Close this search box.

One Orchestral Flutist’s Journey

Mark Sparks | January 2014

    After taking some auditions young flutists may come to the conclusion that those who have won the jobs are different, or did so by magic or political maneuvering. Certainly my own story had elements of luck and politics as well as skill, and may provide perspective to some, but it is difficult to generalize. Every player has his own journey towards becoming a professional performer.
    With the proliferation of advice about how to play orchestra excerpts and take auditions, it is surprising how few successful professional players have shared their personal audition stories. This is needed, because young players should have a clearer idea of what awaits them after graduation, and teachers need to give real-world advice. My journey with auditions started in the lower ranks with a dream and only a foggy notion of what I was getting into.

Early Auditions
    As with many young musicians, I was notified of the opportunity to play in the local youth orchestra. “Of course, you will have to audition,” my teacher said. I broke into a cold sweat. This flute stuff was supposed to be fun. Performing a difficult solo, orchestra excerpt, scales, and then the dreaded sightreading; a dental visit sounded more attractive. My attempt was unsuccessful. The next year, I felt less intimidated. I had progressed, and could now play some French Conservatory competition pieces. Besides, I had something to prove this time. There was a long silence after my last note. From the dark abyss of the hall, the conductor slowly approached the stage. He looked at me for a long moment. He said, “Show-off! Do the sightreading!” Interestingly, the required passage was not a solo, but a tutti passage from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. I had worked on my sightreading, and was admitted to the orchestra. I learned that part of the term talent is tenacity.
    Brimming with confidence, next I tried out for the semi-professional orchestra in town. For the audition I had to play the solo from Brahms’ First Symphony, a work I felt I knew from my listening. Thumbing through the part, there did not appear to be anything really challenging about it. There was a flute bit in the last movement with long notes but I didn’t really see a need to practice it. My big moment came. Full of fire, I let forth a resounding E-flat for the first note of the solo. Upon reaching the next note, D-natural, realized to my horror that the passage was in C major. Just try covering that one up.
    The degree of my talent was somewhat in question early on. My parents were advised to take me to a certain flutist in the Cleveland Orchestra, for evaluation. I launched into my Poulenc Sonata, but was stopped in fairly short order. “I really don’t think you have it,” the professor pontificated, “Maybe you should consider doing something else for a living. You know, making it in professional flute playing can be very hard.” I appreciated his honesty, but after he spent the rest of the lesson talking about how much he loved his sailboat, I went home eager to prove him wrong.
    I attended a Julius Baker masterclass, and gained admission to Oberlin. I began to get a broader sense of styles and the general level of my peers, and it was intimidating. I began to realize how much I had to learn. After a couple of professional orchestra auditions, I found that there would be little if any feedback from audition committees.
Just loving music was not going to be enough. It was depressing. I questioned whether I was on the right track.
    I decided to try out for Juilliard. Maybe if I became a Julius Baker student, things would pick up. I went to New York to audition for him privately. After my Bozza he had had enough. Looking at me through heavy eyelids he said in that New York accent, “Pretty good Spaaaks, but you know, it’s tough; these girls (“goils”), they’re really good!” It was a different age, and a dead end.

American Wind Symphony
    Gradually there were small successes. I took a bus to audition for the American Wind Symphony, lovingly referred to by its members as Barge Band. All I had was an address in Pittsburgh and a time to show up, and when I told the cabbie the address he thought I was nuts. Dropping me downtown at the river, I found myself standing in a torrential downpour, looking at an odd barge-like boat. I was soaked to the bone. I didn’t care what the thing was, I was going on board. Crossing onto the craft, I entered an office. The receptionist told me to go into the pilot house of the boat and warm up. Trying some Mozart amidst the forest of navigational machinery, I wondered if this was to be my last audition. Maybe if dismissed, I would have to walk the plank. Then a man entered who introduced himself as the conductor, and I learned that the Wind Symphony actually performed on the boat. Lightning struck deafeningly nearby, and the boat pitched back and forth. Things were getting weirder. I launched bravely into my Mozart. The conductor seemed to like my playing and in the end offered me a job with the ensemble for the upcoming summer. Saved from the watery depths! The rain stopped, and I felt light as a feather. That summer I learned that the auditions were worth it. Life was a complete blast as professional player.
    At Oberlin, Robert Willoughby offered a one-month orchestral excerpts seminar. We performed solos and learned all the passages and parts of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorpho-sis. Willoughby was a first-rate orchestral musician, and he taught us to prepare everything. I auditioned for the National Repertory Orchestra, a high level summer training program. The first two times, I did not get in, but I got good feedback from the conductor, who heard the auditions, and urged me to keep trying. The third time was the charm, and he admitted me.

    Studying in Boston the next year, I kept in touch with Laura Gilbert, the principal flutist from NRO. She told me about a second flute vacancy in the Caracas Philharmonic in Venezuela. I could go to New York and audition for the principal flutist. I decided to go just for the challenge, and though there were quite a few players there, I ended up being chosen, and was off to Venezuela the next week.
    The job was fun, but the beaches were better. Soon after arriving in Caracas I went with friends to a remote location on the coast for an afternoon of snorkeling. Once we were in the water my passport, visa, and clothing were all efficiently swiped from the beach by thieves who had followed us. Unfortunately, there were police checkpoints everywhere, monitoring travelers. Documents were scrutinized by armed teenagers posing as authorities, looking for illegal aliens, bribes, and drug traffic from Colombia. It was not unusual to see cars virtually disassembled at the guard stations. Returning to town in the passenger seat, wearing just my swimsuit, with no visa or passport, I contemplated the delightful subject of jail time in Venezuela. We arrived at the alcabala, (a lovely-sounding Spanish word for these checkpoints.) The guard, casually placing the barrel of his AK-47 on the open car window ledge, asked for our papers. In the sweltering heat, I felt sweat trickle down my back. His cold eyes swept me. I will never know what my friend, a long-time resident fluent in the local dialect, told the officer. There was a tense moment, but then we were waved through. “Do not turn around,” my friend warned from the driver’s seat.

Canton and Memphis
    I returned to Boston after a year in Venezuela, and learned that the Canton (Ohio) Symphony, which happened to be directed by my youth orchestra conductor, was looking for a principal flute. It was a small job, but the orchestra also had a busy woodwind quintet. I practiced as hard as I could, and won the job. I was surprised how many flutists were there. Perhaps in the end my previous contact with the conductor helped, but it was a serious audition, behind a screen with multiple rounds. Abandoning work on my master’s degree, I moved to the bustling metropolis of Canton, Ohio. It turned out that I was quite busy, and obtained a full studio of middle school flute players. I enjoyed teaching, which helped me figure out my own playing.
    After listening to recordings of the orchestra performances, I recorded my practice sessions to develop a better sense of my own sound. A principal job had opened in Memphis, Tennessee, and after using the recorder for practice, passing the tape round of the audition was not so hard. When I went to the audition, I heard lots of players warming up, and some of them sounded remarkable. It was like being lost in a maze of Classical Symphony high Ds, with dive-bombing birds from Carnival of the Animals. When I got onstage and began playing I could really hear myself, just like on the recorder, and focused on my execution. The committee seemed to like what I was doing and I advanced. This audition business was starting to be fun.
    In the last round, there was a surprise. The music director came on stage, and conducted us through a tutti from Petrouchka, a passage I knew well. I felt a nice rapport with the conductor. My preparation paid off, and I won the job.

San Antonio
    After a few months in Memphis, principal flute in the San Antonio Symphony opened up. The orchestra had a much fuller schedule than Memphis. By then, I was performing a lot and practicing quite obsessively at all hours. Someone told me a story about Julius Baker, who apparently would keep his flute out of the case by his bedside, and play A Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo upon waking. Bet his wife really liked that. This time I practiced extra excerpts that weren’t on the excerpt list. I recall some of the older players telling me “All these lists. In the old days there were no lists, you showed up prepared to play anything!” My teacher Robert Willoughby performed the Faure Fantasie for his Cleveland Orchestra audition in the 1950s, with the legendary George Szell himself accompanying at the piano. There were two other candidates at the audition. I guess things were a little different back then.
    The day of the audition there was a freak snowstorm in San Antonio. I got to the hall, had a brief warmup, and then the usher took me through labyrinthian hallways, saying “it’s just a bit further, this way.” Opening a door, we proceeded outside, across a snow-covered courtyard. I thought, “I guess they will find out who can play while they are freezing cold. I should have practiced with no heat.” Reaching the audition room directly across, I played briefly and felt sure I would not advance, but they told me I was going on. The next round was on stage. I felt encouraged and played well through the final round. We gathered backstage. I was elated when they announced I had won the job, but another candidate began sobbing uncontrollably saying, “Why did he win, and not me?” I felt strangely guilty and realized that humanity sure can go by the wayside in these things. Suddenly I was approached by the principal bassoonist, who said, “Congratulations! We are going on strike tomorrow.” I was in a new league.
    Turmoil ensued when I returned to Memphis. To my surprise the management pressured me to sign a resignation so they could open the position, and I did, only to find out afterwards that San Antonio’s strike was deepening and rumors of bankruptcy were rife. I panicked and went to the General Manager’s office and asked to see the resignation letter. I promptly thanked her and said, “I am going to have to take this,” and walked out. She was struck speechless, like a person who has just seen a cow eat their cellphone. Lawsuits were threatened, people were upset. My affairs apparently really mattered to some people. The personnel manager stormed my apartment. I eventually surrendered the letter. Luckily, San Antonio settled just before I went there.
    After a year, however, the orchestra in San Antonio was in even more serious trouble. Scanning the announcements, I saw that principal flute was open in the Baltimore Symphony. By then I had a firm audition prep routine, and was now in the habit of over-preparing somewhat, learning additional solos, the tutti passages, plus some woodwind quintets in case there was a chamber music round. I wanted to prove I was qualified.

    Accordingly, in Baltimore the committee heard a lot of extra material. They even asked us to play in Baroque style, with no vibrato. Advancing to the third round, I walked on stage to find the entire committee seated around the principal flute chair, and the music director on the podium. Next to my chair was a stack of music on a stool. I was conducted through numerous excerpts and my additional preparation paid off. With clock approaching 10 p.m. the committee decided it was time to play woodwind quintets. I was ready. They asked two of us to return in a month, to play a final round with the entire orchestra. In the end the other applicant, Robert Langevin, was offered a one-year job. He could not do it, so I was offered the position. During the audition Robert and I got along nicely, and I was proud to be trying out with such a great flutist.

Audition Ups and Downs
    After a year, I was offered associate principal flute and accepted it. I learned that having a job is much more than winning an audition, especially when the orchestra went on a 26-week strike in my first tenured year. While in Baltimore I decided to change to a different flute, and my timing could not have been worse. A few months later, there was an explosion of principal flute opportunities across the country. I did not feel settled and lost seven straight auditions.
    Five years and many headjoints later, just as I was about to give up orchestra playing and look for a teaching position, I decided to try out for the recently-announced principal opening in the New York Philharmonic. I had done a tour with them as assistant principal, and thought I had a chance. They were unsure about my playing at first (at one point I was dismissed, but the personnel director chased me down in the elevator and said that the committee wanted me to come back), but I managed to advance. By the end of the day, they narrowed it down to another candidate and myself. The final round a few months later was an audition with the orchestra. The committee requested that we both remain on stage through the audition, so we could play the excerpts immediately after the other. This is quite uncommon in the United States. That was interesting, as we both got to hear the player we were competing with. In the end we were summoned to the music director’s office. “We are looking for the best flute player in the world,” he said in all of his heavily-accented majesty, and neither of you is that player.” It was a long flight back home.
    Soon after, a vacancy for principal was announced for the Chicago Symphony. Again making it to the last round, this time I encountered a new conundrum. I was in good favor with the committee, but the music director, entering the scene in its final moments, declared that a fresh candidate of his own choosing, new to the audition, would have the position and that was that, end of story.

St. Louis
    The following year I was contacted by the St. Louis Symphony, and played several concerts with them. Eventually there was an audition, and I was invited to the final round. More rounds were planned but surprisingly, the audition process came to a halt when apparently I earned a unanimous vote from the committee. There were no more rounds. The scene was not entirely wreathed in rosy afterglow. After the results were announced I greeted a fellow candidate with whom I had had a congenial relationship with for some years. She fixed me with a fierce glare. “So, it’s you,” she said. It was a short, uncomfortable conversation. There certainly are those who do not share your joy in winning a position.
    What, you may ask, is the moral of the story? I am not sure there is one. Do not expect the audition process to always be fair and straightforward. When the system does not function as expected, it can work for or against you. Don’t give up. To yourself be true but do not ignore advice from others when you can get it. Find your own voice.
    My story may be quite different or similar to my colleagues’ and is still evolving. This is simply what happened to me.        

Top photo: St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, photo by Scott Ferguson