Monday, May 07, 2007

Calgary audition odyssey, part III

...this is a continuation of Calgary audition odyssey, part II...

In the last part of my audition story, I was still in Miami Beach, stressing over every last note of every excerpt. (As well as every first note, and all those in between!) Among the biggest stresses of an audition, and the hardest to prepare for, is that feeling of being exposed - presenting yourself, warts and all, to a group of people you don't know, and whose reactions you can't anticipate.

We hope to project enough good qualities in our playing - precision, care, tastefulness - so that if they quibble with some detail, perhaps they'll ask for us to play it differently and we can show an ability to adjust. However, my horn colleague Roz who took the Calgary audition in March told me that through all three rounds she played, they didn't ask to hear a single excerpt to be played again. She just played down the lists in order, they said thank you, and when afterwards the decision was announced - they would not offer a position to any of the finalists at that time - she was obviously very frustrated!

The last bassist I played for was Charles Carleton, a young member of the Cleveland Orchestra bass section. This was just a couple of weeks before the audition, so my foundation had been laid, for better or for worse! I sometimes wonder if a lesson that late in the game will even be of any help. I'd like to be ready to embrace a new and better idea, but there is a point at which you just have to ride the horse you brought with you! His comments and ideas were invaluable to me, though, and they focused on things I could benefit from: clearer phrasing ideas, stronger and more secure beginnings, more rhythmic excitement, and a real singing quality wherever possible. To cite just one example, he challenged me to phrase the Vanhal Concerto in a classical phrase structure - four bar phrases with alternating heavy and light inflections on each measure - and he sung it that way until I could appreciate the charm and grace of that phrasing. Now every time I play that piece I kind of dedicate it as a tribute to Charles and his very generous teaching!

The last teacher I have to mention is one I didn't actually play for, cellist Stephen Geber - though I asked to, he was just too busy helping all the cellists! Because I was hoping he would give me some of his time, I decided to give some of mine, and listen to his masterclass the weekend before my audition. I was glad I did, because he structured it as a sort of audition self-therapy workshop! He asked each of the cellists about the last audition they took, how they felt they played, and what kinds of mental and technical issues they felt were weaknesses for them. The whole class was a revelation for me, seeing how little fears and personal demons can so often disable a great player. And one performance stood out for me, a cellist who played the Beethoven 9 recitatives. He played them quite well, with a lot of fire and energy, but Geber asked him to take a completely different interpretation - faster tempos, more driving, following the composer's instructions more strictly, still keeping the passion and authority. It wasn't an interpretation I had tried before either, but it unquestionably worked, and I was impressed to see the cellist take it on so quickly!

The last week before the audition was an especially light rehearsal schedule - some members of our orchestra had a chamber music concert and a Musical Xchange concert that weekend, but for me there were just two readings, Wednesday and Thursday morning. Our conducting fellow, Steven Jarvi, rehearsed Verdi's La forza del destino Overture, the Prelude and Liebestod to Tristan and Isolde, Mozart 35, Prokofiev Classical Symphony, and the Brahms Haydn Variations - all fantastic pieces to play in orchestra, though Mozart 35 was the only one I was preparing for Calgary. After we finished up the Brahms, it was 1 pm and I had a plane to catch at 5:30 that afternoon.

It's always a strange feeling, leaving your locker and room for the last time before an audition. I find myself thinking things like, "Next time I see this pencil (or rosin dust rag, stack of music, pile of unwashed dishes, etc.) I'll have played my audition - it'll be over!" Then I start thinking, "Have I brought all the music, pencils, supplies I need? Do I have time to wash those dishes, and if I don't what will be growing there?" It all gets pretty hectic and complicated, which is only made worse by my usual habit of booking ridiculously early flights. I'm pretty accustomed to waking up early, since I usually go to a 6 am yoga class, but still there's something especially cruel about the sound of that alarm clock, going off at 4:30 am, telling you to finish packing and drive to the airport! Those flights are always the cheapest and the easiest to book, but there's obviously a reason for that.

So I was very happy with myself that I had paid the extra bucks and gotten an afternoon flight. Of course, flying late in the day has its own problems, especially in a traffic nightmare city like Miami. I left home at 3 pm or so, figuring I would be safe - things quickly started looking bad though! There was some huge construction thing going on Alton Road, and the 41st Street route to the causeway was backed up all the way to Collins. I ended up driving up Collins all the way to the next causeway, which is in a neighborhood I don't know well, and even though I got downtown reasonably fast, I was still crawling along trying to get onto the freeway! The whole thing was really stressing me out, and I was trying to stay focused and positive, singing some excerpts, not getting too freaked out, but it wasn't working very well. Also, I realized en route that I had forgotten my winter coat, and I only had a sweater and my dress shirts to keep me warm in the frigid Calgary weather.

I think I made it to the airport around 4:30, and there was no time to move my car to the long term (cheaper) parking lot, which is my usual practice. I was alright with that though, just as long as I could get my bass checked in successfully! Other instrumentalists think we're exaggerating, but for bass players the whole airline check-in process is just as stressful as the actual audition. The situation is especially tense because we know that we're technically breaking the rules - a lot of airlines don't allow any baggage over 100 lbs, and most charge exorbitantly for anything over 70 lbs, in addition to oversize charges. So they could very legitimately charge me over $200 or not allow me to fly at all. I try to smooth the situation somewhat, by being as nice and cooperative as possible and telling them politely that last time I paid $80. Of course I'd rather get on for less, but if volunteering to pay will make them like me and (please!) not ask me to put it on the scale, it's well worth the price!

This particular flight was on Northwest Airlines, connecting in Minneapolis, and things went great - I paid my $80, they got someone to wheel it away, and a breathed a big sigh of relief. The only problem was that they only allowed two free checked bags - one of which was my stool - and I had a suitcase as well as my backpack. No problem, I thought, I'll just sort of consolidate and carry all my stuff onboard. I was pretty bummed out, though, when they found a full bottle of sunscreen in my suitcase - the one I had planned to check - and threw it away. It wasn't the only bottle of liquid in the suitcase, and it seemed pretty dumb that I was bringing all this sunscreen with me to Canada in the first place. Still, I had to tell myself to not cry over spilled SPF 50 - after all, it was just a $6 bottle I could easily replace when I got back! It's crazy how little stuff like this can affect me sometimes.

The other stressful thing about my flight was that I hadn't changed currency yet - I had tried the day before, but my bank didn't carry Canadian dollars, and it would have taken days to get some by mail. So I was fretting about how I was going to get a taxi to my hotel at 11:30 pm, with no local currency. Also, I realized that my passport was about to expire - the audition was March 31st, my passport expired April 3rd - but I didn't get a chance to renew it beforehand, and I didn't know that they often refuse people whose passports aren't good for 6 months after the date of travel.

I reached my connection in Minneapolis without incident (though I did have to watch my bass slide up the conveyor belt to the plane, balanced in its bridge - why, airport baggage handlers, why?!) and I called my Dad from the gate, to tell him I had almost left the country and share all my worries. He had thought the audition was the day before, so when I called he started out by telling me they had been crossing their fingers yesterday, and asked me how it had gone. Somehow it's reassuring to talk to my parents about these things, even when they have no clue what's going on - perhaps for that reason, they seem to get even more stressed out over the whole thing than I do! I really do my best to explain things to them, yet when they read Dan Wakin's NY Times article, they both told me there were things in there they had never even imagined!

Luckily, all of my worries were cleared away once I reached Canada - the customs and passport officials were very polite, and even asked me about the audition, since I had noted it as a business trip rather than a personal vacation. She asked me if I won the job, would I begin work right away, and I told her no, I would be returning to the US on April 1st in any case - though it was a nice little confidence boost having this Canadian customs official considering my prospects of winning a job! My bass arrived intact, and there was even a foreign currency exchange still open in the airport, so I could pay the taxi driver in Canadian dollars. The weather was surprisingly mild, so that even though I had forgotten my winter coat, I felt like I might survive this weekend after all!

I got to my hotel, the 5 Suites Downtown, just around midnight, and tipped both the taxi driver and the doorman a little more than I had intended. Somehow those two dollar coins confused me, and I handed them out without realizing they were worth way more than quarters. It was all right though, the Canadians all continued to be extraordinarily nice to me, especially those hotel employees. The word must have spread that I was a tipper, and they were extra attentive the whole weekend!


Brian Roessler said...

Thanks for the story Matt. It's so great to read that other people go through all the same (or at least similar) psychic and emotional contortions for auditions! Looking forward to the rest. I have a question for you too - I'm considering taking an audition in Canada (I'm a US citizen) and I'm wondering what if anything you had to do to get a work permit or whatever was required for you to take a job there.

Matt Heller said...

Thanks Brian! As long as it's an international audition, there's no need to worry about work permits. The Canadian gov't is pretty liberal with arts careers for foreigners, I've been told. I haven't gotten my work visa yet - I'm still waiting on my passport renewal - but apparently it's possible to get one at the border when you enter the country, as long as you have the paperwork and letters from your employer. Good luck!

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