Consensus- How to reform orchestral auditions

The response to my post calling for reform to the American orchestral audition system has been pretty exciting to behold. Saturday was, to the best of my knowledge, the busiest day ever for our VFTP servers. Thanks to everyone who commented and tweeted, and a special thank you to Jennie Dorris for the article that started the conversation- it’s rare for a journalist to write about the life of an artist with so much empathy and so little sentimentality.  Jennie has a follow-up post on her blog, which you can read here. If you haven’t read Erik Klackner’s post, please do.

Here are some of the major threads that have emerged in the course of the discussion

1-    In the current economic climate, the central problem for musicians is always going to be a lack of opportunities. The job market is contracting, salaries are dropping, and benefits are being reduced. This is happening at all levels of the industry.  There is always going to be plenty of disappointment in the music business as long as there aren’t enough gigs for all the deserving artists aspiring to a career as orchestral musicians. Isn’t it time for one change that makes musician’s lives better?

2-    One of the biggest problems of the current system seems to be its inefficiency. Listening to over a hundred candidates in a day serves nobody well. Surely, it’s worth curtailing the number of people spending big money to come for an in person audition they can’t possibly win, if it means those who have a realistic chance of winning a position get a chance to audition in a saner and more constructive atmosphere and to be heard from a committee with fresher ears and more time to contemplate what they’re hearing. I’ve seen again and again that spending 6 months preparing to be one of 200 faceless violinists, playing for 5 minutes then returning home without knowing why you failed is one of the most dehumanizing experiences a musician can go through.

3-    Mike rightly points out that the trend of orchestras asking for ever-longer and more obscure excerpt lists is an abuse of the system. Of course, when those orchestras ask for not just Don Juan, but also excerpts from ten other Strauss pieces, they are hoping that this will cause many players to self-select out of the application process. Perhaps it does, but it also means you’re tilting the playing field in favor of those applicants who have the most time on their hands to prepare these ridiculous lists (the independently wealthy and un-employable). I can tell 95% of what I need to know about a player from less than a minute of just about any piece. The last 5% takes longer, of course. Can’t we agree that, in a tape round, a movement of Bach, a Classical concerto, a Romantic solo work and three or four standard excerpts is more than enough. Likewise, if you’ve already pruned your list to 20 or so players invited to audition, there’s no need to make applicants prepare needlessly long lists.

4-    Several commenters (here and here) pointed out that “technical perfection” is not what it’s all about, and I should really have been more careful in my language.  For many candidates who don’t get through, in my experience, it is sound and musicality that are the most common reasons that people does them in, closely followed by rhythm. Likewise, it’s often not the five notes you miss or the big shift that goes wrong, but one’s overall standard of tuning when you think you’re doing okay that is the problem. Nonetheless, the screened audition is still basically a test of how well you  play by yourself, which is not a great indicator of how you’ll play in orchestra.

5-    I’m glad to hear that the Minnesota Orchestra are already trialing people.  Hopefully the trend will catch on with other orchestras. Trials test whether someone can translate their individual achievement on the instrument into working in a team situation. It also creates opportunities for all the trialists to get something out of the process other than rejection- they get to play in the orchestra, to make connections in the industry, make a bit of cash, and to hopefully learn more about what they need to do to win next time.

6-    Peter’s point about needing to create an atmosphere of happy collaboration is important. Playing chamber music with your colleagues should be part of every orchestra’s culture, from the audition to retirement.

At the end of the day, there will never be a perfect audition system- there will always be more “no’s” than “yes’s,” more broken hearts than happy endings. However, there’s no reason we can’t aspire to a better system. Here are some practical and inexpensive reforms that have come up in our discussion.


1-    Spare those without a realistic chance of winning the expense and frustration of auditions by thinning the field with a video round. It’s also perfectly sane and reasonable to invite members of the orchestra’s sub list, and members of peer orchestras directly to the live auditions.

2-    Make the video round public. Post all the applicant videos on a special YouTube channel. That way those who didn’t succeed can compare their playing with that of those who went through, and it gives the committee an extra incentive to be 100% fair, because everyone in the process can see if the right people are being invited for an audition and why. If a world-class minority player doesn’t advance, the evidence will be there for the whole world to see. That’s far fairer than the screen.

3-    Keep excerpt lists and solo piece requirements short and standardized. We’re looking for quality, not quantity. Making candidates prepare a long and redundant list takes away from everyone’s time to earn a living, have a family and live a life.

4-    The in-person auditions should be recorded (video recordings are even more instructive and no more complicated to produce), and candidates should get written comments from everyone on the panel.  Modern technology should make this all but effortless. Panelists can type their comments into an email during the audition, at the end of the audition, they hit “send” and the comments go to the audition manager, who collates them and forwards them on to the candidate. Auditions can be recorded digitally at virtually no cost and be uploaded to a file-transfer server within 10 minutes of the end of an audition. It’s not unusual for applicants to spend around $1000 on travel, lessons and accommodation taking a single audition- with such a huge investment, surely they deserve to know how they played and why they didn’t get the gig?

5-    In addition to playing excerpts by themselves, candidates should play concerti with piano accompaniment, chamber music with members of the orchestra and be conducted in some of their excerpts by a member of the conducting staff (preferably the music director).

6-    The best candidates are invited to trial with the orchestra.

7-    The best orchestral musician joins the orchestra. Everyone who trials gets detailed feedback at the end of the process.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the system will always be hard on everyone involved.  Everyone involved ought to be treated with respect and compassion at all times.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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19 comments on “Consensus- How to reform orchestral auditions”

  1. friendofmusicians

    These comments are coming from an arts administrator who has worked for a big-budget orchestra and who would most likely be considered a “failed” musician but I hope also a “virtuoso” administrator:

    1. I agree that there are many less obvious opportunities in the current economic climate for musicians. In today’s world, a successful (rent-paying) musician needs to be an entrepreneur. This is just a reality whether one considers this to be good or bad.
    2. The auditions can be very inefficient. There are many reasons for this and each orchestra will have different and varying levels of inefficiency which have to do with CBA considerations, committee make-up and many other factors which are not good politics for my career to mention even though this is an anonymous post. I do think that the ever-increasing list of excerpts is in part in the hopes that musicians who are not qualified or ready for the job will keep practicing and not come to the audition but as any musician will tell you auditioning is a very different skill than playing in the ensemble and if a musician waited until they were “ready” to win the job before they started auditioning, they would not likely be very good at auditioning. At each audition I worked, the first round was only the standard excerpts. Perhaps the audition committee, who sets the list, should label the excerpts as “first round,” “semi round” etc though this would encourage people not to fully prepare.
    3. In my experience assisting with auditions, the committee listening to them is very human and wants the auditionees to do well, so much so that once a candidate got water stuck in a key and the committee stopped the audition so the candidate could swab out and take a minute to get their bearings back and give it another shot.
    4. I think the reforms listed in this article are GREAT. Some orchestras already employ some to a certain degree – after all, the original article by Jennie Dorris that sparked this discussion described a video round, though certainly not a public one. Most orchestras will send letters to candidates who are not qualified for whatever reason stating that the committee does not feel they are qualified but if the candidate feels they are mistaken in this belief they are welcome to come and audition. The reality here is that unless an audition is by invitation only, which as we know, they aren’t, an orchestra does have to hear anyone who comes out. Is it a shame that people spend the time and money to come when they clearly are not real candidates? Absolutely, but unless a CBA can forbid people from coming to preliminary rounds, this is the way it will be.
    5. The orchestra I worked at did not have a taped round. Here is how it worked:
    1. Candidates sent in a CV and were screened that way
    2. Preliminary rounds which sometimes took two to three full days – this was exhausting for everyone involved
    3. Semi-finals which depending on the quality of the candidates in prelims and people invited to start in the semis based on being employed in a peer orchestra or having subbed regularly with the ensemble, maybe had anywhere from 2 – 15 candidates
    4. Finals – depending on how many candidates made it this far, the screen may go away; if not then another screened round; this was a committee/music director decision
    5. Final Finals – screen goes away; concerto or concerto movement with piano; chamber music/section playing and informal interaction with the music director and committee where they would ask for excerpts and often see of candidates could play things a little differently to see how they can take instruction
    6. Winner(s) are then scheduled to come for a trial week if it is a titled position in the strings or a wind or percussion position or if there were multiple “winners” for any position, the candidates are then offered trial week(s) with the orchestra. If there is only one winner for a string section position, often that player was hired and the tenure review process began. Once, when there were too many “winners” there was a round with orchestra at a later date. This is difficult to make a regular part of auditions because of service count regulations and if orchestras wanted to make it a standard part of any audition, it would be nearly impossible to schedule auditions. The same committee that heard the audition follows these winners from audition to trial week to hiring and then through a prescribed tenure review process which can take up to two seasons.

    Any reforms in the audition process need to come from orchestral musicians themselves whether individual orchestras try and get reforms into their CBA negotiations or whether they try and use ICSOM, ROPA or AFofM to reform the industry standard. The way these auditions run are contractual obligations set to give the musicians control over the quality of the players in their ensemble and management’s job in this area is to follow the guidelines set by the contracts. Of course this opens an entirely new can of worms since both musicians and management have priorities for new contractual guidelines and with budgetary issues orchestras are facing these days, musicians may see audition reform as a lower negotiating priority than number of weeks in a contract or keeping minimum scale at a certain rate or working with management to figure out how to keep healthcare costs under control. Thanks to Jennie for starting this discussion and to Ken for keeping it up!

  2. friendofmusicians

    I forgot to comment on committee feedback. At the orchestra I worked for, the individual committee members let the personnel manager know if they were willing to give feedback and then any candidate could ask for feedback at which point the committee would forward their comments to the PM who would send them to the candidate. As to immediate email feedback, I think that would be great if the typing could be done in a way that did not distract the candidate while they were performing.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi friend of musicians! Thank you for your expertise.

    You’re right to point out the restrictions of the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement), which I barely touched on. CBA’s can be so inflexible and detailed that it stifles innovation and creativity on all sides, and the situation seems to be worsening as so many negotiations seem to be taking place under ever more difficult circumstances. There ought to be room in every contract for “exceptions to the described procedure may be made, and new approaches tried when there is broad agreement, respect and mutual trust between the musicians and management.” If only that circumstance were always the norm…

    Thanks again for sharing your experience here!

  4. auditioner

    I am on board with everything except the presumption that candidates “who have no realistic chance of winning” an audition can be fairly determined. There are too many examples of young, brilliant students winning jobs young and having brilliant orchestral careers for us to dismiss candidates based on experience or connections alone. I agree that the current process is terrible, but its greatest strength is that it permits the unknown, the unconnected, to get their shot. And often enough, they deserve that shot. Reform the system, yes. But keep it open.

  5. Kenneth Woods

    HI auditioner-

    I agree that CV’s are not always a great indicator of whether someone has a realistic chance of winning an audition. What do you think about a video round as I suggested above? Doesn’t that give everyone a chance to show what they can do and let even young players make their case for why they should get an audition?

    Thanks for the comment, and good luck with your auditions

  6. Audrey

    Via FB

    I dont think I’ve ever heard a more level headed approach to making the whole process easier for everyone. The way auditions work today was the major empasse for me personally in why I stopped pursuing an orchestral career. Orchestras should be hiring the best orchestral musicians, not the best auditioners – and I think there is a big difference between the two.

  7. William Barnewitz

    I appreciate the enthusiasm with which this topic is being handled. As a person who has been on both sides of the screen I like the ideas, but I have a few opinions that differ slightly.
    1) Video taped rounds remove anonymity. Perhaps live taped rounds with time stamps to abate editing would be better? Youtube is fine if you want 10,000 differing opinions kibitzing on quality, but I’ve found getting 9 committee members to agree is hard enough. Why should the audition committee care about what the interested population at large thinks? One person’s Heifetz may be anothers Jack Benny. Weeding out is for keeping the committee’s ears fresh, not to appease the armchair quarterbacks.

    2) Picking a winner at the audition in the spring only to have them fit into a music director’s week(s) for a trial is only good if there is some question. The tenure process should not be redundant. The tenure process is there for a reason and it should be used fearlessly. Having auditions is expensive, time consuming, and emotional, hiring someone with a trial is good if there is some question, hiring someone who is clearly good for the orchestra is better.

    3) Standardized repertoire lists are a fine idea. If you can find 20 music directors and principals from 15 or 20 full-time orchestras to agree on what is standard rep. I salute you. It might be enough to agree that excessive lists are gratuitously difficult and that for everyone’s sake standard works and oddball choices be kept under 20 pieces (10 would be enough for me), with specific bar numbers and editions to cut out ambiguity.

    4) Auditioners should be encouraged to tape their own auditions. It is not the onus of the auditioning orchestra to provide free audition lessons for neophytes or the poorly prepared, and those who get close (but no cigar) may never really understand any criticism other than “You were great, you just weren’t our favorite.” Having the orchestra provide comments ought to be voluntary, and under no circumstance should the orchestra provide recordings of auditions. One snafu of emailing the wrong mp3 to a candidate, or not recording one candidate by technical or human error and the whole process is under scrutiny. Who is going to want to arbitrate that one? Anyone?

    5) Invites and the young anonymous superstar. Invitation rounds are common and rarely produce the winner in my experience. Some one will win if they are good enough. If you have the chops but not the experience, by all means come. Best wishes, good luck, and know that the committee just wants to hear quality. Some people strike gold on the first audition, others take myriad auditions, there is no formula, but please, by all that is holy in music, do not waste the committee’s ears on garbage. Auditioning for the “experience” is a way to insure that others will not get an optimal hearing.

    6) CBA’s are in constant flux. If one orchestra finds a better way to build a mouse trap others are sure to follow. Keep the conversation going, practice well, and good luck. It is a small industry for a rare group of artists, not everyone who can will, not everyone who does should, but all in all, it’s a great life, don’t water it down so that everyone gets a trophy.

  8. Kenneth Woods

    Hi William

    Lots of interesting points, as I would have expected.

    Re- no. 1. I wouldn’t expect my suggestion of public video rounds to be automatically popular with everyone, of course. I’m not a huge fan of anonymity, and armchair quarterbacking is good for business- ask the NFL. The more interest you create in what you do, the more tickets you sell. Why shouldn’t fans take a more active interest in who is playing in their orchestra- at least they still don’t get a seat on the panel. Of course, YouTube channels can disable comments, too, so you wouldn’t have to provide a forum for discussion.

    And, re no. 4. Your worst case scenario of an orchestra not recording an audition as promised or sending someone the wrong tape strikes me as a little overdramatic. It seems a simple waiver signed by the candidate, acknowledging that the audition is being recorded purely as a courtesy and that the orchestra accepts no liability should be enough to alleviate any concerns. In any case, it’s fine if people are allowed to record themselves, but it does add an extra distraction in a fraught situation.

    However, as a “what could go wrong” situation, your hypothetical reminded me of something that actually happened to one of my dear friends when he auditioned for a great orchestra in a major Midwestern city some years ago. After the one round, the manager was going through the results with the committee, and when they got to my friend they said that they had “decided to pass on Mr B.” My friend was duly informed he hadn’t advanced (“the committee passed on you”) and went back to the hotel and checked out, heading for the airport.

    A few hours later the committee chair called the manager to query why Mr B wasn’t on the list after they had said he should pass on to the next round. Fortunately, they got to him in time at the airport (“the committee meant to pass you on, not to pass on you”), but that’s really a situation nobody would want to arbitrate. He played the next round but didn’t win the gig. The happy ending is that he won a gig as assoc principal in another orchestra a few weeks later, but if he hadn’t? He might have had a serious axe to grind, instead of spending his life grinding his axe seriously. Anyway, all systems have their potential for farce.

    Thanks again for your comment.

    All best

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

  10. TR

    The issue with a lot of these criticisms is that they look at things from an auditioner’s perspective. They ask the committee members, who already have a tiring and stressful job, to go above and beyond the main goal of an audition, which is to hire the player who is the best fit for the job. I’ve taken plenty of interviews for regular-old day jobs, and if you don’t get the job, you’re lucky to even get a phone call telling you so. You want comments… well, here’s a real life example: “After careful evaluation of your experience and qualifications, we have chosen to pursue other candidates for this specific position”.

  11. Kenneth Woods

    Hi TR

    Thank you very much for contributing.

    I’m not sure I would accept either that this is all from the auditionee’s perspective (I’m a condutor, not someone taking auditions) nor that this would make the work of the committee harder. The first thing on my list is to control the maximum number of auditions- that should help the committee, and reviewing videos, while demanding focus and energy, doesn’t take place with the kind of time pressure and stress that is present in live auditions. Hopefully, this means the committee are only hearing great candidates, and by making the video round public, unsuccessful applicants can see exactly how their playing stacks up against that of the winners. Keeping lists shorter and more standard should save work for everyone, including library staff. Allowing or even facilitating candidates recording their auditions doesn’t affect the committee.

    I completely agree with you- the point is to hire the player who is the best fit for the job. Having worked for years in both the US system and UK, I think that the UK system is less stressful for the committee, the candidates and gets better results. And remember, whatever extra effort is involved in playing a bit of chamber music with a finalist surely is worth it if it saves the stress of a failed tenure process?

    As for whether offering comments is a hardship for the committee- surely typing in a sentence or two on a laptop during the audition isn’t too demanding, and maybe it increases the quality of the pool of applicants in future?

    Thanks again


  12. Ellen

    On the subject of auditions, here is what renowned guitarist Eliot Fisk has to say in an interview published by “The Boston Globe” and re-published in the “Eliot Fisk Newsletter:”:

    ” Any audition or competition situation puts everyone at a disadvantage. In a way the members of the jury have all the cards. They don’t have to play. They can sit there and act important. But what they are trying to do is get to know a young person with way too little information. So as there is never enough information, the jury is also at a disadvantage in trying to do what it ought to do.
    At least in the US we often have letters of recommendation and even essays that the applicants have written themselves. But really we just can’t ever make a really wise decision, because in a few minutes you can only guess about someone. Again instinct is more important than analytical ability. So one does the best one can with the limited information available.
    Many times those members of jury who do not really play very well, are the most critical. It is also humorous to see the fear that older members of a jury can have whenever someone shows up who can really play. Still I have almost never been on any competition jury where I did not feel that massive injustice had been done, most especially in the early rounds, where some of the best players can be booted out. For this reason I hope I never sit on another competition jury as long as I live!”

  13. TR

    Another thing that would help, which would put the burden on organizations that are set up for the purposes of training musicians, is for summer festival auditions to be run more like professional auditions (screen up, multiple rounds, etc.). Students are paying audition fees to take these festival auditions, so they deserve to get something out of it whether or not they are accepted to the festival. It is not the responsibility of professional orchestras to provide a training environment for students to “just get the experience”, but the problem is, there are not many situations for realistic, high pressure mock auditions where there’s actually something on the line.

  14. No Name

    Regarding this suggestion, “2- Make the video round public. Post all the applicant videos on a special YouTube channel.”

    Absolutely not! Sorry, but an audition is a very personal thing. My audition, good or bad, is for me and for the committee, not for other musicians to view and compare. Privacy, please! You-Tubing such a thing would make it a three-ring circus.

    Many of the other idea have merit… just not this one. Sorry!

  15. Bill Nowling

    My auditioning days are long-since past, so these comments are from a “hack” but someone who knows a few things about hiring people. Let me just say this: most of my best hires are people I recruited for a particular job; some of my worse were those who applied blindly. I look for people who have the chops to do the job well and at the highest professional level, but I want someone who will make the collective “we” better with them here than without. I cannot make such a determination blindly. I need to see them interact with the people they are going to work with.

    I don’t care if you went to Harvard, or Eastman or Northwestern, or even some no-name state college down the road. It might make me take a look, maybe. What is more likely to pique my interest, though, is for an established professional I respect to call me and suggest I take a look a someone. You won’t get that off a CV.

    I absolutely agree that we have to do more than just hire the best candidates. Once they are in the job, we have to give them the tools to succeed. We have to mentor them, and that is just as true in advertising — the industry in which I now work — and in an orchestra. As has been said, winning the job and keeping the job require different skill sets. I have learned how to keep my jobs by listening to and working with the other, older and more experienced professionals. Sometimes that has been through tough love but mostly it was because someone decided to take me under their wing and show me how to survive and thrive. Read this post from Chris Martin about learning how to be the CSO’s principal trumpet AFTER winning the gig.

    There is no perfect solution. But I think the current system in the US hinders more than it helps. One thing it does do, in my not-so-humble and unprofessional opinion, is ensure that more and more US orchestras will sound more and more like each other. Where’s the art in that?

  16. Stephen P Brown

    One of the larger orchestras I worked closely with overseas has trial periods – first a week, then a month, then a year – especially as it’s a “two-way” audition! Usually the existing subs are considered first based on section Principal recommendations (some consult the rest of the section, too), otherwise a handful of open auditions are held for about four or five players, some of whom get added to the sub list in the process.

  17. Rosie Reznitsky

    I just read this article and it was AMAZING! I was astounding to read about others and their “bad” experiences. I don’t think that one has to be a Harvard or Yale or Juilliard Graduate to be the BEST! Where is that written? I play an instrument and I play pretty well, but am not a pro. Am I aiming for that? Sure, we all want to be the best. But, we do the best we can, with what we have and the talent given to us, at a given time. I have been trying to get into a community orchestra for sometime now. I do play in two other community orchestras. I am quite content, but, I have been wanting to get into this other one, thinking the level is a bit higher, so maybe it would help my growth. I was kind of under the impression I would not have to audition, given a short time frame to rehearsal time. But, come to find out, there was an audition process to go through. As I hightly respect their audition process, the audition process is grueling, as I was sent an excerpt of a Mahler piece, as well as two other excerpts. Now, as musicians, we all know how hard Mahler is. Is it doable for me? Of course. But, I know that in order to do this well, along with two other excerpts and a three minute Bach solo, I am going to have to rehearse endless hours on this. I also realize that hard work pays off and I am not afraid of hard work. But, I have one flaw. Me and audtions dont’ go hand in hand. I am not the best at auditioning, as nerves get the best of me almost all the time. So, I know that the endless hours of rehearsing might be for nothing and this may be like fighting an uphill battle. So. this was the biggest, disappointment of my life. All I wanted to do was to play music with others.
    I am the founder of my own ensemble and we let people in our ensemble of all levels that just want to SHARE their talent with other and make music each week.
    Our audition process is simple. Come too an open rehearsal, play with us and that will be your audition. If you cannot make it to the open rehearsal, then come to another rehearsal. We play from the heart and I think that is what music should be about. I truly believe that I have a gift and that is the gift of making music. I am good enough to play and share my art with others, but don’t believe that I should have to be put through grueling, endless hours of practice only to find out “sorry, we cannot take you.” This should definitely be made easier for individuals who want to be part of a group or who want to get a gig playing with an ensemble.

  18. Ex-violinist

    Coming to this very late….

    My solution for the excessive excerpt problem is simple: the audition should end with all relevant members of the panel performing the excerpts for any candidates who care to listen.

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