Here’s what I learned from my recent audition. I learned that being able to play a given excerpt SOME of the time, on a good day, is not at all the same as being able to play it well, all the time. Of course I knew that already, and would have told any student the same thing. If you can’t play it well at home, why should you expect to be able to rock it in performance?
I went in to that audition needing to advance. I took over a year off from the audition circuit after Zoe was born, and when I started back up this November in Kansas City I played competently but not wonderfully, and didn’t move to the semis. It’s not that I’ve ALWAYS advanced, certainly not, but as a performer it’s one of my few sources of external validation. Because I can’t control what the committee is thinking or wants, I can’t put too much stock in not advancing at an audition – sometimes they just might want a different sound or style than I have. But if a few auditions go by in which I don’t advance then I start to doubt myself. My playing feels to me stronger than ever right now, but I am prepared to admit that I might not be the best judge, and I really wanted some positive feedback from this event.
So indeed I went like gangbusters into my first round, and played very very well. I had some trouble with a technical excerpt, which is not like me. From behind the screen the committee asked me to play it several times, and after my second slightly muffed attempt I realized that they were giving me every chance to just play it right once. Committees don’t waste time on a candidate they don’t like, especially at an audition this large – I was the 70th oboist to play that day, and they still had hours of listening ahead of them. All I needed to do was show them that I could make it through this piece, so I tossed in some more slurs and played it cleanly. I advanced.
After that experience, I had several hours to kill before the semifinal round, so I checked into a hotel and pulled out my metronome and carefully reworked that excerpt and my other technical ones. I was not going to be caught out again.
That evening, though, when I returned to the hall, I learned that the music for the semis included the Serenata from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. This slow excerpt has always been touch and go for me. It features repeated leaps to low C, and the response of that note is always touchy. I can enter safely on it probably 8 out of 10 times, with a good reed, in controlled conditions. Of course, there are 4 low Cs in the excerpt, and they are harder to reach from another note than they would be in isolation, so my chances of a clean run go down significantly. I had to record an audition list a few months ago and this was my biggest problem. It took a shameful number of takes to accomplish the mission. It’s not that I think it’s OK to have a chancy excerpt like that in my arsenal, it’s just that there’s only so much time to fix things, and I had been avoiding the unfun work of solving that one.
Knowing what I knew about that particular excerpt, I found myself on the defensive walking into the semifinal round. I felt that my playing was a little cautious throughout the round, and when I got to the Pulcinella excerpt I slightly missed one of those low Cs. Had to tongue again to make it speak. I figured that I was on my way out after that, but surprisingly the committee let me finish the list. I waited for the results, and they came back mixed. I was asked to play the semifinal round AGAIN.
Now, this is not normal. When do you ever get a second chance to play a round you weren’t happy with? Especially at 9:00 at night? The ladies and gentlemen of the committee had been hearing oboes for nearly 12 hours already. I couldn’t help reading that they really liked what I was doing, and needed me to show that I could play low notes. I was ecstatic, and went to my practice room to choose a new, more responsive reed. I marched in determined to justify their graciousness and give them something to advance. And wouldn’t you know, I missed that damn C again. I was asked to repeat the excerpt, and on that third try I did manage a clean run, but it was neither musical nor elegant. I was too frazzled and too discouraged with myself – and too determined to MAKE IT WORK – to do much more.
I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t advance to the finals after that, but I did come away with a renewed enthusiasm. First of all, I have an action plan to make Pulcinella my friend instead of my enemy. That one excerpt is not going to cost me another audition. Second, I’m being vigilant for other potential holes in my preparation. It is not OK to just hope that something will work in the moment – I have to be reliably, solidly prepared on everything. I do feel that I am clearly on track with the REST of what I’m doing. It may not have gotten me the job this time, but I am not off the mark.