By Leila Yokoyama
For many young musicians, orchestra auditions can be super intimidating. Here is a typical scenario: after you’ve brushed up two excerpts, a solo piece, and a scale, you arrive before your audition time slot to warm-up, you’re getting sweaty hands, your name is called, you walk into a room with stern-faced judges across from you, and you ask yourself, Why on earth did I sign up for this?! Believe me, the answer becomes crystal clear once you’ve actually experienced being in an orchestra.
I know this because not only have I played in various string orchestras at The Crowden School/Crowden Music Center, but I have also been a part of the pre-professional San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). Through the Crowden Music Center and SFSYO, I have engaged with other young musicians, many of whom were more hard-working, experienced, and older than myself. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded with orchestra-mates who have inspired me and share my passion for music, play incredible repertoire, and further develop my musical skills.
Here I’ll cover some tips on how to join a youth orchestra, orchestra audition basics, how to establish yourself in the orchestra, sectionals and full-orchestra rehearsals, at-home practice, and concerts, all from my own experience as a violinist and violist.
Before auditioning for any orchestra, make sure to consult with your music instructor and decide what type of orchestra is best for you. Some string orchestras only include string instruments, some are semi-symphonic orchestras that include winds and brass or percussion, and some are full symphonic orchestras that include the standard professional instrumentation. Once you’ve made that decision, you can then begin preparing for entrance auditions.
Although every orchestra has slightly different entrance requirements, string players typically have to demonstrate a scale and/or arpeggio, 2-5 excerpts from orchestral pieces, 1-2 solo pieces, and a sight-reading excerpt. Your teacher can advise on how to polish your excerpts and select the best scale and solo piece to showcase your playing abilities.
Make sure you fully understand the audition requirements on the orchestra’s website, and don’t be afraid to contact them with any questions. It isn’t always easy to land the audition in the first place, so do not wait until the last minute to sign up! It’s good to remember that judges are often pressed for time; don’t get thrown off if they ask you to only play a couple of things—just stay focused and do your best.
I know how devastating it feels to not pass an audition, but don’t take it personally! That one audition doesn’t reflect your worth as a musician, and you can always try again next year or look for another orchestra. If you are accepted into the orchestra, seating auditions are used to determine your seat position and stand partner. I cannot stress enough how important it is to not get hung up about your seat. Strong players are often seated in the front and back to balance out the section, so no matter where you sit you can contribute just as much as any other orchestra member.
Getting accepted into an orchestra is like joining a new school in that you may already know some people or you might feel completely alone. Either way, here are some suggestions for getting comfortable in the new environment.
- Develop a good relationship with your section principal (as well as the other members of your section). Other than the conductor and your instrument coach, your principal will be the most helpful person when you have questions about the music in general. It may feel intimidating at first, but you’ll gain valuable knowledge just from chatting with your section leader. In addition, try to befriend your stand partner. After all, you have to sit next to them for at least half a season!
- Know your way around. Get a good bearing of the building you practice in, take note of the locations of bathrooms and rehearsal rooms. Buddy up with someone who has played in the orchestra for a while and have them show you their favorite spots.
- Get to rehearsal early and branch out. A hidden benefit of arriving before the bulk of the players is that you meet random orchestra members from a range of sections. For me, I always had a few friends in the cellos or violins at the Crowden Music Center that I would hang out with, but in the SFSYO I regret only staying with the violists in our own little corner. Bonding with other new players is always a good place to start.
- Last but not least, become friendly with your conductor or orchestra managers. It’s not necessary to bombard them at every chance, but saying hello in passing will always be welcomed.
Sectionals and Rehearsals
If your orchestra has them, sectionals are a time to bond with your section and receive coaching on your parts. Full-orchestra rehearsals are different because the conductor typically won’t focus on your section as much. If you have any questions, typically you’ll ask your section leader and they’ll answer you or pass the question on to the conductor. Orchestra etiquette varies based on the ensemble, but generally it’s best to blend in, use the restroom during breaks and not during rehearsal, and listen to the conductor even when they’re addressing other sections. Watching a conductor for the first time may leave you flabbergasted (all those crazy arm gestures have been known to cause widespread confusion), but with time and practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
Before the first rehearsal, you’re expected to prepare your part to a certain extent. However, most bowings, dynamics, and fingerings should be taken with a grain of salt since your conductor and coaches will change these throughout the learning process. Getting comfortable with your notes (and rests) may feel overwhelming, but it will all come together once you’ve rehearsed a few times with the full orchestra. Becoming more familiar with how the pieces develop over time may influence your own practice routine. For example, I practice the entire piece at the beginning of the season, slowly shifting to just the difficult passages by the time of the concert.
Concerts are the culmination of all the hard work your orchestra has put into creating a musical masterpiece. If your conductor or coach becomes more strict and tense as the day approaches, remember to be compassionate—their nerves are probably being stretched because all they want is to showcase your orchestra at its best.
My concerts at the Crowden Music Center were always filled with tremendous excitement and build-up as the whole community came together. I remember how proud I was of my fellow musicians, and they of me. At my first SFSYO performance, the program included excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet suite. When we played that suite for the final time on the lit stage of Davies Symphony Hall, I experienced one of the most wondrous feelings in the world. The music filled me with such awe, and it fully settled in my head that it was our youth orchestra creating this music. Not every orchestra performance will be as riveting, but if you have the opportunity to be a part of any youth orchestra and you put your heart into it, you are bound to have unforgettable, fulfilling experiences.
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