Inside tips: How to pass an orchestra audition

Inside tips: How to pass an orchestra audition


norman lebrecht

March 17, 2014

International soloist David Cohen, former principal cello of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, has seen young musicians arrive time and again for audition high on hope and low on preparation. He offers here, exclusive to Slipped Disc, some useful advice on winning an audition.

How to Prepare and Perform Optimally for Orchestral Audition
My eight years as principal cello of the Philharmonia seem almost a distant cherished memory and yet the nostalgia of hearing my old friends and colleagues perform in the multi medias often brings me back to those wonderful times. Even though my time there was filled with exciting projects with wonderful conductors performing in some of the best venues in the world, there were also some not so glamourous parts of the job that we all were less than looking forward to… this being the bi-annual cello auditions.
I probably sat through more than two dozen auditions in my early years as principal and I quickly realised that 95% of the auditionees did not know how to show themselves in the best light, nor did they seem to understand what we were looking for in order to secure a successful audition which may lead to a successful trial.
Having recently sat through similar type auditions in some of the music colleges in London, it has come to my attention that many young people are not necessarily given enough guidance as to how to prepare and present themselves as well as possible for what most of them will be looking for; an orchestral job in UK.
Now I realise that my own criteria may be focused on the UK orchestral scene, but nevertheless, as UK orchestra players often lead the way around the world as a fine example, I feel that my humble suggestions may be relevant.
The following suggestions may be evident but I would firstly recommend to take a similar approach for an orchestral audition as of a concert recital or concerto.
One is usually asked for the usual suspects such as Haydn C or D Concerto with Cadenza, Dvorak Concerto and often a piece of your own choice.  Of course this repertoire may be slightly extended if you audition for a principal chair. It’s important to grab the attention of the panel immediately with a good sound. Your free choice piece should be something that best represents you, something that makes you show off your best qualities. Remember that they are looking for an addition to their section and not another soloist to handle. Although my personal love of Contemporary Music is so strong and involved that I commission at least one new piece every year, for the purpose of orchestral auditions I would recommend staying away from hardcore modern music written in the last 10 years as this could most likely leave the adjudicators feeling restless. I also recommend to stay away from Bach Suites movements, as it is far too personal and everyone has their own (often greatly varied) opinion as to what makes an ideal interpretation.
Your audition starts the moment that you walk in;  you are assessed from the moment you enter the room, the way you hold yourself is as important as the way you tune your instrument. Grounded confidence and a serious approach without being too tense goes a long way in your favour.
When performing Haydn and Dvorak Concerti, remember that the jury is made out of cellists who have accompanied the best performances of these pieces by great legends of the cello world and they are not looking for the next Yo-Yo Ma or Steven Isserlis to join their section. Your approach to these pieces as a performance apart from the obvious need to be technically perfect, will show your musical intelligence, your stylistic knowledge and application as well as your ability to cope under pressure – something orchestral musicians need to be able to deliver on a daily basis. So focus on these criterias.
How often have I heard some very fine performances of these concertos during auditions where a young cellist wanted to stand out with their stylistic interpretation which only resulted in some of the panel members comparing these in a negative manner to more traditional approaches. I do not mean to only “play for the jury” exclusively, but you must keep in mind what they are looking for as basic criteria by them listening to your audition.
You will most likely perform these pieces with an official accompanist and may find that due to the short amount of time available to rehearse prior to the audition, there may be some tempo changes which are not what you have agreed to or are used to. This can also be part of the test; your ability to cope and adjust will show the panel your ensemble skills. After all, you are joining a section of at least 11 other cellists and one’s ability to quickly adjust is vital in this world.
Your excerpts should be prepared as importantly if not more so than your chosen repertoire. One little hint: do some research, as it is most likely you will find recordings of the excerpts you are playing for your audition by the orchestra you are auditioning for and this may give you many clues as to tempos, phrasing and general markings. Each orchestra has its own traditional way of performing these pieces and it would put you ahead of the game to know these and apply them to your performance of the excerpts in the audition.
I remember very well Dudamel on his first contact with the Philharmonia as a young conductor in a masterclass led by Dohnanyi. Dudamel was very much at home with the orchestra and vice versa. Of course talent helps, but he did tell me that he must have listened to just about every single recording the orchestra had made in its history – not bad considering that the Philharmonia is the most recorded orchestra in the world.
Do the markings and bowings that were sent with the excerpts. It is often good to do what is in a part, as these are usually the parts the actual section uses themselves.
Show as much sound quality and articulation differences between the excerpts as possible; Brahms has a certain flavour that is very different to Strauss or Beethoven, for example, and showing these subtle and not so subtle differences will show the panel how aware you are of the stylistic differences.
You may be asked to repeat one of these excerpts with some feed back from the panel, listen carefully and apply it as much as possible, this is more vital than you may think.
Sight-reading in the UK orchestral scene will be inevitable, I remember my audition sight-reading for the Philharmonia was horrendously difficult. The page was black with notes and markings and all I remember is feeling a little shell-shocked afterwards, but here are a few useful hints which helped me get through it, because, yes, it is all about getting through it  without stopping.
Firstly take some time to just read the music in your head. Read the tempo markings or any other informations that may be written at the beginning of the piece, as well as any tempo changes. I know it may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of auditionees that failed to read the tempo marking and started to play twice as fast as written, partly fuelled by nerves.
The metronome can be a very useful friend to have during your preparation if your inner pulse is not strong enough! Use it properly, as it is not there to just keep you company. It can be one of the most important tools to prepare for your audition as the panel will be looking at rhythm and tempos and these are some of the most important things to ace.
Read all the dynamics carefully, read all the articulation markings, watch for key changes, watch for tempo changes or speed related markings such as rubatos, ritenutos, stringendos, etc. Make mental notes of each of these, visualise and map out in your head the dangerous areas.
Take your time, breathe and remember the tempo, once you start make sure you don’t rush, stick to your pulse… not heart beat pulse as it may go too fast under pressure, but your mental pulse!
After having played it once through, you may be given the opportunity to play it again with some pointers from the jury. If so, listen to them carefully. If you are not sure that you understood, ask them politely to expand and do your best to take things on board. This is one of the most important things for your audition, taking things on board. It will show your ability to adjust your playing freely and quickly.
If sight reading is not your strength, practice it daily, it is a skill that can be learned. I have fond memories while I was at the GSMD of Sundays spent sight reading dozens of quartets, trios, quintets with David Takeno at his house, something I have always encouraged my own cello students to do on a regular basis. The most important thing to remember with this practice is to not rehearse and never stop! It is about getting through as much information as possible in a performance type situation and apply it to your playing.
What not to do-
Should your audition go well and you arrive at the sight-reading and somehow feel a moment of panic; calm down, breathe, take a minute and have a go, we are all human and so is the panel of cellists listening to you, remember this! You may want to follow on the traditional advice of trying to imagine the jury naked on the toilet… but this might make you laugh more than anything else, which may have a counter productive result to your attempt.
As long as you don’t do what a mysterious young French cellist did during his Philharmonia audition: after performing a flawless Dvorak, Haydn and some very good excerpts, I proceeded to ask him if he would mind now doing the sight-reading that was on the stand.
His reply, as he stood up and made his way out slowly, was, ” Alas “… That was it, we never saw him again.
What to do-
This is a job interview as well as an artistic performance and you will be assessed for your performance presentation and the manner in which you also present yourself as a person. Remember, these are the potential colleagues together with whom you will be sharing a lot of your daily time. I know it sounds cliche but, “Be yourself”,  as long as it is the, “Be yourself… on good behaviour version”.
I recommend paying extra attention to your excerpts, special attention to rhythm, intonation, dynamics and style. Also, recording one’s self and pretending to be your own judge whilst listening back may illuminate certain areas of your playing that you had over looked. This will help you to hear where you are doing things you didn’t realise you were doing or mean to do, and alternatively, you will also hear where you thought you were doing something but it just didn’t come through enough.
One last thing: should you be one of the lucky ones to recognise the sight reading you are asked to do having recently played it, and thus successfully performing it should you be asked during the audition process how you feel the sight reading went, don’t be holier than the Pope by admitting that you know it and have recently played it.
My conclusions are: be smart, prepare well and present yourself in the best light, but do your home work diligently! Remember that orchestral work – chamber or symphony – is like doing chamber music at the highest level with a slightly larger group of people, so show your abilities to adapt, to take on feed back and show you can bring something to an already well established section. Good luck!


  • ed says:

    What a great article and great advice!

  • robcat2075 says:

    “…special attention to rhythm, intonation, dynamics and style..”

    What’s left?

    • nyer says:

      Yes, indeed!

    • SVM says:

      Mr Cohen does not mention “special attention” to notes, and I think that is for a very good reason. In my experience, a lot of young players obsess over getting the notes at the expense of rendering them musically. In orchestral playing (and in most other contexts), there is no value in the notes being “correct” (inasmuch as pitch is concerned) if you are out of time or too loud.

      • robcat2075 says:

        Yes, those performances where the players didn’t burden themselves with pesky trifles like “correct” notes are a revelation.

        However, I think that when Cohen cites “…the obvious need to be technically perfect…” he has indeed addressed the notes, too.

        • m2n2k says:

          There is no need to mention the importance of playing correct notes specifically, because it should be obvious to everyone who is taking auditions; those who think otherwise should not even bother. A message to SVM: there is absolutely no value whatsoever in being precise with time and volume if the pitches are all wrong.

          • musician101 says:

            Rhythm, intonation, and dynamics, fine. But style? That’s subjective. While I think listening to a myriad of recordings is indeed helpful in auctions preparation, orchestras do not play the same way today as they did even 50 years ago. Tempi and styles have changed as the age of recording technology has improved.

            I say play your own style, doing your best to play like a good ensemble player, but don’t sacrifice your individuality–it’s won me two jobs. After both of my winning auditions, the panel always told me that they like my unique sound an style of playing. Getting a job in an orchestra in which you can’t play like “yourself” is basically asking to be shackled for the rest of your life.

  • M.A. Steinberger says:

    Wish I’d had this clear, intelligent advice 40 years ago. Life would have gone much better…

  • serge says:

    Thanks very much! Enjoyed comparing this stuff with my own last audition)) Nothing new, indeed, but always good to run through…

  • Liz says:

    Useful advice indeed. It’s a shame though to have poor grammar and clear ignorance over media being a plural, along with criteria. Oh dear!

    • Carrie says:

      What a silly comment. The previous poster may want to look into her use of commas, or rather lack thereof. If I remember correctly, Mr. Cohen’s first language is not English. I believe he is from France, and to write such an informative and engaging article as a non-native speaker is quite impressive. Great article.

  • Max Grimm says:

    Thank you Norman for posting this interesting article. I recently came across an older article by Fergus McWilliam, giving some insight into the Berlin Philharmonic audition process. It might be interesting to contrast his with Mr. Cohen’s article.

  • David is not a Frenchman, he is born in Tournai/Belgium ! And we, Belgians, are very proud to possess such a marvellous cellist. His article is full of intresting and wise advices. Congratulations ! He played in 2011 the work for cello and piano by Emmanuel Durlet.(Antwerp/Belgium 1893-1977). Never in my life I heard such a magnificent performance of this piece. Thank you, David !

  • Andrea says:

    I participated in an orchestra audition (considered an important orchestra), with around 10 excerpts, Haydn and a Romantic concert.

    Almost all candidates (all the candidates that aren’t from this orchestra already), played only for less than a minute, or 1 minute maximum (just Haydn…the juries doesn’t ask for excerpts or the Romantic concert).

    The cellist who was accepted : he did some gigs with this orchestra in the pass…and knew the first cellist (was his professor).

    I saw there, cellists from Greece, from Spain….well….from many places…and is really sad prepare all the repertoire and the juries just ask for less than one minute Haydn I movement.

    Just for me to be calm…about this… Isn’t normal right? Why this kind of things happen?

    And there was other time (in other orchestra) that were about 30 candidates, and the only person accepted was a cellist from the same orchestra. Coincidence?

    Thank you

    • Sue says:

      They will be able to tell in less than one minute if the candidate is out standing and has the right tone they are listening for.

  • Hildegarde Stansell says:

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