In March 2017, Pennsylvania-born, American flutist Kelly Zimba won the internationally competitive principal flute audition at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), after TSO’s former principal flutist, Nora Shulman, retiring from the tenure she holds for the past 31 years.
During her triumph of winning the big audition, Kelly is also a flute fellow at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, FL, which is famous for their professional training in orchestral performance for young instrumentalists, and for their state-of-the-arts New World Center that allows groundbreaking multimedia performances using techniques similar to Cirque du Soleil.
After her audition, I had the privilege to sit down with Kelly for this exclusive interview to share what goes behind the audition curtain and a professional musician’s life. As a flutist myself who went to school with Kelly, I’m very honored to bring this wonderful story to the CMN community!
How are you feeling about this new chapter of life with the TSO?
I’m really ready to get started! Having a full-time orchestra job has been a dream of mine for so long, and I’m thrilled to start working with such wonderful musicians in an amazing city. I think the biggest thing that will change in terms of mindset is that I’ll be able to fully focus on the work at hand.
At the New World Symphony, all of the fellows are constantly practicing for auditions in addition to performing concerts every weekend. It’s kind of like having two jobs! We’re always working toward the next move in our careers, and I’m excited to reach that step and be more focused on the present.
What’s your journey from college to this point? How did you make the decision to pursue orchestral route?
I knew I liked music, but wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do with it and wanted multiple career options after I graduated. Over time, I realized that I had the most fun playing the flute.
And it wasn’t that I didn’t like teaching–quite the contrary! It’s just that if you took both the flute and teaching away from me, I would miss the flute more.
In the summer of 2012, I went to my first big summer orchestra festival. I met teachers and mentors who really believed in my ability to pursue an orchestral career. This experience came at a critical time because it was right before my last year at Michigan and I had to decide between applying to graduate school for performance and seeking a public school teaching job. In the spring of 2013, I auditioned for graduate schools while student teaching.
I was fortunate to enroll at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by people actively taking auditions and winning jobs. It was a really exciting, supportive environment and I learned so much during my two years there.
After graduating in 2015, I was offered a fellowship with the New World Symphony (NWS) in Miami Beach, Florida. NWS has provided me with incredible ‘hands-on’ training and functions like a full-time professional orchestra in many ways. I feel extremely lucky to be here; the timing couldn’t have been better!
What are some of the toughest times you’ve gone through since undergrad?
Since undergrad, the hardest part of pursuing music has been the uncertainty of the future.
While I’m really fortunate to have a lot of support from my friends and family, I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten the classic, ‘Oh, you’re studying music? What exactly do you plan to do with that?’ response from skeptical acquaintances! Normally this didn’t bother me, but as I was about to graduate with my Master’s degree and no job prospects, I wondered if becoming a professional musician was a wise choice.
Eventually, I began to embrace the fact that the future is uncertain for everyone regardless of career, age, or life stage. It’s not a struggle that is unique to musicians. I still worry about it sometimes, but I’m not as controlled by it as I have been at different times in the past.
Tell us about the audition & preparation process for TSO!
I like to have about a month before an audition to prepare. If I focus intensely on an audition for too long, I find that my playing becomes stale and kind of boring. Practicing fundamentals has always been the most important element of my preparation and is more helpful than just pounding away at the excerpts. Long tones, harmonics, and articulation exercises are the most helpful for me, and they’re what I’m always practicing even when there’s not an audition to prepare for.
The only specific pre-audition routine that I have is to just chill out and relax the night before (← !!! I LOVE this!!!). After a day of flying or driving, getting to my hotel, and trying to navigate a new city, I know that practicing isn’t going to be very effective. I might play for an hour or so and then spend some time walking around the city, eat at a good restaurant (👍), read a book, or watch TV.
On audition day, I usually warm up at my hotel and arrive at the hall about an hour before my scheduled time. Once there, I’ll play maybe a few technical passages from the list, but mostly spend time playing long tones and melodies that I like. All of this helps me get into the right mindset.
Mentally, I like to go into auditions with the confidence that I could win the job, but I definitely don’t expect to. That would be way too much pressure, and it would not acknowledge the element of luck involved. In Toronto, there were many excellent flutists at the audition. Had it been a different day, excerpt list, acoustic, or overall circumstance, another person easily could have gotten the job.
The Toronto audition began in September 2016. I played the preliminary audition on one day, followed by semifinal and final round auditions the following afternoon. In January 2017, I went on a one-week tour with the TSO and also played another audition, this time with the entire orchestra. I was nervous for this because I hadn’t played at least 50% of these excerpts in an orchestra before. However, I found that it was mostly a lot easier and more fun! It was a rare opportunity to play all of the major solos from the repertoire in one sitting. At the end of the week, I was offered the job.
When did you start seriously taking professional auditions? How many have you taken before landing the Toronto one? How did you financially manage traveling for auditions?
Including Toronto, I took 17 in the span of 2.5 years. In the beginning, I think I put too much pressure on doing well and advancing to the next round. It didn’t work well.
When I stopped thinking about the results and tried to enjoy the process more, I started to see hints of success. For me, the process wasn’t linear at all. I would make the finals in one audition, and then not advance past the preliminaries in the next one. It was random, and I don’t think I played that differently in each audition. There are many factors in an audition that are out of your control, and I learned to be okay with that.
Financially, auditions can get expensive! I took advantage of frequent flyer miles and hotel points when I could, but mostly I became obsessed with travel deals. Staying in an Airbnb was often much less expensive than booking a hotel, and I usually tried to stay somewhere along a public transportation line with easy access to both the airport and the hall.
Occasionally, Groupon would have a hotel deal of which I could take advantage. Sometimes, I would piece together two different flights/drives if it was cheaper than flying directly to a particular city. It wasn’t luxurious, but it did help keep auditions more affordable.
What are things you wish you knew earlier back in school?
Overall, I felt that both my undergraduate and graduate curriculum were quite thorough and rigorous. However, I wish I had known more about the audition process when I was younger; I really didn’t know how everything worked until I started graduate school! It would also have been helpful to know more about the practical/logistical aspects of a music career. I did eventually take a class on this at Rice, but for a while I was pretty unaware of how to approach things like tax deductions, billing students, formatting a resume/cover letter, communicating with personnel managers, writing grants, etc. (← Follow us at FB Fan Page as CMN is going to guide you through every single one of these issues)
Finally, please share with us the 3 biggest lessons you learned from being at NWS!
- Audition ‘success’ is not always linear. It’s really common to make it to the finals in one audition and then not advance in the next one. It doesn’t mean you’re regressing or that you necessarily played poorly if you don’t get out of the preliminary round.
- A healthy dose of confidence (not arrogance!) is crucial for playing in an orchestra. Lack of confidence takes years of experience off of your playing! I definitely experienced this when I first got here, and have learned how to fake it when I don’t feel comfortable.
- This may not be the case for everyone, but I have experienced rejection far more than I have experienced success. I couldn’t tell you the number of jobs, auditions, festivals, schools, and gigs that have turned me down; my ‘rejection resume’ is much more extensive than my actual resume! The key for me to stay afloat has been to not be motivated by fear. As soon as you start making fear-based decisions, you’re giving that critical little voice in your head permission to run your life. It’s important to silence any doubts and just keep going!
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