Playing for keeps
A rare opening in the cello section of the Minnesota Orchestra
 brought 56 world-class musicians to try out for the position of a lifetime.
BY Matt Peiken
Pioneer Press


Editor's note: On average, two or three Minnesota Orchestra seats open every year, drawing conservatory-trained musicians from all over the world to audition. The process is private and grueling, and careers hang in the balance.
The winning musician lands a high-paying position and usually holds it until retirement. This insular world opened its door to staff writer Matt Peiken, who followed auditions from fall 2003 to spring 2004 for a cello position.
Jennifer Cox sits in the lone chair at the center of the room and holds her cello upright between her knees. She tilts her head to the ceiling's bright lights, exhales in a gush and squeezes her eyes shut. She seals her lips, and they begin to tremble.

How many times has she gone through this - 10 now, 11? She doesn't even tell her mother about the auditions anymore. Cox's coach told her she wasn't ready for the Minnesota Orchestra, but she flew here anyway, from Cincinnati.

For months, Cox has practiced four to five hours a day, performed mock auditions in front of friends and committed nearly two hours of music to memory. Still, she felt so nervous and hyper this morning, she dug a pill of Inderal from a stash she had gathered before a previous audition. Darn pill is so old it could be a placebo by now, and the thought at once made her chuckle and feel like crying.
About 20 feet away, four Minnesota Orchestra musicians face Cox, seated in silence behind a rectangular table. Another four are judging auditions of other cellists in another room. Before the weekend is over, they will have listened to 56 cellists who traveled from all over, paying their own expenses, to compete for one position.

For musicians who devoted large chunks of their childhoods to private lessons, survived the rigors of a conservatory and slugged out the first years of their professional lives for paupers' pay, this is the ultimate reality show.
Jobs like these don't open up every day or even every year. Starting salary with the Minnesota Orchestra is around $90,000. Only eight American orchestras pay more. Whoever lands this job is likely to move here and stay for the next 30 or so years.

Everyone arrived at the hall prepared to stake a life path on this audition. Some, like Cox, have turned auditioning itself into an unintended habit, absorbing the pain, frustration and rejection, stuffing away the self-doubt and hoping the next has a happy ending. Others hold positions in low-paying professional or semi-professional orchestras. A few are so fresh from conservatory, they have no idea what they're up against.

Cox opens her eyes and moves her bow across the strings. A moment later, she stops, and her face takes on the color of a tomato.
"That's all right," Tony Ross, the orchestra's principal cellist, says. "Start again."
Cox drops her gaze and begins performing. Moments later, she has another false start, this time on an excerpt from a Mendelssohn concerto. She begins again, but several seconds into her second run, she stops.
"Can I try again?" she asks.
"It's all right," Ross says. "We know it's hard."
Cox continues, but the stress coats her performance - edgy and clipped. The judges taking notes give no visual clue of their assessment. They allow Cox to finish and thank her for coming.
Cox nods, picks up her purse and cello, and leaves the room, looking as if she just stepped out of a funeral.


Every musician in the Minnesota Orchestra has walked in Cox's shoes, some arriving with more tread on their soles than others.
Like the athletes who wind up playing for the Twins, Vikings, Wolves and Wild, few musicians who land jobs in the Minnesota Orchestra come with any connections to this area. Rarer still are musicians such as Joe Johnson, hired into the orchestra's cello section on his first professional audition.

Jessica Parker, 28, can't help dreaming she's an exception to the exception - a young Minnesotan ready to claim that open seat.
She hasn't auditioned since blowing a tryout with the Rochester Symphony four years ago, and that was just to make it onto the list of substitutes.
"Luckily, I was behind a screen, so nobody knew who I was," she says.
Parker has practiced four hours every day, on top of her weekly work with the St. Cloud Symphony and her private teaching at the MacPhail Center for Music, to prepare for this shot with the Minnesota Orchestra.

She asked advice from musicians in an Internet forum called Cello Chat (screen name SoundBerry). Cellists all over the country weighed in on her choice of concerto and whether she should perform from memory. She invited friends and family to an "audition party," where she encouraged everyone to stare, whisper or cough. They just couldn't talk directly to her or clap.
Parker even called Janet Horvath, the orchestra's associate principal cellist, for advice. Horvath told her she could "emote all over the place" but nobody's going to want to listen if she's not in tune. Horvath implored her to "prepare, prepare, prepare."

"I'm not freaking out like when I was 20," Parker says. "I will consider it a victory getting through the whole thing without breaking down or crying."
Tonight, the evening before her audition, she's updating her checklist of items to bring to the hall - resin, nail file, dusting cloth, lip balm. When she gets nervous, her lips tend to stick to her teeth.

She's also going through a final mock audition in front of her husband in the living room of their Uptown Minneapolis apartment. She performs her concerto from memory, then begins playing a Mendelssohn scherzo, one of the excerpts all of the auditioning cellists have to prepare for this audition.
"That was stinky," she says, and starts again.
Her husband insists she take a sleeping pill tonight.
"Half a pill would be O.K.," Parker allows. "For mental insurance."

Tony Ross and Janet Horvath sit side by side in the Minnesota Orchestra as principal and associate principal cellists, and they couldn't contrast each other more to the eye or ear.
Ross has the height, broad shoulders and dark features of a pinup, if Symphony Magazine had such a centerfold. Horvath doesn't reach 5 feet in shoes, and a string of physical ailments, caused from the repetitive stress of playing the cello, inspired her to research, write and self-publish a physical-therapy treatise for musicians. Ross' robust playing style is balanced by Horvath, whose finger shifts are so seamless it's almost impossible to hear the breaks from one note to the next.

Heading up the committee for this audition, the two have selected more than a dozen orchestral excerpts that the auditioning cellists must prepare in addition to choosing a concerto. They selected material demanding a variety of technical skills.
They've also taken the unusual step of lifting the literal curtain of anonymity normally placed between those auditioning and their judges.
Most audition committees, even those from other sections of the Minnesota Orchestra, prefer screens, so judges won't know the identity of the person playing before them. A quarter-century ago, concerns of bias were so strong that committees asked women not to wear heels, for fear their contact with a hard floor would give away their gender.
Ideally, juries focus their valuations solely on performance. Eliminating the screen, Ross says, helps make the auditioning process "a more humane and human experience."

"There are things we can tell about how they do their job and how they would fit in by what they do physically," Horvath says. "And let's face it - we could be colleagues for the next 30 years, and we want to see what the essence of that person is."
Many of the cellists auditioning for this seat are connected in some way to cellists in the orchestra - through private lessons, music camps and summer festivals, or time together at a conservatory or in a chamber group. At least one auditioning cellist planned to stay at the home of a Minnesota Orchestra cellist, who was also a judge.

Ross estimates having connections of his own to perhaps a quarter of those auditioning but says the chance is remote more than one judge, on this eight-member committee, has significant knowledge of any single auditioning cellist.
"If everyone took themselves out who knew somebody, we'd never have a committee," he says.
It's not necessarily the finest performer who will win the job, Ross and Horvath say, but the cellist who best fits the stylistic needs of this section.
"There's kind of this idea if you do the right fingerings and bowings, you're going to get the job," Ross says. "Beyond that, we're looking for artists."

Arek Tesarczyk just finished back-to-back auditions with the Philadelphia and Boston symphonies, and he made it all the way to the finals in Boston. Now, two days later, he's in Minneapolis, confronting a whole new set of excerpts and expectations.
Cello positions don't open up at top-drawer orchestras every year, let alone at three. Tesarczyk chose to roll the dice and play for all of them. Now he's wondering if the strategy has backfired: Is my concentration off? Am I too tired? What if I'm rejected again?
The cost of traveling to these auditions is enormous, and Tesarczyk is relieved friends in St. Paul have invited him to stay with them.
A native of Poland, Tesarczyk is only 38, but his pace and movements are calm and slow, like that of a koala bear. His brow hangs low over his eyes, casting him with an ever-present air of drowsiness.
He tries pushing Philadelphia and Boston from his consciousness, back to the dark spot where he's parked the residue of another wrenching audition, in Montreal. There, a few years ago, he was the only cellist invited to the finals, yet the orchestra declined to hire him.

Minneapolis brings its own clash of hopes and memories. Walking up to Orchestra Hall, he can't help but flash back to the year he and his wife lived here. While his wife taught and studied at the University of Minnesota, Tesarczyk worked part time at a Pottery Barn on Nicollet Mall, just up the street from Orchestra Hall.
He replays those days in his mind and smiles. Whatever happened to my friend from Pottery Barn? he wonders.
Other images cross his mind, and the smile fades. He remembers thinking he didn't graduate from the Peabody Conservatory and make his Kennedy Center debut only to live young and broke, busying himself with minimum-wage job.
Tesarczyk has performed for the past 10 years as principal cellist with the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada.

As he heads to Orchestra Hall, he's thinking about his young son and daughter. He wants them to grow up in a clean, safe, cultured place. Tesarczyk carries his cello inside and checks in with the personnel director. Nobody looking at him would notice he's anxious.
If I don't get this job, he thinks, I don't know if I can muster the strength to do this again.

Matt Peiken or 651-228-5440.

© 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

56 cellists, 1 position
Who earns a permanent seat in the Minnesota Orchestra?
Musicians go through a grueling process to find out.
Pioneer Press


"I'm done!" Jessica Parker says, hoisting her cello over her head, then lowering it with an exhale of relief.
This whole day has seemed magical to her. On the bus ride from her apartment to Orchestra Hall, Parker's ever-present smile grew brighter.
She thought to herself, "I'm auditioning for the Minnesota Orchestra. It seems like a dream." Then, in the musicians' lounge, as she waited for someone to assign her a warm-up room, she pulled a notebook from her backpack and wrote "An overwhelming feeling has come to me - this is my audition day! I was always afraid to go this far - to try for this kind of thing - but I'm here, about to do it. I can't believe it!"

The orchestra's personnel director finds Parker in the hall and pulls her aside. "Oh my gosh," Parker thinks. "I advanced."
Even as her hopes are dashed, her smile remains. She takes her cello into the street with a rush of adrenaline and jogs to the hospital where her mother works.
She hugs her mom and calls her husband. He tells her, "I wish they could have seen how good you are."

Jennifer Cox, the cellist from Cincinnati, steps from the audition room, her face a mask of white. She's supposed to wait backstage for word on whether she's invited to the next round, but instead trudges upstairs with her cello and purse and plunks herself onto a bench near the musicians' locker rooms.
She had a feeling this wasn't her day the minute she walked into Orchestra Hall. The batteries on her tuning device went dead, and she could swear the cellist preparing in the next rehearsal room was mocking her through the cinderblock wall, mirroring Cox's notes as she ran through her concerto. She's been bullied like this before by "cello jocks," as they're called, and she's fought to tune them out. Then she had to stop playing three times during the day's audition. That's never happened to her before.

The orchestra's personnel director approaches and pulls her aside. She whispers to Cox that she's sorry, but she won't be asked back to the second round. Cox forces a smile and shakes her hand with a "thank you."
She wants to call her parents. It's going to be a tough call. Her mother judges each disappointment as another sign Cox should find another path.
She walks across the street to Brit's Pub and takes out her cell phone.
"In a way, I feel fine about it, like almost blasť," she tells her dad. "What's hard is telling you I didn't advance."
Cox listens to her father for a moment. Her eyes begin filling with tears.
"You are?" she says. "Tell me again."
Her father repeats his words - he's proud of her and always will be.
"That really helps so much," she says. "Please, tell me one more time."

The competition began with 56 cellists. After two days, the field narrowed to 15. A day later, there were five. On the fourth day, there are just two. Arek Tesarczyk, the principal cellist with the Winnipeg Symphony, is still standing.
The other finalist is a young Italian who will be called Roberto. (He doesn't want his name used for fear of compromising other musical relationships.) He's a contrast to Tesarczyk in every discernible respect - a demonstrative performer with a model's looks and experience on both coasts, primarily in revered touring quartets and other small ensembles. He's only in his late 20s, with no family to consider in his career moves.

Osmo Vanska, the orchestra's music director, steps into the process for the first time. The committee members will cast secret ballots for the cellist of their choice, but Vanska can override their recommendation. There's no guarantee the orchestra will hire either finalist.
Vanska scans the resumes of the two remaining cellists.
"Sometimes, you wish someone would just jump out at you," Tony Ross, the orchestra's principal cellist, tells Vanska.
"Let's be thankful we have so many interested in the position," Vanska says.
"We still have four minutes," Vanska says. "So what is the joke of the day?"
"Does anyone know the two positions of viola?" Ross asks. "First and emergency."

Everyone gets a laugh at that.
Tesarczyk is the first finalist to walk in, and the hall grows so silent you can hear the hum of the stage lighting above. The cellist closes his eyes and digs into the Dvorak Cello Concerto.
Committee members must have heard three dozen versions of this over the past week, but in Tesarczyk, they hear something different. While his notes are smooth and flawless, he performs them with the assuredness of a seasoned, styled soloist.

He moves into his excerpts, using the time between one and the next to wipe his brow with the blue terry-cloth towel he keeps draped over his left knee.
Vanska stops him in the middle of one excerpt and asks him to play it softer. He interrupts another excerpt to ask for a louder fortissimo.
"I want to see where your edge is," he says.
"And those quarter notes," Ross says. "Did you really mean to accent them?"
Tesarczyk pauses to think, and then draws laughs when he says "Only if you think I should have."

Later, the personnel director emerges from the hall and calls Tesarczyk out of the lounge. She whispers to him, and Tesarczyk smiles but sags. The committee wants to see both him and Roberto again.
The limbo will carry all the way to spring, when the cellists will work during separate weeks as part of the orchestra, auditioning under the pressure of real concerts.

Six months have passed since Tesarczyk first auditioned, and now the committee wants to see how well he blends into the ensemble. Ross likens the task to that of Latrell Sprewell when he joined the Minnesota Timberwolves - a one-time star asked to play a supporting role with his new team.
Roberto has already gone through his audition week, and now Tesarczyk is doing the same. He's rehearsed for two days in relative anonymity - another substitute pulled from the pool of professional cellists in the community. Only the other cellists in the orchestra know what's at stake.
Before Tesarczyk left Winnipeg for the week in Minneapolis, his colleagues in the symphony wished him the worst of luck. It was only in half-jest; they don't want him to leave. But Tesarczyk is already feeling at home here. Just this afternoon, he walked to the Target on Nicollet Mall and bought his daughter a ballerina outfit.

Most of the musicians haven't even arrived for the night's concert, but Tesarczyk has already changed into his tuxedo. He steps into the hall and finds his seat near the lip of the stage, two rows behind where Ross will sit.
During the concert, it's as if he belongs. He performs with gusto and sensitivity, and at least once, his stand partner, Pitnarry Shin, glances his way and smiles.
The audition committee meets after Tesarczyk's departure and reaches a pivotal decision. It has eliminated Roberto from the competition. Still, the job isn't Tesarczyk's. The orchestra wants to see him again - for two more weeks of rehearsals and concerts.

"We're deciding whether to get married to somebody, so I don't think we're being overly cautious," says Horvath, the associate principal cellist. "Let's see how this relationship would really work."
Tesarczyk's return visit has come in a flash. He rehearses and performs two weeks of programs with the orchestra, and there are moments he's forgotten he's auditioning.
The night before his final concert, the audition committee meets for the final time. Vanska is the last to enter the room, and his first question is "Does this have to be a long meeting?" Minutes later, the personnel director phones Tesarczyk in his hotel room. The orchestra is offering him the job. Tesarczyk calls home, and his wife seems more excited than he does. Within minutes, he's e-mailing friends and family around the world.
The next night's concert rings with the fanfare of a season finale. Afterwards, several musicians head across the street to a dinner reception at Vincent restaurant.

Ross puts his hand on the shoulder of his new colleague.
"I hope you didn't lose patience," Ross says.
"I feel like I've already been here five years," Tesarczyk says.
Ross gives a slight chuckle and says, "We all wanted a happy ending."
Editor's Note: On average, two to three positions open every year with the Minnesota Orchestra, drawing conservatory-trained musicians from all over the world to audition for the seats. The process is private and grueling, and careers hang in the balance.

The winning musician lands a high-paying position and usually holds it until retirement. The musicians passed over return home to pick up their deflated dreams and prepare for yet another audition somewhere else.
Pioneer Press staff writer Matt Peiken received an open door into this insular world, following auditions from fall 2003 to spring 2004 for a cello position with the Minnesota Orchestra. This is the second installment in our two-part series following 56 musicians through the process.

Matt Peiken or 651-228-5440.

© 2004 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Performance Enhancing Drugs for Musicians?
Is the scourge of the professional athletic world rearing its ugly head in the music industry?
by Drew McManus
September 27, 2004

This summer's Olympics games were marked by several high profile performance enhancing drug scandals. Several high profile athletes tested positive for banned substances, most notably several previously successful Greek and American competitors.

These banned substances allow athletes who use them to perform at levels beyond normal human ability and help them achieve record breaking levels of performance. The drug of choice in the spotlight this year is a designer steroid named tetrahydrogestrinone (THD).

The motive behind banning such substances is obvious; everyone deserves to perform on the level playing field of natural ability and training. However, given the competitive nature of professional athletics, it's no surprise to discover that there are always competitors eager to obtain an artificial edge.

And professional musicians are very similar to professional athletes; they are constantly searching for ways to improve their performance ability. But unlike their athlete cousins, professional musicians can rarely benefit from artificially increased physical ability.

But there are other ways for musicians to improve their performance; by reducing performance related anxiety.

It's nothing new for musicians to suffer from performance anxiety, otherwise known as "stage fright". And up until the past few decades, classical musicians haven't dabbled in performance enhancing drugs (the legal ones at least).

Performance anxiety is an issue that's typically treated as a mental challenge, something more like "mind over matter". Almost every professional musician has a technique or trick they use to help them remain calm and focused during performances.

David Lockington, music director for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, espouses a technique he refers to as visualization, which helps him establish triggers to relax during performances; and for David it works well.

He says, "I visualize walking on stage, seeing the lights, and using all of those as triggers to relax instead of adding to the pressures."

But some musicians have significantly more trouble obtaining those levels of relaxation and focus using mental exercises. 

Stage fright is an inherently individual condition which some individuals are naturally better equipped to deal with than others. So what does a musician do when they can perform at a level equal to the best of the best when they are in their private practice studio but fall apart due to performance anxiety when they step onto the stage?

Decades ago, musicians typically found their answers in a bottle; bourbon, scotch, vodka, gin, take your pick.  Alcohol has always been an easily accessible means to artificially lessen the rate of vital physiological activities.

But the pitfalls associated with that choice of action are obvious.  Alcohol not only deadens a musician's synaptic responses (which are at the heart of performance anxiety) but they also slow down cognitive and physical ability. Then there's that pesky addictive side effect to deal with.

Better living through pharmaceuticals

In 1965 Wyeth Laboratories developed Inderal, the brand name for propranolol, which is an antianginal, antiarrhythmic, antihypersensative, antimigraine drug, and beta blocker.

In English, that means it helps treat the effects of anxiety or nervous tension, aggressive behavior, angina, high blood pressure, migraine, headaches, panic attack, phobias, schizophrenia, tremors, and to help prevent second heart attacks.

Inderal is not habit forming, may be taken for months or even years, and proper dosage must be determined and prescribed by a physician.

It's obvious to see why many musicians have found this drug to be extraordinarily useful if fighting the symptoms of performance anxiety.

Some musicians who use this drug have experienced significant reductions in their level of performance anxiety which, in turn, allows them to reach much high levels of consistency in their performing. Best of all, it isn't habit forming and side effects are rare and usually minor in character.

A question of ethics

If you ask a group of musicians (especially a string player) about their feelings regarding Inderal and you'll likely get an ear full.  Some players find it to be a god send which allows them to consistently perform at their best while others see it as an artificial crutch that eliminates a level playing field.

For example, two of the most stressful situations in the classical music industry are solo performing and taking auditions. Both are directly connected to how successful a musician is throughout their career.

Opponents of Inderal use claim that the drug provides an artificial edge to audition candidates, allowing them to win a position over a competitor that may otherwise deserve to win the job. They go on to point out that professional soloists that use Inderal create an artificial product that is not representative of their natural ability.

Proponents state that Inderal allows them to demonstrate the absolute best of the natural ability and results of their years of hard work. They claim the drug doesn't enhance their ability to play their instrument, it merely allows them to display their natural ability.

One professional cellist I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, swears that without Inderal their career would have never gotten off the ground.  They said "Without Inderal I never would have reached my full potential.  I've practiced just as long and just as hard as my colleagues  The only difference is they don't suffer from the gripping fear I do when I pick up my bow in front of other people."

Individual choice

Arguably, when compared to physical issues the world of medical science is only just beginning to learn about physiological disorders. Are they more alike than different?  Are they a disease to be treated with physical and pharmaceutical solutions or should they remain in the realm of "mind over matter".

It's difficult to come to any sort of definitive conclusion. As of now, the issue of Inderal use among musicians is filled away under "personal choice". 

But some of the potential dangers lurking in today's world are the ease with which anyone can order prescription drugs without first seeing their physician.

And although Inderal is not nearly as harmful as other performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, it has been a prescribed medication for the past 39 years.

Since ethics is an issue usually left as an academic afterthought in the music industry, one has to wonder if we'll all pick up a newspaper one day reporting that a conservatory student was found dead in their dorm room due to an improper usage of Inderal.

For now, Inderal will have to remain a topic that is limited to venues of personal debate and personal choice.

To learn more about Inderal and other forms of propranolol, visit and Wyeth Laboratories.

This column appears every other Monday only in The Partial Observer.
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