What Happened?

So what can I learn from this one?

I don’t really know why this audition was so much weaker than the one I took two weeks ago. In Nashville I made it to the finals and felt great about my performance. At the National Symphony audition this week I struggled. I knew the music and I was prepared. I was a little sleep deprived, but no more so than on many other weekends in which I’ve performed well. I didn’t feel nervous, at least not until after things started going wrong.

And some things were good. I did enjoy my Mozart Concerto, and it came out every bit as light and effortless as I wanted. I laid down the Serenata from Pulcinella, which I have worked hard to make my friend. It’s now my friend.

But I did not feel strong. I did not feel confident. Even in my warm up room I found myself waffling on reed choice, obsessing about low attacks, fussing with the (perfectly adequate) adjustments on my instrument, and sweating details instead of playing the oboe, enjoying it, and focusing on my larger plans. When I got onto the stage I immediately disliked my reed – what had felt flexible and effortless in the little room was thin and whiny in a big beautiful hall. But I was not assured enough about my alternates to make a change. Besides, the Unfussy Oboist plays on what she has and makes it work.

After the Serenata nothing went right. The first Variation of the Gavotte from the same piece was up next, and early on I had a finger glitch and had to stop and restart. Then I noticed what I thought was a wrong note printed in the part, and couldn’t get my mind off it for the rest of the time. I made several more note errors in the second half of the piece, all while I fussed in my head about the earlier mistake and the typo. And this is not a hard excerpt, not one I had ever really worried about or struggled with. The committee asked me to do it again, and I was so flustered by the disaster that the first go-round had been that I did almost as poorly the second time. It felt as though my fingers were no longer connected to my hands, and certainly not to my brain. Instead of just standing there and letting the music flow effortlessly through me I was concentrating on every note, and the harder I tried the more of them escaped me.

From that point on in the audition I was playing defensively. Just trying not to screw up. And although nothing that awful happened, nothing particularly great happened either. I pushed for contrasts and colors and magic, but I think it just sounded pushy. The committee listened politely, but it was perfectly clear that I had lost them four minutes in.

When people say they hate auditions, or competitions, this kind of experience must be what they are talking about. It is rare for me to choke like this and I hated it. I always strive for my best. I was not on stage goofing around. But the harder I tried to be great the weaker I got, and I have no idea what made this performance so much worse than any other. That’s the most frustrating part.

This is relevant for athletes, of course – no one can be at their best every day. If everyone could achieve the highest level they’ve prepared for every time out, we wouldn’t need to compete at all. You could just compare the practice times of every elite runner and award the prize to the fastest. Preparation is half of the challenge, but the other half is what you actually pull out when it counts. Yet another reminder that having my head in the right place is as important as practicing, or to quote Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of this game is half-mental.”

2 thoughts on “What Happened?”

  1. I can so relate to this! I'm 17, I play bass clarinet and I attend Hobart High School. Anyway, this year at State Solo and Ensemble I had a really bad performance. During my junior year (I'm a senior this year) I got a perfect score at state, so I was really hell bent on getting a high score this year. I went into the performance room and my hands were shaking and my heart racing and I kept making small mistakes. I wanted to have a great performance so desperately that I sabotaged it. I was way too concerned about what the judge thought and getting a great score. And everything in my solo just sounded rough. I wasn't having any fun at all and I ended up with a silver medal. I always notice that the least amount of attachment that I have to a performance, the better I play.

  2. Yes, getting too emotionally attached to the success of your performance is a good way to sabotage it, though there's a balance, of course. I think you have to care passionately about the quality of your work, and about what you are doing, or the lack of that will come across to the audience or the judge or the committee, which is also not what you want.

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