Auditions: The Olympics of Classical Music

As 2014 comes to a close, I decided it was time to update my readers on what’s new in my musical life.

I am entering my final semester of Graduate School at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and taking auditions for professional orchestras throughout the country.  My hope is to win a position in the next few months so I can move seamlessly between school and professional life. Easier said than done, however!

A quick background on how these auditions work: there’s only one spot open at a time. In rare cases, an orchestra will have multiple positions open for the same instrument. You send your resume to the orchestra and wait for them to process your application.  Some people will be turned away before playing a note, because their resume doesn’t qualify for the available position.  Sometimes, orchestras have a preliminary recorded round, where you have to record a small list of excerpts before traveling for a live audition.  I have just passed the preliminary recorded round for the Assistant Concertmaster position with the Minnesota Orchestra, which is thrilling!

So, once you have jumped through the initial hoops, you prepare for the first live round.  It is wise to feel as prepared as possible as early as possible. My teacher recommends being “ready” a month in advance.  The lists of excerpts vary from orchestra to orchestra, and it is crucial in your preparation to discover what an orchestra committee will be listening for in each excerpt. You need to be able to play the list at the drop of a hat, and committing to this kind of practicing is the most difficult part of the audition process.

Once the audition day rolls around, you arrive at the symphony’s performance hall.  You are thrown into a room with 10-20 other violinists, all practicing the same excerpt list as you, and most likely sounding very good. From the moment you enter this room, you have to become extremely selfish. You can’t listen to or worry about anyone else playing, even though they are two feet away from you!  It is nice to find a quiet corner, preferably facing the wall.  People will be blasting through the excerpts at full force, sometimes walking around the room like they own the place. But, as my teacher tells me, don’t give them a second of your precious time.  Even if they are nailing Don Juan in the warm up area, they could completely train-wreck on stage! All that matters is that you play your very best only when it is required of you: on stage, during the actual audition.

There are usually between 150-200 people auditioning for any given position.  The odds are not in your favor, but the kind of preparation and mental focus you achieve before the audition greatly increases your chances. The auditions are short and anonymous: you play just a fraction of the excerpt list on stage, behind a screen. They even put down a carpet walkway so the gender of the candidate is not revealed by the sound of their shoes. The results are delivered immediately: if the committee has listened to an hour of auditionees (maybe 15 people), they usually advance one person to the next round. It is not uncommon for them to dismiss everyone, though.  It is crucial that the committee narrows down in this way, because there is still only one spot.

To win the job, you have to win every round.  Preliminaries, semi-finals, and finals. Occasionally there will be a “super-final” if the committee is undecided between two candidates. Overall, the audition day is a long and strenuous one, and it is vital to maintain good health beforehand.  You can’t sacrifice sleep for more practice time if the audition is a few days away.  The reason I compare auditions to the Olympics is because we have to train like athletes, and when we arrive at the audition we see the top percentage of people in our craft.  (Telling myself it’s like the Olympics also keeps the process exciting rather than daunting!)

I have taken three professional auditions so far.  My first was for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I did not advance, but I played well given it was my first. My second was for the substitute musician list for the Houston Symphony, and I earned a spot! My third was for the St. Louis Symphony, and I advanced to the semi-final round.  Each audition is very informative for me, and with every one I take, I become more comfortable with the strange process!

You will notice that I do not have any upcoming performances at this time.  It is because I want to spend every ounce of my practice time preparing for these auditions–believe me, it is hard to say no to outside performance opportunities, but if it means having a career in one of my favorite orchestras, I will do anything!

My next two auditions are the following:
Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Principal Second Violin: January 27
Minnesota Orchestra, Assistant Concertmaster: January 14

Wish me luck!