The War of Art, Ron Howard, and the Orchestral Audition

I recently signed up for the online learning platform Masterclass. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s essentially a collection of video lectures and tutorials taught by experts and industry leaders in a wide range of fields. 

I eat this kind of stuff up.

I’m currently spending my vacation jumping back and forth between Film Directing with Ron Howard, Space Exploration with Chris Hadfield, and Comedy with Steve Martin. I have no intentions of writing and directing a comedy about space travel -- actually, that sounds exactly like something I’d like to do -- for now I’m just taking these classes because I love to learn and I love to find the commonalities between creative people across different fields.

I just finished the sixth lesson of Ron Howard’s class -- “Developing the Film” -- which is basically an overview the entire production process of a film. There were quite a few takeaways from this lesson that I thought were relevant to audition preparation and I’ve outlined some of them below. 

1. The director is the Keeper of the Story. And every decision he/she makes in every sequence/scene/moment comes back to how it can best serve the story. 
Always be asking: “What is the FEELING that the AUDIENCE needs?” 

I really like this idea of the Keeper of the Story. The director’s role is to coordinate all of the different teams and collaborators to ensure everyone is serving the ultimate goal: the story. To me, this is exactly our role as a musician. We are the director, coordinating all of the different departments of our production -- our technique, mental skills, performance skills, logistics -- all in order to bring the whole package together to serve the story. Our story is the music -- the character of an excerpt, the intent of the composer, and the emotions we are trying to invite our audience to feel. We are serving the story -- and the story is serving the audience. 

(watch Stephen Colbert's Northwestern commencement speech for more on service!)

2. Making a film can be divided into three distinct phases:
Development and preparation;
Editing/The Final Re-Write.

The first stage, Development and Preparation, is filled with excitement. You’re thinking ahead and dreaming the big dream -- anything is possible! You're going to win an Oscar! (You're the next Principal Theremin of the Transylvanian Philharmonic!) Riding the wave of your excitement, you’re also starting to get organized, planning, finding the resources and collaborators you’ll need. (In the Audition Playbook, this is the Early Prep and Planning Phases). 

The second stage is Production -- filming the movie or, as a musician, putting in all of the nuts-and-bolts, deliberate practice in on your instrument. (This is the Core Prep Phase). 

The third stage is Editing or "the Final Re-Write." The editing room is where the movie really gets made. All of the work has seemingly been done -- the film has been shot / the practice has been put in on the instrument -- but it’s the last stage of piecing together exactly what you want to present as the final product to best serve the story that really makes the film. You are stepping back and looking at the entire project as a whole -- it's not about changing the material you have, it's about packaging it up to give to the audience. (This is the In-The-Pocket Phase -- lots of mental rehearsal, focusing on the story/character, trusting in the work being done, and serving the ultimate goal).

3. Heartbreak is part of the human experience. It’s part of every experience worth pursuing.

Howard says that every film he has ever worked on has broken his heart one way or another, no matter how successful the movie ended up. In the endeavor as a whole of being a filmmaker -- or musician -- you have to not steel yourself against heartbreak, but instead accept it as inevitable, and even learn to love and appreciate that you are doing something so meaningful to you that it can cause such pain. I have had my share of audition heartbreaks -- from wanting a certain job more than anything in the world and then not even advancing, to the bittersweet heartbreak of being “runner-up” at the end of a long audition day. I appreciate all of those experiences now on some level -- though I didn’t in the moment -- and I can pull valuable lessons about myself out of each of those moments. How lucky we are to want or love something so. 

4. Embrace the logistics and planning phases of your project, even though it doesn’t feel creative or rewarding -- it is actually a HUGE part of the creative process and vital to your end goal.

We sometimes like to think that the creative process is just sitting in an open space and letting inspiration come to us -- "just express yourself and let the muse speak through you!"

If only! 

The reality is that there are parameters -- artistically, financially, logistically, technically -- and we have to embrace all of the planning, preparing, and the “roll up the sleeves” kind of work that doesn’t feel very creative or artistically rewarding. All of that work -- planning your practice, working the fundamentals, creating structure and routine, assessing your technique and your limitations -- all of that is creatively serving your ultimate goal which is (hopefully) to serve the music, the audience, the composer, the character, and the emotion. It may be boring to spend time crunching budget numbers for a film or practicing excerpts slowly, but understanding exactly what you have to work with helps you allocate your resources accordingly to best serve the creative and artistic vision of the film or music. 

This last point relates also to a book I just read by screenwriter and novelist Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles.


Whether you work in a creative field or not, I highly recommend this book. It’s a short but powerful read and it’s all about the #1 internal obstacle to success: Resistance. The ultimate enemy within.

Resistance is a liar, a saboteur, and a fraud.

To me, the voice Ron Howard was speaking of above -- the one not wanting to do the logistical work because it’s not “creative” -- that’s Resistance. The voice that tells you that you’re not prepared enough and shouldn’t bother showing up... Resistance. The voice that feeds off of “Imposter Syndrome”... Resistance. “You’re not good enough”... Resistance. The voice who convinces you to re-watch The Office ... again ... instead of practicing? Yep, that’s Resistance too. 

Resistance is a jerk and it's in all of us. Sadly, sometimes it shouts the loudest to those with the most to say --  gifted and talented people whose potential sadly never goes fully realized because they bought into the lies Resistance was spewing. 

I battle Resistance daily. 

I battled Resistance to get this post written and it'll be another battle to convince myself to click "Publish."

Sometimes he wins. Hard. But I wake up the next day and go to battle all over again. This book has totally changed how I think about the internal struggle of the artist -- or anyone pursuing success. I am still sorting through everything packed into this small little book -- but I feel excited to have a better personal understanding of the internal creative struggles we all face on some level. I hope you find it just as helpful! 


Creative work is...a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution.
— Steven Pressfield