Winning a professional orchestra audition: an interview with Zac Hammond

HammondHeadshot3Zac Hammond is an oboist and a recent graduate of Eastman who won the principal oboe position with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. At Eastman, Zac earned the Bachelor of Music degree in Applied Music, and studied with Prof. Richard Killmer. He also earned the Arts Leadership Certificate. We recently interviewed Zac about his orchestral experiences and the audition process.

Q: What led you to Eastman, and why did you choose to attend?

A: As a high school student, I had always been aware of Eastman’s reputation as an outstanding music school. I had a few band directors who would frequently mention how great the Eastman Wind Ensemble is. So, when I was looking at schools, Eastman was definitely on my list. As a senior in high school, I was confident that I wanted to study music but I was pretty conflicted about whether I wanted to be in a conservatory or a university environment, so I decided to apply to a few of both. What sold me on Eastman though was that despite the high level of motivation and dedication amongst the students, there was still an incredibly supportive and encouraging atmosphere that made it feel like a great place to study. Also after learning how dedicated and successful my teacher, Richard Killmer, had been at preparing his oboe students for careers, the decision to attend Eastman was a no-brainer for me.

Q: How would you describe your past four years at Eastman?

A: I would describe my years at Eastman as diverse and intense. One of the best parts about the school is that you really are able to try anything you want. I was able to play chamber music with different groups every year, I took baroque oboe lessons, I was able to perform in jazz recitals and I also was a part of Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program (ALP).  For me, ALP was especially helpful. It allowed me to get out into Rochester’s community by interning with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and also allowed me to focus on other aspects of music outside of just performing such as, technology and business. I really feel as though Eastman and ALP did a great job of making me as “well-rounded” a musician as I could be.

Q: Tell us about your experiences performing with Symphoria.

A: I am extremely grateful to Symphoria for the experience it gave me and how supportive the organization has been the past couple years. Symphoria is the new professional orchestra in Syracuse, NY. After the Syracuse Symphony folded in 2011, the musicians in Syracuse banded together and created this new orchestra called “Symphoria” to ensure that classical music remained in Syracuse. I began playing with Symphoria at the beginning of their 2013-14 season, which happened to be their first full season. They were in need of a principal oboist for their opening concert and they hired me as a substitute. I was lucky enough to continue playing with them as the season went on and was eventually hired as a regular member. This of course gave me an amazing amount of orchestra experience in addition to my studies at Eastman. What has also been very helpful to me during my time with Symphoria was being able to take part in more of the “behind the scenes” aspects of the orchestra. The orchestra actually functions as a “musician’s collective”, meaning that the majority of the management and administrative responsibilities are carried out by the musicians themselves. As a result, I was able to attend meetings and learn about many of the aspects of orchestra outside of the music like budgeting, ticket-sales, securing venues etc.

Q: What was your audition in Charleston like?

A: I learned about the opening with the Charleston Symphony this past summer and the audition took place at the beginning of September. I had just graduated from Eastman that spring and my plan was to spend another year in Rochester, continuing to play with Symphoria and then apply to graduate programs in the spring. I wanted to begin taking some professional orchestral auditions over the summer because ultimately that’s what I really wanted to be doing and I needed more experience with those types of auditions.

For this particular audition, they did a “resumé round” first in which they said that only about half of the applicants were invited to audition after submitting their resumé (again, this made me thankful for my experience with Symphoria). The audition itself was three rounds that they managed to do all in one day. The first two rounds were “blind” so the audition committee was behind a screen. For the third and final round they removed the screen so I could interact directly with the committee. In that round I played for about half of the time and then the committee held an interview. This is something that more orchestras are implementing at auditions so that they can learn more about candidates as people, not just as musicians. I believe this was especially important for this position because in addition to playing principal oboe in the orchestra, I am also going to be frequently performing with the Charleston Symphony’s woodwind quintet, which does a lot of outreach and interaction with the community. The interview itself was pretty straightforward. They asked me about my background, education and previous orchestra experience. Then they asked if I had any chamber outreach experience and I was lucky enough to have been in a very active outreach quintet during my sophomore and junior years at Eastman. They also asked about what I think should change about the current orchestra culture/model and about any “memorable musical experiences” I have had. My impression was that the interview was used not so much as a way to learn about my qualifications, but more to just see if I would potentially be easy to work and interact with. It all went smoothly and I am happy to say that at the end of the day they offered me the position!

Q: What do you think gave you the edge that helped you win the job?

I think there were a few things that worked in my favor at the audition. Aside from my actual audition going reasonably well (which was of course important), I think my answers during the interview and the experience I had acquired at Eastman made me come across as ideally suited for this particular job. They were especially excited to learn about my experience in the Arts Leadership Program and my internship with the Rochester Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. That, on top of my administrative experience with Symphoria, probably made them feel confident that I understood the inner-workings of an orchestra and also that I was interested and open to new and innovative ways of presenting classical music, something that the Charleston Symphony has been actively trying to do. Also my previous woodwind quintet outreach experience at Eastman made me a good fit for the frequent outreach that they do.

Q: Do you have any advice for younger students who are preparing for a career in music?

A: My advice to young students looking to pursue music would probably be to explore every opportunity you can and keep an open mind. I think that the music industry, and especially the classical music industry, is changing very rapidly. In order to be successful, a musician is required to do so much more than just log hours in a practice room. You need to figure how to be a businessperson, use new technology, network, build audiences, manage money etc. That kind of experience only comes from putting yourself out there and trying new things. Although as an orchestral musician, I am in what is probably considered a more “traditional” niche of classical music, there are so many different paths in music you can take now and I believe it is important to open yourself up to all of them.