The low, low, lowdown on auditions (by a world-famous cellist)

Our friend and neighbour Steven Isserlis has been listening to auditions … and you can hear the mortal anguish half the way up Abbey Road. After a few paragraphs of personal confessions, Steven gets down to offering five essential tips to would-be candidates for audition.

Read, and reflect.

On listening to auditions

by Steven Isserlis

Steven isserlis


Quite a few weeks ago now, the evening that I dread each year rolled around, as it inevitably does: I had to listen to recordings sent in by prospective students for my class at IMS Prussia Cove in Cornwall – the course I do every year (in fact, it is the only regular teaching I do). As usual, I had the invaluable company of my friend (for over 40 years – groan; how can that be? Time…) David Waterman, who teaches alongside me on the course, and whose ears I trust probably more than I trust my own.

Why do I hate this particular evening? Certainly not because the standard is too low – it is usually very high. I hate it because we have to judge in a way that I know is far from perfectly fair – although I also know that there is no better way; and we will have to turn down the vast majority of applications. David and I have to wade through recording after recording, desperately trying by the end of the evening to remember how the first ones sounded. Of course we cannot listen to whole tapes – that would take days; but we do try to listen to representative excerpts. But it’s hard! Some CDs are recorded in people’s kitchens (it would seem); some are commercial CDs. Some are accompanied by a jangly upright piano, others by a fine professional orchestra. Of course, there are tapes at both ends of the spectrum that make the decision an obvious ‘yes’ or ‘no’ within a few minutes. But there are so many more that leave us undecided. And we KNOW that we’re going to make a few decisions that will seem wrong if/when we hear the players in person.

Perhaps the following story illustrates the problem as well as any: Some years ago, I was putting the CDs into the player without David knowing whose CD it was. I played one. He beamed: ‘This is excellent’, he said. ‘Let’s take him or her.’ I chose another CD. ‘Let’s try this one,’ I said, putting it on. He listened. ‘Hmm…not as good as the last one,’ he said. ‘Try another track.’ I duly did as I was told; as the second track unfolded, David’s face changed. ‘This is you, isn’t it?’ And indeed it was – my recital from the night before! Ahem. And as I said, David has better ears for this sort of listening than I do… I think I would eventually have got into my own class – but I’m not 100% sure!

So why am I writing this? Partly because I feel horrible about the people whom we cannot accept. I know very well the pain of rejection, as every musician does; we all have to suffer it on a regular basis – even the very successful ones. (Actually, I was banned from IMS for several years when I was a student; though that wasn’t because of an audition tape – it was because I got into trouble because I stayed too long in a gambling arcade after a concert in St Ives with Nigel Kennedy, with the result that we missed the buses back to PC, and had to stay the night in the house of a supporter of the seminar. It didn’t go down well.) But I’m not trying to elicit sympathy for our plight – that would be a bit rich! No, I’m writing because I wanted to offer a few grains of advice to people making audition tapes. Here goes:

1) Make sure the quality of the recording is good – otherwise you’re starting at a disadvantage, even if the auditioner tries to make allowances.

2) Don’t fill the tape with out-of-the-way pieces that the auditioner is unlikely to know; that will seem as if you’re trying to hide something. One unusual piece is a good idea – but mixed with more famous pieces.

3) If it’s for a serious course (as opposed to a competition, for which the main criterion might be that you should be studying with someone on the jury!) don’t just record virtuoso pieces. As a potential teacher, I am looking for someone who will be open to musical ideas and rewarding to teach – not someone who will just want to show off.

4) Be careful about choosing to play solo Bach. I HAVE been very impressed by the occasional Bach tape – but more often, I have been merely frustrated by hearing the player’s (or the teacher’s) theories pounding through; it’s happened too often. I’m not saying that you should avoid Bach – just be careful, and record something else too.

5) Very important: make sure that the tape begins well – first impressions are hard to erase.

And that’s it – apologies if we rejected anyone reading this. Perhaps we made a mistake…

Steven isserlis1

photo(c) Lebrecht Music&Arts

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    • One can always count on certain commenters for nasty, self-aggrandizing observations. One marvels at the energy, discipline, and commitment required to maintain this no matter what is encountered; one wonders what could be accomplished with comparable effort directed toward something worthwhile.

  • Instead of picking the best players, how about picking the weakest?

    They’re the ones who need the help most.

    • Teachers look for students they think they can work with. Different teachers do better when focusing on their particular area of expertise, and students (obviously) do better with a teacher specializing in something they need. If the student’s needs don’t match what the teacher has to offer, they are both wasting their time.

      • In todays’ music environment most teaching is part show biz hoping some pupil may
        win a prize or an engagement that will reflect well upon the so called teacher who
        then will be inundated by a mass of requests mostly Asians who want to be on
        the fast track to success .For most the art is used as a stalking horse hopefully to financial success.It is an exercise both the celebrated teacher and prospective student are
        in agreement.The unsuspecting student might even learn a thing or two and praise the event which of course will bring more hopefuls next season .It’s the nature of the beast . Taking
        on and shaping a weak student into a good player buys you nothing .

        • “Taking on and shaping a weak student into a good player buys you nothing.”

          True; but lots and lots of teachers do it. They just don’t get famous. Notice how many performers’ bios mention that they studied at Juilliard or Guildhall or wherever, but make no mention of the teacher who taught them to play well enough to get accepted there.

          (It’s true in other fields as well. Does the world know who Stephen Hawking’s high-school physics teacher was?)

          • Only the uninformed assume “Juilliard ” is the fountain head of musical studies . It
            is a US phenomenon and a wonderful study in how it has positioned itself in the minds
            of the average citizen.

    • They need help, but not at that level. Once you get to graduate school, they aren’t going to waste time trying to teach you how to read and add. That was someone else’s job.

  • What about a 3-minute cutoff for submitted recordings? The conservatoires are clogged up with students making audition tapes already, so how about (in this situation particularly) people just showing off their best bits?

  • Isn’t it great when you can just take someone’s Facebook post and turn it into an article? Go, I hope you’re not getting paid for this.

    • Steven gave us permission to publish, as he has done on prior occasions. What is your problem?

  • Thanks for sharing this! I’ve often wondered if listening to too many prescreening recordings can be rather like smelling too many perfumes. I know it’s more costly and more time consuming, but I much prefer live auditions, but then again they have their disadvantages as well if the performer is ill.

  • Dear Mr. Isserlis, that selection process is seriously flawed.
    You are comparing apples and oranges, fully (over-)produced CDs vs some lousy live recordings.

    You should at least, that is what actually all serious competitions and masterclasses I know require, define
    1.)the format of application to be a combined audio/video recording, today preferably on a DVD or a file, whatever works better for you.
    2.) Video and audio shall be one and the same unedited take.
    3.) No audio and video editing (which you can only check to be so, if you have the video with the audio as well, since it is easy to do audio edits you don’t hear, but much harder to pretend it with picture, since the edit would be visible with the player jumping from one frame to the next.

  • Good grief, so many comments show more the bitterness of the comment maker than give insight on the topic.

    This article gives good advice to audition recording makers.

    Music teachers are people, so there is the whole spectrum ranging from altruistic to self-serving. Most teachers I know give their best effort to all their students.

    It is an interesting question for the teacher, do you want the new student who plays the best right now or the new student who you think will play the best in 4 years? Often they are one in the same player, sometimes not.

    It would be nice if everyone got a live audition, but given real-world time constraints which is less bad, recorded auditions or prescreening merely via resume? I say recordings, even with the variances in production values. An astute listener hears through those variances anyway, just as when we hear older recordings of great artists we recognize the artistry and not merely that the recording wasn’t made with more modern production techniques.

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