that give the goosebumps.
posted by Twang at 9:44 AM on July 6, 2012


TreeRooster: Why can't the orchestra New York Mets hire a bunch of people as temporary, rotational players, and then choose one to give tenure to at the end of a year or two? Then the ones who didn't get tenure can still brag about being in the select group of finalists--less shame to be beaten by the greatest than to be rejected as in this story.
That's why.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:49 AM on July 6, 2012


And, having read the full thread now... ignore me.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:55 AM on July 6, 2012


On a different angle: as an engineering student, I was expected to handle 10, 20, 30+ hours of homework each week, in addition to my class load. I was often up into the wee hours before certain weekly classes, finishing the homework.

And then I met a Music major. Her exercise/practice schedule made me look like a beach bum. Truly stunning amounts of regular schoolwork, all for the privilege of getting a BA in Music... with no guarantee of a decently paying job at the end.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:59 AM on July 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's intangibles that give the goosebumps.

I'mma tell a story.

As I mentioned above, I sing for the Seattle Symphony Chorale. Several years ago, the associate conductor for the Seattle Symphony was Christian Knapp, a truly extraordinary conductor whom I would crawl to hell on broken glass to work with. While he was our associate conductor, he was also the conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, where he programmed a really ambitious season, including Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Alexander Nevsky. The latter is a cantata, based on the score for the film of the same name, by Prokofiev. It involves a choral part, and that's where I came in.

The orchestral music for Nevsky is very difficult, but the choral part is quite easy, except for being in Russian. So we put together a chorus for this performance that was partly SSC folks, partly people we invited in from various church choirs, and partly native Russian speakers recruited from the Russians At Microsoft club. Those last had no particular musical training, but mostly grew up in a culture with a rich choral tradition, so they could all pretty much sing.

So here we have this chorus, probably best described as "heterogeneous," right? Fortunately the music really is pretty easy, and so we got it all put together. We had one rehearsal with the orchestra, and then it was showtime.

The SYSO is a pretty distinguished group, and you have to be a pretty damn good musician to get in -- but at the end of the day, it's still a youth orchestra, these are all still high school students. The audience was at least half composed of the families of the players. I was expecting that we would do a pretty good performance, have a good time, and call it a day.

Well, at some point in the middle, during the alto solo, something happened. I'm not sure what it was, or even how to describe it, but I did literally get goosebumps, and tears sprang into my eyes. I looked up at the conductor, and he was weeping openly. The breath was sucked from my body, my Performance Mind sharpened in, and I realized that we were in the presence of something Great. Looking around the orchestra, all the kids realized it too; the flautist was pale, the bassoonist was wiping tears from his eyes, the brass were all shivering and looking sideways at each other trying to see if everyone else was feeling it. When the full orchestra and chorus came back in, we sang with one voice, and we didn't so much make the music as have it move though us from some sort of Primordial Beyond. I am not describing this well; it exists in a place beyond words. I was outside myself and yet deep within myself. It was transcendent.

When we finished the cantata, the audience screamed and stamped and leaped to their feet -- which, they always stand, this is a very standing town and also a lot of them were the musicians' families, but this was a very different thing. Maestro Knapp stood at the podium, bathed in light and drenched in sweat, and I was honestly surprised that he wasn't shedding tears of blood. We took all the applause, and went backstage in this worn, hollow, amazing glowing place, wandering around palefaced and shellshocked with wonder. One of the Russians came up to me and said "What was that? That was amazing. How can I find that again? Where can I go to do this again?"

I said "Oh, dear. I'm so sorry. That will probably never happen to you again. It might not happen to anyone on this stage ever again. That is not normal; that is amazingly special and lucky, and really all you can do is thank whatever Powers you believe in that you got to be a part of it. I'm sorry."

I have been lucky enough to have that experience a bare handful of times; more than half of them have been with that particular conductor at the helm, and that is why I would do anything to work with him (and all of you should do anything you can to see anything he's conducting). We performed that same work, the Nevsky, a year later with the SSO and a different conductor, and it was perfectly awesome and well done, but nothing like that amazing, titanic, numinous experience we got on stage with a bunch of teenagers and folks who had never sung classical music before.
posted by KathrynT at 10:54 AM on July 6, 2012 [32 favorites]


As for the sport analogies, comparing orchestras to team sports like baseball is not ideal because orchestras don't face an opposing team

Not so fast. . .
 
posted by Herodios at 2:06 PM on July 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


my god, smoke... are you me?
posted by moorooka at 1:22 AM on July 7, 2012


Heh heh, I feel for anyone who has had to endure the horror of eisteddfod meltdown like that. Never have I been more embarrassed or nervous.
posted by smoke at 4:59 PM on July 7, 2012


About fifteen years ago I had a job where every now and then I would get some work-study students from the local university to help out on projects. One summer, purely by chance, I had a couple of music students working for me; both nice kids and obviously both talented enough to get into a decent music program.

It was obvious which of the two was the more talented, and it was not the harder working and more diligent musician -- though to be fair, the one who was really good worked pretty hard and played a lot (often gigs not strictly related to his program). Im sure the more directed of the two has made her living in music (if she didn't starve to death trying) because her determination was incredible, but it was obvious to me at the time that the other would go much further, he was just so good.

My guess was vindicated: he's in the BSO brass warm ups video homunculus linked to above, still goofing around, but good enough to make it to the pinnacle of his profession.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:46 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm finally getting around to reading this. It seems like he was thrown by being onstage behind the screen - and it says as a seasoned auditioner he knows that's how its done and it always bothers him. But with all the preparations they detail that he went through how did he not work on some way to get past that discomfort. Surely he could have simulated that in some ways that would have helped him not react so negatively once he arrived on stage?
posted by marylynn at 12:37 PM on July 9, 2012


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