Reexamining the Orchestral Audition Process: Thoughts After 25+ Auditions
After 5 years of serious orchestral auditioning and 25+ auditions, I’ve got a few thoughts on the audition process, and the misconceptions we have about it. In the last 5 years since winning my audition with the San Antonio Symphony, I’ve taken many auditions, been on audition panels, and proctored auditions, and seen a wide range of outcomes. But for starters, let's look at some of the standard assumptions and misconceptions we often hold about orchestral auditions and the overall audition process.
1. The "best player" will win the audition.
There is a fair amount of flawed logic in this conclusion, first and foremost because "best player" means different things to different people. A committee is made of many different musicians, different styles of players at a wide range of ages, and musicians from different sections. To my knowledge, most orchestras do not use a rubric or criteria sheet in evaluating auditions, so "best player" is ultimately subjective and not something that can be measured or scored with numbers without clear criterion.
Let's say that a violinist has flawless tempo consistency but misses a shift in the excerpt of Copland 3. A second player may have had a stunning concerto or solo work, but rushed slightly in Copland 3. A third candidate may have had a less compelling solo performance, but a very in-tune and rhythmically consistent Copland 3. Would any of them advance or win an audition? It depends on the committee and what they individually see as most important. Let's now say that those three violinists are in the finals for a job against each other. What would the outcome be? Simply put, it depends on the committee's interpretation of the performances, how the committee compares the players, and what the committee values. All of these players may do quite well in an ensemble when these minute issues can be remedied by context, but the outcome of a specific audition is dependent on many different factors. In addition, the committee’s ability to communicate and get along with one another, as well as with their music director, is another factor in the process.
Many qualified, high-level applicants will play ultimately in tune, in time, and with an awareness of style and context. At any given audition, there are many players who are “good enough” to do the job, whether they win the audition or not.
2. The audition process is objective.
As humans, we can't be 100% objective, especially not in evaluating a real-life performance art. The audition process is democratic and based on majority voting. Yet, as mentioned above, different committee members will hear different things that they like and dislike, and will vote accordingly. One committee member may immediately dismiss someone who rushes, while another would ask to hear it again. Another committee member may find the third candidate's excerpts stunning and another member find them boring. I have received completely opposite and conflicting feedback from committee members on an audition panel. One person said I had beautifully shaped dynamic juxtapositions, another wrote that my dynamics were too extreme and (real quote) “I don’t know why would anyone play Beethoven like this.”
In addition, the time of the day factors into things, as well as how many people are auditioning and the other people heard already. Listening to auditions is taxing, especially if everyone plays the same concerti and the same 5 excerpts. If for example, someone plays a less standard concerto (e.g. someone plays Lowell Liebermann piccolo concerto when everyone else plays Vivaldi), he or she might stand out, for better or for worse. As listeners, we might not intend for that to be the case, but it happens sometimes. There are many other factors as well- some committees are contentious, others mild mannered and friendly, and that will also affect deliberations and decisions. Advancing and winning an audition takes a certain amount of luck as well as years of hard work and effort.
3. If an individual can't win an audition, they're not good enough to do the job.
There are many high level musicians who sub, have temporary or one year contracts, yet do not win an audition for whatever reason. They're obviously good enough to play in the orchestra on a regular basis, but are not contracted on a tenure track basis. As I wrote earlier, winning (or not winning) the audition is not indicative of an individual's ability to play in an orchestra or play their instrument well. Auditioning is a separate set of skills than actually playing in orchestra, playing chamber music, or playing as part of a section.
4. If an individual wins an audition, they will already have the requisite skills to do the job, including ensemble playing skills, ability to work with others, consistent preparation, and ability to respond to direction.
I would continue to say that the audition tests one's ability to audition, rather than test one's ability to play in orchestra. Ideally, candidates who audition well are also great ensemble players and supportive colleagues, but this is not necessarily the case. In this situation, I would advocate that more players be given trials with professional ensembles, especially if an audition narrows down to 2 or 3 players for one vacancy. Some orchestras do not permit this in their contract, and I think it's a missed opportunity to see the players in a different, non-audition context and also give the audition candidates an opportunity to learn from your ensemble, even if you decide not to hire them.
5. The orchestral audition process in the US, as it is currently run, is the only and best way to evaluate candidates for professional orchestral employment.
I absolutely think the audition has its place in preliminarily separating players of different calibers and identifying certain essential skills. I do also think that the current audition model doesn't tell the whole picture about a candidate and about their potential to be a strong player, contributor to a section, and asset to the orchestra as a whole. By selecting the same repertoire for most every audition, orchestras test individuals ability to audition and learn and handful of pieces over the course of many years. What happens if excerpts are selected that are more obscure and players have not played them for 5-10 years? What about excerpts from the last 50 years of music? What if orchestras put more weight on the solo repertoire, or even allowed people to play sonatas in semi finals and finals? What if more orchestras had chamber music rounds in the finals or granted a trial to every finalist?
I had the good fortunate to win an audition recently, and I was struck by how this is one of the only professions in which:
1) Our potential employer doesn’t communicate to us at all prior to determining our worthiness
2) Our employer doesn’t see or hear us, or speak to us (depending on the screen and process)
3) The interview process doesn’t always reflect the skills required for the job
After being declared the winner, the personnel manager came to talk to me, as well as the principal of the section, but otherwise, I never interacted with the conductor or the rest of the committee. This has also been the case in some of the other auditions I have either won or made finals in, and it’s a bit odd.
When we only evaluate performance and audition skills, we are bypassing so many other necessary skills for the orchestral job. Most musicians entering the orchestral profession know little to nothing about unions, negotiating, contracts, and committee work. Many musicians are also not trained in audience engagement, outreach, and more varied performance contexts. Many things can be learned on the job, but in my experience, no one wants to be on a contract negotiating committee in general, let alone on the committee with minimal experience. You can’t gain experience without jumping in, but there is great personal consequence to not actually knowing about CBA’s, unions, and more. In addition, I have seen few orchestras offer training for musicians in outreach skills, presentation building, and communication- it’s mostly been “here’s the school, create a performance, good luck.” There’s so much more that goes into playing in a section that’s beyond intonation, clarity, and tempo consistency, most of all people skills. There are always difficult people in workplaces- section members who may not agree, interpersonal drama, contentious conductors, and more. Are musicians equipped to deal with that? Will they add to the drama or diffuse it? Having subbed in many ensembles over the years, I’ve seen a huge range of behaviors, from principals who won’t speak to one another, to friendly sections who support and cheer each other on. Honestly, it’s a really important skill that we rarely think about that really makes a difference.
At the end of the day, I think there's a lot of potential to evolve the current audition process into something that represents the level of sophistication, diligence, and artistry that musicians strive for both in their studies, the orchestral setting, and in life.