Advice on Orchestra Auditions

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In many visits by NEXUS to music schools, conservatories and universities all over the world, both during my time as Principal Percussionist in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and after, I have been regularly approached by students asking for advice on auditioning for orchestras.  In my current position as an adjunct teacher at the Eastman School of Music I have also become increasingly aware that ever fewer numbers of percussion students are interested in orchestral music, even as the number of students who want to become professional percussionists continues to grow.

When students ask for advice on orchestra auditions, my first question is “why?”  When followed by the question, “what kinds of music do you normally listen to?” the responses mostly do not include orchestra music at all.  I can think of only two good reasons to want to play in an orchestra:

1) A love of the music (as opposed to a love of playing, which is good, but alone may not be enough to sustain job satisfaction in an orchestra career;  it’s the love of the music that best enables an orchestra musician to sustain playing technique (‘chops’) as the years roll by.

2) A desire for a stable job with some fringe benefits, though for most orchestras, except those in major cities, such a job has relatively low pay in an ongoing environment of financial pressures and shifting market values.  Without a real love for the music, it will be necessary to find the motivation to overcome boredom and maintain performance technique over time.

Assuming that one of these two reasons is in place, the decision faced by most students in their senior year at college is whether to go to graduate school or not.  Generally, I don’t think that graduate school is a good idea for someone who wants to play in an orchestra.  One exception to that would be in the case of someone graduating from a college in a community that does not have a professional orchestra.  In such a case, going to a graduate school in a community having a professional orchestra – ideally a major city – would enable the student to study and network with a professional orchestra musician and to regularly attend orchestra concerts.  An added benefit might be the occasional opportunity to play in an orchestra as an ‘extra’ musician.

However, in most cases a graduate degree would be irrelevant.  Even though it could be a plus for someone ultimately seeking a college teaching position, it would also be a significant diversion of time and energy away from the primary goal of winning an orchestra audition.

The most important thing is to use one’s time to prepare for auditions, and the best way to do that is to focus one’s study on orchestra repertoire, ideally with the occasional advice of an orchestra player, preferably a principal percussionist.   Instead of spending money on college tuition, it would be a better to spend it on living expenses, audition expenses (mostly travel), and occasional private lessons, possibly with a number of professionals, thereby broadening one’s network of contacts.  Charles Owen, the late Principal Percussionist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, gave the following advice in one of his workshops: “It’s not who you know that’s important; it’s WHO KNOWS YOU!”

In order to prepare for an orchestra audition, here are a few things to consider:

1) It takes a fairly high degree of self discipline to listen to and really know the standard audition repertoire – not just the part – through regular practice, and to keep at it – even after statistically probable disappointments – until the goal is finally reached.   A good rule-of-thumb is to plan for success within 5-years.  Another rule: cramming doesn’t work.

2) It will be essential to have good practice instruments – snare drum, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, and if possible a glockenspiel and timpani.  The money that would otherwise have gone to tuition might be used to acquire instruments; the instruments don’t need to be new – there are plenty of good used instruments.

3) It will be essential to cover living expenses,  The money that would otherwise have been used for dorm fees can come from several sources – family or savings.  Getting a part-time job is also a possibility, but the job must be such that it leaves time and energy for practicing.  Rental and other living expenses can also be reduced by sharing them with others.

4) It will be essential to have a practice space – maybe in one’s apartment (the landlord and neighbors would certainly have to be considered), maybe in a rented studio in a convenient location.

5) It would be helpful to have regular monthly or even bi-monthly lessons with a professional orchestra percussionist to master the repertoire and audition skills.  As a bonus, a professional orchestra percussionist might be able to let you in to observe orchestra rehearsals and concerts at no cost, so you can get a deeper sense of what profesional orchestra playing is like.

6) The published compilations of orchestra excerpts are a wonderful aid, but having copies of the actual parts used by orchestras would be even better.  Having access to orchestra parts would be another possible benefit of studying with a profesional orchestra musician.

7) It will be necessary to keep up-to-date on upcoming auditions. The “International Musician” newspaper can be found  online or at the Musicians’ Union office.

8) For travel to auditions it would be best to have a fund set aside to cover travel expenses.  It’s impossible to win an audition if you don’t go.

While these steps may seem like a lot for a graduating percussionist to chew on, they’re not if one wants to be serious about taking orchestra auditions.  They are the beginning of a plan to take action and achieve success.

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