Applying to be an Assistant Conductor

The Process


Applying to any job can be a long and stressful process. Knowing what to expect in advance, however, is a great way to ease some of the anxiety and nerves. So what does the application and audition process for an Assistant Conductor position entail?

Although each organization or orchestra will have its own requirements and process, there are several components that you can expect to be standard from one institution to the next. Let’s take a look at the application and audition process so you know what to expect!

The Application


Most orchestras holding an open audition process (meaning anyone can apply, rather than being invitation only) will post an announcement on their website as well as many of the other common job search portals (Conductors Guild, The League of American Orchestras, etc. (Click here for more resources).


Part of the announcement will include required qualifications. These may include degree requirements (i.e. a bachelor’s or master’s degree in music), professional experience requirements (i.e. 3 years experience conducting professional ensembles), or any other number of characteristics or experience types the organization may be seeking. A general note here, just because you don’t exactly meet the requirements does not mean you should not apply. Some of the listed requirements may be less important on balance to an institution than others and they may be forgiving in some categories. Going through the application process is also a great way to gain experience and develop your application chops. That being said, you should also maintain a certain level of reasonable expectation. If you are currently in undergrad, maybe applying to be the next music director of the Berlin Philharmonic is not currently within your qualifications; but that does not mean it won’t be someday! In the meantime, save yourself some time (as well as those reading the hundreds of applications) and limit yourself to applying to those that are slightly less of a reach.


In addition to meeting certain qualifications, you may also be asked to submit materials (usually via email). Common materials requested include:


  • Cover letter (read more here)

  • Resume or CV (read more here)

  • References or Letters of Recommendation (read more here)

  • Photo or Headshot

  • Sample programs conducted

  • Sample Video (more to come on this later)


For a major American orchestra, it is not uncommon for the number of candidates applying to an assistant conductor position to be 200 or more. It is therefore critical that your materials be properly formatted, in the correct file type, up to date, and easy to access. Anything that makes it harder for the orchestra to access or review your materials will only work against you. Make sure to address your email submission to the correct recipient listed in the job announcement. Do not add additional recipients to your email such as the CEO or Music Director even if you know them. They are busy people and will have access to applicant information if they need/desire it. Your email is also your first impression so include a brief, polite, and grammatically correct message along with the requested attachments. There is no need to add additional materials beyond those requested. If the committee desires additional video, repertoire lists, or a list of your favorite symphonies by post-neoclassical composers, they will let you know.


If you aren’t advanced to the live audition round, don’t be discouraged! Every orchestra is looking for something different so keep applying and working to have the materials that represent the best of you and your work. It is not uncommon to receive dozens of rejection letters …ok, more like hundreds! It’s just part of the process. Remember, it only takes one “yes” to change everything!

The Audition


Congratulations, you received an invitation to audition for an orchestra and that is a huge accomplishment!


Typically an orchestra will invite anywhere between 4-6 candidates for an in-person audition. Like musician auditions, most orchestras do not provide housing or transportation to and from an audition which means these expenses will fall on you to cover. Most auditions will take place in a single day…a single interminable day. Plan to arrive the day before the scheduled audition and plan not to leave until the following day—unless you’ve been told otherwise— just to be safe. When planning your travel, always take weather into consideration and give yourself extra time in case of flight cancellations or road closures. Direct flights are ideal. If that is not possible, try to avoid taking connecting flights that are the last flight option of the day in case of cancellations.

Most auditions are broken up into two components: the interview and the conducting portion, each of which may take place over multiple rounds.

The Interview


An assistant conductor interview will be similar to that of most jobs (for more information on preparing for a job interview click here) with the potential addition of a few extra elements.


Your interview will likely take place in front of anywhere between 3-15 people – seriously! Some of the people involved in interviewing you might include:


  • The Music Director and/or other staff conductors

  • The CEO or Executive Director

  • The head of of Artistic Planning

  • The head of Education and/or Community Programing (since most Assistants conduct these concerts)

  • Members of the players committee (musicians selected to represent the orchestra)


It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start thinking about the types of questions each of these participants may have for you. One way to start brainstorming is to think of ways in which the assistant conductor will likely interact with each of these positions. The head of education will likely oversee all the education concerts you lead and therefore want to get a sense of your philosophies on education programing. Prepare practice questions and answers for each of these departments so that you arrive armed with an array of responses and ideas you’re excited to share. (Find some examples here)

You may be asked to prepare some proposals in advance to present at the interview. Most commonly, you may be asked to prepare an education concert proposal or a community concert proposal. Your proposal should include a description of the concert as well as its goals or mission. You should be prepared to discuss your proposed repertoire, theme, and mission with the committee. Your thinking should include:


  • Why did you select the repertoire you listed?

  • How will you be engaging the audience, both musically and verbally, from the podium?

  • In the case of an education concert:

  • What are the education goals and how will you achieve them?

  • How will you test for understanding?

  • How does your program meet state curricular standards?


When selecting repertoire for these programs keep several important elements in mind:


Budget

Community and education concerts are often given little to no financial allowance so sticking to standard public domain repertoire that the orchestra owns is always a good idea in an audition proposal. Avoiding repertoire with additional soloist requirements, unless requested otherwise, is also a safer bet.

Instrumentation

Related to budget, keep instrumentation in mind; hiring a lot of extra musicians will often not be financially possible (so maybe avoid that piece that has calls for five extra saxophones). Doing a little research into what the orchestra’s typical “core” instrumentation is will lead to a more thoughtful program. If the orchestra more commonly uses pairs of woodwinds rather than triples based on their number of salaried musicians, plan accordingly.

Program Length

Community and Education concerts are typically around an hour or less overall. It is completely acceptable to ask what the preferred program length is for an orchestra as each institution has its own standards. A safe place to start for a community concert would be a ratio 45 minutes of music to 15 minutes of speaking; but check with the orchestra to see if they have a different preference.

Rehearsal time

Education and community concerts are often given very little rehearsal time with the orchestra—typically one rehearsal. Therefore, beyond simply selecting public domain or affordable repertoire, it is also wise to balance your program leaning towards repertoire that is familiar to the musicians. This will help expedite the rehearsal process while also making it easier to deliver high artistic quality.

Audience

What kind of music will engage your target audience? What is the age range of your audience? How does their age affect the length of music you’re proposing? If you’re programing something for a kid’s concert you probably don’t want to program pieces that are 20-minutes long because their attention spans are shorter (aim closer to 3-5 minutes). And, let’s be honest, that might not be a bad rule to follow for some adult concerts as well!

The Conducting


Along with your invitation to audition for an orchestra, you will receive a repertoire list detailing what you will be expected to conduct. There are several common works and composers you can expect to show up on a repertoire list, many of which look very similar to a graduate school audition list. Here is one example of an assistant conductor audition list:


  1. BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5, Movement 1

  2. BRAHMS Symphony No. 1, Movements 2 & 4

  3. DEBUSSY Prelude á “L’après midi d’un faune”

  4. DVORAK Cello Concerto, Movement 1

  5. STRAVINSKY Histoire du soldat, Movements 1,2,4 & 9

  6. WILLIAMS E.T. Suite, Adventures on Earth


Obviously you will not be asked to conduct every piece on the repertoire list in its entirety due to time limitations. That being said, be prepared to conduct everything on the list in its entirety! You will often be provided with details regarding the edition and set being used by the orchestra. If this is not provided to you it highly suggested that you request this information so that your score’s measure numbers and rehearsal letters matches those in the player’s parts. The last thing you want to be doing in an audition is trying to figure out how to communicate to the orchestra where you would like to start because you’re letter ‘F’ is different from the orchestra’s.


Expanding on the above sample audition list, you can gather a sense of the types of repertoire that will be requested. Many orchestras will include something by Brahms and Beethoven (they’re sort of our bread and butter), something showing mixed meters like the Stravinsky (other commonly requested pieces include “The Rite of Spring” or Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”), a concerto accompaniment, a piece of new music where no recording exists (not shown above but still common), and occasionally something from the Pops repertoire (other common examples are “Selections from West Side Story” or “Hedwig’s Theme”). It’s not a bad idea to have a lot of these pieces already in your repertoire, just in case. Multiple auditions are often held at around the same time, so if you don’t suddenly have to learn 20 brand new pieces of repertoire at once, that wouldn’t be a bad thing!

The conducting section itself is often broken up into two rounds separated by the interview round in between. The first round is where you will be asked to simply conduct through the requested repertoire. Typically you will have around 20 minutes for this segment. Round one is typically followed by the interviews* after which the committee will deliberate and select a list of “finalists” (usually 2-3 candidates) who will be asked to return for the final conducting round later that afternoon. *In some auditions cuts may occur before the interview segment.


The final conducting round is typically longer than the first (around 30-40 minutes). During the final conducting round you may be asked to do several things beyond simply conducting the repertoire:


First, you will likely be asked to rehearse something from the repertoire list. Keep in mind that the committee is not only studying your conducting technique, personality, and rehearsal process during this activity, but also your time management skills. Be prepared to manage your own time without the aid of a proctor. Make sure you use your time wisely and effectively.

Second, you may be asked to speak in front of the orchestra. It is not uncommon for the committee to ask you to give a 2-3 minute presentation on one of the pieces from the repertoire list. They will often ask you to speak both as though you are addressing an adult audience (think ‘pre-concert lecture’) and then as if to a group of students (think ‘education concert’). Although it may seem silly, it is vital that you get into the spirit of what is being asked. Your presentation to a student audience should not look or sound the same as one to adults. Your willingness to engage with this activity will be very telling to the committee and give them great insight into how you will interact with audiences from the stage.

Once the final round is over it becomes a waiting game like any other job application. You can typically expect to hear back regarding results one to two weeks following an audition, though this of course may vary. If you’re successful, congratulations! If not, don’t give up and don’t take it personally. Keep honing your skills, practice every aspect of the process, and make sure you’re ready for the next opportunity whenever it arrives.

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