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. Jakub B.

    Ken, I agree wholeheartedly. Then, I have no idea about US, nor UK, but in the place where I happen to live – there is similarly discriminating and ravaging auditioning process, but on the conservatory level (especially when auditioning composers or conductors). So you can’t even begin to _learn_ serious music if you are unable ace series of abstract skills tests that tells commitee absolutely nothing about who are you, as a musician, or what is your potential for growth. But the saddest part is that often they don’t even care. And it goes an goes, for a decades with a large chunk of people either comfortable with a process that would be petitioned/sued against if applied in another field, or simply ignoring disastrous results it provides to our genre, because “it’s traditional, it can’t be done the other way”. Generally, I’ve came to believe that this is a part of whole “death of classical music” thing that everyone is raving about these days. Good thing it’s happening in 21st cent., otherwise we might have really collapsed. ;-)

  2. Bones

    Ken, thanks so much for this article. It is a perfect response to “The Audition.” If you had not discussed it in your article, I would have added here that the “screen” does indeed protect the committee members far more than it does the person auditioning. I would also like to add that, while you said that “it’s simply not always true” that the best musician wins the audition, I think that it’s more accurate-here in the US of the 21st century–that “more often than not the best musicians are not winning the auditions.” Now, many of those audition winners grow in their positions to become great musicians, but a lot of them never grow beyond their “audition jock” position. If have heard this in younger players more and more over the 30 years I have been in the business.

    Again, thank you for saying that the US audition is not simply broken; it’s evil. The excuse of “it’s the best system we have” is no longer acceptable. It’s time for a change.

  3. Scott Hartman

    I completely disagree with most of this article. I’d call it wishful thinking or just the frustration of working in our line of business.

    I don’t see how you can have fair auditions by asking hundreds of applicants to sit in with the orchestra. Even if it were possible, every piece will be different. Playing principal on Beethoven #1 and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is very different than playing Brandenburg #1 and Tchaik 5.

    The reality of our lives is that we can practice and practice and practice and if the committee doesn’t like your playing then you are not getting a job.

    The reason there are screens is to make it fairer than it used to be without them. How can it be fair when people on the committee can see who’s auditioning?

    You can always game the system but no system is immune from cheating.

    I hate auditions from both sides, listening and playing but we have to do make those judgments and we have to play to see if people want us to get the spot.

    Players don’t get into the NBA because they can jump or even shoot. They get there because they have a track record of games played in public. They go to workouts and yes, they get measured, timed, analyzed but if you don’t have some sort of college or high school experience they can check you probably won’t get in the door.

    If you are going to get paid $100,000 or more to be a musician you can’t get that job in order to learn it. You’ll adjust to the players around you and maybe adjust your sound and your style but if it takes you 5 years of course you are not going to get tenure. And while I have sympathy for those who audition and don’t win, or win and don’t get tenure, that’s part of the game.

  4. Erik K

    First off, I think you may have contributed to the destruction of Boston Magazine’s servers, because I can’t make my way through the article no matter how hard I try. You’ve officially hit the big-time: being so widely known yourself as to crash the servers of someone else! ;-)

    Secondly, since unofficially “quitting” music to focus on whatever the hell it is I’m focusing on, I can say with no hesitation that the entire system was a key contributor to my peace with the decision. When I took auditions in my early days, I would completely freak out because I thought one missed note was the end (and it sometimes was) – this was a problem for me because I always felt like my greatest strengths lied outside the realm of technical execution. Mercifully, I reached a point where I completely stopped giving a shit what the committee thought and played for myself. I’ve won an auditon here and there, but by far the greatest audition I ever played didn’t result in me even advancing past the first round. But I played what I felt was a pretty great first page of the Strauss Concerto no. 1, a pretty kick ass Shostakovich 5 excerpt, and a Brahms 3 solo that I still feel good about to this day because I didn’t completely ruin the phrasing like literally every professional I’ve ever heard by taking a breath in the middle of the fucking crescendo. I chipped the last note of the lick because I was running on empty air, but it was totally fucking worth it. No joke, I remain proud of my performance that day, even though I left with my hat in my hand.

    The whole system is insane, but it sure prepares you for other aspects of human life, and certainly other jobs. People that work for me now are freaked out by 90-day probation periods, and all I can think is “90 days? You should try 5 minutes.”

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Dear Scott

    Thanks for your comment.

    It’s interesting- you may disagree with most of my article, but I actually agree with much of what you say. For instance, you say: “Players don’t get into the NBA because they can jump or even shoot. They get there because they have a track record of games played in public. They go to workouts and yes, they get measured, timed, analyzed but if you don’t have some sort of college or high school experience they can check you probably won’t get in the door.”

    I completely agree- this is exactly what the screened audition process overlooks. When all you hear is a few excerpts behind a screen, you don’t, to use the hoops analogy, know how many points or rebounds or assists they averaged in college. You don’t know if their team’s winning percentage increased with them on the floor. I think if you want to know what kind of basketball player you’re hiring, you need to see them play in a game, you need to see them in a team situation. Same in an orchestra

    I also agree with you when you say “If you are going to get paid $100,000 or more to be a musician you can’t get that job in order to learn it. You’ll adjust to the players around you and maybe adjust your sound and your style but if it takes you 5 years of course you are not going to get tenure.”

    This is exactly why the screened audition doesn’t work. All an audition tests is whether you can play and audition without making mistakes. On leaving music school, this is what most would-be orchestral musicians work on- winning auditions. Those that work hardest on winning auditions often haven’t developed the skills you rightly say they shouldn’t learn on the job. Once hired, they either fail and leave, learn on the job or squeak through tenure and become a $100k/yr passenger for life.

    I do disagree with you when you say “The reason there are screens is to make it fairer than it used to be without them. How can it be fair when people on the committee can see who’s auditioning?”

    It has to be fair because it’s a public business. If the committee can’t hide behind the screen, they have to be responsible for their decisions, and we all know how hotly discussed auditions are in the field.

    Finally, I think you slightly misunderstand how the British model works when you say “I don’t see how you can have fair auditions by asking hundreds of applicants to sit in with the orchestra. Even if it were possible, every piece will be different. Playing principal on Beethoven #1 and Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is very different than playing Brandenburg #1 and Tchaik 5.” There is an audition, so there is no question of hundreds of people sitting in the orchestra. Sometimes it’s a handful who get a trial, sometimes it can be as many as 20 over several years, but it gives everyone who can play at the right level a chance to show what they can contribute, and everyone in the orchestra a vote on who they play with. It’s still full of frustration and heartache, but is better.

    And, as it happens, I have no axe to grind- all my playing work is as a chamber musician. I haven’t taken an audition for an orchestra in quite a while, and don’t plan to again. Certainly, as a conductor, I’d much prefer to see how someone plays in the band before I give them a job. To me, hiring someone to play second horn when you’ve never heard them in the section is insanity….

    Thanks again for the comment! Lots of common ground and good discussion to build on.

    Ken

  6. Pingback: Orchestra auditions or Displaying a lifetime’s worth of dedication in the time it takes for a successful truck stop sexual encounter « Everything But The Music

  7. Elaine Fine

    I grew up with the Boston Symphony, and I had the wonderful opportunity to hear them weekly (and in the summers much more than weekly) when they were at would I would consider their “peak” from the 1960s through the early 1980s. They suffered through the Ozawa years, but they always sounded great when they had guest conductors, and always managed to do their best under Ozawa.

    I knew all the musicians, and I can tell you that they were a wonderful collection of people who all had imperfections of one sort or another. They were all complicated human beings, and many had deeply idiosyncratic ways of playing. There were people in the orchestra who I heard play in chamber music situations, and I found them disappointing, to say the least. Somehow, when it came to doing their real jobs, however, they became part of a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

    Now the orchestra seems to be made of completely crackerjack players, but it just doesn’t sound like it used to.

    I feel for this percussionist. He had a completely different group voting for his tenure from the people the BSO that I remember.

  8. JM

    I have taken myself off of the full-time audition treadmill for many of these reasons. I also have begun to transition into a full-time career that is not in music because I can’t stand to freelance any longer in the way that I used to, along the lines of what the percussionist in the article is doing. I fear that my friends and colleagues in the music business think that I’ve sold out, or that I can’t play up to the level of those who are doing it full-time. Frankly, I’m playing better and I’m playing smarter by focusing on what makes me passionate about performing and about learning and practicing my craft. When I was hustling myself from gig to gig to teaching gig to gig again, I was exhausted and not maturing as a musician.

    I can’t be note-perfect in an audition without the use of beta-blocker drugs. Pills take the heart out of my playing. I work as a chamber musician and in small regional orchestras, and it is what works for me. I still wonder “what if” from time to time; I made some decisions based on a former partner’s needs that took me out of the audition mode on the early side. It still wasn’t enough for that person, and the subsequent divorce shattered my personal and professional life for several prime job-seeking years afterwards.

    I have no regrets in general. I feel that I would have a chance at this life if the audition system changed; I’m a good colleague and I work hard. I just don’t work hard in the way that the system measures.

  9. MeredithMoore

    As an American Ex-Pat horn player now working in the UK, reading the Boston article summed up why I don’t want to pursue an orchestral career in the USA and why I prefer the UK system so much more. I completely agree with your article, the trial system/un-screened audition process has allowed me to get my foot in the door professionally in the UK since moving here a few years ago. I’ve had 4 trials in the UK and usually get something out of a good auditon (extra list or extra work if no trial). In comparison I have done a couple of USA auditons and only ever advanced to the second round once. Although I haven’t won a full time job yet, it’s still allowed me to have a full time freelance career in the UK and I’ve had really positive experiences with most of my trials and still gained a lot of valueable playing experience. The UK system certainly has its flaws and there is still tons of drama but the audition process for me is less about”am I good enough?” and more about “is this the job that’s right for ME?” A much healthier way of surviving the music business!

    And another positive of the trial system: even if you are the runner up for the job, you still don’t go home empty handed: you get a nice pay check for all your trial work!

  10. Ben Knowles

    I agree with lots of what is said here. Especially in your comment in reply to Scott’s message – without hearing the player play in a section, you can never have any idea how the player plays – the most frustrating thing for me when playing in or listening to an orchestra, at any level, is when they have plenty of players that are phenomenal soloists but awful orchestral musicians that don’t listen to what’s going on around them, aren’t aware of what other instruments are playing or play their interpretation of the piece without looking at the conductor. So for those reasons I agree that the current audition system doesn’t work. I must admit to some personal angle on this as I consider myself a better orchestral player than soloist, which is something I would need to address if I was to ever stand a chance of auditioning!

    It’s also interesting what you say about the manipulation that is possible. I have seen it very recently in the conducting world – someone who is talented but no more so than that person’s contemporaries making vast strides in the professional world. The person has also pretty much grown up knowing the big names of the industry. I say this being fully aware that I run the risk of being accused of being cynical or bitter or something like that but already I have encountered too many occasions (both in music and even more so out of music) of people succeeding and climbing ladders based on who they know rather than what they know/can do.

    Excellent article as ever though.

  11. TR

    The problem with auditions is that they are only as good as the committee judging them. This does not necessarily mean the system is flawed. If the committee is listening for technique and accuracy, they will get a technical and accurate player. The unfortunate thing is that there are people who consider sitting on an audition committee a chore and don’t take it seriously. For example.people who vote “no” to every candidate in prelims because there are candidates pre-advanced, or people who admittedly don’t know anything about the instrument or the audition rep they’re listening to. But this doesn’t mean the system itself is flawed.

    The other problem is the insane amount of power the music director has in hiring decisions. We are talking about someone who, in a 52 week orchestra, spends only 10-15 weeks with the group. Yet in many places this person has the final say in who is hired. And in many other groups, the music director has multiple votes so that the only way he can be overruled is if every other member of the committee unanimously chooses another candidate. Why are we allowing someone who, in this day and age, spends so little time with these groups have so much power?

  12. Mike Tetreault

    Ken,

    Thank you for your article. As the subject of the Boston Magazine article I have a few thoughts about your perspective on the audition process in the UK.

    The article mentioned I studied in the UK, which I did for three years. During that time I was fortunate to be offered trial positions after three separate successful auditions- Principal Timpani of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, Principal Timpani of the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin and Assistant Timpani/Percussion with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Of the three auditions only the RTE orchestra audition was screened and resembled our ‘normal’ US audition. For the other two auditions the committee was very close to me. We chatted. They asked about my background. Schooling. What it was like living in the UK etc. The auditions were all approx 20 min long. They conducted me as I played things sometimes, sometimes I played on my own. All around it was a very pleasant experience. I found out I had been offered trial positions shortly afterwards (5-7 business days by phone call from the person ell manager as well as a formal written letter). We arranged when I could come and perform with the orchestra. They would pay me a regular member salary for the work I did. In a few instances there were tours involved. I quickly made friends in each of the groups and found the whole process, while nerve wracking, more complete somehow. There was space. You could take chances. I had a chance to develop some wonderful relationships and receive some great feedback. On the surface they were far more pleasant and enjoyable than your normal ‘American’ audition.

    HOWEVER

    There were some major drawbacks. Allow me to explain.
    1. FAR fewer people had the opportunity to audition. While it is becoming more difficult to get an audition for less experienced players in the US, in general, a US orchestra is willing to hear FAR more candidates. I was fortunate to get auditions for all the positions I applied for in the UK, but many of my similarly talented friends and colleagues were not. Part of this is due to the process itself. In the UK they want to hear more music, so it stands to reason that they will have to hear fewer people withon the time an audition can spare. A few weeks ago in Chicago they heard 100 applicants ranging from total amateurs to major members of big five orchestras in the first round. We played for 4 minutes each.

    2. The trial process. After a successful audition in the UK they may invite 2-10 (or more) candidates to trial over an extended period of time, each competing against each other. At none of my trials was I ever given any indication when they might conclude. For example, in the case of the Halle, the time from audition to finding out I had not received the position was 1.5 YEARS. Royal Scottish National Orchestra 1 year and 9 months and RTE just over 2 years. At one point I went from Manchester to Glasgow to Dublin in consecutive weeks for trial weeks, then didn’t hear again from each of them for 3 months. In the US, you either win the job on the day or not. Yes there is a trial/probationary period, but you are the only one on trial rather than competing against 2-10 other trialists.

    3. Human factor- the trials in the UK not only give the orchestra ample time to assess your musicianship but also your personality. This on the surface makes sense. It is customary in most UK orchestras to head to the pub for a post concert pint (or three). As a trialist there where unwritten rules regarding attendance (mandatory) as well as stamina. For instance, after one difficult concert where I was playing timpani, we customarily went to the pub. One drink turned into 4, then 6. I wanted to go back and rest up for the next mornings live broadcast, and the principal percussionist told me point blank (whilst very drunk ), ‘you leave this bar now, your chances at this job are over. By the way, your the trialist, you are picking up the tab.’ the tab was 250 pounds sterling, slightly less than my performance fee for two days. This is an extreme case, but similar, more subtle pressures existed in each of my trial situations.

    There is much more that could be said in the subject, but having gone thru both sytems in all the different stages, I prefer the American way. It is a hard, brutal way to get a job, but in my opinion more fair and absolutely more opportunistic, particularly for a younger player. We are after all the land if the free.

    There is no easy answer however. In the end, if you play an objectively flawless and subjectively compelling audition in the US you will find success. The challenge of vourse is doing so. In the case of screens, they absolutely have contributed to equal opportunity ( particularly for women/minorities) and serve a useful purpose, whilst certainly being flawed and absolutely protecting the committee more than the applicant.

    In the UK, while the audition itself is more humane, and the trial process can actually be enjoyable, there is far more out of your control, the pressures can be just as great, and frankly more sinister.

    I think the ideal would be an amalgamation of the two which more and more groups on both sides of the pond are embracing.

    In the end, as a musician, the challenge is not to play exceptionally, but to be an exceptional person, for ‘out of the overflow of the heart the mouth (or I believe ‘instrument’) speaks.’

    It is tough, but more often than not great people who play exceptionally win jobs. At least, that is what I choose to believe.

  13. Mike Tetreault

    Ps apologies for typos. Should have waited to get home and type on computer, but my mind is pretty engaged with the whole thing right now and my iPhone is here. Should have checked more carefully…

  14. Mike Tetreault

    If my previous comments find a place here than this final one will make sense, otherwise do feel free to delete away.

    One final note: leaving the UK and resettling in the US was by far the hardest time of my life. Were it possible to remain in the UK my wife and I would never have left. This article is part of my coping process having left a place I loved (UK) and being forced to ‘make it’ here in the US. It is difficult, however, I think it is in fact a better (if more sterile and frustrating) process over in the US. Of course, had you asked me this 7 years ago when living in London and on 3 trials, my answer may have been different.

  15. Kenneth Woods

    I’ve got a rather epic travel today, and there are so many interesting and helpful comments to respond to. It may be Sunday before I can respond in detail, but in digest form let me just say a few quick things-

    1- Bones’ comment is very interesting, as defenders of the system often say that the only people who resent it are those in the early stages of their careers who can’t break through into the business. Note, Bones has been in the field for 30 years- this is not some disappointed kid being petulant because he didn’t get to walk out of NEC and straight into the BSO. I agree with just about everything he says.

    2- Elaine points to an erosion in our awareness of our duty of care for our colleagues. I see this a lot in the industry- a general lack of concern and respect for people not in one’s own scene. All orchestras need to do better, be more respectful of their colleagues and more sensitive to the demands the hiring process puts on others.

    3- In addition to Erik’s comment, please read his follow-up blog post here: http://klacknermusic.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/orchestra-auditions-or-displaying-a-lifetimes-worth-of-dedication-in-the-time-it-takes-for-a-successful-truck-stop-sexual-encounter/ Erik is a very fine horn player and a supremely knowledgeable musician- he can play for me anywhere, which just goes to show how crazy this business is.

    4- Likewise, I’ve had the very great privilege of conducting JM in concert- a tremendous artist, virtuoso and a great colleague. Any orchestra that misses out on a talent like that because the current system discourages them is, well, missing out.

    5- Thanks to Mike Tretreault for joining the discussion! Mike, I imagine you’ve had quite a surreal couple of days. With three trials here in the UK and his success in the US, Mike is obviously a monster player who can adapt his playing style to suit different orchestral cultures. Mike- I have total respect for your willingness to share your story in the Boston Mag article. You’ve done something really good for the industry.

    That has to be it for the moment. More soon!

    Ken

  16. Kenneth Woods

    Okay- one more thought before I leave for Kent and some lovely Dvorak and Tchaikovsky tomorrow.

    I want to make absolutely sure that nothing I say here is construed in any way as dismissing the huge sense of responsibility and professionalism with which the vast majority of committee members approach their work. Yes, there is corruption, but the vast majority of people on audition panels are all too aware of the pressures the candidates are under. It’s a credit to them the system works at all in spite of its obvious flaws.

  17. Kenneth Woods

    Finally- Erik’s piece leaps from my basketball analogy to the NFL. Would Jerry Rice have made it to the NFL based on combines alone? No. Think of all the Kurt Warner’s, Brett Favre’s, Joe Montana’s and Aron Rogers’s who would never have (or didn’t make ) make it through the NFL’s version of the screened audition. Any the NFL’s “screened audition” prototype quarterback? Ryan Leaf….

    Okay, and John Elway…

  18. William Barnewitz

    I have been hired by the current traditional audition process, non-traditional processes, and hired by fiat. I have also sat on uncountable audition committees. From both sides of the screen I can say that all of these systems work to some extent. The “traditional” screened audition often produces the best audition taker, but in most instances that is also the best all around player that day. Non-traditional auditions which have invitations, taped rounds, skipped rounds, and trial weeks can also produce wonderful results. Being hired by collegial recommendation or conductor fiat is likely to produce initial resentment in others, but also produces musicians that can easily fit in to a sound concept or a style comfortable to colleagues. Clearly there is merit (and flaw) in all kinds of procedural variation. What has not been mentioned is how many of those auditioning are simply unqualified for the job. By making auditions open to everyone, anyone can show up. This includes some of the most feral, unrefined playing one can imagine. The currently acceptable system would have much more time for discovering a great player if students were not encouraged to audition for the “experience,” and the frustratingly terrible were encouraged to try something else.This would save the committee’s time and the candidate’s money. Instead of purchasing an airline ticket and spending money on a hotel, cab and meals out, buy a good metronome and recording device, then go to the practice room to do the work that makes one ready to go to an audition to win. This one simple change would save on the wear and tear of a committee, thereby helping really qualified candidates get optimal ear time from the committee. I have never been on an audition committee where I said to myself or my colleagues, “Gee, we’ve heard 120 great candidates today, I wish we could take all of them.” At every audition with one hundred candidates, 10-20 are well prepared, 5-10 are good possible candidates and 1 or 2 are just right. The rest are making the process a misery for the committee and taking up time that could be devoted to listening significantly longer to the more qualified candidates. I have had so many request for audition comments from the incredulous and indignant player who just doesn’t understand how they didn’t get advanced only to discover, when I review my very detailed notes, myriad flaws that the candidate failed to address in the practice room. The right one sometimes does not get picked, but rarely does the committee dismiss someone who should not be dismissed.
    I would suggest that all musicians are allowed to and encouraged to record their auditions and listen back critically. Very likely, if one is honest, one will hear why they won or were dismissed. And take heart, if you are one of the ones who made the finals or semi-finals, keep at it, you are doing it right.

  19. TR

    One more point… This statement is completely wrong: “All an audition tests is whether you can play and audition without making mistakes.”

    I have made MAJOR, embarrassing mistakes in auditions, packed up expecting to be cut, only to have my number called. When I got comments from committee members, they said things like, “you had a great sound and played so musically the mistake didn’t matter”. But I’m sure there were people out drinking that night complaining about how they played perfectly and can’t believe I got through and they didn’t.

  20. LJ

    I am a violinist working in an ICSOM orchestra, and I agree that the hiring system is flawed. I don’t have a strong opinion about the screen- I can see both sides of that argument- however I do think that the audition needs to be more about how you play with others, and less about how you play by yourself, which is exactly what the current system showcases. How can we integrate ensemble playing in the existing process? I think it’s becoming more common for the MD to conduct candidates in the final rounds, which is definitely more useful than hearing someone play the 1st page of Don Juan by themselves. So that’s a good step towards hiring MUSICIANS, not AUDITIONERS, which is ultimately what every orchestra SHOULD want. Not saying that great auditioners cannot be great musicians- generally I’m sure they are actually, but how can we make “generally” into “always?”

    I think the audition rep. needs an overhaul, and that would also help make the hiring process more realistic, at least in the case of the violin excerpt list. I’ve played Tchaikovsky 1812 more times than Don Juan in my three years of being with a professional orchestra, so why not put the stuff that is GUARANTEED to be played during a season, and eliminate the stuff that is on a list simply because committees are too lazy to change it. Or more modern stuff, since every orchestra will definitely program contemporary music in their season. Or DEFINITELY include sight-reading (I’ve played about 20 auditions and never once have I sight-read, even though the list says, “sight-reading possible.”) Because I am SURE that every orchestral musician has sight-read at least once during their tenure. And a good sight-reader goes a long way in orchestra, wouldn’t you agree? Have more chamber music on the audition; isn’t playing in orchestra like playing in a huge chamber group? At least it should be. So have a quartet from the symphony on hand to play with a candidate, and play excerpts from a Brahms Symphony. That’s not perfectly realistic, but it’s more so than playing the opening of Brahms 2 (as a violinist) by yourself. What does that show? Good intonation and rhythm, but does that prove you can play with good intonation with 14 other people playing exactly in unison with you? How does playing it by yourself prove that you can adjust to whatever intonation the people around you are playing with?
    I also think it should be a rule that committees give comments to candidates after they play. It’s the LEAST they can do for candidates who have made a significant time, emotional, and financial commitment to the audition; why can’t the committee give 4-5 short sentences for why they did/did not advance? Is that really asking too much? If anyone can give me a good reason for not offering comments, please do share, because to me, it’s again a sign of laziness on the part of committees. What else are they doing behind that screen that they can’t jot down a few thoughts for each candidate?

    Finally, instead of just having philosophical discussions about the system, let’s DO something. Getting the conversation started is a great first step, so I applaud everyone who is conversing, but I also feel like this has been a conversation had for many years. So, how do we begin change? Well, I think a great first step would be to get one of the top 5 (or even a top 10 orchestra) to lead by example, and then hopefully more orchestras would feel more confident to follow. So, Cleveland? Boston? NY? Anyone out there willing to spear-head more than a discussion?

  21. paul morris

    This is a thoughtful response. I’m curious about the pros and cons of screening the players from the committees.

    Using the screens has helped create orchestras with more diversity in their players. We can point to a steady increase in the percentage of women as well as people of color. While the orchestra committee might truly believe that they are open to diversity, in practice it’s very difficult disconnect decision making from our biases.

    For instance, a player with disabilities–say a young Itzhak Perlman–might sound terrific yet the individuals on the committee might look at him and begin to think about mobility issues, their own past encounters with disabilities, etc. What about a player who is unattractive in some way?

    Orchestras tend to be very conservative places and reluctant to accept change and new ideas. Consider the Berlin Philharmonic adding their first woman in 2001. Many studies show we tend to pick what we’re used to. We are more comfortable with what we already know. So screens at least give players an even starting point. What happens in later rounds is another thing.

    Having said that, talk a bit about how to game the screens. This sounds intriguing.

  22. Peter

    Interesting debate Ken, and I agree that trialing (for all it can also be flawed) is better than the blind audition. Orchestras are defined by their relationships, which of course makes them vulnerable to power games, bullying and intimidation, if you have a few rotten apples. Human nature is what it is, but at least a trial doesn’t pretend that this is a purely objective assessment.

    There is an innate brutality in all orchestral culture because it is hard to value the talents of so many idiosyncratic individuals and to ensure they don’t become institutionalised by career anxiety, endless repetition and the fact that orchestral musicians are most often being told what to do to an absurd extent. How many people know exactly what they will be doing and at what time on 5 May next year already? The rigidities of the audition process simply reflect the rigidities of orchestral life and pressures of a musical world where power and prestige in the hands of a few dictate the terms for the many.

    We need to create a sense of informality, of friends coming together to make music. That’s always been true of chamber music and perhaps a few of the free-lance bands achieve it, but can it be done in a full-time symphony orchestra? There are attempts to create variety in the schedule, but in an orchestra the schedule is always dictated by someone else and someone else tells you how to play. To be an orchestral musician is to bind yourself to the wishes and whims of others, and you have to be lucky to be in a situation where those others are humane and sympathetic, and interested in you the person and your creative potential.

  23. Kenneth Woods

    Hi William

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s especially helpful to hear from someone who has succeeded in different formats of auditions.

    I completely agree with you that hearing 150 or 200 candidates is rarely a good idea. It sounds fair and idealistic, but it ends up being wasteful and damaging for a lot of people who come through. On the other other, having proctored a number of auditions in addition to taking and hearing them, rarely do more than 10% of the candidates really shine. On the other hand, I do know some damn fine musicians who are more than good enough to play in any band who don’t excel in the current system.

    However, my original point is more to do with the impact the current system has on people. I’ve seen friends who were absolute super-stars in conservatory just fall to pieces after a handful of auditions. Something about the way the current system forces you to invest months or years of work in a 10 minute audition, surrounded by dozens or hundreds of other hungry musicians is dehumanizing and can be very damaging. I don’t think the current system is as effective as it could be, but my biggest concern is that we ought to be able to identify the best orchestral musicians without destroying so many of our colleagues’ love of music and self confidence.

  24. Kenneth Woods

    Hi TR

    Thank you for both your comments.

    You’re right, but maybe a little harsh on this one. I was certainly over-simplifying, and for that I apologize. Rather than stressing perfection, I should have said that auditions test only your ability to audition.

    One thing I’ve observed proctoring auditions, where I was the only one behind the screen with the candidate as an assistant conductor, is that most people don’t realize when they lost the audition. You’re quite right- it wasn’t always the missed shift in Don Juan, or the wrong note in Mozart 35, it was that their sound or their rhythm or their musicianship just wasn’t up to snuff, or they weren’t listening to themselves or they somehow couldn’t put across their passion for the music to the committee.

    Still, it’s a pity the system focuses primarily on individual excellence rather than ensemble skills. Both are equally important, and both should be part of the process.

    Thanks again-

    K

  25. Dallas

    Jack Donaghy to Liz Lemon: “I’d never been to an audition before. It was upsetting. A grotesque carnival of human misery.”

  26. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Paul

    I think there’s reason for optimism in terms of fairness in unscreened auditions, at least based on my experience in the UK. Though I have seen instances of sexism directed at women conductors here, the British orchestras have been well integrated for a long, long time in spite of the lack of screens in most auditions. Of course, institutions must always be vigilant that they’re giving everyone a fair shot, but I think there are so many women and minority artists working in the highest levels of American orchestras that they are in every way equal members of the institution, and I also think that everyone with any sense knows the bias just means you lose out on talented people.

    I believe it was the Vienna Phil that hired their first woman in 2001. Their record remains controversial and problematic. The Berlin Philharmonic fell out with Herbert von Karajan over his insistence on breaking the gender barrier in the 1980’s when he appointed Sabine Meyer to the principal clarinet chair, but the BPO now looks like a modern institution, focused on hiring the best musicians and not the best male musicians.

    The BPO model audition model is pretty intense- as I understand it, finalists audition, unscreened, for the entire orchestra (all of them) and the conductor, not a committee. The conductor gets one vote, and everyone is expected to contribute to the discussion about the candidate. Hard core, but they sound pretty good…

    K

  27. J Harrison Bray

    After starting off in an community orchestra at the age of 43, studying hard and finding my own way through orchestra etiquette, and then working hard to figure out how to study I found the nearby UC orchestra I could walk into and play with. I have spent the last 10 years learning how to be part of a group and to follow a conductor, how to lead from a section, and going through the repitoir. This last fall for the first time the orchestra required an audition, although it was very foreign to actual orchestra playing, the excersice meant I had to have a clear idea on my own of how the music went, fortunately because I’ve never auditioned my concept of music is all from actually working at length through each piece and having a great conductor and teacher break things down. One of our previous orchestra members, my former principal 30 years youger just got a job with Alabama, knowing the process that was gone through makes me completly uninterested in persueing the avenue even though I truly love orchestral playing. The thing I find interesting in the audition process the way it is is how alien it is to all other forms of musical ensembles. I think that some form of farm system similar to baseball could be instituted, however with nowhere for most musicians of any type to perform without the “business” of music being involved that seems unlikly. I think also that say if the current audition system were to remain, if you can learn the monumental task of musicianship, could you learn the task of auditioning without the crash and burn of rejection. I recently heard an NPR broadcast on the start-ups of Silicon Valley and one of the fellows was saying that failure is just part of the culture there like if you haven’t failed then your really not even in the game. The focus on the peak here seems un-natural to the art. “Music is a vast ocean and no one can claim to know it all. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. It is an eternal quest” – Dr L Subramaniam from one of the greatest violinists of our time.

  28. Pingback: A tale of two percussionists and the Boston Symphony (updated) « All is Yar

  29. Squig the DBP

    The audition process needs to be monitored by a third party (perhaps a union rep). I can name at least three major orchestra auditions where I was able to correctly guess the winning candidate months before the audition. The people who won had all subbed for that particular orchestra (sometimes for three years or more). The article did not mention the wave of minority placement in major orchestras. Several major orchestras have training programs ONLY for minorities. Lessons (with principals), music, equipment and instruments (the best of the best!) are provided at absolutely no cost to the minority musician. I can’t even afford lessons with a principal player!! Then, if that’s not bad enough, when the player is good enough, he or she is PLACED into a major orchestra (that’s right…with a salary). There is NO audition. I believe all of this nonsense started in the Detroit Symphony.

  30. Peter

    Perhaps the solution is to run auditions according to talent show rules. Panels could be made up of fading former players and second-rate celebrities who can’t play an instrument. Blind auditions could be transformed by provision of swivelling chairs. The invited public could burst into applause on hearing a few notes of a familiar concerto, and when you’ve heard enough panel members sound a claxon and declare themselves “out”. Electronic re-tuning devices could conceal the worst gaffes of intonation, and the final decision can be made by a public phone-in vote based on who has the silliest hair-do.

    Auditioning seems to wind people up a great deal, and that is not surprising because it is an attempt to objectify a subjective process. Two people will never agree about what is right and fair – offering due reward for effort, skill and experience. It bothers me not at all that when interviewing I might decide on the succesful candidate the moment they step in the room or that I might appoint someone I know, like and trust, rather than take a risk on someone who might appear merely good on paper or in interview. Being fair can after all sometimes mean rewarding loyalty and commitment. If that makes appointmentts predicatable, it is not a crime. The aim is not to appoint the candidate who has least connection to the panel or no track record with the orchestra.

    There has to be a process to ensure that subjectivity doesn’t descend into blatant nepotism or open bias, so causing standards to drop. Let’s not get too hot under the collar when we spot subjective judgements happening. Musicians are not robots, and orchestral music-making is not a corporate desk-job. Or perhaps it is in danger of becoming one?

  31. Pingback: Orchestras and Cover Bands: So Different, Yet So Similar | E5 Media

  32. Mike Tetreault

    Lots of great perspective here. First, I certainly hope this article has not overshadowed that fact that two outstanding players were chosen to join the BSO. Matt McKay and Kyle Brightwell earned their spots and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them both. They played within the process and won. An enormous congradulations to them both and for my part nothing but best wishes for their success moving forward.

    One thing I certainly felt- the Boston audition was run very well. They invited a healthy number of folks from DVDs, one of whom (Kyle) ended up being offered a position. From the point of view of an auditioner, who has had good and bad experiences, I think the following audition scenario would work best, particularly if it was standard across the industry. The process will only ever be as good, honest and transparent as the individual committee members-but I think this would be a vast improvement over the patchwork and fractured nature of the audition process currently in place.

    1. Audition list management- my major complaint with the BSO, if I had one, was both the timing of the repertoire announcement as well as the breadth and unfamiliarity of the pieces. It took me over 2 hours to play thru (no stopping/repeating etc.) the Boston list in my preparations. More than a dozen pieces were from left field that no one knew. They gave us the repertoire on Nov 1st for a January 9-10 audition. The DVD was due day after thanksgiving. I understand orchestra schedules are tough, scheduling auditions is costly and problematic, but to have such a large quantity of unfamiliar rep, at such an awful time of year, with so little time; it felt malicious. I wasn’t around for every round, but I can’t imagine the winners played more than half of the pieces required. Perhaps I am wrong. I get that the BSO is a great orchestra, and I am sure that they have played recently every piece they asked of us, but the timing felt, frankly, at least unprofessional and at worst malicious. I think an audition committee should plan out the rounds in advance, and everything on the list should be (assuming a candidate plays well) asked over the course of the audition. Enough of this intimidation nonsense. It wastes everyone’s time and the committee ends up listening to less prepared auditions because there is simply too much to prepare that nothing gets polished to the level it could, and or should. This, I will say, in speaking with other instrumentalists, seems to be a particular problem with percussion (when we have 6-8 instruments to prepare/carry to the audition no less) and less so with other instruments. Make the list as difficult as you like, but only ask what you plan on hearing and get it to people in a timely manner.

    2. Resumes- based on resumes an orchestra invites 20 or so candidates. No one pre advanced any further, everyone plays a live audition. Applicants not in the 20 invited to the live round have to prepare a video (like I did in Boston). Zoom makes a few devices with outstanding sound quality. The video is a straight thru prelim of 10 min or so. This way, everyone has a chance, no one wastes money on plane tix/hotels etc, the committee can cut the DVDs off when they choose, very little cost for everyone, and best of all, you get the best sounding results. Everyone applying will sound their best. You can’t fake anything in a 10 min video. If you have time/pitch/pacing issues it will show. Easy and (relatively) painless for all involved. Committee advances up to 20 people from tapes to the live prelim. The cmte can listen to tapes in rapid succession, cutting some off almost immediately. The evaluating of tapes takes place one day say 8 weeks before the live audition. Little time or money wasted.

    4. Live prelim- behind a screen. Similar to a normal American audition now. Essentially a knock out round. I think this a somewhat necessary evil at some point in the process. Again, everyone invited from resumes and videos plays in this round. Maximum of 40 candidates-you can hear 10 min auditions from everyone in a longish day. Sight reading standard. See how people react on their feet. You can prepare stuff into oblivion but if you are reading your real strengths and weaknesses show, in my opinion.

    5. Semi final round- this involves playing w an accompanist, some section playing/chamber music etc. no screen. A good 15-20 minutes of music. Maximum of 10 candidates. This would take a longish morning I should think.

    6. Finals- anything goes. Berlin Phil style (everyone in orch listens to solo excerpts), chamber music, playing in situ with the orchestra (becoming normal for timpani auditions)-whatever. 3-5 players, all afternoon.

    7. Up to 3 trialists chosen and given 4 month ‘Trial’ contracts. Or of course just a winner declared and given a year probation/trial. Regardless the whole Trial /probation process takes the maximum of a year, and potentially much less during which time colleagues would ideally be forthcoming, honest and lucid about the trialist/winner’s progress. At the end of the year it is clear to all involved what the result of the probation will be. Why on earth would you allow a candidate (or candidates) to sound lousy in your orchestra for a year and not tell them? Not try and adjust/collaborate?

    Some orchestras do this already. The NY Phil hired a percussionist/assistant timpanist using a format very similar to this. In the finals were two Kyles-both had made tapes, played exceptionally during the rounds and with piano accompaniament and section playing. One Kyke was offered the position, the other Kyle won the audition in Boston. Neither would gave been invited to either audition in the ‘resume only’ model. Obviously, both are tremendous players.

    This is likely too many steps for some and too little for others, but I think it is a better way (than current US or UK model) to evaluate someone not only musically in a variety of situations, but also in different personal settings. More than often you will be spending your career with the successful candidate. It would be good for all involved to make sure it is a fit, but also to be honest during the process. I think the numbers are important (20 in this round, 10 etc) because it gives cmtees both numbers to shoot for to make sure they have a diverse pool, but not so many that they are bored to death. We all know the frustration of a tired restless commitee.

    Let me also say, I am again, very happy with the way Boston treated us. My only complaint (and I am not sure I have one) has to do with both the volume of the repertoire and timing of the repretoire announcement. Had I played a technically flawless, stylistically informed and musically captivating audition, I may have won. This post, nor the article itself was not meant in any way to be sour grapes. I realize that the current processes in place work for those who win. I certainly am doing everything I can to join you winners in climbing this mountain and join the ranks of the full time employed. However, it seems that nearly everyone agrees the process could be made better for EVERYONE involved. Ultimately I think we all want to hire and work with the best players and best people. This is one way, I think, that would help that, while simultaneously making the process smoother and less cruel on both auditioner and committee.

    Now, I must go practice.

  33. SC

    It seems as if most people on this thread are confusing a “technically perfect” player with a “technically competent” musician that can play at a level with his/her colleagues. The misconception that only technically perfect auditions pass through has discouraged so many players and gives them an excuse to blame the system. There are several comments I agree with and have seen happen too many times. People thought they played a PERFECT audition and they have NO idea why they didn’t pass/win. They just don’t get it… So naturally, the system is at fault. When in reality, I have missed PLENTY of notes, been asked to play various excerpts again (or not) and passed to the next round. The panel behind the screen have all been on the auditioning side. They know a simple mistake made by a great musician and mistakes made by those who just aren’t prepared. I really appreciate the comments made by Mike and agree 100%. Truth is… People are winning these jobs. And doing well! Now, I am not saying that every audition is fair. The auditions held by “full-time” orchestras that pay less than livable wages that eliminate countless qualified applicants and end up with a tiny pool of (if any) finalists, and then end up picking no one?!?! Yes, that is frustrating. However, on the flipside, that panel wants to pick someone great just as badly as a candidate wants a job, if not more. The committee does not want to go through another series of bad auditions anymore than you might think. As someone that is currently taking auditors and someone with many talented friends that have won great full-time jobs, there is hope that with honest, diligent, intelligent practice, you will succeed. If you don’t win a job of your choice, the seeds planted in the preparation will open other doors.

  34. Janet

    Via Twitter-

    The MN Orch frequently does not use a screen and has a candidate play several weeks with the group. Auditions can be horrible

    Interpretation is very subjective. “judgement” is based on accuracy, sound, rhythmic accuracy, technique, adherence to score

    Too many auditions are considered carefully by committee only to have the conductor veto. This can occur 2 years into the job.

  35. Emily

    Great discussion, and I too have realized that the audition world isn’t for me. I’m a baroque cellist, and thankfully the early music world isn’t quite as infected (though auditions for major baroque orchestras in the U.S. are going down the same path).

    Please feel free to check out my new blog Historically Incorrect, a blog on early music and classical music culture, as you might find it relevant or interesting! http://emilyplayscello.wordpress.com

  36. Pingback: Mark Flegg, Trumpet | Cruel and Unusual- It’s time to change the audition system | Kenneth Woods- conductor

  37. Jennie Dorris

    Hello, this is Jennie, the writer of the Boston Mag article. I think this is a fantastic and thoughtful response, and I’m so happy to see the discussion that has happened as a result of this article. I really hope it continues. Every person I interviewed had to answer the “How do we fix auditions” question, and nearly every one said “No one knows of a better way.” But Kenneth, the last quote you posted, about the guy who said that listening to auditions did him in, that’s the heart of the matter.

  38. Pingback: Jennie Dorris › The Audition: Your Reactions

  39. Michael Corman

    It would seem to me that if a person is being auditioned for a position in a symphony orchestra, he or she ought to be listened to and judged on his or her peformance WHILE PLAYING IN A SYMPHONY.

    In this day of high tech sound equipment, surely this can be done, in the case of string players, through the use of a high quality contact microphone ; 75 feet of cable and a quality amplifier isolated in a soundproof booth so that the player’s performance can be heard and judged in the setting he or she is seeking.

    I know of no other profession or sport in which a team player is judged or hired solely on his SOLO audition performance.

  40. Pingback: Auditions are Stupid | useallthenotes

  41. DJV

    My husband is one of those people you mention who have made it to the final rounds over a dozen times and never was able to land the spot. He is 57 now and probably realizes his time will never come. He has taken literally hundreds of auditions, all on his own dime, Many of those spots were left unfilled; apparently the committees didn’t hear anyone worthy of the job. Bull hockey!

  42. Spencer Yeamans

    This article is badass. This is why orchestras and music societies are failing. I am going to post this on my website. Every over-optimistic music major needs to read this.

  43. Gordon

    I would say the screen certainly protects the committee rather than the candidate. I have done auditions where the next candidate enters the room by elevator while the previous candidate is still playing. And the best is when the committee is screened but the steward is the personnel manager. So much for a screened audition.

  44. Kris

    YES!!! This drives me up and down the wall! I’m young and only recently became familiar with the audition process, but hopefully this comment doesn’t sound too self-righteous. ;)
    As a teenager, I had the opportunity to play a “side-by-side” concert with the foremost symphony in my state. I remember chumming with my sister (who played the cello) between rehearsals and embarrassedly commenting that we might be playing better than our stand partners, who were tenured players. I felt that, if this were the case, maybe someday I might join the symphony (yay!).
    My opportunity came recently, and I learned the sorry state of the current audition system. The more I researched it, read articles, spoke with others who had taken an audition, the more I realized that the chance of me winning my first orchestral audition was a pretty laughable concept. And I didn’t, of course. I’m not saying that I should have. And I’m certain the winner played better than I. But just knowing that many of my fellow audition-ers were, more than likely, better musicians than those in the symphony, makes me pretty upset.
    Maybe what we really need is to re-educate the public, creating a yearning for more classic music, providing the funding for more orchestras, and then most everyone in our line of work will get a job! :)

  45. Ian G. Sadler

    Some of these problems trace back to the ‘school business’.
    I studied with an excellent and experienced conductor which was a fantastic experience.
    Later I was on the phone being repeatedly pestered with: “But did he give you a CERTIFICATE???”
    Does anyone actually listen to and FEEL music anymore?

  46. S Blake Duncan

    In my younger years I was on the audition circuit. There were two major orchestra where I auditioned for a woodwind position and where the adjudicators behind the screen were just mean. Example, I played a
    technical excerpt, well enough that I was not aware of any problem
    And when I would finish there would be sighs and groans and nasty voice saying “play it again.” No word as to what was wrong. Was I rushing? Uneven? What? So I repeat and get the same response. The third time it was, “thanks for coming.” I finally went into teaching and had a number of years of wonderful playing in a couple of very fine regional orchestras. But I feel that given a Chance I could have contributed a lot. How can we be expected to win an audition if we never get any feedback. Just play it again or thanks for coming! The best audition experience I ever had was for the Cleveland Orchestra. There was no screen. I sat on stage in the chair I was auditioning for and next to me sat John Mack, the great principal oboist. He was very kind, helpful, charming and encouraging. I didn’t win. But I left feeling like I had been affirmed and encouraged. He allowed me to repeat an excerpt that I had trouble with and actually completed me. It was a great experience. Oh,
    And they actually had me play ALL the excerpts on the stand! What a different experience from the majority of orchestras who treat musicians like scum. Thanks for the article!

  47. Stephen Collins

    Good discussion. I feel very strongly that the system is flawed and really fails to respect the humanity of the candidates. I have taken MANY, MANY auditions in ICSOM and OCSM orchestras. I have won a few, and I have lost many. I was tenured for many years and so have an appreciation for both sides of the screen. In a word, it really sucks. I would like to see the faces of the people who have invested so much time, spent hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours preparing for the audition. The screen is absolutely no guarantee of honesty. (The stories I could tell, the ones from the committee side!!)

    I have known great players who were lucky enough to make it big and great players who got tired of “gambling”. Let’s face it, when 300 people audition for one or two spots for two or three sets of committees, in different acoustical spaces, and over several days, how can it be anything but gambling in the end? I know of many stories, too, of vicious politics where committees simply refused to hire the candidate who made it through because “the wrong candidate’ made it through.

    Personnel managers told me “Look, if you don’t take Beta blockers, you are simply not going to be in the game because everyone else is taking them”. So against my better judgement, many times I took this advice. I felt that I sacrificed a part of my humanity in this action. The the most recent audition I took and won, I said to myself, ” I’m not taking anything; whatever happens I’ll accept”. It was a gruelling audition that lasted 40 minutes.

    There is really so much to say. A principal cellist from a major american orchestra told me over drinks one evening that his audition was so tough that he never wanted to go through it again. This to me speaks volumes. When a musician at that level says such things, we need to rethink the process. Surely we have all heard the stories of major soloists and section leaders taking auditions for their own sections just to see if they would make it past the first round. I have stories of colleagues who did that very thing and did not get through. It’s nonsense.

    In my audition experiences, there are orchestras who try really hard to make it a positive experience and should be truly commended for their efforts! Other orchestras that one would expect this level of treatment from fail miserably.

    Were I to make suggestions for overall improvement in the system as it stands now, they would be these:
    1. Make sure the candidates are given the opportunity to perform instead of waiting for judgement. This simply means, let the candidate know exactly how much of his/her concerto or Bach you would like to hear BEFORE they begin. A “thank you” in the middle of a phrase just doesn’t cut it.

    2. Throw the screens in the trash and start auditioning human beings. When’s the last time you went to a concert and paid money to listen to the orchestra behind a screen? It affects the sound, too! Let the person’s body language be part of the audition.

    3. Give the candidates some choice in what they present. When you play a concert, you know what comes after what, and a good musician rehearses the style changes. Let the musician decide some of that stuff. If the committee doesn’t like something, they will say so anyway.

    4. I have really appreciated the auditions where I was told “If you don’t feel you played and excerpt well, motion to the personnel manager that you would like to play it again” This really puts a candidate in the driver’s seat and shows respect.

    I appreciate all of the time that people have invested in this discussion! Thanks to everyone!!

  48. Adrian K

    in regards to
    “.. 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..”
    In regards to this paragraph, I’m afraid it sounds like you have never done an audition for a professionally paid orchestra, or been on the audition panel from the other side, or spent much time playing in an orchestra.
    There are so many contradictions in the above paragraph alone, I can’t even start.

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