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Auditions: The Challenges for Candidates and Committees

0 Nathan Kahn
auditions Editor's Abstract

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” - Winston Churchill.

Perhaps the same could be said for the modern audition process utilized by professional orchestras throughout North America. Regardless, serving as the Administrator for the AFM Symphony Audition Complaint Hotline, Nathan Kahn has come across nearly every conceivable audition situation you could imagine, and maybe even some that you couldn’t.

Drawing from his vast experience, Nathan relates some of the occurrences that have found their way to his desk over the years. He also outlines what he has identified as the predominant challenges facing audition candidates and audition committees as well as dispelling a few well-traveled myths about what orchestras do and do not have to allow at their auditions. Make sure you take the time to visit the final page in the article where Nathan thoughtfully includes a copy of the AFM, ICSOM, and ROPA approved Code Of Ethical Audition Practices.

Drew McManus

THE CHALLENGES FACING THE CANDIDATES

What is it that audition candidates want? The response is usually the same; a fair chance to compete for a symphonic position, and to be treated as a professional in the process.That is entirely reasonable and desirable. All it takes is a little forethought and empathy on the part of the orchestra management and its audition committee(s) that are holding the audition.

In 1987 the AFM, ICSOM and ROPA passed resolutions strongly encouraging orchestras to not deny live auditions to candidates based on written resume or tape resume. That resolution was passed at a time when the number of candidates applying for orchestral positions was dramatically increasing. Due to the schedules of Music Directors, orchestra rehearsal and performance schedules, hall availability, as well as other factors, many orchestras could not or would not accommodate all the candidates who applied for their respective vacancies.

In response, the AFM created the Symphony Audition Complaint Hotline. On a daily basis and to the extent possible I address a wide variety of audition complaints, ranging from problems getting admitted to a live audition, to poor audition conditions or other circumstances deemed unfair by candidates. All complaints are handled anonymously, unless the nature of the complaint would require identity (such as getting an audition deposit returned to a candidate.) I suppose one could become jaded to the daily barrage of audition complaints I have received via the AFM Symphony Audition Complaint Hotline for the last 18 plus years, but I cannot. It’s likely that just about everyone that has taken an audition has some story to tell; I know what it feels like to have spent endless hours preparing for an audition, invest a great deal of money to get to the audition, and then be treated unfairly in this most stressful process. Therefore, I am an advocate for audition candidates to the extent possible.

The requirements for taking symphonic auditions is quite different than other professions, and too often, some just entering the symphonic audition trail are seemingly unaware of all that must be taken into account. As such, here’s what a candidate should take into consideration when preparing to enter the audition circuit.

Travel expenses

To apply for a job in other professions you simply send or post your resume, and usually the travel expenses to the interview/audition, if any, are paid for by the potential employer. That is most certainly not the case for symphonic auditions.I have yet to hear of any symphonic orchestra who pays the expenses of preliminary round candidates, although I will be the first to applaud those who do. However, many orchestras do pay the travel expenses for audition finalists called back to final rounds of auditions for titled positions (final auditions held at a later date), and certainly for those finalists who are invited to perform with the orchestra as a part of the final audition.

Audition scheduling

Suppose you opened your copy of International Musician and found that there were five forthcoming and very desirable orchestra violin vacancy auditions, and all of them are scheduled for Monday, February 5, 2019. This may seem like an unusual situation but it can happen more often than you think, because Monday is often an orchestra’s day off and, therefore, the most frequent weekday in which auditions are held.

In response, The AFM Symphonic Services Division set up and continues to maintain an audition scheduling website for AFM orchestra personnel managers, so that different orchestras can avoid scheduling auditions for the same instrument, on the same day.This helps maximize audition opportunities for all aspiring professional musicians.This service is free to the personnel managers of AFM orchestras.If your AFM orchestra’s personnel manager has not yet availed themselves of this service, please have him/her contact me at nathankn@afm.org.This process benefits both the candidates and the orchestras.

Just Getting in the front door!

Just getting admitted to an audition these days can be almost as challenging as the audition itself.Repeatedly and frequently, those who have been denied a live audition will tell me that they have been informed that every orchestra is required to grant them a live audition that they wish to attend because he/she is as AFM member.That is a fairy tale which too many do not want to let go of, because the reality is that there is no AFM bylaw that requires any orchestra to grant a live audition to anyone. Many candidates have told me that they just plan to “show up” and demand to be heard and I advise them that this is a very risky approach. Beyond likely wasted airfare and other travel expenses, candidates can find themselves in a confrontational situation.

For example, about ten years ago there was an incident where a candidate was so determined to be heard that the orchestra’s management had to summon police to drag him off stage when the individual refused to leave. Anyone who just “shows up” at audition expecting to be heard does so at their own risk.

Audition procedures are contained in each respective orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement. Upon request, the AFM seeks to assist candidates who are seeking acceptance to an audition, by my pleading with personnel managers and audition committees into hearing “just one more.” Yet I understand the dilemma created by huge numbers of applicants for some positions that personnel managers and audition committees try to accommodate.

In order for orchestras to maximize the number of candidates that could be heard in an audition, the Symphonic Services Division recommends that orchestras consider the use of split audition committees, and/or multiple audition days, whenever this is possible. If the orchestra considers the vacancy is important, then listening to all qualified candidates should be equally important.

An unfortunate by-product of the intense competition to just get admitted to a live audition is that in too many cases, gaining admittance to a live audition is often dependent upon who you know; which results in degenerating the symphony audition process to an insider trading game.Repeatedly, I have received calls from seasoned professionals who were denied a live audition at major orchestras, while students from certain schools were readily admitted.

Some candidates tell me that they “will do whatever they have to do” to get into an audition and get a job, while others complain about the lack of fairness and integrity in various audition processes. The debate continues.

A new variation (at least to me) on the audition fraud theme just occurred this year. A percussion candidate for a Nashville Symphony audition performed the preliminary audition and was not passed on to any subsequent round. That same candidate showed up the next day seeking to audition again, using the name of another candidate. The deceitful candidate was caught doing so and in response, a number of orchestras may very well require photo identification at the sign-in desk.

Audition conditions and requirements

The following are just some of the more egregious examples of audition conditions I have received complaints about over the last 18 years:

  • 1. An orchestra which allegedly held an audition during 100 plus degree weather in a facility with no air conditioning
  • 2. An orchestra which allegedly provided warm-up facilities for the candidates outdoors in cold rain
  • 3. An orchestra that allegedly had violinists warm-up in one building, then have the candidates trudge outside through the snow to the audition hall with their unprotected instruments, and then not allow the candidates to tune on stage.
  • 4. Cellists who were allegedly forced to warm up in a room serenaded by multiple working construction jackhammers.
  • 5. An orchestra that requested a specific orchestral solo on an audition list, and the music for this selection was allegedly only available if the musician bought the complete orchestral parts for the work, costing several hundred dollars for the complete set of music.

Three of these complaints were lodged against major orchestras, and one was for a major opera company. These kind of ridiculous audition conditions are not just limited to smaller orchestras.

THE CHALLENGES FACING THE AUDITION COMMITTEES

The challenges for Audition Committees vary greatly. The first decision that an Audition Committee must come to term with is whether or not to hold an audition. If the Audition Committee decides to hold an audition, they must also decide how big a field of candidates to seek, and therefore who shall be invited to the audition, and who shall not.

In lieu of a live audition some orchestras may decide that they want to appoint a certain musician who, for example, may have performed successfully with the orchestra in the past. They do this by a previously negotiated “appointment” procedure within the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement, or by some other mutual agreement between the Audition/Orchestra committees in conjunction with their local union, and the management.

Should this occur, I often get complaints from audition candidates demanding that the AFM should “force” this orchestra to have a competitive audition for this position.The AFM can not and should not get involved in forcing an orchestra to hold a competitive audition. Audition process and decisions are made on the local level. There is no requirement that any orchestra hold a live audition for any vacancy except those which may be dictated by their collective bargaining agreement. Even so, the Audition/Orchestra committees in conjunction with their local union and the management could agree to waive that requirement.

I have seen instances where someone or some group tried to force the local orchestra to have a competitive live audition when the prevailing sentiment was to appoint a certain person.

Trying to force a competitive audition when the prevailing sentiment is to appoint a certain person can result in the orchestra going through a farce of an audition where no one is hired, and then the appointment originally sought proceeds thereafter. The only thing that such an audition accomplishes is to waste the time, energies, talent, and money of the candidates.

How to screen the candidates

Again, this varies greatly among orchestras. Some orchestras do want to hear every candidate who applies and shows up to the live auditions, others only want to hear a limited group of candidates, while others simply cannot accommodate an overwhelming number of applicants for a single position. For example, several years ago a major west coast orchestra had over 500 applicants for a single second violin position.

Other orchestras may seek to invite only “a limited group of highly qualified candidates” to a competitive audition, and state that very clearly in their advertisement. Again, they can do that, and in such circumstances it is much less likely that I can assist getting someone admitted to that audition if the audition committee refuses to grant them a live audition.

Some orchestra vacancy advertisements will include the following language: The Audition Committee reserves the right to immediately dismiss from the audition any candidates who does not exhibit the highest professional performance level at these auditions. Obviously, this orchestra wants to hear as many candidates as possible, but due to the number of candidates and time limitations, cannot afford to continue listening to candidates in the audition who they determine are not at the level the orchestra is seeking.I get a lot of complaints on this one; often they are from a candidate who was cut off one minute or less into his/her audition.I refer the candidate back to that statement in the advertisement; it means what it says.

Scheduling auditions times for candidates

This definitely varies between orchestras depending upon the number of candidates, time, and other factors.

One method seems to be to assign one time, say 9A.M. to an entire group of candidates, and then have the candidates draw lots to determine the order they audition. While this tends to alleviate the problem of time flexibility for the Audition Committee, it has the opposite effect on the candidates. Some candidates may wind up performing their audition with little or no warm-up time, while others may be forced to wait around for 6 hours or more.

Another prevalent method used by a number of orchestras is to assign specific audition times for each candidate. If the entire audition runs on a very tight schedule, there are at least two resulting problems. Audition committees often complain that such a tight schedule precludes the audition committee and/or the Music Director from hearing additional excerpts that may be desired, or giving a candidate a second chance when, for example nervousness may have caused a careless mistake by an otherwise qualified candidate.However, a Personnel Manager of a leading American orchestra has advised me that he mitigates the foregoing negative effects by simply being sensitive to the amount of time an audition will likely take based on his past experience with the orchestra, and appropriating that amount of time to each audition. By doing so, the amount of idle time for both the Audition Committee and the candidates is minimized.

No-shows

The other serious problem for audition committees is that of no-shows; musicians who have been assigned an audition time and, for whatever reason, fail to appear. When one or two no shows occur, then the Audition Committee will often take a short break. But when multiple no-shows occur, personnel managers have to choose between trying to round up other candidates to fill in the empty time slots or else the audition committee must wait for extended periods for the next group of candidates to appear. Either way,no-shows creates serious problems for both audition committees and candidates, and is the reason why higher dollar amount audition deposits are becoming the norm.

Recurring auditions for the same position

Many orchestras will hold an audition, and the result of the audition is that no candidate is engaged. There can be many reasons for this; perhaps the voting procedure in the audition process failed to produce enough votes to select a winning candidate, or no candidate was deemed qualified for the orchestra.

While such circumstances do occur, one begins to wonder what is going on when an orchestra, after holding SEVEN successive competitive auditions, still fails to select a winning candidate. That particular situation occurred a number of years ago with a major orchestra; therefore many candidates simply stopped applying for the vacancy, because word was out on the street that this orchestra never hires anyone. Then I received a phone call from a member of the Audition Committee who complained that their orchestra cannot seem to attract qualified candidates. Guess why?

Use or non-use of screens

The use of screens in symphony orchestra auditions began in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra during the early 1970s. Now, it seems that more and more orchestras are reversing course and removing screens in the audition process; either at the final round or throughout the audition process.

Some audition committees and music directors have expressed that they feel the need to see as well as hear the candidates. Neither the AFM nor the Code of Ethical Audition Practices (which we’ll discuss later in this article) takes any position on the use of screens. Again, that determination is made on the local level, often through the collective bargaining process.

Other problems

I receive a lot of complaints about “fixed auditions.”“Fixed” or “predetermined” auditions have occurred, are occurring now, and will likely continue to do so. But proving that an audition outcome was predetermined is extremely difficult.Often, when a “fixed” audition complaint is received, upon investigation the audition only appears to be so to some of the complainants because they are unaware of audition procedures outlines in the respective orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement.

For example, some collective bargaining agreements automatically advance musicians who have successfully subbed with the orchestra, who have reached a certain level of professional experience on their resumes, or may have been in the finals of a previous audition in this or some other orchestra.But no doubt about it, “fixed” auditions do occur, and one wonders why they must, given that it is possible for an orchestra to simply appoint the desired musician(s) through a contractual appointment procedure, or by some other mutual agreement between the Audition/Orchestra committees in conjunction with their local union, and the management.

In years past when it could be demonstrated that a predetermined audition did occur, the local union, combined with the AFM, did work to get candidates reimbursed for at least their airfare expenses.

The future?

As competition for some orchestral positions increases, so should vigilance on the part of local unions and their audition committees to uphold the highest standards of ethics and integrity in the conduct of auditions. At the same time, candidates should be aware of difficulties in taking auditions mentioned herein, including the understanding that not every orchestra is willing and able to grant a live audition to all who may apply, even with the AFM’s assistance to candidates who may so request. The Code of Ethical Audition Practices, included at the end of this article, is as applicable today as when it was authored by many professionals in this industry back in the 1984.

Musicians who have symphony audition complaints should call the AFM Symphony Audition Complaint Hotline at 719-520-3288, or via email to nathankn@afm.org.

CODE OF ETHICAL AUDITION PRACTICES

The following code of ethical audition practices, approved in 1984 by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), the Major Orchestra Managers Conference (MOMC) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) [editor’s note: the code was later adopted by ROPA, after its formation, in 1987], is a document of suggested procedure for management and orchestra Musicians alike. As with all codes of ethics, it is not a contract; no one is involuntarily bound to it and it contains no provisions for punitive action. Those who endorsed it have maintained that they will conduct their auditions in accordance with the principles articulated therein, with the tacit assertion that they think others should do likewise. The code of ethics was conceived and formulated by the Major Managers-ICSOM Liaison Committee, the first time that both ICSOM and MOMC have acted in concert rather than autonomously in addressing such a major issue. In the belief that the code may be improved over time, it includes a provision for regular review by a joint committee of representatives from the three endorsing organizations.

1. Purpose and Scope of Code: It is of utmost importance to Musicians, managers and conductors that auditions be conducted in accordance with guidelines ensuring competition that is fair to all who audition while providing the best results for orchestras seeking Musicians.

2. Preparation for Auditions

a. Notices of auditions should be given only for genuine vacancies, including newly created positions, which the management intends to fill as a result of those auditions, with no predeterminations having been made as to who will be hired Musicians taking such auditions should only do so with the intention of accepting the position if it is offered.

b. Auditions should be advertised in appropriate places, including the International Musician. Notices should be clear and complete, specifying the Position intended to be filled by the auditions, the person to contact in response to the notice and the dates that applications are due and that auditions should be held. Notices should appear far enough in advance for interested Musicians to apply and adequately prepare.

c. All applicants should be sent written responses to their applications. Invited applicants should be sent clear instructions setting forth the date, time and place of the audition, the complete audition repertoire (excluding sight-reading repertoire) and parts for announced excerpts not generally available. All parts supplied by the orchestra should be legible and identical for all candidates.

d. Applicants should be given notice that if they choose not to attend the audition they should promptly notify the personnel manager or other designated person.

3. Conduct of Auditions

a. In preparing for and conducting auditions, all participants should be aware of policies and procedure governing those auditions, including this code.

b. Although the existence and composition of an audition committee and the nature and extent of its participation in auditioning and hiring is determined locally, Musicians’ involvement should at least include the initial screening of applicants.

c. Applicants should not be disqualified from auditioning on the basis of information about them obtained from current or previous employers or from other institutions to which they have applied.

d. Auditioned should be given sufficient time and, to the extent possible, adequate private facilities in which to warm up and practice.

e. Parts supplied by the orchestra for auditions should be in good condition, legible and clearly marked as intended to be played at the audition.

f. There should be no discrimination on the basis of race, sex, age, creed, national origin, religion, or sexual preference; steps ensuring this should exist in all phases of the audition process.

g. There should be reasonable accommodation for the handicapped.

h. Auditionees should be given opportunity and encouragement to comment, anonymously if desired, to the audition committee and management about the audition process.

i. Auditionees should be notified of their status in the audition process immediately upon such determination. Candidates under active consideration after auditions are completed should be so notified and given an estimated time of final decision.

j. Auditionees should be informed prior to auditions of the orchestra’s policy regarding reimbursement of auditionees’ expenses for additional stay or travel incurred at the request of management.

4. A joint committee of representatives of MOMC, ICSOM and the AFM Symphony Department shall be established to oversee and review this code periodically.

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