How to Take an Orchestra Audition
Brad Howland offers some great tips on how to take an orchestra audition. According to Brad, the competition these days to get into an orchestra is fierce. It is not unusual to have 50 players try out for a single position in an average orchestra, something paying in the range of $25-30,000/year. A prestigious orchestra in the United States can draw up to 300 people. Faced with these numbers, audition committees try to eliminate as many as possible in the opening rounds. Here’s how improve your chances of winning the audition.
Careful preparation is essential for success. You must have a plan. Choose from the following suggestions whatever seems helpful to you. Come up with a strategy, and write it down!
Learn everything you can about the excerpts. Go to the music library and listen to them in the context of the entire piece. Use a score to find out what is going on in the rest of the orchestra. Read the program notes to get a sense of the composer’s intentions. Remember that you have to convince a majority of the audition committee that you are experienced, and have performed these works many times, even if you haven’t.
Practice multiple repetitions of the excerpts to program your “automatic pilot,” and simulate the stress of the audition. Practice at different tempos. When you get tired, practice the excerpts down the octave.
Play mock auditions, making them as realistic as possible. Reserve a large room, and ask several friends, musicians, or teachers to come and be the committee. Dress up in your audition clothes. Assign a personnel manager. Have your “committee” make notes for future reference.
• Mentally rehearse the audition. Visualize yourself playing really well.
• Record yourself a lot! See how close the actual performance comes to the mental image.
• Draw the excerpts from a hat and play in random order. Get yourself ready for anything.
• Whenever possible, play the excerpts with a section.
Believe it or not, to get past the first round, you don’t have to be great! So many people crack up in the first round that if you can basically play the music on the page, without missing too many notes, and with decent intonation and rhythm you will probably get voted to the next round.
It’s in the final rounds that your advanced musicianship must be displayed. Here the committee is listening for more subjective things, like phrasing and sound quality. So few brass players phrase that if you do anything at all you will sound great! You can’t predict what kind of sound they are looking for, but here’s a tip: never, never play too loud ! If you lose control you are toast.
If you are asked a question by the committee, or asked to play something a certain way, listen carefully and make sure you do it. If you don’t understand the suggestion ask for clarification. Do what they want, even if it means sacrificing something else in your playing. Just do it!
If the music director comes down to conduct you through an excerpt, play from memory and look him/her right in the eyes (this happened to me – I did this and won the audition).
Focus on the strong aspects of your playing and work to bring them across. Have an “ace in the hole.”
Be realistic. Don’t give up if you don’t get anywhere the first few tries. It takes a while to achieve that special “audition awareness,” and to learn to cope with the stress. Playing an orchestra audition is possibly the hardest thing you will ever do.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Brant Taylor offers advice to candidates hoping to succeed in that all-important orchestral audition with these top ten tips:
You can’t control what the hall will sound like, whether there will be a screen, or who might be warming up next to you. Practise thriving in atypical conditions by simulating them: get a few people together to hear you in an unfamiliar room, set up a makeshift screen and have someone else choose the order in which you’ll perform the repertoire.
3. Make a beautiful sound all the time
More candidates receive negative attention by producing substandard tone than from any other single factor. Pay close attention to treatment of short notes, and avoid playing so loudly or softly that you lose control of the sound.
4. Orchestral playing is communal, but auditions are solitary
This means certain choices about bowings, fingerings, tempi, and other variables could be different than if you were playing the piece in an orchestra. For example, a slightly slower tempo that allows everything to speak cleanly and clearly is preferable to a quicker one where things feel blurry and rushed.
5. Solid, specific preparation is the best antidote for anxiety
You will feel nervous excitement leading up to (and perhaps during) the audition. This is human. Building the ability to keep nerves in check and your mind focused starts during practice, long before the audition. Have very specific opinions, and practise to retain knowledge of technical aspects such as bow distribution and vibrato that allow you to shape phrases exactly as planned. An audition is not a time for vagueness. Knowing and practising exactly what you hope to reproduce in the audition gives you a constant stream of thoughts to focus on in performance, allowing your mind much less room to go astray. As I tell my students, ‘Just do your thing, and let other people find ways to eliminate themselves.’
6. Recordings are a mixed blessing
It is important to develop a musical understanding of each work that is independent from any recorded interpretation — even a great one by the very group you are auditioning for. Seasoned orchestral musicians have played the standard repertoire many times under different conductors. There is no ‘official’ tempo, fingering, or bowing for any piece. Satisfy yourself with your playing rather than trying to re-create something from an orchestra’s recorded history.
7. You can make errors
No player relishes making an unexpected mistake early on, but remember that your general level of musicianship and instrumental control is what the committee will remember. The difference between a fluke and a general tendency in someone’s playing is quite easy to discern, and a committee can generally forgive a couple of minor missteps in an otherwise well-played, artistically satisfying presentation.
8. Play the instrument you’re comfortable with
Players sometimes borrow great instruments for an audition, assuming that a superior instrument is a real advantage. However, you can only sound your best on an instrument with which you are completely comfortable. If you’re unhappy with your instrument, don’t worry too much about it – a committee will focus more on what you are doing than on the instrument itself.
9. Play the way you play
I often hear of players ‘adjusting’ their playing to cater to what they think a given committee wants. This is a potentially unproductive mindset that can put candidates outside their comfort zone in the audition. Every committee should want to hear someone with valid, sophisticated musical ideas and the technical means to express them. Aim for this broad goal, using the repertoire to express your unique sense of style and musical understanding.
10. Play for people you respect, including those who don’t play your instrument
Feedback from someone who doesn’t know the challenges unique to your instrument can be very enlightening. Great singers and pianists often have insights about the music of Mozart and Schubert, to name just two composers, which can be revelatory to string players. If success at an audition depends in part on showing real understanding of the music we are playing, we must develop a view of the repertoire that transcends our own instrument.