Civic Orchestra musicians hone key skills through mock auditions

Civic Orchestra of Chicago violin Genevieve Smelser performs in a mock audition with Civic Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur and CSO Principal Bass Alexander Hanna as panelists.

To earn a position in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago — the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious training program for early-career musicians — instrumentalists must pass through a series of rigorous auditions. While acceptance into the Civic Orchestra is a valuable step toward a career in music, Civic members continue to hone their auditioning skills during their time in the ensemble, preparing them for future success in professional orchestral auditions.

In the 2013/14 season, the Civic Orchestra implemented mock auditions to help members gain more experience and to provide them with constructive feedback from CSO musicians. While the project’s format has evolved over time, in recent seasons approximately half of the Civic’s roster has performed in mock auditions each year.

Given the virtual nature of the 2020/21 season, Civic Orchestra Manager Molly Walker and Operations Coordinator Robert Curl reimagined the mock auditions into an ambitious online project involving all 85 Civic Orchestra members, 37 CSO musicians, Civic Orchestra Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur and special guests.

Leading up to the mock auditions, Civic musicians participated in an online workshop about at-home recording techniques with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, who discussed a range of details including audio/video equipment, editing software and camera placement.

“Making pre-recorded videos is a method that is becoming more commonplace for early rounds in professional orchestral auditions, as well as for universities/conservatories and summer festivals,” explains Walker. Therefore, this practical knowledge is essential for up-and-coming musicians.

Next, Noa Kageyama, a specialist in performance psychology and founder of the Bulletproof Musician blog and podcast, led a virtual workshop with an emphasis on mentally preparing for auditions and overcoming performance anxiety. For Civic percussion Taylor Hampton, one of Kageyama’s most helpful suggestions was to practice a well-known excerpt multiple times, focusing each time on a single element such as breathing or musicality.

In January, Civic musicians submitted self-recorded audition videos, which were evaluated by panels of CSO musicians over the course of 17 mock auditions. Additional activities included a workshop with Civic alumna Barbara Butler, who discussed orchestra etiquette and the tenure process, as well as a panel discussion on audition preparation with several of the CSO’s most recently hired musicians.

According to Civic violin Genevieve Smelser, it was useful to hear feedback from CSO musicians who play different instruments than the auditionees. For example, Principal Horn David Cooper participated in one of Smelser’s audition panels. While musicians may not be familiar with the technical intricacies of instruments they do not play, this allows them to focus on big-picture elements such as musicality and stage presence. Further, mixed instrument panels reflect the typical makeup of professional audition committees, adding another element of realism to the mock audition process.

Twenty Civic musicians advanced to the semifinal round in February, with Civic Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur joining as a panelist with CSO musicians. “Music directors are often involved in the decision-making process for professional orchestra positions,” says Walker. “Having Ken-David share his unique perspective as a conductor with Civic members was a rare opportunity.”

Civic Orchestra of Chicago percussion Taylor Hampton performs in a mock audition.

Four finalists — Genevieve Smelser (violin), Lindsey Orcutt (bass), Marlene Ngalissamy (bassoon) and Taylor Hampton (percussion) — will record new videos for the final round this spring. The winner of the final round will receive their choice of a round-trip domestic flight and hotel stipend for a future audition or five private lessons with a CSO musician. The other finalists will be offered a similar choice between a flight to an audition or three private lessons with CSO musicians.

Reflecting on the mock auditions thus far, Smelser says that the project has been “extremely motivating” during the pandemic, while live auditions and performances are on hold. “It’s been a positive experience.”

Of the overall Civic Orchestra season, Hampton says, “I’m very thankful that the Civic Orchestra has continued to do what they’re doing right now. It’s my only connection to classical music. … I really appreciate that they’re creating these opportunities for us.”

“Watching the Civic members perform their auditions at an incredibly high level and to hear the CSO musicians offer such invaluable insight and share about some of their own audition experiences was truly inspiring,” says Walker. “It was a highlight of the season to observe the positive impact of the unique connection and mentorship between Civic members, CSO musicians and Ken-David Masur, and to have observed the Civic members’ continued growth in their music-making.”