Talking with Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Concertmaster Jessica Hung
By Joe Aiello
You’re in your early twenties looking for a job. You know the drill: apply for listed openings, or maybe just cold turkey, submit a resume or complete an application. If you get an interview, do your best to impress. Then wait to see if you get the job. If you do, then you have to prove that you can do it. That’s standard operating procedure.
Unless you happen to be a musician applying for a job with a classical orchestra.
If so, you have to first prove to the orchestra that you can do the job before you can even hope for an offer. Without an interview. How? First, submit a resume.
Then audition. Blind. Scary? You bet. So scary that some orchestras even require a refundable check up front, which you’ll get back only if you show up for the audition.
Here’s how the audition works. The Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO) gives prospective members and Principal (first chair) musicians 10 excerpted musical selections each, out of which they play three or four in the first blind audition round, which lasts about 5 – 7 minutes.
Further, they must perform these pieces for judges who can only hear the musician play — they can’t see the musician, who sits behind a screen. Only the musician’s ability to read and perform the music correctly can sway their selection. Hence, the term blind.
To win, you must know the music perfectly and tightly control your nerves and emotions. For each instrument, each blind audition round starts with 10 applicants in a group, with the judges selecting one musician from each group.
The second blind round includes all surviving first-round applicants in the same group, from which judges select the three best. In the final blind round judges select the musician who is the best of the final three.
It’s tough — it takes on the average 12 to 20 auditions for an applicant to land a spot in a philharmonic orchestra.
When she was younger, violinist Jessica Hung applied for the Concertmaster’s chair (Principal Violinist, second in command to the conductor!) at the Annapolis, Chicago, Northwestern, Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) and Ashland Symphony Orchestras, auditioning for each orchestra only once. And she was successful her first attempt at each!
“However, I certainly auditioned unsuccessfully for other professional orchestras in the past,” states Jessica, “and I would estimate that I took about ten unsuccessful auditions before winning the Dayton audition. It takes at least a few auditions to get used to the whole process and figure out how best to prepare.”
But it wasn’t her hardest audition.
“My very first audition was the hardest,” recalls Jessica. “I didn’t win! It was for a principal (also called a titled) position, and not for the DPO. When you are first learning the standard required orchestral excerpts, it is a lot of work, and I did not feel very confident about it and considered cancelling the audition. My teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM), Bill Preucil, who is also the Concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra, was very encouraging, and told me sincerely that he thought I was someone who could win and do that job. So I went through with the audition and played well, but I didn’t advance past the first round. The difficult thing was the fact that I had actually played my best, followed by the realization that my best wasn’t good enough. I simply needed more time and experience to make my best better.” She resolved to do just that.
What’s it feel like to sit behind a screen and know that your success depends solely on how well you perform at that moment?
“I found it very useful to imagine that it was a concert performance, rather than an audition,” notes Jessica. “The audience for a concert is there to enjoy the music, and the committee for an audition is as well – they’re just more easily distracted by any kind of error that occurs! So I aimed to not only technically master the excerpts, but also to capture their spirit and character and to play with an ease that allows the committee to sit back, relax and not even have to take any notes.”
Obviously, no one has ever told her that she was “overqualified.”
“No, but, there were several major orchestras in different cities across the country where I lost,” she recalls. “If there is no winner – the audition committee cannot agree on one particular candidate to hire – then the same audition may be held again six months or a year later. If you had advanced in the first audition, it is considered a good idea to apply again, since you already know there was something they liked about you. It is also common not to receive any feedback from the committee, due to the sheer number of candidates they have to hear, so you may not ever know what you did wrong. I have found it helpful not to place too much importance on any given audition result. Of course, it is very hard to understand that starting out, when every audition seems like a big emotional ordeal that is the final judge of your self-worth!”
As a new concertmaster, a musician is absolutely expected to “hit the floor running” with regard to the quality of his or her playing, which means coming to the first rehearsal as prepared as possible and immediately establishing a high technical and musical standard.
“The rest of the orchestra expects and needs consistency and reliability in their concertmaster,” notes Jessica, “so things like being secure with the notes and cueing entrances with the appropriate amount of physical gesture are needed right from the beginning. What has generally taken me longer to gauge – and in every orchestra I have had quite kind and patient colleagues – is the amount of vocal direction people might want or need. This is not something that I was aware of starting out. I just came to sense over time that it would help people feel more secure.”
Jessica started “late” (9 years old) learning the violin, and – even though she made her solo debut with the Chicago Youth Concert Orchestra at age 12 – she didn’t decide to become a classical musician until she was fourteen. I asked her if she had ever considered choosing some other career.
“If I had chosen any other major in college, it would have been psychology, which I actually think is quite relevant to music, or any art form. The deepest, most inner workings of the mind and the subconscious are what art is meant to convey, after all. I also think that being a good artist requires a lot of self-awareness and knowledge of what makes yourself tick, since your own individual tendencies and personality are what you have to work with to mold into some form of artistic expression.”
Does she ever regret having gone with the musical choice?
“No. Music is an incredibly difficult and competitive field as it is, so it is said that if you can imagine yourself being truly happy doing something else, you should do that – whatever it might be – rather than music! I can’t imagine myself feeling as fulfilled or at home in any other field. If I lost the ability to perform due to an accident or illness, I would probably stay involved with making music by teaching full-time.”
Most people just show up for work and do their job. Rehearsals with the DPO for concerts are part of her job, of course. But how much time does she spend personally practicing?
“To be quite honest, I do not practice as much as you would think, but I like to imagine that I practice more efficiently than you would think. I do cover every note, but try to zero in on the hard parts, so my amount of practice time really depends on the difficulty of the piece. For SuperPops and Rockin’ Orchestra concerts, where we are accompanying a band the whole show and not playing any purely orchestral music, I usually just make sure to play through everything once before the first rehearsal and focus on any tricky spots or solos if needed.”
“For Classical concerts,” continues Jessica, “the repertoire is often more familiar, but also more subtle and challenging, so I might spend a few different sessions on that and listen to a recording with my part and a pencil in hand. Operas are in a way the most challenging because they are less familiar to me, contain many hidden tempo changes, and are really long! I usually like to buy or rent a DVD of the opera and actually watch it with all the subtitles when I first get the music.”
When asked about solo concerts, Jessica says that they “by far take the most work, whether it’s a concerto or showpiece with my colleagues accompanying, or a full-length solo recital with just me and a few assisting artists. I start familiarizing myself with the music under tempo and choosing fingerings and bowings about a month in advance, so that for the last week or so before the performance I can just focus on polishing technique, making the music feel as natural as possible, and memorization, which is needed for most solos (but not chamber music). Now, I certainly don’t mean that my standard for practicing and performing orchestral music is lower than for solos, but just of a different nature: when practicing symphonies, I need to make everything blend into the rest of the orchestra. When practicing solos, I need to figure out how to make every note stand out.”
Every artist has their comfort zones — places where they do their best and most productive work. “I do most of my personal practicing at home where I have the most privacy,” says Jessica, “though sometimes I like to practice at the hall after concerts in one of the dressing rooms. I often find myself very energized after performing a concert and able to continue with the creative work before I get too worn out!”
How much time on the average does she devote to personal practice?
“I did most of the practicing necessary to build a solid technical foundation as a kid, which includes lots of tedious exercises like scales and double-stops — playing multiple notes at once. Once you have mastered these sorts of studies, they’re not really something you lose easily. As an adult and a professional in a full-time orchestra, you no longer have the luxury of that single-minded college conservatory lifestyle – it’s more about picking things up quickly, doing things right the first time, and if you do make a mistake, not letting it happen more than once.”
Jessica, at the ripe old age of 26, has settled down. “I bought a home in Oakwood last summer. Before that, I lived in The Landing Apartments for three years, and I really enjoyed being a tenant there. It was such a close and convenient walk to work, and I was also able to do some biking along the river. Of course, I love having the house now, and a room I can use solely as my music studio, and for practicing and private teaching. It’s a beautiful neighborhood and still a pretty short drive to work. I have to say that I don’t enjoy all of the extra chores that come with homeownership, but thankfully I have my fiancé to help with the most arduous tasks.”
Jessica and her fiancé, John, a paramedic and native Daytonian, will be married this summer.
“We happened to meet through a mutual friend shortly after I moved here,” recalls Jessica. “His whole immediate family lives in Dayton, too, and they are wonderful. So it is certainly possible we will stick around for quite a while, having such a great support system here. John has decided to return to school and is now a full-time student at Wright State University, so we don’t really plan to uproot before he graduates.”
And that is certainly a fact for which area classical music lovers are very grateful.
Reach DCP freelance writer Joe Aiello at JoeAiello@DaytonCityPaper.com
[Photo: Tyler Lukacs]