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From Auditions to Assistant Principal, A Conversation with Leah Arsenault

Editor | November 2015

    Achieving a position in a professional orchestra requires patience, careful preparation and well-thought out audition strategies. Leah Arsenault, assistant principal flutist of the National Symphony Orchestra, shares the experiences that helped her win a dream job with audition number 22.

What methods do you use to prepare for professional auditions?
    To be successful and to sustain myself through the rollercoaster ups and downs of auditioning, I had to become okay with failure, knowing that there was something to learn from each attempt. I will never forget my first audition for the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra when I was a junior in college. The list was short, and there were only about ten people there. I thought, “How hard could this be?” It ended up being an incredibly humbling experience because I got extremely nervous, partly because I had not truly prepared well. I felt embarrassed and disappointed in myself, but I knew I could do better.  
    The second audition I took I did extremely well, making it to the finals of a top ten orchestra. I prepared much more thoroughly and recorded myself several times before the big day. There were still holes in my preparation, however, including not checking the excerpt list carefully and realizing the week of the audition that I needed to learn parts of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe that were not the usual solo. Doing so well on only my second audition was a boost to my ego, but also made the next few auditions bigger mental hurdles. It was incredibly naive, but I thought that if I made the finals once, I should be able to win the next one. 
     The next few auditions were pretty hit or miss. I had a big head and did not prepare properly. I made a lot of assumptions about how well I was playing and was not really listening to myself critically and honestly. It was not until my seventh audition, for the Louisville Orchestra, that some things finally started to click. I only had very minimal preparation time for that audition. I went to Kinkos and made a book with all of the excerpts so that I could be as organized as possible with my limited time. That audition also taught me that a lot of things are out of your control with auditions, and you have to do the best you can and try not to let anything ruffle your feathers. Because of a previous commitment, I had to fly the morning of the audition. Most people will tell you never to do that, but it was my only choice, and I ended up winning.  
    I was in Louisville for a year and a half, during which time I took five auditions before winning my next job. At this point, I had really gotten my routine down. Before anything else, I made my audition excerpt book. I was lucky to be a part of a very talented and supportive group of young people at the Louisville Orchestra who got together frequently to play excerpts for each other and get comments. I was consistently advancing at this point at all of the auditions I was taking, but nothing panned out until I was invited to take a small audition for the temporary position of second flute with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. At this time, the Louisville Orchestra was in bad financial shape, and the following season was very much in jeopardy. The possibility of being without a job was very real to me and I prepared very carefully.
    I ended up winning the temporary position and though I had always thought of myself as a principal flutist, I felt lucky to have a job, and one in such a great orchestra. I was also fortunate to play beside principal flutist, Randy Bowman. I learned so much during this stage in my career from him and from all of the other wind players in the orchestra. While in Cincinnati, the position of associate principal flute came open suddenly, and I was invited to take another small audition for the temporary position. After one year playing second, I won the position of acting associate principal flute. 
    My first audition for Cincinnati was number 13 in my career of auditioning. My audition with the National Symphony was number 22. I took a lot of auditions during my three years in Cincinnati and came close to being selected many times. 

Was there a turning point that led to your eventual audition success?
    I played for friends, made up pretend preliminary and final rounds, recorded myself a lot, and focused my practice sessions. I also did not neglect the auxiliary instruments as I may have done previously. I prioritized practicing the piccolo and alto flute since I knew under pressure those would be my weakest points.  
    I also focused on the most challenging excerpts, which I finally realized meant more than just the fast ones. Specifically I worked on the opening of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6. Anyone can sound impressive playing fast notes, but my goal was to show the committee that I was very much in control of my lyricism and expression. 
     I also tried to break up the monotony of practice sessions by focusing on one aspect at a time, applied to all of the excerpts. I spent an hour playing with a tuner on different drones to strengthen intonation and the next hour working on dynamic contrast. The next hour might be on character and melodic shape. It was a revelation for me when I realized how many issues are solved simply by playing in the correct character. It is the one thing that truly got me out of my head and into making music. For instance, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is all about sounding like a charming little bird and not about showing off your technical mastery. Stravinsky’s Firebird is a quick and very light waltz, not an etude.  
    I found playing for others to be extremely helpful. I began to get the most out of it when I realized it was more about going through the motions of getting nervous and figuring out my pacing and less about impressing my friends and colleagues. One approach I picked up from a friend was to play the excerpts with the listeners sitting behind you. This simulates the feeling of having a proctor onstage with you at the audition. I encourage flutists to record mock auditions with friends and to record your private practice often. Be honest with yourself when you listen back. 

What led to your decision to be a flutist? 
    My parents, who are not musicians, signed my brother and me up for piano lessons at a young age. I will be forever grateful to them for getting me involved in music simply because they had heard of the benefits of learning to play an instrument. I started playing the flute at age nine when the band program at my school began. Because of my piano background, I was a fast learner and by the time I was 14, I had let go of piano to focus my energy on flute. I also got a new teacher at the time, Krysia Tripp, who helped guide me and all of my enthusiasm for the instrument. My first piece with her was the Chaminade Concertino, which prompted the purchase of my first Galway CD. I remember listening to his album Music for My Friends and being amazed by what the flute could sound like. That was when I knew I wanted to become a professional flutist.   
    Krysia Tripp suggested that I might do well at an arts intensive high school program, specifically the North Carolina School of the Arts (NCSA). To get a taste for the school, I attended its summer session, which was five weeks of daily lessons and masterclasses with Philip Dunigan. I loved NCSA and grew a lot that summer. I decided to audition with the hopes of enrolling for my last two years of high school. I was lucky to have two very different teachers while I was there, Philip Dunigan and Tadeu Coelho, who came in after Dunigan’s retirement.  
    During my senior year, Dr. Coelho worked with me on college audition preparation and together we decided on five schools, four which were traditional conservatories and one, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), which was part of a larger University. I was accepted to three schools, but in the end decided on CCM because of Brad Garner’s reputation for training successful professional flutists. Financial concerns were also a large factor in the decision and I am glad now that I chose CCM because it left me with a lighter financial burden. My advice to high school flutists trying to decide on a college is to think about where you can get the most work done during your time there and about the success rate of students from that teacher. College is your time to practice as much as possible, and if becoming an orchestral musician is indeed what you want to become, you will be glad you focused on becoming a better flutist during your college years instead of the distractions of a big city.  

While studying at CCM, did you enter any competitions? 
    As a freshman at CCM, I really looked up to the older students. Many of them were entering competitions and winning, and I wanted to get involved right away. For me, participating in competitions was hugely motivating and a great way to focus my practice sessions. In hindsight, I see that all of the opportunities I had to play in the spotlight enhanced my ability to work with my nerves and concentrate under pressure. Preparing for competitions gave me concrete goals, and I pushed myself to prepare at the highest level. I won the Frank Bowen, Myrna Brown, and NFA Young Artist Competitions during my years as an undergraduate. 

Did you participate in summer festivals? 
    Summer festivals were the best opportunities I had to practice my orchestral playing before winning a job and the closest simulation to a career as a professional orchestral musician without actually having one. I attended the National Repertory Orchestra (NRO), Spoleto Festival USA, and the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC). Each has a different focus. NRO is about performing as much repertoire as possible in eight weeks. Spoleto is a four-week whirlwind of standard orchestral repertoire, opera, and contemporary works, where attendees are treated as professionals and paid a small stipend. TMC is the ultimate setting for collaboration with and nurture from world renowned conductors and members of the Boston Symphony.  
    Aside from learning the skills of orchestral playing, summer festivals were very helpful in developing what has now become my professional network. I clearly remember sitting at the welcome meeting at NRO where the director, Carl Topilow, told us that all of the people around us could one day become our colleagues. It seemed incredibly abstract and grandiose at the time, but he was right. I now play in the same orchestra as five others whom I originally met at a festival. I have also gotten work outside of my orchestral jobs from my connections with musicians I met at these summer programs. When given the choice, musicians will choose to work with people they know and like. Remember to always be gracious and courteous to the people you play with as you never know when they might be a future colleague.  

What are the duties of the assistant or associate principal flutist?  
    Now that I am in my second orchestra as assistant principal flute (or associate as it was named in Cincinnati), I feel like I have a real sense for the idiosyncrasies of the position and have enjoyed the opportunities and challenges that come with the job. As assistant principal, one is expected to be the chameleon of the section, performing mostly the role of principal flute and alto flute, but always with the chance of filling in on second flute or piccolo depending on the needs of the section. 
    A typical concert for me includes playing principal flute on the overture and the concerto. One of the perks of the job is getting to go home at intermission most weeks, although I do like to stick around from time to time to listen to my colleagues. There are some challenges that are specific to performing the first half of a concert. First is playing the delicate role of accompanying the concerto soloist. It is a challenge that I am happy to rise to since it means playing with incredible musicians such as Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, Gil Shaham, Evelyn Glennie, and Midori. Another challenge is playing new works, often premieres, which do not have recordings yet. I am always in the library looking at the score and writing in cues and trying to get a sense of how the piece goes before the first rehearsal. 
    I see my responsibilities on piccolo with the orchestra as both a challenge and an opportunity. Piccolo is harder for me than flute, but I recognize that this is simply because I do not practice it as much. I can expect to play piccolo a fair amount during the season, such as when there is a second piccolo part on a Mahler symphony or when our piccolo player takes time off. I always know in advance and take care not to cram my preparation. For me, piccolo just takes more time to be at a comfortable level. As long as I plan ahead, it can be fun to have a different role every once in a while.  
    The same goes for alto flute, although I definitely prefer playing alto to piccolo. For me, this is a real treat of my position. I still have to prepare far in advance to get used to the quirks of the instrument, but it is such a joy for me, it does not really feel like work.  
    Assistant principals also play the pops concerts. A lot of orchestral musicians might disagree, but I find pops concerts to have their own set of challenges, things that are not really discussed in music school. Playing with a swing feel was not something that came naturally to me at first, but we are expected to play in a jazz style a lot of the time. It is not unusual to have only one rehearsal for a pops concert. Many times certain pieces will not even be rehearsed since the orchestra plays them frequently. If you are new to the orchestra, it can be very disconcerting to have to play a piece for the first time at the concert! I learned very quickly to always prepare a little more than I think is necessary just in case this happens. 

What advice do you have for a rookie orchestral musician?  
    Now in my sixth year of professional orchestral playing, I can truly see the learning curve I experienced. I think it took me three full years to finally begin to trust myself and develop a dependable preparation routine. In the beginning, it was very nerve wracking to be holding my own with colleagues who had thirty or more years of experience. I learned that you cannot really fake experience, but you can certainly prepare in a way that brings you close. 
    I listened to and played along with recordings and studied scores in order to simulate years of experience. I also learned over time that nobody is perfect, even the seasoned veterans. In fact, it was observing their attitudes that helped me to release some of the pressure I was putting on myself. The most influential colleagues were the ones who no longer cared what others thought of their playing and really took risks. Being able to take the pressure off of myself has been the most helpful thing. Fear-based playing is not fun for the performer or the audience. As I look over the season ahead, it is very gratifying to see that only about 50% of the repertoire will be new to me. In the past, months would go by before I played something familiar.  

What pedagogical ideas do you bring to your teaching?
    I was just appointed adjunct professor of flute at the University of Maryland (UMD) School of Music this year. The opportunity to teach came at a perfect time, as I was feeling settled in my new job with the NSO and also struggling a little with professional fatigue and looking for other musical outlets. My curriculum for my students is quite similar to the one that Brad Garner prescribed while I was at CCM. I have put together a book of daily exercises that cover all aspects of flute playing in a concise warm up, including vibrato, tonguing, scales, arpeggios, and tone control exercises. I know how important daily practice of the fundamentals was to my development as a flutist and hope to instill that in my own students with a daily routine.  
    I also assign etudes weekly, initially focusing on the Karg-Elert 30 Caprices and eventually introducing more advanced etudes like the Jeanjean Etudes Modernes and Bozza Etudes Arabesque. I like these studies because they are like real recital pieces, posing expressive challenges as well as technical ones. Etude preparation is an excellent way to develop efficient practicing skills, especially since my expectation is that the etudes should be at performance-ready level when brought to a lesson.
    I have really enjoyed teaching at the college level so far. I have learned a tremendous amount from my students and strive to cater my teaching to each student’s needs. It has been very gratifying to be a part of such an important time of growth for these developing musicians and human beings.  

How do you maintain balance in your life? 
    Playing in an atmosphere of constant high expectation can take a toll. I have gone through several periods of burnout as a musician including once in graduate school where I nearly convinced myself I was going to stop playing for good. It has taken time to learn, but I now know how important it is to put the flute away and do things outside of work that bring me joy. I love to cook, read, and garden. I also like to be active outdoors. If possible, I leave my flute at home when I go on vacation. It is so wonderful to come back from a trip and pick up the flute with a lightness and eagerness to get back to work. Some people cannot go a day without playing the flute. I am not one of those people.  
    One of my other joys is listening to live jazz. My boyfriend is a jazz vibraphonist and percussionist. One of my favorite things to do after finishing my own concert at the Kennedy Center is to head across town to see a jazz performance. There is so much classical musicians can learn from great jazz musicians about rhythm, creativity and nuance.     

    Leah Arsenault is assistant principal flute of the National Symphony Orchestra and flute professor at the University of Maryland. Previously she was acting associate principal flute of the Cincinnati Symphony and second flute of the Louisville Orchestra. Arsenault earned the BM and MM degrees from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the Professional Studies Certificate from The Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, California. She was the first prize winner of the 2006 National Flute Association Solo Young Artist Competition. Her principal teachers were Bradley Garner, Jim Walker, Tadeu Coelho, Philip Dunigan, and Krysia Tripp. Arsenault is a Yamaha Performing Artist.

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Tone Control and Dynamics
    Play this exercise (inspired by James Galway) with lots of vibrato and a beautiful, rich sound. Focus on smooth transitions between notes and a well-coordinated taper and release to nothing. Use a tuner today and every day of your life.