“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 himself 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 dehumanising 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 and 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 orchestra 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.
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 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 about 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 for the job, 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 details of how the system work varies from orchestra to orchestra, essentially the audition here is just the first step in the 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.”
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.