From that first orchestral audition to finally taking your seat as a permanent member of an orchestra, it's reassuring to be equipped with the best bits of advice from those in the top seats.
As a blog specifically for young professionals trying to find their path through this musical jungle, it would feel so wrong if we didn't finish this fantastic series celebrating our peers who have just accepted their first professional contracts!
I am beyond thrilled to be joined for Part 3: The Job by Richard Thomas, second violinist with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Owen Nicolaou, double bassist with the Philharmonia and Iona Allan, first violinist with the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast.*
Richard Thomas, second violinist, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO)
Prepare to within an inch of your life, then go in and show them what you’ve got
- Rosie Biss WNO
Richard is currently coming to the end of his fixed-term contract with the CBSO which he began in January, before starting a trial he originally auditioned for back in 2019.
'Way back before the pandemic, I auditioned for tutti second with the CBSO and was offered trials for both tutti and sub principal', Richard explains. After a few patches which included a tour with the orchestra, Richard didn’t get the sub principal position. Instead, he was offered a fixed-term tutti contract with the orchestra to help fill tutti vacancies before the re-advertising of jobs; something he later remarked as being 'the best Christmas present I could have asked for'!
This unique experience has taught Richard a lot about the journey from audition to job: 'The orchestra are really very friendly and love to welcome and chat with the new faces around the building. Always go for coffee! It’s just as important to get to know the people you’re playing with as it is to play well', Richard says, agreeing with many of this series’ panel members.
'My first week with the orchestra was Sibelius Symphony No. 2 which I hadn’t played since my youth orchestra days. It was so much fun and particularly reassuring beginning with a symphony I already knew'.
Echoing the advice voiced by another CBSO member, Helen Edgar; preparation is something Richard found critical, especially within the early months of his contract. 'It took me a long time to feel settled. I was surrounded by all of these amazing players playing repertoire that was completely new to me, which many had been performing for years. I had to do a lot of practice in order to keep up. Five months in and I find myself learning things much quicker and I’m less reliant on additional fingerings'.
'In the beginning, I think the biggest thing I had to remember was that they are just normal people. As music students, we went to concerts and viewed the professionals as almost godlike, presuming they were a cut above the rest. But actually, after they’ve performed phenomenally, they go home, do the hoovering, do their washing up - rinse and repeat if you’ll excuse the pun'.
For Richard, when asked for his piece of advice for the article, he was humbly stumped. As someone about to start a new trial, giving out advice didn’t seem like something one should do. But after explaining having to get to grips with the subtle differences in orchestral markings between Ireland and England, Richard shifted to the dynamic between you and your desk partner.
'There is something to be said for making chamber music with your desk partner though. In the beginning I was so focused on myself, making sure I was doing everything correctly. If you start to develop some non-verbal communication between you and your desk partner, that can really be a brilliant way to feel more at ease when coming in for a patch and it incorporates a certain level of chamber music and team work too. I think that would be my advice.’
Owen Nicolaou, double bassist, The Philharmonia
‘A trial can last anywhere from a few weeks up to a few months, usually depending on the availability of all the trialists to come in and play.’
- Maxine Kwok LSO
Double bassist with the Philharmonia, Owen Nicolaou started his trial back in 2019. He finally accepted the position three years later in January 2022.
Performing with the orchestra, originally as a recipient of the Philharmonia’s MMSF Instrumental Fellowship Programme in 2018, Owen noticeably felt the impact of the pandemic on the concert scene: ‘My trial was really lovely. The double bass section are really friendly and welcoming. But because it was only at the beginning of this year we still weren’t up to our full pre-pandemic concert diary; concerts were a lot more sporadic than say the 2018-19 schedule I'd experienced whilst on the programme. It actually became in some ways a nice ramp up to being busy.’ Owen's contract began with a tour in Tenerife one of the orchestra's first tours after the lockdowns.
Interestingly for a series determined to eradicate the scary stories we’re told as music students; it was these very conservatoire folklores that help drive Owen throughout his trial. ‘Older students had told me that trials could last a really long time in London, with anecdotes of trials lasting 5+ years!’ Owen remembered, ‘I was also told that if you were late or played a wrong note your trial would be over. That’s clearly an exaggeration, but it instilled good discipline and pushed me to make sure I never dropped the ball.’
Like Richard and many other of our guests, Owen is quick to highlight the importance of bringing more to the trial than just your music: ‘Buy the section tea and coffee too during the breaks.’ Easier for a smaller double bass section but the similar can be done even in the rest of the strings. ‘You have to remembered you’re presenting a whole package: A musician that’s on time, has prepared their music well but is ultimately a human being too!’
Iona Allan, first violinist, Ulster Orchestra
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
- Anna Blackmur ROH
Back in 2019, Iona was one of the first people I interviewed for The Graduate Interviews. She was just about to embark on her trial with Ulster and three years later, it's fantastic to have our first full circle interview from audition to job:
'Going through a trial process in any orchestra is always bound to be a challenge and test on how to navigate a new environment, but it becomes even more daunting when you don’t know ANYONE in the orchestra. This was definitely the thing I found most difficult when starting my trial with the Ulster Orchestra in 2019.
Ever since I joined my first youth orchestra as a child, I’ve always known at least one or two people in any orchestra I played with. The music world is small and the longer you’re in it, the smaller it gets. However, I found myself somehow not knowing anybody in the Ulster Orchestra. I had to find the courage to be bold and introduce myself and try to create new working relationships. It was tricky as I didn’t know exactly who in the orchestra was on my trial panel and didn’t want to appear like I was sucking up to anyone.
I also felt the members of the orchestra weren’t entirely sure how friendly they could be without giving me a false sense of hope so there was definitely hesitation from both sides. I learnt to not take it personally and just go into each rehearsal with a smile and positive attitude but not expect to be becoming best friends! I had to be ready to sit in just about any seat of the violins (except the leader’s of course!) and not be afraid.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given, which I continually reminded myself of throughout this trial, was to play out and play with confidence. The first time I played in a professional orchestra on an internship scheme (Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia), my mentor told me that their extra players rarely play out enough and are often too quiet and/or timid. I realised in order to be a valuable member of any violin section, I had to be an equal contributor, not just someone hiding in the background.
I’m so looking forward to starting my new job with the Ulster Orchestra in August. I’m especially excited for our performance at the BBC Proms! What a way to start! Already I’ve noticed many members of the orchestra relax more around me and people have been incredibly friendly and welcoming now that it’s all official.
I am still struggling to get out of the freelancers mentality of trying to do every gig humanly possible and I still fully intend on keeping up some of my freelance work alongside this job. The wonderful thing is I now have the luxury of security which means I can choose to do only the extra things that I REALLY want to do.
Making your way through this gruelling circuit can be tough but I hope this series has helped shed some light on what the panel and orchestra are looking for. Dispelling the myths and horror stories we've heard through our studies (except if you're Owen and they've helped)!
It feels great to be able to end this series celebrating the successes of our own colleagues so congratulations to Richard, Owen and Iona!
Want to share you're own success? Maybe you've just received your first job offer and want to share it with likeminded musicians? Drop me a line or comment below and we'll help you celebrate!
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Join me again next time where we'll be delving into the minds of the music critic. Whilst musician's strive to break boundaries and reassess tradition through concert dress, repertoire and the traditional concert format - what role does the music critic play in getting our message across?
Until next time,
* Disclaimer: all the views expressed in this article are the individual's alone and not on behalf of their orchestras