I have (update: had – it was cancelled, sigh) an orchestral audition coming up in a few weeks so I thought I would share some of the audition advice I have learned over my many years of playing the violin. I have scoured the interwebs for audition advice and have found some great stuff. There is a lot of material out there, plus my own experiences, but I’ll try to be as concise as possible. Here are my best tips for violinists.
My First Audition
At the time of this writing, my very first orchestral audition was 22 years ago in Fort Lauderdale, FL. I was in my early 20s and felt invincable. Despite never auditioning before and never learning most of the excerpts prior to preparing for this audition, I felt like this was a gimme. There were multiple openings for violins and the orchestra was a very good, but not world-class group. The audition was quite vigorous for a lesser-known orchestra. It included both a Mozart Concerto and one movement of unaccompanied Bach. No romantic concerto required. Good.
The excerpts were pretty standard. There was Don Juan (duh), and Mozart 39 (1st and last movements), and the dreaded Schumann Scherzo from the 2nd Symphony. These are on about 90% of all symphony auditions. Then there were a few more excerpts (I don’t remember them all but there were about 10 altogether). Beethoven Scherzo from Eroica, Brahms 2nd, 1st movement (odd that the 4th symphony wasn’t on there), and the first and last movements from the Classical Symphony by Prokofiev. I think there was also some Mendelssohn on there, probably the 1st movement of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
My Big Mistakes
The biggest mistake I made with this audition was, I didn’t know any of the excerpts ahead of time. Yes, I had performed the Brahms and the Beethoven a few times, but I didn’t really know them. I had 3 months to learn all of this plus a Mozart Concerto and Bach. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my own advice on practicing smart, and needless to say, my performance at the audition was not polished. I played at about 75% of my ability which just isn’t good enough to get a decent job in a good orchestra. Also, there were hundreds of violinists there; way more than anticipated. They had to spread the audition out to 3 days.
My second big mistake was playing very early. I was the 4th person to play. I’ve heard that unless you are Joshua Freaking Bell, you stand almost no chance of advancing when you are in the first 10 or so people to play. The audition advice I took from this experience was, be on time, but don’t be too on time. I played my concerto and the Mozart Symphony and that was it. Then, I went home.
I learned more from failing at my first audition than at any subsequent one. You will not win every audition, even if you’re the best player there (more on that in a minute). I’ve won a couple, and not won five or six. After a few years of injuries and successful back surgery, I’m back at it again. I’m ready to give you my favorite bits of audition advice.
Audition Advice – Retpertoire
It is extremely important that you choose your solo repertoire wisely. Equally important, know what to expect for the excerpts. There are 8-10 standard excerpts that appear almost all the time. If you already have them learned, you can spend your preparation time on your solo material and polishing the excerpts instead of learning them.
Concerto and Bach
Normally, the committee wants a Mozart Concerto with cadenza (#3, 4, or 5 – don’t try and be fancy by playing #2 or something). Then they also want a contrasting romantic concerto (first movement – sometimes they want a cadenza – not normally but watch out). This means one of three works; Tchaikovsky, Brahms, or Sibelius. Audition committees do not want to learn new music at your audition. Don’t dredge up some unknown concerto by your college roommate that no one knows. Stick to the standard repertoire. Bartok, Barber, Prokofiev, or Glazounov, are all fine as well. For more info, watch this excellent video. I would stay away from Beethoven (even though it’s my favorite concerto) as it is too similar to Mozart and not overly technical.
The committee may ask for a movement of Bach. If this happens, try and play one that you’re really good at. Ideally, you’ll play one of the fugues or at least a fast movement. Do NOT play the Chacconne. It is too long and too difficult and the committee has already heard it played badly enough times. I usually play the A minor or G minor Fugue. I’ve played the D minor Sarabande as well.
One last thing. Sometimes the committee does not specify what type of concerto they want. The audition that I am preparing for right now just says “concerto.” Choose one that shows off your technique the best. I chose Brahms as it sits well with me. Many people prefer Tchaikovsky because Brahms can be awkward for the hand (those @#$! tenths), but I’ve always played Brahms better. I’m not comfortable playing Sibelius at a high level so I’m leaving it alone. If you choose Mozart for your concerto, make sure you play it perfectly. Mozart cannot have any “dirt” in it. Big romantic concertos can have some. If there’s dirt, play something else.
Excerpts – There are Three and Then There’s All the Others
For me, there are three big stress-inducing excerpts and then there are all the rest. Every audition (save the one I’m doing right now) has had all of the “big three.” The audition I am working on right now does not have the Schumann Scherzo. Thank God!
Learn Don Juan. It will be on every audition you play. Learn Don Juan like a concerto. It plays like one. This is why I have always had very little trouble with it. It’s not like a Mozart or Beethoven symphony where you’re constantly counting out rests. In Strauss, you just play, and most of the time, loudly. It’s not easy by any stretch, but it sure isn’t delicate like most of the other excerpts.
Just remember, anyone can play the first page of Don Juan with only a few mistakes. Many people play it perfectly. Learn it well. And hey, here’s a hint; play some dynamics and do some phrasing! Not everyone will do that so you can set yourself apart by playing exactly what the composer wrote. Also, unless you make the finals, you probably won’t play this piece. Usually, the committee starts with Mozart (see below) and then they have the finalists play Don Juan.
The Schumann Scherzo
In my (not so) humble opinion, the Schumann Scherzo is the most difficult excerpt on any list. It is just pure evil. It is fast, difficult, and requires the highest level of bow vs. left-hand coordination. There is a great series of videos on audition repertoire by Nathan Cole and he spends a lot of time on this scherzo. Check out his videos because they are extremely helpful.
This piece is another separator. It separates out the weak players. You need a healthy spiccato and fast fingers. There are also dynamics and even a few little ritardandos here and there. Another of my favorite bits of audition advice – learn this excerpt very well whether it’s on your next excerpt list or not. You will play it sooner rather than later. Trust me.
Mozart Symphony #39
The Mozart 39th Symphony is almost as difficult. Not a technical terror like the Schumann, it still causes trouble. At just about every audition you will take, you will play Mozart first. That is how the committee eliminates weak candidates. If you have to prepare both a Mozart concerto and a romantic concerto, you will always play Mozart first, so get ready. Mozart must be played with the highest degree of clarity, intonation, and rhythm. The notes are not difficult (the finale from #39 aside) so you had better play them all correctly and beautifully. As I said above, there can be no “dirt.” No scratches, squeaks or other imperfections. This is why Mozart is played early at every audition.
The finale is on most excerpt lists, but watch out for the first movement. The first excerpt I played at my first audition was the opening of the symphony. You need to play the correct rhythm (hold the long notes out), and then you need to play those little scales very quietly and perfectly. The slow movement also pops up from time to time. There are tricky rhythms all over the place there so look out.
The Other Common Excerpts
Like I said, I’ve done about a half dozen auditions in the last 20+ years and I’ve seen a lot of the same excerpts at most of them. The best audition advice I can give you is to learn all of the standard excerpts so when they appear on an audition, you are ready.
- Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony – most auditions have either the first or last movement but some have the slow movement also
- Brahms 4th Symphony – 3rd movement – a staple on many auditions
- Brahms 2nd Symphony – 1st movement beginning and then that stuff from Rehearsal E to the first ending.
- Beethoven – Scherzo from the 3rd Symphony, slow movement of the 9th
- Beethoven – Leonore 3 Overture – you’ll know the place the minute you look at it.
- Mendelssohn – Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo
- Mozart Symphony #35 – movements 1, 2, and 4
- Brahms 1st Symphony – not very common, but the beginning of the 1st movement comes up from time to time (I’m preparing it right now).
Sometimes orchestras will include repertoire that they are performing that season. If you see some strange symphonies on there, that is probably why.
There are also some additional excerpts specifically for concertmaster and 2nd violin auditions.
- Any standard piece with a concertmaster solo – Scheherezade, Ein Heldenleben, B-Minor Mass (Bach), Dvorak 8th Symphony.
- Brahms 1st Piano Concerto 3rd movement rehearsal E – 2nd violin
- Mozart – Magic Flute Overture, Allegro – 2nd violin
- Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony 2nd movement “Meno Mosso” – 2nd violin
For a very detailed list, look here.
Audition Advice – Psychology
Before you start getting stressed about auditions, remember one thing. I saw this great audition advice in an interview with a committee member of a major symphony orchestra. They want to hire someone. Give them every excuse to hire you. They are not waiting for you to make a mistake just so they can send you home. A mistake isn’t an automatic disqualification. Chronic bad intonation or rhythm gets you sent home, not one or two squeaks or missed notes. Prepare with the intention of playing perfectly, but don’t freak out if you make a mistake. The committee knows you are nervous and they will let some things go because of this.
Intonation and rhythm are important, but equally important is an understanding of each piece. Learn the entire symphony that each excerpt comes from. In today’s world, you can go to Youtube and listen to anything you like. Make sure you know how each piece goes and count out the rests. Most excerpts have a minimum of silence, but there are a few bars rest here and there. Make sure you hear the piece in your head as you play. The committee is listening for this.
Some Last Tidbits
As I said earlier (way earlier in this really long post), you may be the best player in the room, but not win the audition. Symphonies are looking for someone who will fit in. They want someone who will blend perfectly with the existing group. If you go in and play your excerpts loud and fast thinking that your outstanding technical display will win over the committee, you are wrong. No symphony wants to hire a section player who will stick out during a performance.
Perform your audition material for friends and family. Having people in front of you changes your mindset. You need to be ready for having people in the room with you. Also, record yourself, especially with video. The camera helps to mimic audition conditions.
Lastly, my favorite audition advice are three words my conducting teacher always used. Confidence Through Preparation. If you are prepared, there is really no reason to be nervous or timid. If you’ve prepared properly, you should be able to play your audition without debilitating stage fright. Most stage fright comes from a worry of screwing up. If you are prepared, you may have a little accident here or there, but you won’t screw up because you know what you’re doing.