Sunday, November 13, 2011

Utah Symphony Audition

First off, lets define a Symphony Audition for those less music savvy readers out there. It is the equivalent of a job interview for a classically trained, professional musician. It is for a salary position with a major symphony orchestra, which for an oboe player there are 3 spots per orchestra. So when someone chooses to get a college degree in music performance, this is one of the career paths they could choose to attempt. However, notice I used the word "attempt". It is one of the hardest jobs on the market to acquire. IF you get good enough to even audition for the position, you are competing against 80 other oboists who are just as good as you for the ONE chair. It's like a great big game of musical chairs, but in reverse! We're all running around in circles hoping we get that one chair in the middle. Yup, it's intense, cut-throat competition.

So, this is what I did today. Well, have been doing for the last 5 months. Many of my colleagues have been doing this for the last 2-5 years, taking every audition that comes up and are still waiting to grab that chair! This was my first time, and so this is simply my perspective on what I learned on this incredible ride of audition preparation, as a first-timer.

I auditioned for the Utah Symphony English horn/utility oboe job. Back in June I received an acceptance letter from the Symphony letting me know I could participate in the audition based on my resume. They then sent me a list with 28 or so orchestral works which I was to acquire the parts for and learn for the audition in November. Once at the audition, they would choose 5 excerpts at random for the candidates to play, alone on stage into the open hall. A panel of judges, from the symphony personnel would be seated in the audience behind a screen so I could not see them, they could not see me, I would just play. That is all I knew when I started this process. I found all the pieces, made a binder, collected songs on i-tunes and began to learn a whole bunch of music, most of which I had never played before. Half the excerpts were for English Horn, the other half were for oboe. I believe I put in 12-20 hours a week in of practicing and reed making during this 5 month learning period JUST on this material! It felt like an overwhelming amount of new and incredibly difficult music for me to learn. There was one day I remember getting to the 3 hours of intense practicing point (and that was just playing time that day, NOT including the reed making that took place in the middle) and I pushed myself to a new height, a new level of playing, and I recognized the moment! It was amazing! I also collapsed from mental exhaustion when I finished that day! I mastered circular breathing through this process, which has been a 6 year project for me now, but that was an amazing achievement for me. AND, I know it wouldn't mean anything to anyone but me (but since this is all about me, I'm okay writing it) I found myself bumping the metronome further than I had ever been able to go on my tonguing and arpeggio warm ups! These were huge and exciting moments during this for me!

The Horn player in my quintet, Aspen Winds, was instrumental in coaching me through preparing for the audition itself. He is one who has taken many professional auditions, and is still working toward perfecting the art of auditioning. He had me do "mock-auditions" where I would play a set of excerpts as if it were the real audition, to see how I would respond. I was taught about breathing and relaxation techniques to keep the nerves and negative voices in my head at bay. It was also very helpful to have him talk through what I would expect to see and experience in my audition today. However, I learned all this was helpful to a degree, but there is NOTHING that can prepare someone for how they will personally respond in their first professional audition.


I thought I was prepared. I knew the music (although there were a couple of them I knew if I had to play, it would blow the audition. They weren't ready enough yet) I thought I had some good reeds, my oboe reeds much better than my EH reeds this week. (And then it snowed and rained this weekend, which changes reeds in funny and sometimes unexplainable ways) But it was all I could do. I had given my all to this in every possible way, and it was to make me better, which it did. So I went with confidence to Abravanel Hall this morning.

I got there with about an hour and a half before my scheduled time. They handed me the list and informed me that I wouldn't be playing oboe today, just EH. They had chosen 5 EH excerpts for all 40 candidates to play today in the "preliminary" round. 3 of those 5 excerpts were my least favorite in the entire book, 1 was the most technically challenging for me and my favorite excerpt was at the bottom of the list. I knew I'd be lucky to get to that one. They gave me about 45 minutes in a practice room by myself to warm up and prepare. My reeds were acting funny, but I was also slightly shaky, so I wasn't about to try adjusting my 2 remaining good choices last minute in that condition. Hearing all the others playing the same thing all around was hard to tune out. I said lots of prayers, practiced, and hoped when I went on stage I would feel calmer than I felt at that moment. It was so crazy inside my head. I had learned to quiet the little voices, these felt like monsters! Again, I knew I had given my all, and it would have to be enough for now. There was no more I could do. I couldn't seem to get the hard technical passage to come out as clean as it had been all week, and that made me scared, which made me play it worse. I'm telling you, it was the hardest mental challenge I've ever faced in all my years of playing.

Then they knocked on my door. It was time. I followed the proctor down the stairs to wait outside the stage door. This didn't help. I heard the EH player before me slaughtering the exact excerpt I was worried about. And then I heard them say "Thank You", and out she came, before getting to play the last 2 excerpts. This was not healthy for my brain. I tried to shrug it off, but I was now really nervous about that excerpt. I walked out onto the stage where there was an eerie silence, and one chair set up in the center of the stage with a stand. I took a moment to take in the surroundings and absorb the fact that I was doing this. Here I was, on Abravanel stage, ready or not! I found out it was mostly not. The first excerpt went fine, then I hit my 2 challenges right in a row and made the dumbest of errors. I knew what I had done, and I knew I would soon see the hand pop up over the curtain to say, "thanks, but we've heard enough." And that's what happened. They said "Thank you", and I gathered my things and went back off stage.

For a few seconds, I was disappointed in myself, but then I remembered why I did this. I wasn't here to win, in fact I didn't want to win. That would mean leaving my 3 babies to go to work full time in an incredibly high stress position. No, I didn't really even want that. I wanted to know I could do it. I wanted to be a better player. I wanted to become a great English Horn player, and an even better oboe player. I did all of these things, and so I call it a success. I learned a whole lot about what happens to the human brain when facing that kind of stress and pressure. That was amazing, and I can't even put it into words, because as I found out, you have to experience it to understand it.

And so, after all that I have learned that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. Who knew I could be a stay at home mom practicing my instrument 3 hours a day? Who knew I would be able to learn that much music in that short period of time? WHO KNEW I'D CONQUER CIRCULAR BREATHING DURING THIS?! I'm sorry, but that's my favorite result! I can't tell you how happy it makes me every time I do it now! It was a great journey, and I often found myself being reminded that it really is the journey that is important, not the destination.

I really can do hard things.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Oboe Confession

I am a mom. It is what I do day in and day out. I cook, clean, launder clothes, bathe children, play, play, and more play, and then clean some more. These are my responsibilities to see to every day. It's not always pleasant, in fact it can be downright unpleasant a lot of the time. But I love my kids. I love being with them every day and feel blessed to be able to do so. Because of them, I do love my job!

However, I think we all have a little side note attached somewhere inside of us. Something we love to spend our time doing, and secretly covet more time to be able to do this other thing. Mine happens to be my oboe. I've loved it since before I could play it. It brings me a satisfaction that nothing else brings. Having our three children all close together, though, has meant a lot of oboe sacrifice in the past 5 years. It's been tough. Rewarding, but very tough.

Before we moved over a year ago, I really took for granted all the playing I was still able to do. I was very casual about my practicing, because I was finding performing opportunities around every corner, and thought to myself "I don't have TIME to practice..." so I did what was needed to hold my abilities and perform what was needed well. I was performing lots, not improving lots. Then we moved.

It was a sad day to leave all those contacts, all those performing opportunities, all those established contacts that I could count on every Christmas and Easter calling me up. Sad doesn't even describe it. Devastating. I felt it would be too hard to network in a new place with a new baby and get anywhere. Okay, yes it would be hard, until I told myself I could do it.

It took me a year of courage building to finally overcome my hesitations and pessimistic outlook. I practiced here and there last year because it was all I had, there were no gigs, no concerts, no rehearsals. Just me. But I started practicing more regularly as the year progressed. I learned new pieces, I learned old pieces again, me and the oboe got reacquainted after a very lonely year. And then I jumped. I closed my eyes and jumped out into the wide open, knowing full well that it was time to have courage and confidence that I could do it. I scheduled myself a lesson with Bob Stephenson, oboist of near 30 years with the Utah Symphony, and my ASU oboe professor's good friend and colleague.

WHEW! It was so much fun! Call me crazy, but I love to be told HOW and WHAT'S. He didn't say to me "that was the most perfect I have ever heard that played" or "you are just amazing"... I think I would have called him crazy. Instead, he gave comments of "this NEEDS more vibrato here" and "your technique is quite sloppy on that run, lets think about the patterns and fix this" It made me laugh at the number of comments that lined right up with all the things I've been frustrated with in my own playing over the past several months. And I loved hearing ideas, and solutions. Hooray for solutions! I miss having regular lessons with people who have perfected this crazy thing. I am not yet where I want to be musically. In fact I was fantasizing the other day over getting a Masters degree (all in due time...) and so today was great. I really enjoyed Bob's teaching. He is a quick and expressive teacher. I do hope that he saw all the hope deep down under my countless flaws and weaknesses. I'm not a quitter. I may not be the best oboist in the world, but I am determined in my lifetime to become the best oboist I can be.

Long story short: preparing for this lesson today has taught me a lot. It has taught me that I DO have time to practice, without sacrificing too much time with my children. I CAN improve, and I CAN go out in the world with confidence that I am a good musician. I'm not great yet, but I learned that I think I can get there. It's amazing what giving up TV watching, and game playing and computer time will do. All sorts of time appeared when I really wanted it to! I needed it to, because I have found I need this. I need music, because it is part of me.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


F.un around every corner
A.lways finding reasons to smile
M.aking memories
I.ce cream and egg nog professionals
Y.ule Tide greetings from the Simpers 2010
Happy New Year!