Back to School: Orchestra Audition Prep Tips

August 27, 2018, 2:25 PM · It’s that time of year again! Time to kiss those summer festivals goodbye and focus on the excerpts for those school orchestra seating auditions. I’m starting my doctoral program this year, and will be juggling both school and professional orchestra duties along with teaching and classes and whatever else gets thrown my way. Needless to say, efficient practice techniques will be my best friend. Hopefully my organization of these strategies will help others in the music community!

excerpts and coffee

After receiving a whole new excerpt set (as I have for my school orchestra this year since the excerpts are definitely not standard), before doing anything else, listen to recordings of orchestras playing them with the music in hand. Other than pretty obvious stuff such as key and time signatures, I always try to take note of significant dynamic changes, approximate tempi, or anything that would help me to better prepare the excerpt (e.g. “off the string” or “upper half of the bow”). It’s very important to mentally process the music and the technique required before even picking up the instrument, as to not feel overwhelmed.

Once you have listened to and gotten a good feel for each excerpt, it’s time to pick up the instrument. I usually start by playing through the notes slowly, with no rhythm, and try to develop a mental roadmap of the agility required across the fingerboard. Now is the time to experiment with fingerings and see what works best for you! As the excerpt becomes more familiar to you, it is totally fine, and common, to adjust fingerings based on what sounds best/is most comfortable for your hands.

After you have the left hand sorted, it’s more comfortable to add the right hand rather than try to work out both at once. Take your time developing the left hand, and once things feel secure, add the rhythm back into the notes you have learned, under tempo. In the early stages, I always use a metronome to make sure my rhythm is 100% accurate, and depending on the excerpt, sometimes use it even after the excerpt has been in my repertoire for awhile. The early stages in the learning of any piece are so essential because it is when habits are developed. Trying to go back and break these habits is much harder than slowly putting everything together correctly at the start.

violin hand

At this point in your learning process, work everything steadily up to tempo (with metronome), and keep listening to recordings! When we’re working on excerpts for an extended period of time, it can be easy to forget that they are sections of big orchestral works. Know what other instruments are doing, and understand how your excerpt fits into the big picture of the work. Take note of the history behind the piece and the composer. This should definitely influence how you understand and perform the excerpt, and will make it more fun and interesting, both for you and your listener.

When it comes time to perform these excerpts for auditions, keep in mind that you are playing by yourself, which means that you can afford to play a little more than you would in an actual orchestra section (for example, play the piano dynamics a little more than you would in orchestra). My teacher in Aspen, David Halen, always told us that there’s a specific way to play excerpts in auditions that isn’t necessarily how you would play them in orchestra. It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? This doesn’t mean to play everything like a soloist, but it is important that the panel listening to you understands that you’re a good player who is also sensitive to dynamics and can blend in a section. When making technical and musical choices in your excerpts, think, ‘would it sound good if a whole section of violinists did this?’ Overall, demonstrate that you are a skilled player, but also show that you can make music and tell a story when you play. At the end of the day, this is the most important thing, and if you’re enjoying yourself (at least, as much as you can in an audition!) those who are listening will enjoy you, too.

Best of luck to everyone taking auditions this year! Please feel free to comment with your own tips/strategies for preparation, or what you like to hear if you have sat on the other end of an audition panel.


August 28, 2018 at 02:54 AM · You make some very good points. I would add that if you are auditioning for a professional orchestra, you absolutely must be 100% accurate in your rhythm. I don't care how beautiful your playing is or how impeccable your intonation; if you turn a dotted rhythm into triplets, shortchange rests or long notes in a phrase, or rush your eighth notes, you are telling the committee that you will be disruptive to section ensemble and you will not get advanced.

August 28, 2018 at 04:01 AM · Absolutely. Thank you for the clarification, Mary Ellen!

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