An Interview on Orchestral Horn Auditions. Part I, Background and Preparation

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UPDATE: A version of this DM project was published in the October, 2015 issue of The Horn Call and the complete dissertation may be downloaded here:

I am contacted periodically by students working on Doctoral projects. I don’t always have time to participate, but in this case the topic intrigued me, on the development of orchestral horn auditions in North America. The interview was by Ashley Cumming from Indiana University, and she agreed to allow me to post her questions and my responses on Horn Matters, which I have broken up into four parts. The written responses below on my personal experiences in orchestral horn auditions date to 2/13/13, and begin after her introductory statement.

Please describe in detail your orchestral audition experiences, noting similarities and differences while considering the following:
Please state the year and orchestra(s) discussed in the following questionnaire.

I used to have the full list of all the auditions I took and it is currently misplaced or lost. Third Horn in Nashville (which I won) was the 25th professional audition I took if I remember the list correctly. [UPDATE: Nashville was my 20th audition.] I started taking auditions for full time jobs in 1986 (the first one was for Principal Horn in Memphis, which I was a finalist for) and I won Nashville in 1991. All told I took around 35 professional auditions (the last one ca. 1997) for regional or better orchestras, positions that were advertised nationally. I also recall advancing in auditions in Buffalo, Columbus, Denver, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Louisville, Toledo, Richmond, and Rochester (several of these locations multiple times), and I am thinking there were still others. The very first professional audition I took was in 1985 for the sub-list for the Rochester Philharmonic (which gave me the opportunity to perform with them a number of times), and there were other local auditions (such as Fourth Horn in Evansville when I was a Doctoral student, which I also won) that were part of my experience as well. Also I sat on several audition committees while I was in the Nashville Symphony.

How did you hear about the available horn position?

Advertisements in The International Musician.

What was the time period between announcement and the audition itself?

About 3 months was typical.

Was there a pre-screening recording, recommendation from a colleague/teacher or a resume required in order to apply?

Sometimes there was a pre-screening tape, and always they wanted a one page resume (and cover letter). Recommendations were not solicited, and probably not desired either.

In your opinion, are these systems effective?

Yes. I think that one’s playing and accomplishments should speak for themselves.

How did you prepare for the audition?

Years of practice, school (MM—Eastman, DM—IU), and strong summer study/performance experiences (Aspen, National Repertory Orchestra, etc.). I started taking auditions for full time jobs right at the end of my MM studies, and actually the main preparation in reference to the question asked was lessons with a variety of teachers. So in that time frame I was living in Rochester playing extra horn fairly often with the RPO and I took lessons with Eli Epstein, Rebecca Root, Peter Kurau, and Milan Yancich before basically every audition I was really gearing up for. Each person would say somewhat different things and it was my job to bring it all together, synthesise and develop a good convincing average. I also in my preparation would record myself, but most often toward the end of preparation and with a specific goal. In particular I would record one time through every major excerpt in one sitting to be sure to nail down any tendencies such as rhythmic insecurity or intonation tendencies. I did not do mock auditions or play for friends, lessons with a variety of teachers was my main tactic. Eli Epstein was an excellent coach in this regard. I also read and re-read The Inner Game of Tennis many times.

Was there an excerpt list provided? If not, how did you choose what to prepare?

An excerpt list was always provided.

Were copies of the excerpts provided?

Rarely. For the tape list perhaps, if there was a pre-screening tape.

Were there ever discrepancies between editions that caused issues?

In actual auditions, yes. I have had transposed parts put on the stand in auditions and in one audition was badly thrown by an odd edition of the Brandenburg Concerto. I am very visual, I want as much as possible to use the actual parts in my preparation. To the Brandenburg again, that one I have multiple editions in my files now so that if it comes up for a current student we can see how it looks and try to be ready to be flexible on the slurs and such.

How did the conductor/orchestra/location of the orchestra play a role in your preparation?

In my first “round” of auditions after my MM I made no changes from audition to audition. Then toward the end of my Doctoral study I began another round of auditions and I really did want to win. Equipment is a part of the puzzle to be sure. So eventually I owned two very different double horns (Conn 8D and Yamaha 667) between which I chose depending on which one I thought would be better received by the audition committee. I also had by then acquired a Holton descant for certain excerpts, another key piece in the puzzle. I used the Yamaha and the descant on the Nashville audition I won for example. Even then, I knew the first horn played a Lawson horn (and she had also studied with Verne Reynolds at Eastman), so I did my best to produce a Lawson-like sound and play generally the way he would have liked. Maybe it was over-thinking it all, but I did win that audition.

There was a learning process to this too, as I did over time take a lot of auditions. At one point, in the spring of 1991, I advanced to the semi-finals or finals in two auditions in a row. I got some feedback, the short version being that they liked my playing but did not like my vibrato. For the next audition my goal was to play with a completely straight, US orchestral tone. And you guessed it; that was the Nashville audition that I won.

Continue to part II