My Audition Journey

My Audition Journey

As I near a major birthday milestone and step ever further into my new role as a mother, I find myself spending a lot of time reflecting.  I’ve started to analyse my time on the orchestral audition circuit for the first time since I got into it in 2002 in a way that doesn’t involve trying to achieve some new level of perfection in my playing.  While I’m sure my future holds many more auditions as a committee member BEHIND the screen, I’m almost certain that the days of endless practice, the roller coaster of advancements and rejections and the most stressful kind of travel are over.  PHEW!

It has been quite the journey from the all-time high point of winning my job with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, to the all-time low of quitting the flute altogether for about 6 months after failing to win a job I was sure I was a shoe-in for.  I’ve learned a ton and figure sharing my thoughts and experience from both sides of the screen might be helpful to those looking at trying for an orchestral career.

Then and Now

This all started back when I was an undergrad and had decided to do my first audition.  The audition was taking place close by – just over the border in the US – and I thought it would be good experience.  My playing back then was not so different than now except for 2 notable exceptions. 

  1. My flute playing is significantly cleaner and more polished than it was back then.
  2. My playing and musicianship have become significantly LESS free and natural.

Back in 2013, Sarah MacDonald (then Sarah Gieck) and I went on an epic girl’s road trip through Alberta and Yellowknife.  Knowing we were going to be spending many hours in the car, we thought it would be fun to bring old recordings of ourselves playing the flute from our student years.  Not only was it hilariously entertaining to go back and listen to these pretty amateur recordings, it was also very enlightening.  When listening to myself playing all those years ago, I was absolutely struck by the unabashed freedom in phrasing, musicianship and emotion in my playing.  I knew it was a stark contrast to the player I am today because I still frequently record my practice sessions and so am quite familiar with how I play generally speaking.  When I was a student, I really threw myself into the music.  My lack of professional technique and tone control at that time didn’t at all hold me back from really prioritizing the phrasing and emotion. I sadly have lost that attitude and am often disappointed to hear myself playing in a really straight forward and sometimes lackluster (ie SAFE) way in current recordings of my playing – especially live ones.  My technique and tone have improved dramatically – but it seems to be at the behest of a feeling of freedom I once possessed.

Why?

So, what happened between my student years and the present day?  In a word -auditions.  It is not all negative of course.  I am not the type of musician that finds a lot of joy in her day to day practice.  I need an end goal of some sort to be working towards at all times or I really struggle to stay motivated to practice and improve.  Having an audition or two to prepare for each year produced FAR more hours of detailed practice than I would have been motivated to do otherwise, and the improvement I’ve experienced in both technique and tone can very much be attributed to all that hard work.  I learned how to play pianissimo in the high register and to belt out the low notes.  I’ve found fluidity in my scales and technique and the confidence needed to play accurately during pressure filled moments.  I even found my own personal strategies for coping with performance anxiety and nerves.  All very good and important things!

The caveat to my approach, however, is that I fell into an attitude that playing each excerpt “perfectly” was the only way to win a job.  Every time I was rejected, I assumed that if I had only played more cleanly, or with more dynamic contrast, or with better tone, or more rhythmic precision then I would have had a better shot at winning.  Each time I prepared for a new audition, I did so in a way that would give me the best shot of playing as accurately as possible when my nerves were at their peak.  With each new audition, each excerpt became less about music and more about avoiding any mistakes, or pitch issues, or rhythmic discrepancies.  

The Irony

            While this approach was in many ways very successful for me, I never did win over the audition panel of any of the top orchestras I auditioned for – despite coming very close a few times.  I’m extremely grateful for my current position, don’t get me wrong!  I’m incredibly lucky to play with world class musicians here in Calgary.  If you talk to any musician, however, the dream is really to advance one’s career to the very top and to find a more lucrative position.  I imagine it would be similar for any career really.  

            I can’t speak for the musicians on the panels that I auditioned for, but the older I get and the more I reflect, I honestly doubt that the reason they didn’t feel I was right for the job had much to do with my lack of absolute perfection (though I will never actually know – was it my pitch? Were the excerpts too slow?? Was it that tiny slip in the Daphnis scale????).  I suspect that the very mindset that allowed me to advance to further and further rounds actually became my Achilles heel when it came to winning them over in the end.  Top orchestras want MUSICIANS, not computers.  They want flair and risk and excitement – everything as fans of these orchestras we have come to expect from literally every member sitting on stage.  Yes, they want a very high level of technical precision and all the flair in the world will not overcome unpreparedness in an audition, but the players who win the top wind positions in top orchestras play with a ton of personality and uniqueness.  Players like Mathieu Dufour, Denis Bouriakov and Emmanuel Pahud win over our hearts with their individual and unique musicianship – not just their incredible technique and flute playing skills.

The Other Side of the Panel

What is the takeaway here?  In a word – balance.  I have heard all stages of development in musicians during the many Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra audition panels I’ve been a part of.  Sometimes it is clear that the performer is inexperienced and needs more time to develop their playing before they would be ready to perform in a professional orchestra.  Other times I am in awe of the flashy technique or incredible control a player has on their particular instrument.  Those that are offered jobs, however, generally have a wonderful balance between controlled technique and moving musicality.  I always say that if someone can make me really “feel something” while performing an excerpt that I’ve already heard 30 or 40 times that day, then I am immediately inclined to advance them even if there were some slight technical issues or glitches in the same or previous rounds.  

So, if I can offer any advice to those still travelling the “circuit”, it would be to strive to find this balance.  Don’t let all your practice and hard work be about perfection and execution and advancement.  Keep the music and joy alive!  Find musical activities that inspire you, or bring joy to you instead of focusing on that big job and spending all your days in the practice room.  It might just be those seemingly unimportant activities that put you on the path to the career you always dreamed of!

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