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How to Pursue a Career in Orchestral Music

Elsewhere in my web site, in my article The Puzzle of Our Lives I discuss my own personal journey to a life as an orchestral musician. However in this section, I will try to outline the broad requirements for those interested in pursuing such a career. For additional detailed information, please see my 13 chapter article Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution, in which I more fully discuss many of the principles outlined below (including getting an education, writing a resume, making an audition tape and taking the audition itself) and my FAQ on performance standards.

Most American Symphony orchestras conduct auditions for vacancies in accordance with general guidelines put forth by the American Federation of Musicians, the professional union of musicians in the United States and Canada. While orchestras are under no legal obligations to hold open auditions in order to fill vacancies, most find it in their best interest to do so, realizing that a player that successfully survives in the crucible of the audition process is one with proven abilities.

Efforts have been made in recent years to insure greater fairness in auditions through the use of a "screen" behind which the audition committee sits for most of the rounds of the audition, thereby insuring that committee members are not influenced by the candidate's sex or race, or by the fact that the candidate may be a student of a committee member. Usually, the screen is removed for the final round or rounds when it is important to see how a person plays, (in the case of string players, how the candidate bows) and for playing with members of the orchestra section.

Vacancies for orchestras are often advertised in The International Musician, the official monthly newspaper of the American Federation of Musicians. This newspaper is sent automatically to all members of the AFM as a benefit of membership; many libraries and music school career placement offices have copies, and non-union members may receive a one year subscription by sending $39.00 for orders sent to the USA. Visit the AFM home page and click on the "subscribe now" button which will allow you to pay for your subscription using PAYPAL. For information on subscriptions sent overseas, Contact the AFM by email or write:

The International Musician
The American Federation of Musicians
1501 Broadway
New York, New York 10036

In addition to listing auditions in the International Musician newspaper, many orchestras are now posting audition information on their websites. The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians has a page with links to their member orchestras which include all major orchestras in the United States. The ICSOM page of orchestra web page links will take you to websites of individual orchestras; once at an orchestra's website, search for audition information

MyAuditions is a company dedicated to providing performing arts professionals with the most advanced performing arts career resources relevant to their specific individual needs. Their website lists worldwide orchestral job openings on all instruments, contains links to helpful articles and resources relating to auditions and orchestral life, has links to relevant news items about performing in th eorchestral world, and assists both players and prospective employers connect with each other. It is a unique site that has a lot to offer aspiring and professional musicians and is a significant, major resource for those aspiring to an orchestral performing career.

Interested players are invited to submit a letter and resume to the personnel manager of the orchestra and a standardized list of orchestral excerpts and solo material required at the audition is sent to the candidate. In many cases, orchestras require cassette tape recordings of specified material from players, particularly from those who have little or no professional orchestral experience. Making this tape is of critical importance as those on the audition committee know that candidates had an unlimited amount of time in order to make a "perfect" tape. While committees are not usually concerned with the quality of the tape in terms of sound, pitch and rhythm are the critical items that most often result in a tape being accepted or rejected.

In preparation for orchestral auditions, most musicians attend a 4 year music school or conservatory with many players continuing with graduate study. The question is often asked, "Do I really need to go to college to become an orchestral musician?" The answer is, strictly speaking, "no." What is required at auditions is that the player be a consummate musician. However, it is my opinion, and that of most professional orchestra musicians, that college does more than simply provide you with an opportunity to practice your instrument. The discipline of music theory and the knowledge gained from the study of music history are invaluable in preparing a player for informed performance practice. In addition, participation in regular ensembles (both orchestral and chamber) and the identification with a peer group on the same instrument helps to hone the technical, ensemble and social skills needed for successful entry into the orchestral work force.

Many aspiring orchestral musicians take advantage of summer music festivals and camps that are designed to give intensive periods of orchestral training. Most notable among these is the Tanglewood Music Center, sponsored by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Other festivals that are worthwhile pursuing are the Aspen Music Festival, the National Orchestral Institute, the Pacific Music Festival and the Spoletto Music Festival. Participation in these kinds of festivals are by no means required for entry into a professional orchestra, but they can provide valuable experience.

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony. It is an intensive program which includes regular concerts, lessons and masterclasses with Chicago Symphony members; a yearly stipend is paid as well. I was a member of the Chicago Civic Orchestra when I was a student at Wheaton College (1974-76); it is one of the best opportunities for young players looking for intensive, regular orchestral experience at a high level. Annual auditions are held for all positions.

The New World Symphony, founded by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, provides an intermediary training step between college/conservatory and entry into an orchestra. The New World Symphony offers college and post college age students , through competitive audition, with the opportunity to play in an orchestra for up to 3 years. There is no cost for players to be members of the New World Symphony; in fact, through a unique arrangement with the American Federation of Musicians, members are paid a monthly living stipend as well as free housing. Based in Miami Beach, Florida, the New World Symphony has a regular series of orchestral and chamber music concerts, and members receive regular coaching and teaching from members of major USA symphony orchestras.

Young players should be encouraged that while experience in other orchestras is often desirable to audition committees looking for an acceptable candidate, the bottom line at auditions is how a person plays. A person with a thin resume, once granted an opportunity to play at the "live" audition, has an equal chance as any seasoned professional a person may be going up against. Some conductors actually prefer young talent that they feel they can mold further while other conductors seem to prefer the reliability a player with many years of experience in other orchestras can provide. Whatever your experience level may be, the important thing is to develop the confidence required to perform at your best at auditions.

For further information about the entire audition process including details on how audition committees view both the process and candidates who take auditions, see my article Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution.

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