Youth Ensemble Auditions from the Other Side of the Table

This past weekend, I spent a day with two other violists judging auditions for the Empire State Youth Orchestras. Five hours. Thirty-six violists (not including judges). Thirty-six! That sounds like a viola joke just waiting to happen.

What wasn’t a joke was how poised the nervous students all were; performance anxiety really didn’t appear to adversely affect almost any of the auditionees. While several confessed to being nervous, and many more were obviously slightly tight, the violists who displayed nerves to me tended to be among the better auditionees I saw that day. I think that young musicians feel the rush of energy that comes with an audition and don’t know what to do with it, and so they get scared by it. However, for those musicians who keep their eyes on the prize and play through all the mental white noise, that energy rush powers a heightened, musical performance. Having a bit too much energy is far better than not having enough; there were several auditionees who sleep-walked through their audition, and played with a plain affect. These auditions weren’t very memorable, and thus tended to sink when we ranked the auditions at the end of the day.

When picking a solo piece, ask yourself what that piece says about you. The Prelude to J.S. Bach’s G-major Cello Suite was a very popular choice, but many young performers struggle to say something musical with it because the idiom is so repetitive. Worse, it hardly reaches the C-string at all, which makes it difficult for the judges to get a complete view of you as a musician, since it doesn’t really touch a key range on our particular instrument. Your solo piece is your first impression, and your autograph. Make sure that it says something compelling and individualistic about you.

Among other dos and don’ts when you walk into the room…

  • Do make sure that you listen to recordings of the excerpts. There were many auditionees who played wonderful solos, but when they got to the excerpts, it was clear that while they had learned the notes, they hadn’t familiarized themselves with the overall piece of music. The audition tests your knowledge of both your instrument and the music – make sure you’re prepared to pass both tests.
  • Don’t be discouraged if we ask you to do something again. We only have ten minutes to listen to you, and we’re not going to waste them. If we ask you to do something again, it’s because we believe in you, and think that you can do it better!
  • Do play a few notes to test out the room, and make yourself at home. However, don’t tune your instrument in the room. Intonation is such a subjective thing that you’re virtually guaranteed to leave one of the judges with a cold first impression.
  • Don’t be afraid of the judges. We have a selfish motive for encouraging you to play well – we don’t want to sit through a poorly played audition. We don’t want to judge you, we want to root for you!
  • Do play your music with gusto. School ensembles are different from professional ensembles; we know that there are probably things on your instrument that you haven’t yet mastered. Don’t be afraid if there are a few things that don’t sound as good as you’d like. With thirty-six violists to hear, we loved hearing the ones who had a musical opinion to share with us, and tried to reward the auditionees who came in with something to say.
  • Don’t ignore the dynamics and other expressive markings. They’re a part of the music too! The top two things that I look for in any auditionee – whether professional or school aged – are expressive markings, and rhythm. If you can keep a pulse, and if you can play with a wider range of expression than the next violist, that earns you an immediate gold star in my book.
  • Do expect to have fun, and be yourself. If you’re feeling comfortable and expressive as a person, that will always bleed into your playing as well. Think about what a privilege it is to get to play some of this music!

It’s our job as judges to ensure that you are as comfortable as possible to make your best music. If we’re doing our jobs, the only things that will be in that audition room are the things you take with you. Bravado, nerves, fear, excitement, expertise, preparation – all of these things will more profoundly affect your audition experience than just about anything the judges will do. The next time you take one of these auditions, make sure to bring the best of yourself into the audition, and say something creative, and musical!


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