Skip to main content

What it Takes to Land a Major Symphony Job

__________________________________________________________

William “Bill” Lucas joined the trumpet section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1988 bringing versatility and a flair for jazz. He has served on musicians’ Orchestra, Education and Negotiating Committees.  Bill has a national reputation for coaching musicians in the art of audition preparation and is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan School of Music where he teaches jazz trumpet.

________________________________________________________

What does it take to land a job in a major American symphony orchestra such as the Detroit Symphony? Or the Philharmonics of Los Angeles and New York? Or the Symphonies of Boston or Chicago?

Like most corporations, gaining entry into a symphony orchestra involves a process of scrutiny. In the business world, we know this process as the job interview, which involves both a mailed resume and the subsequent in-person interview itself. But in the symphony orchestra world, while resumes are still mailed, the interview is replaced by what is known as an audition. These auditions are attended by musicians from all over the world, and, consistently, boast a candidate pool of several hundred for a single opening. So to understand how a musician becomes a tenured member of a top-ten orchestra, one must first have a look at the audition process itself.

Though an audition candidate applies for a symphony job in writing, the interview itself, unlike a business interview, is performed anonymously. This is done with the audition candidate performing for a committee from behind an audition screen or curtain. A “blind audition,” as it is known, is widely recognized as the fairest process in the industry and one that the Detroit Symphony has employed for decades. A blind audition conceals race, gender, stature, and other physical characteristics. Audition candidates attending such  blind auditions are judged purely on their artistry, with no other considerations factoring into the decision making of the audition committee.

The Audition Committee, who sit behind the screen, consists of several of the orchestra’s tenured musicians who listen critically for what they hope will be their newest colleague. The candidate pool is eventually reduced to three or four candidates through rounds of preliminaries and semi-finals, to what is known as the final round, where the Music Director joins the Audition Committee. It is at this final round that a decision to hire someone is usually, but not always, rendered.

The process an audition candidate goes through behind the scenes however, is a very telling testament for why a top-ten orchestra is such a special ensemble.

A candidate who applies for an orchestral opening is given what is called “The List”. This list contains specific reference to musical passages that are known as “excerpts”, i.e. portions of major symphonic works that present technical and artistic issues that a musician must conquer, rendering them from what most mortal musicians find to be difficult or even impossible, into sublime, pristine musical expressions.

A list can contain 20, 30 or even more symphonic works from which many excerpts may be chosen. Audition lists are typically so exhaustive that it is logistically impossible to play through all of the excerpts over several hours, but only over several days. As if that weren’t enough, sight-reading can be expected at any audition and can be anything whatsoever, music that the candidate is expected to play as perfectly as if having practiced it for months. You can see then, that even for a seasoned pro who knows almost all of the music, it literally takes months to hone, polish and perfect an audition list.

Probably as well, you can imagine that the process of preparing for an audition is a bit of a science. There are, in fact, several audition “gurus” out there who specialize in aiding those who audition to prepare successfully for the job they want. Unlike a job interview where you may drop a pencil, nervously stumble over a word, or restate an answer again, such equivalent inaccuracies at a symphony audition get you immediately expelled with a “Thank You, NEXT!!” from behind the audition screen. At a symphony audition, there is no room for mistake, of any kind, ever. And that presents its share of problems for an audition candidate, who must not only know all the music, but also be prepared to perform it perfectly at any given time of the day or night, as auditions frequently begin early and run late into the evening. Audition gurus, then, know the secrets for calming one’s nerves, techniques of positive thinking and affirmation, and preparation techniques that inspire rather than fatigue a candidate.

And none of this preparation is cheap. A great instrument, not merely a good instrument, is a must and carries a price tag of thousands upon thousands of dollars. Lessons and coachings and visits to the gurus… hundreds of dollars. Flights, transportation, meals, lodging… a thousand dollars easy. Not to mention the money that audition candidates frequently have to turn down in order to prepare for an audition. And, while winning the job is priceless, all of this preparation can be financially debilitating for a freelancer looking for his first orchestra job. As for the seasoned pro with a job, it is not only expensive but exhausting to simultaneously perform on the job and prepare for an audition.

In part two of my article I will discuss how musicians arrive at their destinations.