auditions the orchestra world viola

hard truths

In the world of professional cycling, the time trial is known as the ‘race of truth’. You are essentially alone on the road, trying to ride your hardest and fastest sustainable pace for the entire distance, trying on top of that to set the fastest absolute time of the field to win the stage. It is often described as one of the most exquisitely painful feats a cyclist can purposely endure.

In the world of the professional musician, the audition is our race of truth. Just one person, obscured from view by a screen, on stage in a concert hall, playing to the best of one’s ability in the hopes of advancing, and eventually winning the gig. Like the time trial, it can often be an exquisitely painful process, whether one wins, or not.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been preparing (in and of itself an agonizing process) to take the audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s latest viola opening. They previously held auditions, but no winner was chosen. I’m fairly long in the tooth for taking auditions (I’m 45), but I thought that I’d give it the old ‘college try’. I spent hours in the practice studio, with metronome, tuner, and digital recorder, re-learning and trying to constantly refine the list of audition repertoire that was required for the audition. This included the first movements of two standard concertos, and some 18 orchestral pieces ranging from Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 to Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta. If there is any process which serves more to introduce self-doubt, and energize any and all self-imposed demons, than preparing for an orchestral audition, then I don’t even want to know what that might be. Because preparing for auditions is hell.

I spent the time in the practice studio, then sought out colleagues to play for, both recording the process and getting detailed feedback on what needed improvement from them. Then back into the studio for more self-flagellation. All while still preparing chamber music, outside gig music, and of course, music to be performed at my primary workplace, the Oregon Symphony. Ugh.

So, the audition in Chicago consists of just two rounds: preliminaries and finals. There were three days of preliminaries (two held this past Monday and Tuesday, and one more to be held this Saturday), and then the finals will be held in late January. I played in the morning group on Tuesday.

I’ll make a long story short, and just give the brutal details. I warmed up for about an hour in the group warm-up room (certainly one of Dante’s circles of hell) in the bowels of Symphony Center. Then, about 30 minutes before I was to go onstage, I was led up to a practice room of my own on the same level as the stage. I would not know what I would be asked to play (aside from which concerto) until I stepped on stage. So, I methodically went over all of the passages I thought I’d be most likely to play in the round, both slowly and trying them up to tempo, trying to keep my fingers warmed up and supple. After I’d given up trying to play anymore, a runner came to the door and summoned me to the stage. I then stood in the wings while the candidate before me played a really stunning audition, playing a total of six excerpts plus her concerto movement. Then, I walked onstage, into the beautiful confines of Orchestra Hall. I tuned, then played my concerto. It didn’t really feel good. Nothing was bad, but I wasn’t, as I wanted to, playing ‘like I play’. It was too careful, too controlled, perhaps a bit timid. Then I was instructed to play one of the toughest excerpts there is for the viola: No. 77 in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.


It traverses the entire range of the instrument in 26 bars, and literally every note of it is like navigating a minefield. Again, it didn’t feel good. There was no swagger to it, no self-assurance. It wasn’t particularly well in-tune. Then, ‘Thank you.’ I was done. Four minutes of playing time, and months of effort and hundreds of dollars of travel expenses were realized. Stunned, I slowly walked off stage, and actually snorted when the proctor congratulated me on a “good job”.

Now, I know that a lot of candidates would have such an experience and say something along the lines of “What the hell is wrong with the f-ing CSO??? Can’t they just let you play?” Sure, they could, but they’re looking for something very specific, and they have lots and lots of candidates to hear, and they don’t need to mess around when they know that someone isn’t at the standard they’re looking for. Even if I’d played perfectly in aspects of intonation and rhythm, musically, I clearly wasn’t playing with the confidence that they obviously were looking for, and I accept that. So, I get back to life as a non-auditioner, and play with my incredible string quartet, new music ensemble, and the Oregon Symphony – all in an amazing and wonderful city. I’m already a lucky man.