The Beginner’s Guide to Orchestral Excerpts

If you’re a musician, you’ve probably crossed paths with a few orchestral excerpts throughout the years. For such short snippets of symphonic literature, you’d think excerpts would be more manageable and less stressful…but unfortunately, that’s not the case.

For the uninitiated, what are orchestral excerpts and what’s the big deal?

I remember my first experience with an orchestral excerpt. I was asked to record an excerpt from the Brahms 3rd Symphony for an audition in early high school. Having been raised as your typical band geek, I was well-versed in the ways of marching band tunes, patriotic pep songs, and other school band toe-tappers, but I had had little knowledge of the orchestral realm up until this point. I first looked at the second movement of Brahms 3rd and thought, “What’s the big deal? This looks pretty easy, and why can’t I just play an All State étude or something?”

Ah, to be so young and naïve again! Little did I know that the world of excerpts would introduce me to the masterpieces of symphonic repertoire. Not to mention the fact that future performance and career opportunities depended on my familiarity with these excerpts and the ability to play them at a moment’s notice.

If you’re ready to begin your orchestral excerpt journey, grab a notebook and a metronome and let’s get to work!


All About Excerpts

Let’s start with the basics.

What are orchestral excerpts? Orchestral excerpts are short sections (excerpts) from the symphonic repertoire. Standard orchestral excerpts vary from instrument to instrument, and they are chosen for their technical difficulty, expressive nuances, or exposure in a piece of orchestral literature.

Why are excerpts important? If you want to eventually play in an orchestra, your future is at the mercy of orchestral excerpts – specifically, your ability to play them. Excerpts demonstrate a musician’s lyrical and technical capabilities in important passages in various pieces, and they are the foundation of any orchestra audition. Each audition will have a slightly different list of required excerpts, but the standard list remains more or less the same. Orchestral auditions usually ask for 10-20 excerpts, but the jury might only ask to hear a few.

Collecting & Gathering Excerpts

  • Research standard orchestral excerpts. First things first – find out what the standard excerpts are for your instrument. A simple Google search should reveal the most commonly requested excerpts for each instrument. Create a list of these excerpts, and as you discover new excerpts, make sure to add them to your list. Ask your teachers, friends, and colleagues to read your list and suggest any excerpts you might have missed. Good news for my clarinet readers! I’ve included a list of standard clarinet excerpts at the bottom of this article.
  • Acquire the music. Many orchestral excerpts are public domain, so you can find quite a lot of excerpts online. Websites like IMSLP even have the entire scores and parts for any public domain piece for you to print and use. Many orchestras include the actual excerpts in their audition package, so if you ever see an orchestral position announced, browse through the requirements (even if you don’t plan on taking the audition) to make sure that you have all of the excerpts. There are also orchestral excerpt collections written by experts in each field which include helpful tips on how to practice and prepare each excerpt. Although you will only be asked to play short excerpts at auditions, I advise you to acquire entire parts and scores so you can study each piece in its entirety. Important: Make sure that you are not breaking copyright law by photocopying, printing, or sharing non-public domain music. Individual parts of orchestral literature are for sale through various music publishers, and by using illegal copies, you are hurting the music industry.
  • Make an excerpt notebook. Gather all of the excerpts which you’ve collected and keep them in one place. I use a 3-ring binder to store all of my excerpts in sheet protectors. I arrange my excerpts alphabetically by composer, and if I have multiple copies of excerpts (like the 891072358 copies of Mendelssohn’s “Scherzo” I’ve obtained over the years), I keep them in the same sheet protector so I can compare articulations, dynamics, and other discrepancies between different editions.

Practicing Excerpts

  • Listen to recordings and study the score. It’s important to be able to play your excerpts, but it’s even more important to know the score and how your music fits in with the other parts of the orchestra. Before you begin practicing a new excerpt, listen to several different recordings of the piece to get a general understanding of the style, mood, and tempo of the piece. Make sure to listen to each piece in its entirety – not just the section or movement which contains the excerpt. Many videos on YouTube have recordings synced to the complete score, which is useful when you’re listening to unfamiliar pieces.
  • Start slow. When you first start working on a new excerpt, be extra methodical and make sure no detail goes unturned – notes, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, etc. Just like scales, you’ll never outgrow excerpts, so make sure you create a solid foundation to build upon for years to come.
  • Use a metronome. This is a no-brainer for me, but I’m always shocked at to see how many musicians rarely use a metronome! At auditions, your judge might play a different instrument and could miss some instrument-specific details, but rhythm is universal. Even at the highest level of orchestral auditions, many final rounds come down to rhythmic accuracy. Rhythm is always important, but even more so when the structural integrity of a piece depends on individual rhythmic precision.
  • Record yourself. Microphones tell no lies – a painful truth of which I’m constantly reminded. Get in the habit of regularly recording yourself and being critical of what you hear. Incorporate your critique into your next practice session.
  • Play along with recordings. Ah, the marvels of modern technology! Practice and play your part along with a recording to get the experience of “performing” each piece with an orchestra. Play along with several different recordings so you’re exposed to a variety of different interpretations.
  • Get in character. Each excerpt embodies a different style and mood, and this can make excerpts even more challenging. As you go from one excerpt to another, make sure that you switch to whatever the character of the piece is. I like to write certain words or phrases at the top of my music, and I have certain mental images associated with each excerpt. Example: Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of clarinetists like hearing the phrase “In a twinkling, the cat climbed up the tree.” To get in Prokofiev’s feline frame of mind, I always think of the stray cat I encountered in Sintra, Portugal, who literally scampered up a tree to escape my crazy cat lady clutches.
  • Practice and rotate excerpts regularly. Look, I get it – there’s a bajillion excerpts to practice, in addition to your other musical obligations. Create and maintain a consistent practice routine in which you regularly rotate excerpts so you can be ready at a moment’s notice if an audition is announced. Keep your excerpts fresh by practicing them in different orders, because you’ll never be able to predict the order they’re called at an audition. You can even get crafty and make a bucket-o-excerpts to randomly select ones to practice.
  • Do mock auditions. Once you’ve mastered a handful of excerpts, enlist your teachers, colleagues, friends, neighbors, or anyone else to adjudicate a mock audition. Give them a list of excerpts and have them call out the excerpts in a random order. If you want to up the ante, have them stop you in the middle of some excerpts, which can happen at actual auditions. Add further pressure by competing against your fellow excerpt-practicing friends and have the jury announce a winner of the mock audition. Make sure to record the mock audition and ask for feedback.
  • Take auditions. Audition-taking is an art form in itself, so take as many auditions as you can to hone your auditioning skills. Not only are you putting your musical skills to the test, you are also perfecting your audition strategy. Winning orchestra auditions is a little bit like winning the lottery, so take as many auditions as you can. Don’t get discouraged or doubt your ability as a musician if you lose an audition – music is a highly subjective art, so give yourself time to mope, then hit the practice room with a newfound determination for your next audition.

Standard Clarinet Excerpts

Disclaimer: The following list (arranged alphabetically by composer) contains some of the most commonly requested clarinet orchestral excerpts asked at auditions and is not meant to be comprehensive.

  • Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, Sz. 73 BB 82
  • Beethoven – Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
  • Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68
  • Beethoven – Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14
  • Borodin – Polovtsian Dances/Prince Igor
  • Brahms – Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
  • Brahms – Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
  • Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
  • Kodály – Dances of Galánta
  • Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61
  • Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 (“Scottish”)
  • Nielsen – Symphony No. 5, Op. 50
  • Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67
  • Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 2 in e minor, Op. 27
  • Ravel – Daphnis et Chloé
  • Ravel – Boléro
  • Respighi – Pines of Rome
  • Rimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34
  • Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade Op. 35
  • Rimsky-Korsakov – Le Coq d’or
  • Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor, D.759 (“Unfinished”)
  • Shotakovich – Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47
  • Shostakovich – Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70
  • Sibelius – Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39
  • Smetana – The Bartered Bride
  • R. Strauss – Don Juan, Op. 20
  • R. Strauss – Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
  • Stravinsky – Firebird
  • Stravinsky – Le Sacre du printemps
  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
  • Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, (“Pathétique”)

Excerpt books & collections

  • The Audition Method for Clarinet – Mark Nuccio & Benjamin Baron
  • Orchestral Excerpts for Clarinet (series) – Robert McGinnis
  • Orchestral Studies for Clarinet – Daniel Bonade
  • The Working Clarinetist – Peter Hadcock

Happy practicing!

3 thoughts on “The Beginner’s Guide to Orchestral Excerpts

  1. Good basic list of excerpts, but players should be warned that the McGinnis and Bonade books contain several errors. Some teachers have complied a list of corrections to them. Some additions to the list could be the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Historie du Soldat. The Stravinsky mixed meter presents problems of ensemble coordination that are nearly insurmountable if a player is not rhythmically well-prepared. Also aspirant to the principal clarinet position ought to be ready to play Alberto Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes (the high-scaling solo in the Scherzo). James Zimmerman, by the way, has a YouTube video on the Ginastera worth watching.

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