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Orchestra Experience and Audition Tips by Cynthia Yeh

Cynthia Yeh (Chicago Symphony) has a wealth of experience in auditions and as principal percussion in her orchestra, so she shares some tips here.
Cynthia Yeh percussion orchestra auditions

What were your experiences then taking auditions in San Diego and Chicago?

I took a bunch of smaller auditions in the late 1990s. There really weren’t many around that time; I think only two between 1999 to 2001, one of which was for the CSO. I took that and advanced but was again scrambling to learn the literature for the later rounds. San Diego was probably my 13th audition, including all the small ones, but by that point, I realised that there was a reason why I wasn’t winning. I only do as much work as was necessary, or maybe not even that. I didn’t always look at everything, assuming that it either wouldn’t be asked or somehow I forgot about it. It was very frustrating because I knew that it was my own fault for not learning the pieces. In San Diego, I think I just lucked out because I happened to know all the excerpts they asked for. Chicago was my dream job that I figured would never open. I really wanted it. I told myself I wouldn’t show up without being 1000% prepared, even the little Brahms symphony thing on the triangle or whatever.

I knew I really wanted this, so I came very prepared. I even arranged my sleep schedule to prepare for the time difference between Pacific and Central time. I had recently been at an audition in Detroit that ended at 1 am where one reason I didn’t win was because it sounded like I didn’t have enough energy. Seriously!? But I lived in Central time for four weeks between the semifinals and finals so that when I showed up, I had the right amount of energy. I was at the hall at 5 am to practice so that I would still be sharp. Little things like that were important for me so that if I didn’t win, at least I knew I put it all out there and did everything I possibly could.

What can you tell us about your daily work, and what advice would you give to those who want to follow your path?

It really depends on the program and whatever else is going on. Assigning parts, getting instruments, transporting them, that’s all just part of the job. Some of those things I can do far ahead; some are more touch and go. If I get the first draft of a new work that has every percussionist playing snare and xylophone, then I edit it until it works. There are things I would like to tell composers about how percussion should work! They don’t teach you everything like that in school. They also don’t teach you about interpersonal dynamics. It’s not just about how you play; it’s about how you work as a team.

In terms of dividing up the day, again, it varies. For me, there is maintenance practice and new stuff practice. If you need to shed your parts, you may not need as much maintenance. If I have nothing on the horizon, I do a lot of maintenance practice. That’s at least an hour a day, but if I’m taking a trip, I might take a week off and pay for it when I come back. As far as logistics go, I prefer to organise things as quickly as possible. Whenever I get the music, I sit down to figure out the stage plot as soon as I can.

If you’re a percussionist who wants to be in an orchestra, it’s not the most glamorous job. Everyone who wants this as a career has to go through the audition process and what I’ll say from being on numerous committees is that the audition is a performance, not a test to see who fails and that nobody likes a technician. The committee is looking for a great musician who happens to play percussion. Of course, I care if your playing is clean, but the phrase you are playing is the most important thing. Ideally, you would find both, but don’t get tunnel-vision with your excerpts. For people that only want to play a clean audition, I’m here to tell you that’s the bare minimum.

[External link: Cynthia Yeh’s Profile Artist at the CSO Website]

Full Interview: “I Didn’t Know How Hard Some Things Were Supposed to Be. I Still Tell My Students That to This Day; The Things You Think Are Hard Are Only That Way Because Someone Told You They Were”

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