Orchestra Auditions for Non-Musicians

I know a lot of folks reading this blog may already know about orchestra auditions, but if you aren’t a musician, you might be curious.  How does somebody get a job in a symphony orchestra?  In some cities, this is a decent paying full time position.  In other cities, it is not a full time position (or is perhaps a very poor paying full time position.)  Most of the players have degrees in music performance from major conservatories such as the Juilliard School of Music or (my alma mater) the Cleveland Institute of Music.  Some are not from conservatories, but very few do not have performance degrees, usually not only a bachelor’s degree but also a master’s or perhaps further professional degrees.

Let me give you a brief rundown on how one gets a job in a symphony orchestra.

The orchestra announces an opening in the trade paper.  If you are interested, you send in your resume.  They decide whether to invite you or not (different orchestras have different standards).  If you are invited, they send you a list of the pieces to learn, known as the “audition list”.  Usually you have to learn several movements of concertos, some other solo pieces perhaps, and a lot of different parts from the orchestral repertoire (known as “excerpts”).  This list can range from 15 to 20 minutes worth of music to several hours worth.  Then you must learn all the pieces on the list.  Many you may already know, but you must learn them ridiculously well (as close to perfect as possible).  Any mistake could cost you the audition.  But yet, you must also play in a style that makes people want to vote for you (yes, this is decided by a committee of members of the orchestra plus the conductor).  It is nearly impossible to figure out what that style might be, and yet you must try.  You must strive for perfect intonation, rhythm, beautiful tone quality, a pleasing sound, lovely dynamic contrast, nice phrasing, clear articulations.  It helps if you have a very fine (perhaps costing over $100,000 for a violin) instrument.

{Before that, you probably started playing your instrument at the age of 3, 4 or 5.  You spent hours each day in your childhood to adolescence practicing your instrument, perfecting your skills.  You spent your summers at music festivals and schools.  You spent your weekends playing with ensembles or traveling for workshops or youth orchestra.  You spent your afternoons practicing or at lessons.  Your entire childhood is likely defined by your instrument.  By the time you reach college, you (ideally) have already spent 10,000 hours practicing.  If not, by the time you finish college you should have, or else (and I’m being brutally honest here) you have no shot of making a career out of music performance.  Most people spend at least 5 years practicing 3 to 6 hours a day, if not 10 or 15 years.  Some people keep this up for decades.  Most people do not get a job in a major symphony.}

For each audition advertised, probably 100 to 500 people send in resumes.  Then perhaps, 20 to 80 actually take the audition.  To take an audition, you pay your own way there, you pay transportation, hotel, and food.  You show up at your appointed (randomly, perhaps) time, and you play a few things from the audition list, maybe five minutes worth, maybe more, maybe less.  Likely the audition will be a blind audition (behind a screen) so nobody knows who you are.  If you play well enough to stick out from the crowd, you might get advanced from the first round (perhaps 1 in 6 to 10 do).  If not, you go home and try again next time–tired, poorer, but hopefully a little wiser.  If you make it past the first round, you will play again, usually the same day, but sometimes the next day or perhaps you have to make another trip.  This second trip COULD be reimbursed, but not always.  (At least this is all tax-deductible).  Sometimes after the second round a winner is chosen, but more often there is another round.  Perhaps now only 2 to 3 people are remaining.

And out of those remaining people, there is no guarantee a winner will be chosen.  Too often the committee decides no one from the final round is qualified to play in the orchestra.

This is what Chris and I have been going through for the past 10 years or so.  I won an audition for a job in the Charlotte Symphony 10 years ago.  I was chosen from about 30, after two rounds only.  I played there for two years before deciding to leave for a wide variety of reasons.  Chris won an audition for a one-year position in the symphony here, which has led to 4 one year positions, but none of them are permanent.  I am out of the “audition circuit” at this time, as I feel his chances are better and my talents do lie more with teaching (also, in any relationship there must be compromise, plus I am too injury prone to really put in the time and effort involved to win a major audition, sadly).  But he is still in it.  It is hard.  And then, even if you are lucky enough to get a job (and yes, there is a large element of luck involved in addition to ridiculous amounts of hard work), in this economy there is no guarantee that the orchestra won’t go under!

Why do we do it?  Well…what ELSE would we do??

That’s my answer to anybody who wants to go into music for a career.  If you can think of something else you’d rather do, please go do that. It’s just not worth it otherwise.

You won’t love what you do most days, but sometimes you will love it so much that all the pain and suffering is worthwhile. 

32 thoughts on “Orchestra Auditions for Non-Musicians”

  1. I started out as a music performance major (flute) but after 2 years I knew that if I wanted to continue loving music, I needed to do something else. I had/have horrible performance anxiety and I was making myself physically ill from having my nerves shot all the time. Fortunately I was allowed to remain in the performance studio for lessons and masterclass because I *was* willing to put in the time and effort practicing, I just knew that I wasn’t going to make a career out of music performance. (I’m sure you can relate that most people you knew switching out of performace changed their major from music entirely due to the burn out/resentment factor) I ultimately switched to music therapy but after grad school I am now in an entirely different field.

    Not to sound hokey, but I really admire professional musicians b/c it takes an incredible amount of fortitude and courage to put yourself out there constantly for something that you have to LOVE doing.

  2. Well said. I made the decision at a certain point that I didn’t love it enough to keep going down that road (and for me, too, being in a relationship influenced that decision.) And it was teaching, actually, that made me fall in love with music again.

  3. ah, I had to laugh about this. It really makes no sense, does it? =-D I loved reading your explanation, b/c I’ve tried to explain it so many times and without fail, get the most baffled looks. WHY in the world would people put themselves through this torture?? And yet, so many of us have and continue to do so. And the funny things is, sometimes I really miss those days. =-D Btw, thanks for your book recommendation on my blog. That sounds so interesting! It makes me wish I had a Kindle. I’ll keep it in mind, though, for when my parents come to visit this Fall.

    1. I think part of the reason most people don’t understand and often we have such a difficult time explaining it to people is precisely because our childhoods are often synonymous with our instruments and our music. For years we get the admiration and attention of peers, parents and colleagues. Our instruments and the music we make with them becomes fused with our very beings. To other people, Music and Playing an Instrument are so peripheral to their daily lives that it makes sense to think it would be the same thing for musicians. Hence it seems to make no sense that another human would put themselves through the ringer just to get a job that might never pay as much as the effort and expense put into getting it.

      I think many of us keep at it partially because we don’t know what else to do, but also partially because it has become such an integral part of who we are. The question “why bother” doesn’t even come up, or if it does is frankly unthinkable.

      Excellent post, I will share with my musician and non-musician friends alike. Best of luck!

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve given up trying to explain to people why I just don’t do auditions after earning three performance degrees. When I try to tell people why it’s not worth the time/effort/potential insanity to enter the audition circuit, I get the feeling they are thinking that it must actually be because I’m not a good violinist. Thanks for spelling it out for them.

  5. In most auditions I’ve done (for top US orchestras) there have been well over 100 people who were at the audition. 20-80 is actually very much on the low end.

  6. And thank you for your comment, too! I really enjoyed reading this entry, and I hope it is OK with you that I wanted to share it with people.

    🙂 Emily

  7. Tragically, many musicians today are (sometimes unknowingly) dead inside; their awareness to the power of music has been so dulled by the training and business of music that they no longer feel any joy (playing music).

    1. I would strongly disagree–unknowingly dead inside? As a well trained musician I am MORE aware of the power of music than most people…that is why I dedicate my life to it, rather than do a job that makes a lot more money for WAY less work. But thanks for commenting 😉

  8. Most people spend at least 5 years practicing 3 to 6 hours a day, if not 10 or 15 years. Some people keep this up for decades. Most people do not get a job in a major symphony.}

    Most people do not spend at least five years practicing 3 to 6 hours every day. This is a big part of what separates the people who get a job in a major symphony. It would be more accurate to say that most music majors do not get a job in a major symphony.

    1. I think both are accurate! And most music performance majors I know and knew spend at least that amount of time practicing–senior year of high school plus 4 years of college was my thinking. And probably more afterwards…and maybe more before.

    2. Dear E,

      I did. –I spent 10 years in a row practicing my instrument for 4 hours per day. I had a Masters Degree in Music Performance and studied with many “famous” players. I was die hard. As soon as I got to my potential, I realized I was 35 years old, completely on my own with no support, and ready to take auditions but completely poor. Oddly enough, I started to compose music and take voice lessons and now I’m a paid professional singer and have many works in the works. I had to go through all that practicing for my dream of playing in an orchestra to bring myself to realization and life, so to speak. I may be in the minority of musicians, though. Who knows? Many of us are hiding in our practice rooms, maybe.

  9. yep absolutely – put up in a hotel in town, per diems, of course paid for the work done, almost certainly some travel within the country…..why on earth WOULDN’T he audition!?

  10. Interesting to see the instrumental side. We singers have quite the hoops to jump through as well. And any gigs we get are over when that show is over, sadly. We basically must audition for each and every production – no season contracts (except for a VERY small amount of exceptions, which are mostly in Europe anyway.)

  11. Cellist here. I got out after my Masters, and although I accumulated a bit of debt doing it, I feel very privileged to have been able to move on to another career with some earning potential. It makes me sick to think of all the kids (now adults, but because of all the practicing are still emotionally basically kids) who get brow beaten, abused, and victimized by the classical music system in general. By my grad school, a majority of the male professors were having affairs with female students, and all the students were scouring for barely enough gigs to put food on the table – after 8-12 years of college.
    So then you get the gig… what next. You get the privileged of playing in a symphony with ever decreasing budget, and generally moronic management, that requires you to play music that no-one has really been interested in in at least 20-30 years.
    Anyway, I don’t mean to complain, but I feel the sadness and anger of being back in that position – and I hope more people start to speak out about the horrible life and environment that really is “classical” music.
    For those in school, start taking the MCAT, or LSAT… and put your practicing to good use – learn something that could help change your area or even the world.
    The other thing I was going to say was that practicing really isn’t everything its cracked up to be anyway. A good teacher should be able to show someone how to compress their practicing to 2-4 hours a day… with at least 1 day off a week. After my rant though, I fear I’ve already spoken my piece. 🙂

  12. Hi Hannah,
    I can totally sympathize. Musicians trying to overcome injuries to survive a livelihood with the only skills we have?

    During college I was playing in our city symphony without going through auditioning process, but rather being asked by our conductor and professor in university, and I should have counted my blessings in retrospect.

    It’s really a blessings in disguise that I encountered physical injury, Early in college. Even though I have a performance degree in piano, I chosen a second major as alternative. Now I have to say I have a stable income in full time job in technology and sometimes I hated it, but I still play classical music and organize events in non traditional settings each month. It feeds my soul, and looking back, I am more grateful each day that I still love my music, not an obligation to have to love it.

  13. Hi Hannah,
    I work at the Baltimore Symphnony, and one of our staff members forwarded your blog on to me and suggested I ask you about Bolt for the BSO. We have a group of musicians, staff and fans that is running in the Baltimore Running Festival to support the Baltimore Symphony. I know that the BSO isnt your hometown orchestra, but we think of this as running for a musical cause – maybe some other orchestras will try to do the same! Our group seemed to be your kind of thing, so I hope you’ll check us out on facebook (www.facebook.com/boltforthebso) or on our sign-up site, http://www.activegiving.com/donate/bolt2011. Please let me know if you have any questions!

  14. Hi Hannah,

    I was doing some searching online for people blogging about their audition experience and I came across your (apparently very popular) post. I’m beginning the audition process and am currently blogging about it to keep myself motivated and gather experiences from other people who have experienced what I’m going through. Can I link to you/your post? You should come by and check out my blog.


    Great blog by the way!

    – Matt

  15. “What else would we do?” Orchestra jobs are not the only jobs in music performance. When I became disenchanted with auditions/orchestras, I got creative. I now have a job that pays steady and I play for approx 1500 people every week. Get creative. Orchestras are dead. It’s time for a new era of professional music performance for classically trained musicians.

  16. Hi Hannah! A number of things in your post remind me of Oliver Sachs’ book about music and the brain. Go check it out if it’s new to you. I think its called “Musicophilia” (sp.).

    As a lifetime music lover, I find it hard to believe that anyone can question its importance for emotional well-being and its ability to transcend language. I certainly admire anyone who chooses this path and helps to develop music appreciation and musical skill in others.

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