Four men sit on stage. Some tap their feet in careful, quiet rhythm, their faces set in concentration. There’s a sense that something is happening, a strange feeling of a very present absence—almost a haunting.
All at once, the men raise their trombone or tuba to their lips and the auditorium explodes in a warmth of majestic brassy sound.
“That was Bruckner seven,” the leader addresses the audience when they have finished.
To anyone outside the world of low brass or classical musicians, such silences followed by short, relatively unmelodic bursts would be incomprehensible. But at the tuba conference where I saw this performance, it was eagerly received. The men on stage were the low brass section of the San Antonio Symphony; the present absence was the ghost of all the other parts of Bruckner’s seventh symphony playing in our imaginations; and the music itself was what has been the making or breaking of countless tubists: the orchestral excerpt.
Orchestral excerpts are generally short—an average of perhaps 30 seconds—and, just as the name implies, they are passages from symphonies. More than that, they are the basis of auditions for the holy grail of tuba jobs: principal tubist in an orchestra, a position which, if you make it at the highest level (New York Phil; Cleveland Orchestra) means a performance career with a six-figure salary. It doesn’t get any better than that for the tuba.
Most auditions begin with an initial period when anyone can send in a recording of his or her playing. Next, the audition committee invites a group of semi-finalists to try out in person. These candidates are given a list of 15 or more orchestral excerpts in advance from which the committee will select five on the audition day itself. Orchestras have only one principal tuba; vacancies rarely turn up; and when one does, a big pool of fierce competition instantly materializes. To have even a prayer of winning, you have to practice your excerpts.
You don’t just practice excerpts; you practice excerpts. You analyze them, contextualize their place within the orchestra and in music history. You spend more than half your time in lessons working on them and talking about interpretation. You dig up old recordings and try to hear under all the stuff and noise of the orchestra how a particular master played it.
Fortunately, I’m not foolish enough to know firsthand what it’s like to try to master orchestral excerpts. Instead, I acquired an intimate knowledge of excerpts from hearing them day after day, summer vacation after summer vacation while my brother Kent practiced them in the tuba room at home. My oldest brother Jon and I developed advanced coping mechanisms for this kind of subjection, our favorite of which was to create connoisseur pairings of lyrics and excerpts—for example, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” sung to the tuba part in the fifth movement of Mahler’s second symphony.
Only a small minority of tuba excerpts contain a melody, such as the well-known tune from Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Most walk a line that’s difficult to characterize; they’re not exactly _un_melodic, and if you listen to them enough, they become familiar in a way that’s almost enjoyable. Still, you’re listening to an accompaniment, and so after a snatch of near-melody, it’s not uncommon for the tuba to jump into a bassline pattern or to leave off abruptly because the part ends. Here’s an example of an excerpt frequently on audition lists, Respighi’s Fountains of Rome. I especially like this rendition because most people aren’t used to seeing orchestral repertoire performed by guys hanging out at home in their socks.
Needless to say, mainstream recordings of orchestral excerpts don’t exactly abound, but I recently got my hands on the 1996 CD “Orchestral Excerpts for Tuba” in which Gene Pokorny, principal tubist of the Chicago Symphony, provides spoken commentary on each excerpt that he demonstrates. For a lay listener like me, the excerpts with narrative significance are the most fun. In Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique, for example, the tuba part at one point represents the laughter of executioners preparing to chop off the heads of innocent people. Better yet, Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka has a scene in which a peasant tries to get a bear to dance at a fair, but the bear—represented by the tuba—is reluctant, giving over to “ponderous movements” and “bellows of discontent,” as Pokorny describes them. Pokorny encourages players to go for the “biggest, broadest, most bear-like sound available,” and he advises that they differentiate between the types of accents written in the excerpt.
This idea of playing with attention to different accents and articulation (how the player attacks each note) becomes a recurring theme on the CD. Thanks to Pokorny, if I’m ever held at gunpoint and asked to name the difference between sforzando piano and sforzando mezzo forte with a diminuendo, I just might get out of it unscathed. Pokorny so recognizes the nuances in these markings that one track features him playing the same excerpt five times with five different types of articulation.
Just listening to Pokorny’s playing on the CD tells a lot about the hallmarks of orchestral tuba playing: big sound, dynamic sensitivity, and obvious control. It’s easy to hear that Pokorny is a master. But what you wouldn’t know is that his position of principal tuba in the Chicago Symphony was the indirect outcome of one of the most talked-about, most speculated-upon, most rumor-filled tuba orchestra auditions of all time, the 1988 audition to replace titan Arnold Jacobs. Some of the world’s best tuba players turned out for that audition, and the story goes that the finalists were made to perform in front of each other in the last round. As if that wasn’t bad enough for the poor auditioners, the judges didn’t even choose a winner! They later brought in other candidates, one of whom was Gene Pokorny, and now, 26 years later, the tuba world is pretty unanimous that Pokorny was a good choice.
Orchestra auditions are like that—hugely trying, nerve-wracking, and ultimately frustrating. Early rounds of the audition are typically blind, meaning the judges sit behind a screen so that they can’t see the applicant. Sometimes the judges ask for the candidate to play the same excerpt again with an adjustment such as making it softer. Other times, they simply ask to hear it again, a stressful enigma. On the one hand, it’s a sign of interest that they’re taking time to hear you play the passage again, but on the other, it leaves you guessing as to what they want to hear and how you should play it that second time. Classical oboist Blair Tindall recounts just such a scenario in her memoir Mozart in the Jungle. During her audition for the New York Phil, the judges asked her to play a particular excerpt over again, which she did, feeling as if she’d nailed it both times. It was only later that she realized she had practiced and therefore played the excerpt with one consistently wrong note. She did not win the job.
Auditions are similar for all orchestral instruments—extremely competitive, excerpt-oriented, and, let’s face it, a crapshoot, as evidenced by a violinist who applied to audition for the Baltimore Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra around the same time. The Cleveland Orchestra is renowned as one of the best orchestras internationally. You can imagine, then, how thrilled this violinist was to win the Cleveland audition and how baffled he was to learn he hadn’t even been invited to audition in person for Baltimore.
Where the tubist’s sacrifice differs from other instrumentalists is in the effort and expense of getting two tubas to the audition. Tubists often drive great distances because it is easier and less costly than flying with two horns. And lest you think tuba players need to learn to pack lighter, rest assured that two tubas are necessary: a C tuba for the loud, low work and an F tuba for the higher, more soloistic passages. The outcome of such travel and financial sacrifice often goes like this: One tubist I know drove nine hours to an audition and played one and a half excerpts—a total of about 90 seconds—before the judges said the dreaded “Thank you.”
I suppose, then, the disheartening moral of the story is that a musician can eat, sleep, and breathe orchestral excerpts—can even ruin siblings’ sanity with them—but none of that will ensure success. I honestly don’t know why so many people do it, nor do I know whether such effort is an awe-inspiring testimony to human hope and confidence, or whether it is utter foolishness committed under delusions of grandeur. But I do know this: the other night when I was on the phone with Kent, we talked about which excerpts were universally dreaded—Mussorgsky’s “Bydlo” with its extreme and almost unfairly high range, Mahler Symphony No. 1 with its soft, sustained line that is difficult to execute well when nervous. But when I asked which excerpts he liked, I could practically hear his eyes light up as he immediately named Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, a challenging excerpt full of loud, low articulation, but one that he feels he personally can knock out of the park. There was in his answer that peculiar joy of the expert enjoying his own expertise—not arrogant because hard-earned, not foolish because genuine. And how do I know he wasn’t exaggerating? Believe me, I’ve heard him play it a few times.