Cruel and Unusual- It’s time to change the audition system

 

Give me success or take this desire away from me. One of the two.”

There is an article from Boston Magazine currently making the rounds of various musician friends’ and colleagues’ Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Called simply “The Audition” it follows the journey of one percussionist as he prepares for and takes the audition for a position in the Boston Symphony.

There’s nothing really new in this harrowing and heartbreaking story for someone like me- I’ve spent too many years in and around conservatories and orchestras watching friend after friend go through this process to be shocked by anything in it. Thankfully, though, it is a humane piece of writing that I think gives a pretty good window into the huge toll the modern American audition process takes on musicians. It goes into quite a bit of detail about just how hard candidates work to prepare for an audition at a major orchestra, the sacrifices they make and the impact the system has on those involved.

And so, with this article as exhibit A, case study one million and one, I’m going to hop on my Vftp soap box and publicly call for an end to the system. It is a life-ruining, soul-destroying monstrosity. In any other field, it would qualify as torture. It is a dehumanizing and damaging process that extracts an untellable toll in human suffering on musicians across the country. Far from being the perfect system for choosing an orchestra, I would say it’s closer to being the perfect system for driving people out of the field, for destroying their self-confidence and for absolutely eviscerating their love of music.

Isn’t it time the AFofM stood up and said that this is no way to treat our union brothers and sisters? Isn’t it time that orchestras said we want no part of such a hurtful and wasteful system?

The Current System

1-     The application. Send  a CV

2-     The tape round. More and more orchestras are using a tape round to limit the numbers of candidates they have to hear. In the case of the BSO percussion job, applicants had to submit an uninterrupted and unedited video of themselves playing a series of excerpts.

3-     The first round. Generally held behind a screen. A huge number of well-trained musicians play for a few minutes then most are sent home.

4-     The second round. Generally held behind a screen. A much smaller number of players repeat the  process. All be a handful are sent home.

5-     The finals. Varies from one orchestra to the next whether or not the candidates play behind a screen. The process often becomes more intense and less formal as the committee tries to choose between the final candidates

The case for the current system

1-     It’s fair. By making everyone play behind a screen, it’s only the playing, not the gender, pedigree or skin color, being judged.

2-     It forces players to push themselves to a level of achievement far beyond what they learned in conservatory. It’s an absolute focus on excellence and perfection.

3-     It gives the best candidate the best chance to win the audition, just as the best Olympic athlete has the best chance of winning their event.

The case against the current system

1-     It’s not that fair after all. Screen or no screen, there are plenty of examples of people in major orchestras who certainly had a hand getting there. Maybe they studied with a principal, or are related to the concertmaster? Maybe they studied at the local conservatory? Any system can be gamed and manipulated. A supposedly fool-proof system like the screened audition process just makes it easier for people who do game the system to get away with it because the existence of the system gives those abuse it the perfect defense. “Preferential treatment for my mistress? Impossible! It was a screened audition- I had no idea it was her! There was simply no way I could have helped her advance.”

2-     It actually constricts the musical development of aspiring orchestra musicians. By driving people to work towards an inhuman level of technical perfection, expecting them to practice the purely instrumental challenges of a tiny number of orchestral excerpts for countless thousands of hours, you make it impossible for them to develop their knowledge of the repertoire and their awareness of playing styles and historical context to anything like the same level.

3-     It identifies the people who are best at playing an audition, but not always those who are the best at playing in orchestras.

Thoughts-

One of the subplots of the Boston Magazine piece involved the story of Lee Vinson, who had won the BSO percussion job several years earlier but was denied tenure after three years. Mr. Vinson won the job- he clearly had what it took to succeed in a screened audition process, and yet, just three years later, in spite of his best efforts, he was out of a job:

““In the beginning, I was a deer in the headlights,” Vinson says. He was stung by some of the criticism directed at his playing. He tried to block it from his mind, but found it difficult. “Then the performance anxiety comes back because these people aren’t telling me what they think,” he says. “They just want to glare at you. I mean, really, you just want to turn around and scowl at me and that’s ­supposed to help fix this whole thing?”

“At the end of Vinson’s first year with the BSO, he fell one vote shy of earning tenure, so he was put on another year of probation. He started asking his colleagues how to “fix” his playing, but one person would tell him to try one thing and another would suggest he try something else entirely.”

It’s dangerous and unfair to speculate about a situation one hasn’t observed in person, but to me, the case of Mr Vinson seems like a case study in how the screened audition process often fails even those who survive it. Mr. Vinson must have played astoundingly well in his audition to have won the job- his technical skills on a huge variety of instruments must have been literally off the charts, and yet, in the day-to-day world of playing in a busy orchestra, he found himself unsure and insecure.

This comes back to my second point above. One would assume that anyone who wins a major job would have to be a great musician as well as a great instrumentalist, but it’s simply not always true, and the fault is not with the individual player, it’s with the system. Again, I never heard Mr Vinson nor had the opportunity to hear him play, but we all struggle from time to time in professional situations- there are those times when you know what you want or need to do musically, but your skills, preparation or concentration let you down, and there are those times when you don’t know what you want or need to do musically. The description of Mr. Vinson’s situation sounds like the latter situation (especially after the first tenure vote impacted on his confidence)- he needed guidance in “knowing what to do,” rather than focusing on being able to “do what he knew he needed to.” It is a far more dangerous place to be in.

The time he spent with the BSO after being told he’d lost his job with the orchestra was “the worst year ever,” he continues. “I was like a fetus on the couch. Balled up bawling for weeks on end.”

The modern American audition system doesn’t allow a lot of room for individuals to develop a fully rounded artistic personality in the key years between leaving school and winning a job or missing that window. To the extent that it doesn’t, it fails them and the institutions. Mr Vinson’s predecessor at the BSO, Frank Epstein, said much the same thing:

“Some of that may simply be professional pride, but some of it may reflect his belief that younger musicians are moving the music in new directions. Epstein says the current audition process rewards a different kind of player [emphasis added]. There used to be at least a little room for flair while auditioning, he says. Back when he went before the judges, he got creative and performed a piece he’d composed for bass drum and cymbals.

“These days, he says, “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players. Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”

Let me come back to the metaphor of an Olympic competition. To compare winning an audition for a section violin to winning the 100 meters is apt in all the wrong ways. Looking for the violinist who can sprint up and down the fiddle faster than anyone else may be an interesting exercise, but what you want in an orchestra is someone

  • Who can win gold for sprinting up and down the fiddle at exactly the same speed as the other 15 players in the section, in the same part of the bow, at the same dynamic.
  • Who can hear and match what their colleagues are doing.
  • Who can balance their contribution to the volume of their section with the dynamic  levels of the other sections of the orchestra
  • Who can anticipate what their colleagues are going to do.
  • Who can sight read new works with energy and insight.
  • Who can follow a conductor.
  •  Who can follow a soloist.
  • Who can inspire the people around them.

It’s not that there aren’t people in orchestra who can do all those things, of course there are, but with so much at stake, shouldn’t people be selected, at least in part, on their ability to do them? The system also doesn’t serve people well who survive the tenure process. The upshot of the screened audition system is that once someone wins a job, in order to bring their skills in all of these areas up to the same level as their audition chops, an orchestral musician spends their first five or so years learning the repertoire, learning the job, learning how to play in ensemble at the highest level. Perversely, for many friends and colleagues, just about the time they have become a consummate orchestral musician, the window seems to close on them ever winning another job.

Imagine if the NBA were to adopt a similarly irrelevant and restrictive system? Imagine if you were an NBA general manager, and you had to choose your team without seeing any of the prospects actually play basketball. Instead, imagine your prospects could only demonstrate their fitness to play at the highest level by enduring a number of abstract skill tests with no room for error. Perhaps they might have to make 20 different shots 20 times in a row each. Anyone who can’t, doesn’t get to play in the NBA. Then, to make it even more absurd, nobody from the team can actually watch the player take those shots- you can’t see how they play, how they prepare for each shot. You only know if they made the shot.

So, the current system doesn’t serve those who can get through it, like Mr. Vinson. One can get through the audition then struggle in the gig.

Likewise, some of the very best orchestral musicians I know don’t excel in auditions for one reason or another. I have friends who are astounding instrumentalists, consummate artists and complete musicians who might just have a phobia about one shift in Don Juan, which they’ve never missed in concert, that keeps them from ever knowing the security of a permanent position. That’s crazy. I’ve known players who’ve made the finals again and again for jobs, who would have been one of the brightest stars in any orchestra they might have joined, who’ve never won a permanent position. This is deeply unfair to them, and to the organizations that miss out on their talents.

Finally, while the screen is supposedly there to protect the candidate, I think more often than not, it protects the members of the committee. I think that if someone has prepared for years to audition for an orchestra, they should be able to see the faces of the people who hold their destiny in their hands. There ought to be maximum accountability on all sides.

Having lived in the UK for most of the last 10 years now, I can confidently say that the system here is better and more humane. It achieves more consistently high results from the player pool, and makes better use of resources. While the specifics of how the system work vary from orchestra to orchestra, essentially the audition here is just the first step in a process. The purpose of the audition is not to pick a winner of a high-paying job for life, but to identify those candidate who are capable of playing well enough to do the job in question. Successful candidates are then offered a “trial,” which may last anywhere from one gig to a few years. There may be more than one set of auditions for the job, and the trial process goes on until the orchestra, both players and conductor, are convinced they’ve found the right person for the job.

It is in every way a fairer and saner system, for all its flaws.

But don’t listen to me. I knew early on that the orchestra audition circuit was not for me, and I also understand that defenders of the current system often say that only those people who have succeeded in a national audition fully understand the benefits of the system. So don’t take it from me.

I leave you instead with a quote from a fried of mine who retired as section principal from one of the world’s greatest orchestras about ten years ago:

“It was the auditions that did me in,” he said, “I just couldn’t sit there anymore and break the hearts and destroy the dreams of so many people who played better than I did, when I knew the system wasn’t giving them a chance to show what they were really capable of.”

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What do you think? Have you taken orchestra auditions? Was your experience anything like that described in the Boston Mag piece? Perhaps your partner or relative has been through the audition circuit and you’ve seen how it affects them? Do you think the system really works or do we need a change?

Please share your thoughts!!!

_______________________________________

 

Part II with some follow-up thoughts is here, but read the comments to this post first.

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65 comments on “Cruel and Unusual- It’s time to change the audition system”

  1. Kenneth Woods

    @TR

    I’m not militantly anti-screen- I do think it has its place and can help to keep the process more open to candidates of all backgrounds, builds, ages and colors. On the other hand, I don’t think it is by any means a guarantee of fairness. Use it for one round somewhere in the process, but otherwise, I think the cause of fairness is better served through more transparency.

  2. ECP

    I loved all of this article, except for the arguments against screened auditions.

    While it would be marvelous if we were an unbiased enough world not to have screened auditions, that is simply not the case. Orchestras are still mainly run by white males, and they have demonstrated that they will overwhelmingly choose white males to fill orchestra roles. It was not terribly long ago a certain European orchestra got in a lot of hot water for its egregious mistreatment of women–one woman in particular–and we need to do everything we can to protect women and people of color in this process.

    It’s easy to forget these biases exist when you are a white male. I am one and it has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that many of my white, male colleagues are sexist, racist bastards.

    The screened audition doesn’t “protect” the judges, giving them plausible deniability; it protects the players from the vagaries of human prejudice.

  3. JMH

    While I agree with many of the arguments you make here, I must point out that the very fact that the first example you have of how someone can game the system is to be someone’s “mistress” is EXACTLY the reason we need screens in auditions. As a young woman who plays a very male dominated instrument, every time I win any job I must field rumors and worse from individuals who believe I received the job on a basis of my looks instead of my playing. As a result, I greatly appreciate the screen, the carpet and any other form of anonymity that I can point at to show it was my playing that won me the position. I think it is easy to forget these things still happen if you don’t encounter them on a daily basis.

  4. Boris

    Yes Vienna Phil also has screened auditions until the final round same as America. It’s at that point or the tenur decision that they reject all the women and foreigners. So the screen is no help there.

    In the UK you don’t have screens and yet in many orchestras there is gender parity. Everyone just accepts women play as well as men.

    So the main problem is the sexism in the orchestras, not the audition process. Screens dont help that much.

  5. Ib

    It’s not the sexism that is the problem, its the generalization and prejudice of someone that is different. As a women you are still a minority in orchestras, so many people will then point out exactly that (because its new and unusual – and then scary!). But imagine if you come with your own style of playing, your sound, etc. If you then like avant garde music as well, you are just too far out. If you then might get the job, everyone would think you are different, and that’s why they won’t talk to you. This applies to any conservative or institutional settings…

  6. Soprano

    Blah, blah, blah. The best find a way to perform, I’ve found. Try being a soprano for a while; see how difficult auditions can really be.

  7. Tom Scheurich

    There is no way for this process to not be hell. The reason is not the cruelty of this specific system- the reason is that too many tens of thousands of people train themselves to scary levels of consistency playing music on their particular flavor of bizarrely sculpted piece of wood or metal. There are tens of thousands of them, there is economic room for only hundreds and decreasing. The only solution is for talented young people to have courageous mentors who tell them that just because they are potentially talented enough to be professional performers doesn’t mean they should go for it. If they can picture themselves satisfied in any other career, music teacher, music business, instrument manufacture and repair, other art forms, business, or engineering, they shouldn’t try because it is a Noah-level-flooded job market. The only reason to enter this insane ratrace is because you absolutely cannot stand the thought of being anything else but an orchestra musician. In which case you are kind of a closed minded person and I’m glad I’m not you.

  8. Caris Garrett

    Music is like life, we have our strengths and our weaknesses. If we find we are “competing” for the same goal, we are kidding ourselves. If we are like a sportsperson, it’s because we know that competition exists only on the outside – with the crows who sit up on the fence and don’t really have any involvement or any deep connection. It’s a superficial world if you let it be like that. So take heart and lots of it, because it takes guts to do what you do. So many people wish they had the guts to be so “out there”.

  9. David Wetherill

    Auditions have changed because times have changed. In the “good old days,” one could arrange to play for a conductor, and if he approved, you had a job. Travel difficulties made it difficult to get a position in another city, and, perhaps most important, cronyism was the rule of the day. It was common practice for friends, family, students, etc. to get jobs.
    It is worth remembering that in major cities, the symphony or opera was not the best way to make a living in the music business. Commercial work was where real money could be made. There were no auditions for that work; it was about who you knew.
    The human element corrupts auditions. Blind auditions removes some of that element, but if people are determined, they can undermine the process by block voting (usually to reject), or by individuals expressing opinions as to the acceptability of one candidate or another.
    At least in the US, fair, impartial auditions behind a screen have given us women in principal chairs on instruments long considered the private domain of men, particularly in the brass, and in the woodwinds and strings as well.
    Trial periods are always a good idea. I don’t know about following the conductor, though. If there is a delay, the musicians are following each other, a collective guess as it were; most conductors seem to be blissfully unaware of this fact.
    Blind auditions are cold, hard, ugly facts of life. I would love to hear of a better way that ensures fairness for everyone.

  10. Pingback: Overcrowding | Miranda Wilson

  11. Wendy

    Musicianship is what matters-forget technically “perfectionistic” robots–the flair, the style, the innate true musicianship is lacking in the states where money trumps everything, and folks are easily impressed by the unimpressive.

  12. Betsy

    The orchestral audition process in america is a joke/laughing stock–they are looking for machinistic robots who blast out their ideal of “perfection.” Rather than true artistry. Listen to old recordings and listen the sterile, dry, machinistic “music” currently. sad. Peace out my bassoonists

  13. Michael

    Auditions are a bear and can be unjust. I’ve succeeded at many and failed completely at many more. I have found that, even though the system is harsh, preparing for auditions CORRECTLY keeps my skills sharp and helps me to continue to learn. Once you accept that the audition process in the US “is what it is” you can treat it more as business and less personally. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can take only the auditions I want to, but I still strive to make my way up the food chain in order to advance the level of my play and to keep the performance level at my current job better than the day I won it.

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