Want to work for Cirque du Soleil? Part 1

Tuba player Justin Lerma gets very passionate when he talks about his experience playing in the circus world at Sea World and Cirque du Soleil. He is so genuine about both the good and the bad of his experience there, that his interview is a must-read if you are thinking of joining the circus world.

How did you end up working in the circus world?
I never auditioned. Music is very much, as you know, a who-you-know thing. My high school band director, Rick Horn, is a phenomenal trumpet player and I got a phone call from him one day when I was still in high school: "Brian, the creative manager of SeaWorld, wants you to audition for this thing." I called Brian and he said "you want a lesson?" I said sure. I went and he said "you want the job?" I accepted it. I was immediately attached to a circus troupe that was working with Cirque du Soleil. I got a contract with that circus, which was attached to Sea World. That troupe then in turn took me to Cirque du Soleil.

"I never auditioned"

But I can tell you that the way Cirque du Soleil does auditions is very specific. The reason that circus was used was because they had a special look. Cirque will ask: "we need someone between 6 ft and 6.2 ft with a slender built and a serpent-like face," and that's what they want. They want specific things.

Tell us about your experience then. 
I got into the show. Our first thing was at Sea World show, called Riptide. We were attached to them. Constantine, the head of the production company (a big name of circus troupes from Russia), came and said to musicians: "hey, Cirque du Soleil needs tuba players for this show, or trumpet players for this show." That's how a lot of us got hooked up with Delirium, Cirque du Soleil, Eau, etc. We never did much of an audition. My initial introduction to them wasn't formal, I was introduced: "hey this guy can play, go." Some of us were contracted, some of us were employees. I remember one guy not being able to pick up the show fast enough, and he got fired pretty quickly. It's a business.

"One guy didn't pick up the show 
fast enough, and he got fired"

What's a day like as a musician at Cirque du Soleil?
First part of it is introduction: "this is the show, this is the concept." Then you go into rehearsals, you're separated from dancers and performers. They were good at giving us brass players rest time. But when you were expected to perform, you were expected to perform. You're on, you're paid to do this. My whole experience with circus shows is a year and half: five months of a tour, and then three stationed shows at Sea World. Sea World gave us about a month and then once a show started, it would be tweaked every now and then, and any changes had to be immediate. With the other shows, it was about a month also. From friends I've heard that some rehearsals could go on longer, but they pay you to do the show, and they need to get you out there as fast as possible.

"Any changes had to be immediate"

Our swings were always f**. One swing musicians, he had to learn the first trumpet part, the 2nd part, and the choreo for each, so it was a pain. He had much less time than we did on stage. That's what he was hired to do. In fact that's the guy that got fired because he couldn't learn the show. Luckily Constantine was good about rehearsals. If you needed to have time off you got it. Sea World was not like that. I needed to go to my college orientation and that turned into the biggest problem I ever had there.

How long is the rehearsal process?
It all varied. When I went into the show the first time for the circus, I walked in the room and they said "ok you guys are gonna be playing this this this and that. We don't have the music for this and this, but we have the cd. Can you transcribe it?" I played in about 40 min of the show, other people had solos (soprano sax had to do Air, a solo by himself), we transcribed it all. Then you had to memorize it, because you have to run around, do choreographed stuff. We had two days to remember it because the steps were really hard.

"They said: we don't have the music. 
Can you transcribe it?"

Then the rehearsals came. They were weird because not all of us were used at the same time, and some things were longer than others. You'd get in at 9 o'clock, sit around for 2 hours, play for 30 min, then they didn't need, then they took you back on. You can stay there a whole day, play 30 min and that's it. Its a painful process because I was a tuba player, I wasn't the lead, and I never knew what was going on. I was just there playing, and do what they told me to do. Eventually, everything got worked out, and after a month of rehearsals, we had a set schedule and it wasn't very difficult. After all that stuff it got pretty calm, and we were good. Two days before we open the show, they decided the show was too long, so they scrapped most of it.

"Two days before the show, 
they scrapped most of it"

The acrobats and other people , they knew what they were doing, but the musicians didn't. We were gonna do this Black Eyed Peas tune, some awesome Dixieland stuff, and they cut it. They said "Alright we want you to play this now. We don't have the music. Figure it out." I remember being there until 4 o'clock in the morning transcribing. I never had an ear training class, I had never transcribed. I was a kid, 18. We were all on the same boat. If somebody helped me, they weren't transcribing their part. In  two days, the show was gonna open. We were being paid to be ready. We could have improvised for all they cared but it had to be professional , it needed to flow. 

Even with all of that bs, that was the most fun I ever had. I was young and I still hadn't had a lot of professional experience. I felt like a rock star. That stadium was really big. I was so young, I knew it was a big show, and for me it was a very big deal. I knew it could possibly open up more possibilities. I was tired and frustrated and I felt overworked but I had a very good time doing it all. It was definitely some of the people I got to meet that made it good.

"I felt like a rock star"

Andy the sax player, a couple months after we finished that show and I was getting ready to go on a tour, I got a phone call: "dude, turn Oprah on," and Andy was playing for Michael Buble on Oprah. I think this is why I'm so obsessive about practicing and playing music. Peter Tunnel, Issac Tubb (he was playing at the Bellagio) and a tuba player Michael Woods, they were talking about Andy. They were like: "yeah man, he never takes his horn off his face." I don't remember him doing anything, or talking. He was always working on conditioning himself to do all these amazing things, and he really could do it. I wanted to be like that, and have those things said about me. It's because I heard those people I looked up to say that that I'm always practicing.

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