Trial by Audition

Imagine a job interview where you get to say anything you want and your interviewers have no idea who you are or where you’re from. Where your anonymous artistry is left to speak for itself, and where you never see your interviewers’ faces until AFTER you’re offered the job…

We lift the lid on the mysterious world of orchestra auditions and take you behind the scenes of what it’s like to try out for the California Symphony.

Blog originally published October 3, 2018


For musicians and artists, auditions are a high-stakes, high-stress fact of life: Years—if not decades—of study and practice of your art, distilled into just a few minutes of playing, with every aspect of your performance— accuracy, tone, pitch, tempo, expression—scrutinized by the judging panel.

But what you might not know is that those aspiring to join a professional orchestra like the California Symphony have an unique set of additional circumstances to deal with, thanks to the established practice of blind auditions.

What’s a Blind Audition?

A screen is erected between the candidate and the selection panel and neither one can see the other, hence the audition is “blind.”

Here’s what it looks like from both sides of the screen.

Blind auditions: The selection panel’s view from in front of the screen, and the candidates’ view from behind it.

Why Hold Blind Auditions?

Boston Symphony was the first to try blind auditions in 1952 as a way to tackle rampant nepotism. At that time, the students and friends of existing orchestra members were pretty much guaranteed of winning auditions and securing jobs with the orchestra: people hired the people they knew, and inside connections were everything. Of course, not only was this unfair, it also meant that better candidates might not make the cut, which in turn had implications for the quality of the ensemble. So, for the first time in 1952, candidates were asked to audition behind a screen: Musicians would be judged solely on the merits of their playing.

While the screens helped address favoritism, it was observed that the audition results still skewed male.

Then they asked candidates to remove their shoes, and that made all the difference. Why? Because the sound of the women’s heeled shoes as they walked on stage unknowingly influenced the panelists.

As these practices to ensure fairness were adopted, it was found was that the combination of the screen plus shoes removed increased the chances that a woman would advance through preliminary rounds by +50%. Before blind auditions were introduced, male orchestra members outnumbered female musicians almost 2-to-1. As of 2013 data, the ratio of male to female orchestra musicians in professional orchestras is 54% to 46%, and if you look at the California Symphony, we now have more women than men in the orchestra (54% women and 46% men).

Auditioning for the California Symphony

Auditions are held annually to fill vacancies and to increase the number of permanent musicians in the California Symphony. The higher the number of permanent orchestra members, the greater the continuity of players from one concert to the next, and the tighter the ensemble. That enables Music Director Donato Cabrera to shape and develop a unique sound with the California Symphony. Recruiting the right people to the right sections is crucial to the artistic integrity of the orchestra.

In 2017, auditions for clarinet and principal timpani were held and we welcomed Stephen Zelinski and Alex Orfaly to the orchestra. In 2018, the focus was on filling vacancies in the violin section, resulting in the largest audition process we have ever handled in a single day.

Here’s how things went down…

Before the Big Day

While the focus of the action and the drama is definitely audition day itself, the process leading up to the day requires a LOT of planning. In fact, reviewing her notes, Operations and Education Director Sunshine Deffner counts 43 separate items to project manage so that everything runs smoothly, including:

—Finding an audition venue and setting the date. In this case, June 18, 2018, at Danville Village Theatre.

— Putting together the resume review committee and selection panel.

— Advertising in various media, including international online publications, on our website, and through Facebook.

— Renting pipe and drape for the screens, and hiring the auditions venue itself.

— Music! The principal chair of the violin section recommends the audition pieces, and after getting Maestro’s input, audition excerpts are provided to the short-listed candidates. There can be more than a dozen passages on the audition list, however candidates may only be asked to perform 4 or 5 pieces on the day.

The Candidates

51 musicians applied, and 27 were invited to audition. After some last minute cancellations, 25 showed up to audition.

Candidates came to us from right here in the East Bay and from as far afield as Chicago and New York. They included musicians with multiple advanced degrees, people who had performed in major venues around the globe, and even one who had studied under Itzhak Perlman.

The Odds

Up to seven spots in the violin section were up for grabs on this occasion, including the role of Assistant Principal to the Second Violin section, which created unusually favorable odds to win to an audition for a position with a professional orchestra.

Audition Day Arrives!

The seven-person judging panel comprised five tenured Orchestra members (including the principals of three sections), Concertmaster Jennifer Cho, and of course Music Director Donato Cabrera.

The Selection Committee confers with the Union Steward and Orchestra Personnel Manager.

Additionally, a Union Steward and the Orchestra Personnel Manager were present to ensure the rules are observed and to brief the musicians at every stage, while Operations & Education Director Sunshine Deffner was on hand throughout the day to ensure things run smoothly.

To preserve anonimity, candidates are not allowed to speak during their audition, and any questions must be channeled through a California Symphony staff member. While women don’t usually take off their shoes these days, they are encouraged to wear soft-soled shoes, so the sound of heels on the stage don’t give the game away in terms of the candidate’s gender. For each round, the musicians draw lots to determine their audition order, and they are announced to the committee only by their lot number.

On this day, the selection process was scheduled to go for three rounds (preliminaries, semi-finals and finals), with 10 minutes allotted for each candidate in each round. Members of the selection committee cast secret ballots and candidates progress based on a majority vote.

Backstage — the selections for the first round are posted outside the audition hall for the musicians. Instruments, some valued at tens of thousands of dollars, are never far from their owners!

What Sets a Good Audition Apart from a Bad One?

During the course of the day, the committee will hear the same pieces of music played by multiple different candidates. According to Music Director Donato Cabrera, “As audition committee members, we are all hoping to hear everyone who is auditioning make as much music as possible in one of the most unmusical, sterile environments ever devised, the screened audition.” He adds, “On any given day, certain people will be better at this Herculean task than others.”

Making the Cut

Unsuccessful candidates are let go after each round. For those who progress through the rounds, it’s a long day, starting at 9am and wrapping with the announcement of the winners at around 4pm, when they are finally introduced to their future colleagues and warmly welcomed into the California Symphony family.

And the Winners Are…

In the end, the committee awarded positions to six candidates. Read all about our audition winners here.

The Candidate’s Perspective

Sarena Hsu Giarrusso who scored the most prestigious slot available at the 2018 auditions, gives her insights into what the process is like from the point of view of the person behind the screen, being judged.

California Symphony: How did you prepare on the day of your audition?

Hsu Giarrusso: I woke up at 6am to make sure I had a few hours to be awake and have enough time to practice/warm up my fingers before heading out to Danville, which is about a 40-minute drive from my house.

CS: Did you recognize anyone at the audition?

Hsu Giarrusso: There were several other candidates that I recognized at the audition! That can always be intimidating since the music community is very close-knit in the Bay Area and at this level, the players tend to all know each other.

CS: How did you feel you during each round? Were you confident?

Hsu Giarrusso: To be honest, I was incredibly nervous as I tend to have stage fright, not to mention seeing many people that I knew at the audition. I think I was also in shock when I drew the #1 slot in every single round! What are the chances?!

CS: Not only did you win the audition, you were awarded Assistant Principal Violin. That’s like being the number 1 draft pick!

Hsu Giarrusso: It took a couple of seconds for me to register that I won the Assistant Principal chair. I knew that the other candidates in the finals round with me were all amazing players, and it’s always difficult not to compare yourself to the competition at the moment!

CS: Your first performance with us was in the 2018/19 season opener, Beethoven and Bernstein. How was your first time playing with the California Symphony?

Hsu Giarrusso: I had an incredible time playing with the Symphony for the very first time. I’m lucky to have an amazing stand partner, Philip [Santos, Principal Violin II], and honored to play with all the other unbelievably talented, professional musicians.


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