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Deceptive Cadence

A Musician And The Audition Of His Life

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 3:18 pm

Earlier this year, classical percussionist Mike Tetreault walked onstage at Symphony Hall in Boston for the audition of a lifetime: The Boston Symphony Orchestra was looking for not just one but two new percussionists.

"I remember walking out on stage and thinking, my gosh, my footsteps sound like I'm walking in the halls of heaven," Tetreault tells NPR's Guy Raz. "This is a place where music happens. This is a place where the ultimate of human expression through classical music is realized day in and day out. And it was exciting. I wanted to play, and I wanted to play well. I wanted to enjoy every moment."

Tetreault spent almost a year preparing for the audition. At the time, Tetreault worked for several orchestras in Colorado, but this was different. This was the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the most coveted jobs in the classical music world.

And the BSO had been a force in Tetreault's consciousness since he was just a kid. "The BSO, along with the London Symphony Orchestra, played the soundtrack to my childhood," he says. "Growing up around the house, we always had Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing. The moment I knew I wanted to do music was listening to the soundtrack of Star Wars [played by the London Symphony Orchestra] for the first time. The beginning of my awareness of classical music was through Boston Symphony." Star Wars composer John Williams is a laureate conductor of the Boston Pops.

After growing up in Boston, Tetreault went off to study classical percussion at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and at the Royal Academy of Music in London. And he made quite a career for himself. By last year, he was in his early 30s, living in Colorado and working as a professional musician. His income in 2011 was around $60,000; the year before, he made a little bit more. "I'm putting in a lot of hours, but I'm one of the fortunate ones," he says. "I get to do what I love for a living."

He and his wife were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Denver when one day, he got word: The Boston Symphony was hiring. And not just one percussionist but two. "As long as I've been in the classical music business, I can't remember one audition for two positions," he says. "This was lightning in a bottle. I would say at the moment there are somewhere between 200 and 300 people in the United States who are willing to put in the hours and sacrifice everything for the opportunity at least to land one of these positions."

Mike was one of those people. After all, the BSO is one of the best orchestras in the country, and the best funded. You can make six figures playing there. Benefits. Vacation. It would mean a real working life for Mike, doing what he loves, in the city he loves.

Tetreault says he spent almost a year preparing for the audition. This was his life during that period: After working a full day of patchwork gigs scattered across Colorado, he'd go to his practice space until about 1 a.m., then drive home and be asleep by 2 a.m. And then at 6 o'clock, he'd get up and start all over again.

He passed the first-round audition, which the orchestra asks applicants to send by video: 10 minutes of each musician playing excerpts from 14 different pieces. And because Tetreault is a percussionist, he knew his audition had to be flawless if he wanted to advance to the next round. Flawless on snare drum, flawless on cymbals, flawless on xylophone, flawless on triangle, flawless on tambourine and flawless on a Bach cello sonata — played on marimba. Only about 30 musicians advanced past that first round.

But once he nailed the video round, Tetreault says no amount of practice could have prepared him for what happened in his live audition, where the percussionists were asked to play about 50 excerpts on nine different instruments. It's a blind audition, so the players are hidden from the judges' sight by a screen. Mike sailed through his first three pieces. But then things changed.

"I felt as though everything was a step away from me," he says. "I didn't feel as though my reaction time, my instincts and my ability to execute things was really close to the surface. I got to the marimba to play [Akira Miyoshi's very technically challenging piece for marimba called] Torse III, and remember thinking to myself, 'I just don't feel good about this today, but I'd rather go for it and fall flat than try to be safe,' " he says. "So I went for it, and in the middle of going for it — which sometimes can happen on marimba; we're holding two sticks in each hand — one of the sticks got caught underneath the row of accidental keys. And I thought, 'Oh boy.' "

"I had mentally practiced something going wrong in that piece," he continues, "but what I hadn't prepared for was literally the stick getting stuck in the instrument. I had to pull it out."

Tetreault says he couldn't recover from the mistake: "In the process, that threw things off. I missed a few notes that made the rest of it come out uneven, and a little bit hurried, and sort of scattered. And so at that point, I thought, 'Ugh. This isn't how I drew up the plans.' "

Later that night, Mike got the call. "I believe I was out at dinner," he says, "and I saw the phone ring and I thought, 'There's no need to answer.' I knew my day was finished."

We first read about Mike Tetreault in a story by Jennie Dorris in the latest issue of Boston Magazine. That article has fueled a lot of discussion in the classical music world about the nature of professional auditions: whether the pressure is too high or the expectations too unrealistic.

As for Tetreault: He's still living in Denver and is currently ramping up for another round of auditions early next year — but not with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

And in our music segment today, the story of chasing a dream. Earlier this year, percussionist Mike Tetreault walked onstage at Symphony Hall in Boston for the audition of a lifetime: a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

MIKE TETREAULT: I remember walking out on stage and thinking, my gosh, my footsteps sound as though I'm walking in the, you know, in the halls of heaven. This is a place where music happens. This is a place where the ultimate of human expression through classical music is realized day in and day out. And it was exciting. I wanted to play. I wanted to play well. I wanted to enjoy every moment.

RAZ: Mike had an audition for other orchestras, of course. At the time, he worked for several in Colorado. But this was different. This was the BSO, one of the most coveted jobs in the classical music world. So how did he get there?

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" THEME SONG)

TETREAULT: Growing up around the house, we always had Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing. The moment I knew I wanted to do music was listening to "Star Wars" the first time.

RAZ: And so after growing up in Boston, Mike went off to study classical percussion at the Royal Academy of Music in London. And he made quite a career for himself. By last year, he was in his early 30s, living in Colorado, working as a professional musician. How were you - I mean, and you were earning a decent living or what?

TETREAULT: Yeah. In 2011, it was around 60,000. Last year, it was a little bit more. Putting in a lot of hours, but I'm one of the fortunate ones. I get to do it - for a living.

RAZ: At the time, Mike and his wife were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Denver when one day he got word: the Boston Symphony was hiring, and not just one percussionist, but two.

TETREAULT: As long as I've been in the classical music business, I can't remember one audition for two positions. This was a lightning in a bottle. And I'd say at the moment, there are somewhere between 200 and 300 people in the United States anyway who are willing to put in the hours and sacrifice everything for the opportunity, at least, to land one of these positions.

RAZ: Mike, of course, was one of those people. After all, the BSO is among the best orchestras in the country and the best funded. You can make six figures playing there, benefits, vacation. It would mean a real working life for Mike doing what he loved in the city he loved. So Mike got a hold of the audition repertoire, and he started preparing.

Describe an example of the busiest day you had during the rehearsal process. Like, what would you do? You'd get up...

TETREAULT: I remember one day in particular. And I got up at 6, and I listened for about an hour to the previous night's tapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: I was recording a video.

RAZ: A video. That's because the first part of a BSO audition isn't at Symphony Hall. It's a video you have to send in.

TETREAULT: The video was a 10-minute run-through of 14 different pieces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So after working a full day playing patchwork gigs, Mike would head to a rehearsal space where he'd stay practicing as late as 1 in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: At around 1 o'clock, I figured that was enough, got in my car, drove home, and I was asleep by 2. And I think I got up at 6 the next morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, this was more or less his life for about a year. Mike knew his video had to be flawless if he wanted to advance to the next round: flawless on snare drum, flawless on cymbals, flawless on a Bach cello piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And remember, Mike is a percussionist.

TETREAULT: Yeah. The - it's very common for orchestras to ask transcriptions of Bach's solo pieces on marimba. And so they asked for the first 16 bars of that Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, the (unintelligible) movement...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: ...on marimba.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: You know, Bach on marimba is one of those things if you put a note out, the world will know it. But more than that, it's - for me anyway - it's finding a way to express the music that doesn't sound too mechanical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: You also had to play a Gershwin piece on the xylophone, a piece from "Porgy and Bess." Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: For me, that's why I love orchestra music, that at the beginning of that, it sounds like Grand Central at 5 o'clock on a Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: When I'm playing it on my own in an audition, I'm as much as possible trying to hear the orchestra behind it as I'm playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TETREAULT: I always tell people if you sat where I sat in the orchestra you'd want to do it for your life too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, these are some of the most challenging pieces ever written, and sometimes featuring instruments you might not think about: a triangle or a tambourine, like the one in Dvorak's "Carnival Overture."

TETREAULT: "Carnival Overture" is one of those pieces that every single percussion audition will ask you to play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL OVERTURE")

TETREAULT: (Unintelligible) tambourine technique, it's a lot of fun to play...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL OVERTURE")

TETREAULT: ...but requires an awful lot of dexterity and coordination.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL OVERTURE")

TETREAULT: For me, the tambourine part is - I've been to Rome a few times, and I always picture, sort of the large piazzas in Rome on a festival day and just a lot of noise and joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL OVERTURE")

TETREAULT: To play, it feels as though you're staring down on rival band across the square and trying to make your celebration more joyful than theirs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL OVERTURE")

RAZ: Mike's relationship with the music made all the difference in the end when he finally sent in his audition video. And, remember, this is just to get a live audition. He nailed it.

TETREAULT: They invited to come and play live 30 or so of us.

RAZ: And a few months later, those 30 musicians arrived to Symphony Hall where they began to warm up in the basement. They prepared excerpts from over 50 songs on nine instruments for an elite selection committee.

TETREAULT: And I always find that part the hardest. There's a lot of people around. Some people are just getting ready for their audition. Some people have played and are packing up to leave. There's a lot of nervous energy down there. And I've always found, for me, it helps to not play a whole lot but just to relax and trust my preparation and do the best I can. But once I get on stage, I finally feel like (exhales) I can breathe. Let's do this now.

RAZ: On stage but behind a screen.

TETREAULT: Yes, the indomitable screen.

RAZ: Because these are blind auditions. Nobody can see you. Mike sailed through his first three pieces.

TETREAULT: The next piece was marimba, and it was a Japanese piece called "Torse III."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORSE III")

TETREAULT: It was very angular, very difficult, very technically challenging.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORSE III")

TETREAULT: And when I got up to play it, I just feel- felt as though everything was a step away from me. I didn't feel as though my reaction time and my instincts and my ability to execute things the first time was really close to the surface, which is what you want on an audition day. And I got to the marimba to play the "Torse III," and I remember thinking to myself, you know, I just don't feel good about this today, but I'd rather go for it and fall flat than try and be safe and morph and not make a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORSE III")

TETREAULT: And so I went for it. And in the middle of going for it, which sometimes can happen on a marimba - we're holding two sticks in each hand - one of the sticks got caught underneath the row of accidental keys. I remember when it happened, me thinking, oh, boy.

And I had actually mentally practiced something going wrong in that piece. Oh, boy. But what I hadn't prepared for was, I mean, literally the stick getting stuck in the instrument. I had to...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORSE III")

TETREAULT: ...pull it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TORSE III")

TETREAULT: And in the process, that threw things off, and I missed a few notes that made the rest of it come out uneven, you know and a little hurried and sort of scattered. And so at that point, I thought, this isn't how I drew up the plans.

RAZ: Later that night, Mike got the call.

TETREAULT: I believe I was out at dinner. And I saw the phone ring, and I thought, there's no need to answer it. I'll be polite to her and answer. And I don't remember the words exactly, but what I remember hearing from the impression was, the audition (unintelligible) we'd like to thank you so much for taking the time for come out. I knew my day was finished. I regret to inform you that...

RAZ: We first read about Mike Tetreault's story in the latest issue of Boston magazine. That article has fueled a lot of discussion in the classical music world about the nature of professional auditions, whether the pressure is too high, the expectations too unrealistic. Mike's fairly conservative on all this, but he does think there is room for improvement. For instance, he was cut in the first round after judges heard just a small fraction of what he was asked to prepare. Mike thinks maybe they should hear everything first and then decide later.

This all happened back in January. How has it been going since?

TETREAULT: It's been going better. If I think about these auditions and those processes and narrative in which each chapter is slightly improved than the previous, then I'm encouraged. You know, if you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got. I'm an infinitely better player having gone through the preparation. So, yeah, I'm excited about this next round of opportunity, and hope I can do my best.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" THEME SONG)

RAZ: That's Mike Tetreault. He's still living in Denver. He's ramping up for another round of auditions early next year, although not with the BSO. After his story was published in Boston Magazine, people from all over the world reached out to help, offering tips and coaching. Mike says he'll take a few of them up on it. And a link to that story is at our website. It's by writer Jennie Dorris. And you can find that at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF "STAR WARS" THEME SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.