Dear Unsuccessful Auditionee:
“So what do they want, anyway?” you ask. Well, probably what everyone wants: rock-solid rhythm, a nice sound, near-perfect intonation, at least a modicum of dynamics, natural musicality, and that extra “something” that will grab their (and the audience’s) attention. But that doesn’t make you feel any better, does it?
I’ve only taken a handful of auditions myself, but I’ve heard many thousands. Most have been for positions in professional orchestras, although many have involved students or amateur adults. The specifics of each situation vary, of course, but there are a few general observations I could make. Perhaps they’ll help you.
The first basic (though sad) fact is that there are simply not enough jobs to accommodate all the people who want to make their living playing in an orchestra. They may not have told you that quite so bluntly in music school, and even if they did, you probably figured they were talking about everyone but you. To make matters worse, there’s the question of ego. Nobody can get up on a stage without one; but an audition means putting your ego on the line, and it takes psychic balance to risk rejection. After all, unless you’re the only one auditioning, the numerical odds of winning range from merely abysmal to impossible.
It takes three things to succeed as a musician: talent, luck and hard work. Unfortunately, the hard work is the only part of the equation over which you have control, and it’s also the one that seems to bedevil many auditionees. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure you broke your neck preparing for that last audition; so do most people. The problem is knowing how to prepare in a highly self-critical way without destroying your confidence.
Hours of solitary practice are a given, but it’s just as important to play for a lot of other people before the audition, because you’ll lose at least ten percent of what you’ve practiced to nerves. Play mock auditions for any well-intentioned person who’ll listen, not just for colleagues who play your instrument. If you’re a flutist, for instance, play for a cellist, a percussionist or (gasp!) a conductor. Sometimes, their general impression will be more helpful than that of someone who intimately understands your instrument’s special quirks and pitfalls.
Auditioning involves different skills from solo or ensemble playing, and many music schools don’t teach them. This leads to a common mistake: not preparing the excerpts as thoroughly as the concerto or solo piece. Violinists seem especially prone to this one. Remember that the job is playing Don Juan, not Paganini Caprices. You’re asked for a solo piece so the committee can get a general idea of how you play; the serious listening often starts when it’s time for the excerpts.
Winston Churchill once said “...democracy is the worst for of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” The same is true of auditions. Orchestras have made Herculean efforts to make auditions fairer. In the old days, conductors auditioned and hired musicians on their own, with absolute authority. If the conductor knew his business, the results could be fine, even spectacular. But not all conductors were, or are, equally adept at judging auditions and a bad decision can take years and considerable pain on all sides to undo. Our current system of screens, committees and weighted votes can be exasperatingly cumbersome, but it has the virtue of ensuring that everyone—conductor, orchestra and management—has a stake in the winner’s success.
Of course, a fair process doesn’t mean you’ll like the result. Conductors and audition committees make highly subjective decisions, so it’s futile to waste time and energy trying to psych out how to impress them. And, sadly, occasionally their decision hinges on someone on the committee having had a fight with their spouse on the way out the door. So just be yourself and play the way you play. Even if you could disguise your true personality--musical or otherwise--the real you will come out when you’re on the job.
Finally, don’t drive yourself crazy because auditions seem to have nothing to do with music. A job, in and of itself, never made anyone completely happy. Strong interpersonal relationships and interests outside of music will not only help keep things in perspective, but will actually make you a better musician. Besides, everyone has experienced not getting something they thought they wanted, only to find something better or more appropriate down the road.
A Concerned Conductor
PS: One more thing: Eat right and get a good night’s sleep before your next audition. And don’t forget to breathe.
2001, revised 2019