The (im)Practicality of Audition Lists

The subject of audition repertoire has been on my mind lately, and even though I’m not preparing for any auditions at the moment, I thought it worth the time to organize my thoughts for this blog. Co-mingling with thoughts on audition repertoire are considerations for what is required musically of us while on the job. Audition lists are stacked with the major excerpts that we hone endlessly in school and in audition preparation, but most orchestras are not playing that repertoire on a week-in, week-out basis. While it is imperative to learn the skills and styles it takes to perform these masterworks, I feel that audition lists often over-stress these pieces and leave out a significant amount of styles that we are required to play. Like I said, most orchestras are not playing Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner, and Berg every week, but rather Pops of varying styles, light classics, rock concerts, chamber music, Broadway, movie scores, etc. etc. So why are audition lists grounded in the concept of asking only the ‘traditional’ orchestral repertoire, and often excluding a bulk of the styles one must be able to perform?

First, I must acknowledge that the skills learned through study of the orchestral masterworks and master composers are imperative and benefit us in ALL styles: time, pitch, sound, tone color, articulation, style…the list goes on. If one is to play in an orchestra, one must know the canvas regarding repertoire and styles. But why draw the line there? How practical is stacking the list with the repertoire of the aforementioned composers when 90% of orchestras are playing John Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Moncayo, and numerous other ‘Pops’ styles more often than the likes of Mahler, Bruckner, and Brahms?

Second, the culture of “excerpt obsession” that these audition repertoire lists have created does not necessarily breed good musicianship. There are tons of great instrumentalists out there – more than ever before – but often, you find folks who can play something incredibly well, but only one way: one articulation, one dynamic, one tempo, one tone color. When asked to change something, they are unable to modify their concept. I’m not saying I’ve mastered playing everything in every way possible, but I also was schooled to be open to different interpretations and be prepared to demonstrate. It is also a result of chamber music experience and learning to compromise on how a piece of music should go. Flexibility is a job requirement and trait of a good musician!

Third, auditions often don’t test the collaborative skills required on the job — ie. Section Playing – or give it the weight it deserves. A poignant tale demonstrating this comes from a good friend of mine who was taking a Section brass audition with a middle-tier orchestra. This person was a Finalist who played a section round, excerpt round, and solo piece round. The position was ultimately awarded to another candidate, though the committee told my friend that he hands-down played the best section round (he was told it sounded like he had been a member of the orchestra for years) but the winner played the best solo.   What I don’t understand is that for a Section position audition, the person who best demonstrated the skills most relevant didn’t get the job!

In continuation, I understand that the tenure process tests these collaborative skills, and often orchestras have trial periods before offering a contract. However, it is very common to hear about someone not passing the trial period or the tenure process because their collaborative (Section) skills are lacking.

Now that I’ve presented and critiqued what I would consider three of the main handicaps of audition lists, I should probably offer my humble suggestions for a remedy. I’m going to approach it from this perspective:

 What would I ask for if I were to be replacing myself in my own job?

  1. Wider styles of music. John Williams, Ferde Grofé, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Andrew Lloyd Weber (gasp), Stephen Sondheim, Hans Zimmer….the list goes on forever. These are all composers with whom modern players must be familiar and who wrote tough stuff for our instruments. There are also inherent stylistic differences that cannot be tested through the classical masters: big band licks, movie scores, Broadway standards (76 Trombones…duh) that require a more diverse style. Not everything is played like Mahler or Wagner wrote it! Can you play light, tight, and bright? Can you make that .547 bore Howitzer of a trombone sound like a King 3B in a show pit, or Tommy Dorsey’s 2B?

Granted, every orchestra plays a different ratio of this repertoire, but at some point, you’re going to  play this stuff! The Mahler 3 excerpt is on every Principal Trombone audition, even though it might only come around every 20-30 years in some orchestras. I guarantee you’ll play 76 Trombones, March of the Toys, and Porgy and Bess with greater frequency.

  1. Musical personality and flexibility. Include a solo or two on audition lists (this is common for strings, not as much for trombone) that allows the candidate to demonstrate interpretation and personality. If a committee wants to hear a solo played in one way and does not appreciate another interpretation, don’t ask it! The solo doesn’t have to be the Creston Fantasy, but rather something simple, elegant and offer a variety of interpretation. Marcello, Galliard, Corelli, Bordogni come to my mind.

Regarding flexibility, I would ask a candidate to play their best excerpt a different way; perhaps with a specific comment to articulation or dynamic, perhaps more of a stylistic subtlety. I recently heard a story of a committee asking candidates to play Mozart’s Tuba mirum solo as if it were written by Shostakovich, just to see if candidates would make some sort of adjustment. It’s certainly a counter-intuitive concept, but sometimes things like this are required of us on the job.

  1. Section/Chamber playing. The best instrumental executor may not be the best listener and adjuster, and section playing exposes this. Balance, intonation, matching articulation and note-length, style, and generally knowing the role of the chair can be easily displayed in a section round.

I also like the idea of chamber music on an audition. Why not play a few duets, trios, or quartets, even if it’s simple sight-reading? Non-orchestral repertoire often removes the bonds of playing inside a particular box. This shows if someone is listening and adjusting, without any preconceived notion of how the repertoire goes. Maybe call it instinct testing.

While a student at Northwestern, I was initially frustrated that we didn’t have a course on preparing orchestral section excerpts, such as offered at other high-profile orchestral schools. My teacher, Michael Mulcahy, would often tell us that if we wanted to learn how to play in a section, we should play trios and quartets. I spent countless hours with my peers reading trios and quartets, and even won the ITA Quartet competition with my trombone quartet. The skills learned through these sessions tremendously benefited my section playing. I am very pleased to see that more and more semi-pro and professional trombone quartets are popping up, as these folks certainly understand the value of chamber music study and will be passing it along to their students.

Auditions are not a perfect system, but they are the best system we have. Could they be improved by making the repertoire more practical to the nature of the job?


Could this mean there would be significantly more variation from audition to audition?


Might this actually help cultivate more well-rounded players?


Closing note:

I recently heard about a clinic Jim Pugh is presenting on being a well-rounded player, and also a clinic in LA being offered as an introduction to studio playing. These are FANTASTIC ideas and should be taken seriously by players of all styles. (Please post any relevant links below in the comments area.)

Next blog: thoughts from Brian Hecht on military band vs. orchestral performance.

One thought on “The (im)Practicality of Audition Lists

  1. Pingback: From active duty to the Atlanta Symphony — guest blog by Brian Hecht | Tim Smith - trombonist

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