Matt Means was on the interstate, a half-hour outside Denver, zooming along in the left lane, when he realized the cars ahead had ground to a halt.
He slammed on the brakes. His car went into a skid, lurching across several lanes of traffic before nose-diving into a ditch.
Miraculously, Means was unharmed. The car didn't sustain so much as a blown tire, despite plunging into a thicket of brush.
"It sounds stupid, because I'm not religious, but I felt like somebody was trying to tell me that you did not die because you have a job to win today," he says.
The job was a seat in the Colorado Symphony. Means had studied to be a violinist for more than a decade, but this would be his first professional audition. The pressure was tremendous. More than 60 people had shown up to compete for just one opening.
Means, a Denver native, had an edge. He had played this stage before, even worked with some of the judges, and his near-death experience had somehow given him tranquillity. He breezed through the repertoire with nary a wrong note.
"I can't imagine doing anything better than I did," he told a friend. Orchestra officials seemed similarly pleased. The proctor, who ordinarily looks on dispassionately, flashed Means two thumbs up. Soon, the field was narrowed to nine. Means was still in the game.
His performance in the semifinal that afternoon was also nearly flawless. "I was in the zone," he says. He had never played with such confidence in his life. It only reinforced his belief that God was looking out for him. The competition was cut to six, Means among them. His success seemed all but ensured.
But in the next round, it all went horribly wrong. A few notes sounded out of tune. The tempo wasn't quite right. With each gaffe, Means groaned inwardly. Any one might go unnoticed by an untrained listener, but the judges wouldn't be nearly so forgiving.
It came as little surprise that Means's name was on the list when the orchestra's personnel manager announced, "These people are free to leave." He put away his instrument, collected his coat, and walked out the door. "I got sloppy, and that was it: bye, bye, bye," he says. "But I got close. I got very close."
Nobody said becoming a pro violinist would be easy. Jobs with metropolitan orchestras are scarce -- maybe three or four dozen open each year. Auditions can draw hundreds of players, all vying for the same seat. By pure numbers, it's easier to get a job in the NFL or Major League Baseball.
But over on University Circle, at the Cleveland Institute of Music, there are dozens of people who nonetheless feel compelled to try. Just getting into CIM is something of an accomplishment. Each year, about 900 people try out for 130 spots. U.S. News & World Report once placed it among the nation's top 20 orchestral grad schools, but the best testament comes from its alumni: Thirty-three play in the Cleveland Orchestra, which Time has dubbed "the best band in the land."
CIM boasts that 80 percent of its alumni find work in music, but that includes a lot of teachers and part-time players in small orchestras. Full-time jobs with metropolitan orchestras are much, much harder to come by. Rejection is frequent and cold.
One of Means's teachers told him about a former student, a cellist, who took nearly 40 auditions, getting rejected each time. She decided she would try once more. If she failed, she would sell her instrument and quit forever. Her next audition was with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
"And she won it," Means says. "And she was saved."
For the winners, the rewards are sweet. Top orchestras pay six-figure salaries and grant tenure, meaning players can't be fired, even if they slack off on practicing. Going pro also means quitting your day job -- no more tutoring kids or slumming in small-town orchestras to pay the bills. Best of all, you get to do what you love: Play music.
It's a good gig, all right, but only if you can get it.
William Preucil teaches as much with facial expressions as with words. He is the lead violinist in the Cleveland Orchestra and one of the many who serve as teachers at CIM. He scrunches up his bald head and widens his piercing blue eyes to highlight the changing emotions as he plays.
Today he is giving a lesson to Rachel Coltvet, an intense young woman with curly blond hair. Her face is a mask of concentration as she plays with robotic precision. But for all her technical skill, she has missed the emotion of a passage. Preucil stops her.
"What's happening in the opera right here?" he asks.
"She left him," Coltvet says, referring to the characters the violin is meant to represent, "and he's sad, and he's yearning."
"Could you yearn a little deeper?" Preucil asks.
Coltvet draws her bow across the strings, creating a voice of pain and longing. She knows as well as anyone that it takes years of study and practice to make music sound spontaneous and free. She has been expressing herself through her violin since she was five, almost as long as she has been able to talk.
Not long ago, conventional wisdom dictated that children shouldn't pick up the violin until they were old enough to read music. Then Shinichi Suzuki came up with the revolutionary idea that children could learn an instrument as easily as their native tongue. He thought all had the capacity to become great, if given guidance early enough -- one didn't need inborn talent.
Nowadays, children as young as two are learning the Suzuki Method. As a result, many violinists at CIM are better trained and more deeply invested in their instrument than their forebears were. Preucil says competition for orchestra seats has grown stiffer. "The expectation of quality has gone up," he says. "It was much easier to get a job when I started than it is for any of these kids."
It took Coltvet until her mid-teens to complete the 10 books that make up the Suzuki Method's curriculum. When she finished, she was surprised that there was so much left for her to learn. "It was almost disappointing," she says. "'What? I'm not done?'"
She may never be done. "Sometimes I envy businesspeople," she says. "They come home and they're done, and they don't have to think about it until nine the next day. I always have that violin there, saying, 'Please play me. You haven't done enough today.'"
CIM students enjoy few lazy weekends, few carefree vacations. As a child, Coltvet played violin in the van during road trips with her parents and four siblings. A few summers ago, she and her sister, also a violinist, practiced during a camping trip to Lake Superior. "We're in a camper, with outhouses and everything, and we have our violins," she says.
Violinists practice so much, they develop a callus where the pad of their instrument meets their neck. It's easily mistaken for a hickey.
Yet their performance must transcend this workmanlike routine to be truly beautiful. "The ones who succeed are the ones who feel that emotion inside of them and communicate it to other people," says Preucil.
At one point, Preucil stops Coltvet to tell her that a series of eighth notes she just played sounded "like a coffin-nailing party." She doesn't flinch at the criticism. She absorbs the recommendations, scribbles a reminder in the margin of her score, and lifts her violin again.
With each pass, she homes in on perfection. Preucil wants her to make it sound like a flower blooming.
"It's like how Einstein explained the theory of relativity," he says. "'The time seems to fly by when you're holding a pretty girl's hand.' Slow down and enjoy it a little."
But no amount of advice can take away the stress of an audition. That's where prescription drugs come in, says Means. He empties a tiny bottle into his palm and holds out a blue pill half the size of an aspirin. The bottle says "Inderal," but Means's pronunciation is more accurate: "Endure All."
Inderal interrupts the body's natural responses to stress. Pop a pill before an audition and your heart won't flutter, your palms won't sweat, and your arms won't tremble.
"In an orchestra audition, you have 5 to 10 minutes to show what you got," Means says. "One or two small infractions can disqualify you. There just isn't any room for errors."
One study made in the 1980s found that a quarter of major U.S. orchestra members had used similar drugs. Unfortunately, they do nothing to silence the voices in a player's head. The ones that say, "You're not good enough."
"There's this pressure to be perfect," says student Jocelyn Adelman. "And there's so many of us out there that, if you're not great, [you need to] find something else to do."
They must also deal with child prodigies nipping at their heels. Each year, about 15 children from around the globe participate in CIM's Young Artist Program; some are as young as 13. They attend regular school in the morning, but study and play music in the afternoons, often with college-age students. When Means got to CIM and heard the young artists, he knew he had some catching up to do. "It opened my eyes to how much talent was out there," he says.
It's enough to make anyone consider packing it in. Student Mandy Howard sometimes dreams of going back to her home state of Washington. She could raise golden retrievers, work in a coffee shop. Her eyes sparkle as she imagines this alternative future, but she dismisses it a moment later.
"It's your violin. It's what makes you you," she says. "It's not really an option, to quit. It would take the Mandy out of Mandy."
It's 8 a.m., and Jacqueline Saed is already late. She wolfs down her Basic 4 cereal, turns off Good Morning America, and whisks out the door.
Her friends are waiting on the sidewalk when she pulls up in her SUV. George Davis, quiet and retiring, puts on headphones and doesn't speak for most of the ride. Courtney LeBauer, a tall, expressive woman, who at 28 is older than most of her classmates, leans forward from the back seat to chat with Saed.
Today, Saed and her two friends are driving to Canton to perform a kiddie concert at Umstadt Hall, the glorified high school auditorium that's home to the Canton Orchestra. Gigs with small-town orchestras pay the bills while students await their big break. The trio was here last night, too, and didn't get home until 11:30 p.m. That's why Saed woke up late.
"We should have just slept over," she says with a yawn.
Gigging sometimes feels like migrant labor and doesn't pay much better. For each rehearsal or concert, students earn just $75.
Today, the conversation stays casual but friendly. There's a guy they think is cute, but he might be too young. Certain professors are annoyingly chirpy, while others are brutally honest. As always, there's talk of job prospects. LeBauer is applying for teaching positions at the University of Wyoming and Tennessee Tech; Saed is auditioning for symphonies in Charleston, Pittsburgh, Colorado, and Rochester.
At least there are no conflicts of interest. Often, friends find themselves vying for the same orchestra seat. They may pretend the auditions aren't a contest -- getting picked is as much about style as technical ability -- but deep down, they know that for one to win, the other must lose. "All my friends are trying out for the same position," Saed says. "You just learn how to deal with it somehow."
The competitiveness gets catty at times. Matt Means says that if he screws up a performance, some classmates won't even look at him the next day. That's unavoidable, one former student says. "They know that you know you played like shit. They can't say, 'Good job.'"
No one keeps score in Canton. The audience consists of third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders who are too young to care what's good. They wear cargo pants and puffy coats, and are at their happiest when the conductor demonstrates tempo by asking them to wave their hands at an ever-increasing speed.
The orchestra plays an eclectic set. One piece, titled "And God Created Great Whales," asks players to imitate whales with their instruments. As the orchestra unleashes its underwater bleating, a mother in the back row comforts her scared child. "Mommy has you," she says. "It's just music, honey."
When the first concert is over, the orchestra does it again for another crowd of schoolchildren. Then they're done for the day. Saed, LeBauer, and Davis pack their instruments into the SUV. On the drive home, their talk turns to the unfair economics of the violin trade. One student paid $16,000 for her bow and $125,000 for her 350-year-old instrument. With that money, she could have bought a car and a house. But it's worth it for the better sound quality, the students agree, and violins usually appreciate in value. Many students come from wealthy families. Others have parents willing to take a second mortgage on their homes, Means says. "There's a tremendous amount of familial sacrifice. If you don't have a good instrument, you won't win any auditions. You just have to have it."
One year at CIM costs $20,000, though 95 percent of students receive some scholarship money. Still, the costs can be brutal. Though LeBauer has a doctorate, she's lucky to clear $1,000 a month between gigging and teaching. "I've been in school for 10 years, at the university level," says LeBauer. "That's like a medical doctor."
To get a job, students have to spend even more money. Saed says that between transportation costs, food, and hotels, she expects to dole out $1,500 for her four upcoming auditions. "What I can't do myself is gonna come from parents or credit cards," she says. The cost is especially steep considering that most students will be sent home after the first round. "So you pay hundreds of dollars for 10 minutes, and then you leave," Saed says.
But if she gets a job, the investment will be worth it.
The conditions could not have been more favorable two years ago, when Sonja Braaten auditioned for the Minnesota Orchestra. When she returned home to Roseville, a St. Paul suburb, her mother and golden retriever were there to ease her nerves. At the audition, she had played "as close to perfect as you can get," she says.
Which made it all the more crushing when she lost in the first round. An orchestra official announced that no one in her group had advanced. She retreated to her car and broke down in tears. "It's just bizarre, how 10 minutes can decide your future," she says. "Twenty-three years of playing the violin . . . What's the fraction of 10 minutes to 23 years?"
When Braaten was three, her mother enrolled her in violin classes, more out of convenience than from a desire to raise a child prodigy. Sonja's brother had juvenile arthritis, and his doctor suggested he take up violin to strengthen his hand-eye coordination. Since Sonja would be tagging along anyway, she took lessons too.
Sometime after fifth grade, Braaten put aside her dream of joining the Coast Guard and decided to become a professional violinist. It wasn't glamorous. To keep financially solvent at CIM, she took a job playing dinner music in the Omni International Hotel. She remembers a goth couple who came in with a request. "They were terribly nice," Braaten says. "And they wanted to hear the Addams Family theme song."
All those nights spent playing dinner music would have been for nothing, if she couldn't win an audition. "It's a lot of fear," she says. "The vocation that I've chosen . . . is just scary. There's nothing else we can do." But she didn't have much time to feel sorry for herself after the Minnesota defeat. When she got back to CIM, she received an audition invitation from the Cleveland Orchestra.
Braaten wasn't getting her hopes up. The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the best in the world; being summoned for a tryout is flattering enough.
As she took the stage for the first round, she felt as if she were outside her body. Here she was at Severance Hall, where she had watched the Cleveland Orchestra so many times, auditioning for a panel of judges composed largely of her teachers. "It was surreal," she says. She played for 10 minutes and walked off the stage, feeling that she hadn't done particularly well.
The judges thought otherwise. The assistant personnel director came backstage and told her, "You're going to have to stick around for a couple hours."
She couldn't believe it: She was one of five finalists. To kill time, she wandered to That Place on Bellflower, a restaurant where her roommate worked. She slurped French onion soup and went back to Severance Hall, where she dabbled with a few scales. Then she sat quietly, doing nothing but breathing.
The last round brought a surprise. She had to sight-read one of Beethoven's symphonies. She had never played the piece, and it seemed an odd choice; there was nothing particularly difficult about it. It was almost too easy. She figured it was a test of rhythm, so she studied the time signature carefully. She chose a tempo that was slow but steady.
Then the personnel director, flanked by his assistant, came back and announced, "The maestro has chosen two people."
Until that moment, Braaten had no idea the orchestra was looking to fill two seats. In that split second, she realized she had a chance. Before her mind could race further, the personnel director announced the winners. The first name was Ioana Missits. The second was Sonja Braaten.
In a daze, she met the conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi, who wanted her to start right away. Twenty-three years of practice had finally paid off.
Her mother was working in Talbot's, a women's clothing store, when she heard the news. She climbed onto the cashier's desk and announced, "My daughter just got a job at the Cleveland Orchestra!" Over the phone, Braaten heard the whole store applaud.
Braaten still can't believe her good fortune. As she relives her success, she brings one of her long legs to her chest and hugs herself like a child. "It's just crazy, stupid," she says. "I get to do this for the rest of my life!"
Onstage, Braaten, Preucil, and the rest of the orchestra bask in what must be one of the longest standing ovations in Cleveland history. Jahja Ling has just given his final subscription performance as resident conductor, and the appreciative crowd claps until their hands hurt.
Matt Means is on his feet, applauding with everyone else. Those around him wear khaki pants and sweater vests, but Means is dressed in a black suit. Severance Hall is his Mecca. It deserves a proper show of respect.
After the ovation, Means runs into other students in the lobby. They ask how he's doing on the audition circuit. He tells them about his luck, but his voice is that of a man who's asked, "Where do you work?" when he happens to be between jobs. He has taken five auditions since Colorado. At each one he was "flushed down the toilet."
There was Nashville. Not a top-tier orchestra, by any means. "There is no reason why I could not have won that job," Means says. He didn't make it out of the first round.
Then there was Columbus. A good, midlevel orchestra, to be sure, but not beyond his ability. He thought he nailed the audition. "I didn't get anywhere," he says.
It's been hard to keep his spirits up. "It is such a personal thing that, when you experience defeat, you feel your very essence has been defeated," Means says. He spent more of his spring break hanging out in bars than practicing his violin. It was his longest vacation from his instrument ever.
But nothing can scuttle his good mood today. He feels reinvigorated, as he always does after seeing the orchestra. Moments like these remind him why he started playing in the first place -- something easy to lose track of in the harsh light of rejection.
A few days later, he will crack open his violin case and rub rosin on the horsehair of his bow. He will put the violin under his chin and begin practice with a simple scale. Soon, he will be back to practicing four to five hours a day. The Colorado Symphony is advertising an open seat.