It’s a Matter of Trust by Joan Der Hovsepian

I am thinking back to a particular spring shortly out of college, one filled with countless practice hours, an intimidatingly tall stack of excerpts to learn, several plane trips; honestly, a few too many orchestral auditions. The audition that is clearest in my mind from this time was for a big-five orchestra. After I played my first round, I was pleased to be notified that the committee wanted me to play again. I had received a vote count that wasn’t quite enough to definitively pass me on to the next round, but it was close. They asked me to play the same excerpts again.  After playing the second time, I was convinced things may have gone better and that I might have played well enough to sway the committee. I was wrong. Once again, I did not earn enough votes to pass to the following round. When the audition was over, one of the members of the committee, who had generously volunteered to give comments, conveyed what he had heard: some intonation here, some rhythmic issues there, but overall he said I just didn’t “sound as experienced” as the other candidates who had passed through. I wondered what that really meant, and how I was to gain this experience when I hadn’t yet won a job to do so.

In retrospect, I now believe that the sound of experience is actually a matter of trust.

Now, years later, after having spent considerable time on both sides of the audition screen, I understand that a committee member is looking for someone to potentially sit next to (inches from!) for 30 to 40 years—someone to rely upon to hold themselves up to the highest standard day after day, someone who could actually inspire others. Some weeks it feels as if we spend more time with our orchestra colleagues than we do with our own spouses and families at home; one would never expect to make a decision of marriage in mere minutes! Yet that is the typical amount of time we have on stage at an orchestral audition to show who we are, and most of that time is behind a screen when we can’t be seen or communicate directly (if they could only see me, they would know I’m not like those other crazies!). So it comes down to earning the trust of those listening, with every technical and musical decision we make along the way.

When thinking about interpersonal relationships in daily life, trust is earned over a natural course of time. The feeling of truly knowing someone and trusting can take months, probably years.  Yet in an audition situation we are expected to earn a committee’s trust in as little as 5 to 10 minute increments over the course of one or maybe three days; 30 minutes if we’re lucky enough to get to the end of the whole thing.

We think more proactively and allow freedom of creativity when we ask ourselves what would personally convince us to trust another player in such a limited time. I believe this comes down to a few basic concepts:

Good, Consistent Rhythm and Intonation:

You should trust that any time practicing for basic rhythm and intonation is time well spent. If these fundamentals are not solid, the committee members cannot possibly pass a player on to the next round—they have no choice, no matter how much they may like things artistically. Our teachers give us the tools to do this kind of work, so I will not try to sum that up here, but it is safe to say that much of this work is time spent practicing slowly, with our trusty friend the metronome, and there is no substitute for thoughtful repetition.

Beauty of Sound:

Beauty of sound should be present in every millisecond of our performance, and it is an essential medium for trust. When we think of the greatest musicians who most inspire us, it is their sound that draws us in. A warm sound gives isolated excerpts a far more personal quality, something that surely sets one candidate apart from the next. Listen with open ears for the most irresistible sound that can be created, even in “small” notes or off-string passages. We all know the difference it makes when we sit next to someone who plays with an appealing sound that we can blend with as opposed to something otherwise; then multiply that feeling over 20–30 years!

Character and Context:

Every decision we make in the working process needs to reflect the music’s character and context. Our feelings for the music are what shape the character, yet to put this into practice we are required to master countless technical aspects of playing (and surely this needs an additional blog post!), from the ability to execute many different bow strokes, to a wide range of articulations, a fine and varied vibrato, good tempo choices, great dynamic range . . . you name it, there’s a place for you to show you’ve got it. Do we sound like a player who has earnestly studied this repertoire fully, listened to recordings, and truly knows the context in which these passages reside? Do we understand how our phrasing and rhythm affect the rest of the parts? What might the conductor need from us at each point? Having this kind of awareness gives the impression that we are capable of flexibility, something needed in spades in an orchestra job.

Just as the daily personal impression we make to others is largely a result of our many decisions and actions—good or bad—that we make throughout our lives, the musical impression we make is the compilation of all our thoughtful ideas and decisions we make in the practice room. It takes time for these ideas to germinate, and there is no shortcut for it. This, I believe, is what leads to the sound of experience. Trust me.

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