Once upon a time (every good story starts with this, yes?), there was a young woman who eagerly wanted to be a part of the magic at the Walt Disney World Resort. She was still in college, and knew that she wanted to play violin there. But how? There was no weddings department, yet. There were no regular positions for classical violinists, let alone an orchestra. She did her research and visited the theme parks and resorts. She asked other musicians who were performing, and called the main number for the company to try to find out if there was place for her skill. There was, however, a college program orchestra that worked through the summer. “Aha!” she said. “That’s how I will get to play there. I am in college, so I could do this!”
Several months went by, and she did audition for the college orchestra. Nerves and anxiety got the best of her as she was new to the professional audition circuit, but the judges were kind and encouraging. Several weeks later, she received a letter in the mail stating she was on the “stand-by” list. The composers of the letter stated that is rare to have someone so young (she was only 18, but already completed most of her college requirements) be accepted into the orchestra as they do take into account the age of the student and accept seniors and juniors first. Although the orchestra did not need her that year as a “stand-by,” she still decided to work throughout the summer in one of the theme parks selling merchandise. She went to almost every college program orchestra concert that summer so she could really see what it was all about. Seeing it live was very different from the videos, but isn’t that usually the case with all groups?
During that same summer, she met a new violin teacher, Alfons Carlo. She immediately began studying with him, and he began coaching her on doing more professional auditions. When summer concluded, she went back to her college for her final year there, but went to Orlando to study with Mr. Carlo every other weekend. He even hired her for some of his professional ensembles during her visits. While in school, she again contacted the college program orchestra to inquire about the next summer, and was informed that they would no longer have a college program orchestra and that it was cut due to funding issues. Oh well. Maybe there was another place for her.
Once she finally moved to Orlando full-time, she continued to study with Mr. Carlo, who then prepared her for her audition with the Florida Symphony Orchestra. Excerpts from Strauss, Brahms, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mozart were constantly reviewed and tweaked. Bach was her daily breakfast warm-up. Mendelssohn and Mozart became her new best friends. After almost a year of this continuous study, he said she was ready. Through a series of unfortunate events, Mr. Carlo passed away suddenly from a heart attack, and several months later, the FSO went bankrupt and folded. Now what’s an aspiring violinist supposed to do? She didn’t want to leave Orlando, although she did audition and win an invitation to join the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras (she declined it.) Through her networking and connections from her studies with Mr. Carlo and through joining the Musicians’ Union, she reached out to the music community to learn what else was there. She began being hired for concert tours with celebrity artists, as well as many weddings and other local symphony orchestras. She played for some events (mostly weddings and symphony concerts) every week for several years, and even created her own business of contracting for weddings. She went back to school for a business degree, and then on to study for her MBA. During this time, she still had her heart set upon performing at the Walt Disney World Resort.
That opportunity came amidst conversation during one of the tours. She met one of the contractors who handled the “Candlelight Orchestra,” and was hired to play one or two nights that year. No audition; no rehearsal. Sight-reading the show while on stage. All those years of lessons in sight-reading and varying styles came in very handy at that first show. She did well, according to the contractor who sat next to her that first show. She was hired for more shows that year, and in subsequent years until 1999 when Disney no longer contracted through a third-party contractor, but began handling the bookings themselves.
Earlier in that same decade, Disney had just opened their brand new wedding pavilion, but did not have a cast of musicians to play violin. One of the contractors who worked with the aspiring violinist was also a contractor of violinists for weddings at Disney. He asked her to come audition to be placed on the call list. She had to prepare several Disney love songs, as well as the standard wedding songs from memory and play them. She was immediately placed on the call list, and played throughout the next few years. The Weddings department also changed to being booked in-house by Disney in 1999. She was told that if she wanted to play Candlelight and weddings at Disney, she would have to go through the formal audition process. Finally, this was her chance to actually audition for Disney!
How to prepare? What to prepare? She had only a few days’ notice for the scheduled audition, and was very rusty with the standard audition repertoire. Still, she quickly polished one of the Bach pieces, a Mozart concerto, and some of the excerpts. She was extremely nervous at the audition, but, again, the judges were kind and encouraging. Fortunately, her sight-reading skills were still exceptional, and she was hired on-the-spot. She was then informed that for solo work, she would have to learn an entire book of songs and play them for a separate audition. A few weeks later, she had the entire book learned and re-auditioned for solo work. She knew what to expect as she had already been doing the weddings for several years through the third-party contractor. Still, the audition went something like this:
Judge: The mothers are entering to “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” followed by the groom and minister to “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The bridesmaids are entering to “Canon in D,” with the flower girl/ring bearer to “It’s a Small World.” The bride will need a fanfare into “Bridal Chorus,” then the unity candle is “Candle on the Water.” “They will recess to “Electric Light Parade Medley.” Go!
The violinist had to remember the order, as well as play every song from memory with a smooth transition between every song through the bride’s entrance. It was all done on a solo violin, but it had to sound bigger than just the melody. She had to know the chords and progressions to enhance the music with double stops and improvisations. This process was repeated two more times with different song selections to ensure that the violinist really did know the required repertoire.
Again, she was immediately placed on the solo call list.
Needless to say, the aspiring violinist whose dream is to perform for Walt Disney World is me. It did not matter that there were no positions for violinists when I wanted to be there. I still worked for the company in various other jobs for ten years before the positions were created. I stayed in touch with the various managers and contractors who were hiring for the positions when they used outside contractors. When those positions became in-house, I immediately jumped at the chance to be one of the rare musicians who gets to perform often at Disney as a career. I did my research on roles and personnel, as well as other networking opportunities within the company. I learned of other auditions and positions through Local 389 of the Musicians’ Union (Disney has an agreement with the Musicians’ Union that all postings for positions are sent through the Local). The dream became reality for me, but not without a lot of hard work and preparation and PATIENCE.
So how do you prepare for an audition at Disney?
*Disclaimer: the following advice is solely my opinion from my own personal experiences and does not represent the views or opinions of the Walt Disney World Company (WDW) or its affiliates. Also, I am not offering this opinion as a representative of WDW or any other affiliation mentioned herein.
1. Go visit the theme parks and resorts and see what entertainment options are already there, then try to find a place where your act/talent would fit. Do you play the kazoo and the trash cans? Perhaps you would fit well near a character meet-and-greet area to entertain the children and families as they wait in line to meet their favorite Disney characters. Do you play electric guitar? You might work well as a sub or regular player for one of the many rock style groups on property. Do you have a unique ensemble or group? Your act might work well at Downtown Disney as a street artist or for one of the many corporate events or wedding receptions. When you arrive at the audition, tell the judges where YOU see your act fitting in on property. Sure, the judges may have another idea for you, but it’s up to you to paint the picture for them if they have no idea where to place your act.
2. Come to the audition prepared to entertain the judges as if they are your live audience – because they are! You should be dressed for the part you desire. Present the total package visually and audibly. If you want to be a live show performer, then prepare a small show/concert to showcase to the judges. Perform at the level and volume as if you are in the venue, in spite of the fact the audition room is very small. They need to know you can fill a space and draw in a crowd. Interact with the judges as you would a live audience.
3. Don’t be upset if the judges cut you off in your performance. It does not mean that you didn’t do well; it is usually based on time restrictions and they can tell the quality within a few moments.
4. Be prepared to sight-read. This is especially true if you are auditioning for an existing role (like an orchestra or part of a band). Many times, an on-call performer has to be just that: on call. This means that the performer has to be able to come sit in and read the part (oftentimes without a rehearsal), but make it look they have played it for years. Much of the music used on property is not standard anywhere except at Disney. The Candlelight Orchestra has exclusive arrangements of familiar Christmas and holiday tunes, but they are by no means easy reading. If that’s what you want to audition for, then you need to be prepared by knowing the tunes in advance. You really need to view videos online and possibly purchase the CD to learn the parts before you come to the audition. It’s best if you have actually seen a live show to know what is truly expected as far as venue, space, working conditions, etc. If you are auditioning for one of the regular bands, they expect the music memorized. Try to request the song list or the parts in advance, if possible. They may or may not give them to you, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
5. Prepare to showcase your variety on one instrument. If you can do jazz, prepare a short jazz tune. If you can also do rock, prepare a short rock tune. If you can do romantic classical, prepare that, too. You only have a short window to show the judges what you can do. If you want to showcase different instruments, it is best to schedule them as separate auditions instead of cramming them all into one time slot. You will waste more time setting up and switching than is allowed. Focus on one or two per audition (i.e., keep them in a similar family of instruments; violin and viola at one audition, different keyed trumpets at one audition, upright and electric bass at one audition). Don’t try to do drums and trumpet and piano at the same audition, as they are not all in the same family. Too many instruments at once can be confusing to the judges. EXCEPTION: If you can sing while playing, practice that and showcase that at the audition.
6. Know the Disney music catalogue. This is the Walt Disney World Resort; the guests want to hear Disney tunes. Go buy a Disney fake book; watch the Disney movies; go to Disney.com and see what favorite Disney tunes are being requested or downloaded. Become familiar with the melodies and chord progressions. It doesn’t matter what the instrument; know how to play “When You Wish Upon a Star” before even considering an audition. Once there, be prepared to take requests. The atmosphere in the parks and resorts is that the entertainers are accessible to the guests. Interaction is encouraged while performing and between performances. This atmosphere encourages the guests to request their favorite tunes, and you should try to honour their requests as the entertainers.
7. Join the Central Florida Musicians’ Association. Audition notices for Walt Disney World are sent through Local 389, and the role and open-call auditions may be scheduled through the Local’s offices. For more information, please visit http://afm389.org. There are often times artists want certain roles, but did not know that there were specific auditions for those roles that were already cast because they missed the notices by not being a member.
8. Talk with other Disney musicians. Learn from them. Ask questions. Do some research.
9. Bring a headshot and a resume to your audition. Many of the musician roles are visual as well as audible. Remember that Disney is looking to “cast” you into a role they have created, and need you to look the part. This is why they have a “Casting Center” and employees are called “Cast Members.” Many musicians have the resume, but not the headshot. You need both in the professional world, and please remember your headshot should not be more than a year or two old. It needs to represent your current physical appearance, not ten years ago when you had a different hair color.
10. Learn about the “Disney Look” and come to the audition representing it. Smile!!!! It’s the happiest place on earth, and the musicians should look like they are having fun! If you have tattoos, they need to be covered. If you have multiple piercings, they need to be hidden or removed. If you have facial hair, make sure it is neatly groomed. You can find out more information online about what is expected for appearance. Even as a rock musician, there are standards by which all Cast Members must abide. You don’t have to cut your hair just yet, but remember to keep a neat appearance for the audition.
There are probably many more topics of specific advice that I can cover, but the consistent theme is DO YOUR RESEARCH! This would apply to any role you desire, regardless if it is at Disney or another location. You have to do the legwork and make the phone calls necessary. Employers are not going to call you out of the blue just because you play violin. There usually are not talent scouts at your high school or university wanting you to join professional orchestras or other professional paid positions. If there are scouts, then they usually won’t hire you without an audition. You have to seek them out, apply and audition. And you have to be prepared as best as you possibly can before that audition. Some orchestras/companies only allow you to audition once, and you have to give it your best. Don’t waste their time or yours with mediocrity. Disney’s reputation is about being the best in the entertainment industry, and that’s what they expect in their musicians, too. Once you are hired, always remember why you chose to be there in the first place and let that enthusiasm show in every performance!