Preparing for an orchestral audition is a challenging process, so we asked six distinguished cellists for their advice: Professor Jo Cole, Head of Strings at the Royal Academy of Music and former co-principal cellist, City of London Sinfonia; Kristina Blaumane, principal cellist, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Timothy Gill, principal cellist, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and London Sinfonietta; Rebecca Gilliver, principal cellist, London Symphony Orchestra; John Heley, co-principal cellist, Academy of St Martin in the Fields for 29 years and Nicholas Trygstad, principal cellist, Hallé Orchestra. Huge thanks to our magnificent panel for sharing their wisdom and experience.
UK orchestras normally have one or two rounds of auditions and then select a short list of candidates to work with the orchestra for a trial period, after which − if everyone is agreed − an appointment is made. Each orchestra has a unique approach to auditions and trials but the first-round audition normally consists of standard solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts. Our panel believe it would be ideal if students learned the most common audition solo repertoire (Haydn D, Haydn C, Schumann, Dvorak), as well as the main orchestral excerpts, while they are still studying at a conservatoire, ideally during undergraduate study but definitely by the end of a postgraduate course. ‘It’s a lot to prepare in 4−6 weeks,’ Gill observes, ‘so it’s ideal if you have at least the solo pieces learned, so that you just need to brush them up. You should certainly ask your teacher to cover − or revisit − some of this repertoire when you’re a post-grad.’ Blaumane looks forward to hearing solo repertoire if players have something to offer musically. ‘Sometimes people think they should under-play in a tutti audition but the one place not to worry about that is in the concerto. If you’re playing pieces such as Haydn and Schumann, show us the stylistic and tonal contrasts and give us a performance-like quality that we will enjoy.’
Orchestral excerpts require more thought and discipline than solo pieces, many of our panel believe. ‘Preparing orchestral music is like being a conductor,’ says Trygstad. ‘You need to show that you are in control of the whole orchestra’s interpretation, that you realise when your part is subservient to something else, not just playing your part as if you’re a soloist.’ Gilliver recommends listening to good recordings. ‘If you can find a recording by the band you’re auditioning for, so much the better. Download the score from the imslp.org website and know the context.’ Blaumane agrees. ‘It’s important to show in your sound that you’re aware of what function the cellos are playing at that moment, whether melody, counter melody, bass line, rhythm – for example the second movement of Symphony No. 2 by Brahms, which starts with the cello theme, after which the cellos invite the wind to take over while cellos play the counter melody. It’s important to show in your sound and expressivity that you are hearing the piece in your head.’ Trygstad says that if you imagine the sound magnified by nine other cellists as you practice at home, this will be recognised at audition.
Gill says that the fundamental qualities needed are a good tone, intonation and rhythm. ‘Whichever of these is your weakest quality, it is likely to get worse under pressure, so try to be aware of this when you are preparing for audition.’ Gill also encourages students to take part in as many orchestral performances as
possible, so that they can experience the repertoire at first hand. ‘Even playing Don Juan with a pro-am orchestra will be really valuable.’
Accuracy is crucial when preparing excerpts. ‘Playing exactly what’s in the part, attention to detail and accuracy are essential,’ Cole explains. ‘That includes everything from tempo, hierarchy of dynamics, to understanding of style, to a grasp of the appropriate expression and tone colour – NOT just the notes. When a panel is hearing the same excerpts played over and over again by a stream of people, important things that get omitted are screamingly obvious.’ Gill advocates very careful rhythmic preparation of excerpts with a metronome. ‘A good example is Debussy La Mer first movement – the cello part has a double dotted rhythm like a Scots snap and then a single dotted one. It’s a very slight difference but it’s amazing how many people play them just the same.’
Blaumane agrees: ‘People often take liberties in excerpts. It’s OK to show your personality in a concerto but we need to see that you are aware of every marking from the composer. When you get sent music from an orchestra, I suggest you follow the bowings and markings carefully.’ When candidates skip a bar’s rest when playing an excerpt, Blaumane is forced to wonder if the player is aware of the rest. ‘Do they know what is happening in the score in that bar? Do they have good rhythm?’
When Heley coaches players preparing for audition, a common problem is being able to play a difficult excerpt quietly enough. ‘The overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride is often used as an audition excerpt as it’s a real test of dexterity within the marked dynamic of pp and ppp. Playing very fast and very quietly together in a section of 8 people is really hard. You often find people playing this passage really well mezzo forte, but they can’t play it any quieter with clarity.’
Playing spiccato in an orchestral context is equally difficult. ‘If someone’s spiccato sounds a bit like a machine gun, you have to ask how this sound is going to blend with 9 other people playing the same part!’ Gill says. ‘What you’re looking for is a slightly more brushed stroke, with a bit more flexibility but which will still sound “together”. Orchestral playing is a compromise and it’s important to show that you realise that.’ Trygstad admits that orchestral spiccato is not that gratifying to practise. ‘To make a whole section sound pianissimo, you have to barely move.’
Gilliver and Cole believe that the most common mistake is forgetting to perform excerpts with as much expression as pieces. ‘For tutti roles, there can be a bit of a misconception that orchestral section players need to blend into the section to the point where they lose any identity,’ says Cole. ‘I believe orchestras – and section principals – want players who will contribute to the quality of the sound and add something in the way of a musical personality to the section.’ Trygstad coaches his students to pour all their musicianship into their excerpts. ‘Even after a long day listening to candidates, if someone plays in a way that interests you musically, they will have your full attention. If you aim for absolute musicianship when preparing excerpts, you will get the very best out of yourself too; if you just think about technique, you will never reach as high, or gain the panel’s interest.’
Cole and Heley both advise checking excerpts for practical challenges such as swift changes from arco to pizz. ‘Pizzicato technique tends to be underdeveloped because it’s something people think they don’t need to practice’, Heley says, ‘but you need to know how to get from arco to pizz to arco efficiently without dropping your bow or leaving notes out. You could try using the thumb and second to pizz and hold the bow in the other fingers, so that your hand stays still, and you use two digits to pizz, which is something I’ve developed.’ Gill recommends preparing for an audition by playing to friends, even at the same time of day as your audition if you’re not used to playing at this time.
On the day. Gilliver advocates nurturing a mind-set of calm confidence during an audition, as with any performance. ‘Remember above all that the panel want you to play your best even more than you do.’
‘First impressions count,’ Cole advises. ‘Dressing smartly matters − even if choosing to wear less formal clothing, you should look tidy and at ease. Smile and greet the panel but be reasonably business-like. Don’t say “I’m terribly nervous,” and don’t make a big fuss about the facilities (“the warm up room is too cold…” etc.) or excuses (“I’ve got a really bad cold,”) but do make sure you are comfortable with the chair you are sitting on and be certain your spike isn’t going to slip. Genuinely cheerful and positive people are more employable, and if you smile and seem under control and confident (without seeming at all arrogant) then this can feed into your own mental state and be a general benefit.’ Gill advises getting plenty of sleep and eating well to ensure you’re on best form.
The Screen. Some orchestras use a screen for their first round of auditions, to ensure applicants have anonymity and to protect the panel from charges of discrimination or favouritism. Some candidates find screens liberating; others find them inhibiting. Gill suggests seeing the screen as a positive thing and taking the opportunity to imagine your friends behind it. Cole suggests playing as naturally as possible and not to fight the odd acoustic which can be associated with screens, as the panel will be used to this. Trygstad finds: ‘Some people are so nervous behind the screen that even if you’ve asked them not to talk, they reply to you when you give them an instruction.’
Play it again. ‘The panel might ask you to play something again, slightly differently,’ Gill advises, ‘and some cellists get defensive or flustered by this. Generally, if you are asked to play something again, it’s a good sign, because they like you or want to see if you are flexible in the way you play. So be open to that possibility and don’t be put off!’
Trials. If you’re selected for trial, the advice from our panel is, ‘Be yourself’. Trials can go on for a long time and you won’t be able to sustain an adopted persona. ‘You want them to give the Real You the job,’ Cole advises. ‘Don’t try to second guess what people want of you,’ says Gill. ‘You’re there because people like your playing and if you’re trying to be someone you’re not, that’s going to confuse matters.’ On a practical level, show that you can be relied upon to have a professional approach. ‘Be sociable but not intrusive,’ Cole says, ‘and observe things like the orchestral dress code. Make sure you’re on time, and if you witness other members of the orchestra turning up late, using their mobiles, reading a paper or wearing inappropriate clothes, don’t assume that means it is OK in that band and that you can do it.’
Blaumane advises cellists to arrive well-rested, ‘so you have stamina – and be super prepared, so you really know the music inside out. For a triallist for no 2 or tutti position, you need to observe where the other strings are playing so that you use exactly same attack, placing, pressure, bow speed, width of vibrato – otherwise it can make a very uneven sound in the section. Even the way you share your stand and give your colleagues to left and right the space they need to play: all these things are crucial.’ Heley compares this alert, co-operative state to having a set of musical ‘antennae’, so that you are constantly tuned in to everything happening around you.
Blaumane warns against under-playing when trialling for a position. ‘Don’t play above the dynamic marked and adapt to the sound around you but do show that you are contributing to the sound of the section − not just shadowing − but giving support to the sound. Trygstad’s cello section looks for musicians who connect to each other. ‘You can’t be a passenger. Playing in a cello section requires an intimate connection to the music in the same way as when you’re working on your concertos, but it’s tailored to the restrictions of playing in a large group.’
Gill and Cole both feel that trials are a two-way process. ‘Without in any way being arrogant, you have an opportunity to trial the orchestra too, so if you’re not getting on with people or you don’t like the lifestyle, it’s good to be honest with yourself,’ Gill advises. Gilliver sums up the challenge beautifully: ‘Be prepared, be conscientious, be true to yourself. Try to be the person you would like to sit next to and if you get the job, then keep that up for the next 30 years!’
© Robin Aitchison and Sarah Mnatzaganian 2018