How does someone join the Jacksonville Symphony?

The process of auditioning and joining an orchestra can seem mysterious to outsiders. It’s certainly a stressful experience for candidates – I’ve been one many more times than I’ve been on the panel – but it’s also tremendously exciting when you find a musician who you hope will invigorate the orchestra.

The first week of February is a busy time for us. We are holding three auditions: principal second violin, second trumpet and second trombone. Hundreds of musicians will descend on Jacoby Hall hoping to secure a place with the Jacksonville Symphony.

Take a moment to ponder the number of applicants for each position. I’m often bemused when friends moan about how steep the competition is for a job they want. One in five, one in ten, maybe, but rarely one in 159, which is the number of highly-qualified applicants we have for the second trombone spot. The competition is fierce, and it’s worth remembering that every single member of the Jacksonville Symphony won his or her audition.

The structure of an audition varies from orchestra to orchestra, but ours is fairly typical in America. The first couple of rounds take place behind a screen to ensure anonymity. Each candidate will play on the stage of Jacoby Hall to a panel of orchestral musicians who will listen and then choose which candidates advance to the next round. The candidates play excerpts from the orchestral repertoire chosen by the panel. We know these excerpts backwards, and they are chosen to allow candidates to demonstrate certain skills, like beautiful phrasing or uniform spiccato (the stroke string players use so that the bow bounces on and off the string to create fast short notes).

Once we get to the final round, the screen comes down, and the finalists play chamber music with a small group from the orchestra, for example a string quartet. This is a key part of the audition since the panel can see how a candidate interacts with others. The job isn’t solo, it’s all about making music together. In the case of the principal second violin, we’re also looking for someone who can lead a section of nine other violinists. That takes a certain strength of personality, but also finesse and delicacy. It’s a rare combination of skills.

Sometimes I worry about the emphasis we place on technical perfection. It’s possible that some very fine musicians won’t advance beyond the first round because they made a tiny technical error. They might have more to offer than candidates who play everything perfectly. And perhaps excerpts aren’t the best measure of skill because they are isolated fragments of music. On the other hand, if we don’t test someone’s ability to perform accurately under pressure, we compromise the technical excellence of the whole orchestra. It’s a fine line. European orchestras use a screen less frequently, arguing that it’s impossible to judge musicians without watching them. Up to a point, I agree with this, but the screen is probably the lesser of two evils. I’ve heard too many stories from women and non-white friends who have missed out narrowly on jobs only to be given a weak excuse such as “your phrasing was unnatural”.

After the chamber music round, the panel and music director choose the winner, who will join the orchestra on trial. This usually lasts between one and two years. During that time, the music director and members of a tenure committee will listen to hear if the candidate is working well with the orchestra. At the end of that period, the musician is almost always awarded tenure: a permanent position in the orchestra.

As the incoming music director, it’s very important to find the right musicians to fill vacancies. Many consider it the greatest responsibility of all. On top of the three spots we are auditioning in February, we also have positions open for section strings, principal bassoon and assistant conductor. These musicians will help shape the sound and personality of the orchestra for years to come. By September you’ll see a quite a few new faces onstage at Jacoby Hall. I’m thrilled about meeting these new musicians and welcoming them into our musical family.

Reproduced with kind permission from The Florida Times-Union.

One thought on “How does someone join the Jacksonville Symphony?”

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