Thoughts on the Orchestral Audition

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by David Bourque, Bass clarinetist (retired), Toronto Symphony

This article will stir up some discussions in orchestra musicians and strong, disparate opinions will be voiced. So, here we go…

The following statement is true and nothing has been changed to protect the innocent: the orchestral audition does not identify the best candidate for the orchestral position, rather it identifies who can play all the hard bits in one sitting. Sometimes the identified player is the best candidate for the position, but in some instances, the chosen player is not the best candidate to actually do the job.

I know, I know. Some of you are saying, “I went through this process – everyone should have to do the same thing.” I ask, “Why does everyone have to go through a process that has little to do with the job?”

I have seen many orchestral auditions, I have taken my share of them and I was fortunate enough to win one of them and come close in others. In my experience, the orchestral audition is an anachronistic device that has long outlived its usefulness and relevance. There is no other profession in the world that uses a system like the orchestral audition:

  • Where, besides at an orchestral audition, are the candidates not interviewed for interpersonal skills in addition to demonstrating their professional skills?
  • Where does an applicant have to demonstrate the ability to do everything difficult in their field in 25 minutes even though this ability will never present in 
the real-work situation?
  • In what business does the interview/audition process 
have so little to do with the actual job (i.e. “playing alone” versus “in a section”; flexibility in tuning, balance, blend; when was the last time a second player played the Mozart concerto with their orchestra)?
  • In what business does experience not play a major role in the job interview-hiring process? A player with significant orchestral experience may get advanced to the second round where they are put through points 1, 2, and 3 above. That is the sole nod to their valuable experience. How is that remotely adequate, and how does that demonstrate this candidate’s experience? Would you not think that someone who has played major repertoire in an orchestra has something to offer that is not identified in the current audition process? 

While there are some exceptions, the system used by audition committees all over the world is rife with abuse; committees do things like having players fly in at their own expense from far away only to play five minutes and be told “Thanks for coming.” They hear 50 applicants and choose no one for the job. Do you think that highly qualified applicants for a corporate position would tolerate this treatment? Orchestra committees sometime hold multiple auditions for the same opening over a period of years. Is the committee waiting for another player to be born, grow up and trained to fill the opening? At some subconscious level, they may be looking for “the same” player who has just retired after many years of working with them. I have seen this happen in Toronto for two major principal jobs. This search is destined to be fruitless, and I have seen many excellent players passed over for jobs and the wrong players hired, only to not be granted tenure.

The orchestral audition came to be in the 1950’s as a result of music directors and managers abusing the hiring process by hiring their buddies, but that time is long past, and even if it were not, there must now be another way to ensure that this abuse in hiring does not reoccur. Currently, there seems to be no better system than the orchestral audition. We must find a better way.

Orchestra committees are accustomed to hearing an instrument in the full orchestra context, and often while they themselves are playing. They are not accustomed to hearing wind (string, brass) instruments on a stand-alone basis as heard at auditions. The edgy, rough playing that can often be requisite in an orchestral wind section is an anathema at auditions. A friend of mine and bass clarinet colleague, who plays in a major U.S. orchestra, said, “the goal lately (at auditions) seems to be to insult the fewest people. Actually playing as loud as we do in an orchestra, while totally necessary to do the job, insults some people at the auditions.”

Experienced players will come to an audition and play the excerpts how they should be played in the or- chestra and, in most cases, this will get them bounced from the process. In an orchestral wind section, forte can be extremely loud and sometimes coarse, the attacks of notes can be very hard-sounding, and the staccati can sound silly when they are played as short as they need to be in the wind section context. In order to guard against an early exit from the audition, excerpts must be played on a small scale: never orchestral forte, never too accented, never too short. However, the soft end of the dynamics need to be clearly defined, even exaggerated; in many cases, the excerpt would not be played that soft in the orchestra. Orchestral experience not ‘adapted for audition use’ is a liability at auditions if the player is not aware of the difference between playing an audition and doing the real job. How many great candidates have not been promoted to the next round because they have the audacity to play the excerpts like they really should be played?

What can be done? For starters, let’s interview the person. We will be working with this musician as a colleague, possibly for decades. Would it not be nice to know that the candidate understands what is required to work with people and in an orchestral section? Can we find a way to always have the candidate play in the orchestra as part of the audition process, not just for ten minutes with four other candidates, but for a week or two? The trend toward video auditions could well lend itself to this approach as it could be the filter. By being invited to play in the orchestra as part of their audition, candidates could show what they really know that is relevant to doing the job.

We are creative people, that’s what we do. In order to find a new way for finding excellent players to fill positions in our orchestras, we are only limited by under- utilizing the creativity that is so much a part of our being. There is another way, we just need to find it.

About the Writer

David Bourque played clarinet and bass clarinet in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1983–2011. He can be reached through his website.


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