Nathan Kahn  

Do Outreach Skills Have A Place In The Audition Process?

Nathan Kahn
October 25, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Should orchestras include a component within the audition process that measures a candidate's education/outreach abilities? Should audition advertisements include language notifying candidates that a significant percentage of required services are for in-school activities?

AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator, Nathan Kahn, examines these questions and more by presenting arguments on both sides of the issues. Additionally, Nathan presents a number of questions on this topic for your consideration and invites you to contribute your voice to the discussion by submitting a comment (registration required ).

- Drew McManus

An orchestra is holding an audition for a string position, and the service requirements for the position include at least 100 services which have been traditionally termed “outreach services.” Outreach services may include, but not be limited to, educational ensemble programs in schools, nursing homes, community facilities, lecture/demonstrations, speeches (with or without performance), music wellness programs (for further details see Penny Anderson Brill’s article on this subject in the October, 2002, Number 15 issue of Harmony Magazine), and a wide array of other possibilities. In some orchestras, outreach services constitute a substantial part of many musicians’ service load, and for those orchestras seeking additional involvement in their respective communities, the prospect for increased outreach services is quite likely.

As the title of this article inquires, should there be some part of the audition process, be it an interview, a speech, or other that would evaluate the candidates’ skills in these areas? Following are two summaries of the arguments on this issue I have heard during my time with the AFM:

The argument against evaluating outreach skills in the audition process.

The orchestra’s primary concern is artistic quality, and therefore the focus in our audition process is to hire the best performer. Even if our orchestra were to somehow seek to evaluate a candidate’s outreach skills, short of sending the candidate out to a school and watching he/she present a program, it is unlikely that any evaluation process would tell the audition committee what they need to know.

The winning candidate will later join in rehearsal with members of his/her ensemble(s), design and rehearse a program, and perhaps have some coaching or feedback if necessary. That has traditionally been sufficient for all participating musicians to present quality outreach programs. Those musicians who have initially had problems speaking in public either learn to do so, or in extreme cases the speaking responsibility is simply diverted to another member of the ensemble. Again, bringing in professional coaching to help ensembles with designing and presenting outreach programs is all that is needed. Therefore, the only skill needing evaluation in our audition process is the candidates’ artistic level and performance ability.

The argument for evaluating outreach skills in the audition process.

Most conservatories and music schools do nothing to train their students in the skills to design and present effective outreach programs. When we have auditioned candidates, we have no way of knowing what the candidate’s skills are in these areas until they actually perform the program. We have had numerous resulting problems; for instance, some of our musicians do not speak well in public, some may stutter, speak too softly, do not command attention from the audience, or may have a speech difficulty or accent such that the audience does not understand them.

As a result, we have had to shuffle speaking assignments amongst our ensemble when necessary, which can put an unfair burden on those who can speak well in front of an audience. Therefore, we believe that evaluation of outreach skills should be part of the audition process. This can take the form of an interview, asking final candidates to give a brief lecture/demonstration, or a similar activity.

Therefore, after hearing the above arguments over the years, I would like to present the following questions to the reader:

  1. Should audition advertisements for positions that contain a substantial number of outreach services indicate such in the advertisement, as well as requirements for those services, if any?
  2. Should the evaluation of outreach skills be a part of the audition process for those orchestras whose positions in orchestra require the performance of a significant number of outreach services?

  3. How should an orchestra address a situation where a tenured musician is performing in the orchestra to the artistic satisfaction of his/her section leader and the Music Director, but has performed poorly in the non-performance aspects of outreach programs?
My purpose in writing this article is to illicit your feedback and therefore discussion on this subject. What is your opinion on this issue and why? Please use the comment field below to submit your outlook.

Comments (Click to Hide)

I am so glad to see this topic on Polyphonic, particularly after the virtual discussion held on Community Engagement.

If the outreach services are mandatory, that should definitely be indicated in the advertisement. Even if the services are optional, meaning that the musician makes the choice to participate or not, that should be indicated in the advertisement as well. That is the job for which the musician is auditioning, after all.

This is probably heresy (it will not be the first or last time), but I think an interview process for musicians might be a good idea. I will set up a hypothetical (which, of course, will picked apart): An orchestra has Community Engagement as a priority. An audition is held for one position, and three players are equally musically qualified. However, only one player really likes and is good at Community Engagement. An interview process could probably bring that out (because I am assuming a very high degree of honesty on the part of musicians).

With regard to question number three, St. Paul teaches that not everyone is given the same gifts. It is unreasonable to expect that ALL musicians can write a script, speak well in public, and relate equally well to pre-schoolers and the elderly. While musicians who have recently graduated have a greater expectation of performing Community Engagement, there are tenured musicians whose idea of the job was to sit down, play the instrument, and leave, and who would rather die than speak in public. It is our obligation to create Engagement opportunities for these folks in which their gifts and talents are best utilized (although this may still be outside the comfort zone), and if that means creating "large ensemble" events with reception following, that's what we need to do. People need to be seen at their best, and we cannot make individuals into something they are not. (What is the expression? "Don't try to teach a pig to sing. It makes you look foolish and annoys the heck out of the pig.") Therefore, if someone is performing poorly, maybe that person needs a different kind of Engagement opportunity.

I look forward to the ensuing spirited discourse.
cjohnson on October 26, 2019 at 10:07 AM

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