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Auditioning the Audition Process

0 January 22, 2019

The opening statement is not true. The “twelve minute shootout” is not a hallowed rite of passage for orchestra musicians all over the world. Candidates for the London Symphony Orchestra audition for the orchestral section they aspire to join, and that audition lasts way beyond twelve minutes. An audition for the Berlin Philharmonic is before the entire orchestra, in what most would consider equivalent to a full recital combined with musical Olympics for the instrument.

As many know, for years auditions for US orchestras were arranged initially by private recommendation, followed by an audition for the Music Director. As the symphonic labor movement went forward in the 1960′s and 1970′s, and there were resulting increases in wages and working conditions, there also came internal and external pressures to open up auditions to a growing number of candidates who sought symphonic employment, due to those gains in wages and working conditions. As wages and working conditions increased even further, the number of highly qualified candidates shot up astronomically. Not surprising, the issue of “fairness” and equal opportunity was on the minds of unions, audition committees and orchestra managements, in view of equal opportunity laws passed during the 1970′s. Moreover, in 1987 ICSOM and ROPA passed a resolution which “…encourages all orchestras to hold completely open auditions, allowing all applicants who wish to play a live preliminary audition the opportunity to do so…” Given the foregoing, how else does an orchestra like the Los Angeles Philharmonic hold an audition when there are 510 applicants for a single violin vacancy, as was the case a few years ago?

The comparison between US symphonic audition procedures and hiring procedures for surgeons and pilots does not equate because those careers require initial and ongoing government certification. I do not anticipate that George Bush will issue an executive order declaring minimum standards for #9 in Ein Heldenleben anytime in the near future.

Each audition process discussed has its pluses and minuses. In the old US system, there were styles and traditions that were preserved because they were handed down from teacher to students who came into the orchestra. The downside was that hiring was totally an insider game, and inherently unfair. The “12 minute shootout” is supposed to be more fair, has granted countless musicians the opportunity to become employed based solely on their performance level when they might otherwise not even been considered, but style and tradition can be diminished or lost, due to the diversity of training and background. In the Berlin Philharmonic, there is a much more homogeneous style, as many of their members come from their own Orchestra Academy, but these days their orchestra membership is becoming increasingly international in its makeup. But as a bassist, I know that the Berlin Philharmonic does not and probably will never accept a French bow player in that orchestra, and I can only assume they have similar limitations for other instruments.

I am strongly opposed to examination of candidates’ previous work, reference checking, and “extensive personality testing.” Foremost, if any audition committee should contact a finalist’s former orchestra for comment on the candidate, the response they would most likely get is “Mr. /Ms. so and so worked for our orchestra between _________ and ____________.” That orchestra doesn’t want to potentially get sued. In my experience reference checking has been useless. A candidate can usually get someone to write some sort of positive letter about them regardless of their ability, so of what value is that? I have received several calls at the AFM from orchestras who want to do “personality testing.” I have yet to be convinced that there exists some credible, consistent test that could discern “loose cannons” ahead of time. What is more likely is that “the loose cannons” would learn how to answer such a test, and the unsuspecting well adjusted folks like you and I would get the thumbs down. This is why we have probation periods in our orchestras. But in my years of sitting on audition committees, consideration of resumes has always been a part of the audition process.

Notwithstanding, perhaps the most important point worth making about our current state of US auditions is that no orchestra is required to do “the twelve minute shootout,” or for that matter any specific process. For example, any orchestra could decide henceforth to do nothing but appoint pre-determined musicians to vacancies, and dispense with all competitive auditions, and the only person who would likely hear complaints about that is yours truly at the AFM Symphony Audition Complaint Hotline. But I don’t see that occurring except on an occasional basis because consistently, orchestras have expressed that they want to hire the best candidate as they determine, and that means some sort of competitive audition. Within that process each orchestra can determine for itself whether they wish to make individual auditions longer in duration, or ensemble playing or a part of their audition process, or whatever.

But the question “…does the tenure process work well enough in fixing hiring mistakes made by music directors and audition committees?” troubles me greatly. According to whom? Who is vested with sole and exclusive right to determine if “hiring mistakes” are made by music directors and audition committees?

Unfortunately, US orchestras are infested with a cancer known as “music police,” in varying degrees. In my opinion, their efforts do nothing to raise the artistic level of an orchestra. In severe cases, their activities may very well diminish the artistic level by making the symphonic workplace environment not unlike walking through Baghdad-waiting for the next roadside bomb to go off. That kind of environment is not conducive to great music making. This subject, in my opinion, is worthy of a virtual panel discussion by itself.

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