KMFA Story Seeker Natalie Zeldin explores the behind-the-scene world of classical music to discover the stories that don't always make it into the spotlight, and may not get a standing ovation. This is the second article in her series. See her first story "Wacky Ways Classical Musicians Prepare."
It's not uncommon to have 200 musicians compete for a single chair in a major orchestra. Imagine conducting job interviews back-to-back with 200 people for a single position. How would you keep the applicants from blurring together? How would you know when you found the best one? Contrary to popular belief, orchestral auditions are nothing like American Idol. While it would be fun to walk on a big stage and just play your soul out, how do you know that it's not just the prettiest one who wins? Or, perhaps worse, the conductor's best friend?
The current orchestral audition procedure is methodically planned to help remove as much personal bias as possible from the decision. The two main principles to keep things as clean as possible are anonymity and objectivity:
Orchestral auditions are held behind a screen. This way, when the performer walks on the stage, the jury makes the judgment only by listening. Musicians must stand out by the way they play—not the way that they look or act.
But not so fast—there are still other ways to signal to the jury that you are a specific individual, so audition adjudicators have become savvy to these as well. Here are some more rules to help hide the identity of the musicians.
1) Cell phones are often banned to avoid any texting between the jury and auditionees.
2) Individuals are assigned a number to use in place of their name when they arrive at the audition hall
3) Women are advised not to wear heels, lest their click clue in the jury to the gender of the applicant.
4) Usually, no warm-ups are allowed. What if a particular sequence of notes is a code to a jury member to signify the musician's identity?
5) All questions are asked through a proctor, so that the committee doesn't hear the voice of the musician.
To even the playing field (pun intended), musicians are asked to play the same music. The standard material used for most auditions are excerpts. Basically, these are isolated excerpts of notoriously difficult or iconic passages from the orchestral repertoire for each particular instrument. Musicians preparing for auditions practice these ad nauseum in order to “nail” the technical challenges that each of the excerpts presents.
Music is definitely not objective. (And thank goodness!) With these excerpts, however, musicians are trained to listen to objective parameters. Certain aspects of music are cut and dry—namely, pitch, rhythm, and technique.
However, juries do look beyond being in time and in tune. They will listen for a musician's tone quality, vibrato, and overall musicianship. The biggest challenge of playing excerpts is that they are completely divorced from their musical context. Excerpts must be played to evoke the full orchestral environment, even when playing solo in the audition. For example, if the second oboe joins in on the 3rd C-sharp, the tone color should change to reflect that awareness. should change your color to reflect that. Each excerpt has a carefully coordinated set of technical requirements. Here is Jeffrey Khaner, the princpal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, giving some tips on how to play a 20 second passage from Beethoven's Leonore Orchestra: