Aaron Goldman recently won the principal flute audition for the National Symphony Orchestra and shares his insights on orchestral auditions.
When you auditioned, you were already a member of the orchestra. Did that make the audition process easier?
No. In fact this was by far the most difficult audition I have taken. The audition process is grueling even for the most seasoned audition takers. Auditioning for your own orchestra is even more harrowing. Usually when an audition does not go well, you can put the experience behind you. You pack up, get on a plane, go home, and do not see committee members on a daily basis thereafter. When the audition committee is made up of your colleagues, regardless of how it goes, you have to show up for work the next day and, quite literally, harmonize with them. To add more stress to my particular situation, the National Symphony was leaving for a three-week European tour the day after the audition. Win or lose, I was going to be in close proximity to my evaluators. After all, there are only so many places one can hide on a plane, train, or bus, or in a concert hall.
Two weeks before the audition, I found out that the NSO Music Director, Christoph Eschenbach, had invited two flutists from other orchestras to the finals. I took this bit of information to mean that I had already been eliminated from his consideration. Eschenbach knew my playing as acting principal, a position I had held since the beginning of the season, and for two years as assistant principal. I felt I had already lost the audition and considered backing out. After a few days of reasoning with myself, I decided to take the audition with the goal of performing well for my colleagues, not necessarily winning the job. In the end, I think this mindset helped me in the audition. It freed me from any expectations.
How many people auditioned for the position?
The NSO announced its principal flute opening in the AFM’s monthly publication, The International Musician, a few months before the audition, and they received around 120 resumes. Members of the audition committee then met to decide who would be invited to the live audition at the Kennedy Center. Those who were invited were sent a repertoire list and were asked to send a deposit to confirm their intent to audition. About 90 flutists played preliminary auditions during the last weekend in January with the semi-finals and finals held on Monday, January 28th. Of the preliminary auditionees, nine went on to the semifinals, and from there, two advanced to the finals. As is common practice in many orchestras, the NSO’s contract with its musicians states that tenured orchestra members are placed directly into the final round of auditions. So, in addition to myself, the two flutists who advanced from the semi-finals, and the two Eschenbach invited directly, there were five finalists.
How did you prepare in the warm-up room for the final round?
The five finalists drew numbers to determine the performance order and were then given the repertoire list and shown to the warm-up rooms. I had drawn number two and did some quick calculations to estimate when I would actually go onstage for my audition. I do not like to play too much before auditions and waited until I assumed I had about 45 minutes before starting to warm-up. My goal when warming-up for an audition is to stay calm and in control of the instrument. I avoid running through entire excerpts as I want to save my best, most natural playing for the audition. The warm-up room is not the place for last minute practicing. If you cannot play something by then, it is too late. It is also not the time to second guess yourself or your musical ideas based on what you hear coming from other peoples’ rooms. I mostly play scales and arpeggios to maintain flexibility and check attacks and releases in all octaves and various dynamics. I want to leave the warm-up room knowing I can walk onstage and risk playing extra pp or ff without any trouble.
The audition started with the first two movements of the Mozart Concerto in G Major, K. 313 with piano accompaniment. This was followed by 13 excerpts and concluded with sightreading/ensemble playing of some flute and oboe orchestral tuttis with the NSO’s principal oboist. Each finalist’s audition lasted about 50 minutes. I always appreciate when auditions utilize piano accompaniment for concertos as it rounds out an otherwise artificially incomplete performing experience. Having a musician stand on stage and play wonderfully rich orchestral works alone feels like asking someone to decorate a grand palace without giving them any walls. You have to choose an appropriate color scheme and use perfectly proportioned furniture with only an imaginary framework on which to build.
After playing the Mozart, I had a minute to collect myself as the pianist left the stage and then I started in on the excerpts. The first excerpt was the beginning of “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion which is perhaps one of the most intimately expressive flute solos in the repertoire. I played the excerpt but was not totally happy with my performance, nor apparently was Eschenbach, who asked me to play it again with some different expressions. We tend to be hypersensitive of our own playing in an audition and at this point, I heard that scaldingly critical voice in my head – the one that could very easily have taken the audition into a forty-five minute agonizing death spiral. I took a moment before moving on to Daphnis to convince the critical part of my mind to accept 80% of its ideal performance. This was the only way I could completely shut off this voice and focus on making music. I played the rest of the audition and left the stage exhausted, but feeling like I had given it my all.
The audition went late into the evening and by the time the audition ended; two of the finalists had already left for the airport to catch flights. There were three of us waiting backstage when Jim Hewitt, the NSO’s personnel manager, came to make the announcement. When Hewitt announced that I had won the audition, it took me a minute to process what he said. I had not prepared myself for this outcome and it was not until I saw him looking at me expectantly that his words connected in my mind. He led me back onstage to meet with the committee and accept their congratulations. It was an indescribable moment for me. Winning a principal position in an orchestra like the NSO was an achievement about which I had dreamed for a long time. I would have liked to revel in the moment, perhaps have a celebratory meal or bottle of champagne. Unfortunately, I had completely put off any preparation for the tour and had to go home and pack for an early morning departure.
How did you prepare a large list of excerpts when you were working full time and have a family?
Efficiently. This was the first audition I have taken since having a baby daughter and I did not want to miss Evie’s first steps because I was practicing Mendelssohn’s Scherzo. When I was not in orchestra or teaching, I divided my time between family and practice. Everything else was put on hold. My practice time had to be very focused, so I moved my practice room. It is normally located just off our living room in full view of Evie and her play area. The temptation to play with her instead of practicing was too strong, so I relocated to the basement.
In terms of my actual preparation, I reinterpreted the excerpts from the ground up. I had worked on these excerpts for many years and had a pretty firm idea of how they should be played. For this audition, however, I wanted to start afresh. The first step was to study the scores for important details that would influence the interpretation. I advise flutists to compile a book of flute excerpts from orchestral scores. This can save a lot of time in the practice room because harmonies, orchestral texture, and instrumentation directly affect phrasing. It is also important to notice the expressive markings, such as crescendos, diminuendos, and accents of the accompanying instruments. I kept a notebook and recording device next to me so I could try ideas and make notes of what was effective.
The second part of my preparation involved making sure I could reliably recreate my musical ideas. You may have the most amazing Daphnis interpretation but if you cannot make it happen in the audition, it does not do you much good. Musical consistency comes from knowing exactly what you want to do with each aspect of your playing. For instance, the kind of vibrato used greatly changes the expression of an excerpt. Unless you make a conscious decision about vibrato, there is a strong chance it will not enhance the musical idea in an audition.
What are the priorities of audition committees?
Committees say they are looking to hire the best musician, but what does that mean? Wind audition committees are usually made up of seven to twelve musicians who each have strongly held musical opinions and ideas of what they are looking for in a candidate. I have sat on a number of committees, and seen just how diverse musical opinions can be. Candidates who I thought were very musical have not advanced, and vice versa. In an audition do not try to please a committee. It is much better to try to convince the committee to appreciate your way of playing. How persuasively, effortlessly, and completely you can capture the character of an excerpt demonstrates musical sensitivity and flexibility to a committee. Give them a reason to hire you. Show them musical personality and versatility. Perfect intonation, rhythm, and dynamics are critical, but if they are the main focus of your preparation, you will never win. I have heard many people complain that they cannot believe they did not advance in an audition saying, “I don’t understand. I didn’t make any mistakes.” This sentiment is very reassuring to me. It shows that our system, however flawed, is not completely broken.
What previous positions have you held?
After graduating from the Eastman School of Music where I studied with Bonita Boyd, I enrolled in New England Conservatory for my master’s degree to study with Paula Robison. I attended orientation week and had one lesson before winning a one-year position as principal flute with the Greater Lansing Symphony Orchestra in Lansing, Michigan. The job in Lansing was part-time and did not pay enough to live on, but it enabled me to experience life as working musician. It was a challenging year, and I hustled to find enough students to support myself. I spent many weekdays waking up well before dawn to drive to a middle school an hour outside town. I took students out of band class for their private lessons then continued in the afternoons at the high school. Even with the financial struggle it was a valuable experience to play principal flute in a small orchestra. The other principal winds were faculty members at Michigan State University and I learned so much from them. I felt very young and inexperienced, but the year as principal deepened my desire to win my own job. Right before my one-year position ended in Michigan there was an audition for the Orlando Philharmonic. I was 23 years old and fully prepared to return to NEC, but I won the audition and moved to Florida.
Life in Orlando was a hodgepodge of musical experiences. The orchestra only played five classical masterworks concerts a season, but the schedule also included ballets, operas, pops, community concerts, educational programs, and chamber music. I also built up a private teaching studio, played lots of wedding gigs, and joined a jazz quartet. I served as a musician board representative for a number of years and learned about the inner workings of an orchestra. I loved the people, and winters in Florida are fantastic, but I dreamed of a full-time orchestra job and kept taking auditions. In many ways, I could not feel settled in Orlando while still taking so many auditions. When you are constantly trying to leave, it is hard to plant roots. I did not want to feel unsettled forever. I gave myself a deadline to win another job by the time I turned 30. Shortly after my 29th birthday, I won assistant principal in the National Symphony.
What is your connection to DCFlutes?
When I first moved to DC, I joined the Flute Society of Washington. A few years later, I was asked to serve on the board of directors, but my schedule often prohibited me from attending board meetings or FSW events. I was looking for something I could offer to the FSW and the flute community at large. Around this same time, I began teaching a few adult amateur flutists and realized that these students often have limited performance opportunities. So often, they only play alone in their homes or for me in lessons, and music becomes very solitary.
I thought that if I had this group of adult students who could use a place to perform and a broader audience for whom to play, then surely there were others in the same position. I asked the board of the FSW if they were interested in sponsoring a new flute choir. They agreed and DCFlutes was born. I conduct the group but leave the organizing to our wonderful manger, Laura Benning. We have been around for three seasons and have grown every year. At present, we are about to burst out of our rehearsal space.
What was Bonita Boyd’s teaching style?
I look back fondly at my time at Eastman studying with Bonita Boyd. Those four years really opened my eyes to the richness and depth of what it means to be a musician. We did not really have a four-year curriculum. Her students took their own paths at their own pace. Boyd did not focus on many of the specifics about how to actually play the instrument. We talked a lot about tone development and keeping the “essence” in the sound, but I think she expected us to work out most of our own technical issues. She was much more concerned with developing artistry. She would often sing in lessons to help us understand the shape of a phrase without having the flute get in the way. In many ways, she was teaching the person, not the instrument. Boyd talked much about Joseph Mariano and the splendor of his sound. I would go to the library to listen to the old recordings of him, especially his recording of Francois Couperin’s Quatrieme Concert Royaux. She assured me that the old recordings did not fully capture his sound or do it justice, but I still found them inspirational.
How do you teach?
Teaching started as a necessity to pay the bills. It has now become a cornerstone of my musical identity. Every student who has come into my studio has given me an opportunity to share my musical ideas, but has also taught me something about myself. I have had a private teaching studio for 15 years and also taught at Catholic University and through the NSO’s Youth Fellowship Program. This past fall, I joined the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Music.
I would like to think that my teaching philosophy and style are an amalgamation of what I learned from my past teachers. For example, Bonnie Boyd instilled in me an insatiable yearning to become an artist. On my personal journey to better artistry, I spent a great deal of time in my mid-twenties trying to figure out how to really play the flute. Conquering flute fundamentals is essential to becoming an artist. Very often instrumentalists become a slave to their inadequacies and their musical choices no longer serve the music but their own limitations. We must realize that sometimes the most musical possibilities are not necessarily the easiest to execute.
Paul Gauguin said “How do you see this tree? Is it really green? Don’t be afraid to paint it as green as possible.” I think many flutists are afraid to push their limits, both technically and musically. Music is not always delicate and pretty. There are as many different types of musical characters as there are people in this world. We can and must learn to portray even the nasty ones. The key is proper execution.
What is your daily practice routine?
I usually start my day singing and playing slow scales, doing a modified version of Robert Dick’s throat tuning exercise. This gets my air flowing correctly and helps me find my most resonant sound. I am also a big fan of Reichert’s Seven Daily Exercises and Taffanel and Gaubert #1 and #4. Whatever exercises you choose, it is important to avoid mindless practicing. Play them as if you were performing them on a Carnegie Hall debut recital, with musicality, character, dynamics, and your most committed phrasing. I always make sure to practice attacks and releases, working them into whatever exercise I am doing. Depending on what is stacked up on my stand to practice, I will tackle orchestra music for the next week, or look ahead to some challenging parts a few weeks away. If I have any solo or chamber music concerts coming up, I usually conclude with these pieces.
What are your goals for the future?
Aside from the great standards, there is so much amazing repertoire, both solo and chamber, written for the flute. Often I hear a piece on the radio or randomly discover it on the internet and wonder how is it that I have lived this long and not known of this piece. Of course not all obscure pieces are great; I suppose that is the reason why they are so obscure. Every now and then, however, there is a gem, and I hope to learn about and perform these works. There are also great works written today that deserve to be performed. There is a growing list of new pieces and standards that have been dormant in my repertoire that I want to perform and perhaps even record.