About Auditions

In preparation for my seminar at the Meadowmount School of Music this summer, I offer the following insights.


1. Question: Does anyone know how orchestras fill vacancies?

A: Orchestras will put an ad in the union paper advertising the fact that there is an opening.

B: X number (usually fairly large) of people who answer the ad will be invited to take the audition.

C: A list of standard but very difficult excerpts will be given to the candidates.

D: The first round will usually be behind a screen (the purpose of the preliminaries is to eliminate as many people as possible, so that the music director has the least chance of making a mistake).

E: The music director in most orchestras will choose from the finalists selected by the audition committee.


This is the way auditions are done now, but not necessarily the way they were done in the past.  In 1943, Artur Rodziński appointed Leonard Rose Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic without an audition. Does anyone think that Rodziński made a mistake?

In 1963, William Steinberg appointed Michael Grebanier Principal Cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony without an audition for orchestra members, simply an audition for him. I don’t think he made a mistake, either, since Michael Grebanier has been a principal cellist for the last 50 years and is currently Principal Cellist of the San Francisco Symphony.

I remember standing in the lunch line here at Meadowmount in 1958, and hearing Joseph Gingold tell Arnold Steinhardt, “I can guarantee you nothing,” as he engineered Steinhardt’s appointment as Associate Concertmaster of the Cleveland Symphony.

In 1966, Leonard Bernstein appointed David Nadien concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic without an audition. I don’t think anybody thought he made a mistake either.


While conductors could make appointments without auditions in the early days, they could also capriciously fire anybody that they wanted to instantaneously. There were many abuses, and as orchestra committees became more powerful, things started to change. The way that the orchestras achieved enough power to countermand the power of conductors was through strikes. Eventually, orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Cleveland Symphony, etc. were able to get 52-week seasons and tenure for their members.

Because of this newfound power, musicians got to demand inclusion in the audition process. To at least give the appearance of fairness, preliminaries are most of the time held behind screens, so that nobody knows who is actually playing. In some orchestras, the finals are held behind screens too, but not most orchestras.


Different orchestras elect the committees in different ways.

1. At the Lyric Opera, five members of the orchestra are elected by the orchestra. They, plus the principal of the affected section, and a friend of the principal, comprise the audition committee. These five members could, and often did, include trombone players, oboists, clarinetists, and occasional percussionists, to sit in judgment of violinists, violists, cellists, and bass players. The reverse has also been true.

2. In many orchestras, it is simply the members of the affected section that will comprise the committee.

3. The New York City Ballet just had auditions for section cello (two openings), and they had a five-member committee consisting of the principal cellist, the concertmaster, two other members of the cello section, and somebody from management.


Committees will establish the number of votes required to advance. This is a purely mathematical and arbitrary process. In my committee at the Lyric Opera, my dictum was, “Five people play, we vote, anybody who gets more than four votes gets to advance.” The purpose of the preliminaries is to eliminate as many candidates as possible, because of the high number of applications.

In order to not capriciously eliminate perfectly good players, who might play better in another round, we introduced a semi-final round to bring the number of finalists down to four or five, tops.

I have to confess, under my leadership, I allowed nine finalists to play for our music director. Because he had the unilateral authority to appoint anybody he wanted, and in this particular case made a poor choice, the contract was changed to say that at least one member of the audition committee has to agree with the music director in order for him to make an appointment.

I have witnessed unfair practices that went on behind the scenes, where great players were not given the jobs that they richly deserved. I will desist from chapter and verse to avoid getting sued.


The first question that most people ask is, “Who chooses the list?” At the Lyric Opera cello auditions, I do. In our contract, even the music director cannot countermand my choices, although he often has questioned them.

The second question that most people ask is, “What goes on the list, and why?” Because I usually have less than eight minutes in a preliminary round, I need to quickly find out certain technical and musical qualities that are required for the job, and the level at which a candidate can evince these qualities.

A. Intonation: I use the opening of Gotterdamerung, because in the key of G-flat major, I can tell a great deal about the level of somebody’s sense of pitch.

B. Rhythm: There is a particularly tricky passage between the end of the second and beginning of the third scene of Das Rheingold that pretty well can tell you whether somebody has got a very sharp sense of rhythm.

C. Spiccato: The opening of The Magic Flute Overture will tell me a great deal, not only about somebody’s spiccato, but their ability to make sharp accents in piano without going over the edge.

D. For general panache and sound: I use one of the Intermezzos from Salome.

In the semi-finals, I want to hear the exposition of the Boccherini Concerto, all of the same excerpts plus a few more from the preliminaries, as well as several important cello solos, such as the ones in Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Carmen.

In the final round, each of four candidates plays the exposition of a major romantic concerto, and the entire list of excerpts, which is long and comprehensive.


During our last set of auditions, a candidate played very, very well, except for one thing. He played wrong notes in Salome. I asked him to play the affected section three times, and he played the wrong notes three times. Needless to say, he did not advance. What he should have done was to have played this repertoire for somebody who knew it, or at the very least to have listened to a recording with the part in hand to make sure that he was playing the right notes. I actually had management give him my phone number to tell him why he had been eliminated and advise him in the future to make sure he did not get eliminated on a technicality.

Another common mistake I’ve seen in all instruments is in the required Bach (not by me), violinists will constantly play the Adagio from the G Minor Sonata. Cellists will play (if they can) the Prelude of the Sixth Suite, etc. In my opinion, this is not smart. An audition committee, particularly during preliminaries, is listening to at least 100 people – more these days. They’re tired, and they’re not going to be impressed, no matter what anybody does. The Bourees from the B Minor Partita or the Bourees from the C Major Suite, played with great style and panache, could make somebody who’s very tired, hacked, and bored want to get up and dance. In my opinion, you should go for it.

Although I alluded to it in the first paragraph under this heading, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get recordings of all the material on the list and play with these recordings to set tempos and style in one’s mind. Most of the people on the committee know this material forwards, backwards, and sideways, and they can spot immediately whether or not a candidate really knows what he/she is doing.

Condition yourself by playing mock auditions for anybody and everybody that will listen.


1. Candidate gets through the preliminary round by avoiding any possible mistakes, and playing as blandly as possible to avoid offending anyone on the committee.

2. Candidate plays like a great virtuoso, convincing the music director that there never has been, or will be, a better player for his orchestra.

3. Candidate quietly assimilates into the section. This is the most important advice about achieving tenure.

I have seen with my own eyes members of a section go and lobby against a player who could play rings around all of them put together, simply out of insecurity and jealousy. I just received an email from a colleague inSeattle, saying that some member of their cello section was denied tenure after three years.


I asked my friend and colleague Eric Bartlett, who is the third chair player in the New York Philharmonic, teacher of Orchestral Techniques at Juilliard School of Music, and a phenomenal cellist, for his advice. I’ve been told that the last five people that got into the New York Philharmonic had coached with him, and one of his students just won a coveted position in the New York City Ballet in their auditions. Below is his response, which I hope will be helpful to all of you.


1. Many people overlook the fact that the first thing the committee hears is             usually your solo playing. The solo playing can be played in an extremely         individual, rhapsodic kind of a way, or it can be played in a way that shows your           ability to be expressive within a recognizable tempo. I always encourage the           candidates to find the passages that can be played in a tempo, and then play them in a tempo!

2. Highly idiosyncratic playing, whether a solo or not, will raise huge red flags. The violist who played the prelude of the C-major suite at double tempo, e.g., or any Bach that is played with excessive rubato. Also, playing that is unremittingly loud and never truly soft sets off warnings for me.

I asked the same questions of Michael Grebanier, principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony and former principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and received the same advice. Essentially, “Play like a real musician,” is what he said.


If a candidate finds himself in the finals of an important audition, remember: it doesn’t matter whether you come in second or one hundred and second, if there is only one job. My advice is to go for it, rather than playing it safe. Safe will not convince a music director that you are the player of his dreams, and if somebody else does convince him, even if you come in second, there will be no money attached. I wish everyone in today’s competitive world the best possible luck in advancing their careers.

Comments are closed.