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Auditioning on Upright Bass (for a professional orchestra)

We often get young high school or college bound upright bass students that would like to study music in college with the hope of getting a position in a professional orchestra.  Often, there is no concept or understanding of how the 'real world' in professional orchestras work, so here, we would like to give a general description of how the professional orchestras select bass players.  How to prepare, what kinds of solos and excerpts one can be asked to play and some general information of how bass auditions work.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes of preparing for, taking auditions and the whole process.  It can be a pretty emotionally and financially exhausting process. 

How do bass auditions work?  First, you can usually find out about current or future job openings from various trade papers.  In the USA and Canada, the primary source is the International Musician (which is the monthly newspaper sent to all AFM (Music union) members.  No need to join the union yet, just ask someone else that is in it to borrow their copy.  In the back of each issue most all orchestras in the USA and Canada will announce the vacant position, when the audition will take place, and when the job will start.  Sometimes it is immediate, but often positions are advertised and auditioned for a vacancy that will happen in the following season.

You can usually email the personnel manager, attaching your resume and hope that you get an invitation and a repertoire list as soon as possible.  A lot of orchestras now post their repertoire lists online for interested players to copy down and some even attach music. (Often the music is with either their bowings, dynamics or something that is hard to get (like Lutoslowski's Concerto for Orchestra!) 

In most professional symphony auditions there is a lot of overlap shared with other repertoire lists from other orchestras.  For a bass audition, there are some excerpts that you will almost always have to play.  (I list them here with the most common asked at the top:)

  • Beethoven Symphony 5 (both the Scherzo and Trio)
  • Beethoven #9 (Recitative and the immediate Ode to Joy theme...the whole page!)
  • Some kind of Mozart: Symphony #39, 40, 35 or 41.  (With most orchestras leaning towards either #40 or 35. (In these symphonies usually the 1st and 4th movements) , but you should always be familiar with some of the slow movements too.  Nothing will make you more crazy then to practice all of the 'hard' parts for 4-6 weeks beforehand only to get tripped up on some slower, easy passage that you just didn't think would be asked for!  So, look at and play everything.
  • Usually a Brahms Symphony (I or II).  Usually it is Brahms Symphony #2 (every movement)
  • Strauss, Don Juan or Ein Heldenleben.  Usually it is Heldenleben.  This is quite the excerpt that can quickly separate the wannabes from the serious players.  (Excerpt #9, #77, etc...)

There are many, many more pieces that will show up at bass auditions, but the above list is almost always asked in some way, shape or form.

Solos asked:

Orchestra audition committees vary in what kinds of solos they will ask for on an upright bass audition. Some orchestras will simply require a "solo of your choice".  Which generally means, something that is technical with some measure of difficulty and expressive, which will show some musicality.  Typically, it is some kind of concerto movement.  (Kousevitzky, Bottesini, Vanhal) or even a movement from a Bach Cello suite.

Some orchestras will require a particular concerto, but this is more common throughout Europe.  Additionally, more and more orchestras are asking bass players at some point to play either a movement from a Bach suite (in addition to the solo of their choice...so now 2 solos are required) OR they require all candidates to play the Bouree' I and II from the 3rd Cello Suite (played in G Major).  This movement is so commonly asked that you should memorize it and have it engrained in your playing so well that it will become easy to play without having to work up each time there is an audition.

Again, there will be lots of common excerpts that most orchestra audition committees will ask.  Having the most common ones so well prepared and virtually memorized (along with  the common solos),  will free up more time to practice the other lesser known excerpts that you are not familiar with.

The Audition process.  Depending on the time of year, the quality of orchestra position or even the location, there can be upwards of 20-100 players showing up for ONE job.  Years ago, at a top level orchestra, I can recall that there were actually 4 days of preliminary rounds, 2 days of semi final rounds and one day of finals when almost 100 bass players showed up to play, and in the end... the orchestra committee could not decide on a winning player!!  This sort of thing to me, is just mindless  (childlike) behavior. Really??

When you are invited from the orchestra, they will give you a date and usually an approximate time block that you will be playing in.  It's often customary for them to ask candidates to pay a refundable deposit of $100.  This way, if you do not show up (without cancelling in advance) they keep your money.  That's fair if you can imagine that there were always people interested in getting the repertoire list, but didn't come, would poke holes all through out the day (of no shows.)  This keeps everyone 'honest'.

Most all auditions are behind a screen in at least the preliminary rounds.  This is to keep the process as fair as possible without any kinds of favoritism or prejudices.  Lots of stage floors are carpeted leading up to the screen so that the committee cannot even hear the 'candidates' walking noise.  At this point, you are given a number and introduced as such.  "This is candidate #34 and the solo is the Vanhal Concerto 1st movement."  You get to play your solo for about 2-4 minutes before being cutoff (usually the case) and then there will be a list of what excerpts you play.  (Personal note from Steve:  Some of the silliest things can make people the most nervous.  For me, I used to go crazy wondering or worrying about which excerpts they would ask and the sequence.  Sometimes you can get asked kind of a "stupid" excerpt at the very beginning and the surprise can get the better of  your nerves.  What I did to counteract that was to put all my excerpts in a "hat" and then pull them out as they came by chance.  This way I practiced various sequences or orders so that when I actually did the live audition, it was then nothing new or too upsetting.  Usually, the solo is what you have practiced the most on and it is usually a nice way to start with the solo and get 'settled' for the rest to follow.  There are usually around 4 excerpts or so that the committee will want to hear.  The committee will then vote after each player is finished.  While it depends on the orchestra, it is usually some formula requiring a certain majority. For instance, 4 out of 7 votes for YES or 6 out of 8.  Something like that.

Usually there are prelims, then finals.  With large numbers of players coming to the audition, semi-finals are needed to whittle the final selections down.  Almost all audition final rounds are played without the screen.  (I think in the Met Opera, they keep the screen up the whole time.)  In the final round, each individual can play much longer.  While the prelim only lasted 10 minutes (even less!),  your final round could be 30-60 minutes long. 

So 'winning' a professional orchestra takes years of preparation:  Many hours of practice, studying in college, then free lancing etc...  On average, there are very few positions opening per year.  For upright bass, there can be a dry spell of openings where 2 or 3 months go by until there is even one opening posted.  Sometimes (late winter or early spring) there can be a deluge of multiple openings around the country at the same time.  For instance, there could be one opening in Chicago (for the Chicago Symphony), then one in Atlanta during the same week or within a few days and then another one on the entire other side of the country...say Phoenix (my kind of town!).  This is where all that study and preparation can pay off.  The more material that you familiarize yourself with in your 'down time' the more ready and able you might be include auditions that are closer together in time.  It's important that the young college aged people desiring a career in music to be realistic (eyes wide open) so that they know the work involved and that the opportunities are very competitive and few.

This is why we always tell young aspiring students to ask the prospective teacher/professors they are considering studying with in college: "what is their placement history?"  In other words, do they have successful students graduating and getting orchestra positions, or making the finals for these auditions?  If so, don't be afraid to again ask, where? how many? how often?  This is not a "rude" question, but sincerely appropriate for the student planning for an actual career in music.