"Mr. Yeo, you're a member of one of the great orchestras of the world, the Boston Symphony. Obviously you had to work hard to get there, but for those of us who don't have a job in an orchestra yet, could you detail a bit about how it was that you got where you are today? It's confusing to try to put together all the pieces that would seem to lead to completing a successful audition. Are there any tips or secrets you can offer to help us put together this puzzle of our lives? Thanks very much."
My questioner, whether he be a private trombone student or a participant in a lecture, clinic or master class, has just provided me with an opening for discussion big enough to drive a truck through. While he is probably hoping to gain some insight as I discuss the path I took to get to this point in my career--and I will--I'd also like to spend some time answering his bigger question: 'How do we put together the puzzle of our lives?'
After graduation from Wheaton College with my bachelor's degree, I had decided that I did not want to go on to graduate school immediately. I moved to New York City where my wife was to finish her degree at Columbia University. When the phone did not ring with offers for trombone jobs after living there for three weeks - in retrospect I should have realized that wouldn't happen as nobody knew me in New York City - I got a full time office job because there were simply bills that needed to be paid. Gradually I began to make some contacts among professional trombonists and in a few months found myself doing periodic substitute work for a few players, mostly playing Broadway shows.
The freelance work I was doing was not enough to allow me to give up my day job and after a year of this routine, I decided to return to school and for two years worked on a master's degree on a part time basis at New York University while working a part time secretarial day job. Study at NYU gave me more contacts in music and I broadened my free lance even more. However, it became obvious that my playing was undergoing subtle changes as I was becoming more oriented to a commercial type of sound and style. I still held to my dream of playing in a symphony orchestra and made the decision, upon graduation from NYU in 1979, to leave New York and the studio/commercial/Broadway scene.
I had long harbored an interest in being a high school band director and subsequently interviewed for and accepted a position in Edison, New Jersey. For two years I taught high school and while it was a stressful time in my life (the pay was low, the work demanding and we had just started our family with the birth of our first daughter) I enjoyed working with the students very much. A nice benefit of the job was the fact that I had a large band room in which I could practice. I took advantage of every opportunity I could to continue my practice routine in preparation for upcoming orchestral auditions. From 1980-1981, I took five auditions for professional orchestras, getting in the finals for four of them and finally winning the bass trombone position in the Baltimore Symphony in 1981.
From 1981-1985, I played in Baltimore and enjoyed playing in a terrific trombone section and being there when they opened a new concert hall, Meyerhoff Hall. However, when I heard the bass trombone chair was open in the Boston Symphony, I knew I needed to take just one more audition as it had always been my dream - since I first began playing trombone - to play in the BSO.
I first auditioned for Boston in May 1984 and while I won the audition, Music Director Seiji Ozawa did not offer me the job. He was not quite sure about hiring me but decided to offer me six weeks of employment with the orchestra at Tanglewood and on a European tour. This I happily accepted and while I was told that this was not a "trial" period (there was to be another audition in December 1984), I knew that Ozawa was listening carefully to me and that the rest of the section would be watching to see how I fit in.
In the end, I auditioned again and was offered the job and began playing in the BSO in May 1985. Professionally I had achieved a significant goal. To be playing in that great orchestra has been a great privilege and joy, but while I've enjoyed a measure of success as part of the Boston Symphony, I believe there is a lot more to life than getting the right seat in the right orchestra, and there was more to my own story than I have just outlined. The important thing for each of us to realize is the answer to the bigger question I talked about earlier: 'How do we put together the puzzle of our lives?'
Let me first say that this question is not only a good one, it is in fact the only one. I could try to tell you everything I know about playing the trombone and taking auditions. I could tell you what mouthpiece and instrument I use, where to put your tongue when playing the William Tell Overture and how to keep your slide working smooth and fast. You could work hard every day and take my suggestions to heart and perhaps even secure a position in a symphony orchestra - your dream come true. But after time, as sure as the sun comes up every morning, the moment will come when you will ask again your question: How do I put together the puzzle of my life? It has nothing to do with music or the trombone. It has to do with priorities and the First Cause of things.
When I look around at my professional musician colleagues, I'm saddened to see that so many are terribly miserable, unhappy people. Symphony orchestra members are not alone in this, in fact I see this most everywhere I go. In spite of having attained a coveted position for which they have worked very hard for many years, despite having a secure income and a house full of beautiful things, more and more often people come up to me and say, "So, after years of practice and self denial, all I have is THIS!?"
Sadly, when people look for life satisfaction in their job, they most often come up empty. When music (or any discipline, whether it be business, teaching, athletics or the arts) becomes your god, it will ultimately disappoint. The human desire for more and more, our inherent dissatisfaction with what we have and our restless disregard for authority ultimately brings us to the point where we simply look around and wonder Is this all there is?
The answer, fortunately, is no. I know well the feeling of energized self-sufficiency. As a teenager, I was overly confident of my abilities, arrogant in my self-promotion and full of pride. I was the master of my own fate, captain of my ship. All I needed to succeed was myself. "Believe in yourself," others would say - "You can make it if you only try harder."
When my father made the decision, at the age of 40, to leave corporate business work in New York City and enter the full time pastoral ministry, I could only react in disbelief and rage. There was no room in my life for religion - the only god I knew - or wanted - was the trombone. I worshipped at the altar of music and despite years of religious upbringing and regular attendance at church, I had no real knowledge of God nor did I seek to understand Him. I only read the Bible in order to prove it wrong, or to deem it incomprehensible.
Moving to a new school system in a new state did nothing to increase my humility. I was simply unlikable and full of myself; I felt superior to my new peers. I drew closer and closer to myself, convinced that self- reliance was the solution for anything that was wrong in my life. Musical success came my way easily and readily, so nothing around me pointed to the need for God.
But despite my success, there was a pit, a gaping hole in me. I could not ignore it; it would not go away. While I tried desperately to convince myself that all was well, that my uneasiness was really the fault of others, there was a palpable emptiness that was always there. I fought it, screamed and kicked at it, but it would not leave. In spite of all I had, this hole in my life, like a sore that would not heal, throbbed and reminded me that all was not right.
When a clarinet player in my high school band began inviting me to her church youth group, saying no was easy. It was the last thing I could imagine doing. What I was not prepared for was her persistence. Day after day, this young girl asked me to go and each day I would refuse. After weeks of this routine, I tired of it and, believing that if I went she would leave me alone, I agreed.
On the program for that evening was the movie The Cross and the Switchblade, the true story of a country preacher named David Wilkerson who came to New York City to bring the message of hope in Jesus Christ to gang members. As I watched the movie I related easily to one of the gang members, Nicki Cruz; his tough arrogance and swaggering self-confidence was all too familiar. But as the minutes went by, and the film showed the inevitable consequences of a life lived in rebellion to both man and God, I began to get uneasy. My pulse raced faster, my hands began to sweat. I was, for the first time in my life, facing myself square on and in an unexplainable, mysterious way, I realized why there was a piece of the puzzle of my life missing.
That night, under the loving care of some people I did not know but who cared deeply about me, I articulated to myself and to God my realization that my priorities were all wrong, that I had for many years put myself on the throne of my life. Without fully realizing the life changing ramifications of my thinking, I prayed honestly to God, not really knowing what to say except that I wanted Him to help me. I asked Jesus Christ - this person I had known about but who I had resisted for so long - to become the guide of my life. In submission, I gave up my desire to control my own destiny and asked Jesus to pilot my ship. He heard and answered that prayer on that pivotal evening in May, 1972 and since then, all has been very different.
In the years that followed, I began to move myself off the throne of my life and allow God to sit in His rightful place. But this is not to say that all of a sudden all became easy and blissful for me at the moment I asked Jesus Christ to be in control. Old habits remained that needed attention. My reading of God's Word, the Bible, brought me many questions. I married, and had two children, but difficulties still came my way. One of my children nearly died from pneumonia, the other was nearly killed in a car accident. My mother died at an early age from cancer and for many years I struggled in difficult jobs totally unrelated to music. I know what it is to ask "why?"
But God never promised that all would be blissful and perfect. His promise is for LIFE - Jesus said, "I came that they may have life, and might have it abundantly" (John 10:10 NASB) - and over time, I understood the paradigm shift that required me to redefine success in God's terms, not mine. I began slowly to understand that God's idea of success is often very different than ours - and that because we are human, we tend to think of God in terms humans can understand. This way of thinking is dangerous, because we will then make God merely a man. God is God, the Creator of the Universe, the First Cause of all that has been, is and will be. He is not bound by human concepts of fairness and justice. He IS fairness and justice. He is holy and calls us to be holy. Through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus, he knows what it is like to be rejected, to feel pain. I can never say, "But God, you don't understand" because he has been there - done that - before me and understands very well.
In my Web Site article Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution, I mention how when I began taking auditions, my understanding of one of life's most important truths was incomplete. Confident that God had gifted me as trombonist and sure that playing in a symphony orchestra was the right place for me to be, I would pray, "God, please let me win this audition. You know how much I want this job, and if you'll just give it to me, I'll leave you alone." But God didn't want to be left alone - He wanted (and wants) to be the most important component of my life. It took me time to realize that the best place for me to be was where He wanted me to be, whether or not I wanted it, agreed with it or liked it. The simplicity of that Truth is stunning - for how could I, a mere man, determine what was best for me when the Creator of all things had a plan for me? The proper understanding of this concept led me to view auditions as windows into God's life for me. Instead of simply asking that I win, I began to pray for Him to let me see what He would teach me through the process. That I ultimately achieved what I had sought is of no credit to me. I thank God that I did not play a perfect audition when I was seeking the Boston Symphony job. Being hired in spite of imperfections (in the natural sense, can you imagine a conductor hiring a player who not only missed but completely slaughtered the high "b" in Hary Janos in a final round!) showed me that it was not my talent alone that put me in the BSO but rather it was the ordained plan of a Sovereign God. How could I ever think that a missed note would keep me from accomplishing God's will if it is what He wanted me to do?
Through the successes and the failures, through wonderful and personally difficult times, I have sought to grow closer to God, and to become more conformed to His mind and will. His Word, the Bible, has been of immense comfort to me and it has, as well, been the greatest teaching tool I have ever utilized.
The answer to the puzzle of life? The Bible tells us:
(Isaiah 28:16, NASB)
Jesus is that cornerstone, and I have built my life upon Him.
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