Preparation and post-audition strategy are just as important as being in the seat
by Katherine Millett

Four cellists, friends since music school, have played dozens of auditions for American orchestras since they graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music. They have reached the finals in San Diego, bombed in Boston, struggled in Saint Paul, and triumphed in Saint Louis and Chicago. Even when they competed for the same job, camaraderie kept them going through the joys, frustrations, and absurdities of life on the audition circuit.

So far, two have landed jobs with first-tier orchestras. The other two are still in the game. Here are their stories and their advice about how to ace an audition.

Ken Olsen, 24, lived like a nomad for almost two years. Staying with friends, living out of a single suitcase, he practiced four hours a day, often while watching television. Three times he tried out for section openings in the Boston Symphony Orchestra; twice he auditioned for principal of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; once he tried for principal of the San Diego Symphony. Then he auditioned for assistant principal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Each time, he advanced to the finals but got the same message: “Sorry.”

When his bank account dwindled to $90 last February, Olsen tried again for the assistant principal position in Chicago.

That time, he won the audition, landing one of the most prestigious, highest-paying jobs in the world of classical music.

“This has been a crazy year,” he says after his first rehearsal with the orchestra. “My life did a total 180 in one day—upside down. I was freaking out, thinking, here I am in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and last week I didn’t have a job, an apartment, or much of anything else.”

His experience, and that of his three friends, can provide guidance for others trying to land an orchestral position.

Don’t Obsess

Don’t go crazy trying to upgrade your instrument, Olsen advises. He has played borrowed cellos since high school—his own was a plywood box now stored in his parents’ attic—and he says you don’t need old Italian real estate to win an audition. In fact, he got his Chicago job playing a modern instrument made by Ersen Aycan, a Turkish luthier.

Ironically, he played his second Saint Paul audition—and lost—on a masterpiece. He was determined to upgrade, because after his first audition, someone on the Saint Paul committee had said, “Maybe he doesn’t have such a great cello.” The second time, Olsen accepted his teacher’s help and borrowed a 300-year-old instrument made by Matteo Goffriller. “It had a huge, powerful sound,” Olsen recalls, “and after I played, some people on the committee said, ‘I don’t know about his cello. It’s kind of loud.’”

Made wiser by the absurdity of the situation, Olsen put his effort into practicing with a metronome instead of worrying about instruments.

Appreciate the Application

Even such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which holds open auditions for anyone who wants to play, require an application. Pay attention to the instructions, and be sure to submit the application on time. Some orchestras require resumes or recordings, which they use to screen applicants before inviting a select number to attend live auditions. If the committee asks for a resume, send one that is clear and complete. If they want an audio tape, don’t send video. Some European orchestras require a handwritten application with a photo attached.

Get it right—first impressions count.

Know the Schedule, Treat Yourself Well

Bjorn Ranheim, 28, has worked his way up from a training orchestra, the New World Symphony, to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, to occasional jobs as a substitute with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This past April, after trying out twice for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, he won a job in the cello section.

Ranheim has learned to treat himself well before auditions. He cooks good food, works out regularly, takes yoga classes, and stretches before he goes onstage.

He advises that you give yourself plenty of time and space on audition day. Before you plan your trip, find out where and when the audition will be held. Book a room in a hotel close to the hall so travel will not be an issue. Ask detailed questions about the process, so you know whether and when warm-up rooms will be available; whether to take your own food and water; whether preliminary and final rounds will occur on the same day.

Looking back, Ranheim laughs at the way he handled his first Saint Louis audition. He showed up at 8 am, as instructed, ready to play. The orchestra’s custom, it turned out, was to assemble all the candidates at 8 am and have them draw straws for their playing order. Ranheim drew 14 out of 14.

“It was a nice spring day,” he recalls, “so I went over to the university campus, walked around, had some lunch, relaxed. When I finally wandered back to the hall, the personnel manager said, ‘Um, your room is ready. You’re going on in 20 minutes.’ I didn’t have time to get mentally focused or physically warmed up. When I went onstage, I was so completely unprepared to play that I crashed and burned.”

The next year, auditioning for the same job, Ranheim drew 11 out of 13.

“This time, I made sure I had plenty of interesting magazines, my ear plugs, my portable CD player, and good snacks so I could be wholly comfortable relaxing around there the entire day,” he says.

Save the Chit-Chat

Alan Rafferty, 27, who plays in the Louisville Orchestra, ran into Ranheim at the Saint Louis audition. They were old friends, glad to see each other, but they exchanged only a quick greeting before going their separate ways. At an audition, they agree, it is best to conserve your energy and maintain your focus. Socializing may tempt as a way to relax, but it’s bound to distract, and it may even intimidate you.

“At every audition,” says Ranheim, “there is going to be that one cello jock who’s throwing around the name of this conductor and that conductor, talking to everybody, and hamming it up. You know what? He’s not the guy who’s going to win the job.”

No one needs to hear war stories and bragging before an audition. There will be plenty of time afterward to talk and party. It is traditional for losers to go out together, laugh off their mistakes, make new friends, and gather strength for the next round.

Imagine the Screen

To make the audition neutral with respect to race, gender, age, and nationality, most American orchestras use a screen for preliminary rounds. Each player is assigned a number and is escorted onstage, across a carpet, by a proctor. (The carpet disguises the click of high heels or the uneven gait of a limp.) Do not speak directly to the committee from the stage. Whisper to the proctor, who will repeat your questions and comments aloud. This see-no-evil, speak-no-evil format is designed to ensure anonymity, but it does take some getting used to.

“I’ve always struggled with the screen,” says Ranheim. “Maybe I’m a showman. I thrive on connecting with an audience. When you divorce the visual from the audio, that is so sterile for me. If you can make a happy little world for yourself in the practice room, behind the screen, or in front of the committee in the final round when the screen comes down, you’ll do better.”

Practice in a Big Space

Expect to play the audition in the orchestra’s hall. It will be big, and it will definitely feel and sound different from a six-by-six practice room. Find a way to finagle some practice time in a concert hall, an auditorium, even an empty gym or cafeteria, before an audition.

Eric Stephenson, 26, plays principal in the Canton Symphony Orchestra and substitutes with the Cleveland Orchestra. He advises players not to force their sound. “You’re only one person in this big hall,” he says. “You have to fill this big space, but forcing doesn’t help. Just let it happen.”

Play as Much as Possible

Even when he’s practicing reams of materials for auditions, Stephenson performs a variety of music as often as possible. Besides his regular orchestral work, he plays with the Iris Chamber Orchestra in Tennessee and gigs with a blues band—two guitarists, a drummer, and a singer in addition to his cello—in Cleveland bars.

“It’s all about the music,” he says. “I love playing the cello. The audition experience is nothing like being in an orchestra normally. You need to balance auditions with concerts and just playing for fun.”

Read the Repertoire List

A few minutes after playing his audition for principal in San Diego, Rafferty ran into Olsen. They talked briefly, and Rafferty mentioned that the committee had asked him to begin with an excerpt from the Bartered Bride Overture.

Olsen turns pale at the memory. “I must have looked at the rep list 20 times,” he says, “but somehow I never noticed The Bartered Bride. I had never seen the part. Actually, I had never even heard the music.”

It is good to have friends at times like that. Rafferty lent Olsen the music. But Olsen would not be allowed into the warm-up room until a half-hour before his audition, so he had to practice the excerpt mentally. “Being Ken, he learned it in a few minutes and played it better than I did,” says Rafferty modestly. But neither of them got the job.

Give Your Nerves a Workout

Stage nerves can rattle your bow arm, supercharge your vibrato, and wreak havoc with your concentration. When your heart is racing, you play differently. Rafferty recommends practicing with a racing heart. He suggests running up and down the hall or around the house, then sitting down to play an excerpt. Ratcheting up your heart rate with exercise simulates the nervousness you’re bound to feel at an audition. Learn to deep-breathe your way into a calmer state of mind.

Deal with Defeat

It doesn’t always turn out well. Olsen went through seven auditions for major orchestras before landing his job. Ranheim tried out 20 times for various orchestras before Saint Louis hired him. Rafferty took a slew of auditions before Fort Worth put him in the section. Stephenson was trying out for the Kansas City Symphony when the Cleveland Orchestra called him to substitute.

There is one thing all the players in a major orchestra have in common: Every one of them had a great audition day. On that day, the stars aligned so the committee heard what it wanted to hear.

But even the best musicians take their knocks.

“When I have a bad experience,” says Stephenson, “I call a friend. I can say I really screwed up Don Juan, and maybe he’ll say he did, too. You try not to take yourself too seriously.”

Both Olsen and Stephenson say their hardest auditions were the ones where they advanced, but the orchestra hired no one.

“It can be an expensive jerk-around,” says Stephenson. “You spend all this money to go to auditions expecting they’ll at least hire someone. I’d rather lose to somebody than nobody. I wish string players had a website where they could post comments about their audition experiences and outcomes.”

When a friend wins a job, Stephenson says he feels genuinely happy about it. “I don’t feel much in competition with Ken (Olsen),” he says. “We’ve always gotten along really well.”

But after a short pause, he adds, “I’m just sorry I didn’t take the Chicago audition, so I could have given him a run for his money.”

Stay in Touch

While riding the bucks and kicks of the orchestral audition circuit, the four friends agree, the most important thing is not to let yourself become isolated. “Stay connected to other players, especially the ones who are winning auditions,” says Ranheim. “Play for them and get their comments. What we do so often doesn’t get any praise. We need to have people building us up.”

It may be difficult to call the friend who got the job you wanted, but do it anyway. Remember what the friend had to go through. Auditions aren’t easy for anyone.

And when you win, remember to stay in touch with your friends who are still trying. Encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing, because soon it will be their turn to have that great audition day.

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