So You Want To Play In An Orchestra…

Hello, my name is Philip Bergman. Over the course of my career, I have taken about a dozen auditions for full-time professional orchestras, four for part-time professional orchestras, and four for training orchestras. I have won some of these auditions, in some I have advanced to the final round, in some I have been asked to leave after playing for less than three minutes. Through it all there has been one constant: people with normal jobs asking me questions about how auditions work.

Civic Fellow Philip Bergman acknowledges the audience after an October 2019 Civic Orchestra Concert. Todd Rosenberg Photography.

And I get it – auditions are a unique, bizarre, and interesting hiring process. The problem is that everyone with audition experience, even those with relative success, have some amount of trauma associated with the audition circuit. To create an understanding of where that trauma comes from, and in order to create a broader understanding of how the audition process works, I have created the following primer.

All auditions are a little different, but here is a general outline:

Job Posting

There are many ways to learn about auditions. Word of mouth can work, but I always have the websites Musical Chairs, and Audition Cafe open on my phone. I also look through the International Musician magazine (the magazine of the American Federation of Musicians). A typical job posting will appear at least a month or two before the audition and will request resumes. Sometimes the required repertoire will be included in the posting, and sometimes it will be provided after the organization has received your resume. The list generally consists of anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes of excerpts from solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire. Almost all orchestras require a deposit check before granting you an audition time (most return it when you show up for your time slot).

Preparation

There are many books about this topic, and I won’t spend much time on it since it isn’t the primary purpose of this article, but preparing for an audition takes a great deal of time and effort. In addition to putting in time alone in the practice room, most folks also engage in some combination of lessons, mock auditions, and recording in order to get as much input as possible before an audition. Audition repertoire will take up a considerable portion of your practice for several weeks or months leading up to an audition.

Preliminary Round

Assuming that the orchestra has accepted your resume and granted you an audition time, you make your own way to the space where that orchestra is holding its auditions, usually their performance hall. I don’t know of any orchestras that compensate candidates for travel, so part of a musician’s day-to-day budget is saving money to take these auditions if you have the financial flexibility. Generally, you are assigned an hour during which you will play and are told to show up slightly before that hour begins. Once you arrive, you are told what portion of the audition list you will play and are given a number for the day.

That number corresponds to the playing order and is used to assign private warm-up rooms. Everyone goes from check-in to a group warm-up room for a few minutes. A proctor leads individuals from that room to a private warm-up room where you get to hear your own sound for a bit, then the proctor returns to lead you from that room to the audition room. Questions should be whispered to the proctor during auditions because the preliminary round is almost always “blind,” meaning the committee is behind a screen with the intention of judging your playing without knowing who you are or what you look like (and yes, the story you’ve heard about the carpet on stage preventing the committee from hearing what kind of shoes you’re wearing is true).

You probably play between five and ten minutes of the list you have prepared for the committee and once you’re finished the proctor leads you back to a holding room with the rest of the candidates in your hour. At the end of your hour the proctor comes to that holding room to announce who, if any, from your hour the committee has chosen to advance. Because of how small the music world is, you probably know someone in your hour, and you will know their results as well as your own. If you are not one of the names called you make your way back to your home or hotel without ever seeing the committee face-to-face. They might be willing to give you written comments from your audition via email. If you are called, congrats! You move on to the next round.

Subsequent rounds

This is where things start to diverge quite a bit more. For some orchestras, hundreds of musicians take part in preliminary rounds over the course of several days. For some orchestras, only 15 or 20 people will play a prelim, so they might hear all of those in the morning and continue with other rounds in the afternoon so that the entire process happens in one day. Some orchestras leave the screen up for the entire process. Some take the screen down during the later rounds. Some orchestras have a late round where you play chamber music with members of the orchestra. One thing is sure: if you plan to advance, bring a snack. It is entirely possible that you will be on call for eight or more consecutive hours, and many orchestras will not provide you with any food.

In my experience, the “most typical” full process is a preliminary round that takes one or two days, followed by a single day that includes a semi-final round, a final round, and if necessary a super-final. Generally the later rounds all have a similar process to the prelim: you are assigned a number, told what the repertoire will be, and given a bit of time in a warm-up room before continuing to the space. Final rounds can look the same, or sometimes can be done without a screen so that the committee can consider the candidate’s work experience. After each round, just like the prelim, the proctor will relay the committee’s decision to the candidates. If you are the last musician standing, you might be announced the winner of the audition.

“Might?! What do you mean, might?”

No-hires

It’s fairly common for orchestras to decline to hire anyone from an audition cycle. There are a variety of reasons for this ranging from genuinely not feeling there were any candidates up to their standards, to an increasingly common will to continue filling a position with qualified substitutes who are cheaper and won’t receive benefits. These practices echo the trend of colleges and universities, who increasingly rely on adjunct instructors in lieu of tenured professors. For the sake of argument, let’s say you are announced the winner of your audition. Congrats, you kind of have a job.

“Why only kind of??”

Tenure

Here there is even more divergence. Some orchestras do give you a job outright if you win an audition. Others grant you a trial period (a few weeks or months) after which the orchestra considers whether or not to extend you a longer trial. Often you are immediately given a one-year contract, and after that year, the orchestra decides whether or not to grant you tenure. This portion of the audition process is rarely discussed, and frequently undercuts the impartiality that is emphasized through the rest of the audition process. It is not uncommon for exceptionally talented individuals to win jobs, only to be denied tenure because they do not fit the mold of what orchestral players are expected to look and act like. On the other hand, in the current system, this is essentially the only tool orchestras have to regulate their work environments.

And this leads to my soapbox. So much of the process I’ve described is dehumanizing. It feels strange to apply for a job that centers on collaboration and humanity, but to do so in such an isolating and sterile way. Our industry created this process in order to address problems of fairness and equality in our industry, but those problems persist. Blind auditions have created opportunities for many musicians, and it would be naive to think that the biases that made them necessary are no longer in place, but there remains an extreme lack of equity in our industry that must be addressed. A lot of this system stands in our way: travel requirements create economic barriers to entry, blind auditions are incompatible with over-representation efforts, and the tenure process retains the possibility of profiling. Not only this, but it is exceptionally challenging to generate a positive work environment through this method.

After going through a hiring process that requires competition and then a tenure process that often asks folks to fit in and not make waves, it is understandable that many find it difficult to be creative and collaborative once they have a job. The question that continues to follow me is, how to make this process both fairer and more humane, because I don’t want to see another friend have a panic attack brought on by audition preparation, and I want to see work environments that are more welcoming, loving, and diverse. If we want our orchestral musicians to spread love throughout our communities, we need to find a hiring process that is not only inviting to all members of our communities, but incentivizes creativity and collaboration along the way.

By second year Civic Fellow and cello Philip Bergman.


TOP: Civic Fellow Philip Bergman warms-up on stage at Chicago Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park before a side-by-side concert with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Civic musicians, under the direction of CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti. | Photo by Darlene Bergman, 2018.