Winning Is Not Everything

by John Hagstrom

Last month’s article was one in which Jay offered his insight and advice about trumpet auditions. He talks about specific excerpts, strategy, and offers descriptive advice about several aspects of playing that are crucial to a successful audition experience. Jay showed me that article as he was writing it, and we had a long conversation about auditions and what kind of instructive advice can be most helpful to aspiring players. He suggested that I construct an article to follow the one he wrote to speak about many of those same issues from the point of view of someone who plays the trumpet and has successfully taken trumpet auditions. I agreed to take on that challenge, and hopefully the result will be something that adds to Jay’s perspective in a useful way. I would like to emphasize from the beginning that I agree with his assertion that “style wins auditions”, and in giving my perspective I am providing supportive information toward the same conclusion. It is also important to note that this is not meant in any way to be a comprehensive guide to guaranteed audition success.

My own experience taking auditions and listening to auditions is hopefully enough to have gained some informative insight that can be of benefit. I won the audition for fourth trumpet of the Chicago Symphony in 1996 and then auditioned successfully for second trumpet a year later when Will Scarlett retired from that position. Before joining the CSO I had also won auditions for the Marine Band in Washington, D.C., and for the principal trumpet position of the Wichita Symphony. As a CSO member I have listened to well over one thousand auditions (!) and you can imagine that I have had ample opportunities to see some typical patterns in those who advance and win auditions. And, because there is only one winner (if any) for each audition, most of what I have heard as an audition committee member have been efforts that have fallen short of success.

In my opinion, the first and most important activity of anyone contemplating a decision of whether or not to take an audition(s) should be a resolution to define what will constitute a successful audition experience. If your one word answer is “winning”, let me suggest that you are not spending your thought energy very efficiently. “Winning” may or may not be the end result if you are controlling all that you can about your awareness, preparation, understanding, and dramatic intention/expectation for each moment. Whether or not others will approve of your efforts in this way is something you can’t control, and at some level we all know that. It is no wonder that we become agitated and nervous when, by identifying “winning” as our top priority, we try to directly control what know we can’t control. When you control successfully all of the things you are capable of controlling, you have had a successful audition experience. Winning doesn’t matter, and this is corroborated by an ancient eastern thought that basically states that “the best way to obtain something is to not want it.”

If you are intellectually convinced that the paragraph above is true, but you still are paralyzed by nervous anticipation, it may be largely due to the possibility that you haven’t practiced the frequency and intensity of talking yourself out of “winning” and thereby conditioning yourself to have stronger internal voices that are focused on other targets. The target I used when I was preparing for my CSO auditions was a simple phrase that I would repeat to myself when I felt that anxiety. That phrase was “notice and fix”. My primary targets (in my practicing) would be to notice how what I was playing did or did not conform to my intention, and then to formulate a solution to make it conform. I did not invest emotional capital pumping up my positive emotions about my performance. I spent the greatest proportion of my time magnifying my expectation for what exactly what I wanted to sound like (by listening, singing, recording myself singing, etc.), and that was the master of my efforts. The rest of my time was spent cleverly discovering better ways to be obedient to this image. That could come in the form of a deducing a different maintenance routine to get myself conditioned for better stylistic agility; or, it might have been a different choice of equipment to facilitate playing Bach directly after Mahler; or, it might have been something as simple as always remembering to blow the water out of a horn before playing an excerpt cold. Whatever the action was, it was always an act of obedience to finding a way to be conforming more exactly to the musical image I had set for myself.

Does this mean that the process of audition preparation should lack an emotional basis? Excellent question. I believe that the answer lies in separating the emotions that are IN the music away from the emotions we have ABOUT the music and about our abilities to render the emotional effects of the music. In other words, it is important to channel our emotional commitment TOWARD the heartfelt connection we might attempt to make (for example) in a lyrically expressive excerpt and AWAY from the emotional hot buttons of how the performance is going so far and whether it will be enough to validate our efforts. This may seem at first to be a subtle distinction, but when properly achieved it conserves the limited emotional investment we are capable of making, and channels it directly toward the areas where emotional authenticity and vulnerability can do the most to help us have a successful audition experience.

And this gets us back to Jay’s premise that “style wins auditions”. For me, “style” may need to be defined more precisely before we proceed. When we speak of someone with a great sense of musical style, I think we would agree that their musical offerings are very powerful and capable of capturing our imaginations as though we were in rapt attention to a great story teller who holds us under their spell with every word and gesture. In the audition situation, the words (excerpts) to the story you are telling are well known to the committee. They have likely heard them over and over and over in the moments (hours) before you get your moment to perform. On the surface this may seem to indicate that it is impossible to stand out from the crowd, but this is false. With my students, I often use the example of the (American) pledge of allegiance. We all know the words. We can all say it mindlessly while tying our shoes and looking at what’s in the refrigerator for dinner. It is possible, however, to say the pledge of allegiance in a way that stops the listener from looking at their watch. It is possible to say the pledge of allegiance in a way that authentically tells people that, whether it is true or not, you love the United States of America with all of your heart and will be loyal to its cause right now and forever more. Imagine for a moment that kind of rendition of that pledge. The listener already knows every word you will say, but you are demanding the attention of this moment and conveying an authentic caring for the continuity of the idea you are expressing. This is the kind of attention you must command in the audition, and your command of nuance and musical narrative is the engine of dramatic momentum that gets the committee into the moment (and to stop “twiddling their thumbs” as Jay says).

The very next thing Jay wrote about when he was explaining how to bring about a great style was to “make a great sound!” This says to me that there is a distinction between our story and our voice. The story is the dramatic agenda over time that shows human experience and (hopefully) maturity. The voice (sound) is the ability to pull people out of their own mental chatter and into your story. Jay describes what works for him to achieve this effect, and I am a first hand witness to tell you that he is able to create that effect on the listener very powerfully and very consistently.

It is always difficult to use words to describe actions, because the same word can have slightly different implications for different people with different experiences. I agree with Jay qualitatively about what the sound must accomplish, especially in terms of its size, intensity and and dramatic immediacy at all volumes and registers. I would also say, however, that trumpet playing has been documented to be requiring more physical exertion than any other instrument in the orchestra (especially high loud percussive trumpet playing). We can get into some paradoxical trouble if, by striving for a relaxed quality of sound, that we deny ourselves the minimum effort, tongue position, etc. required to accomplish the task. Each player must calibrate for themselves what that minimum requirement will be, and then strive to eliminate harmful excess from their habits. My own experience and observation of successful trumpet players has proven to me over and over again that relaxation is a function of strength. If you are strong enough to hold a ten pound weight for ten minutes with ease, and then you can hold it for an additional thirty minutes with some more significant strain, the fact that you are capable of holding it for forty minutes total is what fuels your relaxed effort for the first ten minutes. This analogy can be reconfigured for illustrating relaxation in the context of the amount of weight, speed of lift, flexibility, stamina of concentration, etc. The idea is that we can achieve relaxation with any task by having developed a reserve of capability to do the task in a more extended or intensified way. I think Jay agrees with this in the way he describes the need for extremes in developing vibrato, time spent in the low register, etc. Strong instrumental skills are the servants of your story, and that development takes time and careful strategy.

Jay describes the player who has strong tools and uses them to connect with the committee on a specific excerpt as “earning points”, and in the sense that their playing moves us to prefer them in that moment to some increment, he is right on target. In the final hour of an audition, however, objectified points (such as a count of how many notes or rhythms missed) have very little weight on the outcome between several well qualified candidates. The winner, in my experience observing CSO audition circumstances, is the candidate who captures the imaginations of the committee. That capture is brought about because of the style that they demonstrate on their own in a solo setting, but then also in the context of the different demands of various excerpts.

The ultimate test of a great style is to modify one’s playing in an instant within the circumstance of matching and enhancing appropriately the collective style of other players. In this situation, pitch, tone color, rhythmic placement, imitative emphasis, etc. may have been decided by others. Whether a player can assess those constraints and simultaneously match and enhance the collective offering of the moment will be a powerful asset to capture the imaginations of those listening. They are imagining that this candidate will be the best companion in the task of what will be essential to the collective impact of the orchestra. If the audition does not have a moment in which the candidate plays with others as part of their test, these abilities will be scrutinized on the job, and the successful candidate will KEEP their job. And once one has won and kept their job, the next challenge is to have a consistent facility and spirit to work well musically and personally with others, perhaps for decades to come. Having a great style is the catalyst for winning an audition, but it is ultimately is just the doorway to a lifetime of challenge, responsibility and privilege.

John Hagstrom
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
November 11, 2005

Below, I have provided three short excerpts of my upcoming CD with the DePaul University Wind Ensemble, directed by Donald DeRoche.

Davis: Escapade
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise
Mendez: Scherzo