May 17, 2018

Schmucks in Tuxedos



Nikolette (Nikki) LaBonte, horn
 by Nikolette LaBonte

At one of our most recent orchestra meetings, a guest made a statement that really made me laugh.  When discussing the relationship between orchestra members and their audience he commented, “You’ve got them totally fooled.  They think you are the ritziest people around and they have no idea that you’re just a bunch of schmucks in evening gowns and tuxedos.”

A classic case of “it’s funny because it’s true”.  That remark is a spot-on assessment of our classical musician paradox.  When we walk onstage in Kodak Hall, we do our best to match both the lavish décor of the hall and our elegant attire.  But, beneath our onstage appearance of grace and charm, we’re busy complaining about our plow guy not showing up on time, the latest parking ticket we got, and coming home to a mess because we forget to let the dog out before we left for rehearsal.  You see, I am not a perfect person.  Please try to contain your complete shock and surprise.  I have never played a perfect concert and, while the French horn may be a bit more prone to error than most instruments, I think every professional musician would tell you the same thing.   If they don’t, they are undoubtedly lying.  However, when I learn of a weakness in my performance or notice an error in intonation or a missed note, I try to avoid long stretches of internally berating myself.  Instead, I make an effort to examine it as a new possibility to gather information and learn.  In that way, I’ve observed that I have tended to grow more from my failures rather than my successes.  Success simply validates what you already are.  


 I’ll stop for a second and say that this is important!  I try to make sure I have enough validation in my life even if I have to provide it myself.  “Way to go, Nikki!  You got a primo parking spot at the East Avenue Wegmans!  You’re unstoppable today!”  However, failure allows us to examine what we could have done better--how could we have turned that situation into a success.  Sometimes, that is as simple as correcting the note we are buzzing or making sure to take in a more expansive breath before the start of a long phrase.  But other times, it involves facing real obstacles and weaknesses in ourselves as musicians and figuring out just how we can overcome or correct them. 

 
My journey to be a member of the RPO is an example of this.   I joined the orchestra in fall of 2016 after winning a national audition held on April 24th and 25th.  Naturally, I was over the moon.  However, that April audition was the third time I had applied for the job.  The other two preceding times, I was not hired.  

The first audition was in December of 2014.  I was a sophomore at the Eastman School of Music studying under the tutelage of RPO principal horn, Peter Kurau.  I had recently made the substitute list of the RPO and because of that was invited to an interim audition for the Associate/Assistant Principal slot.  The previous horn player had left the orchestra midseason and they needed someone to fill the roll immediately, without having time for a national audition.  Being young and naïve, I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring.  What was the worst that could happen?  

Something about my playing caught the attention of the panel and I was selected as a finalist for this position.  Seeing that I had a lack of experience in my resume, they thought it would be best for me and the other finalist to each have a few trial weeks.  I spent all of my winter break practicing and preparing myself for this opportunity and I did my very best onstage to present myself as a confident member of the orchestra.  I knew I could do this job and was desperate for a chance to join the ensemble I’d been faithfully observing for two years now.  The other candidate’s weeks were after mine so my blood pressure skyrocketed every time I received a phone call from a 585 area code number for about a month.  I was on spring break in New York City with my best friend when I got the call.  The other candidate had been selected.  I was absolutely crushed.  I spent that whole evening sobbing while my friend made sure I had an unlimited supply of tissues, white wine, and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.   The next day, I emailed my professor, tail between my legs, and asked for feedback from my performance.  He graciously provided constructive comments and said I could work on making my sound darker and richer and I should strive for a greater knowledge of the symphonic repertoire and its nuances.  

I immediately hit the ground running.  I saved up enough money to buy a new horn that would allow me to expand my sound concept and practiced orchestral parts and excerpts every night until the school practice rooms closed at 11 PM.  I knew that there would have to be a national audition for this position in order to give everyone across the country a chance at the spot.  That date was set for October of 2015 and, for those next 9 months, I had my sights completely transfixed on that single moment.  In the meantime, I had auditioned for a position in the Hawaii Symphony and was appointed as their Assistant Principal Horn.  I knew this would give me the opportunity to get some real on-the-job experience so I put my Eastman studies on hold and moved out to Honolulu in September.  Despite this move, never once did I lose sight of that October audition.  

That audition day finally arrived and I put everything I had on the line.  I played my absolute best and made it all the way to the final round.  It was me and the same candidate who had won the interim spot.  After waiting 45 minutes while the audition panel deliberated, they came out with the news.  The RPO would not be hiring anyone at this time.  Neither of us were up to the standard of what they wanted long term, but please try again when the next audition is announced.  Please try again.  Commence round two of sobbing for an entire day.  Sure, I had my job in Hawaii to return to (my flight was the next day) and travelling to a tropical island paradise might not seem like such a bad thing to you, but to me it was the worst.  I knew RPO was a better job and I didn’t want to be in Hawaii.  I wanted to be here.  

Once again, I met with Professor Kurau asking for comments and suggestions for aspects of my playing I could improve.  After a few minutes of me unsuccessfully trying to suppress tears, he lovingly talked me through my audition and provided me with some additional comments.  I needed to gain more “on-the-job” experience and could work on my intonation and tone.  I was over-efforting through the horn and I could get a better sense of ease through a lot of fundamentals practice.  He encouraged me to go to Hawaii, learn from the musicians out there, spend some time practicing the basics, maybe try to enjoy the weather, and to please come back for the next audition.  That would be in April 2016.  

And I tried to do just that.  I learned just how a professional orchestra functions by interacting with my HSO colleagues.  I learned how to translate the practice I was doing at home into successful orchestral performances.  I learned who to listen to, how to lead a section, how to maintain consistency in repeated concerts.  I would listen to famous orchestral recordings on my bus rides to and from work.  And when I got home, I would practice.  I focused less on repertoire and more on fundamental concepts.  If I could make all of these notes have a quality tone, one at a time, I could synthesize them together in any passage in the orchestral repertoire.  I also did find time to go hiking and scuba diving, made new friends, and ate some amazing food.  (I still am searching for the perfect poke bowl back here on the mainland—recommendations appreciated).  I was happy in Hawaii and loved my time there but April was always on my mind.  This time, however, when that audition rolled around, I knew that no matter what, I was going to be a better musician.  Whether or not I was the candidate the RPO would select, I knew that I would be sounding better than the last time they heard me.  I had changed and evolved so much in those 6 months and I was happy with how I was playing.  I felt that I was in control of the instrument and I could fully express myself in ways that I never was able to before.  No matter what happened on April 25th, I knew I had made myself a better artist.

Once again, I made it all the way to the final round.  I walked back to the waiting area and instead of being terrified of the news that might follow, I found myself calm.  I had represented myself accurately in the audition room.  It wasn’t perfect.  Auditions are never perfect.  But it was how I played.  That audition had been a genuine reflection of me.

I’ve already spoiled the ending of this story so you know how it goes.  An hour and a half later, I got the good news.  Over the next few months, I said a bittersweet goodbye to my HSO friends and prepared for the move back to Rochester.  I started with the RPO in 2016, was tenured in May of 2017, and have enjoyed every single moment since.  

While writing this post, I had the opportunity to reflect back on this entire journey and these auditions specifically.  I asked myself what would have happened if I had won the first one and joined the RPO then?  I spent a few moments thinking about it.  I didn’t have the experience I needed and was unprepared from a technique standpoint.  I would have been woefully unqualified for the position and honestly, probably wouldn’t still have it.  I never thought I would admit this, but I am so very thankful that I lost those auditions.  I simply would not be the player I am today, with a job that I love and colleagues that inspire me.  Mistakes and lessons learned are the ways we improve something, be it a chipped note or someone’s overall musicianship.  For these reasons, I am grateful for my failures.   I am truly just a “schmuck in an evening gown” and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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