ERIC NOWLIN: How to Prepare for Orchestra Auditions

Part 2: Discusses Eric's thoughts on preparing excerpts for orchestral auditions, the process of auditioning, and creating a career in music.

LS: So, that beautifully segues into my next question about orchestral excerpts. Can you describe your perspectives towards, and experiences preparing for orchestral auditions?

EN: I didn’t work on excerpts until I was 25 or 26. They weren’t my focus, but with excerpts you learn how to play them in a certain way, and try to recognize what techniques the committee is looking for you to execute. Essentially, excerpts are a way for the committee to choose someone who doesn’t have bad habits. They’re concerned with, “Does the candidate have a good spiccato? Do they play well in the high positions? Do they have a good sound"? Every excerpt is there to make sure you can do all these different things properly.

LS: What are your thoughts on higher institutions providing classes to prepare students for orchestral auditions?

EN: Excerpt classes in school are great too. But I think the single minded focus on getting a job can really take away from someone’s fundamental enjoyment of why they went into music in the first place. Increasingly today, orchestral musicians wear a lot of hats. For myself, I teach, I play in a string quartet, an orchestra and play chamber music.

If you are narrowly trained to do one thing: 1) You may find that you don’t like that 2) you haven’t acquired the skills that allow you to do other things that make you a well rounded musician. There aren’t many musicians whose sole source of enjoyment is orchestra. So, it’s important for students to really use the opportunity in school to become a well-rounded musician. It’s hard to do when you’re trying to spend eleven hours a day in a practice room.  In this day and age though, it’s a necessity.

One thing I wanted to share is my experience taking a class with Joseph Polisi. It was basically a class about arts and the community, arts and the world, how business and arts intersect etc. It was great. He addressed questions like, "How is what we do relevant to society? What are the funding models for arts?" But who teaches you that in school? Nobody does, but why not, it’s so important? Not all of us are going to be performing musicians. Many of us might be in arts administration, involved as an orchestral librarian, or performing. And there are so many different avenues that we can take that are equally fulfilling, or like myself, we do both. 

LS: Do you think the criteria for auditioning and being accepted into an orchestra should change? If so, how should they be judged?

EN: Obviously, the model of auditions is flawed. The problem is like Winston Churchill said, “It’s the best-worst decision.” In an ideal world, you would only invite twelve people to audition. Each one would have time to warm up and play Bach, and chamber music. These days when you have two hundred people showing up. Orchestras only have so much time to allot to auditions. If you split the committees up too much you’re going to have different results. For myself, I would like to see even for section musicians, an audition round of chamber music. But of course that requires that other members of the panel to play with them. There’s no perfect solution. I try as a committee member not to focus too much on someone playing a perfect audition. You can have someone who you feel is a really good musician but maybe they slipped up on one note. You can also have a musician who has polished their excerpts like jewels, but when placed in an orchestra, they’re a completely different player.

LS: Any advice or thoughts on preparing for orchestral auditions?

EN: Auditions are tough. They’re really hard. I’ve taken maybe eight and hold a rather extremist position when it comes to auditions. Some musicians take auditions just to “take auditions” and other people take auditions to win. For me, I prepare six months in advance. Two months before the audition, I’m ready to go. The week beforehand, everything is memorized and I’m playing through as much as I can everyday. In order to win, you have to take it to an extreme level. I’m not sure enough musicians take excerpts that seriously. You have to prepare every excerpt as if it’s a concerto. You have to be able to wake up in the middle of the night and nail the excerpt. The advice I give to my students is, don’t audition at ten different schools. Pick and choose where you audition and don’t go for everything that’s out there. You have to be ultra ultra prepared. Put yourself in that audition position many times before you take the actual audition, so that you’re not nervous beyond belief the day of the audition.

LS: How reflective are orchestral auditions in terms of how a person actually plays in the orchestra?

EN: In terms of how a person plays in an orchestra? Not very. Auditions are a totally alien experience. But we don’t really have that many other methods of assessing fairly the excerpt. If you want to be completely fair, you have to use the screen, and cast as wide a net as you possibly can. Unfortunately, there aren’t really that many other options.

LS: What would your thoughts be on the final round of an audition being judged according to what other skills the musician has to offer besides musical excellence (i.e, chamber music, marketing, development etc)?

EN: If orchestras get to the point where it’s critical for every musician to have ownership beyond the music then yes, I think it’s important to become as well rounded in all aspects of music as you can. If the orchestra hires two people and one person understands the function of the orchestra, has experience doing outreach events, and is verbally able to communicate why they feel music is important, of course the committee is going to choose that musician who has those attributes as opposed to the musician who’s just a great player. But orchestras right now are still of the mindset that orchestra members are there to play music. One thing I joked about a long time ago, when I was doing auditions, was that the final round should be a psychiatric test round. And that is something else to consider. Can this person function in a group dynamic? We’ve all known people who may be great players, but are not the easiest people to get along with. On the other hand, you may have a good player, who’s not incredible, but has a great personality, comes well prepared, and is nice to work with. In the context of the group body of the orchestra, that individual is going to contribute more. In a sense, those qualities can be more important than simply playing ability. Ideally, you would have both.

LS: So, what advice can you give to students who complete their undergraduate degrees in music, but end up pursuing a career in something else?

EN: One thing I tell my students in terms of career, is even if you decide you don’t do performing as a career, there are many things about music which will help develop you as a person, and develop you into a valuable commodity for any law school, medical school etc. The skills that you learn as a musician, which fewer and fewer people have today--long term focus, attention to detail--these serve everybody well. And that’s not even including the fact that playing music makes you a better person and culturally alive. My advice for students would be: Don’t think that what you’re doing is in vain, just because whatever idea of what career you thought you were going to have is temporarily stalled. The things you learn in music are so relevant to life in general and also to other professions. In addition to that, I would advise all young musicians to learn about the role of music in society; to learn the business model of artistic organizations and to learn how music can make a difference in people’s lives.