Orchestra Audition Question

October 14, 2020, 10:07 AM · I have seen many discussion posts on various websites where a person will ask "I want to play in an orchestra someday. Do I have a chance of making it as a pro violinist?" and they'll disclose what year they are in school and the piece they are learning at the moment. Someone always comments "Because you're learning X piece at this moment in your life, it is unlikely you will make it into a good orchestra." Why is this the case? Do we all have to be child prodigies playing difficult concertos early on in life to make it in a good orchestra these days?

I ask this because I wonder if the judges at orchestral auditions think this way. Say someone is playing the Bach Partita No. 2 Chaconne for an audition, and another is playing the Bach Partita No. 3 Preludio, and they both play it well. Are the judges really going to think "Because this person played the Bach Chaconne, an 'arguably' harder piece than the Preludio, let's hire them!" Maybe this is a bad example, but I hope this makes sense!

Replies (30)

October 14, 2020, 10:47 AM · It's not so much what music you play at the audition. When Heifetz plays the easiest of the Bach movements, you can tell he is Heifetz.

More to the point is your level of advancement. Teachers tend to assign pieces based on a hierarchy of ability, and if you haven't done, say, Sibelius at age XX, that says a bit about your progress relative to the thousands of others who will be facing you in that orchestral audition.

There are a handful of late starters who have made it very far in orchestras, chamber music, and even solo careers. But for the other 99%, it is a simple screen.

Your best bet, if you aren't sure where you stand, is to find the best peer group you can for comparison. If you are the top violinist at your university, go to Aspen or Tanglewood to see what else is out there. If you can still swim in the fast lane, good. If not, decide what it will take to get there, and if you are prepared to pay that price.

October 14, 2020, 11:01 AM · Na'ilah no I don't think they would think that way---they will make an offer to the best candidate, plain and simple. Lots of good info on this site already, have a search.
Edited: October 14, 2020, 11:25 AM · I think it is as Stephen said - it's not so much what you play as how you play. And the way you can play will probably also determine what you choose to play. And then there will likely be a sight-reading challenge, don't forget about that.

In the summer of 1973 I sat in a first orchestra rehearsal in which the violin sections were comprised mainly of students who studied during the academic year in the Heifetz masterclass at USC. I was kind of surprised at their sight reading level during the first play-through (not that great) - but at the 2nd run through, at the same sitting - amazing difference. I knew how exquisitely they all could play after having participated in a masterclass with them earlier that day (not at USC! and not under Heifetz!).

Bear in mind that students of Heifetz were not studying to play in orchestras.

Edited: October 14, 2020, 2:07 PM · It's mostly just a really competitive market, and audition panels really only have how someone plays to go by, presuming that the auditions are blind. So since they are going to hear many different people audition, they are trying to listen to the person they think plays best, because what other criterion would they use?

Although I have heard some concepts in the last year or two around having audition processes that are not blind, in order to hire good players from underrepresented groups, and give them chances to professionally develop in the context of the orchestra job, because they might not have had the opportunities that players of more privileged backgrounds had. I think in these cases, the player would still have to be playing at a very high level. I'm not aware of this being a wide practice, though.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that a player that is "a little behind" for some arbitrary milestone can't practice really hard and catch up - People's development is not totally predictable and not totally linear. When people on this site are talking about the odds of this or that, they are really talking at the statistical level, and that doesn't mean that everyone that isn't at x point by y time should just give up; it IS a very competitive market out there, and having backup plans and being realistic about the odds can help to manage difficulties that will come up.

With the Chaconne and the Preludio, you can probably tell the skill of two players who are assigned randomly to either piece very quickly. You can probably tell between two players based on scales, unless they are very close in skill.

Edited: October 14, 2020, 12:53 PM · You are conflating two different issues. One is making a rough guess as to a student’s playing level based on their repertoire and age. The other is repertoire suitable for professional auditions.

In the audition situation, assuming all candidates are playing acceptable pieces based on the list, it is purely who is playing better or whose playing at the top levels seems to be the best fit. I won my job playing the E Major Preludio for my Bach. There are no bonus points awarded for the difficulty of a piece, though certainly a candidate playing the d minor Allemande for their Bach would likely raise some eyebrows

If a student tells me that they are a junior in high school, currently working on the Accolay, and their goal is to win a job in a professional orchestra, I am ethically bound to tell that student that they are very far behind and unlikely to be competitive without a lot of work and a very steep learning curve.

If you want to see where the competition is at age 18, go to YouTube and look up Juilliard (or any other major conservatory with a prep department) prep (high school) senior violin recitals. Not all of those students will go on to be professionals and not all eventually successful professionals might be playing at that level at age 18, but it’s a good rough benchmark.

Editing to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Christian’s comments about progression not being linear and the discussion really being about statistics.

October 14, 2020, 1:07 PM · It is true that a lot of teachers and judges tend to boil students down to the repertoire they currently play. Much of that comes from the competitive atmosphere that exists around competitions and auditions for orchestras and music schools. Just like with the SATs, large institutions that have to churn through hundreds or thousands of applications prefer to have formulas to use to make quick evaluations. This allows them to winnow out a lot of applicants immediately and focus on a narrower target group, where they can then look more closely when making decisions.

It sounds a little depressing when you’re the one auditioning and you know that your career depends on some very quick and mechanical decisions. The problem is that there is enough competition for vacancies that the pressure to be able to decide in a given amount of time forces one to do what’s most time-efficient. You stand the best chance of success if you follow the template. That doesn’t mean that you can’t succeed through other means, but it does mean you face more tribulation that way.

As far as choosing repertoire for an audition, I think it’s true that you don’t absolutely have to play certain pieces to be considered by judges. However, if you choose material that doesn’t showcase your technical ability, judges will only be able to make a decision based on what you present. Of course phrasing and tone production will be crucial, but judges will want to see the most complete spectrum of your talents you can present.

If you choose an easier piece, you really need to play it with authority so that the judges remember it. If the performance is good or moderate, a harder piece will score better because it will show more shifting and bow technique.

October 14, 2020, 1:34 PM · Professional orchestra auditions are nothing at all like conservatory auditions, summer music festival auditions, or youth orchestra auditions.
October 14, 2020, 7:13 PM · Thank you all for the answers! I figured auditions weren't like that, but I had to ask to make sure!
October 14, 2020, 9:30 PM · Best wishes for you, Na’ilah!

If you are thinking about auditioning for something, getting in touch with people who have experience in adjudicating is very informative. You can get a good sense of the repertoire that’s best for the occasion and where you stand going in.

Edited: October 18, 2020, 10:40 AM · For a pro. orch. audition it is very common see requested the first movement of a Mozart concerto; #3,4,or 5, which are good things to work on no matter what your final goal. You can see a list of orchestral excerpts at any orchestra vacancy announcement web-site. The most common selection is R. Strauss, Don Juan. I think they include that one to avoid being overwhelmed with applicants that, like me, are almost good enough.
October 14, 2020, 10:34 PM · Most common requirements for pro orchestra auditions:

First movement of a standard 19th or 20th century violin concerto (most popular choices are Sibelius or Tchaikovsky)
First movement + cadenza of Mozart Concerto #3, 4, or 5 (5 is most popular but I always used 4)
Movement of solo Bach

Orchestral excerpts (first violin parts): Don Juan, Schumann Scherzo, Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream Scherzo, Mozart 39, Brahms 1 or 4 (scherzo), Prokofiev Classical Symphony, Shostakovich 5.

Sometimes a second violin opening will include the 2nd violin parts to Marriage of Figaro and/or Rachmaninov 2nd (second movement)

You may find this a useful resource: https://orchestraexcerpts.com/orchestral-violin-excerpts/

October 15, 2020, 12:37 AM · This is probably one of the best threads on this topic that I have ever seen, partly because I think the original question was framed particularly well.
October 15, 2020, 4:19 AM · That's a great link Mary Ellen - thanks.
October 15, 2020, 3:02 PM · Listen to Mary Ellen. At an average orchestra audition you will find up to 100 violinists auditioning for a single opening. This is after the preliminary cutoff of resume. You need to have every excerpt memorized and know exactly how to play every note in tune, in tempo, with appropriate sound, and with a knowledge of the score. After that you need to do a presentation which will give the audition committee and conductor that you will fit in musically with the orchestra.

The committee listening to you will just be waiting for you to do something they disagree with so they can eliminate you from the herd.

There are a lot of other considerations to be taken into consideration, but mostly you have to have a love of playing in an orchestra as the first one. I bet Mary Ellen could write a 50 page paper on how to get an orchestral position.

October 15, 2020, 5:28 PM · LOL Bruce.

50 pages, or one paragraph: Play 99% in tune (100% for a top orchestra) and 100% in rhythm with a beautiful sound and musical phrasing that shows you know how the piece goes. If any member of the audition panel asks you to make a change in how you play an excerpt, make that change flawlessly and immediately. And once you get a job, don’t be a jerk, and don’t show up unprepared to rehearsal.

Edited: October 15, 2020, 10:13 PM · Going back to the initial question about why playing level at a certain age tends to statistically correlate to the odds of a certain type of violinistic career:

Your playing level at the end of high school tends to determine how good of a conservatory you can get into. The conservatory tends to determine teacher quality to some degree (or at least their recognized "star power" which can matter in resume-screens), as well as the quality of your peers, and this may be relevant to how much you progress.

It also tends to indicate something about the player's pace of progression. If they've been playing for a long time but aren't very advanced/accomplished, is that because they don't practice well or enough? because they've had poor teaching that has resulted in bad habits that they'll need to spend a bunch of time unlearning? because they are a slow learner?

Or were they a late starter? Or didn't get private lessons until they were in their teens? In this case, their pace of progression is relevant, as it indicates how quickly they will advance in the future.

Pace of progression is a good indicator of future playing level after a certain period of time -- post-undergrad, and post-MM/DMA. A student with a knack for learning quickly, practicing efficiently, and working productively with a teacher is going to improve their level of playing more quickly.

A student who enters conservatory at a lower state of preparation will be spending their conservatory years catching up with their peers -- needing to work much harder and longer, in all likelihood. Their peers may be using that time to progress as artists, and to refine their already high level of playing, rather than learning fundamental technique that a less-advanced player might still be learning.

Also, some of those peers will be polishing their audition concertos and excerpts for the Nth time, using their highly-developed technical skills. They have time to devote to related disciplines, like performance psychology training, orchestral repertoire classes, and other elements that are useful for future auditions, gigs, and hoped-for full-time positions.

For late starters and others who enter conservatory at a lower level of advancement, catching up isn't impossible, but it requires the willingness to work extraordinarily hard. This will help the student get into an excellent MM program, where they will need to continue to work exceptionally diligently.

It's useful to look at player's entering level and their level two years later, for instance. If a student has entered conservatory playing at an intermediate level, by the time they have finished their sophomore year, have they advanced to at least a Bruch level, for instance? Have they fully corrected major technical deficiencies that they may have entered with? Is the pace of their progression accelerating significantly?

Mary Ellen mentioned that the two most common audition concertos are the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius. The question then becomes: At the point the student graduates, do they have the technical chops and basic artistry necessary to play the first movements of such concertos in a nearly-flawless fashion? Can they execute their orchestra excerpts perfectly?Or is this likely to be an audible technical struggle?

October 18, 2020, 2:03 PM · "Do we all have to be child prodigies playing difficult concertos early on in life to make it in a good orchestra these days?"

Yes. You have answered your own question.

If you wish to make a decent, (relatively) secure middle-class living as a violinist, you should be a prodigy or near-prodigy. Talent is great for late-starters, but is seldom enough. Late-starters often suffer from a big psychological hurdle: the knowledge that they are a late-starter. This gives them an inferiority complex that is very difficult to simply practice their way out of. They will always wonder "have I caught up? Am I deserving yet?" They tend to suffer from (perfectly normal) self-consciousness and the preoccupation with being judged, something which kicks into high gear in the social pressure cooker of middle school.

There's a namer for it: Imposter syndrome.

If you say "I just love music" it may be enough when you are 22 and living in a crappy neighborhood, driving a crappy car, and sleeping on an Ikea bed that required 30 special screws and only came with 29, and can barely afford health insurance. You may be caught up in the noble Bohemian romance of being a poor violinist who doesn't have to slave away on the corporate ladder. That situation may get old as you hit your 30s, 40s, and 50s.

The situation is no different than other areas of life like sports. Kids don't start baseball at 15 and end up pitching in college or in the majors. They start at 5. They started pitching and displaying talent at and grew up with the performance pressure (no different than musical performance pressure) and either passed or were filtered out. You don't take up tennis, skiing, gymnastics, or hockey in your teens and expect to be a pro. You start at 5. Or earlier. You don't practice or talk yourself into self-confidence-that is earned and internalized very gradually with each success along the way. Each tournament win, each strikeout, each trophy, each concerto competition. The motions of successful athletes and musicians that start early in life are ingrained, thoughtless, and effortless. A pitcher who has to talk themselves through the pitching motion will never be successful. "Now I wind up. Now I cock my wrist. Now I release." This is the thought process of the late starter. It can work somewhat, but only to a point.

Virtuosity is, by its nature, ingrained, thoughtless, and effortless. Many of use can practice to the extent that we display a little virtuosity, under certain circumstances, like in our living room after warming up for 2 hours. It's not enough to be a little virtuosic in very limited circumstances.

To not understand this is to not have respect for the difficulty of the task and what is required, or the competition out there. They will eat your lunch, your dinner, and your bedtime snack.

Too many kids who are "pretty good" are encouraged to enter and remain on a professional track by our colleges and universities that produce way too many "pretty good" musicians with no chance of doing anything but scraping by. The administrators and tenured faculty?

They know this.

October 18, 2020, 7:24 PM · Let's not forget that there are plenty of kids who aren't late starters who aren't playing difficult concertos by, say, early high school, but who nevertheless never manage to get into BM performance programs for college. They show up at college playing a "pretty good" Bruch, say, or for less competitive programs, a "pretty good" Kabalevsky or Mozart 3. In some ways they are of greater concern than the late starters, who worked their butts off getting to that level in a very short period of time.

I don't think it's really a matter of being a prodigy -- i.e. playing difficult concertos by age 7 or so -- as having reached the professional repertoire by roughly the start of high school. There are people who manage to radically accelerate their progress later on, but they're not common -- generally this is the result of really superb teaching unlocking someone's potential.

October 18, 2020, 8:59 PM · "The situation is no different than other areas of life like sports. Kids don't start baseball at 15 and end up pitching in college or in the majors. They start at 5."

As I recall the NCAA had to make new recruiting rules because coaches were making too many scholarship offers to 7th-graders.

Edited: October 20, 2020, 7:59 PM · Going back to the original question, what you are playing at current age suggests ability, which can be useful if someone is predicting your success. Good Paganini Caprices at age 12? You may be in the fast lane.

It won't make a difference to the audition committee. They don't care if you learned the Bruch at age 5 or 5 minutes ago. But if you don't have the physical training, general musical culture, and tradecraft the best teachers will give you, you'll be sunk.

Still, there are always partial exceptions to the need for early starts. Sheila Fiekowsky, one of the better fiddlers in the Boston Symphony, didn't start until nine in the public schools. Of course, she was soloing with a major orchestra not too long after that, and then went to Curtis and Yale.

October 20, 2020, 10:04 PM · Nine is a later start but not truly a late start. And her bio indicates she's been at Boston since 1975 (!) -- for the last 45 years. Playing standards two generations ago were quite different than they are now.
October 20, 2020, 10:25 PM · When I checked about a year ago, three of the major London orchestras (LSO, LPO, Philharmonia) each had a string player who started in their mid-teens without prior musical training, and LSO had another member who switched from traditional fiddle to classical in her late teens. A number of regional orchestra players around Northern California started at 11 or 12. I also know of some extreme outliers: I've met one adult starter who now occasionally subs in regional orchestras, and I'm pretty sure I saw Daniel Kurganov once mention knowing a professional concertmaster who started at 17. Of course late-starting pros are rare, they're just not as rare as most people think. (I'm estimating it's more like 1 in 50 orchestra pros, rather than one in thousands.)

I've also heard at least two professional orchestra string players in Northern California claim to be late starters who beat the odds because they started at 8.

Edited: October 20, 2020, 10:47 PM · Playing standards to get into a top orchestra two generations ago were not terribly different than they are now. People get that idea because they hear the older string players now and compare them with recent audition winners, but most people do not play as well in their 60s after 40 years of an orchestral career as they did in their 20s when they were taking auditions.

What has changed IMO is the standard required to get into a regional orchestra. There are so many more well-trained violinists coming out of conservatories now, there’s a fight for jobs even quite low on the totem pole.

I have known of a few successful double bass players who started in their mid teens but the oldest-starting successful professional violinist that I know of started at 12, and he was an outlier.

Edited: October 21, 2020, 8:35 AM · Hi OP, I also think this line of thinking is quite unreliable; certainly what I was told by members here turned out to be very far from the truth 3-4 yrs later. But really, that's my fault for asking people who had never heard me play. You would really need to ask this sort of question to a private teacher who knows your playing and has experience in this industry.

Something people often don't realise is that every musician has a different pathway. While you do need to be at a certain level by the time you attempt a professional audition, that does not automatically mean we can say to some 18-year-old,"if you haven't played Sibelius flawlessly and learnt with X teacher for X years, you will never make it!" Quite a huge jump in logic needs to be made to come to that conclusion.

It is completely possible to do things a few years later than others, if you have the funds and free time - there are so many people who took a different route and ended up in the exact same orchestra as people who did the whole prodigy thing. I know someone who *entered* a conservatory at 24, after starting at age 12 and now they are in a really fabulous orchestra alongside everyone else - another person started at 16 - and these are full time salaried, you-would've-heard-of-them orchestras. At what point can we stop saying "they're the exception" and just accept that not everyone's path is the same?

October 21, 2020, 1:08 PM · "I've also heard at least two professional orchestra string players in Northern California claim to be late starters who beat the odds because they started at 8."

Is that a typo, or are people really claiming that 8 is a late start?

October 21, 2020, 2:06 PM · 8 is definitely not a late start for the violin... but it is late if you didn't have any other musical training before then. I think that if you had decent aural training, and were for example playing the piano since age 6, you could start at 10 and still become a professional violinist.
October 21, 2020, 8:25 PM · I would also note that these standards do vary by country, which I think is relevant in Gemma's case, for instance. And that's also why the trajectory of progression is important.

OP is in the USA, though.

I would note to Mary Ellen's point that playing standards in general have changed. Feats that were once exceptional in children have become pretty routine. The standard of accomplishment in conservatories has increased, which means the pipeline of graduating players has gotten both bigger and more skilled, when the number of open orchestral positions (of whatever level) hasn't increased that much.

Edited: October 21, 2020, 8:48 PM · "Is that a typo, or are people really claiming that 8 is a late start?"

Not a typo. They were claiming that 8 was a late start, even though I knew that some of their orchestra colleagues started several years later.

I'm not surprised by it myself, considering that I spent 3 years unsuccessfully trying to get lessons between ages 13 and 16, and ended up self-teaching after being rejected over and over as "too old" to start learning a string instrument even as a hobby.

October 22, 2020, 12:01 AM · Eight is a late start in areas where people have the resources to start kids regularly at three and four. But it's not a singular factor at all in determining future success--there are too many other variables.

The idea that someone is "too old" to learn a stringed instrument though, is nonsense. I have a former student who started on Twinkle with me when they began their college career, and by the end of undergraduate was playing in their university orchestra, participating in chamber music summer programs, and studying solo Bach, the Mozart concertos, and Lalo. This student had superb focus, discipline, and reliable study (practice) skills, and it's no surprise to me that today, they are a legal expert at one of the largest tech firms on the planet, and supremely good at their work. Along the way, the benefitted from strong parental support, encouraging classmates and colleagues, and what I feel was their major strength, the absolute best work ethic I've witnessed in any student...puts me to shame!

October 22, 2020, 10:23 AM · Following on to Gene's point: It is also true that many of the amazing players in high school will not pursue careers in music, and in fact, the very best high school players in many cities will not turn out to be your future competition if you are looking for a full-time orchestra position.

(However, some of those players will become your future competition for gigs, especially if you live in a city where the freelance scene has a significant percentage of nonunion gigs.)

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