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.
He’s had six auditions since then, but during all of them, his focus has slipped and the negative voices have crept in. He’ll look down at his five-octave Yamaha marimba and not even see it. When he’s given three minutes of Bach to play at an audition, he pays attention not to the simple, beautiful chord changes, nor to the way the dark rosewood resonates so earthily on the low notes, but to the voices in his head: What if I mess up? What are they thinking? What am I thinking? Is this what they want to hear? Is this going well? What if I missed a note? Oh God, I’m lost. It just fell apart. I’m done.
He’s aware of what’s happening. He knows his nerves are affecting his playing. But once the doubt sets in, it messes with the most fundamental part of his job: his timing. Like a baseball player who can no longer throw accurately, Vinson’s the victim of “yips” that attack his basic execution. With each audition he worries that he’s out to prove something, to prove that even though he was fired from the BSO, he’s better than everyone else. “That’s some dangerous stuff. I try not to admit that some of that exists, but I think it does.” Dangerous? “I don’t have any hair left. I feel like I’m 40,” he explains. “It takes that level of pouring your life into it for what feels like a lottery sometimes.”
Anonymous behind a screen, Mike Tetreault readies himself to begin his Symphony Hall audition. But just before he starts playing, he’s overcome with a sense that something’s not right. He doesn’t like being alone on the stage, behind a screen, without being able to see anyone else. He can hear people shifting impatiently in their seats. As a seasoned auditioner, he’s always found this moment to be the most unnerving. It’s not how he experiences music. It should be collaborative.
It’s time to begin, so he tries to shake these thoughts from his mind, focusing instead on the music he’s come so far to play. He makes the Delécluse snare-drum etudes as inclusive and expansive as they can be. He goes for crisp and clear with the light snare-drum excerpt of Prokofiev. Each piece, he knows, gives him an opportunity to project a feeling, to tell the jury who he is. But then comes the marimba solo by Akira Miyoshi. Suddenly a thought enters his mind: I really don’t want to screw this up.
And at that very moment, he does. “It wasn’t terrible,” he says later. “I missed probably five notes. But my impression was that at that point my audition was over.”
In the end, he doesn’t advance past the first round. His number isn’t called.
Tetreault is haunted by the idea that he’s never really gotten to do the thing he’s spent so much of his life working for. He gets glimpses of it, moments playing in Colorado when the music clicks and feels solid. And that pushes him forward. But he admits that he may be borderline delusional to keep trying. The quest for success sometimes seems to have overtaken him. It feels that way when he’s talking with someone but isn’t really listening because he’s fixated on the future; when his fingers are always tapping out rhythms on the table, always practicing; when he stops talking mid-sentence to sing what he means, his voice articulating little drumming passages to explain things when words fail. Mostly, though, he’s consumed by a single thought these days: Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.