Trials and Tribulations: On Trial with a Symphony Orchestra

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Michael Szabo – Bass Trombone, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Matt Irwin)

Michael Szabo, recently appointed Principal Bass Trombone of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, offers some advice for orchestral brass players beyond winning an audition. Michael has previously held positions with the Sjællands Symfoniorkester in Copenhagen and also the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.

Much is written these days about winning auditions, and rightly so! But what happens afterwards? Now that you’ve won the job, there is an arguably more difficult task ahead of you: you’ve got to keep it.

One year ago, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra held their audition for the position of Principal Bass Trombone. As a result of that process, I was awarded the position. I am more fortunate than most others who took the audition; I had lived in Melbourne for two years prior and had been on the casual list for quite some time. The low brass section already knew me, and knew what they were getting when they hired me after my pre-trial. This is usually not the case when you enter a trial situation. The MSO is my third orchestra job, and in both of my previous jobs, I was going into the trial blind. This can be a very stressful situation, and my aim in this blog is to give some ground rules for young trombonists about how to succeed during this delicate and stressful process.

Rule #1: Don’t be difficult
Why, you say, isn’t the first rule to play your best? Because your colleagues already know you can play your instrument: they heard you at the audition! What they don’t know yet is if you are a good colleague. Say hello and good morning when you arrive, especially to your section-mates. Don’t warm up a lot on stage when other musicians are around. When I was new in my first job with the Honolulu Symphony, the orchestra had an unwritten rule that brass players were not allowed on stage to warm up until fifteen minutes before the call started. This is a good policy to adopt so as not to annoy your new colleagues in the woodwind and string sections. One of your jobs during the trial is not to give anyone on the panel an excuse to say anything negative about your attitude or demeanour. You have no idea about the past baggage your orchestra is carrying around, so even a comment made by you in passing can have a negative impact on your job prospects. Be polite, humble, and respectful and you won’t have a problem. When in doubt, zip it!

Rule #2: Play your best
Notice I didn’t say: “play perfectly”. You can’t do that, and don’t expect yourself to. This starts every morning with your warm up. You should arrive early to work. I arrive almost without exception forty-five minutes to an hour before I have to play. This is so I can warm up and concentrate on my fundamentals. If you don’t have a solid fundamental routine, you probably haven’t gotten this far, so stick with it! Especially during your trial, run your fundamentals every day to keep your chops at their optimal level. This will also have a side-benefit: You will build a reputation as a reliable person who takes their job seriously. You will quickly realise that especially during heavy weeks (Bruckner, Mahler, etc); you won’t have chops left over after rehearsals to do much individual practicing. This is where your fundamental routine comes into play, and done consistently over the years, can extend your career by quite a while. If you get a good hour of playing in before you start work, then you don’t have to stress about practice time when you don’t have any chops left after work is finished.

Don’t stress out when you chip a note, everyone does it. I’ve chipped notes in every audition I’ve ever won (and not won!). As long as it’s within reason, you’ll be fine. Don’t allow a chipped note to put you off your game— in fact, don’t react in any way. Conversely, don’t react when one of your colleagues makes a mistake or chips a note: it’s very rude and it will be noticed!

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