Four Days and Counting

So in a little over four days’ time, I’ll be sitting in a room with a panel of judges playing my audition for the American Youth Symphony. 

There is not much left to be done in these four days. I will, of course, be making the most out of the time I have left to practice, but these things are incremental. Between now and Tuesday, I may go from nailing the first entrance in the Rite of Spring solo eighteen times out of twenty to nineteen, but I’m not going to be able to radically alter how I play anything. I am, effectively, in the land of the most subtle refinements; where I am now is where I will be Tuesday.

I’ve spent a long time preparing for this. I mean, of course, the roughly two months I’ve been working on the audition repertoire, but I also mean my life as a bassoonist before this point. I didn’t start from nothing in the middle of June, I started from years and years of intense, dedicated work, and a familiarity with most of the material I’ll be performing. With the exception of the solo piece, I have been working on everything I’ll be playing on Tuesday since high school.

In some sense, tho, the preparation goes even deeper than that. The way I turn a phrase, how I conceive of musical lines and larger forms — these things will be on display in the audition room, and I’ve been learning them for much longer than I’ve been wrapping my fingers around the awkward mechanics of the bassoon. The cassette tapes I fell asleep to when I was a toddler, the piano lessons I took in elementary school, the mp3s I listen to as I go about my day job — all of these are training grounds for the more fundamental tasks of making music.

Given this, it’s easy to see an audition as a kind of summation, an evaluation of who you are as a musician. This can be thrilling and affirmational when things go well, but it can also be a crushing source of disillusionment when they don’t. I try not to think of it that way.

For starters, everyone makes mistakes. This is true even at the highest levels. I have heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra slip up during Stravinsky, I have seen the Metropolitan Opera nearly come apart at the seams playing Wagner. I am not a machine; I will not and cannot be perfect every time. Even if I only muff an excerpt 1% of the time, there’s still a chance that Tuesday at 6:30pm will not be in the 99% I’m happy with.

But it’s also true that auditions are not a perfect measure of musicianship. Indeed, I think many of my finest qualities as a musician are not those that are tested in an audition room. My ability to blend, to match pitch, to play a supporting line underneath the primary voice, to internalize a score and snap back into place when things go wrong, to keep my cool and blithely continue after stumbling, to follow a soloist doing … expressive things with time — none of these will be clearly on display. Certainly, an audition will measure much of what I can do on a bassoon, but much will go unaccounted for as well. (Many groups have a probational period for just this reason.)

All of which is immaterial if everyone else happens to be better than me this year. Or if the audition committee has preconceived notions about whose students they will and won’t accept. (Music, alas, is not some magical fairyland where human pettiness is banished.) Perhaps they’re looking for a different sound, or a different sensibility as to how to build to a climax. I can control how I prepare, I can control how I play, but I can’t control any of these things, and many more besides.

So I try to let them go.

I try, as much as I can, to think “Hey, let me show you this!” in the audition room, not “Oh no, what are they going to think of me?”. I try to play first for myself, so that I can walk out of that room thinking “Yes. That is how I sound. That is how I play. That was a good representation of what I have to offer.” And if they’re not interested, well, they’re not interested. Sometimes there will be obvious mistakes, but often not. Often, you can only guess as to why the committee passed you by. 

And so it goes. If I get in, I will be thrilled. The AYS is an excellent group, and they have an exciting season lined up. If I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world. There are other ways I can keep making music. And hey, there’s always next year. If they pass me up at this audition, I’ll have that much more time to get in shape for the next one.

I may have been preparing for this all my life, but there’s always room to improve.