“Want to go to a Seattle Symphony concert with me?”
I was surprised – such outings were usually full family events. This time, it would just be my brother Ben and me.
“They’re playing Tchaik Five,” he said.
We were in middle school at the time, living in Edmonds, Washington. Ben and our older brother Steven spent their free time poring over full scores while listening to cassette tapes. Ben was studying clarinet with Seattle Symphony’s Laura DeLuca, and playing in the youth symphony.
I had never been to a professional symphony concert. I remember sitting with Ben that evening, absolutely impressed with the sound.
It’s been about two decades since that night. Ben left home at sixteen to attend Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, going on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Yale University before landing his first job with the Kansas City Symphony. He moved to California after that, winning the Principal Clarinet position with the Pacific Symphony. He subbed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and did studio work on the side. But in 2013, his sixth season with Pacific, he was ready for a change.
“You can get complacent,” he reflected when I spoke with him about how he got where he is today.
It had been a couple years since he’d taken an audition, so he started from square one and developed a whole new strategy to prepare. I asked him what that looked like.
“Lots of focus and drive,” he said.
Unlike the last time he’d taken an audition, he was very systematic, starting with the basics: scales, arpeggios, and études. After a week or two of those exercises, he started practicing the actual audition music.
Ben took a global approach to the selections. He studied what was going on in the rest of the orchestra during each excerpt, and practiced in a variety of tempos and keys. Looking at each piece from multiple angles rather than always approaching it from the same viewpoint made his interpretation well-rounded, and gave him more opportunities to be musical.
“With music you’ve played a lot, it’s easy to go on autopilot while practicing. Changing tempos forces your fingers to work harder. Changing keys forces your brain to work harder. You can’t rely on muscle memory – you have to actually think. It also helps you not get bored while practicing them over and over again,” he added.
As auditions approached, Ben ran through the excerpts in mock auditions. He wrote each one on a piece of paper and went through them all, drawing them randomly from a hat. Whatever he drew, he played, with one chance to get it right before moving to the next piece.
“It helps to not know the order, like in an audition. And playing through all the excerpts can take an hour or two, which is more time than the actual audition will take, so that helps with your physical and mental endurance.”
Utilizing this new strategy, Ben auditioned for the Principal Clarinet job with the Seattle Symphony.
“There were four rounds of auditions,” he said. “The preliminary, the semifinal, and two finals, followed by trials with the orchestra.”
Seattle Symphony auditions with a screen until the final round. Ben has always preferred playing to an audience, so I asked him if that made him feel less at ease with the process.
“Not really. My preparation was better for playing for the screen than it was in the past, when it felt like a barrier.” This time, he was comfortable with the concept.
“They were typical auditions,” he went on, “except for the second final.”
In addition to being told which pieces they would play shortly before their last final round, the candidates were surprised by a new component: chamber music.
“We played excerpts of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with a string quartet from the symphony,” Ben explained. “Getting the chance to play chamber music with other people was probably the most enjoyable part of the audition.”
Knowing how much Ben loves chamber music, I’m not surprised.
The process did not end there. After the finals, Music Director Ludovic Morlot chose three clarinetists to hear in trials with the symphony. Ben played two programs over New Year’s and over a week in June.
“At the New Year’s concert we played ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and other jazzy tunes, including a Jelly Roll Morton suite with me, the trumpet, and the trombone playing solos at the front of the stage.”
Ben had about ninety pages of music for that one concert, and the other New Year’s program was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – one of the most tiring pieces for a clarinetist.
For the second trial, Ben played in the chamber orchestra for Dutilleux’s Second Symphony, sitting about five feet from the Music Director.
“It was definitely a trial by fire.”
He got the job offer on his thirty-second birthday.
Ben spent a season with the Seattle Symphony and the Seattle Opera before heading to Cleveland for a year as Acting Principal. Come September, he’ll be back in Seattle. I asked what it’s like playing alongside his former teacher, Laura DeLuca.
“It’s great! We have a similar concept of sound, since she was an early teacher in my formative years, which makes it easy to play together. It’s a lot of fun.”
Ben studied with DeLuca for over two years and credits her with giving him a solid technical foundation and plenty of good advice.
“We went to a lesson once,” he reminisced, “and Mom mentioned I’d been advised to start learning saxophone, too. ‘No,’ Laurie said. ‘Focus on the clarinet.’ She saved me from the saxophone,” he laughed. She may not know that he has one now – a vintage instrument he got during his Pacific Symphony days “just to mess around with.”
Taking on a new teaching position himself, Ben will be an Artist in Residence at the University of Washington this fall, teaching clarinet performance. I asked what advice he has for students and young professionals starting out.
“Always be ready to play your best. Always be trying to improve your playing and raise your standards.”
He recalled a time when his Interlochen roommate emailed a teacher he’d set up an audition with to ask if he had any advice.
“He responded with a three-word email: ‘high playing standards.’ We actually printed it out in big letters on a piece of paper and stuck it on our wall for inspiration. No matter where you’re playing or who you’re playing with, you want your standards to be high. It’s your reputation.”
Doing that day in and day out is actually one of the challenges of playing with the Seattle Symphony, he confessed. “We go through a lot of repertoire, so learning the music and playing it at a high level can be difficult at times.”
But the rewards are great. I asked him his favourite part about being Principal with Seattle.
“Just getting the opportunity to have a prominent voice in so many great pieces of music. And I really enjoy playing with the Opera, as well.”
He’s had fun exploring the city and nearby hiking trails, and he loves playing in the symphony that inspired him as a young musician.
Benjamin Lulich is Principal Clarinet with the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. An exceptionally gifted young artist, he has held positions in the Pacific Symphony, Kansas City Symphony, and Colorado Music Festival, and has performed frequently with The Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Pasadena Symphony, IRIS Orchestra, and many other ensembles. The recipient of many awards and prizes, he studied at Interlochen Arts Academy, Cleveland Institute of Music, Yale School of Music, Paci c Music Festival, and Music Academy of the West. His teachers include: David Shifrin, Franklin Cohen, Richard Hawkins, Fred Ormand, and Laura DeLuca. Benjamin Lulich is a Backun Artist and performs on MoBa clarinets.