How to win an audition

I have no idea. Yeah, I won one last week, but I still exited with a longer "to improve in my preparation process" list than a "things I did awesome on" list.

I'm still gonna write down everything I know about auditions, though, because the one thing I do know is:

you have to go to them.

 

~Winning my job~ was not the surreal, magical experience I imagined it would be while I was in school. There's a mythology about that idea, and that phrase, at music schools. "She won a job!" "Back when my teacher won his job..." "If I win a job..." or, for the cockier, "When I win my job..." We spend years imagining how we're going to feel on that day.

Winning my job felt normal.

 

I started taking auditions in third year of undergrad, which was the first point at which I had even a basic level of control over the instrument. In my final year of school, I won a tenure-track position in a small regional orchestra-- where only two people showed up to the audition.

I didn't win because I was an super-duper player and totally ready, I won because, on that specific day, to that specific committee, I was preferred over the other candidate. That's it; a relatively small thing, but it had an outsize effect. Besides a lot of street cred back at school, I suddenly had a small foothold in the freelance scene, a calling card of "I play here." I had a window into the lives of working musicians, the kind who aren't in the Montreal Symphony. Two years later, that orchestra moved from playing in a university lecture hall to a brand-new, gorgeous, city-owned performing arts center that rivals the best in the province. I've played principal parts with that orchestra that I would never have had the chance to do, as an out-of school freelancer: Tchaik 6, Don Juan, Bolero. We once played every single Beethoven piano concerto in the same concert. Next month, we're doing Mahler 2. Beyond the playing, I ended up on the Player's Committee; through the PC, I attended the annual conference of the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians, and became the delegate for my orchestra. A year after that, I became a member of the committee to re-negotiate our collective bargaining agreement. This is not exactly standard fare for the first few years after graduating from an undergrad in music.

In the middle of that, I won an audition where I WAS THE ONLY PERSON WHO SHOWED UP, for a one-year position in a small but full-time orchestra. Because I was the only person who bothered to do the audition, I ended up with the immense advantage of having the experience of doing a whole season, full-time, with a professional orchestra, straight out of my undergrad. What I learned is that the difference between being a freelancer, and being a musician with a pile of folders on the stand from the same orchestra, is HUGE.

I also learned that the things that seem easy in music school become not-so-easy as soon as you're not in music school. At McGill, I took for granted that I would practice at least 3 hours a day or so. Why on earth wouldn't I? All my friends were doing it. The practice hallway was the social and community hub of the school. I would arrive there around eight in the morning and start warming up. As people arrived, they'd check in on their colleagues-- you have a lesson today? What are you going to play? How's the face feeling? K, have a good warm up. Skipping classes to practice was de rigueur. The cafeteria would clear out at around 1 or 2 PM when stragglers finally managed to convince each other to get get back up the stairs to the practice wing. If I ever felt bored in the evenings, I knew I could walk the two blocks back to school, noodle around a bit on the bassoon, and chat with whoever else was still hanging around. Life was good-- practicing itself was never easy, but the idea of needing motivation to practice was laughable.

HA. HA. HA. Living in a basement apartment, playing second bassoon to a level that was pleasing to the people around me and thus mostly uncommented-on, suddenly I found myself struggling to sit down and get in an hour a day of focused practice. It turns out that, just like the act of practicing is a skill, the act of planting your butt in a chair with the intention of practicing is also a skill, and one that atrophies fast.

I'm still not up to the same level of consistent, quality practice that I was at McGill-- but if I'm being honest, I think it's probably pretty universal feeling among professionals about their student days. And I do regret all the lost practice time in the past few years, especially when I contemplate how most of the people who show up to the same auditions as me went to grad school, and thus have at least two more years of intensive practicing than I do under their belts. But I also have the experience of making the transition, and having it be shitty at first, and then gradually better. That, too, was an education. To a certain, still small extent, I know how to transition into a job.

 

So when I won this audition (which had a regular number of people at it, for once! :P) it felt totally natural-- as if there is such a thing as a career path, and this was the logical next step in mine. I didn't freak out. I just did what I had learned in Gabe Radford's audition seminar, way back in NYOC 2011, to do in the event of a successful audition, and what I had practiced twice before-- smile, say thank you, and shake hands with your new colleagues.

Realistically, my A+ audition advice of "just make sure to show up to really sparsely populated auditions!" isn't exactly practical for the vast majority. Especially those that play instruments more popular than the bassoon, and people who aren't Canadians with the benefit of national auditions. SO while you can't control the second part-- "sparsely populated auditions"-- you can control the first. JUST MAKE SURE TO SHOW UP. How many people could have snatched my first two, crucial jobs out from under me if they had bothered to try? Honestly, probably a lot. They just didn't.

So there, that's my audition advice. JUST GO. Even if you think you suck, even if you're not sure you want the job, even if one of your keys starts making a weird buzzing sound two days before that might have been all in your head (*raises hand*), even if your Tchaik 6 reeds develops a crack the day before (*raises hand again*), even if you have to fly back the day of the audition to be at an 8 AM madrigal-learning session the next day (*bangs head against desk*), even if you have to fly to the audition the morning of (actually not me, but MAJOR kudos to one hugely determined candidate at the audition last week for getting up at 3 AM after a gig the night before to fly across the country and play an audition.) JUST GO.