Audition advice: Denise Tryon (Philadelphia Orchestra) and Karl Pituch (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
Interview by Kristina Mascher
Q: In Europe, horn students have traditionally chosen to focus on "high" or "low" horn and have prepared to take auditions exclusively for corresponding orchestra vacancies. Do you think this is a valid approach in today's job market? Or should young players try to do it all? What are the advantages/disadvantages in specializing?
Denise: I think it's wise to be as well rounded a player as possible, and therefore you are able to take both high and low auditions. This opens up so many more opportunities and you never know what might happen!
Karl: Also, most auditions now have both high and low register excerpts that we all have to learn – Shostakovich 5 is on almost every list, Till has the low register for a high horn and Beethoven 7 is pretty high for both. So you really need to learn the entire range of the horn. I started as a 4th horn and slowly moved my way through the section.
Q: When given the option of sending an audition recording for the preliminary round or making the journey to play live, is there an advantage to showing up personally?
Denise: I think playing live is the best option, if you are able to do it. In my experience, on both sides of the recording device and screen, it is much more challenging to advance with a recording.
Karl: Playing live is the best option. You can’t control where or how your recording will be heard. In the live audition, everyone will be listened to in an equal setting.
Q: How did you develop the concept of your workshop, Audition Mode?
Denise: When Karl and I would talk about our students and auditions, we realized there was no dedicated seminar/workshop to discuss the audition process and we wanted to change that. We made sure to have a dedicated high and low list. We also wanted to have everyone work on both lists and take both mock auditions at the end of the seminar (to refer back to your first question!). We wanted to incorporate some section playing as well, since most times you will need to play in the section in order. We also discuss preparation, performance anxiety and what to expect the day of the audition!
Q: Aside from the usual musical preparation and practicing, did you have a ritual you followed before taking auditions (for instance, eating a certain food on the day, carrying a lucky charm, meditating, anything like that?)
Denise: For me, meditating has been crucial. It's easy to let my mind spin when at an audition. Learning to meditate gave me a valuable tool to deal with my head. Once I'm out on the stage, I do everything I can to really stay focused on my musical ideas and commit to showcasing said ideas.
Karl: I have also recently started meditating and it has been a great help. But for auditions, you want to stay with your routine, control the things you can and not worry about what you can’t control.
Q: How do you suggest dealing with audition anxiety?
Denise: Being prepared is the best thing you can do. Next, as I talked about before, what works for me is to meditate and stay focused on my musical ideas.
Karl: As Denise says, being prepared is a necessity. You then need to play as you prepared, focusing on the present excerpt and bringing out the different characters of each excerpt. And before you play, do not get involved with other candidates. Stay focused on the upcoming audition and get yourself prepared to play well.
Q: When sitting on the jury, what characteristics make a candidate stand out (in a good way) from the others?
Denise: First and foremost, making great music! Second, but just as important, having great fundamentals: rhythm, pitch, variety of styles/articulations, good dynamics and a command of the whole range.
Karl: Agreed with Denise, as usual. It’s important to have all of the fundamentals in place starting with rhythm, intonation, dynamics, etc. Then bring out the musical characters in each excerpt. Someone who does both of these things will get very far at the audition.
Q: Which tools are useful while preparing for auditions?
Denise: My favorite is the metronome. You can still make great music AND play in time. I also love recording myself. Sometimes it can be challenging to hear what you are really doing when you're paying, and the recording device takes the guesswork out of it.
Karl: Be sure to play the excerpts in varying tempos. You never know if they will ask for things faster or slower than you usually do them. You want to be prepared for anything and feel like you can do it anyway they would ask.
Q: Tell us about your audition for the DSO (Karl) and Philly (Denise.)
Karl: For the Detroit audition I won in 2000, (it was my third audition here) I wasn’t sure I was going to take the audition until the week before. But it was my 3rd principal audition within two months, so I was well prepared. But it was the next day after 4 lengthy days of Bruckner concerts in Dallas, so I was a bit tired. I was placed into the semifinal round of four. Three of us advanced to the final. My final round went on for about 40 minutes, at which time I assumed I was finished because of a rather long pause from the committee. But I heard a voice call out asking me to play Ravel’s Pavane after 40 minutes of heavy excerpts. I was fortunate to have a triple horn and enough lip to play it well. It wasn’t my best audition, but it went very well. The audition went well enough that I didn’t have to play a trial week.
Denise: For Philadelphia, I was automatically placed in the semi-final round. So, I'm actually not sure how many people were in the prelims. There were about 12 of us in the semis. We each got our own private room and before we went out on stage, we got a small rehearsal with the pianist for our concerto. We were then cut down to 4 people for the final round. The committee decided to break the final round into 2 rounds. First, a solo (concerto and excerpts) round, which all 4 of us played before doing a second round of section playing. The 3 rounds (semis, and 2 rounds of finals) plus deliberation, took a little over 12 hours. It was a very long day. The personnel officer came in to the waiting room and asked the other 3 candidates to come with her and someone else came in to talk to me. I thought, whee, either I won, or I'm the only one cut! Luckily, I won. I did have to come back a couple of months after the audition to play a trial week before being offered the job officially.
Q: What is one aspect of audition prep that you feel is often neglected?
Denise: Music and rhythm. People seem to either have one or the other. I want to hear both!
Karl: Those two are tops plus dynamics and the ability to change something in the excerpt – tempo, dynamics and still get the character out.
Q: How much of a role does age play in auditioning for a major symphony orchestra job? Do you think there is any inherent prejudice against older players?
Denise: For me, it doesn't factor in at all. I want the best player, period.
Karl: I haven’t heard of any bias. Only that when you get older, it takes longer for the lips/ muscles to recover. That affects how long you can practice when you age.
Q: What top 10 excerpts for high and low horn should any horn player on the audition circuit be able to rattle off at any moment?
Denise: Low: Bach Brandenburg, Beethoven 3, Beethoven 7, Beethoven 9, Mahler 1 (3rd mvt), Mahler 3 (recap), Shostakovich 5, Strauss Don Quixote, Wagner Das Rheingold, Weber Der Freischütz.
Q: How important is the solo concerto in orchestral auditions? In Europe there's often an entire round devoted to it. Also, how should a candidate perform a concerto differently on the audition stage from a real concert?
Denise: I believe you can't win an audition based solely on your concerto, but you can lose it on it. It's one of the longest pieces of music we get to play, and therefore get to show our musical concepts, so it is important. You really get to show your music making as well as your command of the stage. But more importantly, for me, is a person's understand of the orchestral literature.
Q: Can you each give a couple general pieces of advice to horn players preparing for an audition?
Denise: Don't try to change who you are to win an audition (change horns, play a completely different style). Good playing is good playing. If you represent your playing well, and they like it enough to hire you, then you can discuss what changes you might need to make to fit in to the section/orchestra.
Karl: Good advice. Work on the fundamentals. A good round of excerpts will include almost everything you can do on the horn. If you have any faults, they will probably be exposed.
Q: How many hours a day of sheer playing should a horn player put in to prepare for an audition? How much is too much?
Karl: On a free day, 2 -3 hours of playing is the most I would do. I did 3 – 4 when I was in my 20’s. Also when you are preparing a high list, I also like to play low excerpts when I’m getting tired. It builds some stamina and also helps your performance practice.
Denise: If I have nothing else on my plate (rehearsals, concerts, recitals), I like to do about 2.5-3 hours of playing. I will do more away from the horn as well: listening, both to orchestral recordings and to my practice session recordings, score study, etc.
Q: Does it help to take a lesson from a member of the section you're aspiring to join?
Denise: I don't think it does. I do understand why people want to do it though.
Karl: It can be helpful to know how someone in that particular section plays the excerpt, but it is only one voice on the committee. It’s best to hear the section play it live or in a recording. It can help influence you, but you need to have your own strong convictions on how the excerpt should go.
Q: What information should be on a good CV for an orchestral job application?
Denise: Orchestral experience, education, teachers, awards/competitions, and of course: name, instrument, address, email and phone number.
Q: Any final thoughts?
Karl: Playing auditions well is an art in itself. You need to practice taking auditions. Make all of the excerpts equal in quality. Practice the more challenging excerpts more than the ones that play to your strengths. And take some slow, deep breaths before each excerpt concentrating on the present moment. Play with conviction and learn from every audition.
Q: Do you have any funny audition stories?
Denise: Early on, I was at a 2nd horn audition and advanced to the semifinal round. I played the 2nd part to the opening of Mahler 1. When I finished, I heard someone ask me to play it again softer and slower. I started to play again, and by the 2nd measure, I could hear someone on the committee screaming. So I stopped playing. That's when I heard the same person yelling at me: I said SLOWER! S-L-O-W-E-R (they spelled it -yelled it - out for me). Well, after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I started to play and had the most fantastic fast vibrato! Needless to say, I didn't advance. But, it did give me a great story!
For more information about Denise and Karl’s activities and Audition Mode workshops, please visit their websites: