Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He’s put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly, and shut down his personal life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a Boston Symphony Orchestra selection committee. A single mistake and it’s over. A flawless performance and he could join one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.
Pressure cooker: Generations of musicians have warmed up for BSO auditions in Symphony Hall’s tiny basement practice rooms. (Photo by Matt Kalinowski)
Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago are the country’s five most historically important symphony orchestras, but even among them, the BSO stands alone. With a budget of roughly $80 million, and a staggering $387 million endowment (about twice New York’s), the BSO might be America’s most financially stable orchestra.
The BSO was founded in 1881, and, of course, owns Symphony Hall, one of the world’s finest acoustic spaces. No matter how softly the 94-member orchestra plays or how far back you’re sitting, the sound blooms warm and clear. There’s the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center, which has taught 30 percent of the musicians who currently play in the bigger American orchestras. Its Boston Pops, meanwhile, has not only a national audience, but also a number of lucrative national sponsorships. In sum, the BSO is a destination orchestra even for musicians already working in the Big Five. This year alone, a violist left the Philadelphia Orchestra and a bass trombonist departed the New York Philharmonic to take jobs in Boston.
And for percussionists like Tetreault, the BSO is the home of legends. Those classic drumsticks that students get for their first lesson are stamped with the name of Vic Firth — Boston’s timpanist for 50 years. The white-felted mallets perched atop the bass drum in every band room in America bear the name of Tom Gauger, the BSO’s bass drum player for 45 years. Those crisp castanets that run $140 and can cut through an entire opera orchestra to accompany the sultry Carmen? They’re Frank Epstein’s. He played with Boston for 43 years.
Mike Tetreault found out about the BSO openings in early 2011. From that point forward, he prepared for his audition obsessively. During one 10-day stretch, he practiced 20 hours a day. Because he and his wife, Rachel, didn’t want to waste the precious few minutes they got to see each other during the week, they arranged regular meetings to deal with everyday concerns like finances and schedules.
Tetreault couldn’t rehearse in his tiny apartment, so he took over the Baptist church where he worked, splitting up his collection of instruments — glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, three differently sized snare drums, four pairs of crash cymbals, a bass drum, eight tambourines, four tom-toms, four timpani, and three triangles — among the chapel, the choir room, and a smaller classroom. Each space had different ceiling heights, enabling him to hear his sound in different ways.
“Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.” — Mike Tetreault, Percussionist (Photo by Sean Hagwell)
The physical demands of preparing for the audition were intense, and Tetreault ate like an athlete: protein drinks with kale, lots of brown rice and vegetables, no caffeine despite rarely getting enough sleep. Then there were the hand stretches he’d do before picking up a stick in the morning and going to bed at night.
Throughout that year, almost every night was the same for Tetreault: After a full day of work that also included a practice session or two, he’d arrive at the church and turn off his phone (thereby frustrating Rachel, who couldn’t get in touch with him). Then he’d begin his practice, watched constantly by two people — the church’s first-ever pastor and the pastor’s wife, whose portraits hung side by side on a wall in the chapel. When things went well, Tetreault felt he could see the pastor smiling. When he missed a note, he found himself sneaking looks at the wife and her furrowed brow.
At 7 p.m., he’d carry his 5-inch-deep snare drum into the church’s classroom. There, he’d pick up a pair of hickory drumsticks and tap softly on the drum head, making the bottom snares buzz. Sometimes his right wrist would flick slightly harder than the left, producing a sound not unlike a woman limping in high heels. Tetreault concentrated harder, straining to catch and then eliminate these imperfections from his playing. When an accent popped too much, cracking and towering over the other notes, he’d release the weight of the stick as though dribbling a basketball. And just in case he was missing something, he’d record his practices, listening to each of them three times to make sure he was slicing the beats into precise halves, quarters, and sixteenths — slicing like a surgeon rather than a butcher.
During rest periods he’d continue practicing in his mind — singing excerpts and visualizing his hands executing a perfect xylophone lick. In the quiet moments, he discovered an unwanted accompaniment — the buzzing of ?fluorescent lights. Concert B-flat, he thought to himself.
At 9 p.m., he’d change drums and change rooms, going for a higher ceiling to let his tones expand, more like how the stage sounds, echoes and all. He’d switch off the snares, turning the drum into a hollow tom-tom, and use thicker sticks to balance the drum’s hollow ring with a groovy, swinging sound.
At the end of each night, he’d record a batch of excerpts that he’d eventually send to Christopher Lamb, his teacher and the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic. Lamb would then follow up with e-mailed notes, such as — in the case of Ravel’s Boléro, a piece with a famously repetitive snare-drum part — “You’re too young, this is too fast for this old guy … relax, be more inviting.”
At midnight, Tetreault would arrive back at home. Rachel would be sound asleep, and he’d sink into bed beside her. A few hours later he’d rise and begin the day with a 3-mile run. And the whole cycle would start again.