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From Audition To Job Part 2: The Trial

You did it! You passed the audition and you've been given your first patch of work. The dates are in, you've printed of the rep but what happens next?

At music college we focus on the audition which leaves the trial largely an enigma, making it daunting for those who finally get a chance. What are they expecting from you? Do you go up and say hello first? Which part do you practise? Inside or outside? If I bake treats will that help them like me?

In the second part of this series, I'm joined by three of the top orchestral players from UK orchestras*, answering you questions about the mysteries of the trial. Helen Edgar, cellist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2006; Anna Blackmur, section principal with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House since 2015; Maxine Kwok, first violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

So grab your notebook and enjoy part two of From Audition to Job: The Trial!

How long does a usual trial last for and do they keep everyone who initially got the trial until the end, or shed people as they go?

Maxine: A trial can last anywhere from a few weeks up to a few months, usually depending on the availability of all the triallists to come in and play. It can unfortunately be a frustratingly long process especially in large sections, but don’t feel disheartened if your patches of work end up being rather spread out. There can be instances where we may have a section vote to see how the land lies, for example if we have a few people vying for a single job. If a player is deemed unsuitable I think it’s fairer to let the person know sooner rather than later so they can regroup and concentrate on their next steps.

How many players are they usually looking for to put on trial during the auditions?

Helen: In my experience there’s never a set target of numbers. In the trials for different orchestras I’ve done, I’ve been one of 10, of 6, of 3, then that gets whittled down over the weeks/ months/ (years?!) of the trial process. The orchestra wants to give itself the opportunity to find the best possible candidates.

And… sometimes the panel doesn’t give any trials from the auditions.

When I’ve been on a panel, we are looking for wonderful musicians to play with in our section/ orchestra. Don’t let any rumours of numbers to be selected get in your head in the audition. Prepare thoroughly and play with energy in your audition, and then remember that whether you get to the next stage is out of your hands.

What attributes are you looking for in a trialist and can we ask for feedback whilst we're on trial from members of the section?

Maxine: The first thing to remember is that you’ve obviously impressed the panel at the audition with your playing, so try not to be stressed coming in on such a misnomer as a “trial”. See it as more of an opportunity and in reality it’s rather like going on a date - it’s not all about whether we like you, you have to discover if this is a place you want to be too.

That said, you do need to be as prepared as you can be, so be proactive in getting hold of the music (and recordings if you’re not familiar with the works) in plenty of time. Orchestral life, especially in London, tends to be fast paced so the more you can impress with being completely on top of the repertoire at hand the better. It’s likely that your desk partner won’t have had a chance to revise the pieces ahead of the first rehearsal so you can really get a good head start.

It’s ok to ask for feedback but not everyone likes to give it and more importantly bear in mind, if you’re on trial for say a 1st violin job, there could be over a dozen differing opinions which could end up being confusing and not at all helpful. You need to be yourself so I don’t necessarily think it’s helpful to ask, as one person for example, may think you move around too much, and another, not enough! Best to just observe, absorb and adapt to how the section plays and make your contribution, obviously without being a mouse nor sticking out like a sore thumb!

Once you have gained a trial, what do orchestras look for to see if you're the “right fit” in a section? Anna: This is a really good question and one that I wish/hope all panel members for jobs stop to consider, individually and as a group. First of all, the words “right fit” can be quite a big red flag for me. I get the meaning, but it also ventures into the territory that we are looking for "someone like us” to fill a vacancy. Additionally, of course there are nuances to the answer to this, depending on the job for which you are trialling. I see a trial as a period of observing how someone balances the things that make them unique and wonderful as a musician, with the awareness and adjustment needed to function in a new environment. Consciousness, awareness, adaptability - whatever you want to call it - is key. However, it is a common misconception, especially amongst tutti players, that someone needs to adapt their way into invisibility/inaudibility and blend above all else, as this brings up questions of what they are contributing to the section. Blend yes, but be aware of the sound you are a part of, notice the quality of it and your relationship/reaction to it. To some extent this is an instinctive quality in a person, but if it is not then it can develop with experience. A well functioning section is a collection of highly adaptable individuals, not clones. While every section might be slightly different, there are fundamental elements to someone's playing and being that are non-negotiable to make you employable. Good intonation, good sound and everything I wrote above regarding orchestral 'antennae' and flexibility are universally important to one's playing in an orchestra. But it is case by case for everything else; some people or sections value consistency, reliability and proficiency over musical adeptness and intuition. Ideally someone has it all (!) but top of my list are awareness and adaptability and how well people listen in order to make the right decisions themselves before being instructed by me. I will add that wherever you sit, it is always key that you are enjoyable to play with and to be around! It goes both ways though; yes, we are looking for someone with musical and social intelligence, but we can’t expect trialists to be total mind-readers. It’s always fine to ask questions.

Maxine shares the joys of performing with the London Symphony Orchestra on her Instagram @maxinekwok

On someone's first day on trial, what do you hope to see them do?

Maxine: The best thing to do is to find a friendly face and if they can’t help out then they can certainly direct you to the right person. Don’t take a seat until you’ve been directed to a particular desk and don’t worry if there’s a bit of a delay, it’s really not personal, they’re probably working out a seating plan. Don’t forget to bring in any music you might have been sent in case it’s needed and try to be minimal with marking fingerings in the parts. Hopefully people will introduce themselves but if not, being friendly and smiling really goes a long way. Musicians tend to be inquisitive so chances are someone will want to have a chat with you before long so don’t bury yourself in your phone or a book if possible.

If you want to ask questions about something in the music during the rehearsal, judge if you can discreetly ask your desk partner, if it needs more detailed discussion perhaps offer to get a tea for them and initiate a longer chat in the break.

Once in trial, what are your recommendations? What matters the most?

Helen: Be yourself. And have your Orchestral Radar tuned in. Enjoy the experience.

(PS: It's not always about getting the job, it would also be great if it leads to extra work).

The basics:

  • Always have a pencil and a rubber, sharpener, and spares.

  • No practising your party piece concerto in the breaks!

  • Prepare the music thoroughly, do ask for the librarian’s email and they will send you the parts (if you know what it is beforehand), listen to it, find scores on IMSLP.

  • Research the orchestra online or perhaps hear them live if possible. What work does the orchestra do? Is it all on the concert platform/recording studio/community?

“ Fitting in”

I don’t like those words, personally, but much is made of them.

I can share with you my own experience:

One of my first trials I wanted it so badly, I became riddled with nerves to the extent I could barely put bow on the string, I was so worried about sticking out. Funnily enough I didn’t get that job, why pay for silence!

My next trial I had a word with myself and decided I should probably contribute to the sound and realised you can be a strong player in a section, indeed it’s vital; often conductors ask for more sound from the back. Just keep your radar on so you are blending well. Back to checking your bow strokes are matching, sometimes fingerings too, just like in a quartet, then the section gains with your presence. Which is of course the idea!

Have you ever had to change anything about yourself to try and fit in with your potential future colleagues while on trial? Or was this a sign that it wasn’t the right place for you? Anna: Changing something about yourself and adapting to a new environment are perhaps two ways of looking at the same thing. If it feels you are fundamentally “changing yourself” then perhaps there are questions to be considered about your own approach to the orchestral environment. It is possible, healthy even, to be a conscious and flexible musician whilst retaining your innate sense of ‘self’ as an artist. As a principal 2nd, I find it a very important aspect to be open to these things. It brings me huge enjoyment on the whole to serve a concertmaster and bring out the best in them. Although sometimes I have to adapt more and try harder, if someone's playing doesn't feel natural to me, it's up to me to find a way, because that will affect how well the string section functions and thrives. In a section that really works within itself and compliments the orchestra, the no 2 needs to serve their principal in this way, and the second desk to the front etc. This pattern needs to follow throughout the section.

At the same time, in leading a section of 14, I must retain my individual musicianship and collaborate with the other string principals; so to retain this essence is crucial. It’s always good to pick up different styles of playing and vary your style of music-making, but there needs to be enough appeal to inspire you to learn more from them. Whilst on trial, it was so apparent that the ROH had really solid players at the front and despite being an opera orchestra, there was something very substantial in the sound that didn’t just say ‘we accompany singers’ but ‘we have our own voice’ which appealed to me and my playing from the beginning. So in short, yes, but in a way that you can still be yourself.

Back in the pit after two years for Figaro @rohorchestra shows the fun side to life in this famous pit

What would be your advice if you're struggling with your desk partner when on trial?

Helen: A trialist will rarely be with just one desk partner on a trial, you will either be moved seats frequently, (possibly twice or more in a rehearsal day or do half a concert on the front desk so all the section can play with you), or you may be put on a set seat and the section will keep swapping seats to sit with you.

So it’s unlikely you will be with just one person for the duration.

Each player in the section is a different personality of course. Remember we’re primarily looking for a future colleague, a musician we are very happy to play with and to be inspired by for, potentially, decades. We're not looking for a best friend, and you might think you’re being ignored if someone isn’t particularly smiley or chatty or seemingly lost in thought. Keep focusing on the music, section leader, conductor, whole ensemble. Concentrate on matching your bow strokes with first your desk partner and then rest of section, same with amount of vibrato, observe how this orchestra likes to do pizzicato…..Keep your radar tuned in.

While for you this trial may be the most exciting, nerve racking, career changing moment, your desk partner may have just got to work after a stressful school run, travel nightmare, dead goldfish incident.

You will have turned up super early, prepared, warmed up, ready for action, ready to show your best self. The orchestra may have just returned from a gruelling tour and their minds and energy may appear to be elsewhere. Don’t worry or take this personally.

( I remember on day one for me on trial with a new orchestra, my desk partner had literally come straight from the airport after a 24 hour flight from Australia so was very sleepy and apologetic that they weren’t on their best form.)

Be interested in them, using the orchestra’s website you might see that a certain musician loves teaching, performing, educational workshops, breeding Guinea pigs. Gently find a way of developing a conversation, but don’t stress if it’s not forthcoming (or sound like you’ve been stalking them!)

Possible areas to check your desk partner is happy:

  • Page turns: everyone likes this differently, personally I read far ahead, others like a late turn. Use your wordless radar initially but you can always check in with them if they’re ok with when you’re turning.

  • Writing in part: Try only put in fingerings in an emergency, and do always check first with desk partner if it’s ok. Other people's fingerings can be really off putting. Some orchestras have systems that outside players write on top, inside underneath, but I'd suggest unless you really need it, avoid.

  • Marking bowings on parts: be very neat. No crossings out, always have a good rubber.

  • Do pass messages to desks behind you quickly and quietly.

Please avoid big rings on the music.. circling a dynamic may be what you did in your sonatas or in youth orchestras but generally not helpful in a section. Be mindful the next time the orchestra plays the piece with a different interpretation they don’t want to be rubbing out loads of markings as it interrupts the rehearsal flow.

And finally, you can learn something from each member of the section you sit with, so look for that and become a sponge.

How much importance do you place on your interactions with the trialist outside of strictly rehearsal/performance time? Eg during breaks and social situations?

Anna: I think that this certainly is an important aspect; we spend a lot of time with our colleagues, because we spend a lot of our life at work! Of course, the most important thing is your playing. However, it is important when working with so many other people as we do, and making music together in such an intense and pressured way, that we are able to communicate well with colleagues on and off the desk. I’d say this falls under social intelligence too. Perhaps find a trusted person to ask if you have questions about a particular scenario. Certain sections have more unwritten codes of practice, in terms of cups of tea in the break etc, but as a string player I think one is aiming to strike an atmosphere of comfort/ease at your desk; depending on the person, this could mean very little small-talk or, on the other hand, spending breaks and having meals together. If that awareness doesn’t come naturally to you, then it is probably not an issue confined to orchestral work. Do your research too: learn names through the website and research what repertoire has been on recently. In short, show an interest.

Can you spot Helen? The mighty CBSO cello section

So there we have it. Be considerate of your desk partner, soak up everything you can but most importantly don't change yourself to fit what you think they're looking for!

But before we go, what is Helen, Maxine and Anna's one parting piece of advice for you future trialists?

Helen: Prepare prepare prepare, especially the excerpts. Know them thoroughly, backwards, upside down, inside out. It is easy now to find recordings with YouTube, Spotify etc and use IMSLP or libraries to get most full scores. Some excerpts will be particular to an orchestra, but most are the usual ones.

Hear the orchestra parts as you play, and focus on rhythm.

I wish I'd realised sooner as an auditionee, the panel are not sitting there waiting for mistakes. They are wanting you to relax to be able to play your best and demonstrate the interesting and fantastic musician you are, and are looking forward to playing with you. Go for it!

Maxine: Play your excerpts through with a metronome as much as you can before the day. An audition can be stressful with adrenaline causing tempi mishaps in the heat of the moment so really grounding yourself having practised solidly in this way will undoubtedly lend some stability in a pressured environment. Be sure to allow enough time to arrive at your audition so you can feel as relaxed as possible, and finally… Remember the panel really want you to do well so try to see the experience as positive rather than anything scary!

Anna: The most important thing is preparation and within this, really ensure you listen to all the excerpts and give each one its appropriate character/sound/tempi for the piece and composer. Also play to as many people as possible; this cannot be underestimated.

Psychologically, auditions are tricky, and I would say if possible, try not to be too busy around your audition day. It is very important to be in the right frame of mind on the day itself, so invest time into beneficial exercises, for body and mind. Make it your world for those weeks/months. You can never be over prepared.


Thank you so much to my three brilliant guests this week! What have been your experiences on trial? Do you feel like this article cleared a few things up for you? Let me and my panellists know by commenting below or spreading the word on social media #fromauditiontojob

Make sure you tune in for the last part in the series, as we hear first hand from our own colleagues in the early stages of their first job.

From Audition To Job Part 3: The Job Wednesday 8th June @ 10:30 BST

Until next time,

* Disclaimer: all the views expressed in this article are the individual's alone and not on behalf of their orchestras

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