Reaching for a seat

The Baltimore Sun

The conductor has heard enough. His hand shoots into the air, and the 20-year-old clarinetist in the bright orange shirt abruptly stops playing a Mozart concerto.

Kyle Beard's eight minutes are up.

It's the first day of his junior year in college, and Beard has already taken his most important test. The one that will determine whether he has finally landed a chair in the coveted symphony orchestra at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

"If you are an orchestral musician, you will spend your first week here, or possibly your first day, nervous as hell," said Beard, while waiting for the formal results of his audition. "The rest of your year will hinge ... on this week."

And, perhaps, your chances of becoming that increasingly rare specimen among conservatory graduates: a classical musician, employed.

Today, when six days of such auditions conclude, a variation on Beard's theme will have played out hundreds of times in the stately block of buildings on Mount Vernon Place that houses the 150-year-old music school.

If it all seems a harsh how-do-you-do for students paying more than $40,000 a year for tuition, room and board, Peabody officials say the high-pressure first week serves both practical and pedagogical purposes.

The auditions are necessary because the faculty needs to know which students will be playing what and with whom this year, in order to make scheduling decisions. And they are instructional, because auditioning well - very well - is essential for anyone aspiring to a long-shot career as a player in a respectable orchestra.

"In order to get a job, that's exactly the process you will be going through," said Igor Yuzefovich, 28, a recent Peabody graduate who is now a violinist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

In the languid first days of the academic year, when midterms are months away, traditional college students are more likely to sun themselves on the library steps than study in the stacks.

But at Peabody, as at other top-tier music academies, the first week is devoted to a frenzy of auditions that determine the makeup of ensembles, choral groups and operas. Students often believe a good placement can give them a professional edge in a notoriously competitive industry.

To win the second violin seat in the BSO, Yuzefovich said he had to beat out about 150 applicants in four rounds of auditions. Such competition is typical at the roughly 20 professional orchestras nationwide that operate on a full-year schedule.

In 2003, there were fewer than 160 openings for musicians in about 50 unionized orchestras. That same year, roughly 14,600 music degrees were conferred at U.S. colleges and conservatories, according to the players union. The job market is not forecast to improve.

Much of a classical musician's life is "waiting for someone to die," said Linda Goodwin, Peabody's director of ensembles. And yet, the number of students interested in a conservatory education is increasing, she said.

On a recent afternoon, the practice rooms at Peabody were filled with pianists, flutists, violinists. A young woman wandered the floor of the main building's "grand arcade," alternately bowing her violin and singing, in preparation for an audition.

Across the small courtyard, freshman Alexandra Iranfar from California waited in front of opera artistic director Roger Brunyate's office for her pre-audition interview. Wearing a black summer dress and pointy shoes, she admitted to being "a little nervous."

Brunyate's probing stare and English accent appeared to both disarm and unnerve Iranfar, who plans to study vocal performance and classical guitar at Peabody. And his abstract questioning - "How do you find the two kinds of music-making different?" - left her momentarily baffled.

Afterward, Brunyate said he was concerned that Iranfar's interest in two "instruments" had the potential to pull her in two directions. But overall, the man who will cast the Peabody Opera Theater's 2007-2008 season was intrigued.

"With this one, I find a rather sweet, charming person. I think Alexandra has got probably a lot more feeling, passion if you like, than she was showing," he said. "And I'd like to see how it channels into music."

Despite the pressures of the first week, many students said they chose Peabody because it advertises itself as a place that doesn't encourage a "cutthroat" environment.

"I have friends at the New England Conservatory and Juilliard, and from what I understand those schools are very cutthroat, especially on audition days," said Joe Dombrowski, a senior majoring in clarinet performance and audio recording.

"I don't know why it is ... if it's just a matter of Peabody isn't as famous," Dombrowski said. "But it is more an air of everyone wishing each other good luck, rather than competition."

Kyle Beard puts it more bluntly. "We are known for being kind of wishy-washy, a little more gentle, whereas at Juilliard there are rumors somebody put razor blades between the piano keys."

School officials say the kindler, gentler culture is by design. "I think we have really tried hard to get rid of that cutthroat type of environment and be a little bit human," said Goodwin.

Yuzefovich believes his alma mater ought to introduce students to a slightly harsher culture to better prepare them for a music world characterized more by schadenfreude than solidarity.

"I felt a little bit secluded at school, kind of protected," he said by phone from Moscow, where he was visiting relatives. "It's good to some extent, but I think at some point the school should take a stronger action in terms of exposing students to the outside world."

But Peabody officials say they can be both nurturing and realistic.

The opera department is offering this semester a course in which the final project includes obtaining a paying gig.

"The whole class is about how do you get yourself out there while waiting for the phone to ring," said Brunyate, who believes most of his graduates can make a living in which music plays some part, but that chances for anyone becoming a full-time opera performer are "rather slim."

Clarinet teacher Edward Palanker encourages his students to look into the wind instrument-heavy military service bands, which can pay an officer's salary.

"I tell the students right out front, I don't mince words: The chances of getting an orchestra job in this country are not good," said Palanker, who is in his 45th year with the BSO, which has not hired a clarinetist in nearly a decade.

"You have to expect to be disappointed and rejected at orchestra auditions," he said. "That's just the life of the musicians. You just hope that one day you're in the right place at the right time and you play your best and they like it and you get hired."

Most of the students will find out tomorrow whether they were in the right place at the right time.

Kimberly Zaleski, an 18-year-old flutist from Garrison, N.Y., was pleased with her audition. "You know, they don't really show that much emotion," Zaleski said of the judging panel. "But I think I saw a smile from my teacher."

Kyle Beard found out early: He will play in the Peabody Symphony Orchestra this year. He said he's happy to have a year playing in a full-size orchestra, learning some of the repertoire he will be called upon to audition with when he graduates. But he's not letting it go to his head.

"I'm relatively realistic," Beard said. "I'm not going to get out of school and win a chair."

More likely, his life will be a combination of freelancing and teaching and hunting for work.

"I would be perfectly happy with that," said Beard, who taught himself to play the clarinet for four years before ever taking a lesson. "I just want to do music, 10 hours a day doing nothing but music."

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