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By:Andrea Randall & Charles Sheehan-Miles

Nocturne - Andrea Randall & Charles Sheehan-Miles


Looking up at the next candidate to enter the room, I immediately found myself subtracting points. Her dirty blonde hair was long and flew all over the place in ungroomed waves. She wore a sleeveless blue sweater and a grey skirt that was inappropriately short, well above the knee, with high black leather boots. She looked as if she were going out on a date. A young woman so attractive my breath caught a little as she positioned her sheet music on a stand and stood facing us with a confident expression.

James slid a folder across the table to me and spoke quietly. “Savannah Marshall. She’s got a somewhat unconventional background.”

I raised my eyebrows. He had an unreadable expression on his face.

I opened the folder, pointedly ignoring the girl who stood in front of us. I glanced over her application. Like most of the students auditioning this morning, she was in her senior year of high school. She listed an impressive number of performance credits on the application, but some of them were ... odd. Venues I’d never heard of, and a wide variety of music, not all classical. That was unusual for prospective students at the conservatory. In particular, she listed a summer spent touring with a rock band, probably in barns and warehouses since she was under twenty-one and wouldn’t be able to play in the dive bars that such bands frequented. I snapped the folder closed. This one was an unlikely prospect. I had no intention of admitting students who were not serious about their music.

I’d been through auditions often enough, though it had been a number of years. I could see the yearning in her eyes, but her composure was impressive. Most of the auditions that morning had been nervous affairs. Sweaty palms, dropped instruments, feet shifting, heavy breathing, the typical nervous terror of teenagers facing a life-changing audition. So many young people came here every year dreaming of music. So many failed. This one was different. Her confidence implied that failure simply wasn’t an option. Or that she simply didn’t care, which seemed more likely given her dress. We’ll see, I thought.

I waved a hand, beckoning her toward us. “Please proceed.”

She raised her arms, bringing the flute to her mouth. Her sweater rode up slightly, exposing perhaps half an inch of skin above her skirt. Highly inappropriate. However, her form was precise. She nodded her upper body slightly toward the accompanist, who began playing.

The piece was a Paul Jeanjean etude, a fairly advanced and difficult piece. I leaned forward, my elbow on the table, chin cupped between my thumb and fingers, idly pulling at my beard. Her execution was meticulous. James, sitting next to me, also inclined forward in his seat, his eyes focused. He heard the same thing I did. This one was something. By far the best audition we’d heard, and she was only a few bars into her first piece.

James leaned toward me as if to say something. I didn’t shift position. “She’s good,” he murmured.

“Shhhhhh.” I wanted to hear the music, not his commentary.

It was rare to hear an audition this well-rounded. Her sound was technically flawless, and the timing and tone were nearly perfect. As she wrapped up her first piece, I waved my hand again and said, “Continue.”

She began the second piece, a Mozart Concerto in D Major. I wrote some notes in the margin of her application then scanned it again. Good grades in high school thus far, though we didn’t have her senior year transcript. I looked through her recommendations. They were glowing. One of them caught my eye. The recommendation was from a private music tutor in Philadelphia who I knew and respected.

I closed the folder again, and just listened. Savannah was beginning her final piece, the Dutilleux Sonatine. An ambitious piece, but one students often attempted. Beautiful when played correctly. A disaster when not.

As the piano accompaniment began, she took a slow breath, composing herself. Then she brought the flute to her lips. Her sound was exquisite, and she had a level of confidence that made it seem as if she wasn’t even aware we were in the room. Her upper body moved with the music, and as she reached the most difficult, demanding portion, she closed her eyes, ignored the sheet music and just played.

I found myself holding my breath. Savannah was an extremely gifted musician. I closed my eyes, listening, delighting in the rich tone, the speed and beauty of it. I would never tell a student this, but she was nearly good enough to audition for the symphony now. We had to have her at the conservatory. We had to watch over her career, preserve it.

I opened the folder again, made some notes, and then leaned close to James. “We must have this one. If she can’t afford it, get her a scholarship. Whatever it takes.”

He nodded his agreement.

Savannah finished. I met her eyes for a brief second. She had an exalted expression on her face, a tremendous smile. Not the panic and fear I was accustomed to seeing on a student during and after an audition. She knew. Which was dangerous, because too much confidence could lead to being lazy.

I knew how to deal with that. I lifted my hand in a dismissive wave. “We’ll be in touch,” I said, my voice as cold as I could make it. Then turned away, not waiting to see her deflate.


Eight minutes and forty-nine seconds.

I saved my major contemporary work for last, and that’s all that separated me from the end of the audition. It wasn’t that I always wanted to go to the New England Conservatory; it’s that I knew I would be going. It was the only option for me. I couldn’t help the instant connection I felt with the sound the minute I first picked up a flute when I was nine. I was meant to play it. Now, almost nine years later, I stood before the most pivotal panel I’d ever faced, taking a breath before starting Dutilleux Sonatine. I’d played every second of this composition, in pieces and at once, so many times that I could hear it in my sleep. I knew it cold. All eight minutes and forty-nine seconds of it. I wasn’t nervous at all. I’d prepared more than half my life for this.

That’s a lie. I was scared shitless.

I only had eight minutes and forty-nine seconds left to seal my next four years, which would, in turn, seal the rest of my life. I had nailed the previous three pieces, and it was all down to this.

I took one last look at my judges before starting. I watched someone from the admissions office slide my folder to him again. Gregory Fitzgerald. While the identities of the judging committee aren’t released ahead of time for a number of reasons, I knew all of the professors and musicians at the school. I was certain Gregory Fitzgerald was put on the panel solely to intimidate. He was a cellist. The cellist. He played for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and taught at the conservatory. His reputation as a musician was undisputed. He was one of the youngest musicians, let alone cellists, to be granted a seat with the BSO. If the rumors Nathan told me were true, they nearly begged him to audition.

His reputation as a person, however, was less impressive. He had a knack for belittling students, making them feel like they knew nothing. No one needs that kind of harsh negativity in their lives. He could be a dark, broody, reclusive musical stereotype on his own time for all I cared.

He was hard to look away from, however. I’d give him that much. The pretense that surrounded him like a cloud vanished for a split second as he said something to the person sitting next to him and gave a slight half smile. Small creases that formed at the edges of his eyes proved he did smile from time to time, and it looked good on him.

Not wanting to give away that I might have been staring at him for a second too long between pieces, I nodded to the pianist and started. The song starts on a very low note, which is easy to completely screw up when playing a high-pitched instrument. But, that’s just throat stuff. Nothing big. My biggest anxiety in the piece came just before three minutes in. When staring at the notes on the page for that section, it looked like a set of rapidly ascending and descending stairs. If I wasn’t careful, it would sound like I was falling down them. It’s easy to let your fingers get ahead of your eyes, especially with the fast stuff, and that would ruin it. Everything. So, as I approached that measure, I did something I’d only done once before and still can’t believe I did in the middle of the most important audition of my life. I closed my eyes.

The notes came easily; they were woven through the fibers of every muscle in my body. My fingers floated across the keys and my tongue felt light as I executed the challenging note runs. The freedom that comes from playing rock and jazz is exciting and invigorating. Spending last summer on tour with The Howling Toddlers around the Tri-state area allowed me to dig into new creative spaces with my instrument. But, the comfort, structure, and pure beauty of classical music felt grounding. Like home. For the remaining five minutes, I sank myself into the piece, into the notes, into the sound. If I could have smiled without screwing everything up, I would have. I wanted to cry. Goosebumps sprang across my skin as I finished the last string of notes and opened my eyes.

I nailed it.

Gregory Fitzgerald met my eyes as I held my flute low in front of me, feeling shockingly nude under his scrutiny. Adrenaline I thought I’d depleted during my last song resurged through my veins. His right eyebrow twitched up before he looked back down at my folder, the rest of his face unchanged. He gave the requisite arrogant, dismissive wave before saying, “We’ll be in touch.” I tried not to let my shoulders sink, but his tone felt like a kick in the gut.