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.