A Composer's Adventures

In the Line of Fire

(Pablo Helguera.)

(Pablo Helguera.)

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.

Michael Colgrass


  1. Well I know that I would never last in an orchestra – that’s assuming I could pass an audition with my sloppy playing chops. I have worked with orchestras as a soloist without any problem but that is another issue entirely. I am just doing what I do and it’s mostly up to me. The few times that I have sat in an orchestra as an extra I have been glad never to have been an orchestral player. I found the atmosphere stifling and for the most part humorless. Of course my opinion is based on very little experience. I am amazed that you have been able to straddle both the jazz and legit worlds.

    Auditions are terrifying. I have only done a very few and managed to get through them OK. I can’t imagine what they are like these days with so many applicants and so few positions.

    I imagine that you have some NLP techniques that would be helpful to relieve stress in performance and I would be interested to know them.

    I wonder how much thought is given to personality traits in audition settings. Certainly it is important and how is one to judge? I wonder if there are interviews after the auditions in orchestras these days. In jazz we usually know players by reputation or personally and that is a great help in finding compatible band mates.

  2. Bruce,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, in the jazz world, musicians just hear each other in the clubs or on recordings and decide whom to hire. Personality issues are dealt with accordingly. If you’re a musician being hired by Buddy Rich and you’re smart you’ll just simply decline the job in advance to save yourself the misery, or if you like conflict go on the bandstand screaming!
    Symphony orchestra auditions are a somber affair with the auditioners performing behind a screen to eliminate visual predjudices. And musicians are usually very uncomfortable when preparing for them.
    Yes, there are many NLP techniques and some of my own making good for preparing to audition and I’m often asked to teach them by musicians who are auditioning. It would take time to go into them here but I’ll show you sometime if you like. I wrote up a few of them in my book, ‘My Lessons with Kumi,’ that you can read about.

  3. thanks Michael for letting me in on your new blogg.I am enjoying it and especially this one about hazards in auditions. Also the interesting comments about personality conflicts when performing. I am a visual artist and always curious about other forms of expression. I suppose you could say my approach to painting is similar to Jazz improvisation. In the past few years I am in collaboration with a painter whose approach is the exact opposite . We have avoided conflict most of the time and have just completed a monumental piece “Prairie Elements” which we will be showing because of it’s size, for one night only at a commercial venue in Victoria B.C. I can identify with the the scary audition feeling for that is how we are feeling about our “One night stand” show.

  4. Laurie, I appreciate your remarks, especially since they are from a fresh perspective, that of a painter. Your “one night stand” is a little different from an audition since your ‘performance’ is already done. Imagine if you had to create the painting while a jury watched! That would be ridiculous of course and you probably couldn’t do it.
    But that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?—creating something entirely new while people watched. Their viewing would change the outcome of the creativity, which John Cage would have liked.

  5. HA!! another monumental challenge. I wander if I would be up to it-The big problem is of course ,if the viewers would have the patience to watch for hours as we struggle. But an interesting idea. Laurie

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