I’m preparing excerpts now for an audition, and I know them too well. I’ve had a long break from thinking about orchestral excerpts, what with the baby and the dearth of actual job openings this year, and as I re-explore them I am trying to bring a little space and perspective to bear on them.

I have practiced these snippets SO MANY TIMES in the past. My interpretations of these solos and difficult passages from the repertoire are valid. I have studied them for years, listened to many many recordings, taken lessons with numerous wonderful teachers, and considered them deeply. I have drilled them and drilled them, and all of them are memorized, and I know exactly what nuances I’m making and when.

But, you know what? Those nuances aren’t HOW THEY GO, they are just HOW I PLAY THEM. They are not wrong, but why should I be a slave to my younger self? There are other ways, and other approaches, and I’m having a difficult time finding them. Even when I spend an hour reconsidering a two-minute solo, at vastly different tempos, or intentionally try to create a different dynamic plan or color change, I find that the excerpt snaps back to my original interpretation as soon as I try to run a list, or let my mind wander for even a split second.

I struggled with this back in the fall, when I got to play La Scala in the orchestra for the first time since college. See, Rossini’s La Scala Di Seta is a huge audition piece for oboe, and I’ve polished this piece over and over again to be just so. Problem is, playing in a group is really a group effort. The oboe is the solo voice, but through the whole opening of the overture I’m leading a wind chorale, and responding to lines that the others have. It’s an ensemble piece, really, and so my job carries the obligation of LISTENING to my colleagues, and that’s what I was struggling with in rehearsal. I’ve played the piece so often – alone – with the goal of making my part astonish and amaze. Making my melody a solo that stands by itself. It was surprisingly hard to put all of those years of work aside and try to approach it with fresh ears.

Of course I prepare my orchestra solos at home before the first rehearsal, but I always come expecting them to evolve as I see what the conductor wants to do and as I play them in context with the other musicians. Usually that works for me – I use the rehearsal process to try different interpretations on for size, and deliver my final choice in the performance. By the second time through La Scala I realized that that wasn’t really happening. I was still playing my own plan and not feeling any other choices. Understand, I didn’t think my plan was bad – but I didn’t want to be inflexible or insensitive. Music should be collaborative, and it should be spontaneous, and it’s not that much fun to just type out the same phrases over and over. In private I asked the conductor for suggestions, and was delighted to be able to implement them and break through some of the habits of my years of practice. I think we wound up with an exciting performance, and while I would have preferred to have the flexibility I am accustomed to having, I was pleased with the way the concert turned out.

What’s the difference between consistency and inflexibility? The one is a virtue and the other a vice, but they have similar implications, yes? I should be able to consistently lay down the correct notes and rhythms with a good sound and intonation, but need to also be able to adjust my pitch to match that of my colleagues and correct my dynamics or timing or color immediately to be more environmentally sound. Playing excerpts, I should be able to hit my marks repeatedly – to lay down the excerpts one after the other and nail them every time – but also to hear other phrasing solutions and make them convincing even at the moment that I think of them. I want to have that flexibility even behind the screen in an audition, and that, I guess is what I am struggling with now.

Have other people encountered this problem? I would love to hear how others approach this issue, and balance spontaneous musicality against the goals of perfection and correctness, especially in audition settings.

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