Of the many dozens of musicians you see and hear at any given Minnesota Orchestra concert, no two have the same personal or musical history. Bassist David Williamson grew up on the other side of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, while Assistant Concertmaster Rui Du was born across an ocean, in Hefei, China. But whether it’s bassist Robert Anderson, who joined the Orchestra in 1974, or flutist Patrick Tsuji, who made his debut just a few weeks ago, every musician in the ensemble’s ranks has been through the same process at one time or another: the audition.
If you felt a bit of anxiety when reading the word “audition,” you are not alone. The musicians of the Orchestra are immensely talented artists, most of whom have played their instrument from a very young age. But nerves can still come into play during an audition, where a player might only have five minutes to make a big impression. If a musician passes their preliminary round, a series of further rounds awaits, with the entire process occupying multiple days. From the hundreds of candidates who may apply for consideration, an audition’s final round may only consist of five—or as few as one—competing players.
“Of course, with each round that you advance, there are a lot of emotions at play,” says Jude Park, who joined the ensemble’s viola section in September 2022. “For me, it’s always a strange combination of relief, excitement, fatigue and utter fear.”
A candidate does not get to choose the music they perform; instead, repertoire is determined by audition committees, which are generally composed of players from the same instrument family. “We choose a set of excerpts and solo pieces that highlight the different technical and musical skills needed for the position,” says Principal Viola Rebecca Albers, who headed the committee Park played before.
An audition, then, is an epic endurance test—one that must be completed with a terrific sense of musicality and a whole lot of grace. In their preparations, Park took a methodical approach, learning each excerpt inside and out: “What got me through each round was mentally and emotionally investing myself in the music—revisiting my relationships with the solo repertoire and excerpts through listening or envisioning, and consequently feeling inspired to perform the next round.”
Bassist Kyle Sanborn—who, like Park, began his appointment with the Orchestra last September—took a similar tack in mitigating his nerves, comparing his warm-up method to that of a basketball player’s free throw routine. “It’s getting so prepared that when my imminent performance anxiety rears its ugly head during the audition, I can kind of just let muscle memory fully take over.”
But, at times, the biggest challenges associated with an audition are more practical than musical. “Traveling with a bass can be a real pain,” says Sanborn, who came to Minnesota from the Calgary Philharmonic. “If you are flying, you have to make sure that the plane is big enough to fit the bass in the checked luggage. When I auditioned in Calgary, I was flying through Seattle and got turned away in my connection. Luckily, my dad was able to drive up from Portland and take me to the audition!”
Audition schedules were also not immune to COVID-19, with most orchestras postponing their auditions indefinitely at the onset of the pandemic. “I graduated into what felt like a complete void,” says Park, who completed their master’s degree at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in 2021. “Some folks take auditions while they are in school and have a job lined up for them upon graduation.” With audition postings few and far between, Park was unable to transition smoothly from music school to secure ensemble work.
Cargo limits and the disruptions of a global pandemic—not to mention the inevitable unlisted excerpt or loose string—are just the start of what candidates might face when participating in this process with little room for error. Adding to these mounting obstacles are the financial investments of arranging travel plans and accommodations in whichever city auditions are held, with candidates responsible for paying their own airfare and lodging. By chasing after auditions, musicians open themselves up to these difficulties and stressors, wagering that their years of study and commitment to craft will see them through.
Those on the other side of this process—the Orchestra musicians serving on an audition committee—also face considerable pressure. At the beginning of the 2022-23 season, the ensemble welcomed four violists: Park, Marlea Simpson, Sarah Switzer and Lydia Grimes. “It [was] incredibly exciting and a little scary, all at the same time,” Albers said, speaking to the significance of welcoming such a large group of musicians to the section she heads. “Four players can have an enormous impact on a group of 12, both in how we play together, and in the overall culture of the section.” Delighted by her new colleagues, Albers adds: “We have been so fortunate that the four players who won this last audition are not only great players and musicians, but also kind and generous people.”
Principal Horn Michael Gast echoes Albers’ sentiment that, beyond a candidate’s technical skill, their “fit”—that is, a candidate’s demonstrated awareness of how their perspective and way of playing mix with a section’s larger, ever-changing sound—is crucial. “When you get to the finalists, their proficiency and ability is there, along with musicianship, but the sound blend that has been established is very critical to making [our] decision,” says Gast.
Looking back more than 30 years ago, Gast still remembers the excitement of his audition. As the rounds went by, he focused on staying “in the zone,” not becoming fazed when, during his final round, then-Music Director Edo de Waart “conducted the entire horn section with me playing in all five positions of the section.” But Gast believed luck was on his side: “Incidentally, I was upgraded to seat 2B on my flight to Minneapolis for the audition—very prophetic!”
Difficulty—and yes, a bit of luck—will likely always be part of auditioning. But there’s a difference between a process that is challenging, and one that is exclusive. Musicians of color have long been underrepresented on orchestral stages across the nation, part of an enduring legacy of systemic racism in the field. This disparity led the Minnesota Orchestra to become a partner orchestra of the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), a program initiated by the Sphinx Organization with the intention of increasing the representation of Black and Latinx musicians in American orchestras.
The initiative provides “mock” auditions through the New World Symphony, coaching and mentorship opportunities, a series of recommended audition guidelines for orchestras, and other forms of longitudinal support, working in partnership with musicians toward the shared goal of identifying permanent placements within professional ensembles. Responding directly to the financial hurdles mentioned earlier—barriers that are disproportionately faced by candidates of color—NAAS also offers grants to cover travel and lodging for auditions and short-term substitute opportunities.
Guided by its musicians, the Minnesota Orchestra will continue to evaluate the audition process in the years ahead on the way to ensuring that the primary obstacles candidates contend with are only related to their musicianship.
Now a few months into their assignment, Park has found themself in the unlikely place of reminiscing—fondly, almost—on the journey that brought them, eventually, to Orchestra Hall: “One of my most important mentors told me early on that when or if I did win a job, I would look back on that time and miss it. Though I don’t particularly miss taking auditions in itself, she’s absolutely correct in that there is so much to grow and learn from through the audition process on a day-to-day basis—stressors and all!”
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