skip to main content

What's the application process for auditioning

There are three steps to gaining a position in an orchestra or ensemble. Each one is a crucial move towards the goal of making music your career.

Step 1: The application

A good CV is essential and you must tailor it for each prospective group. A one-page CV that packs a punch will be far more impressive than reams of information.

Some ensembles will have an application form that spells out exactly what type of information you are required to include. However, many ensembles do not and if this is the case, then call or email the relevant staff for advice on the best format for your CV, or details of what information they want to see on an application form.

Some orchestras will want you to include a CD of your recordings; whereas others may only want to hear you play in front of them — find out as much as you can, as they all differ.

For example, the Southbank Sinfonia uses a detailed application form which makes it clear exactly what information you will need to include, such as referees, education, photo and CV. In fact, the lack of guidance on an institution’s application form may be part of the process itself, to weed out inexperienced players when there are vast numbers applying, as Claire Mera-Nelson’s experience bears out.

‘One London orchestra wanted to see things such as music qualifications, education work, prizes or scholarships, teaching experience, professional experience, solo or chamber music, recording, etc,’ explains Claire, ‘but didn’t want to see college orchestras, pieces played or conductors worked with.’

Step 2: The audition

Audition requirements can also vary wildly, with some groups leaving it up to the player to choose repertoire, while others give general guidelines, and some may specify set pieces for each instrument.

Whichever set pieces you choose to play, make sure you know them inside out so that you will feel confident. If you are asked to sight-read cold, it may be a sign that you have caught the interest of the audition panel, rather than having displeased them.

The BBC Concert Orchestra’s audition process combines set pieces with unseen sight-reading.

Step 3: The trial

If your audition has been successful, it’s likely you will then be invited to play a series of trial dates. The orchestra will try a selection of musicians and, after a period of time that could be a year or more in length, decide which players to offer positions to.

‘We would try to bring the players in for a block of time, and hopefully give them contrasting work,’ says Alex. ‘As the diet of music in this orchestra is so widely varied, we might give them something classical, something that’s light; we might give them a concert and a recording — a mixture of things.’

As with all occupations, someone with well developed communication skills who is pleasant to work with has a much better chance of gaining a permanent place following any trial period, as Claire Mera-Nelson’s experience attests.

‘You’ve got a lot of talent out there, and when you bring someone in on their first day, if they get on with it and muck in, they’ll get invited back,’ she says. ‘It’s not necessarily the people who are technically the stars.’

How to audition successfully

Whether you’re a classical flautist or a jazz drummer, you won’t progress far up the career ladder without being asked to audition. For many musicians, the prospect is intimidating, combining the scrutiny of a job interview with the challenge of producing a fluent performance in an unnatural environment.  

Nor are your nerves likely to be calmed by the knowledge that high-profile orchestras, in particular, are overwhelmed with applications for every seat, meaning success or failure can turn on the tiniest factors. Fortunately, as veteran musicians know, there’s an art to successful auditioning, and it starts long before you face the panel and play your first note. 

Keep an ear to the ground 

There’s no point making speculative approaches to orchestras who don’t need players. Instead, decide which towns and cities you can realistically reach and check the resident orchestras’ websites for current vacancies. If this approach is too labour-intensive, sign up for notifications from dedicated websites like Music Jobs UK or, if you’re a more established player, join a diary service like Morgensterns or the Musicians Answering Service, who’ll put opportunities your way, for a fee.  

Do your homework 

Every orchestra will have its own distinct ethos, atmosphere and repertoire, ranging from romantic classical to film scores – and your chances of success at audition will certainly improve if you can soak these up. Visit the orchestra’s website, follow their social media channels, and if you can attend a concert before applying, even better. If you’re at a music college or conservatoire, your tutor or careers counsellor may have some pointers on what to expect – and could even connect you with an ex-student who now plays in the lineup.  

Brush up your CV 

Given the level of competition to even reach the audition stage, it’s vital to assemble a strong application package. Again, check the website of the orchestra you’re applying to, then give them everything they request (and nothing they don’t). They might ask you to apply via an online form, in which case, don’t send extraneous paperwork. It’s possible you’ll be asked to send recordings of your playing, so don’t post a CD if they prefer WAVs via email. 

The importance of repertoire 

When it comes to the question of what you’ll play at audition, there’s a huge variation between orchestras’ expectations. Some will tell you which pieces to prepare, while others let you decide, to see if your choices suggest a good fit (in this case, give yourself an edge by investigating recent concerts, and even glean the audition panel’s tastes with some digging on Twitter). If you’re given prescribed pieces, get a feel for how the orchestra will expect them to be interpreted. “Listen to different recordings of the pieces the excerpts are from and check if there’s a recording of the orchestra you’re auditioning for,” says Colette Overdijk, Tutti First Violin with the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “You can possibly find out how they’d like to hear this excerpt.” 

Preparation is king 

Whether you’re auditioning for a classical or jazz gig, it almost goes without saying that you should know the pieces and your parts inside-out. For a rock audition, it also pays to have a few embellishments in your back pocket, as the band may ask you to put your stamp on the song. For orchestras, bear in mind that you may be asked to sight-read. “Do mock auditions,” suggests Colette. “Play to people who make you nervous, to simulate the audition situation. Nothing is quite like an audition, but try to get as close as possible, to get used to the feeling. Also, practise with a metronome. In an orchestra, it’s very important to be able to keep consistent pulse – it’s difficult enough getting 80 people to play together.”  

Be professional 

On the day of the audition, wear a smart outfit that makes you feel confident and is comfortable to perform in. Check over your instrument and equipment before you leave home, then arrive early, find the venue and get a coffee nearby – rather than leaving no room in your schedule for cancelled trains. When you meet the panel, project a manner that suggests you’re confident, capable and passionate, without being cocky. And if you’re auditioning for a rock band, just bring along your core equipment, not the wilder FX pedals in your collection. You’ll be expected to tune up, set up and dig out a good sound fast – all under scrutiny – so it’s best to have a bare-bones rig. 

Trust in your talent 

If you’re sufficiently rehearsed, you shouldn’t have to think about the music. Just let the pieces flow and, critically, if you make a mistake, keep playing (“Approach it as musically as possible, demonstrate contrasts of dynamics and style,” suggests Colette. “Ultimately the panel likes to enjoy nice music”). For a rock or jazz band, meanwhile, you’re likely to be playing alongside the other members, so don’t turn up too loud, and don’t show off your skills to the detriment of the performance – it’s more important to lock into the groove. 

Jump through the hoops 

Typically, a band will let you know quickly if the gig is yours. With orchestras, the process is often a little thornier and more drawn-out, with a shortlist of players asked to play several trial dates, to assess how they fit into the whole ensemble. This can sometimes take a full year, and only then will you learn if you’ve been successful at securing a permanent seat. During this test period, make yourself a vital and well-liked part of the team, contributing above and beyond the nightly performance and mucking in behind the scenes. Your interpersonal skills are just as important as your musical chops. 

Learn from your mistakes if you fail

Pick yourself up, consider why the audition didn’t go as planned and endeavour to fix the issue next time an opportunity arises. Ask the band or orchestra if they have any feedback, and be sure to act on it, whether that means better preparation or working on your presentation. And if the criticism is that you don’t have enough experience for that seat in that orchestra, aim for a less illustrious role and build up your CV by degrees: European orchestras can be an excellent training ground, with less fierce competition than the UK.

9 quick tips to successful audition

1. Research ensembles 

If you specialise in classical pieces, then there is obviously no sense in applying for a position in a contemporary group. 

2. Query the repertoire 

Ask what sort of repertoire they would like you to perform. If they send set pieces, learn them inside out so you perform at your best. 

3. Choose solid pieces 

The auditioners are listening to see if you will blend in, so if the choice of material is left up to you, pick a solid piece that you know very well. 

4. Dress smartly and comfortably 

Sort out your dress code: wear something that is stylish and flattering, but also comfortable to wear while playing your instrument. 

5. Keep breathing 

Relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing and stretching, will get your energy flowing and could enhance your playing technique. 

6. Act confidently 

Speak clearly and confidently when asked questions. Even if you do not feel confident, act as though you are, and you will appear so. 

7. Focus on the music 

Concentrate on your playing and how much you love the piece. Get inside the music — do not analyse it, trust your body to take over. 

8. Glide past mistakes 

As with any performance, if you make a mistake, just smile and keep going as if nothing untoward has happened. 

9. Be gracious 

When you are finished, thank the auditioner and accompanist. Manners and people skills are high on any employer’s checklist. 

Orchestral advice