Orchestral Excerpt Training…Why?

This will be our eighth season at International Cello Institute and we are offering something a little different to our cellists this summer. I have asked Mark Kosower, Principal Cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra, Anthony Ross, Principal Cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra, and Silver Ainomäe, Associate Principal Cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra to offer some formal orchestral excerpt training to our students in the Senior Division at ICI this summer. Having the chance to learn from cellists of this caliber who have won major seats in two of the best orchestras in America is an awesome opportunity! In addition, these three cellists also spend time sitting in auditions for section seats for their respective orchestras. The kind of advice students will get from them is invaluable and not easily accessible. We are planning a mock audition or two for the brave souls willing to put themselves on the line.

When you are in college, your priority as a student is to work on your cello playing, focusing on both technical and musicianship skills. When most cellists graduate, they either decide to take an orchestra audition or go on for further education and studies. Making a living becomes necessary and so begins the journey……….

It can be a very expensive and challenging time with many (many) ups and downs. Winning a job in an orchestra today takes a lot of time and planning for most of us mortals and is a different kind of performance situation from anything else you’ve ever done.

A typical section cello opening in a mid-size orchestra might have anywhere between 150-500 applicants. Those lucky enough to be invited to the audition, will undertake a journey that feels like they are trying to win the lottery.

Once you get on stage for that audition, you have no more than five minutes to prove yourself, with no mistakes, a beautiful sound, impeccable intonation, and no squeaks and squawks in order to advance to the semi-finals or finals. You must have nerves of steel!

Often when young cellists start to think about taking auditions, they go about it the wrong way. Ooooh, I see an opening in an orchestra, that looks like a fun place to live, I think I’ll do this one. Get the excerpts, pick a concerto, and start practicing like mad.

Wrong Wrong Wrong………..!

Practicing for auditions takes a lot of careful planning. Take a step back and do some careful thinking and planning. If you have never practiced excerpts before, seek the advice of an experienced orchestral cellist, this can be a peer or mentor. Those of us who have played for many years in orchestras know all about bowings, fingerings, dynamics, articulation, traditions, phrases, what strings and positions to play certain excerpts in, and how best to play music from each composer. Start incorporating these excerpts into your daily practice as if you were working towards a recital. Figure out a rotation practice schedule and listen a lot to the pieces with a full score. Imagine being the conductor. Get to know the orchestral works intimately and live with these excerpts day in and day out.

Originality is great on the concert stage, but now you need to play as if you were one of ten or twelve other cellists. So what if you prefer a solid wide rolling vibrato or a rallentando at the end of a phrase! That is not going to get you the job!

Practice like a marathon athlete. Timing and pacing is a very important part of the practice process. A successful audition takes strength and wisdom, especially when it comes to pacing yourself during those first five minutes.

  • You have to build stamina so that you can maintain the strength throughout the audition.


  • Choose a concerto and a movement of Bach that suits you personally, not just because you think the committee wants to hear you play the Dvorák Concerto.


  • Think about your strong points, what do you do well. What style of music suits your personality?


  • It is important to know and understand your weaknesses and work on them more than your strengths. In the prelims, you only have a couple of minutes to impress the committee. They are not going to stick around and wait for you to play the right temp or in tune. Don’t try to be better than you are, once you are on that stage, just be yourself. Don’t second guess yourself. Chances are if you have prepared correctly and are ready to do the audition, you will do your best. Sit back and enjoy the process as best you can.


What about tempo and pulse? Can you conjure up the right tempo for any of these excerpts, like a magician, with no context? Buy yourself a very good metronome if you do not have one already and a record yourself often.

What about the wall or screen? Your whole musical life, you have been told to play to your audience, express yourself, and relish in the real-time feedback you get. Suddenly, you are literally faced with playing to a dead wall or screen, no visual or aural feedback. Not fun! Especially not fun if you are not prepared.

It is very normal to take quite a few auditions in the beginning to get the hang of it!

Failure leads to success. If you can learn from your mistakes, that is one of the most important parts of taking auditions. I have heard of cellists taking their phones in with them to record their auditions, hoping to be able to play back their performance later. I can see why that might be helpful because often it is really hard to recollect how you really played. However, that is not very professional and it would be better to ask the personnel manager if you can get comments from the committee following the auditions.

Lastly, it’s immensely helpful while you are going through the audition process to be playing in an orchestra. See if you can audition for a regional professional orchestra or a sub position in an orchestra near you. This will give you invaluable experience with bowing, fingerings, and dynamics.

Students who come to International Cello Institute this summer will hear more in-depth,  insider tips from major orchestra leaders, Mark Kosower, Tony Ross, and Silver Ainomäe.

Here are a few helpful Links for you to look at:




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