I’ve always believed that violinists would make excellent criminals, because every time you play something well, you’ve committed the perfect crime.
The difference between playing a note right and playing a note wrong happens in a matter of a millimeter. No matter how effortless it looks, a performance is never effortless. If all goes well, you feel as if you’ve gotten away with murder.
I'm back to plotting those crimes again, every Thursday night, with a group of peers. Somehow, I stumbled into a spot in an orchestra without destroying my peace of mind.
It wasn't easy.
After I spent two years regaining the skills to play, I found that I could not stand the idea of spending another year alone in a room playing for a camera. I needed people around me. But while I missed the transcendent experience of summoning a symphony with a group of peers, I was afraid of the drive and the obsession that can come with entering the performance arena.
It's easy to make the mistake of heading down the path to flawlessness.
I decided to audition for an orchestra at a highly selective college that depends on community members to fill out the violin sections. At first, when I looked at the audition requirements, it didn’t seem too bad:
- Sight reading
- Something from the literature
- All major scales up to four sharps and four flats
I had four months to prepare.
I started considering the literature. What could I play? I pulled out a Bach concerto – the one I played for my scholarship audition 40 years ago. I opened the score, and it played itself. Somehow, I committed a perfect crime, right out the gate.
Then, of course, I lost confidence in the selection.
“Wait!” I thought. “This is the piece your 6-year-old plays for his audition at Juilliard. I can’t play this!”
Then I started the scales – ten scales total. I could play a scale per day, 40 minutes per day, during the summer months. Forty notes per scale. In other words, 400 notes that must be played to the millimeter.
Could I do it in four months’ time?
I gave myself two months to decide.
During that time, I started having nightmares about getting lost on the way to the concert hall. Decades after graduation, I woke up in a sweat, worried that I would lose my scholarship and my ability to pay for college.
A couple of weeks after the nightmares started, I realized that I could not proceed with the audition.
When I started this project in 2021, the challenge of learning to play again involved re-building the skills simply for the sake of the music. I wanted to leave behind the duress of juries, auditions and competitions. I realized that even if I aced the college audition, I would be entering an orchestra full of musicians who still moved in the competitive music world.
Even so, after I decided to stop the audition prep, I embraced part of the audition sheet. I had become stuck and uninspired with my practice regimen, so I spent the rest of the summer studying a scale a day.
It was a real “wax on, wax off” approach:
Then, soon after I blew off the audition, I stumbled across a strange opportunity:
Another local college – a less selective college – was holding a summer chamber music workshop! For free! I signed up right away.
The conductor had just taken the helm of that college’s orchestra, and she also ran another orchestra, which is populated mostly by professionals. After the two-day summer workshop concluded, she asked me if I wanted to play in the orchestra with the professionals.
I declined. In part, it was because of that group’s rehearsal schedule, and in part, it was because I knew I wasn’t ready to play at that level. The nightmares would have returned. So I joined the orchestra of the less selective college, and I did it without the duress of an audition.
She placed me in a position of leadership – second chair, first section, next to the concertmaster. When the concertmaster can’t make it, I take over.
The violin sections are populated by intermediate students and adult learners who have never played in an ensemble. It’s like Youth Symphony, except most of the players have gone gray. I feel useful there.
While I had not planned on playing in a position of leadership right out the gate, I’m equal to the challenge. After all, I’ve played in elite groups, off and on, for nearly 50 years.
In the end, I’m happy to have found a conductor who did not force me to repeat the horrific initiation rituals of the past. I no longer feel compelled to commit the perfect crime.