So You Want to Audition for a Professional Orchestra?

by Kevin Smith

Congratulations! You are ready to audition for a professional orchestra. You have already put in years of training – including hundreds of lessons, many more rehearsals, and thousands of hours of practice – all in an effort to reach your full potential. To succeed, your instrumental technique must be of the highest quality with special attention paid to sound, intonation, rhythm, and expression. The catch? This all has to be displayed in the first five minutes that an audition committee hears you play. How do you make an impression in such a short amount of time? Preparing to audition for a symphony orchestra requires a tailored approach.

First, let’s take a look at the time leading up to the audition. Usually an orchestra posts a vacancy for a position at least three months in advance of the audition. Included in the posting is a list of audition repertoire as well as instructions to send in a resume. The resume itself must display your professionalism, experience, and potential for success in a full-time orchestra. In my case, I had played in many smaller, regional orchestras while I was attending school. This prior experience is just one factor the audition committee will consider before deciding if you are a “highly qualified applicant.” If the volume of applicants is high, the committee will occasionally ask for a preliminary recording of your playing in order to choose candidates they will invite. If you advance past this initial screening, you have to prepare a specific number of solos, usually well known concertos, in addition to very difficult passages found in the standard orchestral repertoire.

In the audition I took in October of 2014 for the Baltimore Symphony, I began preparing the required audition list in August. I had to prepare two solo concerto movements as well as 13 short excerpts (sometimes only twenty seconds long) from the standard repertoire including compositions by Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Mahler, and Mendelssohn. Many of these specific excerpts I had played in years prior, whether it was in preparation for other professional auditions or in various concerts. Most of the “standard” excerpts I had studied with my teachers in addition to performing them in specific classes dedicated to orchestral auditions during my graduate degree. Another way of preparing for a professional audition is setting up a mock audition, which are informal gatherings in which you play the excerpts for your peers. All together, I had spent hundreds of hours practicing, recording,and studying these excerpts prior to walking onto the Meyerhoff stage for the first time.

After receiving an audition date and time, you arrive on audition day an hour or so before your group audition time. Each person in the group draws a number to determine the random audition order. Through most of the audition rounds the candidates play for the committee from behind a screen to ensure impartiality. Usually the preliminary rounds last about two and a half hours from your arrival, through warmup and the audition itself, as well as awaiting the results.

Auditioning in a space you have never played in is a nerve-wracking experience. Not only do you have to be focused on your playing, but you also have to make minor adjustments based on the acoustics. For example, the Meyerhoff is very reverberant which can throw you off, since you are probably used to practicing in much smaller spaces. On the other end of the spectrum, some venues are very “dry” and can make you feel as though you are creating a very small sound. Since the space may be considerably different than the location where you practice most often, adjusting to the acoustics of a hall can be one of the most variable and unnerving aspects of an audition.

The good (and bad) thing about orchestral auditions versus traditional job interviews is that you receive immediate feedback. You usually find out whether or not you advanced to the next round within one hour. Most musicians have been eliminated in many auditions before they finally win a job, and this process of not advancing to the next round can be psychologically difficult. Sometimes you might think you played well, and then you don’t advance, and other times you think things could have gone better, yet you move on to the next round. This is one of the most trying aspects of an orchestra audition. As the audition moves closer to the final round, the decision process takes longer since it becomes more difficult to distinguish between each extremely qualified candidate. In addition to having an overall impression, each minute detail between individuals’ playing is scrutinized. If you are lucky enough to be chosen as the “winner” of an audition, you have only started the process of becoming a member of the orchestra. Before you can officially join the orchestra, you have to participate in what is called a “trial week”. This is a wonderful opportunity for both you and the orchestra members to get to know each other through playing and personal interaction. By performing with the orchestra under the Music Director, you get a great chance to see how you fit within the sound of the orchestra as well as showing your technical, musical, and interpersonal skills.

Once you have auditioned, advanced through all the rounds, been chosen as a candidate for a trial week with the orchestra, and have been accepted into an orchestra, the audition journey is still not over. When you officially begin playing with the orchestra as a regular member, your probationary period starts. In the BSO, this is a 16-month period of further evaluation for your colleagues, music director, and yourself to get to know one another through musical collaboration on a daily basis. This part of the process is perhaps the most integral part of your audition, and it can showcase your personal preparation, musicality, as well as commitment to making great performances each week. All of this takes place while playing the greatest repertoire with some of the best conductors and musicians in the world.

Auditioning is a stressful and taxing process, but it is an essential step toward being able to enjoy playing music as a career. Truthfully, the best way to prepare for auditions is to jump into the deep end of the audition pool by taking the first one. There can be a steep learning curve, but over time it can be very rewarding as you become familiar with the process, learning something important that improves your playing each time. Having the mental steadfastness to navigate the process is a challenge for everyone – just remember that, as difficult as it may seem, the end result of your hard work and resilience is the joy of being able to play incredible music every day.