How Do You Get To The Kennedy Center Opera House?

Practice, practice, practice…AND…take an audition! 

In our last newsletter we described the audition process by which we hired four new players. Now we’d like to hear from our new members about their perspective on auditioning for us. Our orchestra attracts candidates from all over the country and the world. The winners of our recent auditions come from South Carolina, Massachusetts, California, and Maryland, and range in age from 19-35. 

Aspiring orchestra musicians face a very tough road. A degree from the most prestigious music schools in the world will not guarantee an orchestral position. The audition is the only way to get into an orchestra, and it is the musical equivalent of an Olympic event. 

Some of our current members have taken dozens of auditions. For example, KCOHO second hornist Wei-Ping Chou, who performs with prestigious groups such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Musicians from Marlboro, and the Orchestra of Saint Luke’s, describes her journey: “I have taken over 50 auditions. I have always wanted to be in an orchestra, and I knew it required lots of practicing, passion, persistence, determination, and a little bit of luck to get there.”



We wanted to find out what our recent winners did to prepare. Ben Chen, our new Assistant Principal Clarinet, explains: “I practiced about 3-4 hours a day and recorded myself almost daily. For this particular audition, I had tried out a new method of organizing the weekly ‘nitty-gritty’ work as well as various aspects of mental preparation. I also made a playlist on Spotify with multiple recordings of each aria or overture from which the excerpts were taken and would listen to it both with the sheet music and also on shuffle as I went about my day.”  

One of the themes mentioned by our new players was mental preparedness. Cellist Susie Yun, who already has a position with the Colorado Symphony, describes her approach: “I have been in and out of the audition scene enough to rely on my experience for the preparation of this audition. For me, it was the mental preparation that was key; first to figure out exactly how I wanted to present the excerpts, and secondly, to execute them in that exact manner under pressure. My focus was on maintaining the mental strength needed through the two or three days of the entire audition process. You really don't play much at all—ten minutes on average per round. The tricky part is maintaining that performance mindset during 'downtime' between rounds.”

Elizabeth Oka, the winner of our Assistant Principal Viola position, took things a step further: “During the months leading up to the audition, I took a long hard look at myself and my playing. I noted my problem areas and areas of strength, various tendencies (physical and mental), how I held up under pressure, etc. I made myself an excerpt chart to keep on track with practicing, took lessons, played for as many people as possible, recorded myself, did several mock auditions for people that made me nervous, and read some books on performance success and psychology. There were a couple days when I got up at 6:30 and played through the entire list without warming up, recorded it, and then wrote comments. If this sounds kind of crazy, it was. My friends can attest that I was not much fun for the two months leading up to the audition!”

Learning how to take an audition is a skill that is taught in conservatories these days. French hornist Nathaniel Silberschlag is by far the youngest person to win an audition for the KCOHO. At 19 he has yet to complete his degree at the Juilliard School, where, he says, “My teacher, Julie Landsman, provides an incredible and rigorous audition preparation system as a part of our studio curriculum. Through this, I spent a whole semester in lessons, mock auditions, and master classes—all on the audition repertoire that was required for the KCOHO.”  

Nathan with the KCOHO/WNO Horn Section

Nathan with the KCOHO/WNO Horn Section

Winning the Job

Each musician described similar feelings of elation and disbelief when they won. Says Silberschlag: “After the audition I was thrilled and on cloud nine. I was a little in shock.” 

Susie Yun wasn’t even ready to believe it was true: “All the finalists had endured a five-hour day of waiting and playing so I think we were all exhausted and drained. I remember there being a long pause (and stolid stare) after Amanda Joos (KCOHO Orchestra Manager) gave me the news, because I was expecting some hidden twist. Amanda was happy to inform me that, quite simply, I was the winner.”

Ben Chen: ”I was so surprised ... I remember when Amanda and Whitney (KCOHO Personnel Manager) came into the room to tell me that I had won, my response was “I did??” because it didn't feel quite real after so many auditions. And then there was a rush of elation with a fair amount of dizziness. One of my dear friends who had also come to audition was waiting with me, and he snapped a lot of pictures of the actual moment when I found I am unbelievably grateful to him for capturing that once-in-a-lifetime memory for me.”

Newly appointed Assistant Principal Clarinet Ben Chen learns he won the job!

Newly appointed Assistant Principal Clarinet Ben Chen learns he won the job!

The stress of playing an audition while nursing a bad cold took its toll on Elizabeth Oka: “I was shocked. It felt very surreal. I greeted the committee and then I went home and went straight to bed. I was sick for almost two weeks following the audition, so it wasn't until sometime in February that I was able to really process and enjoy the fact I had a job!”

Adapting to a new life in a new city

A job that requires starting a whole new life in a new city can be exciting and daunting as well. There are the expected challenges of making new friends and familiarizing oneself with a new environment. Several KCOHO members recall the sticker shock that they felt when looking for housing in our area. According to Money Magazine, DC ranks as the nation’s sixth most expensive city in which to rent. Kiplinger rated DC the fifth most expensive city to live in (largely because of the extremely high housing costs). Principal flutist Adria Foster remembers,“People from other parts of the country may be very surprised at how pricey the DC area is, but I think our new players will absolutely love this beautiful and vibrant city despite the high cost of living.”

In addition, most new players have not had the experience of performing operas and ballets, which are generally longer and more taxing than symphonic work. Getting used to the rehearsing and performing schedule and the stamina required for the job takes time. 

Joining an orchestra is like becoming a part of an extended family. All of us in the KCOHO are thrilled to welcome our new members. We know the hard road it took to get here, and are looking forward to helping them settle in, and of course, to making music with them!