In the Line of Fire
I think most musicians would agree that orchestra auditions are nerve-wracking. The juries expect perfection and may be seeking particular musical qualities the player is unaware of. It’s also tricky for juries because they have little way of knowing how a player will work out in the orchestra, musically or personally. You might play a terrific audition but not fit in for personal reasons. Or you might fit in but end up creating musical friction within the orchestra.
I can speak to the last situation as a free-lance musician way back in 1958. I had a kind of audition for the jazz drum chair in the original ‘West Side Story’ on Broadway. The regular drummer sat behind me while I played the challenging drum part on my first night, ready to step in if something went wrong. I did well and got pats on the back from everyone, including the conductor. So I got the job and played for the drummer’s vacation as well as the remainder of the Broadway run.
But a problem arose between me and conductor Max Goberman. He said I was rushing tempos on the dance numbers, and being the drummer I was in a position to influence rhythm and tempo more than anyone. But I believed I wasn’t rushing, and told him so. Only later did I realize the problem: I had found Goberman’s tempi a little slow on the dance numbers. So I set my own tempos, as I had always done as an improvising jazz player. Although Max liked my playing, he didn’t expect an alpha dog who would use his drum sticks as a baton! (I came to realize that I owed Goberman an apology, but he died not long after West Side Story’s first Broadway run came to an end.)
I’ve seen similar conflicts. A good friend won the auditions for first chair in the woodwind section of a top U.S. symphony orchestra, but on his test tour he tended to play a little sharp and push tempi. As a soloist he had been used to exaggerating aspects of the music for expressive emphasis, which didn’t work well when blending with an orchestra. So he, like myself, was trying to make the music go his own way.
Another friend auditioned for principal bass in one of America’s premier orchestras. The auditions came down to him and one other player. The conductor, seeing my friend’s hippy-style ponytail, suspected he might not stay in the orchestra and asked him, “Do you consider yourself an orchestra man?” My friend answered honestly with “Not necessarily,” which lost him the job—and may have saved the conductor from having to re-audition for that chair a few years later.
With so much at stake at auditions, it’s no wonder some players pop a pill before entering that lion’s den. But don’t twist yourself into a knot—it’s impossible to know what’s best for you or the orchestra. My advice is to simply play your best and let the cards fall where they may.