Last week, students at the Yale School of Music were treated to an extraordinary experience: mock orchestral auditions with a panel of 3 world-class musicians: Maestro Peter Oundjian, Music Director of Toronto Symphony and former first violin of the Tokyo String Quartet, and two professors from the Yale School of Music, William Purvis (French Horn) and Robert Van Sice (Percussion).
Nine brave student volunteers representing brass (horn), winds (bassoon, clarinet, oboe and flute), strings (cello and double bass) and percussion played excerpts from a wide-range of repertoire including Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Clarinet Concerto, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Debussy’s La Mer, Ravel’s Pavanne, Strauss’ Till Eulenspeigel, Sibelius 1st Symphony and the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Each student played a number of excerpts and received feedback from the panel. After all 9 students had performed, the panel answered questions from the audience. It was a rich learning experience, as the judges provided practical advice delivered with wit, humor and love. Indeed, all of the student auditioners were thrilled to have a chance to learn from experienced masters of the art (thus displaying the growth mindset of success!) and the rest of us—even those who are not planning to audition for orchestra-learned a great deal about how to be better musicians.
Let’s see what our panelists had to say about auditions, as well as the artistry and technique that today’s musicians need to have in order to succeed!
Musical Technique and Artistry
In order for an orchestra to sound its best, all 85 players need to be in sync. Thus, auditioning musicians must be in total control of their musical technique and display a sophisticated level of artistry. To that end, a number of themes permeated our mock auditions.
Not surprisingly, our percussionist was very sensitive to rhythm and emphasized the importance of mastering all 3 elements of rhythmicity:
- Pulse control: the ability to keep the pulse and avoid rushing.
- Rhythmic realization: getting the accuracy of the math the way it divides across the beat.
- Even if your rhythmic realization is right, having the ideal balance between heavy and weak part of the pulse.
Indeed, rhythm comes from the Greek word for flow and if you master these three elements, the body responds. However, in an audition, if you have rhythmic problems, i.e., if you don’t “groove to the right rhythm”, it’s a deal breaker.
It is imporant to achieve the right balance since you need both freedom and stability in an audition. The metric subdivisions have to be absolutely equal and you must avoid free interpreting. However, your excerpt should not sound mechanical since you also need to play with emotion. Use a metronome so that your excerpt is pulse-related and organized and you stay within the measure.
Moreover, establish your rhythm from the outset. Show where the bars are. This helps you and also lets everyone else in the orchestra know exactly when they have to do what.
Some musicians say that auditions are the best preparation you can have. You have to satisfy the bean counters and the great artists on the committee. So play against the metronome and play rubato. In some excerpts (like the Beethoven Ninth Symphony recitatives), ask yourself how far you can go. Bring your interpretation but not one that is too crazy since it has to sound like the piece. Beethoven had to write it down. But there is an interpretation!
The same rigor applies to pitch, which must be nice and solid. This requires a lot of practicing.
- Dynamics and Phrasing
In addition, pay attention to the dynamics and show the shapes as marked in order to bring out the variety in the sound. You need to be very attentive to the details of the piece. It’s tricky to show a crescendo without exaggerating. Otherwise, you might get into the finals but you won’t win the game!
Have the theme in your head and make sure you enter seamlessly. For the tail of a phrase, make sure you’re singing it.
Create a range of color to show the character of the piece. And carry us through the melody when you are playing long notes. Don’t expect the composer to tell you how to play it. It should not be a short note that happens to be long. Live through the note.
The majority of the comments were directed to how to showcase yourself in the best possible way at an audition.
- Before you start….
Before you come on stage, BREATHE so that you are more relaxed and have your sound before you come on stage. That shows up in your vibrato. It’s mind over matter. We all get nervous. So do a few deep breaths so that you can perform with the right dynamics.
- First impressions are critical
One theme that permeated the mock audition session was the importance of making a good impression right from the start since you do not have a lot of time to convince the committee that you are the one.
One of our panelists asked the students to imagine that they were in the finals of the Toronto Symphony. It’s you or the other person.
“You have 10 seconds in which to move me or else you go home to your student apartment.”
The first note is critical because members of the committee are hoping to find their next colleague. Contrary to what many people think, the members of the committee are not out to “nix people”. Therefore, every single member of the committee walks into the audition room thinking, “I bet it’s her”. If the first note is glorious, everyone taps each other on the shoulder! Therefore, “send goose bumps up my arm from the very first note.”
Our panelists characterized auditions as a job interview in sound so frame the piece in your mind before you start because you are only providing a tiny snapshot of your playing. In response to hearing an excerpt from Debussy’s La Mer, a student was told:
“You need to know the difference between schmaltz and Debussy right away. You only have 15-20 seconds to show it. Give yourself 5 seconds to find the piece in your ear and play it that way from the first note. You don’t have 20 minutes to settle into the piece.”
The judges gave the student a few chances to play the piece differently since they felt that her first try did not sound like Debussy. And by the last rendition, they were delighted that it sounded like La Mer!
Another helpful tip was to have thematic material going through your head and to enter seamlessly.
- Know the piece COLD
Students who audition for an orchestral spot are often competing against seasoned orchestra players who have the advantage of having played many of these works many times. Therefore, it is critical to know the piece cold so that right from the outset, you know what it is like to be on the inside of the piece. There is a different physicality when you are practicing your excerpt as a solo vs. playing in an audition. To accomplish this, listen to recordings of the piece 30-40 times and play along with the recording.
One of the panelists offered a mantra: “I know that and I do that.”
They are not the same thing. You may have heard the piece “millions of times” but have you really immersed yourself in the work and played 20 times over with 5 different recordings? We are now “playing for money” so the committee will take someone reeks of the repertoire over someone who plays a little better.
- Have the right energy and be gutsy
The judges all commented on the lovely level of playing. They emphasized the importance of being in command and not to be too understated. “Flaunt it”, said one of them!
You need to show the right energy and make an effort to bring the energy forward with every note you play. One of the judges asked the students to visualize two things:
First, water in the well: you have to pump it a little in order for the water to come out.
On the other hand, water in a faucet is continually under pressure. That’s what you need to show and have that energy at your disposal at all times.
One of the judges found that there was infinitely too much “safe playing” right off the bat. He commented that some of the students were able to free up after they were asked to play an excerpt again. That means that the skill was with you and you had to be prodded.
As one judge told a student:
“You have to be gutsy. Video yourself. What comes across to us? You have quite a bit of fire in your eyes but we don’t hear it. You have the stove on number one whereas we want to see the flames. You have the capacity to say a lot more.”
- Show your love for the music and play to win
The judges observed that a terrific player was not showing his love of the music. In response to a student who was playing a particularly moving excerpt from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,
“You sound like your tie. Get rid of the tie. Play it again and make it sound as if you like it.”
Quoting Leon Fleischer, he advised:
“Could you just play it like you like it? What if you woke up and played as if you really loved it? Without going over the top, you need to be in the moment. This is a PROTEST music! We need to hear that.
If you play it safe at an audition, you won’t advance. Play to win!
Your goal is to go on the “offensive” vs. being “defensive” and to use your limited time to showcase your personality
Have the right character for each piece
The judges stressed the importance of assuming a different character for each excerpt and to “make sure you have the right mask on.”
To a student who had a beautiful sound and technique, the judges observed that he did not play with enough direct connection between what he did and how he played it. Before you play, you have to get into the mode of the piece. Commenting on Brahms, one judge explained that
“Brahms has the autumnal mode. This is an unbelievable human being who is so profound, tearful and complex. It has an undercurrent of tragedy. Who is my character in this mode?”
In response to an excerpt from Daphnis and Chloe, the judges asked the student to summerize the underlying story. His response? Some sort of a love story. One judge observed that this flat answer was reflected in his playing. So be a great actor and sell the committee on the piece!
For Mozart’s Figaro excerpt, the student was found to be too respectful and obedient; instead, the judges urged him to become the character in each moment.
These are big works! Understand the character of the piece and fold yourself into it because “there is no room on the stage for both Beethoven and [you]!
Show Emotions and Be Creative
The judges emphasized the importance of showing your creativity in your approach. When one of the instrumentalists played an excerpt from the Brahms Violin Concerto, our Maestro felt that for the violin, it was like dying and going to heaven.” It’s the most sublime moment in the world. At this level, tragedy and beauty become the same thing.” So all the other players must feel and convey that emotion as well.
Even if something is delicate and soft, you need to show your commitment to that level of artistry.
For the three Beethoven Ninth Symphony bass excerpts, the judges observed that it takes courage to play it as a recitative. Playing it evenly is not a good idea. Every conductor does it differently. It’s rubato in classic style. Show the emotion! And play each recitative differently since it has a different character.
One judge advised his students who are taking auditions to think about what the committee is looking for in each excerpt. Since you only have a few minutes to convince them, you need to show that you have it and that you have the creativity. It is subjective. Nothing is worse from a conductor than to ask the musicians to be more creative.
Therefore, have an adjective marked on your score and think about it before you play every excerpt. This will help you when you are nervous.
Figure out the moments to be creative, the moments to hang back, and the moments to play along.
For another wind player who was told that he was very “obedient” to the piece, one of the judges stood about 10 feet away from the student and asked him to play out to his hand in order to get out of pedestal syndrome and project his sound. This distracted the student from the music so that he was able to move to the creative side of his brain, project his sound and give us a beautiful performance.
- Go for beauty
One of the judges shared another mantra: Go for beauty first.
In hearing Ravel’s Pavanne, the judges observed that the student was going into problem-solving mode instead of playing a beautiful piece. “It sounded as though you were finding the notes between the notes.” The student was advised to trust herself to play legato which she was able to do in the second performance of the excerpt.
- Sound Quality
Don’t worry about terms like “bright” or “dark”. Do what the music calls for. One of the judges observed that he might outlaw the terms bright and dark because they can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. Go for a healthy balance.
- If you play from memory…
Move the music stand if you are playing from memory and stand up! It makes a favorable impression if you do that at an audition.
- Listen to the comments
If the committee members ask you to play something again, make sure you listen to what is asked for. If you play the same way the second time and the problem manifests itself again, the audition will end then and there. This is what happened to one of the students and we all got the point!
In addition, don’t bury your head in the score and be sure to make eye contact with the Maestro so that you can follow his cues.
- Differences between the rounds
The judges explained that the first round has to do with not being eliminated. It is behind a screen. Maestro Oundjian tells his auditioning committees that it is not an issue of quantity but quality. However, panels feel safer with quantity: wrong note, wrong dynamic and you are out. If you listen like that, you might lose an amazing quality. The Maestro shared that he has seen many wonderful players not get through the first round because of this. Therefore, in the first round, you have to play both accurately and beautifully to make sure you are not eliminated. As each round goes, you must show more and more of your personality. In the finals, you can actually make more mistakes if you do some AMAZING things because you have already proved a lot.
Another judge shared that in the first round, people get tired because there are a lot of people to listen to so cynicism and fatigue creep in. That’s another reason you need to show it in the first 30 seconds.
In the finals, the maestro may ask you to play it in 3 or 4 different ways to see how flexible you are. Everyone in the finals is a killer player. We now have to see if you can fit in.
Therefore, when you are preparing for an audition, practice being flexible. To practice this skill, play for your friends and colleagues. First, play it your way. Then, play it differently depending on what your listeners ask you to do.
The judges had a lot of great advice on how to prepare for an audition.
It’s really important not to be defined by the audition experience. You have control over your audition experience. Have goals for after the audition. It should be part of a process of musical development and growth.
Listen to lots of recordings. Record yourself and conduct along. Use a metronome but do not stick to with Dr. Beat! And save your recordings and listen to them to compare your progress.
Tape yourself and conduct back to what you are hearing. How does it feel to be conducting back and interacting with your own playing on a rhythmic level? At this point, you should be doing 90% of your teaching and your teacher 10%.
The judges noted that everyone sounds better in a practice room than in the audition room. Therefore, you need to practice auditioning. Take 5 colleagues and do a mock audition and film it and record it and practice the audition parts.
If you have that much respect for the process, you will be better. Don’t be afraid of your fear and your adrenaline. You build the strength for it. Don’t try to pretend you are not doing something difficult.
Be creative about your audition practice. Write down the excerpt on a card and every day, pick one to practice. On a daily basis, put yourself under pressure and obsessively engage in detailed practicing over a period of months.
You will have excerpts that you nail and others than you can’t and you need to work on those.
Finally, know the character of the orchestra for which you are auditioning. For example,the New York Philharmonic wants a big sound from its wind section whereas Vienna does not. Don’t try to be a chameleon. Be yourself!
The mock audition was a fantastic learning experience. We plan to do this on a regular basis to give more students the opportunity to learn from experienced musicians how best to showcase themselves and to improve their auditioning chops, as well as their musicianship.
Bravi to all!