The Audition

Mike Tetreault has spent an entire year preparing obsessively for this moment. He’s put in 20-hour workdays, practiced endlessly, and shut down his personal  life. Now the percussionist has 10 minutes to impress a Boston Symphony Orchestra selection committee. A single mistake and it’s over.  A flawless performance and he could join one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.


Photo by Sean Hagwell

It’s close to 5 o’clock on a late afternoon in January when Mike Tetreault, a tall, lanky redhead, turns off Massachusetts Avenue and enters Symphony Hall through a side door. He checks in with the security guard and then heads for the basement, wrestling with more than 150 pounds of gear (mallets, snare drums, tambourines) in a backpack and a roller bag. The rest of the instruments he’ll need tonight will be supplied by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He’s an hour and a half early.

The basement of Symphony Hall is nothing like the velvety opulence upstairs. It’s cold down here, with concrete walls and harsh fluorescent lights. As Tetreault signs in at a table and waits to get into a practice room, he notices the oversize instrument travel cases that are strewn everywhere, ready to safeguard harps and timpani during symphony tours. ­Tetreault, a Colorado-based percussionist, has already survived a nerve-wracking round of cuts to get this opportunity tonight to audition for one of two openings at the world-renowned BSO. He reads the list of the other contenders and is pleased to see a bunch of names he doesn’t know. Younger, he reassures himself. Less experienced. Hopefully that’s an advantage for him.

Tetreault has been working and practicing for this audition ever since Facebook, the online message boards, and the trade magazines began buzzing a year ago about two BSO spots opening up at the same time, one because of a retirement and one because a percussionist had been denied tenure, a polite way of saying he’d been shown the door. Tetreault knew all about this second opening, because the guy who’d gotten the ax was actually his former schoolmate. Now, in his friend’s misfortune, he saw the opportunity he’d been working for his entire career.

At 33, Tetreault was putting in 100-hour weeks on a patchwork of gigs he’d pieced together — simultaneously serving as the music director at the Galilee Baptist Church in Denver; teaching at the University of Colorado; and working various gigs with the Boulder Philharmonic, the Fort Collins Symphony, the Colorado Ballet, the Colorado Symphony, and Opera Colorado. Yes, he was doing what he loved for a living, but when he added it all up, it was barely a living at all. He’d made $55,000 the previous year, pretty good — until you factored in all the hours, and the fact that the salary had to support two since his wife, Rachel, had been laid off in 2010 from a communications job with the Colorado Symphony. The couple was living in a 625-square-foot one-bedroom apartment.

Waiting for his practice room in Symphony Hall, Tetreault reminds himself that if he can win a spot with the BSO, his very existence will be transformed. He’s aware of the challenges — the selection process is brutal, and even if he lands a job, there’s no guarantee he’ll keep it (as his former schoolmate learned). But the orchestra is a godsend for the very few who make it. The positions pay more than $100,000 a year. You get health benefits. You get vacation. You get to lead a normal life. Which is why the BSO is one of the handful of orchestras for which musicians the world over will drop everything to scramble for a job. Like Tetreault, they’ll practice endlessly for months, sacrificing family and personal time. They have to.

The classical audition ranks among the world’s toughest job interviews. Each applicant has 10 minutes at most to play in a way so memorable that he stands out among a lineup of other world-class musicians. Tetreault has prestigious degrees from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London, and he’s studied under the world-renowned performer Christopher Lamb, but at his audition, the only thing that will matter is how he performs in the most pressure-packed few minutes of his life. If he squeezes his glockenspiel mallet too hard, choking the sound, or if he overthinks the dotted rhythm or fails to adjust to the BSO’s oddly scaled xylophone bars and misses a few notes, the whole thing will be over. Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony, sums up the audition process this way: “I want someone to be so brilliant that there’s no question.”

At last, a practice space opens up for Tetreault. Percussionists warm up on a glockenspiel for 10 minutes in one practice room, then move to the next for the xylophone. As they get ready, the auditioners are battling their nerves. The calmest eat bananas, which are supposedly full of natural beta blockers. Some are buried in headphones. One viola player swears a secret weapon helped him win a place in a prestigious orchestra — masturbating immediately before his performance.

When Tetreault’s turn to audition finally arrives, a proctor appears and leads him upstairs to the stage, where the lights are hot and bright. The first thing he notices is that the floor slopes slightly forward. The second thing he notices is the sound he hears. There’s a lot of rustling — the jury is restless. But he can’t see anyone. A screen is separating him from the audition committee, concealing his identity to ensure impartial judging. This anonymity has helped women and minorities break into the field, but now, up on stage, Tetreault finds it disconcerting. The proctor announces his assigned number and Tetreault quickly studies the mallet instruments he’ll be playing. Though the symphony has previously sent an e-mail telling him the width of the bars, he doesn’t know how they’ll react when he strikes them.

Music practice room

Pressure cooker: Generations of musicians have warmed up for BSO auditions in Symphony Hall’s tiny basement practice rooms. (Photo by Matt Kalinowski)

Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago are the country’s five most historically important symphony ­orchestras, but even among them, the BSO stands alone. With a budget of roughly $80 million, and a staggering $387 million endowment (about twice New York’s), the BSO might be America’s most financially stable orchestra.

The BSO was founded in 1881, and, of course, owns Symphony Hall, one of the world’s finest acoustic spaces. No matter how softly the 94-member orchestra plays or how far back you’re sitting, the sound blooms warm and clear. There’s the BSO’s Tanglewood Music Center, which has taught 30 percent of the musicians who currently play in the bigger American orchestras. Its Boston Pops, meanwhile, has not only a national audience, but also a number of lucrative national sponsorships. In sum, the BSO is a destination orchestra even for musicians already working in the Big Five. This year alone, a violist left the Philadelphia Orchestra and a bass trombonist departed the New York Philharmonic to take jobs in Boston.

And for percussionists like ­Tetreault, the BSO is the home of ­legends. Those classic drumsticks that students get for their first lesson are stamped with the name of Vic Firth — Boston’s timpanist for 50 years. The white-felted mallets perched atop the bass drum in every band room in America bear the name of Tom Gauger, the BSO’s bass drum player for 45 years. Those crisp castanets that run $140 and can cut through an entire opera orchestra to accompany the sultry Carmen? They’re Frank Epstein’s. He played with Boston for 43 years.


Mike Tetreault found out about the BSO openings in early 2011. From that point forward, he prepared for his audition obsessively. During one 10-day stretch, he practiced 20 hours a day. Because he and his wife, Rachel, didn’t want to waste the precious few minutes they got to see each other during the week, they arranged regular meetings to deal with everyday concerns like finances and schedules.

Tetreault couldn’t rehearse in his tiny apartment, so he took over the Baptist church where he worked, splitting up his collection of instruments — glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, three ­differently sized snare drums, four pairs of crash cymbals, a bass drum, eight tambourines, four tom-toms, four timpani, and three triangles — among the chapel, the choir room, and a ­smaller classroom. Each space had different ceiling heights, enabling him to hear his sound in different ways.

Michael Tetreault

“Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.” — Mike Tetreault, Percussionist (Photo by Sean Hagwell)

The physical demands of preparing for the audition were intense, and Tetreault ate like an athlete: protein drinks with kale, lots of brown rice and vegetables, no caffeine despite rarely getting enough sleep. Then there were the hand stretches he’d do before picking up a stick in the morning and going to bed at night.

Throughout that year, almost every night was the same for Tetreault: After a full day of work that also ­included a practice session or two, he’d arrive at the church and turn off his phone (thereby frustrating Rachel, who couldn’t get in touch with him). Then he’d begin his practice, watched ­constantly by two people — the church’s first-ever pastor and the pastor’s wife, whose portraits hung side by side on a wall in the chapel. When things went well, Tetreault felt he could see the pastor smiling. When he missed a note, he found himself sneaking looks at the wife and her furrowed brow.

At 7 p.m., he’d carry his 5-inch-deep snare drum into the church’s classroom. There, he’d pick up a pair of hickory drumsticks and tap softly on the drum head, making the bottom snares buzz. Sometimes his right wrist would flick slightly harder than the left, producing a sound not unlike a woman limping in high heels. Tetreault concentrated harder, straining to catch and then eliminate these imperfections from his playing. When an accent popped too much, cracking and towering over the other notes, he’d release the weight of the stick as though dribbling a basketball. And just in case he was missing something, he’d record his practices, listening to each of them three times to make sure he was slicing the beats into precise halves, quarters, and sixteenths — slicing like a surgeon rather than a butcher.

During rest periods he’d continue practicing in his mind — singing excerpts and visualizing his hands executing a perfect xylophone lick. In the quiet moments, he discovered an unwanted accompaniment — the ­buzzing of fluorescent lights. Concert B-flat, he thought to himself.

At 9 p.m., he’d change drums and change rooms, going for a higher ceiling to let his tones expand, more like how the stage sounds, echoes and all. He’d switch off the snares, turning the drum into a hollow tom-tom, and use thicker sticks to balance the drum’s hollow ring with a groovy, swinging sound.

At the end of each night, he’d record a batch of excerpts that he’d eventually send to Christopher Lamb, his teacher and the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic. Lamb would then follow up with e-mailed notes, such as — in the case of Ravel’s Boléro, a piece with a famously repetitive snare-drum part — “You’re too young, this is too fast for this old guy … relax, be more inviting.”

At midnight, Tetreault would arrive back at home. Rachel would be sound asleep, and he’d sink into bed beside her. A few hours later he’d rise and begin the day with a 3-mile run. And the whole cycle would start again.


One reason there were two openings rather than just one at the BSO was the retirement of percussionist Frank Epstein, who joined the orchestra in 1968 at the age of 26, which was then considered extremely young. Most members back then had at least five years’ experience with an orchestra before making it to Boston.

After more than four decades with the BSO, retirement crept up on Epstein. He’d begun thinking about it in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2011 that he ­finally got tired of fighting the pain he felt while performing — it moved through his feet and knees, up to his wrists and shoulders. His last two concerts that year looked perfectly programmed for a percussionist’s farewell — one, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Tanglewood, the other, Berlioz’s Requiem at Symphony Hall. But the Beethoven concert was canceled because of Hurricane Irene. And then a conductor fell ill and the Berlioz program was changed to an evening of Mozart, meaning Epstein wouldn’t be needed.

Epstein has visited Symphony Hall only once since his 2011 season, and for just one piece, the premiere of John ­Harbison’s Sixth Symphony. “I haven’t gone to a concert, because I couldn’t bring myself to go back to that,” he says. “I still need the space. I couldn’t stand it if someone picked up the cymbals and didn’t do a good job. It kind of terrifies me.”

Some of that may simply be professional pride, but some of it may reflect his belief that younger musicians are moving the music in new directions. Epstein says the current audition process rewards a different kind of player. There used to be at least a little room for flair while auditioning, he says. Back when he went before the judges, he got creative and performed a piece he’d composed for bass drum and cymbals.

These days, he says, “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players. Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”

And the audition process isn’t the final time a musician finds himself judged. A player who wins an audition is put on a one-year probation period. At the end of that year, the committee that hired him reconvenes to evaluate his performance and vote on whether to award tenure. From September 1980 to March 2010, the BSO held 119 auditions, and more than 90 percent of the musicians hired from them wound up receiving tenure.

“No one wants to go through a probation trial period and not give the guy tenure,” Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, says. “You want to avoid that. That’s why the audition is almost sacred — it’s almost a sacred ritual.”


  • John

    I remember Tim Genius telling me “If you can be happy doing anything else in life, do that instead.” This was a reminder of why I gave up on the life of a Classical Percussionist. I miss the music, but holy shit these guys/girls work so hard for that 1 position that may never come.

  • Ben

    I have so much admiration and respect for my musician friends. 8 years ago I put down my bassoon to pursue another dream, one that did not work out the way I had imagined. This is my one great regret. Not pursuing a dream, but abandoning my first love. This article reminds me why, at the time, I felt like it had to be either/or, it could never have been both simultaneously.

  • Hugh Topham

    What a beautiful and poignant article. It fully captures the torture of not only the audition process but the drive that pushes people to do it. I left the business after 14 years and while it was one of the most diffucult things I have ever done, it has been incredibly freeing as I can now dissasociate my person from my abilities.

  • marilyn hidden

    I get the honor or listening to him every Sunday. He is great!!

  • James

    What a beautifully written article. I have harbored the same dream of being a orchestral musician in a full time job since I was 14 years old and I still hold out hope that one day will be my day. Music is a wonderful mistress but a terrible master. At a professional audition, there is one winner; everyone one else lost. This fact is ironclad and is terribly unforgiving.

  • Thomas A. Blomster

    It would be nice to think the BSO will take a good hard look at themselves, but I’m sure they won’t. While Mike T’s story is sad, it’s nothing compared to what happened to Vinson. If he ever recovers to lead a normal life, it will be a miracle. Tim Genis comes off looking like an audition fixer. Volpe doesn’t come off any better. Music is a totally humanitarian effort, but an orchestra musician must go through the “Hunger Games” to get a position in an orchestra. How is that ever going to work? This is why orchestras are suffering, because ultimately they are not creating an environment where art and creativity will flourish, so their product sucks.

    • Tracy


    • erikazzz

      Wha?? Yeah, the BSO…they really suck. C’mon. The fact is if you can’t survive the pressures of auditioning, then you can’t survive the pressures of the job, and that’s why they have to be “Hunger Games”-style. It’s rough, but that’s survival of the fittest. Period.

      • Fast Eddy

        Have you ever won an audition? I’m not so sure that’s true. The hardest part of this kind of gig is winning the audition.

    • Freddy H.

      Although Tetrault and Vinson’s stories don’t have a happy endings, it is in no way the BSO’s fault. This is what they signed up for plain and simple. If you work that hard and can’t focus mentally then there is something you need to deal with in your life. We are our own worst enemy and in the end we have only ourselves to blame. The BSO is a fantastic top-tier orchestra with many outstanding creative musicians making brilliant music at every concert. From everyone I’ve ever studied with (Double Bass) I’ve learned that the people that win jobs are the ones that usually at peace with most things in their life and understand how to make music out of every note like it was the favorite line to play all day every day. It’s tough, but that’s what it is. No room for drama because there’s 50 people behind you that want your spot.

    • mick boyce

      you are right. something in this excellent article that struck me was this quote from Epstein:

      “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players…”

      it is all about conformity, not creativity. coupled with this quote from Volpe:

      “That’s why the audition is almost sacred — it’s almost a sacred ritual.”

      what a pompous ass. get over yourself Volpe. the judgments they are drawing about the musicians must be incredibly subjective, pretentious twaddle.

    • shane

      Not that the BSO sucks, they don’t, but the technical perfection required for an audition rewards machine-like performances and performers. Compare recordings pre-1950’s with those of today. It’s still interesting music, but the fear of playing a wrong note is deafening. BTW, Tim Genis was Lee Vinson’s teacher at the time of his audition. Not that “fixing” is possible in a blind audition, but if it were, it probably would have been in Lee’s favor.

  • Stephen Balderston

    What an excellent article this is! As a twenty year veteran of orchestral playing (10 of those spent as Assistant Principal Cello in the Chicago Symphony) I can say that without a doubt this is the most honest and heartfelt article I have ever read on the subject of trying to obtain a sought-after orchestral position. I left orchestral life in large part to help students so that they could be prepared for thier journey into the professional world, be it orchestral or otherwise. As we all know, there are very few orchestra jobs, and many young players competing for those chairs – the competition is fierce. It takes complete commitment (mind, body and spirit) and an incredible amount of personal sacrifice and discipline to properly prepare for those scant ten minutes on stage. And one must be very honest with themselves: ask the tough questions. Can I do this? Am I willing to go all the way? How good am I willing to be?
    Mental and physical health are key! In the end, this is what matters most.

    • Gregory Smith

      As Steve Balderston is a former colleague of mine in the Chicago Symphony (I am clarinettist there), I can tell you that he knows of what he speaks so eloquently about. In addition to his thoughtful comments and, generally speaking, about the article’s content itself, we as professionals have students and their parents or other relatives ask us on a periodic basis to advise them as to whether we think it is worth it based on what we know of their talents – despite all of the tremendous odds. It is a tremendous responsibility that we, as professionals have to wrestle with throughout our teaching careers. When my own parents asked one of my clarinet teacher’s opinion (Mitchell Lurie) about my chances, he gave what seemed to be the most practical answer of all. “If you don’t at least try, you’ll never know.” I would only add that if it’s the only thing that you believe will bring you happiness, that it is your true passion in life, if you don’t try, you’ll never know. This article would be a great resource for all teachers as required reading for their every student. It would act as a terrific “springboard” toward furthering personal as well as public discussion about this complex subject. Thank you to the author Jenny Doris for her tremendously insightful work and to Boston Magazine for publishing it. Most of all, thank you’s go to the auditionees for allowing us to see their side of this tremendously important story. We are all grateful to you!

      • Gregory Smith

        Have to add that after serving on many an audition committee for my orchestra during my almost 30 years there, including the hearing of literally hundreds of principal clarinet candidates over the last several years coming from all corners of the globe, there seems to be a misperception among some that as committee members, we are seeking the “perfect playing” candidate and that no mishaps (unless they are repeated enough to cause question) are allowed. Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact just the opposite is true from my own personal experience. We are rooting for and are on the edge of our seats FOR the candidate to do their best. In our case, it took 4 separate yearly auditions and several in-orchestra trial periods for several candidates to find that “perfect” candidate. But the part that always gets left out about this “perfect” candidate is that they are not “perfect” in the literal sense at all – they just happened to be “perfect” for OUR particular orchestra’s style.

  • Chris

    Whilst people who work that hard are clearly incredibly disciplined and motivated-and music does need that- I can’t help but feel that doing that amount of practise does not always equate to playing well in an audition nor does it change whether you are actually experienced enough to do the job. (I’m not really talking about above case-clearly Mr Tetreault is) In some ways I wonder whether there could be a case to argue that people who prepare that obsessively for auditions are missing the point in the same way that some panels seem to demand near perfection. We all want a job but have to accept there are so many factors governing how you play on the day that are outside of your control.The fact that every panel is different and each one looking for a slight varient on the same thing mean it’s so hard to measure the successes and the knockbacks objectively.

    • Chris

      *variant. Forgot to add, I wasn’t being negative about the article in any way at all and it was so great to read about someone elses experience. I recently had a really unpleasant panel in an audition which made every note I played a terrifying experience.

  • Clayton

    A very good description of my life (and most other musicians’ lives). What it leaves out is that you must endure this process over and over and over and over. I remember so many “professional” auditions. I remember which moment in which piece I lost the chance. It’s not always about missed notes. Sometimes the tone is not as warm as it should be (for a quarter of a second), or a stroke is half a gram too heavy. The one thing that is universal is the audition panel is not interested in hiring a human being. They want a machine that spits out perfection 100% of the time, no matter what. This article is exactly correct. Playing for panels and playing for an audience are different. And no matter how experienced you are, if anything is even the slightest bit off, into the trash you go! Playing for an audience involves connecting, expressing, and creating something emotional and enjoyable. Audition committees want none of that. It’s as far removed from a human encounter as I can imagine. I suppose it takes a degree of insanity to keep subjecting myself to such a process. At the very least, I find my practice is most effective when that audition is on the calendar. Perhaps one day, I’ll be given the chance to be denied tenure, but until then, I’ll just keep banging my head against that wall.

    • Stephan

      “The one thing that is universal is the audition panel is not interested in hiring a human being. They want a machine that spits out perfection 100% of the time, no matter what.”
      If that’s what you truly believe then you will have a very hard time convincing an anonymous panel that you are trying to communicate anything to them other than negative energy. When I sit on an audition committee I, along with the great majority of my colleagues, *long* to hear someone who has something to say which goes beyond the notes. It is not unreasonable to expect candidates to be able to play near perfectly under pressure, as you will do within the band when you get in – we know the difference between small mistakes versus poor taste or lack of preparation. Committees will try to imagine the candidates who make fewer (or no) mistakes sitting within their section, seeing what they can contribute to the orchestra, and whether they are ultimately the best fit. Sometimes it’s down to apples and oranges; other times one candidate will just be more convincing musically. And yes, sometimes we’ll hire the person who screwed up the least, assuming they connected with us. There are so few jobs out there, if audition candidates go in with negative energy then surely their playing will reflect that, at which point success will be that much more elusive.

    • Jay

      “The one thing that is universal is the audition panel is not interested in hiring a human being. They want a machine that spits out perfection 100% of the time, no matter what.”

      I find that notion skewed. I can clearly remember my very first orchestral audition:

      The preliminary and semi-final rounds were not performed to perfection on my part. No glaring deficiency was present, but assuredly it was not machine-like perfection akin to lightning captured in a bottle. Heck, I even managed to play a wrong note in a very famous excerpt for my instrument… Somehow those errors were not noticed, nor given true gravitas.

      In the final round, narrowed down to 3 candidates out of the original 200-some hungry musicians, I managed to play as perfect a 15 minute audition that any machine could muster. And I was not chosen….

      What was missing?… not perfection but humanity. Though my small college mind could little grasp that notion at the time I cannot, now, comprehend how I was so misguided.

      Promoting the false ideal of machine-like-perfection as the true goal to our students does them a great disservice.

      Skill must be honed to a high-degree, but the application of that abstract skill must still be rightly applied; both in a “heated” audition and in the collaborative concert dynamic.

  • Homer Sterr

    I think other website owners should take this site as an model very clean and wonderful style and design, not to mention the content. You are an expert in this area!

  • Luann Nelson

    Thank for you a wonderful and heartfelt article about fabulous musicians. I hope both these fine percussionists land on their feet, whether with an orchestra or in some other good place. I know of other orchestra musicians who took auditions for years before winning the job that made their career.

  • Stephen

    What a thoughtful article!

    It threw into sharp relief the excellent, well-run and, above all, humane audition I attended almost a year ago for a conductor and rehearsal pianist job at the musical theatre where I now work in Stuttgart.

    Nine candidates were invited, of whom eight turned up. We all got to play all the way through the two (longish) obligatory piano pieces, and we all coached the singers on all six of the numbers we’d been sent.

    After this there was a cut. The theatre had planned to see five candidates conduct the orchestra (almost all principals) and cast (almost all first cast), but managed to squeeze in six. To the two candidates who didn’t get to stay, the musical director was apologetic, explaining that there was only a limited amount of time available, but thanking them for coming and hoping that they’d apply again if another position came up.

    Those of us who stayed conducted all the way through six pieces, with time to ask questions and to go over corners once again if we wanted to. After that, every candidate had ten minutes private feedback time with the musical director.

    I learned later that, while the MD took the final decision, he discussed his choice thoroughly with the cast and orchestra, so when I took up the job it felt like I’d been chosen by the whole company rather than just by one person.

    To put this experience into perspective, a few months earlier I’d been to an audition as repetiteur for an opera house in Berlin, where I’ d been asked to prepare an hour’s worth of music (for which I’d missed my mum’s seventieth birthday party), and of which they heard three minutes.

    Obviously I was delighted to get the Stuttgart job, but I think that if I hadn’t (although of course I’d have been disappointed), I would still have felt that the preparation, journey and audition had been worthwhile.

    It seems to me that if every audition was run like this, the musical world would be a happier one.

    • Ken MacDonald

      Hm, reminds me of the old joke: “The only fair audition is the one you win.”

  • MJ

    As I near retirement, I am grateful that I have been able to make a modest living as a symphony and opera musician. This article has magnified how brutal the audition process has become as more and more musicians vie for one or two openings. The tenure process of Mr. Vinson was particularly painful to read. It seemed like his colleagues could not give him constructive criticism. How could he improve without this knowledge, as well as hearing conflicting comments? One must truly love playing music to survive the egos, unfairness, disloyalty, and sociopathic conductors that are rampant in this business. I have enough positive experiences performing throughout the year to keep me going even though they are few and far between. But I do not envy those just starting out. One thing I have learned is that we all must make our own music and persist in that pursuit of ultimate joy. It is worth it when it is there.

  • Fiddlechip

    Nice article about the hell that is symphony orchestra auditions. Although a certain amount of obsessive practicing may be necessary for success, 20 hours a day is insane. Some of that time is probably better spent on relaxation strategies and techniques–and just living. I wish the audition process could be different. What can you tell about someone in 10 minutes of playing? You can tell that they are a great technician but not whether they can play well with others, which is most of what playing in an orchestra is all about. So you get orchestras that have too many great technicians who are lousy ensemble players. An extended audition process that invited a few finalists to play one concert series with the orchestra would have probably eliminated Vinson from contention and, while disappointing him short-term, saved him from the earth-shattering misery that followed.

  • Will Jaeger

    This article was a great read. I commend Ms. Dorris on a job very well done.

    I am a drummer who recently made the choice to stop my pursuit of my “dream job”, so the last lines of the piece are especially meaningful to me. The desire is, thankfully, gone.

    Those who continue on have my respect and my sympathy. God bless you all.

  • Peter Klein

    Dear Mike,

    practicing 20 hours a day is no way to win a job at any orchestra, even the smallest and crappiest of all orchestras. It doesn’t surprise me that you didn’t get to the second round. I am sorry for you, though.

    You sould check out with the great musicians of the Bavarian Sate Opera to hear from them that doing a great audition is all about making music and practicing about 4 hours a day and one or two hours a day of mental training. Mental training is practice time without any instruments, just the the score and your vivid imagination on how you want something to sound like.


    Peter Klein.

    • Mike Tetreault

      @Peter- thank you for your insight. I have long admired the musicians of the Bavarian State Opera and would love to find out more regarding their experiences. Mental training is an important part of my routine, however I take issue with your observations regarding the practice time. To simply play through the list of required pieces in Boston once took me over 2 hours per day.

      As to my specific experience, the article clearly says I was WORKING 20 hours a day, which for a ten day stretch was absolutely true. I had 8 hours of rehearsals a day for a percussion quartet concert I was playing in. Along with that concert went 2-3 hours of practice and memorization per day. I was also engaged by the Colorado Ballet to play their Nutcracker, so add in another 2 hours per day for rehs and or perfs. The Boston video was due the day before the percussion concert, so for a ten day stretch I was practicing after the 12plus hours of rehs and performances for approx 4 hours, then an hour or two of mental training then 2 hours or so of recording.

      It was not an ideal situation, but rather a confluence of events that meant the only way to successfully navigate through it was to put in very, very long days. I would not recommend 20 hour days to anyone-but for the purposes for which it was intended, the concerts going very well (with no memory slips) and the DVD getting accepted-it worked. Afterwards I slept for two days.

      • Fast Eddy

        Mr. Tetreault, much love to you from another auditioning musician in Utah; perhaps you and i played at one point with the San Juan symphony?
        Anyways just some more encouragement, it sounds like you’re doing some tremendous things with your practice time. Best wishes from a broke tuba player, maybe we’ll play in the same group sometime!

  • Albert

    I’ve found that getting the balance right helps. Twenty hours (really?) of practise a day is neither healthy nor sensible. Far better to switch it round to four hours, maximum, and 20 hours rest/normal life/eating/sleeping/socialising.

    One of the worst auditions I ever did was after an extended period of not going out, no alcohol, strict regime. Too much pressure on myself to succeed. So naturally, the audition was a nightmare.

    Your article mentions eating bananas (doesn’t work) but nothing about the copious amounts of real beta blockers most musicians are necking in order to do their jobs without being affected by nerves. Professional pride and embarrassment ensures that this will never be widely spoken about.

    Good luck to both players. I liked the bit about the pre-performance masturbation. I’ll have to give that a try.

    • Albert

      Apologies, just seen your explanation of twenty hour workday.

      Take it easy

    • Nina

      I’ve been happily employed in an orchestra for 37 years- been through the audition process a few times and served on audition committees many times. I’m NOT embarassed to admit that I use beta blockers when necessary, as do many of my orchestra colleagues. There is nothing to be ashamed of nor is it something we ‘hide’- when appropriated prescribed, it’s a safe and benign medication that makes performing a little less stressful. Playing in an orchestra day after day with the expectation of perfection isn’t easy–especially for a horn player– but we learn how to cope and live with it, and Inderal is just a part of our arsenal. It sure beats Scotch!! (well, before a concert, anyway).

  • Clef chef

    The darker reality that this article doesn’t get at is that, a majority of the time, auditions are fixed. You can practice all you want, but sometimes being the “best” is immaterial – or even detrimental, as you can threaten egos within a section.

    • CM

      I’m sorry you’re so bitter, but the majority of auditions are absolutely NOT fixed. I’ve been auditioning for 17 years and in four ICSOM orchestras for a combined 16 years. I’ve been on dozens of audition committees and they were ALL run professionally and fairly.
      There may be exceptions here and there, but by and large, auditions are not fixed these days.

      • disqus_UMgvLnrtst

        Then you are one lucky person CM. I don’t think the majority of auditions are fixed. And, audition committees are definitely looking for the best player. But, it is not always so clear whom that player may be. And, there is no doubt whatsoever that the playing field is not always level. People get invited to the finals – sometimes with but sometimes without the screen still up. There are several ICSOM orchestras and specific auditions that come to mind where people who were eliminated in the first round in one audition were later “invited” to play with the orchestra and “won” the job. Or, more commonly, no winner is declared, and someone who didn’t take the audition is invited and wins. Not fixed is not the same thing as fair. Side note to chef chef: what industry is “fair?” Is it “fair” who makes partner, what product wins, what tv show makes millions? The auditioner has to be exceptional, and lucky. All sorts of things out of your control matter – the blood sugar level of the committee members; whom you play before/after; the player you are replacing; etc.

  • David

    Percussionists are terribly exposed, unlike string section players (not to knock them), and are often auditioning on many entirely different instruments (with the exception of principal timpani). And there is all that horrendously complex, polyrhythmic modern music to execute correctly at audition. Very tough.

    Were Mr. Vinson’s problems with the music director and guest conductors, or entirely with the tenure committee?

  • Martha Luce

    Jennie Dorris’ piece “The Audition” has been reverberating in my brain for weeks. I never knew how much work was involved to join a major orchestra, nor how complicated ‘mere’ percussion could be. If possible, please ask Ms. Dorris to look at this New Yorker cover from 1933. I think she would appreciate it.

    • Jennie

      I love this cover of the New Yorker and had not seen it — thank you, and thanks for reading this piece.

  • amahler

    on’t feel bad- my brother-in-law auditioned for the BSO in the 80’s and won the competition not once but TWICE (!) playing behind the screen etc- Both times he was rejected because the then conductor didn’t “like his sound”. Imagine how that feels. The story fortunately has a happy ending as he became a tenured principle in a major orchestra where he has been featured eg several concerto-solo performances over the years.

  • JB

    Thanks so much to the author of this truly authentic and moving article, the musicians featured therein and also the musicians comments. All of you have my compassion and deep respect. I played in orchestras full-time for over 10 years, constantly winning shorter contracts, also playing in part-time orchestras and such, usually making the finals even with the big ones, but never one big tenured gig. Until I ran out of money for auditioning, living, and then out of drive, and out of faith. It’s like competing at the olympics; one short moment, and the smallest of details that day make mountains of the outcome. Best Wishes.

  • Gaddiel

    So what you should learn is : it’s usless to practice 20 hour a day, If you don’t practice your mind and thoughts and the way you think. In fact, practicing so much a day is making an every-day evidence to your sub-concious that your not that good and that you need so much hours to practice a day to “fix” that. If you only would convince yourself that you’re the best, you don’t need that much practice. And at the end, at the audition the only thought that will come up your mind is “Yes, I’m that good”.

  • Anand Ghurye

    An article that makes one introspect . The kind of hard work put in , the passion and the achievements and disappointments all are voluminous .

    At the same time I believe , this article takes a highly mechanistic view of the whole selection , practise and interview process . Practise hard , be perfect and you will be the first amongst the perfects . I am in corporate and individual counselling and I see that this is not true at all . These kind of linear equations do not hold at all . Even the article gives glimpses of that like when it says the others were not able to point out the problems though instinctively they felt there was something missing , or that two of the members who originally had voted for him had retired and he fell short by one vote . This shows that something more than mechanical music is involved .

    That is the mental conditioning , emotional conditioning which some of the other replies talk of .

    After all it is teamwork , and we are not looking for a team made of perfect players but a perfect team !

    Wish you all the best .

  • Daneil

    Great article on this profession, it highlights things that people are unaware of that are actually the normal things being dealt with in the orchestral field on a regular basis.

    I wish this article talked more about actually enjoying music and the thrill of an audition. These points seem like all labor and no fun. Hard work is necessary, but it’s merely a means to an end. Music and performing in concerts/auditions is all about expression and communication. It’s beautiful. It’s spiritual. It’s universal. If you’re only approaching music from a perspective of discipline and nerve-racking auditions, then you’re really, REALLY missing the best part.

    People talk about being so careful and heavily conscious about EVERY minute detail in their playing and how they want to interpret something to the audience or judging committee, you could say “The music that I’m playing, when I first heard this, it has ROCKED me to my inner being. I want to make other people feel this way. How can I rock people”

    Then you’ll be listening to yourself in a completely different way, fully unforced, while remaining precise and critical.

    Much of this contains some of the worst advice you can ever possibly take as a musician.

  • Seth

    I am a high school double bassist who just took my first college audition today. What have I gotten myself into?

    • Kirstie

      Think seriously, very seriously, about whether this is the thing that matters most of all to you. Could you be happy doing something else professionally and playing your bass for fun, whether at amateur, semi-pro or even part-time professional level? Even for the few who are successful, this is not an easy life, nor is it often well-remunerated. The sacrifices you will have to make are myriad and impossible to imagine at the stage of life one makes these decisions at. That said, if it IS the thing that really matters most, then go for it, full tilt, and every possible good wish to you.

  • Nidhi Gangan

    The brutal nature of the orchestral musician’s career… Good insight from a real-life experience.

  • coniljw

    I would suggest a calm breathing session followed by Prayer.

  • Constance E. Barrett

    Time to subscribe to Dr. Noa Kagayama’s blog, the Bulletproof Musician. We all have to decide what it is we want to do with music, where are niche is. Playing in orchestras can be one of the greatest experiences in the world or one of the suckiest. How about just enjoying what music does for us and how it heals the world around us!

  • jeffJ1

    This is a great essay. Even in a difficult job market with scarce jobs, few people face the stress and pressure of a working musician on an audition. Lucky for him that he can cobble together a living in Denver that doesn’t involve driving a taxi or waiting tables.

  • chdrums

    I’m a percussionist/asst. timpanist in the Indianapolis Symphony, and reading this I’m struck by the many similarities to what I went through both in physical practice, and mental awareness when I was auditioning. For me, I started having success in auditions when I decided that my life was OK, even if I didn’t win. That realization came about over time, and especially having played one audition in particular, where I prepared very much the way this article describes Mike’s prep. I was playing gigs, teaching, and practicing, and I had a wife and newborn baby. There was a Principal Percussion opening in a good orchestra, and I decided that if I won, my whole life would change for the better. I kept telling myself I would win, but I didn’t feel that in my gut (I really didn’t believe it), and my practicing 8 hrs a day, even when I should have been sleeping left me exhausted both mentally and physically before I left for the audition. When I walked out to play I stepped on it from the start…it sucked, and I played awful, and it was the worst audition I ever took. I called my wife in tears after it, and thought about getting out of music. I learned more in that audition than any of the ones where I played well. I started doctoral studies which gave me a “plan B”, and that took a lot of pressure off of me, and low and behold I took 3 minor timpani auditions and advanced in all, then took Pittsburgh percussion (the one Andy Reamer won), and wound up in the finals, and then won the next one, Indy, and I’ve been here ever since. Back then there weren’t as many books available as now on mental prep, but even the Inner Game of Tennis lays out the basics…you need to be able to shut off that negative voice that doubts you, and hopefully be “in the zone” when you play. I actually really enjoyed the Pittsburgh audition!! I was having fun playing! I didn’t have fun in Indy, but knew how to handle my mind by then. I know the competition now is MUCH steeper than it was, but I still think that after years of 8-10 hrs/ day practicing, that before an audition, one should back off some. At that point, it’s all a mental game. feel some satisfaction with life–as one of my teachers, George Gaber would say, “take time to stop and smell the flowers”. I was too young to know what he meant then, but later that advice helped me. Your hands can play all the excerpts, but will your mind let you?? Sorry!! I could go on, but this probably isn’t helping anyone. This was just my experience. Best of luck to both Mike and Lee, I feel for you!