Friday, January 29, 2010

The Audition


“A trumpeter’s life is risky business. No greatness can be achieved if the player is paralyzed by fear.”

Auditions are the most important performance opportunities of any musician’s career. Yet, most spend too little time in advance preparation. As a result, the few opportunities that come along are wasted because they are practice sessions rather than performances.


Most brass players, who aspire to a career as a professional musician, have only a five to ten year period to win their first job. There are many more gigs for horn players than for the other brasses. A bass trombone, euphonium, or tuba player might have as few as ten opportunities in an entire career. However, the opportunity to prepare for auditions is unlimited.

Audition preparation must begin long before a musician first hears about an opportunity. A friend remarked, “My college trumpet teacher showed me how to play but he didn’t show me how to win an audition. That’s why I never had a professional career.” Winning a professional audition starts with developing your musical and technical skills, but there is much more expertise must be acquired.


“A career in music is a difficult challenge for those who have not developed their skills. For those who have, it is a wonderful life.”

“Although hundreds may audition for the job you want, you are only competing with the small number of players who are capable of winning.”


When I first began playing professional auditions, there were no repertoire lists. The audition system was not standardized as it is today. You didn’t know what you would be asked to play until you were in the audition room. Yes, there is a general list of repertoire that is always on every audition, but sometimes there were unwelcome surprises.

Some audition opportunities were not widely publicized or came up suddenly at the last minute. Musicians were expected to be prepared at all times. It was not uncommon for a conductor or orchestra to call Jake, or other prominent teachers personally, and ask to hear one of their students.

Today, there are no surprises other than the acoustics of the audition room. Audition procedures are more or less standard throughout the United States. They include repertoire lists that allow enough time for the candidate to prepare. However, the audition system is not without flaws.


The standard system in the United States evolved over the last forty years. It is primarily the result of union musicians who wanted to reduce the unfair practices of conductors who hired players for political, rather than musical reasons. The system has raised performance standards everywhere by gradually eliminating most incompetent players and providing a real opportunity for everyone.

In Europe, the entire orchestra votes for the final round of auditions. The conductor is considered to be a member of the orchestra and has a single vote.

There are many instances where highly accomplished musicians were unable to advance past the first round. For principal positions, major orchestras routinely audition and reject candidates for two or more years. They eventually invite well known players for the final round. Many of the finest players avoid playing preliminary auditions because they understand that the system is flawed.

A former principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony was rejected twice in preliminary auditions. Finally, the orchestra invited him to the final round. He was awarded the job.

Preliminary auditions are heard by a diverse group of the orchestra musicians. Audition committee duty, is usually not voluntary. And it is not something most orchestra members look forward to doing. Like jury duty, when your name is called, you reluctantly participate. I have served on several audition committees.

Recently some orchestras, including the Boston symphony, experimented with having candidates record their audition rather than have a committee hear it live. Thankfully, that practice never became widespread or standard.

A typical committee hearing a brass audition might be comprised of 12-15 orchestra members. Maybe only 2 or 3 members are brass players. In Europe, the committee might be the entire wind sections of a double orchestra! I once played for 50 members of a double opera orchestra in Germany.

Most of the committee members know very little about your instrument or even the specific repertoire for your instrument. However, they are all very fine musicians and will be able to adjudicate based on the music they hear and see in front of them. They will have different opinions about tone color and stylistic interpretation but they all see the same scores. Understanding that common element is very important.

Too often, candidates think they are performing for a cadre of people who play the same instrument or even within the same family. Doing so, can be a major strategic error. If you play an instrument that has only one in the orchestra, such as bass trombone or tuba, there probably won’t be one on the committee. Orchestras rarely ask the retiring player to participate in the selection of their replacement.


“It’s the music that will unify an audition committee, not your instrument.”


There is no safety in the middle of the group of players at any audition. You must be able to separate yourself from the others in a dramatic way. It is risky business but you must have the confidence and courage to perform at such a level that you are noticed and remembered by the committee. You are an anonymous person behind a screen, so you must deliver a powerful musical statement introducing who you are and what you can do.


“The audition committee is looking for reasons to eliminate you as a candidate. You must be proactive by immediately demonstrating you are the person who should be hired.”



“There is no place to hide in the audition room.”

“If there is weakness in your playing, it will be exposed and amplified in the audition room! Your weakness will dominate your strengths. Weakness will cause you to be fearful because you have an expectation of failure and your expectations will always be realized.”



“If a trumpeter is fearful when they play, they have no business playing the trumpet.”

Too often, I hear about brass players who try to control their audition anxiety with drugs or some other ineffective action. We have absolutely no conscious control over these emotions because they are subconscious reactions motivated by the possibility or expectation of failure!

However, there are two things we can do regarding fear.

1. Function in spite of it.

2. Eliminate the cause of it.

I read about the terrible anxiety the great tenor, Luciano Pavarotti suffered before every performance. Yet, he was able to transcend his anxiety when he was on the stage. He was anxious and fearful before the performance but not during it. It is important to understand why he suffered so much and how he was able to function anyway.


“It is only when I am completely committed to the music that I can move my audience.”


The only reason fear emerges from our subconscious is that we have an expectation of physical or emotional harm. Certainly, embarrassing ourselves with an instrument in our hands, qualifies as being an emotionally harmful experience. For a brass player, it’s not pleasant physically either. Brass players receive a double dose of negative conditioning resulting from failure.


“We cannot consciously control fear but we can control what is motivating it”


There are two ways to alleviate our fear of death if we are standing at the edge of a 1000 foot cliff.

1. Step back from the cliff.

2. Imagine that you have stepped back from the cliff.


The subconscious mind responds in the same manner to fantasy or reality. Fantasy is how great actors become the character they are portraying. I frequently ask my students to pretend they are some other musical artist. When I ask my high school orchestra to pretend they are professionals, they sound different immediately. Musically, they don’t sound like a very inexperienced group of young string and wind players.

Jake frequently asked his students to compete with him or some other great musician. I remember he would say, “Imagine how the music would sound if Bud Herseth played it on the trumpet.”

The primary cause of performance anxiety is the brass player’s expectation of failure. There is an involuntary reaction in the subconscious mind that protects us from experiencing physical or emotional harm. This reaction manifests itself by creating fear and paralysis.


“I expect the notes to be there.”


“A musician can only develop an expectation of success by creating a history of success.

Successful performance can be accomplished only if the player has a methodology that works for them.”

Many brass players do not know how to create success on a consistent basis. The methodologies existing in the educational field are contradictory and ineffective. When lecturing at a music school, I always ask the brass players the following question. “How many of you have ever wanted to throw your instrument at a brick wall?” The response is universally affirmative no matter where I ask.


This formula is discussed elsewhere in this website.


“Without an expectation of success, failure is inevitable.”


Since a candidate has no control of where their audition will be held, they must eliminate the elements of acoustics, lighting, and temperature from consideration. They must not allow themselves to be distracted from the music by any external condition.


The great British euphonium player, Robert Childs once told me how he prepared for the Brass Band National Championships in England. He was principal euphonium for the world renown Grimethorpe Colliery Band. From experience, he knew the performance hall would be very warm, his mouth would be dry, and his heart would be pounding in his chest.

To create these conditions, he dressed in layers of winter clothing, turned the heat up in his home, and ran up and down stairs to elevate his heart beat. Then, he played the important solos from memory. The audition environment can be intimidating and stressful no matter the physical conditions.


“The audition room is not a place to practice. It’s a performance hall.”

“If you expect to win, your professional audition must occur as the final event in a series of 25-30 preparatory auditions.”


A friend was auditioning for the fourth trumpet chair in a major American orchestra. He was a well known and highly respected free lance musician in Chicago. He also had several years experience playing with a German opera house orchestra. He wanted the gig more than the other candidates and was willing to do what was necessary to get it.

Here is what he did to prepare for the most important audition of his career:

1. He performed a solo every Sunday in different church around Chicago. He called music directors and offered to play gratis. There was no problem finding places to perform.

2. Since he was an active free lance trumpeter, he worked for all of Chicago’s major orchestras and at one of the professional musical theaters downtown. At the intermission of rehearsals and performances, he asked a few of the musicians to hear his audition. He played it dozens of times.

3. He also teamed up with another fine trumpeter who was also auditioning for the same job. They regularly performed and critiqued each other.

4. Choosing different locations, he played the repertoire list for a tape recorder.

He and his partner both made the finals which included another fine trumpeter. On the day before the last round of auditions, he called and asked if he could play the repertoire list for me. Hearing him was an experience that I’ll always remember.

When he took his instrument out of the case, I noticed that his hands were trembling. I thought his performance might not go well. I was wrong! At the conclusion I said, “If you play like that tomorrow, you will win the audition.” He nodded his approval. The next day I received a call announcing that he won the job.

The two trumpet players who were not chosen for the job that day eventually became principals in other major American orchestras.



“You must ask yourself these important questions about the audition repertoire. Why is this music on the list? What are they looking for musically? Always give the committee what the music is communicating to you! ”

“You must interpret the music precisely as it is notated. However, every element must be distinguished beyond what you expect will be heard from your competition.”

“Most candidates at any professional audition will be able to play the correct notes. You must have the courage to elevate your performance to the limits of your ability.”

“Your interpretation must be appropriate for the part. A principal part must be interpreted differently than playing a section part.”

“No principal player wants to hire competition for their section.”

“You cannot be an anonymous musician behind the screen.”

“Most musicians realize music in shades of gray and black. Great musicians perform using all the bright colors of a rainbow.”

From my experience on professional audition committees, I recall that most candidates don’t do enough to distinguish themselves musically. Although they are politely allowed to play, they are usually eliminated in the minds of the committee members within the first few seconds. I could tell by their body language that most fellow committee members no longer listened after 30 seconds because their evaluation was over.

In time, a musician came along who commanded our attention immediately. The difference musically was striking. Because their musical skills were more imaginative, they had the confidence to do more technically as well.

The audition committee will judge a brass player on their tone, rhythmic accuracy, intonation, and most importantly, musical interpretation. Because the committee will be looking at the same scores as you, the interpretation must follow the notation precisely.

Avoid altering the score in any way. There may be accepted alterations that every trumpeter in the world knows, but don’t count on every member of the committee knowing them. Very few orchestras provide copies of the scores to candidates. A candidate should be prepared if there are various editions of the music. Stravinsky published several editions of his ballet scores to maintain royalties.


There is a well known story about an audition, performed for a major American orchestra, by one of the world’s finest bass trombonist. Although he is quite well known, he was not automatically placed in the final round. He knew he needed to distinguish himself from the other players in the preliminary rounds by demonstrating something extraordinary.

All candidates were asked to play a simple Bach choral. It had a mid-range tessitura and a compass of about two octaves. In a well planned but very risky maneuver, he decided to expand the range to four octaves. He is a great player and pulled it off beautifully. As a result, the committee could not ignore him and was eager to listen further. He was won the job.

A tuba player recently won a job with a different major American orchestra. Although he is a somewhat older player, it was the first successful professional audition of his career. After years of failed attempts, he knew his “window of opportunity” was closing fast and that he needed to take some risk.

In the preliminary rounds, the candidates were asked to play the first movement cadenza from the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto. The range is slightly more than three octaves. He decided to expand it to four octaves, up to double high C. He played it brilliantly. The highly impressed committee could not ignore the effort.

In a professional audition, no one should ever “show boat” specific orchestral or solo repertoire. However in cadenzas, it’s commendable if what you do is musical and you can pull it off. Sometimes, the orchestral parts alone don’t demonstrate the limits of your capabilities. You must find a way to communicate all your skills in the very limited time available.


“Persistence is omnipotent”

One of my former students, now a colleague, is a well known artist and teacher of the horn. He played fifty professional orchestral auditions in his career but he won jobs only five times. On forty-five occasions, he walked away without a contract. However, he did acquire very valuable experience.


“Experience is your most influential teacher.”

“Failure is an opportunity to learn.”

“We must learn to accept failure as an inevitable component of the process of creating success.”

“If we cannot tolerate imperfection, the resulting paralysis will never allow us to achieve greatness.”

“With each audition, a musician’s ultimate test is the level of their need to persevere.”

With continued experience, the horn player learned more about his personal strengths and weaknesses. He also gained valuable insights into what is required to win a job. However, he would not have acquired that knowledge and experience if he had abandoned his efforts. He eventually reached his ultimate goal of playing with a major American orchestra. He would not allow the emotional pain of failure to deter him.



While a member of the Honolulu Symphony, I scheduled an audition for the Seattle Symphony. I had to leave for Seattle immediately after returning to Honolulu from a five day tour of the outer islands. There was no time to go home from the airport. I waited five hours for an overnight flight to San Francisco and a connecting flight to Seattle. It took about eighteen hours to arrive at the concert hall for my audition. I was a little late but the committee was willing to wait for me.

In the warm-up room, I recall that I was so exhausted I could barely play. I began to experience a feeling of panic because I didn’t think I could function on the stage. I knew the committee was waiting only for me because all other candidates had been heard.

Finally, they called me to the stage. I refer to this time as “The Walk”. It’s when you leave the warm-up room and walk to the audition room. The rooms are always far apart with a long corridor between them.

As I walked the corridor, I began to remind myself that “nothing mattered but the music”. As I repeated that phrase mentally, I began to notice that my anxiety diminished and my confidence began to build. As I proceeded closer to the stage, the phrase became more intense like the long crescendo of “Bolero”.

When I reached the stage, I was completely focused and confident. My despondent state of mind had been dramatically transformed.

After playing the first excerpt, I knew I could win the job. I remember having only a peripheral awareness of where I was and what was going on around me. I starred holes through the music because nothing else mattered. I played well enough to be awarded the job.


The first step in any musician’s audition preparation must be the development of their playing skills far beyond the requirements of the repertoire. A player’s comfort zone must exist well within the limits of their ability, not at the limits of their ability.

The brass player’s understanding of the repertoire must exceed the particular part they are preparing. They must understand the interpretative elements of entire score. I always prepared as if I were the conductor as well as a member of the orchestra. I frequently asked myself, “What is the conductor looking for at this moment?”

A horn, trumpet, or trombone player must understand the musical difference between playing a principal part and within a section. If you are auditioning for second trombone but they ask you to play first trombone solos such as Bolero, you must play like a principal. If they ask for a second trombone solo, such as the Tuba Mirum from the Mozart Requiem, you must perform like a principal player.

However, if you are playing the second horn part from the second movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony, you are accompanying and supporting the principal part. You must interpret the music appropriately.

There aren’t enough opportunities to afford the luxury of practicing for the audition in the audition. We must have the courage and determination to play as many “mock” auditions as possible. Play these auditions for anyone. They don’t have to be players of your instrument or even brass players.

Most importantly, the musician must persevere though the inevitable failures. I only know of a couple brass players who won every professional audition they played. Occasionally, a committee may give the candidate useful feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their audition. However, too much diverse feedback can cause the player to become somewhat paralyzed. Ultimately, the player must be the most important judge of their performance.

Audition committees will vary but you will always be the constant. You cannot precisely conclude what a committee is looking for because often they don’t know themselves.


For two years, a major orchestra listened to hundreds of trombonist to fill a vacancy for the second chair. Although many highly qualified players performed in the preliminaries, the committee rejected all of them.

A member of the orchestra’s trombone section realized that the committee did not know how to properly evaluate the candidates. He decided to educate them by personally demonstrating what they should hear from a qualified tenor trombonist.

Shortly afterward, the committee was finally able to make a decision. Fortunately, they chose one of the finest players in the world who was previously rejected in the preliminary auditions.

It is important to have some prior knowledge of the musical style of the orchestra and its conductor. But the brass player must have the conviction to rely mostly on their own musical instincts.


“The audition committee does not have a universal opinion of what the music or your instrument should sound like. You must guide them with a convincing performance.”

“Listen to what the music is communicating to you. It will be your guide to success.”


  1. Bravo, Roger! Such powerful reminders here, and I am grateful for them. Your work is making my job easier, because my students that work with you are now my teachers as well.

    Thomas Jöstlein
    UIUC Horn prof.

  2. Roger, this is an incredibly well put post. With your permission I would love to repost this on my own blog (

    Looking forward to hearing from you!

  3. This is a fantastic post. I'll be back again.

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