First of all, and sadly, not every orchestra will invite you to audition unless you already have considerable performance experience. My orchestra happens to be one of the handful of orchestras in the United States which invites everyone who wants to audition. I have served on 49 audition committees for various instrumental auditions for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra over the 32 years I have been its principal horn and heard roughly 2500 audition candidates. From those experiences, I've gained a great deal of insight into what audition committees look for, what impresses them, and the most common mistakes audition candidates make during their auditions. Here's a mini guide to consider before your next orchestral audition.
PreparationObviously, you want to be totally prepared when you walk in to take any audition, but preparing for an audition takes more than just practicing the works on an orchestra's audition repertoire list. You really need to know how all of those pieces go, how they sound, and how each passage you will be playing in your audition actually fits into the section of the work it's taken from. While that may sound simplistic, not knowing the repertoire thoroughly is the primary failing of most of the candidates who don't make it past the first round. You may well ask how one can know a work when s/he has never performed it. The answer is simple. Get a copy of the entire part, if possible, or a miniature score of the work. You can find a miniature score of almost any work in either a large music store or on the Internet. The Kalmus Music Company in Florida publishes many works and offers single parts from, among others, the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikowsky, Mahler, and Richard Strauss. Just about every music school library has a collection of complete parts for the standard orchestral repertoire which you might be able to borrow to photo copy.
The second thing you need to do is to obtain a recording of each of the works on the audition list, preferably of the orchestra for which you are auditioning. Even if that orchestra hasn't made a recording of any of the works on the audition list, you should try to find a recording of something the orchestra has recorded in order to listen to the stylistic approach and sound of the particular section whose opening you will be auditioning for. If that orchestra hasn't recorded any of the works on the audition list, then find a recording of those pieces with a well-known conductor and orchestra. Practice each work on the audition list with and without these recordings. Most libraries have an extensive collection of recordings available, and just about every recording made can be found on the Internet.
Listening to a performance of a work will help you establish the correct tempo and show you how it is played stylistically. Young players tend to cut notes and phrases short and sometimes rush or drag the tempo. Playing along with a recording will help you get use to playing the correct rhythm, holding notes their full value, and help you understand the general character of each work. You should also spend some time just listening to these recordings while following along with the part. Believe me, it really won't matter whether you play every note and passage perfectly in an audition, if you fail to play the correct rhythm, fail to play the right dynamic level, and generally sound as though you don't know the character of the work you're playing, you will not move to the next round.
After you begin to get technically comfortable with the works on the audition list, the next thing you should do is to record yourself playing them. When you listen to the playback, do so by following the part and conducting the rhythm. Again, rhythm is a very important. Your attention to detail will mean the difference between success and failure. Also very important is intonation. You may think that you are playing a passage perfectly in tune, but what you hear while you're playing is not necessary how it really sounds. After you graduate from music school, the best teacher and friend you will ever have is a recording device. Record, and listen to yourself play. If you are ultra critical of your own playing and make a habit of never accepting anything from yourself but the very best result, you will succeed as a player.
Combating Stage FrightThe great English mezzo soprano Dame Janet Baker once said that any performer worth his salt suffers from stage fright. She made that comment while speaking about her own battle with nerves. It's hard to imagine that anyone as great as Janet Baker, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who took a twelve-year hiatus from playing because of stage fright, actor Laurence Olivier, and singer/actress Barbra Streisand could ever suffer from nerves. After all, they were--or still are--the best of the best. So, realize that stage fright is a very common part of performing. One of the best remedies for it is careful, detailed preparation. The more you know, the more attention to detail you give to your audition preparation, the more confidence you will have. However, that is not to say that you won't be nervous during your audition.
Another good approach to lowering the intensity of your nervousness is to train your mind. I always found it helpful to sit without my instrument in a quiet room with eyes closed and imagine myself auditioning. I imagined walking out on the stage, sitting down, picking up my horn, taking a breath, and playing one of the pieces on the audition list. I would "mentally play" each of the pieces I would have to play for real in the audition. This exercise does take some discipline. You might think that physical preparation is much more important than mental preparation. They are both important; however, if your mind is not trained to focus on the things you have physically prepared, you will not succeed.
What You Should and Shouldn't Do While AuditioningYou've done your preparation, and now it's time to get there and play. If you're going to an out-of-town audition, flight or train schedules will obviously determine when you arrive, and your scheduled travel back home will have a bearing on when you play. You certainly want to know whether all rounds of the audition will be held on the day you play so that you can determine when to schedule you trip home. In general, the managements and musicians of symphony orchestras understand how stressful auditions are on the candidates. They will do anything they can to make the process easier for you and help you with any problems, such as accommodating your audition time so that you can get back to the airport or train station in time to catch your transportation home. In most cases, you will be given a pre-set time to arrive at the audition by the orchestra's personnel manager. If you miss your plane or train to the audition, just call the orchestra's offices, and let someone know that you'll be late.
One of the biggest mistakes audition candidates make is playing too much right before their auditions. The day before your audition, try to avoid playing heavily if at all possible. If you can, practice early in the morning the day before and only for a couple of hours. The last thing you want to do is to play so much or so late in the day that you bruise your lips and cause them to swell. As you've read on other parts of this web site, lip swelling will make playing very, very difficult. Equally, when you arrive at the audition, don't spend every minute before you are scheduled to play for the audition committee in a practice room playing your lips off and practicing every excerpt at top volume. If you don't know the audition list well enough to go in and play it for the committee with only a basic warm up, then your preparation was probably not as thorough as it should have been.
When it's close to your time to play for the committee, someone from the orchestra will come to fetch you. You can take a little comfort in the fact that most major American orchestras have at least one round of screened auditions, which means that the committee will not be able to see you. Usually, there will be someone from the orchestra on stage with you. Screened auditions are sometimes disconcerting. It often sounds as though you're playing twice as loud as you really are because the screen tends to trap the sound on stage with you. Therefore, it's important that you don't try to judge your volume by what you hear on your side of the screen. You need to use the same dynamic level that you did in your practice preparation. Sometimes the committee will as you to play louder or softer, although some committees wait to see if you know from experience how loudly or softly a passage has to be played.
Audition committees don't like to sit and wait for you to start playing. It's very annoying to a committee for a candidate to come out on stage and then commence to empty every slide in the horn. Dump your slides before going on stage, and come out prepared to play immediately. Unless you are told otherwise, it is usually OK to play a few warm-up notes to see what the acoustics on stage are like, but you should keep that short and simple. As well, audition committees don't like to sit and wait for you to play each successive excerpt. So, don't empty the whole horn between every excerpt. Give your lips a few seconds to recover between each excerpt, and dump your slides when you need to, just don't take minutes at a time. Don't panic if you clam a note. The audition committee is judging your entire audition, not at an occasional missed note. Obviously, if you miss a lot of notes, the committee will likely not advance you to the next round. If you do advance to the semi-final and or final round, again, don't go to the practice room and play until your lips are exhausted.
Finally, every player has good and bad days. If you prepare well, you chances of succeeding in an audition will be increased. Nevertheless, whether you do well or not, every audition provides you with valuable experience to learn from. If you use what you learn at one audition, it will help you do better in the next.