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The Journey Through the Desert of Orchestral Auditions

If there's anyone whose story can help you in your orchestra auditions, don't miss this from David Cooper (principal horn of the Chicago Symphony). Truly inspirational!
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dave cooper horn orchestral auditions

Besides the Victoria Symphony, you’ve been a member of the Fort Worth Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony; how did you become involved with each symphony?

When I got the Victoria Symphony, I hadn’t played professionally except for a few gigs here and there. The first thing I realized was being an orchestral horn player was more than just knowing the horn solos. I needed to know the whole piece inside and out. In Victoria, I was so hungry to learn and to play more. I wanted to make up for lost time and play everything from orchestra to opera to recitals. I made recordings, did competitions and went to auditions. I had so much time and energy to devote to playing the horn, and I was getting paid to do so! It was a blast and a wonderful time of growth in my life. The musicians in the horn section were terrific. They took me in and raised me up. Mike Oswald, who is second horn in the Victoria Symphony, was about my age and had gone to Rice University (one of the top horn studios in the country, if not the world). It was so nice to have a friend who was my age and playing second horn with me. Whenever we played, we had this great chemistry; he always followed my playing and stuck to me like glue. He was from Ohio, loved Frisbee, running and had this fantastic three-story mansion where he rented the top story (and it had a ping pong table). The owners were gone quite often, and then he would have this whole mansion to himself. He would watch their standard poodle (just like the poodle in my favourite book, Charley from Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck) named Sophie. Mike and I would go out and run, take Sophie on walks, play ping pong or Mario Kart. Mike was the one who introduced me to Bill VerMeulen, which became a turning point for me in my professional development and audition success.

After my second year in the Victoria Symphony, my contract ended and was not renewed. I remember wondering what I was going to do, a make-or-break moment. Victoria had a long pier that went into the middle of the ocean that looked at Washington State and the Olympic Mountain range with the Victoria inner harbour behind. I was out there, at the end of this pier by myself, thinking, “All right, what do you want me to do, God?” I had started a professional music career but wasn’t sure what to do or where my next step would be. It was one of those foxhole prayers that you say when you’re at the end of your rope and out of any good ideas… and then it hit me as clear as a neon sign blinking on. I was not going to take this as a set back but as an opportunity. The next day, I put in six applications. I was moving forward. Coincidentally, out of the six job openings, three of them were in Texas. I had never been to Texas before or farther south of Indiana, for that matter. Before this point, I thought about going back to school to finish my degree, do some freelance work or maybe go to Chicago and study with Dale Clevenger. Texas was not in the plans, but when an opportunity presents itself for me, I felt I have to pursue it wherever it may be.

In one week, I had four auditions lined up. I auditioned for Chicago Civic and was wait-listed. I went to Philadelphia to re-audition for Curtis. I had an audition for fourth horn in the Philadelphia Orchestra a couple of days later, but I didn’t even advance out of the prelims. The next day, I went to Fort Worth and took the audition for co-associate principal horn. I made it into the final round, and I dug in deep. I thought to myself, “I am not going home without a job.” I played the best final round I could have imagined, and I won the job. I never guessed in a million years that I would move to Fort Worth, but it was one of the best places for me to learn to become a better orchestral player.

When I got down to the Fort Worth Symphony, Miguel Harth-Bedoya started the season off with a Mahler Festival where we played Mahler 6,7 and 2 in one weekend. The principal horn player, Mark Houghton, knocked my socks off. He was doing some fantastic things on the horn. Not only was he a phenomenal player, but he knew how to be an orchestral principal horn player. I watched him and learned; I tried to emulate what he was doing.

During my first season in Fort Worth, I had made the finals in the San Francisco Symphony, but ultimately I didn’t make the cut. I knew I needed to adjust my playing and went to one of my biggest inspirations on the horn, Dale Clevenger. I met Dale in 2007. At the time, I was playing with the Victoria Symphony. I went to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Dale played the Rosenkavalier Suite by Strauss. It was my first time hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in person and also the first time I heard Dale play. His solo took my breath away, put a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. Soon after, I had my first lesson with Dale. He had mentioned to me that my embouchure wouldn’t allow me to get to the highest level. After the defeat in San Francisco, I decided it was time to take to heart what Dale had told me, and I sought out his guidance to make this change. During the summer of 2009, between my first and second season in Fort Worth, I went to Dale for help. It was more challenging than I had anticipated, and I didn’t allow myself enough time to make this adjustment. I suffered when I came back to work at the beginning of the next season. I had no consistency or control in my playing and couldn’t make notes start, especially in the middle register. I eventually had to go talk to the conductor about my playing and explain what had happened. It was the first time I was scared to play the horn because I didn’t know what would come out. I went through a month of fear and doubt in my playing. I eventually had to go back to my original way of playing. That felt like a defeat. I could play consistently again, but I knew it would not take me to the next playing level.

I did six auditions that year and didn’t advance at a single one of them. By the end of that year, I was determined to do the embouchure change and have it take. So between my second and third year in Fort Worth, I went back to try to understand this new way of playing and incorporate it in my own playing. Dale was teaching in Washington State at the Marrowstone Music Festival in Bellingham, Washington, only a few hours from Vancouver, BC, where my Grandma lives. I remember driving down a few times with my grandma in her van and crossing the border to see Dale and get a lesson. One time my grandma baked him a cherry pie, which was his favourite. She absolutely adored Dale. He told my grandma that she was an inspiration to him as she was in her 90’s and in such excellent health. I found this instruction with Dale to be baffling. The way he had me go about the embouchure change was so simple that it didn’t seem like it could work. He had me playing any melody I could sing: My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Amazing Grace, anything by the Beatles, anything I could think of with a melody as long as it wasn’t above a 3rd space C. So I spent 30 to 60 minutes a day sounding pretty rough playing all of these little melodies. Going through the embouchure change like this retrained my brain on how to play and where things were on the horn. It was a humbling experience not to be able to play, not to sound good, and not to know what would come up the other end, but I just trusted that Dale knew what he was doing.

[…]

Shortly after I recovered from my injury, I had the opportunity to audition for my dream job, principal horn of the Chicago Symphony. Dale Clevenger was a legend in my eyes, he still is, and it was hard to believe he wouldn’t be in that chair anymore. Dale was THE Chicago horn sound for me. I couldn’t imagine myself in that chair because it was an unscalable mountain; it was the pinnacle of horn chairs. I auditioned for the position, but it didn’t go very well, and my hope was that I would someday get another chance to audition for this position. Then the unthinkable happened. I was walking down Michigan Avenue near Orchestra Hall, and I saw these beautiful leather shoes walking in front of me. I looked up and saw this incredibly tailored suit with beautiful fabric, and my eyes continued up, and there was this perfectly flowing hair that I had seen on album covers. I knew it could only be one person — Maestro Muti. I said his name rather shyly, and there was no response, and I thought that couldn’t be. I looked again and was more sure, so I said his name a little louder, and again no response. By now, I was optimistic it must be him, and so I said his name as loud as I could and all at once, the gentleman in the suit stopped walking, turned around, looked at me and replied, “Siiiiiii?” I was speechless; I hadn’t expected it would be him, and I certainly hadn’t thought of what I would say to him. I sheepishly introduced myself and told him I had played an audition for him earlier in the day, to which he replied, “Yes, I know who you are.” Again I was surprised. I stammered out, “Wwwwwell, did you hire anyone today from the audition?” To which he replied, “No, we didn’t.” I was so excited the spot had not been filled that I shook his hand and replied, “Well, I’m going to be back next year, and I am going to work my ass off.” That was the first time I met Maestro Muti, and I dearly hope he doesn’t remember that encounter.

[…]

The following year I again auditioned for the vacancy in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, although this time, I was put in the preliminary round. That was a little bit of a blow to my ego because I was slated to play with players who had no professional experience. I would be just another number in four days of auditions of 30 or more candidates and less likely to be noticed unless I played really, really well. This audition came the day after I played the Britten Serenade with the Dallas Symphony, which is one of the best pieces written for horn. I was coached by a world-famous British bass-baritone, Matthew Rose, who helped me look at the text to understand the piece’s meaning. As a result, I understood the time when it was written and the context of that extremely dark period right after World War II. The piece is also layered with Britten’s own extreme feelings of isolation and guilt as a closeted Catholic homosexual. I immersed myself in the music and transformed into his voice much as an actor would with a significant role. The headlines of the review from a notoriously harsh music critic in the Dallas Morning News read, “A Stunning Britten Serenade from Cooper and the Dallas Symphony,” which went on to say it was, “A hair raising, bone-chilling must-see performance.”

[…]

In 2016 I auditioned for the 3rd time for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal horn position. My first audition was in 2013, and the second was in 2015. For nine months, I did everything I could think of to improve my conditioning and playing. I treated this audition like I was going to the Olympics. When I advanced from the prelims to the finals, I was relieved, exhausted, and elated all at the same time. I had worked harder in the last months than I had ever worked in my life. Some improvements were on the horn, but some were life improvements. I now had a consistent sleep schedule and a rock-solid daily warm-up routine, along with the many necessary hours of practising excerpts. I started meditating, having a meal plan, taking nutritional supplements and drinking lots of water. I strengthened my body by swimming to increase my lung capacity. I did Pilates to strengthen my back, shoulders and core. I did Feldenkrais and Alexander technique lessons to improve my posture. I even worked with mental attitude coach Jeff Nelson on his Fearless Audition Training Method. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra audition lists are notoriously extensive, including over 28 complete major orchestral works and two full concertos along with possible sight-reading. All of these pieces have to be so thoroughly prepared that any part of any of these works can be performed to convince the committee that you are the best possible candidate. It is an unenviable position to be in on the committee because you have to narrow down a pool of 200 players in a matter of 5 to 10 minutes each with only hearing a few notes of their playing. To stand out from the rest of the pack, you have to demonstrate you have all the necessary skills and no shortcomings on anything considered major orchestral repertoire. To this day, I feel like this simple step of advancing from the prelims to the finals was one of the most challenging and rewarding achievements of my career.

When I got to the final round, I was wholly prepared except for one skill that I neglected in my audition preparation, sight-reading, which of course, was part of the final round audition. The committee asked for an Italian opera horn solo from Bellini, and I just bombed on it. I felt like I had given away nine months of hard work and preparation in one brief moment. I was so disappointed and felt like I had let myself down because I didn’t have the outcome I had worked so hard to achieve. I became depressed for a couple of months, and I didn’t want to play the horn. I was still playing and preparing for work at the Dallas Symphony, but I was burnt out. Post-audition syndrome is real. It is when you have a target day and are waking up every day with a clear goal and a reason to keep going, but once that day is past, there isn’t as clear a purpose anymore. It’s tough to find any direction or motivation once the goal is gone. You feel like you are drifting aimlessly, and it’s hard to find your path again.

[…]

horn

I took what I learned in my preparation for the principal horn audition with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and applied it to the audition for the Berlin Philharmonic. I learned how to practice for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and built on what I had been working on already. I also did whatever I thought it took. I bought a German horn — an Alexander, and I started taking German lessons. I did nine recitals from memory in six weeks, recorded them and analyzed my performances. I realized I needed practice performing my concertos. Performing is a different skill than playing in a practice room. I split recitals with my close friend Kyle Sherman, the principal trumpet with the Fort Worth Symphony. Playing all of these recitals gave me lots of experience of playing in public. When I arrived on stage in Berlin, I felt much like I felt in Victoria; I was grateful and happy to be there. When I walked into the Berliner Philharmonie, I wasn’t nervous but just excited to play on that stage. The members who listened to my audition told me that I barely squeaked through the first round because of stylistic differences in my Mozart Concerto, but it went really well when I played my Strauss. Afterwards, my excerpts kept getting stronger, partly because of my hard work from my recent audition in Chicago. My audition for Berlin was not perfect; there were a few instances where I could have lost the audition in my mind. I asked if I could play Till Eulenspiegel again because the rhythm wasn’t precise the first time, and it was much better the second time. I had to restart the opening of Ein Heldenleben because the opening arpeggio wasn’t clean. I began the audition with a great Wagner “Long Call” and ended the audition with a strong top C from the middle of Till Eulenspiegel. When that final note rang in the hall, I looked up at the balcony of the Philharmonia, and there was a group of musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic who were giving me a standing ovation.

I called my mentor Eric Ruske and let him know I did all I could, but I didn’t think I would win because of the mistakes. After waiting for maybe fifteen minutes that felt like an eternity, the principal oboist Albrecht Mayer and hornist Sarah Willis came out. They said in a solemn and sombre tone, “We would like to thank you for coming out and for all of your hard work, and we know you have come a long way and spent a lot of money to get here…” At this point, I was sure I wasn’t going to win, and I was getting ready to brace myself for the disappointing news… but then, after a slight pause, Sarah went on to say, “…but you’re the new principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic!” It was right around Christmas time, and Albrecht Mayer picked me off my feet (he’s about six foot something) and said, “Congratulations and Merry Christmas, you’re the new principal horn of the Berlin Philharmonic!’ That was truly one of the greatest feelings of my life, and I will never forget that moment. The next few days were a high like I had never felt with all the calls and congratulations. It felt like everyone I had ever met, and so many classical music fans and musicians around the world were congratulating me.

[…]

dave cooper horn

Website: cooperhorn.com

Full Interview: “Resiliency Has Gotten Me Through a Lot of Hard Times”

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