Tuesday, July 27, 2010



Seven thousand golfers tried out for the U.S. Open golf tournament in 2006. They were trying out for 156 spots in the tournament but about half of those spots were filled by golfers who had exemptions based on past tournaments. When I was making the audition circuit for tuba positions in symphony orchestras there might be 90 applicants for a position and 30 might be accepted to audition. The winner’s share of the purse for the U.S. Open is about $1.5 million as of this writing. The base salary in the major symphony orchestras in 2010 is about $100,000. The U.S. Open runner up gets $810,000, and the third place winner earns $480,687. Though the runner up in an orchestral audition doesn’t get any prize money, he is not competing in a field of 156 trimmed down from a field of 7,000.

The toughest audition I ever took was for faculty at the Naval School of Music. The audition involved prepared music, sight reading, scales and arpeggios along with string bass and bass guitar. The audition process was done in a manner that provided concrete documentation of what the applicant could not do. This was to protect the committee in the event of a congressional investigation if a rejected applicant were politically connected or so motivated to complain about the result. I played the Vaughn Williams and the Effie Suite and some sight reading that paled in comparison to the Bona book Mr. Jacobs had assigned in a previous lesson. I was asked to play the break strain from Stars and Stripes by memory. Then scales and arpeggios. After flying through the scales and arpeggios I was asked to arpeggiate a series of dominant seventh cords around the circle of fifths starting on C. I did so and was then asked to add a ninth which I did. I was then asked to add an eleventh until one committee member said, “That’s enough. Clearly he knows what he’s doing.” (I had been a music theory/composition major in undergraduate school. I jokingly tell people the circle of fifths saved my life.) Even though I was in the Army, because this was a Navy School, it was expected a tuba player should double on an entertainment instrument. Fortunately I had played string bass in high school orchestra and had played bass guitar in a rock band.

Does this sound like a rigorous audition? That’s not why it was the toughest audition I’d ever played. The tough part was knowing that if I didn’t win this transfer I would be transferred to an Army Band in Viet Nam.

I think about this audition and contrast it to the story Allen Kofsky tells of his hiring to the Cleveland Orchestra by George Szell. The Cleveland Orchestra in 1955 had only three trombones on staff. Szell hired Kofsky as an extra when the score required. Kofsky had moved to Cleveland to help his father in his construction business. Szell had Kofsky play bass trombone, assistant principal, bass trumpet, whatever was needed. After a year of playing extra, Kofsky told Szell that he couldn’t work part time because it conflicted with the construction business. Szell hired him full time where he remained for another 39 years.

I can’t help think of Allen Kofsky’s story when I think of my audition at the Navy School or when I hear a musician say “I really need this gig.” I’ve seen musicians at auditions who are unemployed and have a pregnant wife at home. I’ve seen professional golfers in similar situations. Cortez wanted his men to fight with desperation when he invaded Mexico so he burned the boats. Desperation may be good for war but it is not a good state of mind for a symphony audition or a golf match.

It In 1970 Jack Stephens, the president of Augusta National Golf Club was joined on the first tee by a new member. The newcomer suggested they have a little wager. Jack replied that they played friendly games for $10 at Augusta, and that would be fine. The newbie said, "At my home club back in Detroit, we play for a hundred-dollar Nassau." "My, that's impressive," Stephens said, "but we keep our betting to $10 here."

The new member grumbled all the way around the course, making comments that Augusta members were a bunch of pikers. Jack just let the grousing go without responding.

When they had finished the round and adjourned to the members' card room, the man suggested they have a game of gin rummy. Stephens said that would be fine, and the custom at Augusta was to play for a penny a point. "You've gotta be kidding me," the man said. "At my club in Detroit we play for $10 a point."

Having listened to this refrain for four hours, Stephens had heard enough. He asked, in a voice loud enough for all in the room to hear, "If you tallied up all your holdings - stocks, real estate, the whole nine yards - what would you say your net worth would come to?" Newbie said, "Oh, I'm probably worth between 15 and 20 million." Stephens took a deck of cards from the table, slapped it on the bar and said, ""I'll cut you for it!" For the first time that day, the new member was overcome by silence.

I have seen golfers who thrive on high stakes and others who crumble under the pressure. Whether in golf or music, it is good to know which you are so you enter into the right games.

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