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By now, let's assume that you've committed yourself to preparing for an orchestral career. You listen to music, study scores, practice your parts, attend a good school and have an inspiring teacher. What do you do now?
First you need to find out what orchestra has a vacancy. See my article Pursuing a Career In Orchestral Music for more information and links about places where you can find out about vacancies. One of the best places to go is
MyAuditions, a comprehensive website of information for people interested in taking orchestral auditions. MyAuditions posts hundreds of vacancies on all instruments for jobs both in North American and overseas. They also have excellent articles, news items, and discussion fora on the subject of the symphony orchestra field.
Most American orchestras, following suggested audition guidelines set by the American Federation of Musicians (the professional union of musicians in the United States and Canada), advertise orchestral openings in the International Musician, the monthly publication of the AFM. If you are a union member, you already get this valuable newspaper. If you are not a member, either join the union or borrow a copy from a friend who has one. College placement offices will sometimes have a copy.
Professional orchestral auditions are most often governed under one of the four following systems:
Of these systems the first and second are rather rare today while the third and fourth are becoming increasingly common. There are advantages and flaws with each.
The first system would seem to be the most fair. Anyone who wants to audition comes and plays for the audition committee. Until a few years ago, most auditions were run this way. However, as music schools began turning out more aspiring players, this way of holding auditions became seriously flawed. Today, more than 200 players may wish to come to audition for a single position. Such an audition would take days to complete.
The audition committee would have to spread the audition dates over a number of weeks, since blocks of three or four days off don't exist for orchestral players. To solve the time problem, there is often more than one audition committee, each with its own ideas and standards, and each hearing players in different locations. Fatigue and boredom are big factors for the committee, and the process is simply too unwieldy for most orchestras.
Further, most of the people who play are totally unqualified for the position, and this is a colossal waste of time for everyone. False hopes and expectations arise in a candidate who is allowed to come unprepared, hoping that "luck" will be with him on stage. The outcome is usually deeply disappointing for the player and results in shattered dreams and a waste of money.
The second system was an attempt to weed out unqualified candidates. Inviting only "known" players insures that only good players will come, reduces the number of candidates to a reasonable number that can be heard in one or two days, and usually insures that a winner will be chosen. But, the major flaw in this system is that the resume or reputation doesn't tell the whole story. It has generally been a courtesy to invite candidates from parallel or higher ranked orchestras, but that doesn't necessarily mean that those players are viable contenders for the position.
Just because a person plays in one orchestra doesn't mean he will be able to play an audition up to the standards of another orchestra. Further, this doesn't allow less experienced players a chance at a job they might rightfully win. Everyone who wins a job does so with little or no experience at some time in their career. Consider the following examples:
In each case, the player had little or no professional orchestral experience to list on his resume when he auditioned for his first job but was given the chance to play and won. Each continued to audition and moved on to a position in a top orchestra.
The third system invites known candidates but allows others to make audition tapes of specific excerpts under specified conditions. This is the most popular system used now. The decision, however, of who is required to make a tape is often an arbitrary one. What are the determining criteria? Who you know? Orchestra rank? Salary? A famous teacher?
The fourth system requires all applicants to make an audition tape. In a sense this is as fair as the first system when everyone plays live. But many excellent players don't feel they can make a good tape so don't bother, and experienced players who already have good jobs feel they should be invited on the basis of their reputation and are sometimes "insulted" at having to make a tape. The entire process would seem to be one big Catch-22.
It is obvious that no one system is foolproof. Music is a visceral art, not something that can be measured with mathematical averages. While the idea of the "Great Trombone Playoff" is fascinating, it is clear that the art of trombone playing will always be a subjective call, judged by diverse personal standards and ideals, and subject to myriad outside factors. Trombone players aren't measured by batting averages; players are simply judged by whether or not a listener likes the way they play.
It must be remembered that in all audition systems, a given committee on a given day, with a given group of candidates, in a given time and place, might well choose a different winner were even one of thousands of variables different. That is the harsh but inevitable reality of an orchestral audition. Orchestras (usually) try to make the system as fair as possible in order to insure that the best candidate will be chosen. Usually it happens, but sometimes it doesn't. This is why orchestras have probationary periods ranging from one to three years before a member is granted tenure. It is not for you, the audition candidate, to pass judgment on whether or not the system is fair. It is your job to do your best to work within any system so you can get a chance to prove that you are the player and person the committee should hire.
While the end result of any audition is to find the best player for the job, the immediate goal of the audition committee is to eliminate as many players as possible as quickly as possible - to separate the wheat from the chaff, if you will - in order to get the audition to the point where a selection can be made from a small group of outstanding players. That is why auditions use standardized repertoire for all candidates; it gives the committee a quick means by which to judge one candidate against another. Ultimately, the finalists will be judged against the "ideal," whoever or whatever that is (often it exists only in the mind of the listener), but in the early going, candidates are judged against each other. All you have to do at that point is to be better than everyone else. Every audition has only one winner.
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