How to Win an Orchestra Audition

San Francisco Symphony
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UPDATE 2014: Elina Lev wins the Utah Symphony audition!

5 Proven Steps to Win an Orchestra Audition

Audition List
Elina, Leonardo, Susan

Expert Advice from Violinist Elina Lev and Timpanist Leonardo Soto
Edited by Susan Davis for Ultimate Sheet Music

Winning a job in an orchestra can seem like a daunting task, yet with the right planning it can be done. Here are some helpful and proven tips from two rising stars in the orchestral world, Elina Lev and Leonardo Soto. Both have recently won auditions with the Charlotte Symphony, Elina as Associate Concertmaster and Leonardo as Principal Timpanist. Read the strategies that they use to successfully win auditions.
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Audition List
Audition Ads, click to enlarge

About Orchestra Auditions

Orchestra vacancies are advertised in the International Musician magazine. To receive this publication you must be a member of the American Federation of Musicians (also known as the musician’s union). In addition, orchestras list vacancies on their websites. You can also find out through word of mouth from music teachers or from musicians in the orchestra that has the vacancy.

Judging is done by an audition committee made up of tenured musicians from the orchestra. The committee musicians are from the section which has the vacancy along with players from other sections of the orchestra. The principal conductor of the orchestra may join the audition committee to hear the final stages of the audition.


Audition List
Audition List, click to enlarge

Step 1 – Accumulating the Sheet Music and Recordings (the first two weeks)

According to Elina and Leonardo, the beginning of the audition preparation requires the most work. Both suggest starting the preparation process three or four months before the audition.
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When the audition music list is released you will have to acquire the sheet music, scores and recordings. This may take one to two weeks. One of the inexpensive resources that Elina uses is The Orchestra Musician’s CD-Rom Library. These CD-ROMs contain huge collections of individual orchestra parts for each instrument of the orchestra. You can easily print the excerpts required for the audition. This gives you a clean, unmarked part which has only the composers indications, and you can add your individual fingerings or markings to the part.

An inexpensive resource for full scores is CD Sheet Music. Each CD-ROM contains standard editions of numerous orchestral scores.

YouTube is a good free resource for recordings of professional orchestra performances. Consider using the public library as another free resource for symphonic recordings. Amazon.com is a good place to find multiple recordings of the same piece.

Leonardo and Elina recommend organizing all of the audition sheet music into a folder or notebook and having all of the recordings on an mp3 device or small recorder. When assembled, all of your study materials will be at your fingertips and easily portable.

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Audition List
Timpanist Leonardo Soto

Step 2 – Practicing the Music (the first month)

After you have accumulated the above items, the hours of meticulous practice begin. Both Leonardo and Elina study the scores and individual parts to become familiar with the whole piece of music. They listen to several different recordings of each orchestral excerpt and the whole piece.
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Leonardo classifies his audition music into three levels: A) music he can already play, B) music he knows but must improve, and C) music he doesn’t know. He starts practicing the C excerpts first. His goal is to eventually move the C and B excerpts to the A level.
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To settle on a tempo for an excerpt Leonardo compares different recordings. Using a metronome, he determines the tempo of each recording and calculates the average tempo. This is the tempo he will use for the excerpt, and he writes that metronome marking down in the music at the beginning of the excerpt.

Audition List
Violinist Elina Lev

Elina works on maintaining a sense of relaxed focus as she practices. She thinks of a single word that describes the mood of the excerpt. For instance, is the music joyful, solemn or noble? She writes down this word at the beginning of the excerpt. This “cue word” will help her focus when she performs the excerpt at the audition.
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Elina plays along with recordings to learn the excerpt within the context of the full orchestra. She also suggests that playing with your eyes closed can help you maintain a relaxed focus. Elina memorizes the music so she can play with her eyes closed at the audition.
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Both Leonardo and Elina first learn the music at a slow tempo and then gradually bring the excerpts up to tempo. At the point when they can play the excerpts at the correct tempo, they begin recording themselves.
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One of the recorders Leonardo uses is an inexpensive cassette voice recorder (under $45, Sony TCM 200DV). If he hears something wrong while listening back, he can slow the recording down to half speed to identify exactly what the playing problem is. His goal is to immediately recognize the problem and then fix it in the least amount of time. When he listens back to his playing he listens for A) intonation, B) rhythmic consistency, C) style and dynamics, (are they recognizable in the playback?) and D) the big picture.
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Each time he listens to the playback he writes down notes on a legal pad. He will play, record, listen, write and fix as necessary every day. He also uses a metronome while listening to the playback to see if he has kept a consistent tempo while playing the excerpt. When Elina records herself she listens back for rhythm, intonation, sound quality and musicality in her playing.
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Both Leo and Elina have the same goal in mind with their detailed preparation. They want to know that they have done everything possible to prepare for the audition. This gives them a sense of security and peace of mind.

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Step 3 – Playing for Professionals, Teachers and Mentors (the second month)

After the music is learned, the next step is to play for teachers and respected orchestra professionals seeking their advice. For instance Elina worked with a member of the Boston Symphony, among others. If you aren’t able to afford travel to other cities consider using Skype. Some professionals will coach you over Skype for half price or even for free.
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Play for as many musicians as possible. If you live in a city with a music school you might be able to play in a master class. or you can even play for pros that play a different instrument than you.
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Elina and Leonardo view honest feedback during this step as a wake-up call. Don’t get discouraged. Now is the time to go through tough experiences while among friends BEFORE you spend money going to an audition.
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During this phase you may sometimes get contradictory advice from different coaches. Elina suggests trying to assimilate any contradictory comments by looking at the underlying intent of the comments. For instance, are the conflicting comments simply two different ways to make the piece sound more interesting. If so, then you can decide how to make it more interesting.

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Audition List
Mock Audition

Step 4 – The Mock Audition, the third month (1 – 4 weeks before the audition)

This step of the audition preparation is completely different than the previous steps. Elina and Leonardo call this part “audition practicing” or “performance practicing”. The goal is to play the audition just as you would on audition day. If you get nervous, use the mock audition to practice overcoming nerves. If possible, record these sessions for your own study.
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During this step try to simulate the actual audition process as closely as possible. Schedule friends to hear you play throughout the weeks preceding the audition. All you need is one friend to make this work, so don’t worry about finding a lot of people. Your friend or friends will take the role of the audition committee. Leonardo and Elina play mock auditions EVERY DAY for 1 – 3 weeks before the audition. Elina has even done three a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening for an entire week before an audition! (she won)
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Try to play in large and unfamiliar spaces so you can practice adapting to comparable acoustics of a large concert hall. Bring unmarked sheet music for your friends to follow along, just as the audition committee will be doing. If you have the Orchestra Musician’s CD-ROM Library you can print extra copies of the excerpts. Give your friends pencil and paper to write down comments.
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Tips for the Mock Audition:

  • Wear your audition clothes
  • When you arrive, warm up briefly in the hallway (not in the room of the mock audition)
  • Wait in the hall until your friend calls your number (Example: Number 35 will play next)
  • Walk into the room, don’t speak
  • Have a friend sit in a chair behind you just as the proctor will
  • Tune your instrument
  • Play the excerpts
  • Walk out of the room when you are finished

Gather comments from your friend or friends. Leonardo collects the written comments, reads them later and scans for similar comments. If each person listening has a similar comment then he knows there may be a problem that needs correcting. He listens to the recording he made of the mock audition to confirm.
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As you do more of the mock auditions Elina suggests having your friends try to throw you off by asking you to:

  • Start in the middle of the excerpt
  • Play an excerpt at a different tempo or dynamic
  • Play beyond the exposition of your concerto
  • Have your friends cough or rustle papers while you are playing to distract you

If you know your audition time, hold your mock auditions at that same time of day and adjust your schedule if necessary so you will peak at that time of day.
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The sheet music will be provided on stage, but Leonardo advises to always play off of your own sheet music. He notes that it is an extra stress when playing off of a different part and you want to make it as easy as possible on yourself.
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Elina and Leonardo suggest that if you play more than one mock audition a day, don’t do them back to back. Give yourself time in between by doing one in the morning and one in the evening. In fact, on days when Leonardo does a mock audition he does not play beforehand, instead he shows up and plays the mock audition. This helps him practice walking onto the stage cold and performing at his peak. It also mimics the circumstances of an audition day where there is a lot of waiting around and a limited opportunity to practice before you play.

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Step 5 – At the Audition

In the USA most orchestra auditions are held behind a screen. When you walk onto the stage to play your audition and look into the hall you will see what looks like a large room divider propped up between a row of seats in the middle of the concert hall. The audition committee will be seated behind this screen to prevent them from seeing who you are. Some orchestras even have a carpet runner in place to dampen your footsteps as you walk to the center of the stage.This eliminates any type of discrimination and assures that you are being judged only by the music that you are producing.
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A person called the “proctor” will be on stage with you. The proctor’s job is to help you put your sheet music in order, to help you with your instrument, chair or stand, and to be a neutral observer to make sure the audition is run fairly. If you have a question during the audition, whisper to the proctor. The proctor will then relay your question to the audition committee.
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The audition day may last from early morning until late at night. You may see people you know, but don’t get distracted or intimidated. Plan how you are going to handle the downtime to keep your focus.


Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Orchestra

Conclusion

It takes time and experience to hone your audition chops. Elina says to remember that no one wins every single audition taken, and that no one ever plays a “perfect” audition. Don’t give up if you experience some adversity. Take the tips in this article to heart and outperform the competition at your next orchestra audition!
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Resources

1. The Orchestra Musician’s CD-Rom Library of Sheet Music:

violin •   viola •   cello •   bass •   harp/keyboard
flute •   oboe •   clarinet •   bassoon •   horn
trumpet •   trombone •   tuba •   percussion/timpani

2. Orchestral excerpt sheet music books for all instruments:

Orchestra Excerpts from the Symphonic Repertoire
Test pieces for Orchestral Auditions

3. Full Scores from CD Sheet Music:

Beethoven – contains study scores of all of Beethoven’s orchestral works: every Symphony, Concerto, and Overture – over 1900 pages of music.
Mozart •    Brahms •    Tchaikovsky •    Debussy •    Mahler.



Elina Lev
, Violinist – has played with New World Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. She currently serves as Associate Concertmaster in the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
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Leonardo Soto, Timpanist – has played with the Detroit Opera and currently serves as Principal Timpanist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
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Susan Davis, Cellist and Editor for Ultimate Sheet Music – has served on orchestra audition committees and as proctor at many orchestra auditions.

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