I have wanted to play in a professional orchestra ever since I was 16 years old, when I played Don Juan in the first full-orchestra rehearsal of the 2002 National Youth Orchestra of Canada. I had watched my mom play viola in Symphony Nova Scotia since I was a baby, because she raised me by herself and often brought me to rehearsals, plunking me down in the front row in my carrier, where somehow, mysteriously, I didn’t cry.
As I got older, I’d run around backstage with another orchestra rat if I was lucky—Aurora—finding secret worlds behind the giant bass flight cases, playing elevator tag, having spit races off the top flight of stairs, stealing the dolly from the stage guys and racing it around in the hallways, and chugging the little creams from the fridge that were meant for peoples’ coffee. During mom’s concerts, I was alone backstage—apparently because I insisted on mom not getting me babysitters—I preferred to be near her. After intermission, I would make the rounds grabbing the most comfortable looking jackets off of peoples’ chairs to make a nest/fort hybrid, reserving my mom’s down bubble jacket as the one that would actually cover my body.
When I heard the footsteps rushing off the stage after the last applause, I would quickly close my eyes. “Oh my god, look!! How adorable, she’s sleeping!” my mom’s coworkers would say, but I wasn’t really asleep—I was just pretending to close my eyes so I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I’d been listening to the music the whole time. I didn’t realize some of mom’s coworkers were giving her loaded glares, that silently accused her of being a “bad mother” for dragging me here when I should be wherever the hell else a “normal kid” would be—and I didn’t realize how important it was to my mom that I talk to these people, with a smile on my face to show that I was doing just fine. All I knew, is that I was near my mom and had auditory PROOF of it, so I was happy. I didn’t know any other life existed.
I never saw myself following in my mom’s musical footsteps. In fact, despite her forcing me to do RCM exams and Kiwanis Music Festival competitions every year, she begged me NOT to go into music. “You’ll be poor!!” she’d cackle. So I set my sights, strangely enough, on the exciting field of genetic engineering. I think I just wanted to hang out with Dolly the sheep.
That is, until I found myself in that room surrounded by 85 of the top young musicians in the country, playing Don Juan with so much energy and passion, it probably made Richard’s long-decomposed corpse come back to life for a millisecond. (That’s a lot of time in the afterlife)
I could not BELIEVE that THIS was what classical music could BE. All this time, I’d been watching from the outside, or competing AGAINST other people, but here I was, IN IT. Part of it. We were all working together to create the most beautiful, exciting, jaw-dropping thing that we could. We were doing it for our conductor, and our future audience, sure—but also very much for each other. Maybe even mostly for each other. And let me tell you, 3rd stand of the second violins is a KILLER seat to listen to an orchestra lay down some Strauss. I’m pretty sure the vibrations from the bass section alone altered my DNA.
I went on from that summer to audition for music schools, doing my Bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, and my Master’s at McGill—taking a 5 year break in between to play on a cruise ship, tour across America in an RV with 4 other musicians who made up the band that faked to synthesized music for PBS choir recordings (as one does after graduating from music school), and I did a one-year orchestra contract out west. I could have maybe stayed there and kept doing auditions until I won a permanent job, but I wanted more for myself. Maybe it was the -40 degree winters, or maybe it was the conductor who liked to pull me aside after rehearsals and bully me. Either way, I decided to peace out and move to Montreal.
So here I am, 8 months short of 20 years after that first rehearsal of Don Juan, pursuing my dreams. Thing is, my dreams have changed since I was 16. 16-year old me would be pinching herself that she gets to play with a top-notch orchestra, performing under amazing conductors with world-famous soloists, playing repertoire that smaller orchestras can only dream about. And don’t get me wrong, 35-year old me thinks it’s pretty great, too.
But 35-year old me is still “just a sub,” which means I have work, but it’s incredibly unstable—as all of us freelancers have learned the hard way these last 20 months. 35-year old me is in the process of preparing her Xth audition (I’ve done so many I’ve lost count) for this beloved orchestra she has already been performing full-time with for the past 8 years.
Something changes in you when you audition over, and over, and over for the orchestra you think of as family—making it to the finals, but never winning. Being told, “Oh the conductor was just in a bad mood today, everyone else wanted you.” Or, “You would have won, if you just had a nicer violin.” And then, after purchasing said violin… “You were great, but X won because they played every single marking on the page.” Or “You need to be more musical/we want personality.” Or, “It’s really the luck of the draw, you just have to keep trying.”
All of these statements conflict with one another!! Do you win on merit, or by luck? Do you try to play like a little orchestra robot, or infuse LIFE and SPIRIT into the excerpts, at the expense of maybe a couple of measures that rush a little bit, or a note that gets held for a 16th of a beat too long?!
In the real world, if you were to clock the metronome markings of a live performance, it’d be all over the place!! And you wouldn’t read a critic’s review the next day saying “the conductor rushed through two quarter rests, and the mezzo pianos were more like mezzo fortes.” No!! It would say, in very fancy pretentious words, either: “This was so exciting!!” or, “I fell asleep on a stranger’s shoulder.”
In an audition, you are standing up there on stage all alone, playing just one excerpt of one instrument’s part of a symphony that is meant to be played by enough people to fill a light passenger jet. You’ve been practicing your ass off for 2 months, you’ve been here since 8am surrounded by 100 other stressed-out violinists playing the opening of Don Juan over and over as fast as they can, and now it’s 7:30pm and you’re about to play the finals on an empty stomach with cold fingers because the backstage area is FREEZING, and it’s also dry so your finicky new violin sounds like shit… but it’s okay, this is all going to be okay it’s just the same excerpts you’ve been playing for months, years, DECADES, really!! So you take a deep breath and center yourself before walking on stage, but then you see that giant beige screen that separates you from this family you so badly want to be a part of, and your heart starts racing again—and so despite being incredibly, ridiculously, devastatingly prepared—like, ruin your life and that of everybody who lives under the same roof as you for 2 months-prepared—you shake a little bit here, you rush a little bit there—and next thing you know, you’re waiting on the couch backstage next to your competitors, pretending everything is totally normal, as the committee, who is also hungry and cranky and exhausted decides your fate. Finally, after an hour, the personnel manager comes out with as neutral of a face as they can muster, and says “The committee has chosen… candidate #5.” And it’s not you.
This is NOT what I thought I was signing up for that summer when I decided I wanted to do this for a living. It’s an incredibly strange thing, that to be a part of a team in classical music, you first have to win a cut-throat competition. And a near-impossible one at that. If this were any other job, there would be multiple ways to win: either you apply and go in for an interview; or you get hired based on a referral; or you work for free as an intern for a while until they decide you fit in, so they offer you a job. If this were the case in the orchestra world, zillions of freelancers would have stable incomes by now! We wouldn’t be terrified to take out mortgages or have kids or even just go on that dream-vacation to Hawaii!! When the pandemic hit, we wouldn’t have been left in the dust, having to take up babysitting jobs just to pay for groceries.
Here in the orchestra world, in order to keep things “fair,” you must perform a feat that you’ll never actually have to do on the job, and you must do it better than everyone else. You must be a fierce, cold-hearted, highly-trained soldier—impervious to the wildly fluctuating vibes of everyone around you—in order to win a job where you are surrounded and supported by other musicians as you perform brave technical feats; and where you MUST be completely aware and responsive to the tiniest changes going on in your colleagues all over the stage, because otherwise, the piece will completely fall apart. As funny as it is when it happens, there aint nothin’ sexy about a conductor having to stop mid-concert to shout out a bar number.
At any given moment on stage during a performance, I am locked into my stand partner, my section, our principal player, the concertmaster, the conductor, the rhythm section, the bass section, and any important solos going on that we need to support. Even the slightest change in tension in the conductor’s left pinkie affects what will come out of my violin. Translate this skill to an audition, and it means that if someone from behind that screen coughs while I’m playing the Schumann 2 scherzo, my right arm flies about a foot into the air. I am WIRED to RESPOND.
I am glad I got a 3.5 year break from auditions, because I have had the chance to drastically change my attitude towards them, towards classical music—and really, towards my dreams in general. I realized, 16-year old me didn’t necessarily dream of winning a permanent job in a symphony orchestra—she was just dreaming of being part of a team, working together to create something beautiful. She wanted to be on the stage contributing, not listening from backstage. So 35-year old me will keep jumping through these audition hoops if it means I get to keep playing music I love, with people I love. And I might even win a permanent job in the process.
But if I don’t win, it will not destroy me.
It won’t destroy me, because, #1 the system is ridiculous. It’s broken, and needs to be updated. Not winning is no indication on my skill as an orchestral musician, nor how my colleagues feel about me. And #2, I have found so many more endeavors in the past few years that give me that same feeling of joy I got during my first rehearsal with the National Youth Orchestra. Things that make me feel like a part of something bigger. Things like writing, and improv-comedy, and making music using crazy electronic gadgets, and storytelling, and creating my own shows tailored around my EXACT skill-set, rather than trying to shape myself into what I think someone else wants. I get to create beautiful things with—and for—other people. It’s all I ever really wanted.
So no matter what happens at this next audition, or God forbid, any thereafter; I really can’t lose. I might as well try to enjoy myself.