How did we get here?
Audition process explained
(by Jeremy Kurtz)

It comes as a surprise to many people that musicians often move long distances to become a part of a symphony orchestra. What surprises people further is to hear that winning a job in a top-class symphony is highly competitive—similar to gaining a job in professional sports.

So how does this all work?

When the San Diego Symphony (or any other major orchestra) has a vacancy, they advertise in the International Musician, the national musicians’ union paper, which is published once a month. Often, there are only a handful of available positions in living-wage ensembles each year for any given instrument. While there may be more opportunities for instruments that play in large sections, such as violin, there are other instruments, such as the harp or tuba, that only have one position per orchestra. Vacancies for these instruments are few and far between. Compare the scarcity of positions with the number of graduates from music programs each year, plus the number of musicians who freelance or are looking to move to a better symphony; you will begin to understand why it is not unusual for 150 people to audition for a single position.

Once a position is advertised, applicants send in their resumes. Some orchestras may invite only the most experienced and qualified musicians to auditions. Others may ask for tapes and screen applicants in that manner. In the San Diego Symphony, although we may send a letter to unqualified applicants discouraging them from attending our auditions (after the audition committee has reviewed their tapes), we have never prevented anyone wishing to audition from doing so.

The List:

Those musicians who have applied are sent a list of music to prepare for the audition. This list is made up predominantly of orchestral excerpts—short selections of different pieces from the standard symphonic repertoire that reveal different aspects of technical and musical ability, as well as understanding of styles from different time periods. The candidates may also be asked to prepare short solos or a movement from a standard concerto for their instrument.

Getting There:

A day or two before the audition, the candidates begin to arrive. People who live nearby might drive to the audition; but most candidates fly to the audition city—at their own expense. It can be quite an ordeal to fly with a fragile and/or bulky instrument, particularly since security guidelines have become stricter in recent years. Violinists and violists, as well as wind and brass players of smaller instruments can sometimes take their instruments as carry-on. To protect their instruments, cellists must buy an extra ticket so their cello has a seat on the airplane. Double bassists and tuba players have to put their instruments in large flight cases and check them with the luggage—often for extra fees, not to mention the fear for their instrument’s safety!

All of these costs, plus hotel expenses, can really begin to add up for auditionees. When you consider that people may take many auditions before they win their first position (10-20 is not unusual), you begin to see that it’s all quite an investment.

The Big Day:

Several candidates are scheduled per hour. They arrive at the concert hall an hour or so before their audition time so that they have time to warm up. Sometimes candidates are given their own room to practice in, and sometimes everyone has to warm up in the same room. (The latter have been nicknamed “cattle call” auditions.)

About 30 minutes before their audition time, candidates are given the list of excerpts that have been chosen for the first round of the audition. This list is often short—maybe four or five excerpts of a minute or two in length.

The Committee:

Audition committee composition and audition procedures vary from orchestra to orchestra. A typical committee might be made up of ten musicians from the symphony, generally including various principal musicians as well as musicians from the section of the instrument being auditioned. The music director (conductor) usually joins them for the final round of the audition.

In the preliminary round of the audition, the committee usually sits behind a screen so that they cannot see the candidates. This practice is in place to prevent discrimination by gender, race, or anything else that does not have to do with the candidate’s ability to play their instrument well. The candidates cannot speak to the committee, and they even walk out on a long carpet so that the committee cannot guess anything about them by the sound of their footsteps.

The Audition:

The auditions in the preliminary round often last only a few minutes. This is not only because of the exceptionally high standards expected, but also because the large number of musicians that must be heard. The committee listens for good rhythm, intonation, style, and musicality. If the committee would like to hear anything played in a different manner, they can ask the candidate to repeat a selection, with or without specific instructions. They then vote on whether to advance the candidate to the second round.

The second round may or may not be behind a screen, and the committee requests more selections—about 5 to 10 minutes of music. They vote again on each candidate, and those who pass play once more. There are usually between 7 to 15 people in the second round.

The final round is generally performed without a screen, so that the candidate can have a stronger sense of performing for people (rather than for a blank screen), and the committee can observe how the candidates carry themselves. There are generally only 3 or 4 people left in the finals. The audition committee may take considerable time listening to the finalists—often 20 or 25 minutes each.

At the end of the day (or days, if there are many candidates) the committee has hopefully decided on a candidate they can hire. Some orchestras will invite two or three finalists to play a trial week with the orchestra so that they can be observed “in action.” Sometimes the committee is not satisfied with any candidate, and decides not to hire anyone.

It is a grueling process, but it is also a wonderful feeling to hear the personnel manager announce after a 12-hour day, “We would like to hire you!”

The next time you watch the symphony, think for a moment that it is made up of individuals who, one at a time, have persevered (and/or suffered!) through this process, and who have earned the privilege to be part of a great symphony orchestra.