When I was 21 years old and in my final year at the Royal Academy of Music, for some reason, I decided to write out a kind of career plan for myself. It was a where do I want to be in five years’ time kind of thing. I am not sure what or who inspired me to make this plan. It seems unlikely that I thought of it on my own, but whatever the reason, I did it, and it looked something like this:
In five years’ time, I would like to be principal flute of an orchestra!
What I knew and loved was the symphonic repertoire, so that was my aim – a symphony orchestra of some sort…somewhere. Any orchestra really, I wasn’t fussy. A better orchestra would be good, of course, but really any orchestra would do. However, I did not want just any chair. I did not want to play second; I had not played very much second flute and felt I was not very good at it. I absolutely did not want to play piccolo because when I had played it, it did not feel like my voice. I did not have strong feelings for or against opera and ballet orchestras; although at that stage, I do not think I had ever played an opera or a ballet.
I did not really have to think very hard. I knew the first time I sat in an orchestra, at the age of 12, and performed Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony, that I wanted to do lots more. I do not think I knew at the time if it was even a real job, but I knew that I loved being a small cog in that huge, beautiful, sound-creating machine. So, a first flute chair, in an orchestra, somewhere in the world was what I set my heart on.
Despite the undeniable and inevitable stresses the position entails, it is what I still love, maybe even more today than when I first started. Mostly I relish the challenge of mixing my sound with other instruments. Floboe (flute and oboe) is a favorite, but sometimes so is a delicious flobonet (flute, oboe, clarinet) trio, where the flute is the glue between the oboe and clarinet sounds. The other-worldly bassute (bassoon and flute) is also fun, as is the challenge of adding a silvery glow from the flute’s singing third octave to a violin solo, or mixing the low register flute sound with an entire viola section. The possibilities are endless. An orchestra is like a sound kaleidoscope wherein the composer constantly encourages the players to create new colors. I love blending with the other wind and brass instruments in a chorale and occasionally even enjoy the solo moments in the spotlight too. I am really not into the flute sound for the sake of it. I love the flexibility and variety a flute can offer in an orchestra.
So my plan was to go for any principal flute audition for five years after leaving music college. I did not know if I could manage it, but I knew I would never forgive myself if I did not try.
Why am I talking about all this in an article about auditions? Well, I see lots of young players putting themselves through utter torture, as well as spending huge amounts of time and energy, not to mention the cost of attending dozens and dozens of auditions. Each one takes enormous determination and dedication, and a disappointing result often has a devastating effect on one’s self-confidence, especially if you are not sufficiently prepared and are only applying because it came up at the right time. So, it is important to reflect upon and carefully consider why you are going for a particular audition, and to use that insight to help focus resources of energy, time, money and stress.
First, look deep into your heart and be really honest. Are you equally comfortable playing first, second or piccolo? The chances are there is a chair you prefer. I would like to stress that this preferred seat has nothing to do with how good you are as second players have to be every bit as good as the firsts. Maybe you have felt honored to have been asked to play first in a freelance or college orchestra, but you might have enjoyed playing second more. Others might love playing the piccolo and cannot understand why some flutists shy away from it. Find your true voice and go from there. If you are not sure, ask your teacher and fellow students what they see as your strengths. There are plenty of cases where second flute players move up to first, but to be honest, I think that you are generally more likely to get a job as a principal if you have experience doing that job. So it might be better to think of moving up ranks of different orchestras, rather than moving up the ranks within a flute section.
Once an audition comes up for a position you are interested in, think about how you would feel sitting there every week. Are you genuinely qualified to do everything the job demands? Do lots of research about the orchestra for which you are auditioning. What is their repertoire? How much does the orchestra tour, and how would you feel about being away from home that much? How about playing in a pit? Have you considered living a large part of your life in the dark with only music-stand lighting? My first job was in an opera orchestra, which I absolutely loved, but I did crave daylight after the first couple of months. Symphony orchestra? Chamber orchestra? How far away from home would you be prepared to live and work? Another state? Country? Continent? It is not that one type of orchestra is better than any other, but you need to think about what you are potentially getting yourself into. Invest some time finding out what the job entails.
Do some research into the section for which you are auditioning. Many orchestras have fairly comprehensive websites where you can read the biographies of the regular players and see where they studied and perhaps even hear how they sound.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am not proposing that you change your playing to fit the other players (unless you are prepared to change it for life), but it is helpful to have an idea of what their playing style might be. I quite often hear complaints like “Well of course, they chose Mr. X or Miss Y as they studied with someone in the section.” Usually the choice has to do more with musical preference than favoritism. These days with more and more screened auditions, the chance of a fair audition is improving all the time. If you know someone (or know someone who knows someone) who plays in the orchestra, ask what the working atmosphere is like. You could also enquire about their core repertoire and which conductors and soloists they work with regularly. It is not note-learning, but it should all be part of your preparation.
Of course, sometimes it is useful to audition for the practice before your dream job comes up. Because you are going through the process for the experience of preparing, make sure to take notes on what you would and would not do next time.
When I flew over to audition in Amsterdam for the Concertgebouw job, I knew that I would not get it. I prepared my parts really well so as not to embarrass myself, but was secretly looking forward just as much to catching up with some friends who lived there and had recently had a baby. Maybe that attitude helped me a little with the initial audition stress, although I must admit my knees were shaking nevertheless. It helped a little to know that if I fell flat on my face, no one knew me there anyway. However, when I was told that I had received the most votes from the first round and was invited to the second round a few months later, I realized there was a very real opportunity at stake so I cranked up my preparation.
Auditions require specific training that is very different than preparation for a concert. An orchestral audition is a very bizarre, abstract thing in which you play a fragment (both horizontally and vertically) of the entire score to somehow show a jury that you know and understand the entire piece. To do this, listen to the work in full many times while you are answering emails, washing the dishes, or taking the dog for a walk. Make those audition works the soundtrack to your life in the weeks leading up to the audition. Be sure to listen to the whole orchestra so you will be familiar with all of the parts and can mentally take an imaginary full orchestra into the audition with you.
Prepare a practice schedule and do not wait for the complete list or invitation. It is almost a guarantee that 75-80% of the list will be standard repertoire anyway.
There are some excellent books and chapters within books on audition preparation, such as Audition Success by Don Greene and Becoming an Orchestral Musician: A Guide for Aspiring Professionals by Richard Davis. Read them well in advance rather than waiting until three weeks before the audition and, expecting them to let you in on secret short cuts. These books can definitely help, but there really are no short cuts to just knowing your stuff.
Write out an ideal preparation schedule. Think about how many weeks of preparation would be best for different types of auditions. It might be helpful to practice in the clothes and shoes you will wear on the day or to play behind a screen if the preliminary rounds might be behind a curtain. Always wait at least two or three days before listening back to any recording to be able to listen more objectively. The actual practice schedule is rarely ideal, but it is good to have a plan from which to work.
You probably have friends who are also doing auditions, so organize an audition club and get together regularly to play solos for one another. Pay particular attention to any criticism offered by other instrumentalists because the panel likely will not be only flute players. There are lots of different styles of audition too, so share audition stories and experiences with one another.
Another strange thing about auditions is that performers have to switch rapidly from 30 seconds of Mendelssohn, to a minute of Bach, to a minute and a half of Ravel, and then Beethoven followed by Stravinsky. Devise key words and images to help you shift character, style, and mood quickly.
While sound might be high up your list, it is one of the most subjective elements of anyone’s playing and may not be what a jury is looking at first. Far more objective and non-negotiable are rhythm, intonation and what is on the page. Practice regularly with a metronome and tuner, and make sure that you question every single dot, dash, dynamic, accent and Italian term and ask why is it there and what it means for the character of the music. In an audition of perhaps just a few short minutes, you have to show the jury what you can do technically and musically. Show flexibility of colors, a wide range of dynamics and articulation, and stability of tempo and intonation.
With a long list of excerpts, divide them into three groups with a mix of style, length and familiarity in each group. Focus on one group per day, but spend the most time on just one or two, and then play through the others. Change which works get your concentrated practice each time the group comes round.
Remember that every single time someone walks into an audition; the jury wants that candidate to show themselves at their best. The jury is on your side and is not the enemy. At the end of the day, they are simply choosing the player they might want to sit next to and play music with for the coming years.
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Other Preparation Tips
Be prepared! Aside from playing your socks off, try these ideas to give yourself the best possible chance.
• Be on time. Take an earlier train and maybe even practice your journey to the venue. Know where the stage door is. (Not finding the stage door is the subject of many a musician’s bad dreams.)
• Bring water and a snack. You may have some time to wait. There may not be anything available, and you do not want to waste time and energy searching for something there.
• Bring earplugs. When you are nervous, everyone in the warm-up room will sound better, louder, and faster than you. Earplugs will help keep you focused on doing your best.
• Take a book, newspaper, or puzzle book. It will keep you occupied during long waits.
• Plan your warm-up routine. Know how long it takes you to get from zero to peak performance readiness.
• Be flexible and expect anything. Don’t let changes in the schedule or program shake you. Prepare for the unexpected at practice runs by asking friends acting as your audience to change the order, for example.
• Wear smart, comfortable clothes. Wear layers as you will not be able to control the room temperature.
• Think about taking your own pianist. This gives you more time to rehearse and ensures that you get the tempo you want. Remember though that your choice of piano player says something about you.
• Follow-up. After the audition email the orchestra and ask politely if feedback from a jury member might be possible.
• Canceling. If for some reason you cannot attend, cancel as soon as possible. Orchestras take note of no-shows and it might hurt your chances of getting invited again if they have another set of auditions.