Featured FAQ: How does one become a musician in the Minnesota Orchestra?

To attain a position with a major American orchestra is to reach the very top of the profession. The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are hired through a rigorous international audition process.

For each opening, as many as 200 candidates play behind a screen on the Orchestra Hall stage for a committee of musicians. Despite the large number of applicants, few demonstrate the level of talent required by the Minnesota Orchestra. Frequently, there is no candidate selected and the process begins again. Finalists play for the music director and committee and may also be asked to play for several weeks in the orchestra before being hired. Because openings occur so infrequently, some say that one has a better chance of playing major league baseball than winning a job in a major symphony orchestra.

For some great insights to this process check out these links; What it Takes to Land a Major Symphony Job; 56 cellists, 1 seat (part one) &  Playing for Keeps (part two). A recent Boston Symphony Article is linked here.

The Inner Voice by Ken Freed

People who know me know that I kid around a lot.  It could be dictated by my genes. Or maybe it’s my way of coping with the innumerable jokes by professional musicians whose target is always, always, the violists, of which I am one.  But I speak the truth when I say that gifts of empathy and compassion lie at the heart of the violist’s art.

We do not get to play the famous melodies people whistle as they leave the concert hall: we provide a symphony’s less flashy “inner voices.” We confront the challenges of coordinating the melody with the harmony.  Should we drive the rhythm forward, or let the melody arc and soar—but lose momentum? Our pitch is often relative, as we calibrate intervallic relationships between the bass line and the melody, mindful of how sharp of flat others may be playing on any given evening.

Personally, I think that the constant coordination of pitch and rhythm makes violists, of necessity, philosophers and students of human behavior. We get high marks on social-emotional tests.  We play well with others. Our role is to empathize and assist those around us. If a symphony concert were a soccer game, we violists would be making the passes, not the goals.

As a former violinist, I had a hard time adjusting to this background role when I switched instruments rather late in my career. But with time, I’ve gotten over myself a bit. I’ve come to value the importance of the support function—and not just in music.  Often, the most vital work in our community gets done quietly, in what you might call a “violist” spirit.

Most of us in the Minnesota Orchestra play a supporting role with young people. Almost all of us teach lessons. Many of us coach with the local youth orchestras.  Some teach at the college level, or with community music schools. I am often moved to see my colleagues help with all kinds of youth music organizations and projects.  All of us grew up benefiting from classical music’s extraordinary tradition of mentorship. We all want very much to perpetuate it.

There is a tremendous unmet need, even here in Minnesota. Far too few schools are able to offer hands-on, sequential instrumental music instruction. The costs of taking private lessons and buying instruments are significant, and the time required to nurture the musical development of a child is more than many working parents can muster.

I am very proud to be part of an orchestra that does its utmost, reaching some 80,000 young people each year. I know that music study is vital to cognitive, social and emotional development. I know that harmony and listening between musicians is a template for life as it could be lived in our troubled world. I believe every child deserves the opportunity not just to hear, but to make music of his or her own.

I am fortunate to play the “inner voice” in a great symphony orchestra. It’s a daily reminder of what we must all be to one another.  I like the double meaning of that phrase.  Just as the viola part is subtle but crucial, so, too, is that quiet voice within each of us, softly but persistently reminding us of our obligation to be a positive presence in the world.

Kenneth Freed
Violist, Minnesota Orchestra

Updated: Practice Tips for Musicians

For more practice tips and to watch video clips of our musicians giving their advice for practicing, visit the Practice Tips page. Check back regularly as we will keep adding new tips!

Chunk it up! Don’t wait all day to start your dreaded hours of practice. Play in shorter chunks, 10 to 20 minutes at a time, with breaks to relax physically and mentally. Bad habits thrive and injuries occur when you’re fatigued, so it is better to focus intensely in shorter sessions. Also, begin early in the day. Once you get started, it will be easier to keep adding chunks throughout the day!
Wendy Williams, flute

Create a plan and follow it! Having clear goals is key to a good practice session.
Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, third horn

I’ve always hated the saying, “Practice makes perfect!”  Practice doesn’t make “Perfect”, it makes “Permanent”.   My practice tip, especially for young people:   Slow down and isolate the problem spot. If you don’t, you are in essence “permanently” working the mistake into your practicing and therefore into your performance.
Katja Linfield, cello 

If you can hear it, you can play it- practice mentally away from your instrument.  This can make your practice time much more efficient.
Norbert Nielubowski, contrabassoon

When you prepare material for performance, think about how your sound will reach and affect those folks seated in the back of the house.  Remember, the room is in fact your instrument.
Kate Nettleman, acting co-principal bass

If you get too frustrated with a particular passage, don’t stress, just come back to it later. Taking a break will help clear you head and you may be inspired with a different approach.
Sifei Cheng, viola

Persistence Pays Off: The Three-Month Audition by Adam Kuenzel

In auditioning, persistence pays off. In my early 20’s I auditioned for the Colorado Philharmonic (now the National Repertory Orchestra), a summer training orchestra, four years in a row before at last being accepted. During the 24 months prior to winning my position with the Minnesota Orchestra, I had advanced to the final round for associate principal jobs in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and New York. No dice. But persistence doesn’t always pay off; I’ve auditioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra five times to no avail. Persistence, however, really was key during the three-months for my audition with the Minnesota Orchestra.

Virtually every job opening listed for a major orchestra in the International Musician (the publication that advertises orchestral positions) includes words to the effect, “Only highly-qualified applicants need apply.” The Minnesota Orchestra had received over one hundred recorded auditions for their principal flute opening, and also many inquiries from curious and ambitious musicians who, for reasons of their own, then chose not to continue the process. Since the flute section had no full-time principal due to personnel issues, many of those auditioning had already performed with the orchestra over the past two seasons as substitute principal flutists. Eager to show my stripes, I had also written to the general manager, Mark Volpe, to ask if I could fill in as a substitute. He thanked me for my interest but told me that only players known to the music director or recommended by someone on the committee were being brought to Minneapolis. My persistence in this regard didn’t seem to get me anywhere, but perhaps I had at least gotten some attention from it; only a few months later I was informed that my position in San Antonio qualified me as one of the twenty-five flutists invited for a live audition.

On a weekend right after New Year’s Day in 1990 I traveled to Minneapolis from San Antonio.  In total there were five rounds for the audition, two on Saturday and three on Sunday. All candidates played on the stage at Orchestra Hall for a committee of seven Minnesota Orchestra musicians and the Music Director, Edo De Waart.  I ended up as one of two players that advanced through all five rounds. This was as close as I’d ever come to landing a major orchestra position. Most auditions identify a winner by the end of the final round and offer the position to him or her. Some, however, continue the process by inviting one or two finalists to perform with the orchestra, as was the case here.
On Sunday evening it was determined that I and the other finalist would continue our auditions, each playing a trial week of performances with the orchestra. De Waart, of course, would be conducting those concerts.

I had to wait until February for my trial week on a program including a bassoon concerto premiere played by principal bassoonist John Miller, and Holst’s The Planets. Fortunately for me, I had learned that the other candidate had already played her audition week and had been eliminated from further consideration.

My performances went well. Edo said he liked what he heard but could not make a final decision until I returned for another week for a program that would highlight the flute in a more prominent role. I was invited to play just such a program later that season. My nerves were hardly soothed as I was told that the associate principal flutists in both the Philadelphia and Boston Symphony Orchestras had expressed interest in the job, and were each invited to play a week as principal with the Minnesota Orchestra, as well.  After all, the Minnesota Orchestra owed it to themselves to identify the best player for the job in whatever manner they chose. This was a scenario I hadn’t at all anticipated but I persevered, and prepared for my second trial week.

My second audition week was in March, and this time I performed one of the two Strauss wind serenades and his tone poem, Don Quixote. During that same week there was also a rehearsal dedicated to associate conductor auditions. All I remember of that is the slow introduction to a Mozart symphony and Edo seated right behind me to guide the proceedings. The week concluded well, but I returned to San Antonio, still uncertain as to what Edo’s ultimate decision would be.

On the Saturday before Easter I returned home around 11:00 p.m. after a pops concert with the San Antonio Symphony. Mark Volpe had left a message: “I’d love to talk to you. Please call me tomorrow morning.” At this point I thought, what did he mean?! Did I get the job or not? Why didn’t he just say so one way or the other?! Of course I’d be incredibly disappointed if I’d gotten this far without winning the audition. But, as had become my habit over the years, through the dozens of auditions for schools, summer festivals and orchestra positions, I remembered to give myself credit for doing my best under such competitive circumstances.

I waited until 9:00 a.m. to call, although I’d been awake since 6:00 a.m., unable to
sleep. Mark answered my call, and said that the auditions were complete and that I was being offered the position of principal flute with the Minnesota
Orchestra! Over three months had passed since I had first walked onto the
stage at Orchestra Hall and I could not believe what I heard. So that I would
have some evidence that I was not imagining things, I asked Mark to please
call back after we hung up and leave a message on my answering machine
(this was pre-voicemail days) and repeat what he had just told me. He did so
right away and I had to listen to it a few times before I felt confident calling
family and friends with the terrific news. It had turned out that my persistence
paid off and my three-month audition was a success.

The Orchestra Machine: What Makes It Run?

Featured FAQ: What does it take to make an orchestra like the Minnesota Orchestra successful?

It takes a huge community of people, from musicians and staff, to board members and an appreciative audience for a full-time symphony orchestra to be run successfully. For a complete description of how an symphony orchestra organization works, we have provided this essay: The Orchestra Machine: What Makes It Run.

Musical Families by George Slade

The musicians were delighted to receive this welcome essay by our long-time fan and talented friend, George Slade. George writes about how musicians compose their own unique families. With thanks and gratitude to George, we’d like to share it on our musician’s blog. Please enjoy it as much as we have.

“It would be an unusual musician who would give no credit to parents or other elders for encouraging and facilitating their evolution during the developmental years. But an individual’s growth continues within families that have less to do with blood and more to do with affinity.”

Read the whole essay on the Musician’s Blog