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How to Audition

If you’re aiming for a musical career at the highest level, you can’t avoid the auditions. Here’s how to make a great first impression and secure your seat…

Last updated: 31 March 2022

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. 

And 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.