300 violinists started my Challenge.
What did it really take to make it to the finish line?
To read my original post introducing the New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge, click here.
Preparing for an orchestra audition takes it out of you. You get knocked down, banged up, and stressed out. Your chances of victory are slim, since you’re going up against so many others who want the job. The pressure is intense, and it only escalates when the orchestra in question is the New York Philharmonic. So who in their right mind would go through the audition preparation process without actually taking the audition? Why would you put yourself through the ordeal with no chance at the glory?
I’ve written before that you shouldn’t take an audition if you aren’t serious about winning. The possibility of rejection is painful enough that you only want to risk it once you’ve put your heart and soul into your audition preparation. Once you do, of course, you learn truths about yourself and your playing that you can’t learn any other way. I’ve proven that to myself over the course of many wins and losses. So how could I share those truths with others, aside from writing about them and talking about them?
Then it hit me: set up a “shadow” audition to run alongside a real audition: the New York Philharmonic openings in the fall of 2015. I’d call it the New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge. I had no plans to take the real audition. But starting fourteen weeks before the audition date, I showed my Challengers just how I would prepare if I were going to take it. Some things you have to learn by doing, and audition prep is one of them. So why not have fun along the way?
I wanted some accountability though. I knew from my own experience that without a long-term goal, it was all too easy to let one bad week turn into two, and so on until you just decide to give up. So I came up with rules. Everyone has to post videos! They’ll score points! I’ll name a winner! The final assignment took place on the day of the real New York preliminary round. So the Challengers were right there in spirit with the real audition candidates. They had to record a one-take, first-take video of all the audition material, posted to me that day.
In the end, fourteen violinists completed all fifteen of their assignments, from Week 14 all the way through Week 0. I’ll share the winner’s story next week. But today I’m proud and excited to share thirteen other stories.
At the end of this post, keep reading to learn more about each of these thirteen finishers.
Starting the Challenge
I asked everyone who was interested to register for the Challenge. So when registration closed, I was faced with 300 names on a giant spreadsheet. I didn’t know anybody’s story because I hadn’t asked. I assumed that everyone had their own reasons for signing up, but I never could have guessed at the variety of those reasons! I found them out only after the Challenge was done.
Some were straightforward: Emma Otto, a high-school senior, was auditioning for concertmaster of her youth orchestra at the time, and imagines herself auditioning for professional orchestras someday. Inna Langerman has taken one professional audition in the past but wanted to know how to better pace her preparation for auditions in the future. Greg Lawrence, who performs not only the music of Mozart, but performs as Mozart (complete with costume and powdered wig!) has taken tons of auditions in the past but wanted a new perspective, one that he could pass along to his studio of 30 students.
One factor common to many of my finishers was that they wanted to come to terms with nerves. Shirie Leng, who got her violin performance degree in 1991 and had always dreamed of playing with the New York Philharmonic, learned early on that she was terrified of auditioning. “Eventually it got so bad that I quit music altogether and went to medical school…[so] I decided to face my fears head-on! Having never done a professional audition, I took the Challenge as a way to introduce myself to the process.” Rebecca Faber, who teaches violin and composition in Chicago but also performs on violin with her rock band, considered her greatest weakness to be auditioning. “For a while, playing felt like being in a pressure cooker. Pressure is a type of stress, stress leads to tension, tension leads to pain, and pain is not fun.”
One of my own worries when I announced the Challenge was that, with my performance and practice schedule, not to mention the dreaded “three under three” in the house (three children younger than three!), I might not be able to keep up with the weekly assignments. I should have known that many of the Challengers were worried about the same thing! Anita Felix, who after 30 years away from school just got her Master of Music degree in violin performance, had to write a major research paper during the Challenge. She also had a big trip planned, so she had to practice in hotel rooms with the practice mute on! Angela Hanson, a busy professional performer and teacher in the Twin Cities, wanted to prove that she could set a long-term goal and finish it despite family commitments. “I practice when my kids are sleeping, so every nap time and bedtime I would go right to [the Challenge] so that maybe in the evening I could have some kid-free time afterwards to hang out with my husband.”
One Challenger’s motivation was more personal than I could have imagined. Mary Gerard, a retired member of the San Diego Symphony, “had survived some extremely serious cancer, a rare one that has a very slim recovery history, two major surgeries, eight months of chemo once per week, and an eye surgery necessary for sudden blindness…This eye surgery required me to be face down 21 hours a day for two weeks. I sopped playing all together for a very long time. And I mean years!” I had met Mary the year before for a private lesson, without knowing her amazing story, and had suggested the Challenge to her as a way to regain her skills on the violin.
A difficult journey
During the fourteen weeks, I only knew about my own difficulties: setting aside time from rehearsing, performing and parenting to produce weekly posts and/or videos. Twice during the Challenge, I found myself overwhelmed and had to “punt” by giving a writing assignment rather than a playing assignment. But my Challengers hit roadblocks along the way as well. They found, as I did, that it’s one thing to practice and imagine what you’re going to do; it’s another to actually record a weekly video and hit upload.
For Shirie Leng, just getting in front of the camera for the first video was the hardest part: “I could not believe how nervous just the existence of a camera made me feel!” Inna Langerman had “never recorded excerpts to put them online as works of progress before (I was embarrassed at first), and forcing myself to do that several weeks in a row helped me fight performance anxiety.”
Time management and technological concerns posed obstacles to some Challengers. Emma Otto wrote, “Nearly every other weekend, there was a party with my friends, family road trip, concert or unexpected event that threatened to deter me from completing an assignment. I tried to plan ahead for these to the best of my ability, and would often record videos days in advance so that I was sure to get them completed.” Recording and uploading weekly videos from a cabin with no wi-fi was tough for Angela Hanson: “I was tempted to give up on the challenge, but I had put so much time into it that I wanted to finish, so I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.”
Of course, the ultimate goal of the Challenge was to fire up everyone’s audition preparation, so the violin playing itself was both motivation and obstacle. Rebecca Faber wrote, “I felt out of shape compared to what is needed for this type of audition prep…getting in a groove while constantly tweaking my process to create those new habits was sometimes jarring.” She added, “Everything had to be scheduled very carefully. Once it worked, it was about making it continue to work through a relatively long, four-month process. Scheduling would sometimes get messed up, and I had to just get back on the horse and keep going.”
The difference-maker: visualization
In Week 5, I introduced a concept that many Challengers had never encountered before. For me, visualization is the key to effective performance preparation, and it’s absolutely critical for auditions, where first impressions are everything. This was my first time trying to describe and demonstrate how I visualize, so there was some confusion among the Challengers. But with practice, and a bit of clarification from me, many found their playing and practicing transformed.
Inna Langerman “found visualization to be an extremely difficult thing to do. In the beginning it was very frustrating and would take hours.” Greg Lawrence “had some difficulty understanding what you were looking for in the visualization…still don’t think I was doing it as you wanted…but did my own version!” That works, Greg! Joanna D., a freelance violinist in Malaysia, had trouble both with playing consistency and the act of visualization, but felt that each one helped inform the other.
Rebecca Faber was inspired by a post I wrote on the Inner Game, about how on one summer day long ago, I first experienced the power of visualization in an immediate and physical way on the golf course. So she “learned not to underestimate the power of life outside the practice room in helping you become a better violinist. I was curious if other activities that strengthened the mind-body connection would have a similar effect. After signing up for a trial month at 105° Bikram Yoga, my mind-body connection was strengthened, I could focus better when practicing, and my body was more relaxed when playing.” I was very happy to hear this, especially when she continued: “Throughout the audition prep process, feelings of discouragement, being overwhelmed, getting intimidated, or losing confidence can pop up at different points. I feel that the Challenge touched on the roots of these issues and provided me with some solutions.”
Finishing the Challenge: what did you learn?
As I expected, all the Challengers had a much clearer idea of how they would prepare future auditions after completing the Challenge. They could look back through their videos and compare their playing from Week 14 to their final audition in Week 0. But everyone who finished also learned things about themselves as performers and as human beings.
Anita Felix is a self-described late starter, and she “learned that I underestimate what I am capable of. I have always felt behind, but [the Challenge reinforced] that there are no boundaries to life-long learning.”
Rachel Grimes was born in Ireland, and after living in London for years, has come back home to perform in several ensembles. “One of the main things I learnt about myself through participating in the challenge was the fact that mental preparation is crucial when being ‘put on the spot’ and delivering note-perfect passages of music on cue. Coping with audition nerves has been my main concern for some time now and I have to admit that I got used to pressure of having to submit a weekly video so this helped me hugely.”
Joanna D. notices a difference in how she translates thought into action: “I definitely play with more substantial ease. The fast arpeggios in Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor don’t seem so frantic after learning Don Juan, and all spiccato string crossings and shifts in other works feel less awkward, comparing them with Schumann Scherzo’s awkward bits.”
For Shirie Leng, the lessons were stark: “So many things. I learned that I practiced entirely the wrong way in college. I learned that my ‘head game’, my mental preparation, was virtually non-existent. I learned that recording myself is crucial.”
Debbie Ho, a teacher and performer in Malaysia, doesn’t feel so alone anymore when the nerves hit: “Whether it’s freaking out at the next seating audition, or watching playback over and over in hopes it would get better with each pressed play, it’s all part of a lifelong learner’s process.”
Anne Brüggemann agrees that the lessons from the Challenge will carry through long-term. She studied violin as a teenager, then took up private lessons again after 30 years of being a music lover. “The technical stuff [from the Challenge] also made me more aware of quality of spiccato and issues in left-right hand coordination. I learned that, at least for me, these kinds of concerns are a continuous undercurrent of practice that I can never consider to be completely solved.”
Rebekah May found out how much goes into making a winning impression. “The Challenge taught me to be more engaged in my playing, both technically and mentally. You have to have the discipline to check yourself every time you play, to be sure you are integrating your plans into your performance every single time. I found that frequently I knew in my head how I wanted something to sound, but I didn’t always convey it through my playing.”
Trusting the process
One of the paradoxes of performing is that to get to a high level, you have to be tough on yourself and keep the highest standard; yet to perform at a high level, you have to silence that inner critic so that you can stay “in the moment”. The desire to hit the mark, to “win”, can derail your performance. Rebecca Faber discovered a vital truth: “When focusing more on the process, [rather than the outcome], I was able to approach preparing with more of a sense of curiosity and wonder. In turn, I asked myself a lot more questions when figuring things out and came to a lot more ‘Aha’ moments. This also allowed the room for new information to really synthesize mentally, leading to a deeper understanding than I’ve had in the past.”
Finally, I’m delighted to hear that all the Challengers can look at their next audition with a clear plan. The audition won’t be an unfamiliar beast, but a project that they may even look forward to! Angela Hanson “learned how valuable it is to have a long-term goal and work at it slowly and methodically. I typically procrastinate in my audition preparation, so it was good to learn how to create an audition plan three months in advance and carry it through to the end.” For Emma Otto, “[it was] surprisingly possible to learn a large amount of difficult repertoire in less time than I would have thought. If you apply even some of the techniques that were discussed in [Nathan’s] videos, you’ll see progress. This was very encouraging to me.”
For Mary Gerard, who had already overcome challenges far greater than this one, “life is full of surprises. One morning when I started practicing, everything was suddenly easier…a whole lot easier. I think I had rebuilt more pathways in the brain, much like a stroke victim does when exercising to regain muscle control.” Eventually, as things seemed to come together mentally and physically, “the phone rang…and a quartet had recently lost its first violinist! They called me! And I joined. That is where I am today.”
Mary’s advice is timeless and I couldn’t have said it better myself: “I urge [you] never to give up. Be the drip of water on the rock…it may take some time, but you can make your mark if you persist.”
Next week’s post will reveal the winner of my Challenge… and how she did it.
Did you miss the Challenge?
You can take the Challenge at any time by visiting my introductory New York Philharmonic Audition Challenge post. Spread it out over fourteen weeks like my original Challengers did, or work at your own pace. And tell me your stories when you do!
And now, more about each of the thirteen Challenge finishers introduced above:
Violin is my passion. I had lessons as an adolescent for six or seven years, playing in student orchestras for a number of years after that, then got busy with other pursuits. I have always loved playing music but was not particularly encouraged or challenged. I have taken up private lessons again in 2004, precisely 30 years after graduating from high school. I am doing much better now, musically and emotionally, dealing with my potential and limitations. I post the occasional progress video on YouTube or SoundCloud, using the user name aMaudPowellFan, for review by fellow adult students at Violin Lab or at the adult starters Facebook group. I sat ABRSM Grade 8 a number of years ago and am working towards the ABRSM diploma degree in violin performance. I am concertmaster of a small community orchestra and play occasional gigs in project ensembles.
I have a member profile at violinist.com and am an active member of Violin Lab and the Facebook page for adult violin/fiddle beginners. I also have a YouTube channel.
I’m a freelance musician, majoring on the violin in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. Besides working with a local quartet, I am currently part of the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur (in my 4th year). I started the Challenge during the second week, after hearing more about it from some fellow violinists. I was looking for a way to improve myself, for both solo and orchestra work, and the 14-week NY Philharmonic Challenge sounded like a great way to learn and solidify relevant excerpts over a consistent period of time. I learned a lot during the 14 weeks. From learning notes (the first phase of difficult) to recording, finding the most favourable time (or just finding time) and good light during the day to get recordings done, and the tricky part of delivering what I’ve worked on into practice ON camera. [During the Challenge], everything was hard. But your method to practising notes in the high register I find really effective. Two issues I found a little more tricky were consistency and visualization; I’m still working on them.
Here’s a link to the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra!
Currently, I am a teaching artist working for the Ravinia Festival. I teach violin and composition primarily in their El Sistema programs in the Austin area of Chicago. Along these educational lines, I write articles on violin-related issues for Reverb.com. I have some fun work lined up with them, including filming videos relating to my work with non-classical music. I founded a rock band that ended up doing very well called The Lifeline that led me to do a lot of composition, arranging, recording, and playing on all sorts of non-classical projects from hip-hop to television underscoring. Currently, I’m working on a song with a sample from Mahler 2 in it and working on the logistics for getting a song for The Lifeline mixed. On the classical side, in general I’m trying to get connected to classical music and its community the way I used to be after some time off doing non-classical work. Currently I’m working on the rest of Mozart 3, orchestral excerpts, and am trying to decide which concerto I want to work on. I am also reading The Violin Lesson by Simon Fischer and focusing on vibrato with its coordinating book, Warming Up.
Here are links to some of my projects:
I finished my Master of Music degree in violin performance in Dec. 2015 after more than 30 years away from school. I had a late start on the violin at age 14, but I have continued to work at improving my playing my entire life. I suppose it’s a bit unusual that I still look forward to getting up in the morning and starting my practice (on most days!) even after all these years. I won my first full time job with the Omaha Symphony when I was 22, and then four years later I held several contracts with the Sacramento Symphony. I am currently the concertmaster of the Folsom Symphony, and a member of the first violin sections of the Sacramento Philharmonic, Sacramento Opera, Sacramento Ballet Orchestra, and the Sacramento Choral Society Orchestra. In addition to my orchestral activities, I am involved in chamber music performances.
I started the Challenge because I had recently completed my final grad recital, which was a long and difficult program. I was practicing 5-6 hours a day, and then suddenly it was over, leading to the post-recital blues. What next? I was searching for another goal when I read about the Challenge. I really don’t like auditions (who does?) but I thought it couldn’t hurt to learn some new excerpts and brush up some old ones. It was fun to have a new goal, but travel, school, and performing were getting in the way of serious work on the Challenge. It was difficult to complete it because I had already planned a 3 week trip to Australia with my husband before I signed up. I was determined not to miss any of the weekly assignments though, so I borrowed an instrument and recorded in hotel rooms. One of the cleaning ladies commented that she really liked Don Juan! I realized I wasn’t going to be able to focus a lot of attention on the Challenge, but I believe doing a little bit is always better than doing nothing, so I forged ahead. I found that I enjoyed the short, focused feedback, which fit in well with my limited time. Ultimately, counter to my original intention of not taking the Challenge too seriously, I surprised myself by completing a recording which I sent to the NY Phil!
In the end, I learned the super-duper importance of recording my practice often. That was a huge take away for me! The behind the scenes step by step information from a highly successful professional on the many layers of audition preparation was like being privy to top secret information.
Currently I am playing first violin in a quartet that meets weekly. We just gave our first concert in a private home for a music club. I also teach violin and viola privately and conduct a youth orchestra in San Diego that is unique in that everyone in the orchestra gets to do a solo accompanied by the others. Concerts have featured the last movement of Mendelssohn concerto, Beethoven Romance, Vivaldi concerto for two celli, Mozart Clarinet concerto, Mozart violin concerto, Setiz Concerto, Bach Brandenburg No. 6, an oboe concerto, a Mozart flute and harp concerto and more. Personally, I am working on pieces that I am teaching: Bach unaccompanied, Vitali Chaccone, Barber Concerto, Mozart Sinfonia Concertante, and also my quartet music.
I learned a lot about myself during the Challenge. I always knew that I was stubborn and hard headed and enjoyed challenging myself, but trying to rebuild a technique in old age seemed impossible and so frustrating. I would cry sometimes, but that seemed to help me become more dedicated in whipping this devil that had cast a spell over my whole body leaving it stupid in response. So I practiced but was so very embarrassed to send Nathan a weekly video. I listened back in horror, knowing that his hearing and watching the video must have been a cruel torture for his ears and eyes…I was humiliated by my playing, but…being Mary, I stubbornly persisted. Poor Nathan…”15 weeks of torture,” I’d think every Sunday night at the midnight witching hour deadline for the weeks assignment.
But, by golly, life is full of surprises. One morning when I started practicing, everything was suddenly easier….and not a little bit easier….a whole lot easier. I think I had rebuilt more pathways in the brain, much like a stroke victim does when exercising to regain muscle control. Vibrato had various speeds, and various widths–amazing–and I suddenly had a sautillé and a pretty good spiccato too. Wow! What was happening? The daily Schradieck was now up to a coordinated Vivace; I actually sounded pretty good. My bow was tracking, I could control the lanes, my shifting seemed effortless and I was pretty dang accurate too. I was so excited and stunned! And then, as if to be rewarded for my torture to Nathan, his Challenge viewers (and myself), God smiled at me…the phone rang…and a quartet had recently lost its first violinist! They called me! And I joined. That is where I am today.
Here is a link to All About Music San Diego.
After graduating from The Royal Northern College of Music, UK and subsequently living in London for several years, I made the decision to move back to Ireland, where I was born. I now perform regularly with UK and Irish ensembles including the Ulster Orchestra, RTE Concert Orchestra, Wexford Festival Opera Orchestra and the Ireland String Quartet. Although I have a busy playing and teaching schedule, it is really important to me to keep practicing the violin regularly in order to continue to improve and perfect my audition technique. Being an ‘extra player’ in these orchestras is great but I long for a more stable position! For the past year, I have been taking lessons with Geoffrey Allan, Concertmaster of Northern Ballet, UK. Geoffrey’s teacher was the great Nathan Milstein, who is one of my all-time favorite masters.
I decided to start the Challenge as I saw it as a way of preparing really thoroughly for an audition, both physically and mentally, over a considerable period of time. It was really useful to have a weekly deadline; being required to submit a weekly video kept me motivated and focused. One of the main things I learnt about myself through participating in the challenge was the fact that mental preparation is crucial when being ‘put on the spot’ and delivering note-perfect passages of music on cue. Coping with audition nerves has been my main concern for some time now and I have to admit that I got used to pressure of having to submit a weekly video so this helped me hugely.
Nathan’s tutorial videos, uploaded at the beginning of every week were very inspirational and I learnt so much through them. I would have to say that biggest challenge was time management; sometimes it was hard to find time during a busy week in order to prepare for and record a video.
I feel that, after the Challenge, I have emerged as a more confident player, with higher standards for my playing. I am really happy with what I achieved during the Challenge and I would recommend it to any aspiring musician.
Please follow me on Twitter. I’m @RachelGviolin.
I’m currently doing some teaching as a peripatetic violin teacher to some private students/group toddler classes, and sometimes play with a string quartet for weddings, functions etc. in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia. I also play with the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO) based in Kuala Lumpur. The Music Director is Ciaran McAuley and we’re preparing Dvorák’s Noon Witch, Brahms Symphony 1, and Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture for March’s concert.
Since I’m pretty much self taught where I live I figured the Challenge would be a perfect ingenious thing to do to keep me on my toes for at least 3 months. I was also curious to see the example process of what it would take for an audition such as the New York Philharmonic’s.
The main goal was to have a video up by Sunday whether it was perfect or not, whether I had visited the material five days out of the week or one day out of the week, and whether or not I was having a good hair day. Incompatible internet connection sometimes made for a real up-load battle.
Follow me on Instagram! @debyohanna
And here is a link to the MPYO’s upcoming programs.
I am Adjunct Professor of Violin at Bethel University and at the Association Free Lutheran Bible School and Seminary, both since 2008. I also maintain a private teaching studio out of my home. I have been a member of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra 1st violin section since 2005 (and concertmaster during the 2006-2007 season), I also have performed as a substitute violinist for the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. I am the concertmaster of the Dakota Valley Symphony, and a violinist with the Minnesota Sinfonia. I do a lot of teaching and performing in the twin cities area. Currently I am performing the opera “Rusalka” by Dvorak with the Minnesota Opera Orchestra. The music is both beautiful and challenging, which I find to be a rewarding combination.
I am always looking for new ways to challenge myself in my playing. I saw the NY Phil Audition Challenge and thought that it might give me some new direction in how to prepare myself and my students for auditions. I also knew it would give me a good performance goal to work towards. It was difficult just preparing a recording each week, finding the time for that with my teaching-performing schedule and my family. It definitely took discipline and extra planning during busy weeks to fit in the practice time and recording time. The weekly blog posts and videos helped me have fresh motivation each week to tackle a new aspect of the audition repertoire, but still carving out the time was difficult.
I was thankful when a week I was sick ended up being a week Nathan had us do a written response instead of a video because he had had a busy week. I planned ahead when I was on vacation how I would fit in the practice time and the time to record a video. It always worked out; even when I was at the cabin with no wi-fi, I recorded the video there and came home and uploaded it in time for the next submission. Towards the end it got even more difficult because I had opera rehearsals and performances and a recital performance all around the time the challenge was wrapping up. I really had to carefully plan out my practice time to juggle 3 things at once. I was tempted to give up on the challenge, but I had put so much time into it that I wanted to finish, so I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.
Here are links for the Minnesota Opera, Dakota Valley Symphony, Minnesota Sinfonia,
and the Bethel University music program.
I’m currently enrolled in the Artist Diploma program at SUNY Purchase College and freelancing/teaching in the NYC metropolitan area. I’ve only done one professional orchestra audition in the past, which made me want to prepare more strategically for the next.
I started the Challenge in order to learn how to better pace and prepare for an audition, and also to improve on excerpts. I had never recorded excerpts to put them online as works of progress before (I was embarrassed at first), and forcing myself to do that several weeks in a row helped me fight performance anxiety. Also, I found visualizing to be an extremely difficult thing to do. In the beginning it was very frustrating and would take hours.
Here is a link to the SUNY Purchase music department.
And you can find me here on Facebook.
I have a private studio of 30 students. In addition I give recitals regularly with my pianist Joanne Stohs as the Cabrillo Duo, and with my virtuoso classical guitar son Ian Lawrence as the Topaz Duo. I also freelance in the San Diego area. Since 2001 I am also the founder, Executive & Artistic Director of the Cabrillo Chamber Orchestra. I hope to do much more with CCO in the years to come.
Repertoire-wise, I just finished a recital with Joanne: Beethoven Sonata No. 4, Mozart Sonata K. 301,and Franz Benda Sonata in F. Then with my son Ian: Sonata Concertata by Paganini, plus Kreisler’s arrangements of Granados Spanish Dance No. 5 and Albinez Tango. For the Kreisler pieces, my son Ian arranged the piano parts for classical guitar. I am now working on another program that includes Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and his Piano Trio No. 1 with Joanne and cellist Omar Firestone.
I had worked on all the excerpts in years past during my audition days, so I decided to do the Challenge to stretch my technique and get another perspective on the excerpts. I especially liked the idea of helping my students with the orchestral literature. I feel I grew much technically and musically.
Here is a link to the Cabrillo Chamber Orchestra.
My life with the violin feels like “then” and “now”, so let me start by saying what I did with the violin then. I graduated from Manhattan School of Music with a violin performance degree in 1991. My dream, since I was quite young, was to play for the New York Philharmonic. I had a big problem, though: I was terrified to audition. I have debilitating stage fright. In fact, throughout my years in music I went out of my way to avoid auditioning, going to music camps as a counselor instead of auditioning for music festivals and things of this sort. Back in those days conservatories didn’t have performance experts and sports psychologists like some do now. No one talked about nerves and so I kept quiet, assuming I just wasn’t good enough or hadn’t practiced enough. So I’d practice and practice but could never perform in a pressure situation. Eventually it got so bad that I quit music altogether and went to medical school.
As for “now”, it has become apparent through the wisdom of age that performance anxiety, specifically around the audition experience, is something that I need to face up to. So I got a good technical teacher, read every book I could find on stage fright, bought Noa Kageyama’s online course, and read all the blogs. I started making my friends come over to hear me play, I played for my husband, my kids, I even played at a farmer’s market for exposure. Gradually I have come to be able to play short pieces in my teacher’s studio recitals and recently played a sonata for a group of seniors in a retirement home. Last summer I joined an adult chamber music group.
I even got the courage up to send in an audition video to the Boston University school of music, and I’m thrilled to tell you that after finishing the Challenge, I was accepted to the graduate performance diploma program at Boston University!
I learned so many things during the Challenge. I learned that I practiced in entirely the wrong way in college. I learned that my “head game”, my mental preparation, was virtually non-existent. I learned that recording myself is crucial.
As I look forward to “starting over” with the violin at BU, let me share a few words that I wrote as part of my application there: When people hear that I want to go back to music school, they usually ask the following question: “Are you crazy?”. And I answer that yes, I am. I’m crazy for wanting the communion of like-minded souls. I’m crazy for wanting to challenge myself in performance. I’m crazy for thinking that I deserve a do-over. I’m crazy for craving that rare, beautiful moment when the fear fades away, the music takes over, and musician and audience forget that there is any separation between them.
Instead of a musical link, here is a link to my medical policy blog!
Before deciding to stay home with my children, I was a freelance violist in the Chicago area. I had won several auditions, but I had a nagging thought that I was missing something. The professors I had in college did not focus on excerpts or preparing for auditions. About three years ago I interviewed for a teaching job at a local arts school. Even though the position was to teach beginning violin and viola and my resume was all about my skills as a violist; I was never asked if I played the violin, which I did not! I was hired and bought my first violin the next day. Turns out I really like playing violin.
When I first read about this Challenge, I wasn’t going to do it. I’m not sure I will ever take another orchestra audition, especially a violin audition. But after thinking about it for several days I decided to start it. I figured I could always drop out! There were several times throughout the 15 weeks that I was not sure I would be able to get an acceptable video prepared in time to meet the deadline. But in the end I told myself that I would learn something from whatever I submitted.
The Challenge taught me to be more engaged in my playing, both technically and mentally. Technically I really concentrated on solidifying fingerings, shifts and planning exactly what to do during a rest to be prepared for the next entrance. It doesn’t really count to think about it once or twice. You have to have the discipline to check yourself and be sure you are integrating your plans into your performance every single time. Mentally I learned how to better prepare the start of an excerpt and how to keep concentrating throughout. Again, this is more complicated than it initially sounds. It took disciplined practice over a period of time to really internalize and produce the ideas and sounds I wanted. I found that frequently I know in my head how I want something to sound, but I am not always conveying it through my playing.
About a month after the Challenge was over I performed the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante. This is a piece I know very well and have performed…as a violist! I had never played the violin part before. I was able to apply many of the ideas I had been working on for the Challenge to this piece. The result was probably the best performance I have played in a very long time.
I am currently a senior in high school. I’m the concertmaster in the Jackson TN Youth Symphony, and I also play as a guest section violinist in the Union University Orchestra. I don’t play a ton of solo repertoire (unless etudes and scales count), but I recently picked up Mozart’s 5th concerto again and polished it. It’s sounding very good the 2nd time through!
I decided to take the Challenge because I will probably audition for some professional orchestras at some point (though not for the the New York Phil!), and I wanted to know what the learning process and repertoire was like. I was also in the final stages of preparation for an important audition (for the concertmaster chair in my youth orchestra), and I thought it would be interesting to compare your preparation techniques with the ones I was using. I really like the process that you outlined: keeping track of your progress in a practice journal and with videos; and also the two-step learning process for the repertoire where we would work on Don Juan for a week, for example, and then allow it to sit on the back burner for a time before focusing on it again.
As a high school student with a part-time job and two orchestra positions, I didn’t have a ton of time to put into the Challenge. I practiced the excerpts only a couple hours a week, and mainly focused on turning in the video assignments on time. The biggest difficulty was the recurring struggle to record my videos by the time limit. Nearly every other weekend, there was a party with my friends, family road trip, concert, or unexpected event that threatened to deter me from completing an assignment. I tried to plan ahead for these to the best of my ability, and would often record videos days in advance so that I was sure to get them completed. When things came up at the last minute, I played it by ear but always kept the assignments as a high priority.
I’m a member of Violinist.com, a great resource for all violinists!