Behind the Screen: The Process of Auditioning for an Orchestra

Updated: Sep 15

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Susan Yun, Assistant Principal Cellist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, sits down with the M Institute for the Arts to share her personal account of the orchestra audition process, auditions which have gone horribly (terribly!) wrong, and even her favorite place to grab a dark chocolate gelato in D.C.

We’ve all had auditions we’d rather forget - do you have any good stories of auditions gone wrong?

My cello arrived in two pieces once. I had checked my cello as baggage (in a flight case), and I flew one of those cheap airlines. They are cheap for a reason! Not only did it get lost and arrive late, it came with the neck detached from the rest of the instrument. A friend also auditioning was kind enough to lend me his cello. Needless to say, I didn’t advance to the next round after that catastrophe!

How is playing in an opera orchestra different than playing in a symphonic orchestra?

Both require an enormous amount of focus but in different ways. In the opera pit, you need to play and communicate with each other as in any ensemble, but the added element of staging/singers brings your focus to a new level. Also, your typical 30-40-minute symphonic piece is now a three-hour affair so you need to amp up your stamina.

Is there a cellist who you've admired as a role model growing up?

Boston offers a plethora of great teachers, and I was lucky to have a few as part of my upbringing. My first cello teacher, Barbara Paschke, was a great friend, role model, and teacher. She taught me from the age of four up until high school. I grew up with her, and she provided me a safe place to be myself. Now I see how invaluable great pedagogues like her are for young kids. Her friend Andrew Marks was a great teacher as well and still is to this day. I ended high school studying with Sato Knudsen of the Boston Symphony and had my cello fixed by his dad, the late Ronald Knudsen, also a member of the symphony. I thought they were both the coolest dudes ever, and I wanted to be just like them. I respected their immense talent, their straight shooter demeanor, street smarts, and solid work ethic. I learned a great deal from both of them. Lastly, Eric Bartlett of the New York Philharmonic has been an incredible mentor and teacher, helping me with auditions and supporting me when I felt like giving up. He is one of those rare orchestral players who is relentlessly positive, endlessly giving to his students, and whose playing gets BETTER with time!

There is some incredible music written for solo cello. Do you have a favorite piece?

Anything by Beethoven is always good. Cellists are lucky he wrote five sonatas for the instrument. This ALMOST makes up for not writing us a concerto!

What advice do you have for someone who has never been to an opera (or orchestra concert)?

I suggest getting to know the plot, as we do when going to see any movie in a theatre. You can read over the synopsis of each act (there are usually 3 or 4) in the program notes and get to know the names of each character. From there, you can sit back, follow the subtitles, and enjoy! To me, opera is an earlier format of a movie theatre so I think it's very easy to enjoy the stage set, the costumes, the dramatic plots, and glorious music!

What is your favorite restaurant in DC (when they’re open!)

I'm a big fan of Dolcezza's dark chocolate gelato and had a memorable meal at Zaytinya.

How has COVID-19 affected your your work (and life)?

One silver lining to this situation has been my participation in the P.A.L.S (Peer Assisted Learning Strategies) reading program, where kids read to dogs via Zoom. My therapy dog, Penny, sits on Zoom and has kids read books to her. The kids love it, and I love engaging with them. Penny doesn't understand why I'm forcing her to stare at a screen, but she takes it in stride. The program has become a national sensation, being featured on NBC, Good Morning America, the Washington Post, and even Canadian news. The organizers of P.A.L., James Haworth, Ally Riddling, and others, have been amazing in setting the whole thing up. It is the highlight of my week.


Focus of the Webinar - August, 24th and August 25th, 2020 at 7pm

Learn about all the backstage in & outs for orchestral musicians in this 2-part series — from applying for a job opening to preparing for the audition itself. Featuring Susan Yun, Assistant Principal cellist of the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra.

Sign up now for Susan Yun's Two Part Webinar to learn more!

Miss a class? No problem! You can access past masterclasses and series here. Learn more about the M Institute for the Arts here.

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