Audition sight-reading

May 30, 2019, 2:45 PM · Hi everyone,

I am wondering what you all might consider to be an appropriate amount of time to look over an excerpt prior to sight-reading in an audition. Is there any generally accepted guideline, such as "no more than 45 seconds per page of music," etc.?

An additional question--if more than one such excerpt is provided, should all music be "looked over" at the beginning, and then played through in sequence, or may one pause to "mentally rehearse" between excerpts?

Thanks, and my apologies if this topic has been covered in previous threads.

Replies (30)

May 30, 2019, 9:31 PM · Is audition sight reading still done? One wonders how relevant it is.
May 30, 2019, 10:28 PM · 45 seconds is almost enough time to play through a page.

It's been 25 years since I had to do it, but from what I recall I would think you might get enough time to slowly place the music on the stand, observing tempo, key signature, repeat signs (any clef changes if you are violist or cellist) and check your open strings tuning - and then play it - 10 seconds tops.

May 30, 2019, 11:23 PM · Paul Deck: "Possible sight reading" still shows up on repertoire lists, so relevant or not, one must steel oneself for the possibility that it will occur :-).

Andrew Victor: 10 seconds is definitely shorter than I would have thought--my understanding is that the candidate can pause to silently look over the music, but I may have overestimated how long that pause can be...

Thanks for your replies!

May 31, 2019, 12:33 AM · You may not be so lucky to get any amount of time to look it over, when the auditioner beats out the tempo then away you must go...……….
May 31, 2019, 5:51 PM · If this is for professional auditions, I don't think I've heard of any orchestra actually asking people to sightread in the past decade or so... if it comes up, I think you have enough time to look through it thoroughly, check for key signature and time signature changes, check dynamics, character, composer / style, and pick a tempo that is reasonable but gives you enough space to think. So, I guess, the answer is however long that takes. I'd keep it under a minute but not rush into it - and if the committee is getting antsy, they'll say something. If you're sightreading more than one excerpt, the committee is masochistic and I'd prepare between each one, not all at once.
Edited: June 1, 2019, 5:09 AM · The best test I've ever seen was my old leader, Peter Mountain, auditioning new recruits. He produced a violin duet that the "auditionee" played with him. They had a bit of time to look over the piece, but that was it. Of course, he could tell virtually instantly whether someone could and would fit in. And it really was sight reading, so no amount of looking at excerpts would help.
June 1, 2019, 6:12 AM · I think it's important for orchestral musicians to be good sight readers (or at least learn music very quickly!) so can understand why they might ask this in the audition, although it's very rare.
June 1, 2019, 4:29 PM · Gemma - I am not sure why orch musicians need to be good sight readers as long as they can learn the music well in a decent period of time. Orchs tend to rehearse a significant amount before concerts, so, ....
June 1, 2019, 10:16 PM · I wish the audition was sight-reading. That's the one thing I'm okay at.
June 2, 2019, 1:57 AM · Professional orchestras in my country tend to rehearse like 1-3 times before a performance, and lots of them have families/other work to do. It's necessary to be able to learn entire programs in a relatively short space of time, and I can see why an orchestra panel would want to make sure their employees can keep up.
June 2, 2019, 2:35 AM · Thank you all for your replies.
Irene Chen, those are helpful guidelines, thank you!
June 2, 2019, 5:10 AM · 1-3 rehearsals seems to be the norm for regional orchestras in Northern California too. For that matter, the strongest community orchestras may perform full-scale programs on 4-5 rehearsals, and pops programs or family concerts on a single rehearsal the day of the concert. Perhaps sight-reading is not as important when musicians get their parts in advance and have time to practice before the first rehearsal. But professional orchestras sometimes bring in substitutes on on one day's notice. And even in a mostly-amateur orchestra, I've received parts as late as 48 hours before a pops concert that was played on a single rehearsal. So it seems to me sight-reading is a critical skill to have.
June 2, 2019, 9:19 AM · "But professional orchestras sometimes bring in substitutes on on one day's notice." True, but generally subs are folks who have proven their skills by experience. If your sub is a section player in the Chicago Symphony, you probably don't need to make sure they can play.
June 2, 2019, 1:47 PM · "Gemma - I am not sure why orch musicians need to be good sight readers as long as they can learn the music well in a decent period of time."

All things being equal, you want the best sight reader. It's an ultimate test of how accomplished a musician is, how much experience they have, and how fast their brain works.

No, often you don't have a lot of rehearsal time.

June 2, 2019, 7:38 PM · Strong sight-readers save rehearsal time.
Edited: June 3, 2019, 2:02 AM · "True, but generally subs are folks who have proven their skills by experience. If your sub is a section player in the Chicago Symphony, you probably don't need to make sure they can play."

I was mostly responding to Tom Holzman's assertion that sight-reading is not a highly important skill for orchestra players. Of course the subs are excellent players -- even auditions for regional orchestras' sub lists are highly competitive. But that wasn't the question. My point was that, when called in, the subs are expected to sight-read well enough to play the concert on no more than one rehearsal, with essentially no opportunity to practice their part in advance.

And I thought that should be obvious even to community orchestra musicians who are used to rehearsing a lot. Do they not realize what the "ringers" who sometimes play in their orchestras are expected to do? I had my first experience playing as a ringer in a community orchestra last fall. I found out what was on the program only when I showed up at the dress rehearsal; when I was contacted a few days earlier I was only told that it was Halloween pops. As far as I can tell, this is typical.

EDITED to add: when I mentioned receiving parts 48 hours before a pops concert in a mostly-amateur orchestra, I mean the whole orchestra got parts at that time, not short-notice subs.

June 2, 2019, 8:24 PM · My experience playing freelance gigs was that when you're a sub, you tend not to get a lot of notice. A day is not unusual. Less than 24 hours is pretty common. That gets you one rehearsal and then the concert. Plus sometimes there will be an unannounced addition to the program. If it's a common work, there will be no rehearsal, so if you haven't played it before, you had better be able to sight-read well.

That kind of thing. It certainly happens in plenty of community orchestras as well. I showed up at rehearsal a couple of weeks ago, and my stand had a freshly-commissioned contemporary composition. One of the local community orchestras here also commonly does encore works -- often a Sousa march or something like that -- on just a run-through immediately before the concert, no actual rehearsal.

And a lot of freeway philharmonics will do a concert on just one or two rehearsals, and you cannot necessarily count on getting the parts significantly in advance. And for many players, you simply cannot afford the time to practice the whole thing. You have to count on your sight-reading skills for the vast majority of it.

So sight-reading is certainly a valid tie-breaker between players.

June 3, 2019, 5:55 AM · A year or so back, I was playing Sibelius 1 with our amateur (community) orchestra. We were short on 1st violins, and had a guest - the Leader of the Ulster Orchestra. They were busy in the afternoon, so he READ the concert. Fabulous playing - and read all the bowings as well as the notes.
And, as nearly always with people right at the top, lovely guy as well.
He DID say the last time he'd played R&F violin was with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
That's what I call sight-reading!
June 3, 2019, 7:38 AM · From (sight) reading this thread, I conclude that orchestras are poorly managed. Why don't they just decide what they're going to play a little sooner and send out the parts then? Perhaps with all the brilliant sight-reading pros they have, it's not absolutely necessary to do so, but wouldn't you expect the final product then to be of higher quality? To put a finer point on it, why do unions tolerate this?
June 3, 2019, 7:56 AM · A few stories from times gone by-- apparently, when Joseph Silverstein auditioned at the BSO (maybe for his promotion to concertmaster), they had to dig through the library for something to read that he had never seen.

William Primrose wrote of a 2nd-tier student he had at one of his conservatory teaching gigs. When Primrose suggested he call it a day, the poor guy started crying and saying that this was the only life for him, etc. So as a strategy, instead of covering repertoire, they spent the next year or two going through all the worst audition traps. Wagner, Strauss, Hindemith, who knows what else.

The student graduates and gets a job. At which point, his music director calls Primrose up to thank him for sending the kid his way. "He isn't the very best player in the world, but WOW-- can he sightread!"

June 3, 2019, 9:54 AM · "From (sight) reading this thread, I conclude that orchestras are poorly managed. Why don't they just decide what they're going to play a little sooner and send out the parts then?"

I think a full-time ROPA or ISCOM orchestra will send out audition lists with plenty of time. At least 6 weeks I'd think. I don't know if anyone is sending out parts, but they will at least send a list when you've been invited to audition. Or it will be posted on their website. Orchestras cutting it too close will probably lose candidates, especially as people have to make travel reservations, take a job leave, etc.

Are orchestras poorly managed? Just remember that this is arts management--there's seldom a lot of money to hire away from the for-profit sector. And positions such as personnel manager are often filled by players. Let's face it: very few people, in general, have their sh$t together anyway.

June 3, 2019, 11:15 AM · I think Paul was talking about the season construction. The season is built well in advance, since it's announced, marketing flyers are printed, subscriptions are sold, etc.

But getting the parts is another matter. A goodly chunk of the time, the parts are rentals. And the rentals show up when they show up, which is often not all that long before the concert. And many pro orchestras have a rehearsal schedule where you just do a rehearsal or two during the same week as the concert(s).

And of course if you're either in a full-time orchestra, or you are playing in multiple freeway philharmonics, the flow of music is relentless. You simply need to be able to play most stuff with minimal practice, or you'll drown.

June 26, 2019, 11:25 AM · It's not unusual, here in the UK, (or wasn't) to have professional "stiffening" for amateur / community orchestras. It meant you had to go in ON THE DAY to play something they'd been working on - and play it all better than they did on one / no rehearsal. Helps the concentration!
June 26, 2019, 11:56 AM · I was once a "ringer" cellist for an university orchestra in Bristol on the opening night of Verdi's opera Nabucco - and I was sight-reading. No sign of the conductor in the run-up to the start so I assumed that he was one of those conductors who appear magically on the podium exactly on the dot and not before. I was wrong; a message arrived 15 minutes before curtain up to say that the gentleman was too ill to attend. Panic behind the scenes! Then someone spotted an elderly retired conductor in the audience, approached him and asked if he could help out. The conductor, who had conducted the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra years before, agreed but warned he had never conducted Nabucco or even seen the score.

There was then an intensive confab between the conductor and the CM about tempi, dynamics, balance, entrances and all the rest of it, and then the show started, a few minutes late and with an explanation to the audience that the conductor was a stand-in at very short notice. The performance was a great success, with no goofs.

The next day, our real conductor turned up, looking a bit pale and wan, conducted well, and the rest of the run went as planned.

Edited: June 26, 2019, 12:33 PM · Hi again Malcolm - no doubt it happens elsewhere too but (as you're surely aware) in the UK a lot of (I'd even suggest "most") amateur choral societies only meet their orchestra on the day of the performance. It helps when the band tends to be similar from one concert to the next, but complacency sets in and not many players (strings at least) take the opportunity of asking for parts to practise in advance. Even when time is too short to rehearse every note in every number the "standard" repertoire usually takes care of itself, but I recall one embarrassing occasion when the oboist thought she could busk her way through Tippett's A Child of Our Time
June 26, 2019, 9:05 PM · It's in our contract that parts must be available a specified length of time in advance of the first rehearsal.

Sightreading is not part of our audition, anyway.

June 27, 2019, 5:23 AM · Trevor, you've mentioned it before.And the conductor was Eric Wetherell.
Yes, I was in the BBC NIO when he was our principal conductor. A large part of our output was rehearse / record 10 numbers in 3 hours, so normally on run-through at most! He was very good at it, and I think we all did a pretty good job.
June 27, 2019, 5:30 AM · Steve, Yes. I spent some of my career leading the orchestra for a number of local choral societies, G & S and shows. If we were lucky, there was a band call, but normally not! The first time we met them was the dress rehearsal, which was probably NOT a run-through, as most producers wanted to go through movement of the chorus etc. So our first performance was probably the first night of the show, where we found that what the singers did bore little relation to the score - they'd just had a piano previously. You really had to listen - we could fit. They wouldn't!
June 27, 2019, 10:40 AM · Malcolm, yes it was indeed Eric Wetherell. His name eluded me when I wrote my post, so I was hoping that someone (with the initials MT?) would come up with the goods. Many thanks!
June 30, 2019, 9:53 AM · Trevor,
Eric in more normal mode
With the NIO at a live concert in 1979

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