It’s All-State audition season here in Illinois-or at least, the first phase of it. Every October, our statewide music educators’ association auditions eligible high school students for placement in one of nine “district” orchestras (a student’s district is determined by their location), and select a certain percentage of those accepted to audition again at the All-State orchestra competition in January. Unlike some other states, Illinois students don’t audition on solos-excerpts are assigned from a major orchestral work (this year, it’s the Brahms “Academic Festival Overture”) in addition to scales and sight reading.
As this is my first year back in the area since I auditioned for All-State, the past few weeks have been marked with reminiscence and reflection as I’ve helped students prepare for their own “moment of truth.” Some professional musicians have had very significant All-State experiences, while for others such competitions did not hold as much meaning, or perhaps didn’t occur at all. I certainly fit into the former category, as my All-State auditions challenged and improved my abilities to such an extent that I went from being a moderately-talented student to a promising cellist. My freshman year of high school, which transpired back in the dark ages of 2004 (when we had to actually buy tuners and metronomes instead of downloading the appropriate applications), the audition piece was the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. At the time, this was the most technically difficult music I had ever played, and the fact that I had neglected practicing the part until a month prior to the audition did not improve matters. I well remember my Mom, who is a violin teacher, drilling me on the material night after night in her home studio, while my Dad, who served as my primary cello teacher, imparted some cellistic words of wisdom on the evenings he wasn’t performing with the Lyric Opera orchestra (his main job).
The day of the audition was a chaotic blur. I had to ride the bus with my fellow high school orchestra members out to the audition site at a distant school, and warm up in a room with over a hundred other cellists, most of whom were playing the excerpts slightly faster than the speed of light. My audition wasn’t until the early evening, and they were running late, so I practiced for an eternity. When I finally went into the room, I wasn’t nervous so much as just plain exhausted. I sawed away for the proctor and the tape recorder (to ensure complete fairness, they assign each person a number and record all the auditions for later review by the judges) and before I knew it, the whole long-awaited endeavor was over. This was possibly my first exposure to the fantastically uneven ratio of audition preparation to audition performance-here I had spent night after night on that Tchaikovsky, and it all came down to a few short minutes in a repurposed English classroom at some foreign Chicago high school.
This also ended up being my first exposure to failure as a musician. Up until that point in my fledgling cellistic career, I hadn’t experienced too many setbacks, mostly because I hadn’t taken too many auditions. But that all changed the Sunday night after the audition. One of my Mom’s students was home schooled, and had received the complete list of accepted students via email (the rest of us were given the results by our school orchestra teachers). There were eighteen names in the cello section, but mine wasn’t among them. Needless to say, I was deeply disappointed. I felt as though all of my hard work had been for nothing, although of course my parents and orchestra teacher assured me otherwise. For a few days, I clung to a desperate hope that perhaps the tapes had been mixed up (something which had actually happened before), or perhaps one of the accepted cellists would suddenly realize that they had an unavoidable conflict on the day of the All-District performance, thereby allowing me to take their place (assuming, of course, that I had been ranked no. 19). But it seemed everyone was available and accurately placed, so I had no choice but to lick my wounds and move on.
The summer after my freshman year, I attended my first music festival at New York’s Hartwick College. This was an extraordinarily inspirational experience for me. The very first week, I was placed principal cellist of the orchestra, and Aaron Rosand came to do the entire Tchaikovsky concerto with us. I also got a taste of chamber music with the Dvorak “Dumky” trio, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of different teachers and coaches. So, when the auditions for All-District came around once again, I was ready. This year, I calculated my chances of acceptance to be significantly higher. I was a better cellist, a better musician, and definitely better prepared. My only worry was the nature of piece itself-Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla” overture. My bow arm at the time was not exactly a model of technical prowess, and I had some trouble with the tempi of the faster passages. I could usually get by all right in the practice room, but when my nerves kicked in, my bow arm locked up. Of course, the fact that I desperately wanted to get in this year didn’t help with the nervousness, and sure enough, the audition, while decent, wasn’t good enough to secure me one of the coveted spots. I was not a happy camper.
But, being the incurable optimist that I am, I once again moved on. The summer after sophomore year, I took the plunge and spent three weeks at Interlochen Arts Camp. This time, another Tchaikovsky concerto was programmed, but now it was the piano concerto, and Van Cliburn was at the keyboard. Playing just a few yards behind him in the cello section, it occurred to me that no life experience could really top this, so I decided right then and there that I was going to go into music, and that was that. Who cared about All-State? I had no idea if I’d finally make it in, but I did know that I had an irrepressible desire to become a professional cellist, and that was more than an adequate motivator.
So, I came home and started practicing. My hours at the instrument steadily increased. The day before the audition, I practiced three hours straight (which I actually don’t advise doing on the day before an audition, but that is what happened). The next day I went through the usual routine of getting increasingly nervous, warming up in a veritable sea of cellists practicing their concerti at full volume, and finally entering the audition room. It went pretty well (the piece was the Brahms “Academic”, actually) but I knew better than to get my hopes up. And I actually was at peace with whatever result was to come my way. One audition in an English classroom was not going to make any difference if I continued to work hard and actively pursue my goals.
The results were released early in the next week, on a cold October Monday that saw me home from school due to a teacher conference day. As usual, the news came in the form of a phone call from my Mom’s home school student’s mother, only this time the call arrived when Mom was teaching and I was upstairs and away from the phone. I heard the sound of a voicemail being left, however, and scurried down the stairs to hear its contents. Unfortunately for my nerves, the message was decidedly inscrutable.
“Hi, Mrs. Preucil, I have the high school IMEA results. Give me a call back when you have a chance.”
Oh, my gosh! I spent the next twenty minutes curled up in a fetal position on my bedroom floor, not knowing what to think. When Mom finished her lesson, I breathlessly imparted the news. She hurried to the phone (I think she was rather apprehensive as well) to return the call. And ten seconds later, the dream I’d cherished since 2004 had been realized. I had gotten in.
The months that followed were full of many different music-related experiences, both good and bad. I had placed well enough to go to All-State, but didn’t make into the top orchestra; I visited Eastman for the first time and had a trial lesson; I managed to break an expensive new bow just two weeks after buying it; I got into the Bowdoin Music Festival for summer study. The next year, All-District and All-State were my last priority as I anxiously began preparations for my undergraduate college auditions. In fact, I wasn’t even very nervous for the audition, on Wagner’s “Meistersinger” Overture. I ended up getting assistant principal.
And a year later, I was in my first semester at NEC, and nobody cared two hoots about how I had done in All-State. Many of my colleagues there had experiences similar to mine-starting at the bottom of the pack and then rising to success following sustained and increased practice. But it didn’t really matter to us, mostly because getting into NEC is definitely more difficult than getting into All-State.
Now, as I help students prepare for their auditions on the very same excerpts I slaved away at nearly ten years ago, I see myself in them. I see how much the audition means to them, how much it represents and how utterly daunting it seems. But unlike my high school self, I now see past that. I see that these auditions-like any audition we take-are just one small step on the path to musical success. And in the end, it is not the outcome that we learn the most from, but the process. Ten years after those long nights learning Tchaikovsky 4, I can assert with some confidence that if I hadn’t done that, I might not have become a musician. Painful as those early rejections were, the preparation process leading up to them did wonders for my technical and musical knowledge, and motivated me to continue with my work even after the results had come out. Like a lot of high schoolers, I was of course somewhat interested in the social benefits of getting in, and being regarded as a “good” player. But I was mainly interested in getting in just so I could play all of that great repertoire. In retrospect, I think that was the main reason I went into music-to simply get to know all of the amazing music that’s out there. If Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony is this good, I would think to myself, imagine what the other five must sound like!
So, to the nervous high school auditionee, I offer this advice: Learn from the process. Know that the outcome is merely a snap judgement that does not inalterably define who you are as a musician. And remember that, in the end, it’s really the music that matters-not who’s in what chair or who is going on to All-State in a few months. Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Brahms and Wagner wrote these pieces because they had something beautiful to express-and that’s why we perform them.