The Audition Process
How do you get to the Kennedy Center Opera House? Practice, practice, practice…AND…take an audition! We recently held auditions for four positions: Assistant Principal Clarinet, Assistant Principal Horn, Assistant Principal Cello, and Assistant Principal Viola. Here is a detailed look at how we hire new players. Apart from performing in the orchestra, there is no more important aspect of our job than selecting new members—people with whom we will be working very closely, possibly for the rest of our careers. Openings may not come up very often—the Assistant Principal Clarinet position was last vacant 37 years ago—so we take the audition process very seriously.
A few months before the audition, an announcement is placed in the International Musician, the journal of the American Federation of Musicians (the union that represents the vast majority of orchestral musicians in the country). Resumes, with identifying information redacted, are screened by a committee of orchestra players who assess the suitability of the candidates. Ultimately, most applicants are invited to audition; typically, about half actually show up. For our four recent auditions we received 500 resumes from four different countries, and ultimately heard close to 200 candidates.
On audition day, candidates draw lots to determine the order in which they will play. Since anonymity is of utmost importance, a large curtain is installed through the middle of the Terrace Theater, where auditions are held. This is to conceal the audition committee, a group of nine orchestra members. Additionally the stage floor is carpeted to mask the sound of the candidate’s footsteps. Candidates are not permitted to speak; any communication with the committee is handled by a proctor, an orchestra member who remains on stage during the audition. At the Kennedy Center, the entire audition is screened, though in many orchestras the final round may be open.
Typically there are three rounds, and a fourth if necessary. Usually five or six candidates perform per hour in the preliminary and semi-final rounds. Each is asked to play the same ten minutes worth of short orchestral excerpts to show different musical styles and techniques. (Candidates have been sent the music for the required repertoire in advance.) At the end of each hour the committee votes by secret ballot, and any candidate who receives five or more votes advances to the next round. The pool is winnowed further in subsequent rounds.
By the final round, there are usually between four and six candidates to choose from. These remaining players perform their solos, usually an excerpt from a concerto, and a more comprehensive number of orchestral excerpts. At this round the music director is present, and although he may confer with the committee, he makes the ultimate decision on hiring. The most exciting moment is the big reveal: announcing and meeting the winner, whose identity is unknown to us! The entire multi-round process may take two or three days to complete.
With the Winter Olympics still fresh in our minds, it’s hard not to draw the obvious comparison: a series of aspiring performers who have worked so hard to hone their craft now have just a few minutes to perform at the highest level under incredible pressure. While there is no gold medal on the line, winning what will likely be a career-long position is a life-changing milestone.
How fair is the process? Judging a player’s music-making is subjective, of course. Sometimes an excellent player, no matter how well prepared, will have a bad day (think of Olympic skater Nathan Chen in his short program). Many of our committee members, who are themselves the veterans of dozens of auditions, report feeling a sympathetic anxiety with auditioners. We try to make the experience as welcoming as possible, offering “Audition Nutrition” at a snack table in the hallway, and giving candidates the opportunity to repeat an excerpt that hasn’t gone quite right.
Principal Flutist Adria Foster says, “I think we all want each candidate to show us their best playing. If I am undecided, I prefer to pass them on to the next round so I can hear them again. The worst mistake in my mind would be to eliminate a good player early on.”
Ally Goodman, Principal Viola, explains, “Being on an audition committee is a huge responsibility, and it’s important to give each candidate a fair chance. This means giving the same attention to each candidate, even though you’re listening to the same excerpts over and over for many hours. It can be really exhausting.”
Once the winner has been announced, there is another waiting game: will they accept the job? Many of our applicants win multiple auditions and may have to choose between two or more job offers. Assistant Principal Trombone Doug Rosenthal and Principal Bassoon Joey Grimmer both found themselves in that position, and both cite our unique repertoire as a deciding factor in favor of the KCOHO. Doug tells us, “In the end, I chose to join the KCOHO because of the repertoire. Opera and ballet span the worlds of music, theater, dance, the visual arts, design, literature, spirituality, history and it's vitalizing to be part of a greater artistic community." Joey agrees: “The repertoire was a large factor in my decision. Also, I noticed that the WNO was producing a Ring cycle in the upcoming season, which was an opportunity too good to pass up."
There is yet another phase of the audition process to come: the tenure process. How the new player fits into the ensemble will be determined over a one-to two-year period. The trial period is perhaps the most important part of becoming a full member of the orchestra, as skills such as the ability to follow a conductor, to fit and blend into a section, and to work well with others cannot be determined through the audition itself. At many of our auditions, a runner-up will be appointed, who may be offered the job if the winning candidate doesn’t accept, is deemed unsuitable, or moves on to another orchestra.
We are looking forward to working with and getting to know our four new members: Ben Chen, clarinet; Elizabeth Oka, viola; Nathaniel Silberschlag, horn; and Susie Yun, cello. Next month, we will hear from them about their experiences preparing and winning an audition with the KCOHO.