Three musicians offer their perspectives about the Civic audition process

Members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago take a bow during a concert at Orchestra Hall.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Note: The following is an updated version of an article originally posted in February 2022 on Experience CSO.

Since 1919, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago has functioned as the elite training arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Mentored by CSO musicians, Civic’s principal conductor and guest maestros, it offers intensive studies to prepare young musicians for professional posts. ’

Now Civic auditions are under way for next season. (The deadline to apply runs from Feb. 1 to March 1.) Just attempting to get into the Civic is good experience, because auditioning is an essential skill for musicians. And with multiple Civic concerts annually at Orchestra Hall, the performance opportunity is first-rate. The next Civic Orchestra concerts, on Jan. 7-8, features these budding professionals in Dvořák’s New World Symphony, under the direction of Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur.

The opportunity is open to anyone who wants to try; there’s no age limit on either side, but generally, the applicants are 21 to 26 years, sometimes as old as 40, or as young as late teens.

Once accepted, players generally stay two or three years, and they come in at three levels: as regular Civic members, who play in the orchestra; as Civic Fellows, who receive a stipend and more intensive training in entrepreneurial skills, artistic planning, chamber music, teaching paths and the like, and as Civic Associates. 

Civic Associates stay for a single year and join the orchestra as subs when needed. When Civic players win a job, as often happens, they will move on. Civic musicians at all three levels receive some perks: tickets to Orchestra Hall performances, and thus the chance to see how the life of a professional really works, as demonstrated by some of the world’s finest players.

Here is how the Civic Orchestra experience is viewed from three perspectives:  Civic third-year member Lindsey Sharpe, a cellist who went through the audition process after getting a master’s degree from Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music; horn player Kelsey Williams, who was in the Civic Orchestra during four somewhat extended years interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic (and has since moved on), and William Buchman, the CSO’s assistant principal bassoon. A dedicated Civic mentor, Buchman has evaluated many Civic auditions.

LINDSEY SHARPE: “My audition took place in March 2021. What’s funny for an orchestra holding auditions in a pandemic was that everything about it was virtual. Civic took an interesting approach: I had to submit a recorded audition, and there were definitely pros and cons to that! It had to be recorded in one single, uninterrupted take. You had multiple chances to record your audition, so you could re-do it if you wanted. That was a pro. The con was that you could drive yourself crazy, because there was always going to be some detail you’d like to do better.”

Sharpe entered as a first-year Civic Fellow, and the effort required is still fresh: “I made three different attempts on three days and spent hours listening to myself and I asked others, including my teachers, to listen to them, too.”  Her audition involved an excerpt from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, second movement, which she described as “standard,” and also the big moments for cello in Brahms’ Second Symphony and in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

“And then I had to do one that is not that common, from the Brahms ‘Haydn’ Variations, the Presto movement, which is really fast and tricky. So I have to think that compared to a live audition, that could go poorly if you’re having a bad day, you had to see this video method as an advantage. But on the other hand, with this recorded method, absolutely everybody is doing their best to send something that is really perfect. I began cracking down on those excerpts right after winter break, and I waited until the last week to send in the audition.”

Sharpe moved to Chicago in September 2021 and began Civic activities in October. “I learned I just need to get more experience getting nervous,” she says. “There are dozens of announcements for orchestra auditions coming out now. The first of the month, you get those listings, and it’s always a big deal, with musicians spreading the word. I see at least four or five a month from orchestras hiring cellos. Meanwhile, there’s a wonderful support group here. The rehearsals for the first Civic Orchestra concerts have been fun, and a lot less stressful than I expected.”

KELSEY WILLIAMS: “I would say I had a pretty funky Civic experience because of COVID, but it has opened doors I didn’t even know I wanted opened,” says the horn player about her four years with the program. Williams came to the Chicago area from upstate New York to get a master’s degree in horn performance with Gail Williams and Jonathan Boen at Northwestern University. “I was finishing the first year of my master's, kind of feeling, oh, goodness, what is the next step? I’m going to be done with schooling, what then? Getting into Civic has a lot to do with the connections you make, in particular with members of the CSO. We horns worked quite a bit with [CSO horn] Dan Gingrich, who has been incredibly helpful.

“I’ll never forget when we played a brass ensemble concert, with me as principal and Dan sitting next to me, playing assistant. It was absolutely wild to wrap your head around that one. We did an arrangement of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, kind of a tour of all the greatest brass moments throughout, jammed into an hour and a half. Afterward, I walked backstage, and the photographer Todd Rosenberg came up to me and said, ‘I think you just passed your audition to sub with the CSO.’ Then about 20 minutes later, Dan came by and said, ‘Hey, the eighth horn had some issues getting a visa in time, so would you be able to sub?’ Of course I said yes! And I immediately began practicing Mahler 3. It was my first experience playing with the CSO. I never dreamed of that happening, sitting next to all these horn legends. It was like getting a thousand music lessons in one week, incredible.”

Williams had her first Civic season in 2017-18. “But the next season we had only half a year because of the orchestra strike. So I auditioned with Civic for a third year, and I got in for 2019-20. But it was also a half season, because the pandemic hit. So Civic then offered everyone a year’s extension, for which we were all grateful.”

Like many other Civic musicians, she has been an extra with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and with other ensembles. She also taught at the Merit School of Music, the Chicago High School for the Arts and Lincoln Park High School, too.

Williams’ mother was a music teacher. “She got me started. I wanted to play the saxophone in the worst way,” she says. “Luckily she forced me into the horn.” Williams is now officially a Civic alum, “but they will have us come back every now and again.”

WILLIAM BUCHMAN, CSO assistant principal bassoon:  Civic mentor Bill Buchman is forthright about his unusual path to the CSO. “I had not gone to college as a music student, and I didn’t switch over to music until the fall of 1988 in grad school,” he says. “I didn’t finish grad school, either.”

He played and won his first audition, which was for the Dallas Symphony, in 1990. He then played and won his CSO audition in 1991; he was hired in 1992 by then-music director Daniel Barenboim.

Buchman now helps to evaluate would-be Civic musicians. Some will be auditioning at Symphony Center for the first time. “Auditioning for an orchestra is such an unusual situation, where you are asked to play specific pieces behind a screen,” he says. “The only thing that identifies you is the sound, and the people listening go thumbs up or thumbs down almost like Caesar in the Colosseum, which is very unlike the normal work of playing in an orchestra.

“You are all by yourself, playing the most difficult things in the repertoire. In Europe, there is a more of a tradition of inviting competent players to come in and play as substitutes, so that the others have a chance to see how they perform when they are actually doing the job.”

As for the chances of a bassoonist winning a professional job, Buchman says, “Well, you can do a little bit of math. Let’s say there are probably 25 total orchestras in the United States that can support a full-time job. So, in any year, there may be four or five openings altogether for somebody who could make that happen as a career, if you figure the average career is maybe 40 years. 

“But with the COVID shutdown, there were no auditions at all. We’re suddenly getting a wave of openings. So right now [in 2022], there are bassoon auditions in Detroit, Minnesota, Seattle, Portland, St. Louis, Buffalo and the National Symphony in D.C. It’s a lot. Of course, there is also a backlog of musicians wanting to give it a go, so the competition will be hot, too.”

At upcoming Civic auditions, each contestant is reviewed via video just by the CSO coaches for that particular instrument. Buchman shares that duty with CSO Principal Bassoon Keith Buncke. “Each of us will separately review the videos we get,” Buchman says. “Last year, we had 25 or so. We watch them separately, and we each take notes, making rankings of the players we are interested in. And then we consult.” 

The Civic has room for three bassoon positions at any given time, but the number of actual openings for any season is often not known. “This season, we have one second-year and two first-year bassoonists. Regular members join the Civic Orchestra for two seasons,” Buchman says. “Upon occasion, with COVID disruptions being an example, a second-year player could be offered a third year as well.”

It's nevertheless an excellent idea to audition, Buchman believes, even if there are no openings right away, and not only for the experience of auditioning under pressure. New auditions crop around the world every month. "If you win an audition during that time, which happens quite frequently, then we pull a player from our Civic Associate list,” he says. “Same thing if a player is ill or has a prior commitment. Associates can also come to our mock auditions, and our master classes, things like that, even if they don’t often do Civic Orchestra concerts.”  

Civic audition repertoire follows standard orchestra auditions. On bassoon, for example, the Overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is often requested because, as Buchman puts it, “You have to go very fast and accurately across an awkward break, and you’re playing rapid, repeated notes, which may be easy on the cello, but it’s tough on the bassoon. You have to be able to tongue very quickly and keep control.”

The best way to learn how to play auditions is to do a lot of them, he emphasizes: “The first time, you don’t know what to expect in terms of how you are going to react to the pressure. Next time, it may go a little better. Or little things can be different that make you less comfortable. Maybe the weather is bad. Your transportation is delayed. You’re ready to play at 10:30, and you end up having to sit around until 11:30. So maybe you learn that a banana keeps your stomach calm. Everybody is different. I like to suggest thinking of an audition as less a test you pass or fail, and more of an opportunity to show the fruits of all the hard work you have put in. A form of sharing, rather than a one-and-only chance with everything on the line.”