Big fish in a small orchestra
Written and illustrated by Vivian Hansen de los Ríos
I was wearing a white blouse and black slacks, my eternally long blond hair pulled sleekly back into a bun. I was fifteen and full of nerves in that small, plain room. Only a week before, the band director at my high school mentioned that the youth symphony orchestra in the next city would be holding auditions for their next season. No one I knew would be auditioning, nor did anyone else from my tiny countryside school even try. But if anyone could do it, I thought, it’s me.
My flute was brightly polished, and I’d practiced enough to be able to remove the last small training cork in one of the keys. I held the head joint tightly in my palm, keeping the metal warm so it wouldn’t go out of tune. I looked at the complicated sheet music I had brought with me, not really seeing anything through my nerves.
“Don’t worry,” a soft voice came from next to me. “Everybody’s nervous, but you’ll do fine.” The teen boy sitting beside me certainly didn’t look nervous. He was relaxed, his warm brown violin resting easily in his lap. I smiled and asked if he was auditioning for his first time too. Of course not. “I’ve been in the orchestra for two seasons,” he responded. “But I’ve never seen you before, so I figured this must be your first time.” He was kind and handsome, but my nerves didn’t let me pay that any attention either.
I was talented, undoubtedly. From a young age I’d sing songs I made up and play tunes on a piano that I’d heard. I liked to try to match my voice to the pitch of mechanical sounds like the air conditioner or vacuum cleaner, feeling the strange satisfaction of synchronized sound waves in my chest. I “played by ear,” the adults would say brightly when I mimicked songs on piano keyboards without knowing how to play. When I finally got a flute at eleven years old, I quickly worked my way up through the ranks and stayed there.
The girl waiting to audition in front of me was called into the other room. “What’s the sight reading like?” I asked the boy. That was the only part I was really worried about. I could play anything I heard. But if I didn’t hear it first, well… I only hoped the music wasn’t too complex. Sometimes I could even guess what came next based on the key and style, but complex music intentionally broke the patterns I leaned on. “Oh, it’s not so bad,” he replied. “I usually make a mistake or two, but as long as you do your best, they’ll still see your talent.”
The first time I ranked in first chair, I had not practiced at all for the test. I knew some students had spent days poring over the music, working on moving their fingers quicker, making their staccatos sharper, and smoothing the transitions. I simply didn’t practice. But by the time the director came to me, I’d heard the others play it five or six times. I knew where their mistakes were; they were easy to spot. I circled those places on my sheet music to be cautious of them. I played the test perfectly, to much astonishment, and I took first chair over a girl who was older than me. I stayed in that chair by learning scales and listening to sheet music on the internet before tests.
Music became my passion. Middle school society had decided me to be nerdy, strange, and too shy; music gave me purpose and pride. I looked up careers in music and decided on film score composing, John Williams my new hero. The only setback I could see was the obviously abysmal music education I was receiving from school. The director had massive anger issues, often just making us watch a movie so he could sit in his office away from us. I started to feel like I was being held back.
High school brought new opportunities. I was now competing with students four years older than me, and I rose to the challenge. By the second year, I decided to try for the orchestra. They, perhaps, could better utilize my talent.
The door opened and a man called my name from a list. I stood up quickly, and the boy beside me cheerfully wished me luck. I followed him into a room empty except for another man, a music stand, and a chair. They greeted me kindly and professionally, as if I were an adult. It was rare, and a nice feeling. I sat gracefully in my chair, and within moments was flowing and winding through the piece I’d prepared. My fingers flicked across the keys, and my heart leapt at the expression from the directors, their eyebrows raised in pleasant surprise. They beamed at me at the finish, and I glowed back.
“Wonderful,” the other director said. “Your tone is beautiful!" I could have floated from the room. It took a great deal of self control to keep from laughing with pent up adrenaline.
"Now let’s just get the sight reading out of the way,” he said, writing something I thought must have been quite nice into his notebook. The other man asked me to open the folder on the music stand and, when I was ready, begin. I pulled the paper out of the pocket, laid it gently on the stand, and stared.
The key was strange. I don’t think I had played in it before. The notes were very high and sharp, with large steps and dozens of accidentals; even the time signature was unfamiliar to me. I blinked. It looked as if someone had taken a sheet of perfectly nice music and splattered ink all over it in a rage. I did not know the tune, or even the composer. I blinked again, and pulled my shaking flute up to my lips.
I gathered my bag and my mom from the waiting room. My face was hot and I begged myself to hold in the tears. “How did it go?” the boy asked brightly as he picked up his things for his audition. I just shook my head at him, unable to talk and headed for the doors. “Oh no, don’t worry,” he responded. “We all think we do badly. Did he say ‘see you on Tuesday?’ He always says that,” the boy continued hopefully.
“No,” I croaked. He hadn’t. The boy’s face finally fell a bit. He looked very sorry. I left the room without another word, and asked my mom to just not talk about it in the car. She took me out for a very nice lunch, but I couldn’t taste anything. My world was shattered.
“Just a moment,” the director had said to me. “Show me that bar one note at a time?” he asked. I did so, confused, thinking it was the one part I had gotten right. “Where did you learn those fingerings?” he finally asked. “I’m sorry, but all of them starting at the high A are simply incorrect. I’m impressed that you can manage to emulate the note by changing your air flow, but it will take some time to sort that out. And you need to learn this key, and have you seen this time signature before?”
His words echoed in my head as I tried to sleep. I could still see the confusion and disappointment on their faces. I’d been doing everything wrong for years. I couldn’t read sheet music. I could play by ear, and rather well, but that was all. No one would want me. The rank I held was a big lie, and it was easily seen through outside my tiny world. But without music, what was I?
A little piece of me broke that day. I told no one at school that I had auditioned. My one, single source of pride had been taken from me. I wasn’t good, and it was mostly because I didn’t practice; and I didn’t practice because I thought my talent was enough. I was better than most in my own band, but it turned out that we were one of the worst bands in the state. The moment I left my little pond, I learned how tiny of a fish I was.
I started drawing a lot more to keep my mind off things and thankfully discovered that I had a bit of talent there, too. I also joined the color guard and became quite good with practice, diverting attention from my failure. I even received a decent scholarship from a major university to play in the band (with the help of being able to hear the flautists ahead of me in the audition; I wouldn’t have been able to survive the sight reading otherwise). I still wonder if the judges noticed that I made their same exact mistakes.