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The Orchestral Audition

by William G. Lucas

A process that is intended by design, to be the fairest and best way for any organization to determine which candidate is the best of the best. Arguably, it is the most important process that separates those that have jobs from those that do not.

Actually preparing and successfully winning an audition can seem very complicated to some, simple to others. How many of us have wondered, or are perhaps still wondering, just what it takes to be able to win a job in a major or regional orchestra today? There seem to be so many different lists, so many different opinions about acceptable sounds and styles. There are so many variables; the stress of traveling, trying to practice in a hotel room, not to forget the hassle of getting a quad case on board an airplane. It seems that the system must be unjust that so many trumpeters capable of successfully holding a position in an orchestra, somehow find themselves losing out at auditions.

Auditions are here to stay however, as orchestras tend to be slow moving beasts that do not adapt quickly to new ideas. Realize also, that the majority of orchestra musicians today have been placed as the result of succesfully winning an audition. That being the case, most of these players will admit that the system is “not perfect”, but is still the fairest way to win a job. I hope to offer you a better look at what auditions really are and how to increase your chances for success. Some of what I have to say you will agree with and some you will not. That’s okay, I don’t purport to be an expert on taking auditions. Like most orchestral trumpeters, I have lost more auditions that I have won. I have learned this though as a result; There are no magic wands, only hard thoughtful practice, and good preparation. Success is possible, but what is more possible is increasing the odds that you will play well at any given audition. Do that, and your odds of ending up on the paycheck side of the audition screen will increase enormously.

Auditioning: What it is and is not

To put it very simply, auditions are tests. Tests of not only ability but tests of nerves, of conditioning and of preparation. Auditioning for anything is putting yourself in the middle of a somewhat hostile environment. As orchestral candidate number two hundred and forty nine, you rub shoulders with many other good trumpet players who are there for one reason only; to beat you and win the job.

We as trumpeters are accustomed however, to enjoying a special camaraderie among our kind. At the audition though, you must have only one goal in mind, get the job. This does not suggest anything other than being polite at the audition, saving the merriment with other candidates for after you win the job, not before. You must train yourself to assume a proper balance between business and pleasure. This is why it is common wisdom is not to hang around backstage with the other candidates as you wait your turn to play. You will only waste energy trying to be cordial, or even more needlessly, waste energy having to be rude.

Auditions rarely run like clockwork. If you find yourself having to wait backstage, leave and come back in time to warm up. Ask yourself this: what do you suppose an expert business head like Donald Trump would do in this situation, hang out backstage telling comical stories or be off in the wings focusing himself on his strategy to win?? If you are to win, you must stay focused on the job at hand.

Putting it another way, it’s okay to be a cat. If you hate cats, skip this paragraph, but cats are known by many to be soft, interesting and desirable house pets. They are also known to be very independent and aloof. Call a cat by name and see what it does, it does what it wants. Our society however, openly welcomes these animals into our homes and even into some of our local business. These animals are so welcome in fact, that many forget that these are the same creatures that mercilessly destroy small furry rodents and birds with glee. While we find a way to overlook this as “instinctual”, we as trumpeters must learn from the cat, being cool and aloof backstage before the audition, predatory while on the audition stage and relaxed and friendly afterwards.

Auditioning is the fairest process, although it can can seem unfair or even be unfair. Auditioning is certainly an imperfect process ( I, of course, am one of those orchestra musicians I spoke of earlier, having obtained orchestral employment the result of a blind audition.) Auditioning is not necessarily a determination of musical ability, but is more a determination of your ability to audition. In any case, in order to eventually win, you must learn to use every audition to your advantage. Telling yourself that you lost one because the audition was “rigged” might in fact be just the case, but telling yourself that you lost because you just demonstrated your need to improve in certain areas will only make you a better player. While this may seem like you’re eating committee dirt, you’ll be happy about being a better player at your next audition.

Fight or Flee

As with any situation that our mind senses to be hostile, the body will react adversely to external stimuli. This phenomenon is known as “fight or flee”. Essentially, we are programmed to make a decision; whether to stand our ground to the death, or to run like mad away from danger. In an audition sense, there is no danger, but our minds don’t readily sense that. Our minds only react with the primitive instinct for survival. Since, by virtue of our very existence, we are all the descendants of the fittest and most capable, this can be a very strong instinct indeed. It can be so strong that it becomes an overpowering, even paralyzing state of mind that stings failure into every note we attempt to play. In order to be successful, we must be able to control that instinct, even learning to use it to our advantage.

Stack the Deck

As you can see, auditioning is as much a test of nerves as it is a requirement for orchestral employment. It is a process that you will most likely have to endure, successfully meeting all challenges posed to you, if you desire employment in a good paying job. Get over it. While auditions are by their very nature extremely competitive, they are also as equally controllable to the extent that it can be highly likely that you will eventually succeed. In any event, you need to understand that all things being equal, the odds are heavily stacked against you at any audition, your chances of winning being one in two hundred and fifty at an audition with two hundred and fifty applicants. Based solely on this math, it is not likely that you will win.

If this exercise in simple math doesn’t feel quite right, you are correct, it’s not, there’s more to it. Remember, I said: “all things being equal”. As you read this, you no doubt already understand that you could probably play better than some of those two hundred and fifty applicants. Things are already unequal then, and that is exactly the key to winning: upsetting the balance between you and your opponents. At any audition, the odds are that someone will win, and if you think and follow some simple rules to stack the deck in your favor, there is no reason why it can’t be you.

Think about it: how many trumpet players do you know that you truly consider to be thinking musicians? The number of these that are thinking audition takers may yield an even lower number. Going to an audition without every single excerpt committed to memory, without feeling like you will be glad, yes, glad that the audition committee has requested to hear every Zarathustra call is a gamble. Going to that audition, without feeling like the job is yours even before you get to the stage, is a risk and risk is your enemy. Risk is what you want to limit and is what you must attempt to erase in your daily practice. Limiting risk will exponentially increase your chance for playing well and accordingly, your ability to win. Think of it this way, if you were the only trumpet player who obtained the exact audition repertoire in advance for an opening in a major symphony, how prepared would you be sure to be??? No matter your answer or your supporting logic, preparation is the first step towards limiting risk.

Mental Preparation

Consider this scenario: Suppose that I have started a new orchestra and I am interested in hiring a first trumpet. You are interested in playing first trumpet and so you apply and learn that all you have to do to be hired is come and play a simple audition for me. A very simple audition. Here is what I want you to play:

What don’t you know about this scenario thus far? You don’t know when, you don’t know where, you don’t know who else I am inviting nor do you know how good my orchestra is nor what it is I will pay you. Alright, suppose I said that I am inviting no one else, I will pay you $80,000 a year, and all we do is perform Brahms, Bruckner, Strauss, Mahler, Coltrane and Lucas. Oh yeah, you can come and audition for me here in my hall in Detroit any time you want to. Still interested?<

In this scenario, it is fairly easy to imagine that you will play really well and that, essentially, you could conceive that you already won this job before you even play a note. In fact, this audition is going to be F-U-N, because you are so sure that you will win.

Although you don’t know the acoustics of my hall, you can imagine pretty closely what it will be like to audition for me here, even without a trumpet in your hands. In other words, you can imagine auditioning on this material in really defined detail without ever doing it. This concept is known as “imaging”. Notice that when you “image” yourself playing this “G” from Ex. 2, you never miss it in your head and it is, above all, always really easy to imagine yourself playing it.

Suppose that instead of Ex. 2 I keep making this list harder little by little. After several steps, I now require you to play the 3rd Leonore call. Has your confidence about wining this audition changed? Are you still looking forward to playing for me as much as you were? Can you still image every note or does your imaging begin to fall apart, even a little? If it does, where does it? Do you find yourself now imaging mistakes? What happens if we progress with this game to Petrouchka?

Some words of wisdom: The only problem that you cannot solve is the problem that you refuse to recognize. You need to learn to be wholly objective as you find that even in your head, a particular excerpt can seem to be difficult. You must learn to correct this by beginning with easy “excerpts” and progressing to those more challenging. In the same sense that you could easily image playing a “G” in Ex. 2, you must be able to easily image playing any and all of the excerpts for a prepared list. Through consistent and thoughtful practice you can note that mental picture for good. In a moment I will show you a program to do just that. For now let’s delve into the concept of imaging a little more.


Many sports professionals talk about the “zone”. The “zone” is described by many as a place where you see events unfold before they actually happen. Time seems to slow down and every detail seems crisp, clear and easily obtainable.

The United States Women’s Olympic Rowing team reportedly imaged their entire race from start to finish while sitting together in their row boat. This included crossing the finish line and accepting the gold medal. It is important to see yourself through to this kind of success. As you learn to image, image yourself as the owner of the job you are auditioning for. See yourself accepting congratulations from the audition committee, the Maestro, your friends and your family. This is where you may learn that as an individual, you are perhaps afraid to succeed. Many things will change for you when you win that shiny new spot in an orchestra. Imaging your way to success will allow you to understand where you have confidence and where you do not.

As you become comfortable with the notion of having the job you want, take the next step which is to convince yourself that you have already won the job. It was a great experience and you are simply going to relive the experience on Monday morning because you enjoyed it so much. While this may seem like a stretch for some, do not underestimate the power of mental imagery. The more you become aware of this aspect of trumpet playing, the more you will recognize it’s presence in the words of the sports greats and in much of the words of our great pedagogues.

Peak Performance Techniques

There is an excellent book by Charles Garfield Ph.D. entitled “Peak Performance”. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone auditioning in the performance arts. Essentially these are the training techniques of soviet weight lifters, many of whom reached legendary status in the early 70’s. Buy the book, do the exercises and see if you don’t do better at everything: tennis, golf, trumpeting, whatever.

In my opinion, the main focus of this book is the understanding of “you” as an individual in the “zone”. The great Nolan Ryan of baseball pitching fame desribes it as a sort of Tunnel Vision”:

“You get into a rhythm or groove… you know that everything is going right and you become isolated from all outside distraction … there is only you, the hitter and the catcher. It is the most satisfying feeling that I have ever known”.

Certainly all of us display moods of happiness, contentment and even anger at some time. In each of these situations we know who we are at that moment and we learn how to deal with these emotions. Peak performing is no different. As you complete the exercises in this book, you will begin to recognize common traits to you as a peak performer. You will begin to see another side of your personality emerge, one that is capable of extraordinary feats, deep levels of concentration and nerves of steel. One that you will rely upon as an audition candidate putting you a step or two ahead of most of the rest. This is a tool you will find to be invaluable to the prospect of upsetting the “balance” at the audition and a tool you will rely upon as a performer in the orchestra.

Be your own judge: The Art of Self-Affirmation

Our society tends to feel a little funny about the most important piece of mental preparation, the art of self-affirmation. If I were to say to you: “Man, I really hosed that concert last night!!” somehow, I am a very cool guy. If however, I exclaim: “Man, I played really, really great last night!!” … well, you begin to wonder what kind of egomaniac I might be. But perhaps it is the truth; perhaps I DID play a really great concert last night. ( Actually, I had last night off ). The point is this: It’s okay to be your own judge, in fact you need to become your own judge in order to be successful at winning. You must be objective and tough, but when you do well, you must be free to acknowledge it.

If Bud Herseth heard you play and said: “That is the greatest playing I have ever heard”, you would no doubt be elated beyond belief. Why? Do you know Mr. Herseth personally? Do you know anything about him except what your have heard on record or live in concert? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but surely, you are not as familiar with his beliefs as you are your own. Why should you feel better for him to tell you that you are great than for you to feel that way yourself? The answer is, of course, because you rightfully look up to him as a trumpeter, and as a result, you have given him the power to “affirm” your ability.

This is very common notion in our society. We willingly give our government the power to tell us when it is okay to drive a motor vehicle or a minister the power to tell us when we are married. This is all perfectly okay, allow yourself the power to congratulate yourself when you play well too. (Do NOT expect this argument to hold up in a court of law however, should you give yourself the power to drive without a motor vehicle license).

Give it everything

If after all of this mental preparation, you are to lose anyway, then what??? Simple again: Self determine your loss result now . That way if you don’t win after all of this affirmation, preparation and concentration, you will simply barf and move on. That’s what I said, get sick and recover, we’ve all done that. Tossing your horns over a bridge, chucking mouthpieces out of hotel room windows or the like will do nothing to solve the real problems you have with being able to win the next one. Not that I ever thought of doing any of these things of course.

If before the audition you get this funny little voice in your head saying “Well, what if you DO lose, then what?” Don’t argue with yourself, just let it go. You will find yourself trying to convincingly believe that losing this audition means that you will lose everything, even ending up homeless in Bangkok while being sought after by the CIA. All that will happen to you if you lose is this: you will barf and move onto the next one. Remember, give this audition absolutely everything you have and worry about the food in Bangkok later.

Physical Preparation

Okay this is simple: Get a notebook, put paper in it, write stuff in it. It never ceases to amaze me that business students always have pen and paper ready to jot down notes yet music students act as though the notion of taking notes is actually absurd. Write stuff down. Take notes during your practice sessions, what you think of you think of after practice sessions and while you listen to music. Take notes during lessons, those that you take as well as those that you give. You’ll be surprised at what you have to say. Give your notebook a name and before every audition, go through and read every word of it. Take notes after each audition noting what you were asked to play, how you played, what you thought about the entire experience and any suggestions you might like to make to yourself the next time you go and play for an audition committee. Write down what you wore, what you had to eat and when, as well as any little detail that sticks in your head. You may find out later that these little details can be the keys to unlocking your potential for real success, no matter how irrelevant they might seem at the time. You are what you eat, an athlete’s guide to the trumpet.

The next step in preparing yourself physically for an audition is to realize that as a trumpeter you are part athlete. To put it another way, you are what you eat. The best time to discover this is now, not the morning of the audition when you ask yourself at breakfast, in some strange hotel restaurant “Gosh, what should I order this morning?” As you prepare for this audition, you should experiment and take notes in your notebook about what you had to eat the night before a practice session, what you had to eat for breakfast, lunch and how it made you feel. Runners carbo-load with pasta before a race, what happens when you do this? I found bananas to be my food of choice while I waited off in the wings before I had to play on stage. Figure it out now, not at the audition.

You are what you wear

For many, clothing can be an expression of you and your mood. What should you wear to an audition? While standard business fare may be acceptable in professional terms, you will need to be comfortable as well as confidently attired to play your best. Go out and buy a new tie, don a new or favorite sweater or a fresh new pair of socks before you walk out on stage for your next audition. Whatever it takes to help give you an edge to how positive you feel about yourself. Remember, salesman that frown usually sell nothing but frowns. As an audition candidate, you are selling yourself with every note you play on that stage. Don whatever clothing that will lend you an edge.

You have control over more than you think :the audition triangle

Finally, figure out now whether you are going to sit, stand and how far away from your bell your stand will be placed. Don’t wait until you are on stage to realize that you can’t find that valve oil in your quad case either. Put everything in it’s place now, horns, mouthpieces, oil, mutes, and leave them there. As you practice your excerpts you will not need to think about where to find your tools. Lastly, locate your instruments next to you as in Ex. 3: This is what I refer to as the audition triangle. It is what you will set up day after day as you practice your mock auditions. You want to have a reference to familiar surroundings at an audition, a sort of tunnel vision as described by Nolan Ryan; just you, the music and your instruments. This way, at the onset of those first few notes on stage, you will have the mental capacity to burn to deal with common audition unknowns such as room acoustics and temperature.

AuditionMasterPro: The program

In the late 1980’s I wrote a computer program that assisted me in winning auditions. I have named it “AuditionMasterPro” and I have explained it to many students, friends and colleagues who now are successfully employed at various orchestra in the world. I repeat though, there are no magic wands, only diligent, thoughtful practice. In order to stack the deck in your favor you must practice taking auditions. I have stated, auditioning is not necessarily a determination of musical ability but is more a determination of your ability to audition.

Know your music

The first step is to prepare your music, for this you will now become a librarian. Each excerpt should be formatted on a single piece of paper. It should include the title and should come from an actual trumpet part and not an excerpt book. You want to simulate as closely as possible what a real audition will be like and orchestras rarely use excerpt books for audition music.

Expectedly, not every note of a required symphony will be asked for at an audition. Many trumpeters however, are often surprised when the triplet runs from Don Juan are called for right after the lyric solo from the first page. Certainly, to practice each and every note from each and every required work is mathematically impossible. What we will do to solve this, is to first assign a what I call a “frequency” number to your excerpts.

An excerpt from a required symphony that we would reasonably expect to be asked for at an audition is assigned a frequency number of “1”. An excerpt that we think might be asked for and might not (in other words, you are only half sure) is assigned a frequency number of 2. An excerpt that we are pretty sure will not be asked for, but might be, is assigned a frequency number of 3. For example: I assign a frequency number of “1” to the lyrical solo from Don Juan and the triplet runs I spoke of above, a frequency number of 2. In this way every audition list you will create is different and you will get used to the notion of having curve balls being throw at you as they most certainly will be at real auditions. This is not to suggest that orchestras do this intentionally, it just happens as you will realize when making your own audition lists. After you have decided what frequency number is appropriate, perhaps with the help of a teacher or professional, you should then clearly indicate these frequency numbers on your formatted excerpts.

Each day you will create an audition list selected by a random number generator. That can be accomplished with a computer or more simply with two small paper bags, one containing 10 slips of paper individually numbered from 1 to 10 and one containing the names of all of the required symphonies. Drawing from the “symphony” bag may yield “Don Juan”for example. That prompts you to grab the stack of excerpts you have formatted for Don Juan. For those excepts that you have indicated a frequency number of one, you will place them on face down your music stand to be played at your mock audition. For those that have a frequency other than one, you will draw a number from the number bag that you have prepared.

If, for example, the frequency number of an excerpt is “2”, you would place this excerpt face down on your music stand only if your chosen number was 1,2,3,4 or 5. If you chose a number greater than 5, then you should set this excerpt aside as you will not play this excerpt at this particular mock audition. In other words, according to the laws of statistics, an excerpt with a frequency number of “2” will end up appearing in your audition lists roughly half of the time. If your frequency number is “3”, i.e. it will appear roughly 1/3 of the time, then you would place this excerpt face down on your stand only if your chosen number was 1,2 or 3.

No matter what order you have created, no matter how ridiculous or unreasonable this particular list might seem to be, be sure not change it. At a “real” audition situation, perhaps even an audition for a friend or family member, the list order will have been composed by a human and not at random. You will observe that this “real” order will seem easy by comparison to your daily “mock” work and not be an issue affecting your performance. These lists can be hard, but in the end, they will make the real thing seem like cake.

Practice auditioning everyday

Once you have your list of excerpts face down on your music stand it is now time to turn them face up. Leave the audition room, but before you do, set your cassette tape machine recording. Reenter the room with your trumpet bag packed up just like you would at the real audition and take your place according to the audition triangle you have prepared from above. Open up your bag, play what you would if you will be playing anything on stage before you start in a real hall, and then play the list down. Do not stop for anything. ( I suggest taking the phone off the hook.)

If there is something you wish to repeat, ask the tape in a quite voice like you would ask a proctor, being careful not to be overheard by the audition committee. When you are finished, pack your stuff up and leave the room. Now is the time to write down some impressions from this experience in your notebook.

Returning to your studio, rewind the tape and get ready to critique. As you listen, write down comments in your notebook. Score each excerpt on the following basis: On odd numbered calendar days, score yourself according to psychological merit, specifically answering the question; “How did I feel when that particular excerpt came across my music stand?” If the answer is a resounding “Great!!” then score yourself a 10. If the answer is “Oh no!”, then score it as a zero. On even numbered calendar days you will score yourself according to technical merit. You should begin with a 10 and subtract 1 point for each and every minor flaw, more for major clams or really poor intonation. How hard you are as a judge will determine your ability to improve. Remember that there is only one problem that you cannot solve… be objective and brutally honest, recognizing all flaws as if you were listing to another trumpeter and not yourself.

Practice what you don’t know

Keep these lists lists of critique in your notebook. At the end of the day, sit down to work on what you scored the worst on. If you have two hours to practice, select your four worst excepts and devote thirty minutes to each one. As you practice, note your recorded comments about why you had difficulty, or in the case of psychological merit, why you felt that you were uncomfortable with a particular excerpt. Fix the problems to the best of your ability using popular method books to correct a faulty multiple tongue for example. In other words, it may be that you end up never playing the excerpt at this practice session but working instead on those techniques which caused you to score low. Many trumpeters play what they can play over and over again, falling flat at the audition because they can’t play other challenging material they haven’t practiced. Don’t let this happen to you.

So what happens to the excerpts that you score high on? Well, you play them once every day at the mock audition and eventually, your “worst” excerpts become good enough to surpass the excerpts you once considered to be in good shape. Eventually, you will end up cycling through all your excerpts, working on each one at some point in a practice session,. At any rate, you will be thoroughly prepared and will have limited risk to the most extreme degree possible.

Keep a Graph

Keep track of your comments and your scores for these mock auditions. You want to be sure and keep a graph of your daily results, particularly to see how you think you score technically with how you score psychologically. This can be a very telling view into exactly what problems you may have as a trumpeter.

For example, let’s suppose that you consistently have high marks for technical merit but low ones for psychological merit, what does this tell you? I would read this as someone who doesn’t listen enough when critiquing technical details or one who has a real need to play for some respected friends or colleagues to help boost his/her confidence levels.

Make an “audition tape”

String players are gonna hate to hear this, but make an audition tape. This tape should only include music from the corresponding excerpt sheets that you have prepared for your now daily mock auditions. On those formatted excerpt sheets, you should include information noting what cassette the music is found on as well as where it can be located on a tape counter. Play this tape while in the car traveling to work, while looking at the excerpts, while doing homework, whatever. You need to be able to hear what the other parts in the orchestra are doing while you flawlessly execute the trumpet part. This is more important than you may realize, for most orchestras put a great deal of importance on experience. A true catch 22, since you are told that you can’t win a job because you lack experience but you cannot gain experience because you do not have a job. Make it sound like you do.

Additionally, you should make a date with your CD player and play through the required symphonies with the full trumpet part before you, counting all the of rests as you simulate a real performance. You need to have an idea just what it is going to be like to have that job, experienced or not.

Have it your way

Despite all of the mental and physical preparation, and the time and money spent on getting to the audition itself, all can be for naught if you become a casualty of the many logistics involved with the running of an audition. Let’s face it, some auditions are run better than others, but all orchestras are subject to the scrutiny of the American Federation of Musicians and rules which govern fair audition practices. In a nut shell though, this won’t be worth much to you at the moment a personnel manager gives you an ice cold room to warm up in, or tells you that have thirty minutes to warm up and then calls you on stage five minutes later. The bottom line answer to these or any other situations that you feel are unacceptable, is a polite “no”. Orchestra personnel managers desperately want to have peace backstage at auditions and as long as your requests are reasonable and polite, they will accommodate you if for no other reason than to keep you from standing in the middle of the hall with your arms neatly folded. Understand that not all audition sites are capable of offering you the amenities that you seek, but if you think your request is reasonable, stick to your guns. Also be aware that personnel managers that you will encounter backstage are generally sick of hundreds of trumpet players crawling halls where usually no more than four exist at any one time They can even seem tired and irritable, but a calm, patient and persistent approach is the best answer to seeking the help that you need. Regardless, have it your way, you have worked hard for your moment and deserve nothing less than the most professional treatment.


With many of our great symphony orchestras today running large deficits and on the very brink of financial collapse, it may seem that the orchestral trumpet job is a concept of the past. As fewer and fewer jobs are available, it may seem that there is no possibility for all trumpet players to be employed as symphony artists. While that may or may not be true, times are changing and orchestras today are waking up to the notion of expanding into educational programs designed to benefit not only current students, but the orchestra of the future. As todays conservatories and universities expand their thinking into curriculum that will graduate a more versatile musician and as research is completed revealing the astounding educational benefits of elementary music education, the potential for opportunities for a professional trumpeter will increase, not diminish. As such, there will always be room for good players and success will always be available to those who work hard.

Copyright 1998 William G. Lucas
Trumpet, Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Adjunct Associate Professor of Trumpet – University of Michigan
Adjunct Faculty – Wayne State University