Oh the joys of the audition circuit... Typing "musical chairs" into your browser (who are we kidding, it's saved as a favourite!), scrolling through the list, calculating audition costs, scratching your head at your CV asking family and housemates "does this look right to you?" and praying the excerpts come in good time - preferably including all our favourites! But when it gets to the real thing, what do they really want? Are we even remotely in the ballpark?
Well luckily for you, I've lined up some of the best professionals our orchestras' have to offer. These pros have seen your questions and are giving you a completely unfiltered* inside scoop on what they're looking for from the other side of the table.
Joining us for part one of this three part series exploring the journey from audition to job, are three principals well versed in the joy of audition panels. Rosie Biss, principal cellist of the Welsh National Opera since 2010 and teacher at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama; Chris Hart, principal trumpet of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra since 2016; Matt Glendening, principal clarinettist with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House since 2020.
So grab your notebook, or just give us a cheeky bookmark next to musical chairs and enjoy part one of From Audition to Job: The Audition!
Does it help to have lessons with principals or members of the orchestra before you audition?
Matt: I’m sure everyone can agree that seeking feedback is an important part of being a musician and is hopefully something that continues throughout your career. I am so very grateful to various teachers / mentors / friends who helped me prepare for auditions and without whom I would never have got to where I am. I would encourage everyone to seek a diverse range of opinions, as it’s the best way to work out how you really want to play audition material.
All that said, in the immediate run up to an audition I think it’s important to not lose sight of how YOU want to play the excerpts and to value your own instincts just as highly as anyone else’s. I find an overload of feedback too close to the day can be overwhelming, and actually by then it’s a good idea to be fairly convinced of how you want to do things. Of course, you always want to keep an element of spontaneity in a performance, but for orchestral excerpts in an audition – it can be helpful to have a sort of ‘game plan’. It’s a pretty unnatural performance environment, and I’m a bit worried if anyone doesn’t find them even a bit daunting! One of my profs once said to me ‘you should try to make your excerpts invincible.’ A bit of a strange way to think about it but then auditions are pretty strange…
Running the audition in front of friends is helpful, to emulate that slightly heightened nervous feeling of the audition day. You get a sense of the pacing and stamina by doing this, and can practice quickly capturing the style and atmosphere of each excerpt. I would usually try run the audition every day in the week before and prioritise that over more detailed work. I suppose it’s like doing reps at the gym… not that I would know.
Chris: I like to think it wouldn't influence me [if I'd had a lesson with auditioned] as we are obliged to go on what we hear in the audition, but I suppose you would receive some insight into the kind of style that the principal will be looking for. Bear in mind it's obvious if someone comes for a lesson just as a pre-cursor to an audition rather than because they're genuinely interested in what the person has to say. Instead, I would go and have lessons with musicians you admire before you do the audition, no matter where (or even what) they play. You need to spend your 10 or 15 minutes in the spot-light showing off your all-round musicianship, so go and see those who will inspire that in you.
Should we apply for auditions we aren't sure we would take if offered the job? Rosie: Yes!
I think whist some have their “ideal job” in mind, that’s often based on limited experience, or knowledge of what’s actually out there. I’ve always been a believer in throwing the net out as wide as possible and seeing what options there may be, and where you fit. The audition/ trial process in the UK is generally pretty slow, and life changes quickly. People are cautious to apply for jobs away from their geographical comfort zone, and consequently miss out on wonderful music making that happens “everywhere else”.
Are you looking for more than just accuracy during an audition? Does someone's personality or musicality influence your decision?
Chris: Of course we're looking for more than accuracy - it's a great starting point but there is so much more to someone's music making than how spotlessly they can play. How do they sound? How do they phrase? Do they know what they want to say with an excerpt?
Candidates can sometimes sacrifice the soul of the music in favour of not knocking anything over. Someone's musicality definitely affects the decision of a panel for the reasons I've mentioned but it's harder to define with someone's personality.
If someone comes into the room who is obviously relaxed and at ease with the situation (as much as you can be) then the panel will more likely feel like they're about to have a good 15 minutes or so. You can glean certain aspects of someone's personality from a short audition so don't be afraid to be yourself, the panel will appreciate seeing the person behind the instrument.
Also, remember that the panel always wants you to do well in your audition.
Should we change how we play an excerpt depending on the room and acoustics?
Chris: For trumpet players, I would say yes to a small extent in terms of dynamics. If your audition is in a larger space you can feel free to open up your sound to show that you're capable of that, but even more importantly you can show off how quietly you can play, and if it's a small room try not to blow the panel through the wall. I wouldn't change anything else about your audition, the panel needs to know that you have researched the proper tempi for different excerpts in the pad. You can show that you make a beautiful sound and have solid intonation and rhythm whether you're playing in a shoebox or the Albert Hall.
Should you play excerpts in an audition as if you were playing with the section or more as a soloist? Matt: Good question!
The concerto movement (or solo piece) at the beginning of an audition is a great chance to showcase soloistic playing – things like sound quality and flexibility, projection, imagination and technical proficiency. Particularly if it’s a principal audition projection is key – both in terms of sound and musical ideas. The panel will have a good idea of your playing from the very first phrases.
Obviously, excerpts will largely be big orchestral solos so will need to be played with a similar level of projection. However there’s perhaps more need to be sensitive to what else is going on in the orchestra too as you’re playing. The nerdier you can get about understanding the context of the excerpt and getting to know the score the better.
Useful things to consider –
What comes directly before or after an excerpt and does that set up or leave a certain kind of sound / character?
What other instruments are playing and how that affects the sound you might choose to make.
The thickness of the texture and the register – perhaps you might need to project more in the low register given what else is going on.
The harmony and how that directs the phrasing
Anything in the score that is dictating a clear pulse
My favourite soloists have a great appreciation of what else is going on and how that effects their interpretation, while also being able to sustain the projection (even in pp bits) at all times… and I think that’s also what I’d want to hear in an audition.
As cellist's, why are we asked specifically for Haydn? and Are their specific things you are looking for in the different concertos? Are you looking for things in the Dvorak that you don't look for in the Schumann for example?
Rosie: Haydn is a real leveller. When you’re listening to, maybe 20 cellists in a day of auditions, it makes it much easier to compare if they’re all playing the same repertoire. There’s nowhere to hide in Haydn- if your intonation isn’t centred, or articulation sloppy, it’s immediately clear to the listener.
In the Romantic concertos, I’m looking for an understanding of musical language and style, flexibility of sound and technical approach. I wouldn’t say there are specific things I look for in any of the works we ask for. You need a technique which is developed enough to play the repertoire successfully, musically and expressively!
Have you ever made a mistake in an audition and still been asked to the next round or for a trial?
Matt: Yes! It’s easy to fixate on small mistakes and forget about your overall performance. An audition is a pretty high-pressure scenario so mistakes are to be expected. Panels will tend to be sympathetic to that, especially if you don’t let it affect the rest of your performance and you were trying to pull off something risky and intensely musical.
That said, I think two things can reduce the chances. They’re not ground-breaking but I often have to remind myself of them in the run-up and on the day of an audition.
The first is proper preparation. It’s an obvious things to say, but the best auditions I have done have been the ones I have prepared really well – to the point where it almost seems overkill. It doesn’t always feel like rewarding work putting the hours and focus in, but I think it gives us the absolute best chance of performing well on the day. I would start preparing as early as possible so that this didn’t feel too overwhelming. Quality of practice is important too - if your mind is elsewhere, it’s probably best to call it a day.
In general, what aspect of a person's playing do you tend to pay attention to the most? Is it their sound, their articulation, their understanding of the music, etc? Rosie: I’m afraid it’s the whole package! Definitely for me, the most noticeable thing that makes a candidate stand out is a wonderful sound- but a wonderful sound with dodgy intonation, or splashy off the string playing isn’t going to progress to trial. We look for the complete deal- essentially someone that we want to spend the next umpteen years playing with every day. A beautifully sensitive musician, with great technical ability!
Wow! A huge thank you to Rosie, Matt and Chris for that invaluable advice. To have such candid, honest replies to some of our most burning questions was really helpful. But before you go...
The parting piece of advice from Rosie Biss:
"Trust your fingers, and go for it! Auditions can be hugely stressful, but remember that everyone on your panel has gone through it and knows how it feels. Prepare to within an inch of your life, then go in and show them what you’ve got!"
Tune in NEXT WEEK WEDNESDAY @ 10:30 BST for part 2: The Trial where I'm joined by three more incredible guests as we answer all your questions: What do the rest of the section really want to hear from you? Do you introduce yourself to the section first or wait to be spoken to? And most importantly... do baked goods really work in your favour?
Until next time,
* Disclaimer: all the views expressed in this article are the individual's alone and not on behalf of their orchestras