Thursday, June 16, 2011

Orchestral auditions

In order to obtain a position in a professional orchestra, a musician must win an audition.   For the benefit of any reader who doesn't know what goes on during an orchestral audition, here's a summary of a typical audition from start to finish:

First, the orchestra publishes an advertisement for its open position in the musicians' union monthly, The International Musician, which is mailed to each member of the American Federation of Musicians throughout the U.S. and Canada.  Orchestral job openings are also posted online on websites such as

The frequency of job openings varies from instrument to instrument.  Since every orchestra hires more full time violinists than any other instrument, obviously violin openings are the most common.  It's not hard to imagine that each month, there are at least a couple of violin openings advertised. For non-string instruments, openings are less frequent.  Harp and tuba openings are rare, and I'm sure that some years there are no openings at all for those instruments.  Orchestras hire 2, 3 or 4 full time bassoonists.  Some months, there are no bassoon openings.  Also, many wind players are interested in specific positions.  For example, if a bassoon player really wants to play principal, he or she may have to wait for months before there's a principal opening anywhere. 

As soon as the job is advertised, applicants immediately mail or email resumes to the orchestra's personnel manager.  Most orchestras also require a deposit check of $50 or $100 to be returned when the candidate shows up at the audition, which is usually held 2 or 3 months after the advertisement is published.

After submitting a resume to the personnel manager of the orchestra, each applicant is presented with a list of pieces to prepare for the audition.  Audition lists often feature a couple of different solo pieces or concertos plus a list of 15 or so orchestral works (sometimes more, sometimes fewer).  At the end of the list there is usually a statement that sight-reading may be required (which means that the candidate may be asked to play unexpected works sight-unseen).

Musicians preparing for an audition have to practice a lot, since the goal is to perfect the entire list.  Any musician who already has a job or other responsibilities is especially challenged by the task at hand.

Audition candidates travel at their own expense to the site of the audition (usually the hall where the orchestra performs).  Upon arrival at the audition site each applicant is given a number (as a result of drawing numbers out of a hat or a similar method).  Based upon that number, each candidate is offered an approximate time for his or her preliminary audition.  That time might be several hours later, and the candidates often wait in a large public room (where they may warm up if they choose, but not without the secret scrutiny of their competitors!) until anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before their audition, when each candidate is assigned a private warm-up room.

The preliminaries are nearly always held behind a screen, and each candidate plays for less than 10 minutes.  Usually 4 to 6 short excerpts are heard in the preliminaries.  The orchestra's personnel manager may or may not tell the candidates when they check in what those excerpts will be, depending upon that orchestra's policy as outlined in its Collective Bargaining Agreement..

For the preliminary audition, each candidate in turn walks down a walkway, usually carpeted to mask sounds, to the chair and stand set up for the audition.  A large screen looms ominously in front of the musician, and a mysterious voice from behind the screen instructs the candidate to begin. 

Undoubtedly, many candidates engage in a mental exploration of the unseen committee:  How bored are they?  Do they want me to hurry up and get through the excerpts, or does that expose my lack of experience?  Should I play a few notes to test the acoustics, or will that put off the committee?

Some musicians find performing in an orchestral audition to be unnatural, and unrelated to the actual task of playing in an orchestra.  In the orchestra, the music prevails, and any solo which a musician plays from within the orchestra is simply a part of a much larger context.  It is easy for an orchestra member to be caught up in the music, and self-consciousness falls by the wayside as each musician accepts his/her role as a member of a music-producing team.  Not so during an audition!

Another common complaint about auditions has to do with audition repertoire. On the job, musicians know exactly which pieces will be performed each week (and even during each rehearsal!), and the number of pieces to be performed is reasonable.  There are no surprises.  Yet during an audition, the element of surprise is constant, since the candidates don't know until the last minute exactly which excerpts from which works will be asked.  Sight-reading is on nearly every audition list, and it means that any piece of music ever written can be placed in front of the candidate.  The prepared audition list is long - much longer than the list of pieces that an orchestra member would be expected to perform in one day!

Additionally, during an audition it is difficult to assess a candidate's sense of ensemble and ability to follow the conductor.  For principal positions, leadership skills are untested during the audition process.

After playing a preliminary round, the candidates wait in a designated waiting room for results.  Results are typically announced each hour or so, but the wait seems interminable.  Candidates chat among themselves; many know each other from previous auditions.  (Regulars are said to be "on the audition circuit".)  Finally the personnel manager or assistant appears, and most candidates are sent on their way; the lucky ones are asked to stay for semi-finals.

The semi-finals are usually held behind a screen as well, and the list of excerpts is usually longer than the preliminary list.  After that round, some candidates are thanked and sent on their way, while the luckiest stay for the finals (assuming that musicians who succeed at auditions are talented, prepared, and lucky!)

Finals are almost always held with no screen, thus enabling interaction between the audition committee (which always includes the Music Director for the finals) and the candidate.  A finalist may be asked questions about his/her equipment or background, or he/she may be asked to play things differently (faster, slower, more pianissimo, with more freedom, etc.)  Candidates often play for considerable lengths of time in the finals, which is why endurance is such an important factor in audition preparation.  There may even be yet another round.

Some orchestras, including the Columbus Symphony, carry the audition process a step further by occasionally asking a finalist to perform within the orchestra.  That makes a lot of sense to me, since actually performing in the orchestra is so vastly different from playing an audition.

Sometimes there is a winner at the conclusion of an audition; sometimes not.  The audition process is far from perfect, for sure.

Is there a better way to test musicians for employment in an orchestra?  I recall hearing a story about a legendary bassoonist winning an audition for the NBC Symphony during the mid 1900s by playing a Bb minor scale - nothing more, nothing less -  for conductor Arturo Toscanini.  Is that a preferable method of sorting out orchestral candidates?  (That bassoonist really did deserve the job, by the way!)
Arturo Toscanini

My next post will explore the Berlin Philharmonic's audition procedure, which is very, very different from what I've described here.



Arundonax said...

Your description of the audition process was so vivid it made my heart beat faster! Apparently, I've attended too many of them.... Love your blog as always!

B.S. said...

Thank you for the compliment, Arundo Donax. Now that you mention it, I'm thinking that when the thought of an audition no longer makes my heart race, that's when I'll be ready to take one on!


Audrey said...

it certainly made my heart beat faster too. its interesting to read things from professional bassoonists. im just an amteur at the moment, im finishing highschool and will be studying a music degree next year in Australia. i think its so true about the audition process that they never know how well you can lead or blend in a group with tuning or follow the conductor. my music teachers tell me im strong in all these areas, so what worries me is if my technique lets me down in an audition in the future, i wont be able to show off any of the above! but what excites me the most is simply having the chance to give it a good old shot anyway! i like your blog; its interesting to read :)

B.S. said...

Thank you, Audrey. I think it is very common for bassoonists to worry that their technique will let them down under the pressure of an audition. The more auditions you take, the more at ease you will be. Many musicians benefit from using relaxation techniques at auditions, causing worry about technique to fade. You already have the most important element, which is a positive attitude!

Good luck~