Warning: what follows is an extremely long, pointlessly detailed narrative about my first orchestral audition

I took my first professional audition back in the first week of May, in a small Ontario city about three hours out from my future home of Montreal.  I found out about the vacancy through Orchestras Canada‘s online woodwind job board, which I had begun periodically browsing ever since deciding to attend grad school in the Great White North.  The audition was only a three-hour drive from Rochester; it seemed worth the expense to rent a car, book a hotel for a night, and just give it a go.  If by some miracle I won the job — or, perhaps, made it onto the substitute list — then that would have been awesome.  If not, the trip would still have been worthwhile: I’d have had my first pro audition experience, gone through the process of preparing the rep, and would know what to expect the second time around.  And the third time.  And the fourth… John Ferrillo, longtime principal oboist in the Boston Symphony, took twenty-some-odd auditions before landing his first big job at the Met.  I have a ways to go.

Not comfortable making a big drive by myself, I roped a Canadian friend into tagging along.  It was finals week at school, so it was hard to find someone with a wide-open schedule who could spare some time to overnight in Ontario with me, and I’m really grateful that he came with.  Besides his invaluable help with GPS navigation (I 100% definitely would have gotten lost without him), it was really nice to have a familiar face cheering me on.

We arrived the night before the audition — later than I’d hoped to get there, thanks to a highway detour, but early enough for some panicked reed-scraping followed by a respectable seven hours of sleep.  The next morning, I woke up bright and early, donned the dress I’d worn throughout the grad school audition circuit, and noodled on my oboe — long tones, some scales, and three-in-a-rows (which is a warm-up I may have sort of made up, in which I play a short orchestral excerpt three times in a row from memory, just to get my brain and fingers oriented).  It being eight in the morning at a hotel, I didn’t want to disturb people in the neighboring rooms, so I kept my warm-up short and simple, then packed up my oboe and headed to the audition well before I had to be there.  Better early than late!

Most auditions are organized in groups, something I’m grateful to have experienced early on through semi-annual mock auditions at school.  Candidates are assigned to Group A, Group B, etc., the size and number of groups varying depending on the number of candidates auditioning.  This audition was a small one — only fourteen — so we were split between just two groups.  The week prior, we had all received an email detailing the schedule: Group A would convene at 9:30 and draw numbers that would determine the order in which they would audition; at 11:30, while the panel deliberated which members of Group A would advance to the next round (there would be three total rounds), Group B would meet and draw their numbers.  I was in Group B.

The campus where auditions were held.
The campus where auditions were held.

The audition was held in the music building of a college campus.  Though American schools were still in the throes of final exams, Canadian universities were out for the summer, which meant that there were open practice rooms aplenty.  I signed in with the personnel manager, who also happened to be the orchestra’s clarinetist, and she handed me a folder containing the day’s schedule, the list of repertoire, a campus map (featuring food locations — very important), and some brochures about the orchestra and the town.  Then I snagged an empty practice room, metronome-d my way through some Tombeau and Don Juan, ate a Clif Bar (white chocolate macadamia), checked Facebook, ran Mozart, thumbed through the brochures, played Tombeau again three-in-a-row (it is by far my weakest excerpt), then packed up my oboe and went for a walk around the campus.  I had gotten there way too early; if I had practiced for any longer, one of two things would almost definitely have happened: my chops would’ve become too exhausted to get through the audition; or my brain would have exploded.  Hence, the walk.

And what a beautiful walk it was!  It was chilly out — O, Canada — but crisp and refreshing (especially after spending time in a windowless, subterranean practice room).  The sun was shining, birds were singing, and there was a bizarre little sculpture garden around the corner from the music building that kept me entertained for an embarrassing amount of time.  I watched part of a pickup soccer game (football?  Is that what they call it in Canada?), and met a friendly schnauzer and its even friendlier owner (Canadians are just so great!), and basically just didn’t think about the audition at all.  Which was exactly what I needed.

11:30 approaching, I headed back inside and downstairs, joining the cluster of oboists who had gathered in the appointed hallway.  I thought it was Group B awaiting the number-drawing, but it was actually Group A waiting to hear who had made the cut.  The personnel manager called out the numbers of those who had advanced, and thanked those who hadn’t for coming in.  Three young men, their lucky numbers selected, smiled politely and returned to their practice rooms to prepare for Round 2, while the others gathered their belongings and headed home.

Finally, it was time for Group B to pick numbers.  The personnel manager passed around a basket filled with folded slips of paper — I drew #13, which meant my audition would be second-to-last.  Group A had comprised numbers 1-7, so #8 would be the first in Group B to go — a girl maybe two years older than me, from Montreal.  She immediately shut herself in her practice room, with only thirty minutes to prepare before her audition.  Since I had a while to wait due to my late number, I took my time — brushed my teeth, got a drink of water, organized my reed case — before reviewing trouble spots in my excerpts and running some three-in-a-rows.

When #12 entered the audition room, the personnel manager knocked on my practice room door and ushered me into the hallway while #12 wrapped up.  When she emerged, I went inside, set my music on my stand, and played the excerpts in their preordained order.  And it went — okay.  It wasn’t perfect, but there were no massive disasters — the low C at the end of La Scala even came out!  After I played the slow excerpt from Don Juan, one of the adjudicators asked if I could try again, but this time to “take a risk — it was beautiful, but too… business-as-usual.”  So I tried again, holding on longer to special notes, placing weight and vibrato along the arcs of phrases.  One of the hardest, strangest parts of the whole experience was forcing myself not to respond to the disembodied voices on the other side of the screen — not saying “hi” or “thank you” or “sure, I can try that again, no problem.”  You’re not allowed to interact at all with the judges’ panel; the screen is there to combat sexism and maintain anonymity, so that the only judgments they are making are musical ones; if they hear your voice, may as well take the screen down.  So I swallowed all the things I wanted to say, and just played.  And then it was over, and I left the room, and #14 entered.

I packed up my oboe and chilled in my practice room, scrolling through Facebook until Group B would reconvene to hear the news.  My friend reappeared — he had gone in search of Tim Horton’s while I was prepping and auditioning — and gave me a fist-bump of encouragement.  Finally, I heard voices in the hallway: Group B was gathering.  I joined them while the personnel manager called out, “Advancing to the next round are numbers 8, 10, and 13.”

I WAS #13.  WHAT?!?!?!

I had already resigned myself to going home — I was even looking forward to it, making the drive stateside in full daylight, celebrating the personal victory of not having completely bombed the audition and having that initial experience under my belt.  Everyone else — in Groups A and B both — was older than me, objectively better and more experienced than me.  I had no right to advance; I had played just fine, some of my personal best, but my personal best was certainly not professional caliber.  Had she really called #13?  I glanced at my friend to confirm.

He nodded, and proffered a thumbs-up.  Round 2 awaited.

In the weeks preceding the audition, the personnel manager had emailed us all the full list of required excerpts, plus PDF copies of the music.  But when we initially drew numbers, she informed us that only a small handful would be played in Round 1.  Round 2 would likewise involve just a subset of the repertoire — this time, including the first movement of the Mozart Concerto, with piano accompaniment.  The orchestra provided the pianist; each of us three who had advanced was allotted ten minutes of rehearsal time with her; when my turn for rehearsal came… disaster struck.  I sounded so bad — out of tune, rushed and frantic, my fingers not quite lining up with my articulations.  It was sloppy, plain and simple.  The pianist was sweet and cheery, though, and informed me that it was the piano, not me, that was out of tune.

I didn’t believe her, but appreciated the sentiment.  I have a consistent bad habit of running irreparably sharp.  Playing excerpts unaccompanied, it’s hard to notice if you don’t have absolute pitch, but playing with a piano, the problem becomes painfully obvious.  In the minutes before Round 2, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my pitch dropping down to a reasonable level, feeling my air column settle low and firm in my abdomen.  Alas, ’twas to no avail: in the moment of truth, my Mozart was sharp.  442 Hertz, at least.  On the bright side, my trills were tight, and the four-bar high C at the beginning didn’t droop with my diminuendo.

After Mozart, the pianist left the room, and I played through the remaining Round 2 excerpts.  One of the panelists asked me to re-play Beethoven 3, this time adding an “excruciating — but gradual — crescendo.”  I did as told — I think successfully — and that was it.  Round 2 complete.

I was pretty positive that I hadn’t advanced to the third and final round, but hey — I had been surprised to pass Round 1, so at this point a tiny inkling of ridiculous hope glowed in a back corner of my brain.  Maybe, maybe, they had heard some musicality beyond the flabbergasting  sharpness of my Mozart.  Maybe they had appreciated the excruciating-ness of my Beethoven crescendo.  But, more likely than not, I was out.

My prediction was correct: numbers 8 and 10 went on, while #13 packed up, pride intact.  Though disappointed, I had far exceeded my own expectations.  A celebration seemed in order: my friend and I stopped for milkshakes at McDonald’s before hitting the road.

Something interesting about Round 3 that I didn’t get to experience, is that the screen came down: the panel would get to meet the candidates, chat a bit, and get to know them as potential colleagues.

Something else interesting, about the entire experience, is that the six of us from both groups who advanced to Round 2 were all very young — grad students, or recent M.Mus. graduates, plus me about to start grad school.  There had been several older candidates, who already held jobs or were respected freelancers elsewhere in Canada — and it instilled a bit of optimism in me, I think, that my generation of musicians can hold our own.  Plus, we six didn’t feel super competitive against each other — we chatted in the hallway between rounds, introduced ourselves, played the “name game” (in which we identify mutual friends from school or summer festivals).  There was an undercurrent of competition, certainly, but it was masked by our shared experience in this audition process (or, perhaps, masked by their overtly friendly Canadian-ness.  I was the only American in the bunch).

All in all, it was a really valuable experience.  It wasn’t the most rigorous audition in the world, but it gave me a peek at what lies ahead.  My advice for anyone about to take their first audition?  Bring a friend, take a walk, and don’t be discouraged.  You have seven minutes behind the screen to prove yourself — and if you mess up in those seven minutes, it’s not the end of the world, because you’ll have plenty more minutes in future auditions to do better, improving with each attempt and each mistake.

One last piece of wisdom: McDonald’s milkshakes?  Surprisingly delicious.  I recommend vanilla.

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