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.
Mike Tetreault attended the Eastman School of Music from 1996 to 2001, and for two of those years he shared an 80-square-foot practice room with Lee Vinson. The two friends spruced up their space with a mini fridge and a lounge chair, and in their spare time they hung out with the same crowd. They were also unusually serious about their careers. In 2007, two years after graduating from Eastman, Vinson won a percussion job with the BSO. Though reserved by nature, he couldn’t help feeling as though a dream had come true.
Vinson moved into a $1,900-per-month, two-bedroom South End brownstone, a fourth-floor walkup with hardwood floors and a view of Boston’s skyline. He lived with his girlfriend, Tamsin Johnston, an oboist. He loved the history in Boston. He loved walking past the row homes, so different from his native Alabama. He was 28, and he had the best job in the world.
But almost immediately there were problems. “In the beginning, I was a deer in the headlights,” Vinson says. He was stung by some of the criticism directed at his playing. He tried to block it from his mind, but found it difficult. “Then the performance anxiety comes back because these people aren’t telling me what they think,” he says. “They just want to glare at you. I mean, really, you just want to turn around and scowl at me and that’s supposed to help fix this whole thing?”
At the end of Vinson’s first year with the BSO, he fell one vote shy of earning tenure, so he was put on another year of probation. He started asking his colleagues how? to “fix” his playing, but one person would tell him to try one thing and another would suggest he try something else entirely. “You’d add it up and it didn’t make sense,” he says. BSO timpanist Timothy Genis says, “During this time we’re talking with him, no one really knew what to tell him. Instinctually, it just wasn’t quite there. It wasn’t ever like, ‘That sounded incredible. That was perfect.’ Which you should be able to say about your colleague at least once in his career.”
At the end of his second year, the audition committee met again, but by then, two of the members who’d supported Vinson’s hiring in the first place had retired. He again wound up one vote short, and was again put on probation. “There was something so finite that wasn’t quite right about what he was doing,” Genis says. “His timing wasn’t quite right on this one. His balance wasn’t quite right on this one. It confused a lot of people.”
At the end of his third year, in 2010, there was another meeting, this time at Tanglewood during the summer. Vinson’s friend Dan Bauch, another percussionist, was granted tenure that day, and everyone was offering congratulations. Then Vinson was brought in, and a few members of the percussion section and the personnel manager were waiting for him. Vinson remembers someone saying they would help him during “this transition period.” He hadn’t made the cut.
Mike Tetreault was one of 294 percussionists who sent a résumé to the BSO in the fall of 2011 for the two openings. Rumors circulated that the applicant pool included a number of heavy hitters, including two candidates from Big Five orchestras, former players from Chicago and Cleveland.
That October, the BSO contacted Tetreault with instructions for preparing for his live audition in January 2012. But first, he’d have to make the preliminary cut. He was given a month to submit a videotaped recording of 14 musical excerpts, all of which had to be recorded without a break, and without him leaving the frame of the camera during the take. He could make no mistakes during the 10-minute-long segment. If the BSO was suitably impressed with his offering, he’d be allowed to formally audition in person.