As young professionals, musicians of the Civic Orchestra are continually honing their instrumental technique and artistic skills through the Civic training experience, which includes coaching from members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Mentoring across the generations helps these citizen musicians starting their careers find their footing in the musical world. Civic Orchestra member Katie Klocke describes the process.

Imagine an orchestra hall. Grand and imposing, its lights glare down at you standing on a bare stage. Tier after tier of vacant, ominous seats tower before you. A few bright beams from the canopy above converge, blurring the features of the space, and making its depths seem immeasurable. One glance is enough to send you reeling back. You see your feet command a measly two feet width of the cavernous stage that is able to swallow you whole. By this time your throat has contracted as if the air has thinned, and always, your hands are ice cold and moist with sweat. Just before you, on the main floor, is a screen. You try not to imagine what is behind it, but you know, and you wait for an Oz-like voice to guide you through a trial that could determine your fate.

This is not a nightmare. This is a young musician’s descent into a bad audition.

Musicians who have practiced endlessly to get to this point can find their bow bouncing uncontrollably or their vibrato nervously wobbling out of control. How can we learn to cope with the detrimental effects of pressure? Luckily, a few things can help. A musician can take as many auditions as possible, for example. The more I put myself in a nerve-wracking situation, the better I can understand how my mind and body will react. The more I can prepare myself for the anxiety, the better I can cope with it in the moment. Just simulating the audition experience works too. The only thing even scarier than playing an audition in front of a judging panel is playing an audition in front of a bunch of judging colleagues, not to mention a few principal musicians in the CSO. Which is what happened a few weeks ago in a Civic coaching session.

Many Civic musicians are constantly preparing for different auditions. Much of the audition repertoire is standard, which means that in each excerpt my colleagues and I have a list of specific things we either know to execute or avoid. We’ve heard them and played them a million times. These bits of music are the most challenging in the whole of the orchestral repertoire, and we cannot help listening to them with a critical and calculating ear. Although we feel for our colleagues, we’re conditioned to pounce on any possible mistake.

Six of my braver colleagues volunteered as lab rats for these mock auditions with CSO musicians. They took turns playing excerpts behind the screen as our CSO coaches, concertmaster Robert Chen, principal second violin Baird Dodge and cellist Gary Stucka sat with the rest of the Civic musicians listening intently and taking notes. It was my first time on the other side of the screen, and by the time the six candidates had played, I was exhausted and losing focus. Each candidate began to sound more or less the same. Although each player had his or her own strengths and weaknesses, it was hard to say which was “better” or “worse.”

Thankfully we had some time for our CSO coaches to share their wisdom. To stand out to a panel of judges, they told us, a candidate needs to distinguish his or her playing. Just practicing doggedly like everyone else will not win a job. Chen even said he could “live with a mistake” from a candidate but only if the playing was with brilliance and passion. He acknowledged the intimidation factor of auditioning, but admonished us from going into an audition with a scared and apologetic attitude; an error isn’t a deal killer. What struck me was that the panel wants me to play well, of course, but also play like myself, give a performance of the music that evinces my own unique way of bringing the music to life. No one wants to sit and listen to perfectly anemic renditions of the same five minutes of music all day. All of the CSO coaches were in accord on this account.

So. How does one go about creating an original performance of standard repertoire? Dodge’s advice: to play our Mozart with the most Mozartean flair, our Brahms as rich and brooding as Brahms intended — in short, to explore our own unique understanding of the composition to its logical end, and in so doing give each piece a story and a character of its own. He went on to encourage us to approach our orchestral music with as much intent as we would do in a solo recital or a concerto. Like Yo-Yo Ma’s hope for the Civic to “own” the score to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, our challenge in an audition is not just to technically master each excerpt, but to know them intimately and give them life.

Before heading off to a CSO rehearsal, Chen shared a few more thoughts with the Civic musicians. He explained how the CSO was his “dream job” and how thankful he was for this because in today’s professional orchestra world, not many dream jobs exist. Life for many professional musicians consists of hours upon hours of driving from gig to gig, piecing together a living by playing in several different groups, and having to figure out ways to save for retirement, pay for health care and support a family. For young musicians finding our way, the outlook can be bleak. Though the audition process can be financially stressful and a mental minefield, that’s no reason to cheat ourselves by playing timidly or with pessimism. Rather, the opposite is true.

All of our playing, be it for an experienced audition panel or a naïve audience, should have an importance and a life of its own.