Auditioning for the MET Orchestra

by William Short, principal bassoonist

Winston Churchill once said, “[Democracy] is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.” Much the same can be said for orchestral auditions - they are a flawed system of objectively judging what is ultimately a subjective art form. Orchestral musicians devote themselves to the collective endeavor of ensemble playing; auditions put them into a harsh, solo spotlight, under which they must jump through whatever musical “hoops” the audition committee sets before them. It is the worst way of choosing the best musician - except for all the others.

Every orchestra uses a slightly different system to make sure that they find the right person for the job, and to make that process as painless as possible for both auditioner and auditionee. The MET Orchestra is no exception. We take a great deal of pride in running the fairest, most effective auditions we can. I sat down with Rob Knopper, percussionist, and Boris Allakhverdyan, principal clarinetist, to discuss their experiences in this unique system of interviewing for a dream job.


GETTING THE BALL ROLLING

When an audition is announced, all interested musicians submit a resume. A committee of orchestra members reviews the resumes to determine which applicants will be invited directly to the live audition, and which will be asked to submit a preliminary recording. Boris was invited directly to the live audition, having already played professionally for four years in the Kansas City Symphony, advanced to later rounds in recent major auditions, and performed as a substitute with several major orchestras.

Rob, on the other hand, was asked to submit a CD. He describes the process of recording simply: “It’s kind of terrible.” When it was done, he says, he enjoyed the feeling of having “conquered something [he] didn’t know how to do,” but remembers that at the time, he would “listen to a thirteen-second excerpt and say, ‘OK, I hear sixty-five things that were wrong with that.’” Over time the takes improved, but so did his standards, until “the tiny errors became...so clear.” He “hadn’t thought about anything else for hours.” Arriving at the end of the recording process, he says, combines knowing that the final product represents the best of what one can do and being intimately aware of everything that is still wrong with it.

In the end, he made it through. Both Rob and Boris were on their way to audition for the MET Orchestra.

Click above to play a track from Rob Knopper's successful pre-screening recording.


GEARING UP

Rob views the audition itself as little more than an endpoint of a much longer and more important preparation process, which he treats with an almost obsessive passion. “[The preparation] is what I have control over. Of course, every rejection I got - and there were tons of them - hurt in its own way, but as long as I was able to say, ‘OK, this preparation process yields this result,’ I was driven to keep changing things up.” Eventually, he found the process that worked for him, although he says that it took him from age sixteen to twenty-four, encompassing some sixty auditions experiences. His unique system of preparation gave him a tremendous confidence boost. He knew that he had put “as much work as possible into it,” and that very few others had done the same.

Boris actually had less time to prepare for his MET audition than he would ordinarily like, since he had another major audition several weeks before. He prefers to spend six or seven weeks preparing for an audition; for the MET, he only had four. However, he says he also felt “fresher,” describing previous auditions as often feeling that he had “peaked already. [The MET audition] was not like that.” He describes, amazingly, actually enjoying the audition process: “I like how concentrated I am at the auditions. They put me in a completely different mindset - I care about each note.” He feels that he concentrates more under pressure, and that an audition provides more pressure than virtually any performance.


HOW TO PICK UP CRASH CYMBALS, AND OTHER TALES FROM BEHIND THE SCREEN

Why is there so much pressure? In part, because the candidates must prepare an exhaustive list of some of the most important and demanding parts ever written for their instrument. For Boris’ audition, the list included a solo concerto plus eighteen excerpts from fourteen operas. Rob’s audition included even more excerpts from both the symphonic and operatic repertoire, in which he had to demonstrate his abilities on no fewer than nine different instruments.

Both Boris and Rob note that the lists contained a great deal of unfamiliar music, which presented both a challenge and effectively evened the playing field. Rob notes, “You’re not testing [who has the most] years of experience...everyone has exactly the same amount of time to prepare.” Why is the opera repertoire so little-known among orchestrally-trained musicians? Students in conservatory and university music programs are not exposed to the same quantity of operatic literature as they are to symphonic literature, so any opera audition will likely include music that most of the candidates have not played (or even heard) before.

Boris notes that some of the most difficult excerpts included Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, and the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. A deceptively difficult excerpt comes from the onstage banda in Mozart’s Don Giovanni - it sounds simple and easy, but controlling the quality of articulation (not too hard, not too soft) is very difficult. "Largo al factotum" from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia provides similar challenges - it can easily sound too harsh. Stylistic differences between, say, Wagner and Verdi, Mozart and Puccini, are of the utmost importance.

Rob notes that, while excerpts for the typical “major” percussion instruments, such as snare drum and xylophone, are vitally important and quite difficult, so are excerpts for more unexpected instruments. Rob described a nearly five-month process of learning to pick up and position crash cymbals in such a way that they make no noise until he wanted them to. An excerpt from Götterdämmerung that consisted of pairs of very loud cymbal crashes entailed the following: he would pick up the cymbals separately, pressing one against his chest and gently positioning a corner of the other against it. He then moved both against his chest, lined them up, and rubbed them against each other ever-so-gently to ensure that they were exactly even. The committee could hear none of this. Only then could he proceed with the excerpt at hand.


THE AUDITION

Once any audition has begun, its unpredictability becomes readily apparent. Boris felt that his preliminary round was “good, but nothing extraordinary. It was just fine.” He advanced to the semifinal round, which was on a different day, after all preliminary auditions had concluded. He found that this gap effectively eliminated whatever confidence the thrill of advancing may have given him - it was his weakest round. He prepared himself to be eliminated. He described running out of breath in one excerpt and recovering less gracefully than he would have liked, but he still advanced - and at that point he felt that he could relax.

Boris Allakhverdyan (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Boris Allakhverdyan (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

In this particular audition, there would be several “final” rounds - until the committee gave a majority vote to one candidate - but Boris says he felt “good [about the final rounds]...better than the first two.” By the end, he felt that he was finally able to “lighten” his playing: before, “the sound was a little forced...I pushed too hard. I tried too hard.” The lightness he finally achieved contrasted with his determination: “I had been to the finals [of other auditions] a couple of times; I had been runner-up a couple of times, so this time I thought, ‘I gotta do it. I can’t be runner-up again…I have to own it.’”

On the other hand, Rob described “almost being on autopilot” due to the nature of his preparation. Despite this, there was still a voice in the back of his head that knew that he wasn’t practicing anymore. This time it was real. As with any audition, some things went well and some things went less well. He advanced through to a second preliminary round, which included more instruments than the first, and again played well enough to advance.

It is notoriously difficult to gauge how one has done at an audition - virtually every musician has experienced the feeling of elation at having “knocked it out of the park,” only to be eliminated. Conversely, like Boris, Rob recalls feeling that his semifinal round in the MET audition was, if not a total failure, borderline. He left the building, sulked a bit, and hoped for the best: he felt that, “If I get through, I’m lucky. If I get cut, I understand.”

Ultimately, he was the only candidate to receive enough votes to advance, and thus was awarded the position without having to play what would then be an arbitrary final round. His “borderline” audition turned out better than he ever could have hoped.


AFTER THE AUDITION

Everyone reacts to the news that they have won a job in the MET Orchestra differently. One member of the orchestra reportedly ran screaming through the hallways. Boris had a somewhat different response: “I had a glass of beer with the people I was staying with. I was on the phone with everybody. I slept for probably two or three hours, then I had a flight early in the morning for a rehearsal in Kansas City. It hadn’t sunk in yet; it came two or three weeks later.”

“I lost my mind, but I tried to contain my own excitement, sitting around there with a bunch of very disappointed people,” says Rob. “I went down and met the committee, but I didn’t remember a single one of their names. I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to tell my Dad...I have to call my old teachers...Do I have to get a new bank account?’ I had never really considered what happens after you win.” He says that the moment when he won was “the ultimate turning point. Your life was going in one direction and now it’s going in a different direction.”


THE X-FACTOR: WHAT MAKES MET AUDITIONS DIFFERENT?

“I love it.” That was Boris’ immediate reaction when asked how he feels about the fact that, in all MET Orchestra auditions, the screen (which divides the candidate from the committee) stays up through the very end. “I concentrate on my playing, not on how I look. Sometimes I sit with my legs crossed, and I prefer that! I play better like that! All four auditions I have won were screened [until the end].” In auditions in which the screen comes down, “I think about ‘looking good’ too much...I feel like I shouldn’t just play musically, I should look musical, too. They’re looking at you, not at the music.”

Rob Knopper in the stage band costume for La Bohème (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

Rob Knopper in the stage band costume for La Bohème (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

The MET Orchestra has several such policies that are either unusual or unique in the world of orchestral auditions. The committee is not allowed any communication or discussion amongst itself before voting on a candidate; no candidate is ever cut off mid-round; perhaps most unusually, the MET Orchestra always offers a job to a candidate at the end of an audition. Boris freely admits that this is what convinced him to take the audition. Because he knew that someone would win the job, he felt that it was important to take the audition, even though it came only three weeks after an audition for another major orchestra and shared none of the same audition repertoire.

Rob says these policies had a similar effect on his decision to audition: he chose not to audition for another orchestra because it would interfere with his preparation for the MET audition. “I knew that I should stay focused and put everything into this MET audition. [Because its policies are so fair], I knew the most important thing was to put the most work and energy into it, so it drove me to work harder. It was the ‘X Factor.’”

Rob notes that, “The audition process should benefit all parties. The process is just a majority vote, and everyone has a different perspective on what’s [musically] important. The orchestra members each vote their own musical conscience. The process ensures that the winner will have the best combination of the different qualities that everyone is looking for. The individual musician knows that it is a fair process, so they know that working harder and smarter will not only help them get a job, it will help them keep it.”

Ultimately, Rob adds, audiences should be the single greatest benefactor of the audition process. Audiences validate the lifetime of work necessary to perform at the highest level, and transform it into experiences that are variously shattering and uplifting, disturbing and amusing. This presents a great responsibility to those performers who are entrusted with bringing great art to life, and that is what auditions are all about.