I still remember the first time I sat next to a fantastic orchestra player, when I was just out of college and playing in the Omaha Symphony. He was assistant principal second violin in the orchestra where I sat in the section, and during one concert the space next to him needed filling, so I came up.
What a player, and what fun to sit with him. He played every articulation in the music, every bowing, every dynamic; he responded to every breath and gesture from the conductor. This guy – who seemed like a rather quiet and unassuming person – was an orchestra music-making machine, and sitting next to him made me raise my game. I wanted to be just like him.
"How long did it take you to get this gig?" I asked. "I mean, did you have to do a few auditions?"
He half-smiled. "It took me 12 years, and I don't know how many auditions," he said soberly.
12 years! Are you kidding me?
It's not unusual, I came to discover over the years. Though I know a number of people who won a great orchestra job straight out of college, more often it takes a lot of time, dedication and the ability to withstand rejection. It isn't simply a matter of training to be a soloist, then deciding, oh what the heck, I'll just win an orchestra audition, that's easy.
One has to learn to play in an orchestra, learn to perform orchestral excerpts and learn to get through an audition day with confidence intact.
And that was the subject of our master class with David Kim, Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, on the fourth day of the 2009 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard. Kim worked with nine students on excerpts ranging from Mozart to Richard Strauss. (Yeah, you know the one!)
"A lot of people are great players, and many people are thinking 'I'm going to be a soloist,'" Kim said. "Unfortunately, not all of us can be a soloist."
For those who want to try the symphony, it means getting past the audition process.
For the Philadelphia Orchestra, typically there are four rounds in an audition, the first three with a screen, so that neither candidate nor committee can see one another. For the final round, the screen comes down so that everyone can actually meet.
When you are auditioning in the first rounds, "you have no idea if there's one person or 15 behind that screen," Kim said. Typically, there are representatives from the entire orchestra, including people from each section. For a violin audition, there are good number of string players, including the concertmaster and principals from the second violin, viola and cello sections.
For the committee, "psychologically, the screen creates such a barrier," Kim said. "Our imaginations run wild. Is that my cousin? Is it that guy from the San Francisco ballet that was supposed to be coming? Is it one of our own?"
The committee votes after hearing about five people, and "any ties or better, you'll move on," Kim said. It's a long day for committee members, and you have to distinguish yourself from the many candidates they will hear all day. When someone plays a fantastic audition, Kim said, the committee members perk up. The Blackberry goes down, the New York Times goes down, the bagel goes down, and they pay attention.
When you walk out on stage for an audition, Kim said to "keep tuning to a minimum. It's important you get a good audition rhythm going, so try not to tune on stage," he said. A good rhythm might go something like: Next excerpt, boom. Next excerpt, boom. Uncomplicated musician.
The first excerpt during the master class was Mozart's Haffner Symphony (No. 35, K. 385), the first movement, played by Stefani. In Mozart, the key is cleanliness and a ringing sound, Kim said.
"Many halls accentuate when we get scrappy," Kim said. Mozart needs musicality, quality in all ranges and an excellent off-the-string technique. "I want to see all across the board, if you can do this stuff."
Mozart "is not the place to belt it out," Kim said. "Pretend you are auditioning for the Emerson String Quartet, not the Philadelphia Orchestra. Don't press the bow, let the fiddle do its work. It needs to sparkle."
"You have to be thinking, 'I have to convince the section leaders I want to be one of those people everyone wants to sit with – for the next 35 years!'" Kim said.
Some of the deadly audition sins include: playing out of tune, rushing, having an ugly sound and an overactive vibrato.
"We're looking for great violinists, but we're also looking for great musicians, because those are the ones that make the orchestra level go up and up," Kim said.
Next was Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, and student Aysen had prepared the part that is most typically asked. (I'm guessing the part with the black-ink traffic jam.) But he asked her to play a different part – the slow beginning.
"That's the way it is in orchestra auditions, they ask for the thing you didn't prepare," Kim said.
"There are some pieces that are so awkward to do in auditions," Kim said. "If you can somehow spark something in our mind that sounds symphonic, like you understand that symphonic sound. When we're listening to these auditions, we can tell people playing one little thin line and people feeling the symphonic line."
How does one play excerpts that ask for quiet section playing, in an audition?
"People see 'piano' and they feel like they should run and turn down the volume," Kim said. "I don't think so, I think it should be character piano, it still feels like quality sound."
"It's a very dangerous game," he said. "If it's piano, do we play niente, or piano with a grain of salt? I would err on the side of playing with a good sound, in piano character." If you play a bit too loud, chances are that the concertmaster's voice will sound through the screen, asking you to try again, a little softer. This is good, it means they are interested in your playing. "If they want you to play quieter, they'll give you a chance to try it."
When the screen goes up in the final round, "I want to see how you operate the instrument," Kim said. Too much movement can be a turn-off, he said.
"You can be a little more grounded, connected to the ground for orchestra auditions," Kim said.
Also, if you can make Kim pick up his pen and write "bulletproof," then you are doing well. That means that in your off-the-string passages, "there's never any one note in the middle that doesn't sound," Kim said. It also means that after a long day, you're still in the game. Maybe you had to warm up in a cold room, maybe you forgot your sweater, maybe you ran out of food, you're tired...but you're spiccato is still spotless.
"It's got to ring," he said of the spiccato. "You can give it pianissimo character, but it has to ring."
Another deadly sin: "Another no-no is to add accents where they're not written," Kim said. "There's always going to be some technician on the committee who says, 'they added an accent in bar 443...' And that person will have followers. Audition committees are all about pack mentality."
Meredith played the first movement of Brahms Symphony No. 2. She waited a few moments to start, getting centered, but Kim nixed this idea.
"There's a certain waiting-too-long quality that doesn't get the committee on your side," Kim said. "Fearlessness is a good thing to show."
He raised another deadly no-no for Brahms: the "banana bow," which has "a little bit of a swell in the middle of the note – that hurts people," he said. Vibrato starting in the middle of the note and stopping at either end can also contribute to the banana effect. A continuous sound and continuous vibrato is what a conductor likes to hear in Brahms, like one long bow.
The Brahms excerpt "has to be so smooth and beautiful, and yet you have all these string crossings," he said.
Marie-Christine played a Haydn excerpt, from the fourth movement of Symphony 88.
Kim stressed the importance of finding the proper tempos for such pieces. He said that once, 14 years ago, he played in the finals for a concertmaster position but did not get it. "The reason I didn't get it was some of my tempos were so not-standard tempos."
In playing Haydn, you don't want a committee member to write down "no spark."
"It's got to have spark," Kim said. "Many times people are just trying to get by, just trying top play the whole thing. People can win a job on the strength of one excerpt. You need to treat each excerpt like this is the one."
What is a committee looking for, when they ask for a Haydn excerpt? "For somebody who can bounce the bow!" Kim said.
So you need to develop a spiccato you can use and trust in the most difficult situations – when you are nervous. This may mean using larger muscles, and it also may mean coming up with some quirky crutches to get you in your groove.
"Maybe I have to keep my third finger off the bow," said Kim, raising his finger off the bow dramatically, "and....I have to keep my right toes clenched," he said, looking down at his right toes, causing everyone to laugh. But if the ritual works for you, it works. "So you just do it: finger off, toes clenched, and then you can just count on it."
And the spiccato needs to be very, very even.
Undoubtedly, there will be a percussionist on the committee, Kim said, "and he'll say, 'Well, I don't know anything about the violin, so I have to look for rhythm and dynamics." You must play for that person.
"Have the same starting method every time," Kim said. "Do it 1,000 times at home the same way."
Is it okay to change the bowings, when playing an audition?
"Absolutely," Kim said. "When the screen is up, we can't tell what the bowings are. Even when it's taken down, it can be hard to tell. Don't worry about the bowings so much." In other words, choose the bowings that work best.
Another student, Stephen, played an excerpt from Barber's Symphony No. 1, and Kim warned about going sharp when the playing gets intense.
"Most violinists play sharp; it's so easy to inch up. It's so hard when someone tells you you are playing sharp -- it's like you forgot to wear your pants that day!," Kim said. "But in an orchestra audition, it can kill you. Your vibrato is going to drive it up, also. I can assure you, there is an oboist on the committee. So many times I've seen an oboist ruin someone's candidacy because they say, 'That person is playing sharp, and I don't want them in the orchestra.'"
An intense, attention-grabbing vibrato can not only throw off the pitch, but it can also turn off the committee.
"Do I want that vibrato sitting behind me for the next 30 years?" Kim said. "You want violinists who can turn off the vibrato."
During the final rounds of an audition, "sometimes the conductor will come up on stage and conduct you," Kim said. "Know the music well, so that you don't have to keep your eyes glued to the music."
Also, sometimes you'll be asked to play with other orchestra members, such as the concertmaster. Kim demonstrated this by playing a duet from Dvorak's New World Symphony "Largo" with another student, Angela.
"It's very important to give the impression that you're listening, that you're flexible," Kim said. "I would have you turn toward me, and make eye contact," Kim said. Even if you are a little shy, you need to show a willingness to work together, and eye contact is part of that. Then, try to match everything with the concertmaster: contact point, bow speed, timing, vibrato, intonation...everything.
Then there's the classic audition excerpt: the first page of Richard Strauss' "Don Juan." First of all, be sure not to rush mm 20-22 (just before A). "We get on our horses, and we're gone," he said. Don't do that.
Also, make sure to "tip your hat to tradition" and do those little things that orchestras always do in this piece, like the short little change of character before C. If you are really in doubt, you can "get in touch with a player from that orchestra" and see how they normally do those passages. Kim said he sees nothing ethically wrong with working with someone from the orchestra before an audition. "To play for somebody is a great thing."
But chances are, if you play well and the committee is interested in you, they'll give you the chance to adjust to little details they might want different. A voice will come from behind the screen, perhaps to ask you to play it at a different tempo, or to try playing it a little "warmer." The question is, can you adjust?
And what about the opening of Don Juan? Is it even possible to do it?
And what about those passages that contain double stops; do you play the double stops, or do you play divisi, as you would in orchestra?
"Try to do as many of the double stops as you can," Kim said, "but with the ones that are awkward, shamelessly do the divisi. Make your decisions and stick with them."
Kim also warned against foot stomping, for several reasons. Usually, there is a carpet runner to reduce sounds made by women's heels, but still, sometimes "it's so obvious who's a woman, and who's a man, even with the screen," Kim said. Also, "if there's a lot of walking around while you are playing, I feel a constantly unsettled feeling." Worse, if there is much audible tapping on the floor, he might make the note: "foot tapper."
"I don't want a foot tapper in my orchestra," he said. "In orchestra auditions, it's death. Don't tap your foot!"
Remember, the committee is not just deciding on a player for the orchestra, but also on a colleague that could be part of the orchestra for a very long time. This is especially important to keep in mind during the final round, when you see one another face-to-face.
"You want to be dressed a little better than everybody else," Kim said. Be gracious in speaking to the committee, if you are asked to do so, and make a good transition from silence to sound. "I want to see what kind of colleague this person is going to be," Kim said. " After all, I'm going to see this person more than I see my own children!"Tweet
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