Monday, February 10, 2014

Dismissed Without Prejudice

My practice aids
Last week, I participated in the preliminary round of auditions for the bass trombone position with the Kansas City Symphony. This is an entry about that process. All thoughts and accounts are mine alone, the Symphony had no input or responsibility for any of the content herein.

And let me spoil the result up front: I didn't win. In the legal parlance, I was "dismissed without prejudice," meaning there was nothing wrong with the fundamentals of my case. I'm free to bring the same suit again, if I can structure it in a tighter fashion.

With that essential information out of the way, let's dive in.


It's important for me to talk a little bit about the audition and some concepts that relate.

So let me talk about the audition.

Over the months of December and January, I averaged about four hours of practice each day. Rather like dieting, some days I would do a lot (the record was nine hours or so) and several days I did none (the days around Christmas, etc.). I paid for that record day with a couple of days off, but we'll discuss that later.

Many people conceive of "practicing" in what I consider to be an incorrect way. The perception of what happens when a musician practices is akin to a blacksmith at an anvil: pounding away to make something better and better until it becomes the horseshoe you're looking for.

But being a temporal art, music manifests in a different way than iron. If I make a horseshoe, I start with base metal that would be completely unfit for shoeing a horse - it's a rod, it's the wrong shape, it's malleable, etc. I work the iron into a familiar shape and I'm improving the ability for this object to be used as a horseshoe. Eventually, I get a usable horseshoe or a twisted mistake that I cast back into the forge and try again.

But once I have a horseshoe, it's not going to NOT be a horseshoe tomorrow. I can throw it into a closet and it will continue to be a horseshoe. If I put it on a horse, eventually it will wear down from friction and many miles of being a horseshoe.

Performing music is similar to blacksmithing, in part. (Boy, if I had a nickel!) See the graphic below:

Skill Graph. This is totally how it works.


Let's pretend that the higher the top of each bar is, the greater the quality of the Best Awesome Performance. Accordingly, the higher the bottom of the bar rises, the greater the quality of the Worst Possible Performance. So by the time I've practiced enough to get to the third bar, my Best is pretty darn high. But more importantly, my worst is now higher than the Best of bar 1. And the bar is shorter, which means greater predictability of performance. Predictability is important. You can be the best performer in the world, but if some of the time you're just awful, that is going to hamper your career.

In theory, practicing moves you from left to right. Let's return to the blacksmith: making horseshoes is like taking a single slice of one of these bars. You make a shoe and it's good or it isn't. Done. A single attempt to play the trombone is the same way. It's good or it's bad. Done. But at any moment, you have the potential to produce anything in your current bar. So practicing to improve and make better horseshoes is important, but you'd best also be practicing to make your worst shoe less square.

When I'm playing at my best, I'm doing pretty well. In the context of most pieces, I make the notes correctly and put them where they should be. But I'm nowhere near having my best performance match the best's best day. And my worst performances are still more than enough to get me released from an audition.

I practiced a lot. And I got better. One of the tricks to practicing is to not stop when you do it amazingly once. You have to do it amazingly five more times. And then take a break. And do it amazingly some more times.

But I practiced so much the week before the audition that I pinched a nerve in my back. It made it painful to do anything, and it made it painful to do nothing, sometimes. So I took two days off, which is just as well because I couldn't really... sleep. One of my students asked when it felt like and I described it as having had someone leave a knife stabbed under my left shoulder blade. He nodded and said, "I hate it when that happens."

But the day arrives.

I rise early. I put off breakfast but eat at around 10:30am. I want to not be hungry for my audition time (somewhere in the 2:00 hour) but I also don't want to be uncomfortable. I print out some copies of pieces I'd only practiced digitally, then start driving north to the Symphony Center. I park in the garage for only the second or third time ever. It's only $3, which I know many people in this midwestern city would decry as a foul, but I'm trying to be simple.

I enter and meet with the personnel manager, whom I've become friendly with over the years I've been a substitute for the Symphony. We have light banter while he checks me in and leads me to my room. Ordinarily, I'd be given my deposit check back, but the organization saw fit to waive my need to submit a $100 deposit on account of being a "regular substitute." My one concession.

I dressed in dark Docker trousers. My socks don't match, but they are both white. My shoes are white tennis shoes. I'm wearing a rust-colored shirt with a grey pullover. "No jacket?" the manager chides. I shrug, "The sun's out!"

I am led to dressing room nine. It's about the size of my college dorm room, but has an en-suite bathroom.

Better musicians than me have used this room...

...and probably used this toilet.


I unpack my various items. My trombone. My music bag with a notebook and pen. My headphones. My camera. And that's it. Traveling light, even in the context of "going to the Kaufman to play something."


Oh, hi.

I look in the mirror and find that my hair has managed to become disheveled. Oh well, at least the auditions are blind.

I arrive in my room at about 12:40pm. My number is 2-5, meaning I'm the fifth person (of seven) in the 2:00 hour. So I play a bit. Then sit. Then walk to the water fountain. Then play. Then use the lovely bathroom. Then play. Then sit. And so on.

The previous occupant of my room had left the temperature gauge set to the highest possible "comfort zone" setting. I find this to be too high. The temperature in the room is rising and the ventilation is poor. So I spend more time in the hallway.

I'm never comfortable in a room labeled "HI"
I didn't find the thermostat right away, so the room increasingly became "manky," is a lovely British colloquialism that even sounds disgusting. Eventually, I found the dial on the wall in the bathroom behind the door, but I still spent time in the room with the door propped open.

There were at least eight or ten rooms on my floor, and while they weren't soundproof, they were dampened. Weirdly, the doors were heavy and sound isolating, but the bathrooms seemed to have connected space above them. So the best isolation of sound occurs when the bathroom door is also shut - it doesn't help with the climate situation, but there you are.

A previous occupant preferred quieter conditions

At length, the proctor came by to give me 15 minutes. I ran through all of my five selections again, then sat quietly. I'd managed to avoid most of the anxiety that plagues some people on audition days. Yes, I still had a fair amount of "oh why am I here I don't deserve this I can't win let me out" but I'd left a large portion of that that behind when I actually made myself open the door of the Kauffman Center and walk in.

I still had some anxiety - as well as some good nervousness - when I received an email from the Symphony saying I had been "invited." It's a bit of a loaded word, because it sounds like they sought me out to come and play. In truth, I simply sent in my resume and based on that (probably the part that says I've worked with the symphony a bit in the last few years) they gave the rubber stamp to come on in and play. And from the few other guys I was talking to, it sounds like more than 100 others got similarly "invited."

But even given that unsentimental arithmetic, I was still excited about being given the chance to play. I love playing with and for the Kansas City Symphony, and the opportunity to have a chance to do it all year is one I needed to take. And I took it, even knowing from a rational standpoint that it was extremely unlikely that I would win. I went with the same outlook as playing the lottery: I don't really have a shot, but I need to be playing in order to have a non-zero chance of winning. If every other candidate breaks their legs on audition day and leaves just me and Horace Bugbottom from Farawaylandia, I want to be able to give my best shot.

And so I was led on stage, and it was exactly as I'd described. There was a carpeted runner to a stand and chair (if desired) in the center. Along the majority of one of the audience rows, a black curtain had been erected, probably 100 feet in length, behind which sat The Committee, in all of their unknowable seriousness.

I was announced as person 2-5, and I began. I brought with me my own copies of the music, but they had version on the stand which had been enlarged slightly, so I used those. I played the solo, a bass trombone edition of Strauss' first horn concerto. Boy, I love that hall to play in. The glory and splendor of my sound resonating in a beautifully constructed temple to music.

And then I realized my lower jaw was quivering. That's... weird. I was mostly through with the excerpt, but it was having a toll on my sound. By the time I sustained the last note, striving for my best richness and musical color, it was wavering like I was auditioning for a position with the local mariachi band. Not the good one - the one that plays at the OTHER mexican place. You know, the one with $1 margaritas that are made with Budweiser? That one.

I finished the first piece and massaged my jaw as I waited to be told "Thank you!" It's the universal signal for letting a candidate know that they have played quite enough for The Committee to have a concept of the candidate's abilities. I dug my thumb into the fleshy bits under my jaw as I waited. And it didn't come. And I got mad at them for making me wait this long to be told to get off. A chair squeaked behind the curtain. And nobody said anything.

Well crap. Now I've got to go on.

*** *** ***

The first orchestral excerpt is referred to as the "Hungarian March" by Berlioz. It is a trombone staple. The tenor and bass versions are largely the same, so just about any player who's had some college trombone experience knows it up and down. Committees give it to you to see if you mess it up. There's also a narrow slot available to impress everyone, but that's difficult to do.

It's loud and articulated, so I fooled myself that my jaw had calmed down. But by the end, with high sustains, the motion was back. The loud and pure sustains had wobble. After I finished, I waited to be dismissed again. After all, that was awful.

And what the hell was going on, anyway? I'm not nervous. I had no chest palpitations or hotness in the back of my neck or upset stomach or runaway bowels. I had none of the other symptoms I'd associated with all of the previous times in my life I've been nervous to play - and there have been MANY of those times.

But still no dismissal. I play on to the second excerpt, part of "La gazza ladra" by Rossini. Here's a video of Chicago playing this under Solti. The trombone excerpt starts around 3:15 and goes to 3:40 or so.





The trick with this excerpt is that everyone plays it too fast. Moderate and steady. This has no real sustained notes, so maybe I thought I'd do well on it. But I stumbled on one of the passages, just for a moment. But a BLRK! is a blrk, and there's no hiding it. I waited to be dismissed.

Silence.

So I played on to the Schumann #3 excerpt. Slow. Quiet. It takes about 45 seconds to do, which is a long time, considering it's only eight or so measures long. But the long notes are low, and it didn't bother my jaw as much. Of course, there are some other notes that didn't sound good, but "whatever" at this point.

Still silence.

By this time, my jaw is quivering even when I'm not playing. The final excerpt is from "Das Rheingold", called the Entry of the Gods into Valhalla. It's loud. It's low. It's connected. It's hard. I don't play this well. I breathe too much, I wobble too much, I speed up too much. As I recover my breath after finishing, I hear the principal trombone player's voice float over the curtain, clipped and impersonal. "Thanks for playing!"

*** *** ***

I collect the copies I didn't use and leave the house music in disarray. I'm just trying to get off stage. Back in my warm-up room, I speedily disassemble and collect all my goods. I leave out the headphones. I grab my assorted bags and head to the green room, where the hour's candidates are collecting. I nod to the one that looks my way as I enter. Two others are talking in over-loud tones. I take a chair and sit quietly, seeing if a conversation is going. When it becomes clear that it's just the two most outspoken people talking, I put my headphones in and listen to some jazz. It's a bit of a ritual with me after auditions. I like to listen to a particular album of jazz just to get as far away from orchestral trombone music as fast as I can.

I wait for another twenty minutes. Then the assistant personnel manager arrives and thanks everyone, but The Committee has not advanced anyone from this group. So we all stand, the talkative ones say a couple more things as they hoist bags and instruments, and we all leave. I walk back down the hill to the parking garage. I sit in the driver's seat and have a cookie. My friend had given me cookies a few days prior, but I'd held on to them. There's nothing like a good cookie.

And I call my mom to let her know how it turned out.

*** *** ***

There's always a toilet

The rest of the day is quiet. I field some nice comments from various friends who offered encouragement. And everyone goes on with their lives. I go out to dinner by myself, which I don't usually care to do. But sometimes you just want someone to take you out to dinner... and a single guy basically has to do it themselves. Especially on a Monday, when most of my friends have just started their work weeks and aren't particularly interested in going out to eat.

I'm disappointed with the result. I practiced as much as I ever have, and I still don't even advance to a second round. And then there's the jaw thing, which didn't happen in the run-up and hasn't happened since. If it only occurs when I'm playing in front of an audition committee on a stage, opportunities to diagnose it are going to to be far between.

But I do have a nice consolation prize: in the weeks before the audition, the symphony contacted me to play the Kansas City Lyric Opera's production of La Boheme  in March. Should be great fun, and I love the music. Look for more writing on that as it approaches.

I've fielded lots of questions from friends who don't understand how this entire audition process works. Don't they take into account all the assistance I've provided the symphony before? Don't they care that I've proven to be a reliable performer who plays well?

The answer to those questions is "no." No, the Symphony doesn't care. The Symphony's goal at any point is to improve. It improves by filling open positions with people who are even more skilled at playing than the people who came before. And it kind of doesn't care about the other factors. For that one moment of auditions, the symphony doesn't care about a lot of things. Yes, it doesn't want serial killers. Yes, it doesn't want the habitually tardy. Yes, it doesn't want inconsistent players. But it doesn't care if people are jerks. It doesn't care if people have bad hygiene. It doesn't care if it hires an asshole, in that one moment of audition.

It sorts out those problems down the road, and if necessary, they'll fire the person and start over. But the primary selection criteria is playing well. That's why the auditions are blind. That's why the only consideration I got for being available when the Symphony needs me RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT is that I didn't have to send a check in as a deposit. I don't get a free pass. I don't get a nicer room. I don't get any extra consideration at all.

And they're right. If I can't wow everyone with my playing and win - in spite of not being given anything - then I don't deserve to play. The symphony wouldn't pay me a salary for being a nice guy. They wouldn't give me benefits for having stimulating blog posts. They just want someone who plays well.

In a lot of ways, the auditions are more fair than any other form of job hunting. That committee didn't know a thing about me, except if they tried to analyze the sound of my breath. They only know how I played. They didn't have an opportunity to look at my resume and say, "This person is from an ethnic group I don't like: DISMISSED" or "This woman is a woman who is no doubt just looking for an opportunity to woman it up in here: DISMISSED"

It was just my sound and some thumbs up or down. And I get to try again next time, without prejudice.

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