John Lowry is no stranger to auditions. As Associate Concertmaster of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), he sits on the audition committee every time there’s a string section vacancy, as well as when the CPO’s Concertmaster, Diana Cohen, is unavailable. He’s also participated in over two dozen auditions himself, including back in 1987 when he won his position with the CPO.
“There are some people who are very natural audition players,” Lowry explains. “But for most of us, we have to do it many, many times before we start to be able to play our best in those situations.”
According to Lowry, auditions are especially challenging because they expect technical mastery for some of the most difficult repertoire ever written for each instrument.
“Playing the music is [an] extremely specific skill…and an audition [has] its own style of playing music, that has to be supremely accurate and energetic, rhythmically perfect, and you have to show that you understand the style of the different composers.”
Simply showing up for an audition for a professional orchestra requires a massive investment on the part of the candidate.
“It’s a big commitment. When you audition, you have to pay for everything…[and] for us, we have to leave for… several days depending on where you go [for the audition],” Lowry says. “So it’s very expensive and…that’s part of what makes it difficult psychologically, because the preparation is extreme, the organization of the audition is extreme, and you have to arrange all the flights and hotels and all the mock auditions and all the lessons…that can all work you up. It becomes really important to you [and] it can be quite nerve-wracking.”
Given what Lowry describes, the question then becomes: how closely does being successful in an audition actually represent being successful as an orchestral musician?
“A person who can get through the whole audition process, and the travelling, the time zones, the nerves, playing the audition and still play extremely well…I think that person can usually become an extremely good orchestra member,” says Lowry.
But at the same time, there are always exceptions.
“Sometimes someone who has really good nerves for an audition…it’s possible they aren’t the most sensitive musician in the world, and if you’re playing in a large string or a smaller wind section, a lot depends on how well you listen and your experience and your ability to blend sound and intonation with everyone, and also your ability to lay back when it’s not your turn to be the important voice,” he says. “And it takes time to learn that sometimes.”
Excellent playing also isn’t the only thing the committees listen for during an audition, Lowry explains.
“[For] orchestra musicians like me, we know the music extremely well, so we can hear the orchestra in our imaginations while they’re playing their part, and we can hear whether, rhythmically and stylistically, they’re fitting into the way that the orchestra should sound,” says Lowry.
With so many elements to consider and so much on the line, the pressure each aspiring orchestral musician faces during an audition is immense.
“Even if you’re good at playing concerts, playing auditions is really different—you’re up there yourself, you’re behind a screen…you have to experience it to really understand what it’s like…and for a lot of us, getting up playing concerts in front of an audience is much easier than the audition process.”