Auditioning with the Buddha

by Julia Dombek

Written for Buddhist Philosophy (LARTS 376, Spring 2012)

The hotel alarm begins to scream and quickly rouses me from my feverish dreams. “Ugh . . . Five hours until this audition,” my brain reminds me as reality sets in, filling my body with familiar, unsettled swirls of pain, nausea, resentment, and exhaustion. “I barely slept three hours, how am I supposed to play under these conditions?” it continues, as I slip out of a squeaky, scratchy bed to suit up in my all-black performance wear. In my half-sleep-induced haze, my mind begins to associate it with funeral garb. “Stop being so melodramatic,” I argue with my own sub-conscious. “It’s just an audition, it’s not like it’s the fucking end of the world.

And so the day begins; another horrible audition day, just one out of the many I must face on my quest to get into a decent music school. This is how audition days have always begun for me. “Automatically, [I] see [my] version of the object instead of actually seeing that object as it is” (Trungpa 170); audition days are a particularly big offender for me. My reality is completely warped by my awareness of their presence. My mind flits away at the speed of light, countless tangled chains of thought fighting to gain prominence:

“You are horrible at auditioning. Just horrible.”

“I’m so sore, there’s absolutely no way I’ll even be able to play a scale, let alone an entire piece AND excerpts!”

“WHY ME, WHY ME?? Oh dear GOD, why today?!”                              

“…My legs hurt, my lips hurt, I feel like throwing up, I’m supposed to start my fucking period tomorrow, there is just NO WAY I can do this right now…”                         

 “DAMN IT what if they have sight-reading? There’s absolutely no way I’d get into this school if they had sight-reading.”

“Maybe we can just skip this one and worry about the other schools?”

“I ALWAYS miss that high C at the end, I’m going to miss it today, without a doubt… They’ll think I’m just a joke.”

“Why did I ever pick the FRENCH HORN of all instruments. What was I even thinking!?”      

“. . . Ohhhhhh but I HAVE to do this, I can’t just skip out then I’d make a bad impression . . . Ugh I feel so trapped right now . . .”

“I hope this is a blind audition… if I can see the judges I will absolutely freak out.”

. . . Eventually even my own conscious inner-monologue is drowned out by fragments of anxious thought.

My mother, who has come along for moral support, is just now waking up. “Alright, today’s the big day—you’re going to rock it, kid! Think you can hit that high C today?” she questions as she stretches and climbs out of bed. “Just shut up. It’s so early, I don’t want to talk,” I snap, violently brushing my hair out. “God, she is so annoying sometimes . . .” My mind focuses sharply and jumps to frustration and anger, even hatred towards my mom. “She never shuts up about that freaking high C . . .

As we make our way to the lobby for breakfast, my mind starts to settle down and anger slowly morphs into regret. “I’m sorry for snapping, Mom . . . I’m just nervous, I don’t mean to take it out on you,” I meekly apologize, avoiding eye contact as the elevator doors close and we begin to descend downward.[1] After a long pause and a quick iPhone search, she responds with a quotation: “Mind is the forerunner of all actions. All deeds are led by mind, created by mind. If one speaks or acts with a serene mind, happiness follows, as surely as one’s shadow” (“Words” 67). “Hm,” I ponder aloud, as the elevator doors open and light streams into my eyes.

“To approach this audition healthfully and clear-minded, you should try a Buddhist approach as well as you can,” she continues, squinting to make out the words on her now sun-dimmed phone screen. “Whatever comes—be it destructive, chaotic, creative, welcoming, or inviting, the bodhisattva is never disturbed, never shocked, because he is aware of the space between the situation and himself” (Trungpa 173).

I nod in agreement and grab a banana from the hotel-provided breakfast although, honestly, the thought of ingesting anything makes me feel nauseous. As I contemplate the space between myself and this audition, I begin to feel more at ease than I was just five minutes before —but still, nervous thoughts continue to arise in my head. The unsettling anxiety of it all makes my body feel tight and strained. “Mom, I can’t stop being overtaken by nervous thoughts,” I confess, as I anxiously peel my banana into far too many peel divisions. Without even glancing up, she thoughtfully browses her phone notes until she recites the following: “do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. If something comes into your mind, let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. Do not be bothered by anything” (Suzuki 237). She puts her phone down and takes a bite of an apple. Chewing, she continues: “Why don’t you *crunch* just try to focus on your breathing? *crunch, munch, munch* It will calm you down.”[2]

After much introspective focus on the breath and a taxi ride to the conservatory, I find myself in a small, paint-chipped practice room beginning to warm up. Running through my audition material, my mind is unsettled by the high C that always trips me up. In a moment of frustration, my body reverts back to old playing habits, and I completely mess up an unrelated section I almost always play well. “UGH!!” I wail, dropping my horn with exasperation. “This excerpt with the high C really stresses me out, Mom,” I complain. “I just have never been able to nail it before in a pressured situation . . . I really don’t think I’ll be able to get it in this audition.”

“Ah-ah-ah-ahhh,” she contradicts. “Think about this saying: ‘We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present. If we are unaware of our present actions, we are condemned to repeating the mistakes of the past and can never succeed in attaining our dreams for the future’ (Goenka 104). Just be aware of the present moment, of what your body is doing right now. Breathe and think of now.” She pulls out her camera to take a picture of me, “This is a different moment *flash* . . . than this one. *flash* Be aware of every one by focusing on your breath.”

In . . . Out . . . In . . . Out . . .” the only words in my head, “In . . . Out . . . In . . . Out . . .” I pull my horn up to my face, focusing purely on my breath. “In . . .” With a quick placement of my mouth to my mouthpiece, I feel the warm metal on my face, set myself, and play through one last time. My mind is freer than ever before. So much space exists between each note. The high C is just another note . . . just another easy note. I finish and set my horn down, and my mother pulls out one last quotation before I leave to find the stage. “Don’t think a lot. Just think, ‘This is the way things are. It’s your work, your duty. Right now nobody can help you, there is nothing that your family and your possessions can do for you. All that can help you now is the correct awareness. So don’t waver. Let go. Throw it all away’ (Chah 93). You’ll do great, kiddo!” We exchange a quick hug, and I leave the practice room.

As I walk to the stage, I feel each muscle working together to move me down the hallway. I feel my breath leaving and entering evenly and slowly. “In . . . Out . . . In . . . Out . . .” My heart is excited, yet calm. I am ready.

“Julia Dombek?” someone at the stage inquires. I nod and smile. “They’re ready for you. Good luck, have fun!” I walk out onto the stage, feeling my feet placed at each step. The hall echoes my steps as my mind echoes a breathing mantra. I feel the light of the stage overtake me, hear the judges scribbling down notes from the last auditionee . . . I feel peaceful, and extremely present. I hear the first notes in my head, inhale confidently, place the horn to my lips, and begin to play through my audition works. I see forms with my whole body and mind, hear sounds with my whole body and mind, and understand them on a truly intimate level (Zenji 206). I feel my horn as an extension of my body, an amplification of my vibrating lips and wind, my voice. Missed notes come up here and there, but I acknowledge them and let them go, as soon as they come up, with detachment. My mind is unfazed by the situation—I am free to focus on the present moment of my sensations, using them as feedback to then rely upon my muscle memory I’ve worked on for so long. It feels truly amazing . . . and as quickly as it began, it is over. “Thank you,” states one of the judges—my cue to leave. I float off the stage, feeling neither overjoyed nor disappointed. I feel accomplished.

“How did it go?!” my mom asked, excitedly as I walked toward her. “It went!” I said, laughing with relief. “This morning, I was really afraid,” I said, putting my horn away, “but at some point during the day, I remembered that “if we’re committed to comfort at any cost, as soon as we come up against the least edge of pain, we’re going to run; we’ll never know what’s beyond that particular barrier or wall or fearful thing” (Chödrön 166). I feel like today I really took a step in breaking down a barrier I’ve always struggled with. It’s a liberating feeling to know how to do that. I think I might be finally getting this audition thing!”


[1] “We must abstain from all actions, all words and deeds, that harm other people” (Goenka 98).

[2] “By practicing awareness of respiration, we become aware of the present moment” (Goenka 104).


Works Cited

Bercholz Samuel and Sherab Chödzin, eds. The Buddha and His Teachings. Boston: Shambhala, 2003.

Chah, Ajahn. “Our Real Home.” Bercholz and Chödzin 86-95.

Chödrön, Pema. “Loving-Kindness.” Bercholz and Chödzin 165-167.

Goenka, S.N. “Moral Conduct, Concentration, and Wisdom.” Bercholz and Chödzin 96-121.

Suzuki, Shunryu. “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” Bercholz and Chödzin 227-239.

Trungpa, Chögyam. “The Bodhisattva Path.” Bercholz and Chödzin 168-176.

“Words of the Buddha.” Trans. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya. Bercholz and Chödzin 66-72.

Zenji, Dogen. “To Forget the Self.” Trans. Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi. Bercholz and Chödzin 205-210.



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