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12 Ways to Ace Your Orchestral Audition

Preparation and post-audition strategy are just as important as being in the seat

Four cellists, friends since music school, have played dozens of auditions for American orchestras since they graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music. They have reached the finals in San Diego, bombed in Boston, struggled in Saint Paul, and triumphed in Saint Louis and Chicago. Even when they competed for the same job, camaraderie kept them going through the joys, frustrations, and absurdities of life on the audition circuit.

So far, two have landed jobs with first-tier orchestras. The other two are still in the game. Here are their stories and their advice about how to ace an audition.

Ken Olsen, 24, lived like a nomad for almost two years. Staying with friends, living out of a single suitcase, he practiced four hours a day, often while watching television. Three times he tried out for section openings in the Boston Symphony Orchestra; twice he auditioned for principal of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; once he tried for principal of the San Diego Symphony. Then he auditioned for assistant principal of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Each time, he advanced to the finals but got the same message: “Sorry.”

When his bank account dwindled to $90 last February, Olsen tried again for the assistant principal position in Chicago.

That time, he won the audition, landing one of the most prestigious, highest-paying jobs in the world of classical music.

“This has been a crazy year,” he says after his first rehearsal with the orchestra. “My life did a total 180 in one day—upside down. I was freaking out, thinking, here I am in the cello section of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and last week I didn’t have a job, an apartment, or much of anything else.”

His experience, and that of his three friends, can provide guidance for others trying to land an orchestral position.

Don’t Obsess

Don’t go crazy trying to upgrade your instrument, Olsen advises. He has played borrowed cellos since high school—his own was a plywood box now stored in his parents’ attic—and he says you don’t need old Italian real estate to win an audition. In fact, he got his Chicago job playing a modern instrument made by Ersen Aycan, a Turkish luthier.

Ironically, he played his second Saint Paul audition—and lost—on a masterpiece. He was determined to upgrade, because after his first audition, someone on the Saint Paul committee had said, “Maybe he doesn’t have such a great cello.” The second time, Olsen accepted his teacher’s help and borrowed a 300-year-old instrument made by Matteo Goffriller. “It had a huge, powerful sound,” Olsen recalls, “and after I played, some people on the committee said, ‘I don’t know about his cello. It’s kind of loud.’”

Made wiser by the absurdity of the situation, Olsen put his effort into practicing with a metronome instead of worrying about instruments.

Appreciate the Application

Even such orchestras as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which holds open auditions for anyone who wants to play, require an application. Pay attention to the instructions, and be sure to submit the application on time. Some orchestras require resumes or recordings, which they use to screen applicants before inviting a select number to attend live auditions. If the committee asks for a resume, send one that is clear and complete. If they want an audio tape, don’t send video. Some European orchestras require a handwritten application with a photo attached.

Get it right—first impressions count.

Know the Schedule, Treat Yourself Well

Bjorn Ranheim, 28, has worked his way up from a training orchestra, the New World Symphony, to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, to occasional jobs as a substitute with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This past April, after trying out twice for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, he won a job in the cello section.

Ranheim has learned to treat himself well before auditions. He cooks good food, works out regularly, takes yoga classes, and stretches before he goes onstage.

He advises that you give yourself plenty of time and space on audition day. Before you plan your trip, find out where and when the audition will be held. Book a room in a hotel close to the hall so travel will not be an issue. Ask detailed questions about the process, so you know whether and when warm-up rooms will be available; whether to take your own food and water; whether preliminary and final rounds will occur on the same day.

Looking back, Ranheim laughs at the way he handled his first Saint Louis audition. He showed up at 8 am, as instructed, ready to play. The orchestra’s custom, it turned out, was to assemble all the candidates at 8 am and have them draw straws for their playing order. Ranheim drew 14 out of 14.

“It was a nice spring day,” he recalls, “so I went over to the university campus, walked around, had some lunch, relaxed. When I finally wandered back to the hall, the personnel manager said, ‘Um, your room is ready. You’re going on in 20 minutes.’ I didn’t have time to get mentally focused or physically warmed up. When I went onstage, I was so completely unprepared to play that I crashed and burned.”

The next year, auditioning for the same job, Ranheim drew 11 out of 13.

“This time, I made sure I had plenty of interesting magazines, my ear plugs, my portable CD player, and good snacks so I could be wholly comfortable relaxing around there the entire day,” he says.

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