July 2011

Anatomy of an orchestra audition

Part of my job at the opera is to coordinate orchestra auditions when vacancies arise. Openings in the ensemble occur for lots of reasons: musicians move, retire, or get jobs whose schedules conflict with ours. Sometimes people get injured and need a few years off to recover. (Repetitive-stress musician injuries, which are not uncommon, are maybe something to touch upon in a future post).

the process (behind the scenes)

Most of the audition scheduling process takes place at the beginning of the opera season. Auditions are typically on the calendar as few as three and as many as seven or eight months in advance. On average, we hold 2-3 orchestra auditions each season.

Two months before the audition date, we release the audition excerpt list. Each candidate for an audition, whether it's for violin or harp or bass trombone, is required to play a solo (ordinarily from a concerto in the standard repertoire), followed by 3-10 orchestral excerpts. These excerpts come primarily from operas, although on occasion we request common excerpts from other sources, such as symphonies or oratorios. The excerpts vary in style, so that those musicians who are listening to the audition can hear how well-rounded the player is. Can she play softly and loudly? Does he have good technique, good tone, good intonation? How is this person's rhythm?

When the excerpt list is released, a notice is posted in the musicians' union newsletter, as well as on our website. Musicians who are interested in the audition send me their resume and a refundable deposit, and receive the packet of excerpts. Then they practice!

Meanwhile, our orchestra committee nominates musicians to sit on the audition panel. The audition panel is comprised of musicians from our orchestra: three principals, a non-principal member of the section in question (violin, harp, bass trombone, etc!), and a member of an adjacent section. An adjacent section to violin, for example, would be viola; for bass trombone it would be tuba or trumpet. These panelists agree to spend a day (or more) listening to auditions.

the nerve-wracking audition day

On audition day, all the audition candidates arrive first thing in the morning, draw numbers to settle the order in which they will audition, and begin to warm up. On the other end of the building, the audition panel arrives. They look over the audition packet and discuss what excerpts they'd like to hear. Auditions usually consist of two rounds: a preliminary round and a final round. After the final round, a winner is declared. (Very occasionally, the audition panel requests a third round in order to have one last shot at hearing the finalists).

Orchestra auditions are blind. This means that a dark curtain stands between the audition panel and the audition candidate. The panelists and the candidate can't see one another, which ensures that the panel will choose a candidate based on his/her musicianship and not based on the candidate's appearance, or his relationship to the panel. To ensure absolute anonymity, the audition candidates are not supposed to talk or in any way vocalize during the audition. We even pad the hardwood floor so as to mask the sound of shoes. (Why? Because the click of heels could, for example, indicate that the candidate is a woman).

The blind nature of the auditions means that the candidates need a go-between in case they have a question or concern in the middle of the audition. This go-between is known as the audition proctor -- my job. The proctor escorts each candidate from the warm-up to the audition room, announces the number of the candidate to the audition panel (since the panelists obviously cannot be known by name!), and sits just inside the audition room door. If an audition goes smoothly, the proctor sits through the audition as an impartial body in the room, and escorts the candidate out once the audition is over. If the candidate has a question about an excerpt, or has played an excerpt poorly and wants a do-over, she raises her hand. The proctor approaches, the candidate whispers the question, and the proctor serves as the candidate's advocate, addressing the panel with the question or concern.

After all candidates have played the preliminary round, the audition panel discusses what they've heard and votes to decide who they will pass to the finals. The musicians who are chosen as finalists stay to play a second time; the others are excused. The final round operates as the first round did, with the panel choosing, perhaps, a new variety of excerpts from the list. At the end of the round, they vote on a winner.

audition tips from behind the curtain

-- The panel can tell if a musician isn't familiar wih the piece they're playing. Some stylistic things are tradition, but aren't printed on the page. An experienced opera musician will know these traditions, but if you're not yet an experienced opera musician, here's what you do: go to your local library and check out 5 different recordings of the piece, and listen, listen, listen.

-- Don't: audibly tap your foot or hum while you're playing. Even if you think no one will be able to hear it. (They can.) (And yes, this happens all the time.)

-- Dress well, even though the audition is blind, because if you win the audition, the panel will want to meet you. I've seen sweatpants in auditions.

-- In fact, do all those things that you'd do for a standard job interview, since that's what this is! Proof-read your resume, arrive on time, and be gracious.

-- Double-check those rhythms. Seriously.

from the proctor's perspective

Auditions are terrifying. There is the occasional musician who seems to blow into an audition with ease, like they were born doing it, but that person is the exception. Even the finest and most experienced musicians arrive on audition morning like kids at their first school play. This nervousness is catching. In my very first auditions as proctor, I spent the entire day feeling like I was going to be sick.

Nerves do funny things to people. Musicians whom I know to be kind and friendly in day-to-day life turn sullen or snappish; ordinarily laid-back people demand a bigger practice room. In the audition room, strange things happen: despite having the order of the required excerpts attached to the music stand, I could win money by betting that at least one candidate, and usually more, will play their audition in the wrong order. People will sit and look at me blank-faced when they are excused from the audition. I once had a candidate stop and drink a sip from her water bottle every two lines in the middle of her solo.

With that in mind, I believe the proctor's number one responsibility is to be kind, considerate, and calm to the audition candidates, who sometimes just need somebody to smile and say, "It's okay! Take a deep breath before you go in, you're going to be great." I understand that all this wonky behavior is just nervousness on display. Inside the audition room, I try to sit in my seat without fidgeting, for fear of distracting the musician in the middle of their solo. And when the musician, walking back down the hall after the audition is over, inevitably says, "Well, I really botched that one," I always say -- quite sincerely -- "Everyone today has said that same thing."

Some other interesting takes on auditions:

Notes from an orchestra audition master class, from violinist.com

More on the audition process, from the point of view of a bassoonist.

San Antonio Symphony's president on how this audition process has changed over the years.