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Playing in real time

September 23, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

The audition. Crunchtime.

Putting yourself on the line. Putting yourself on the spot. Playing all by yourself for strangers who are listening - closely - to see if you are good enough to join them.

It comes down to a few minutes of one day.

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra recently held auditions for several positions.

"Auditioning is the hardest thing," says Elaine Braun, MSO director of operations, who organized the sessions.

Musicians have seven minutes to play - seven minutes to demonstrate the skill, the sensitivity, the musicality they developed in years of study, hours of practice - a lifetime of loving music and wanting the chance to play in a symphony orchestra and share their love and passion for their art with an audience.

"It's their life," Braun says.

Musicians got packets with directions, times, locations and photocopies of short pieces of music to play.

Elizabeth Schulze, MSO music director, and principal players from the orchestra were the judges.


Musicians got numbers and sat behind a folding screen - invisible to the selection committee.

The committee listened for "intonation, accuracy of presentation, technical mastery and understanding of the different repertoires," Schulze says, and then they voted.

Schulze says, "We come to an easy consensus."

Violinist Hector Zavala, bass trombonist Craig Arnold and trumpeter Leigh Bender all tried out for the MSO.

Before Hector Zavala, 32, has played violin since he was 9 years old.

It wasn't until after he started to play that he learned that his grandfather and grandmother had played violin for fun. He never heard them.

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Zavala attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and University of Toronto and completed his bachelor's in violin performance in Monterrey.

He expects to complete his Master's in Music Education in December and also is pursuing a master's in conducting at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va.

He's attended one MSO performance. "I like the conductor. I like the way she conducts," he says of Schulze. He would like to have a master class with her, to learn what she could teach.

Zavala took three months off from his private teaching obligations to prepare for his MSO audition.

"I feel nervous. I feel relaxed," he says before his audition.

"I did a slow preparation," he says. He has access to a studio at Shenandoah and practiced for hours. He also played for friends and teachers who are musicians.

"I feel OK," he says. "If God wants me there ..."

Craig Arnold, 32, has played bass trombone for 23 years.

He says everybody prepares for an audition differently. "I know what works somewhat for me," he says. "I try to be real organized."

When you have confidence that you've done all that you can do, you'll be less nervous, he says.

Since 2001, Arnold is a member of the United States Army Band, "Pershing's Own." He plays every day for ceremonial occasions, funerals, for foreign dignitaries, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

"I love my job," he says.

Why audition for the MSO?

The symphony is another musical outlet, a totally different musical environment. He wants to be "more musically rounded."

Leigh Bender, 22, started playing trumpet when she was in fourth grade - the only girl in her class to do so.

She just got her bachelor's in trumpet from the Peabody Institute and she teaches in Peabody's preparatory program.

The 5-foot-1-inch Bender has experience playing with professional, semi-professional and university ensembles. She is a substitute trumpet for the New World Symphony in Florida, a three-year fellowship program, as well as for the Concert Artists Guild of Baltimore and the Reading and Baltimore Symphony orchestras.

Bender practices about three hours every day. "It's important to work on the fundamentals of just playing consistently," she says.

Can you practice too much?

"Yes," she says, "especially with a brass instrument." Muscles get tired.


The nervousness of the musicians is palpable at the auditions. They pace, they check schedules, they practice. But they aren't sweating. The men wear long-sleeved shirts and ties despite the warm summer days. Bender wears a dressy mid-calf skirt and top.

In The Friends Meeting House in Frederick, musicians wait in a room full of toys and couches. They talk and giggle, waiting to go into a private practice room. At Hagerstown Community College they step outside to get a break from their nervousness.

In a few minutes, each audition is over.

"I was short," Hector Zavala says immediately after his audition.

"They only heard the beginning of my concerto. I think it's no good," he says.

But he was not nervous before the audition.

He plays from memory the concerto he had chosen and for some reason - he can't explain why - he looks at the page of music open on the stand and loses his place.

"Next time, just by memory. Just by memory," he says.

"I'm disappointed with myself. It could have been much better."

Are they hard on themselves?

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