15 Minute Mini-Epics—Orchestra Auditions

You would never guess that hearing auditions can be just as emotional as playing them. Each one is like a 15 minute mini epic. I just spent an intense weekend hearing new and returning students from all over the city audition for the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. And I’m filled with awe…

In 15 minutes we try to grasp the gestalt of each person. We hear them play scales, an orchestra excerpt, and do sight reading, where they play a short passage they’ve never seen before. There is just enough time for a couple of questons about their background, their other interests, their favorite music and books. But it’s amazing what you can absorb about someone in just these brief moments. And it can be just as emotional for the adjudicators as the students. 

Take serious-minded, 15 year old Lydia, who had spent the last two years unsuccessfully trying to move up from the back of the violin section. Her musical passion was unmistakable. She asked the most thoughtful questions after rehearsals. But there were a lot of tears and frustration after she continually tested low in seating placements. But this was a different Lydia playing today. With new confidence, she looked us in the eye, and said “I’m playing my scales in F sharp major and minor.” That was a first—students usually default to easier scales that don’t have 6 sharps! She meant to impress and suddenly had the technique to communicate the  musicality inside her. No, we weren’t going to move her up a seat in the section, we were moving her out of that intermediate orchestra into our advanced ensemble. We asked what happened over the summer. She calmly looked up and said, “Three hours of practice, every day.” That’s not a parent pushing a kid, that’s a determined young adult.

We heard Winston last spring, just a week after he moved to the United States. He is an advanced violinist who played well. We were delighted to accept him. But he wasn’t satisfied. He requested to reaudition after summer. Here he was again, same solid technique, but now with a deeper musicality, clearer phrasing, more drama. He wanted us to hear that. I’m deeply moved, both at his standards and that I realize I will be working with so many students this semester that will dare to go beneath the surface Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. 

Jai is a double bass player and really nervous. He has three of us listening—the bass coach, the cello coach, and me the conductor. He’s on a fast track to audition for the advanced orchestra and he’s feeling the pressure. It’s not going great. He’s clearly dissatisfied with his playing and making several errors. We stop him and have him try different ideas. He calms down and we can easily hear his potential and musicality. He’s going to be fine. 

The biggest surprise, though, was thirteen year old Samantha. She sits in the back of our Violin 3 section—our most elementary group. We had modest expectations for Samantha. But something clearly happened this summer. We didn’t have time to find out what it was, but she played with a new focus and a thin, but pretty sound that hinted at something more.  Her intonation had improved 1000% and her rhythm was spot on. Her full potential is still hampered by tiny bow strokes, but we all heard it—the emergence of a  poised and sensitive musician. It was beautiful to hear and watch. Our feedback changed her posture and smile. She is on her way. 

These are just five stories from many other stories that day. But they took me out of myself into something much larger and deeply moving. You get inside the fabric of humanity that goes past all the nonsense and into real meaning, the stuff that lasts, the stuff that really matters. This is the hidden narrative that makes the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra so compelling.  

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