AUDITIONS! The “A” word that strikes fear in the hearts of musicians of all ages! I wish I could tell you there is an easier way, but I cannot. What I can do is offer some helpful advice on how to play the best audition possible. As someone who has been auditioning players at all levels for over 45 years, I am a fairly good judge on what constitutes a successful audition.
Each year, I audition all instruments in Chicago Orchestral Academy's Protégé Philharmonic, our youth orchestra for high school and advanced junior high school students. This gives me to opportunity to interact with these students and give them instant feedback. Especially with the younger players, it also gives me the opportunity to try to settle their nerves, so they are not so frightened and can play their best.
The first thing I look for when I am conducting auditions is how well a musician has prepared the audition. This tells me a lot of things: (a) how serious a musician they are; (b) how much they want the position; and (c) their sense of pride in their ability to make music. Always prepare well!
The second thing I look for is attention to detail, which includes rhythm, dynamics and intonation. I audition players as young as 6th grade, doing their first audition, all the way up to very experienced musicians. No matter the level, attention to detail shows me their potential as an orchestra player. Technique varies widely from player to player, but a musician attempting to play the music, and not just the notes, will usually score higher points. More technique will come with age and experience. It’s the attention to detail that separates those musicians who “play the notes,” but a musician attempting to play the music, and not just the notes, will always score higher. It’s the attention to detail that separates those musicians who “play the notes,” and those musicians who “play the music.”
A good attitude is critical to a successful audition. If it’s a close call, the decision will ultimately go in favor of the musician with the better attitude. Personally, I’ll take a less talented player with a good attitude over a more talented player with a bad attitude. A good orchestra is comprised of a number of players working together for the good of the ensemble. A player with a bad attitude can drag down the whole ensemble if an attitude problem gets in the way of that process. No conductor wants to deal with it!
Auditions determine all musicians’ future successes at every level. It should definitely in a good youth orchestra program, like Chicago Orchestral Academy's Protégé Philharmonic. Get lots of experience playing as much orchestral literature as possible (we play 4 full concerts of top orchestral literature a year), prepare well, and go confidently in the direction of your dreams!
What is the make up of a successful orchestral musician? As a teacher, that’s a question I get asked over and over again. With the success rate of becoming a professional musician a scary 3%, it’s a daunting prospect. First and foremost, you have to want it bad enough to do what it takes to land that ever elusive professional job. It takes hours and hours of practice -- talent without the drive leaves many a musician behind in the dust.
At all age levels, I can tell almost immediately who my serious musicians are. They are always the first ones to arrive to warm up before rehearsal begins, they come prepared, remain focused, and miss few rehearsals. Above all, their great attitudes leave them open to learn and progress. Nothing shuts down the progress of a musician faster than a bad attitude letting him or her believe they are better than everyone else and too good to learn from others.
Serious musicians practice wisely! Students seem to be busier than ever these days, as schools make more and more demands on their time. The quality of the practice time is as important if not more important as the quantity. If you don’t have enough time to practice everything on your plate, make sure you work on your technique. All musicians hate scales, but they do wonders for your intonation, sound and articulation.
Nothing takes the place of experience! Musicians need to get as much repertoire under their belts as possible before taking professional auditions. It is the root of why I founded The Classical Symphony Orchestra 39 years ago and then The Protégé Philharmonic, 2 very fine youth orchestras, and I still believe in it as strongly today as I did back then.
Music is a very rewarding profession! It brings pleasure to the audiences attending the performances, and it builds self-esteem in the performers as they bring the most beautiful music in the world to life. Above all else, it should be fun! When you are sitting in an orchestra, you should feel as if there is no place else you’d rather be.
As a violist at the age of 15, I was completely unaware of what happened in the world of classical music beyond my high school string orchestra. At that point in my life, I enjoyed playing the viola but it was not something I had planned on taking seriously. Before one of our school concerts, I happened to over-hear another student talking about his time in The Protégé Philharmonic. Having some interest in something beyond my high school orchestra, I decided to take an audition. Upon being accepted into the orchestra, I received my music before rehearsals began and started to listen to professional recordings of the pieces. I remember thinking to myself: “Wow! I am going to be able to play this amazing music?” Looking back on that, I realize that that is one of the many factors that make Protégé so special. Being able to play Principal Viola in 4 different concerts a school year consisting of virtuosic repertoire was an incredible experience. This is all achieved in very professional, but wonderfully encouraging, fun, and nurturing environment.
Through Protégé and the personal guidance of Mr. Glymph as my private viola teacher, I came very far. Mr. Glymph straightened out every bad habit I had, taught me how to practice intelligently and effectively, and encouraged me to make a strong commitment to becoming a professional musician. Small things like IMEA, where at 15 years old I was 20th chair, and at 17, I won the Principal chair! I was invited to a live audition at the Juilliard School of Music and took other auditions at New England Conservatory of Music, Rice University, Northwestern University, as well as the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University - where I was awarded a large scholarship and attended. After 2 years of hard work in Protégé and with Mr. Glymph, my abilities as a violist had significantly increased to a high level acknowledged by professors around the nation. Even though Protégé is now behind me, I will always remember it to be the beginning and foundation of my musical career!
Ben Wagner, Viola
Ben has now graduated and is a full-time active free-lance professional with a growing career with professional chamber music groups throughout the Midwest.