Chicago Symphony audition: internalizing the process cues

I just got back from Chicago! I was in Chicago for the same reason every other bassoonist was-- to audition for principal bassoon spot of the Chicago Symphony. This was something I decided to do during the Brott festival, more as a scheduling decision than anything else. I had all of September free, the audition was at the end of the month, and I figured I needed something motivating to do for the month after Brott ended and before Thunder Bay started. So, that was it. I booked a plane ticket from the computer at camp, once I decided I didn't want to give myself the option of not doing it. (Sure enough the week before the audition I was cursing/thanking my past self for not giving my pre-audition self the option of backing out...)

My audition was on the 29th. There were, I believe, 80 people who played on that day, and there had also been two other days of preliminaries. They worked in groups of 8 people, announcing after every 8 who was invited back for the next round in January. Nobody in my group advanced, and I only know the name of the one person who advanced from the group before me, so I don't really have any idea of how many people might be invited to the finals.

However, as we all know (do we all know this? Gabe Radford said this at NYO, and I think it's true. You'll know now!) the most important part of an audition is what you write and reflect upon afterwards.

(An aside, a quotation from Gabe's audition seminar handout: "Simply going to the audition is often the biggest hurdle. What will keep you going back to auditions with a happy and balanced approach is how you react to success and failure. Start writing down some thoughts. You will never have greater clarity on the level of your performing than in the days after an audition. Refer to your notes before your next audition. Whether it is a certain technical concern that keeps cropping up, or something specific that phases you on the day, if you jot it down after an audition, it will help you immensely for the next one.")

For me, this audition had an element that I had never encountered before (besides, you know, being for an orchestra so famous that it feels ridiculous even to say you're auditioning for.) Instead of giving you the excerpts that have been chosen shortly before you go onstage, and letting you put your music in order and warm up accordingly, they just told us that the first item would be the Mozart concerto, and we were to take only that on stage. All of the excerpts were then the CSO's copies placed on the stand by the proctor during the audition.

This outlined a fairly serious flaw in my audition procedure: I rely way too much on visual cues! On one hand this can be a strength. Usually what I do is write a set of instructions on the music or on a sticky note on the page, which I read before beginning an excerpt every time. This has the advantage of a) reminding me of what I need to do to play the excerpt successfully, and b) providing a mandatory "downtime" between excerpts, where I can get into the mood of the next one. This is technically known as a "process cue" in sports psychology, although often mine also involve instructions that aren't necessarily process cues (for instance, reminders to check the status of my whisper lock, Ab-Bb trill mechanism, or blow out my bocal.) So, these little notes I believe generally do me good. However... what happens when I can't see them?

Usually, at auditions, I am very deliberate about the time in between excerpts being a good preparation for the next excerpt. But somehow, with the whole routine of my excerpt binder/process cue note thrown off, I suddenly became very bad at using my time in between excerpts. When the proctor placed the first movement of Tchaik 6 on the stand after Figaro, instead of calmly moving to switch reeds I felt sudden shock and panic: "oh god I have to use a different reed now shit my water container isn't open oh god what if I drop it I wonder if it's still soaked from the warmup room, better dunk it just in case oh god I'm taking too long they think I'm a moron, they're wondering what the hell I'm doing that's taking so long, look at this place I can't believe I'm even here, hmm I wonder what it would be like to actually play Tchaik 6 in this hall, okay jam that baby on I need to start this damn excerpt right now let's go..." Needless to say the first note of Tchaik 6 was not all that I hoped it would be.


So, based on that experience: writing stuff down is great, and if I were advising a young student on how to prepare for an audition with known repertoire I would probably advise them to give my note system a try for a while. However, after a certain point-- say, maybe the point where you start auditioning for the Chicago Symphony-- maybe a process cue needs to be able to be solely internal. The key to internalizing the process cue, however, will need to be doing it every time. There can be no skipping of steps in practice, because if I do, I might forget the step in performance. As an example, my process cue note for Rite of Spring looks something like:

-Lock off, Knob off ("Knob" is how I refer to by Ab-Bb trill mechanism. Because that's what it is.) -Blow out bocal and reed -Hear first 2 bars in head for tempo -Breathe 2 beats out, 2 beats in, begin note with no tongue but distinct beginning.

(When I actually played Rite of Spring, my instructions to myself got a little out of control, to the point that the 2nd bassoonist commented on the "novel" appearing at the top of the page. I erased the whole mess, simplified and re-wrote it, recognizing his important (if perhaps unintentional) point: if your process cue is too long or complicated, when you get to the performance, your adrenaline is going to prevent you from actually reading/internalizing the instructions. At least personally, I know that Performance Me doesn't have a lot of intellectual power, so simpler is better.)

The first instruction-- "lock off, knob off" is something that appears at the beginning of all excerpts: these two things I always check. (Obviously, it doesn't always say "off"; sometimes it says "on", for the ones where, well, I want one or both on.) That's easy to internalize: before beginning any excerpt, at any time, practice or performance, I will always check the status of these to "presets" of my instrument. No exceptions, or I'm training myself to forget.

"Blow out bocal and reed" are similarly generic instructions, although might not be necessary for every excerpt (more planning and reflection needed on this count!)

The third instruction is different for every excerpt, but similar in form; I always choose a set number of bars to hear, so in this case I just need to remember how many bars of what I want to hear in my head. I don't always choose the beginning of the excerpt; if it's more appropriate I'll choose to hear another instrument's line, or a section from later in the piece (for instance, for the sixteenth notes in the last movement of Symphonie Fantastique, I hear the theme starting at 64 to get the tempo, instead of trying to pull the tempo of the bassoon part from thin air.) So, that element is different for every excerpt but memorizing what to hear in my head before I start playing can be made part of the process of learning the excerpt.

The last instruction is similar, in that it's different for each excerpt but I always decide in advance the number of beats I will breathe out and then in.

When I'm practicing excerpts, though-- and here's the challenge with internalizing the process cue-- I don't always go through the whole process. Most often, I skimp on the "hearing" step; after all, I reason, if I just want to practice being able to play the excerpt, it doesn't matter if I don't hear it first to the exact extent that I'm planning on doing so in the audition-- right?



Like I said-- Performance Me is dumb. All she knows how to do is mindlessly reproduce whatever happened over and over in the practice room. And hey, that's fine! As long as she can do that reproduction accurately, Practice Room Me can take care of the rest. Which means giving meticulous instructions to Performance Me by doing it the same way, every single time. (Unless the first way sucked, in which case she has to change the way, and then do the better way the same every... blah, blah, blah, you get the idea.)

So, that was one of the things that I took away from this audition! Obviously there were many other thoughts I had, which I recorded in my physical notebook immediately after the audition ended. This was the first time that I had been to an audition of this size, which is of course normal since there aren't that many auditions of this size-- which is partly why I felt compelled to go, and see what the real world is like.

In Canada, we are both privileged and in some ways hampered by our system of national/international auditions. On one hand, national auditions are great, and overall I think a positive force for music in Canada: they give orchestras the chance to find a qualified person in Canada first, which is awesome! Often people are frustrated when orchestras don't hire from the national audition, but I prefer to think of it this way: National audition went nowhere? Cool! All the Canadians just got the advantage of having not just a mock audition, but a whole practice audition before the real audition, complete with the real performance space, list, and panel. How sweet is that? And then, of course, sometimes they do hire from the nationals, and that's awesome.

The downside of the system, for me and people my age, is that it gives young Canadian musicians starting out in the audition scene an unrealistic idea of what the competition is like outside of the country. Canada has fewer people in it than the US, and thus proportionally fewer musicians on any given instrument competing for a job. Which is sometimes great! But then, it can be a bit of a shock to the system to go from Canadian national auditions for major orchestras that pull in maybe 20 bassoonists-- all of whom probably know each other-- to a big American orchestra like the CSO, which based on the number of people were on my day of preliminaries, I would guess had between 200 and 250 bassoonists audition. This is probably why there's a strong tradition of Canadian musicians (and probably people in in other professional, merit-based fields) doing undergrads in Canada and graduate degrees in the US: it's good to see what's out there. Because it seems like mostly what's out there is... a hell of a lot of other people.

Me reflected in the Bean in Millennium Park, where there were also a hell of a lot of other people.