Virtual Discussion Panel
:: Auditioning the Audition Process
:: 1/22/2007 - 1/1/26/2007

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About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor
Discussion Moderator

The screened audition (AKA "the twelve-minute shoot-out") has become a hallowed rite of passage for orchestra musicians all over the world. But does it really work? Is the candidate left standing after all those impossible solo bits of Wagner, Strauss and Debussy really the best person to fill a job that's all about working with other people?

Not many orchestra musicians have experience with being hired into high-skill positions other than playing in an orchestra, so it is not surprising that we often overlook just how different our hiring processes look than those in other high-skill occupations. Surgeons are not hired after a 12-minute demonstration of their surgical skills. Airline pilots are not hired after performing one take-off into a hurricane and one landing with three engines out. Quartet violists are not hired after anonymously playing three famous viola quartet passages all by themselves. Positions like these are generally filled only after multiple interviews, examination of candidates’ previous work, resume and reference checking, and extensive personality testing.

There are European orchestras that do things differently. Vienna, for example, has a long-standing practice of hiring musicians largely from the Viennese tradition of orchestra playing, while many orchestras in countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain retained their individual character through the inability to hire from beyond their region or their traditions.

Yet most musicians hired by American orchestras get tenure and contribute to their orchestras playing at a very high level. Does the process need fixing? Should we look more at ensemble skills? Should we be devoting more than 10 minutes to the average candidate? Should a trial period in the orchestra be a part of every audition? If so, how should it be structured? And does the tenure process work well enough in fixing hiring mistakes made by music directors and audition committees?


Tanya Ell's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Tanya Ell  

Tanya Ell

Cellist; The Cleveland Orchestra

It would be quite interesting to research the evolution of the orchestral audition process in order to figure out how it ended up in its current form. There are a couple of obvious factors that have probably influenced the way the audition process has developed.

There really is no better way to hear how a person plays than in a live performance. No amount of resumes, recommendations, or recordings can truly represent what a person is able to do on their instrument in the present moment. When this factor is paired together with the sheer number of applicants for most positions, it is easy to see how we came to the "12-minute shoot-out". We have come up with a procedure that gives everyone a chance to be heard.

There is an intense frustration on the part of musicians going through the audition process having to do with the fact that a knee-shaking 10 minutes of having to produce the hardest moments of orchestral repertoire has nothing to do with what they would be able to contribute as the member of a section. Truthfully, there will always be many, many more qualified section string players then there are sections jobs to place them in. If nothing else, the current audition experience makes it pretty easy to make cuts.

Perhaps the biggest frustration comes with the outcome of an audition where nobody is chosen. Excluding title positions, this seems difficult to understand from the point of the auditionee. It is also perhaps a sign of a hitch in the process.

As the moderator has pointed out, there are numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in terms of what skills an audition actually tests in relation to the skills that an orchestral musician is called upon to use on a daily basis. What then are the key qualities that should be tested for, and how can they be tested? Some would argue that the tenure process is in place for this very purpose.

During my time spent in the Milwaukee Symphony I have been very happy to see a chamber music round as an integral part of auditions. It has turned a couple of auditions upside-down, in terms of expected outcome. Playing a few minutes of chamber music very quickly exposes a musician's flexibility, reaction time, ability to blend, support, and knowledge of when and what material to bring out. These are just a few of the qualities that are not demonstrated by whizzing effortlessly through a concerto exposition and some orchestral excerpts.

It would be easy for most orchestras to incorporate a chamber music round in their auditions; if fact, many already do so. I would like to pose the question of making 10 minutes of chamber music the primary way of testing a candidate in the first round of auditions.

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Neal Gittleman's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Neal Gittleman  

Neal Gittleman

Music Director, Dayton Philharmonic

There's no doubt that the standard "12 minutes behind the screen" audition is a crazy way for orchestras to select new players. But let's not forget that current audition traditions evolved as a response —and a remedy—to previous traditions which clearly did not serve the musicians' best interests. So it may turn out to be the worst system except for all the others! I suppose that's one reason I'm glad to be participating in the discussion - because a careful critique of the audition process is the best (and only) way to make it better.

I think that for every flaw we can find in the way things are now, there are simple, straightforward fixes that that orchestras can implement to suit their particular situations. Clearly, the biggest flaw of the current system is that it tests certain skills, but doesn't test the fundamental skill of playing music day-in and day-out in an orchestra.

At the Dayton Philharmonic, our solution, clunky though it may be, is a new hire's up-to-two-year probationary period, which includes contractual language requiring the Music Director to promptly inform a probationary musician if there are problems that could jeopardize the likelihood of their receiving tenure. While a full-time orchestra could easily include a "trial period" as part of the audition process, for a part-time per-service orchestra like the DPO, that's hard to do in a fair, prompt manner. For us - so far - the probationary system seems to work well.

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Nathan Kahn's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Nathan Kahn  

Nathan Kahn

Negotiator, Symphonic Services Division, AFM

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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Fergus McWilliam's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Fergus McWilliam  

Fergus McWilliam

hornist; Berlin Philharmonic

Many agree that while auditions may be extremely ineffective, they are at the same time indispensable. Why is this?

Why do we use auditions and what purpose do they serve?

Before setting out to fill a vacancy in your ensemble, first ask yourself:

* Who chooses the new musician?
* Who is responsible for the success or its
failure of the choice?
* What qualities are being looked for in the successful candidate?

Then decide upon a search and engagement procedure. This may very likely include an audition, but not necessarily. Decide on a process that holds the best promise of success for your ensemble.

Be prepared to change processes, if you find it necessary.

Be pragmatic, not dogmatic.

Be subjective, not objective.

Common practice in London in the past was to rely on trial periods, not on auditions. Today the two are often combined. Pragmatism.

Holding an audition can be a useful time-saving process. It helps bring most or all of the decision-making individuals together at the same time to make a choice from among a usefully large number of potential candidates.

In other places, an audition serves not only as a search and selection process but also as a rite of initiation. Membership of the orchestra is predicated on having gone through the same ordeal as everyone else.

Yet another important role of the audition is to give both the ensemble and candidates the impression that the selection process is objective and fair, that everyone is given a chance. In the American attempt to demonstrate freedom from prejudice, the requirement for anonymous, screened auditions has to a certain extent disempowered orchestras of their right to make a subjective judgment.

Apart from the fact that in the USA virtually every candidate is given the chance to be heard once, nowhere are auditions actually objective or fair. That is because the choice is, and should always be, a subjective one. Chamber ensembles, jazz groups, rock bands and married couples don't rely on a public competition to dictate their choice of partners.

In summation, I believe the whole subject of auditioning for orchestra positions is, at root, a political one. How it is done will usually be decided by the "owner(s)" of the orchestra. The members of a co-operative London orchestra or those of another kind of self-directed orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, assume the responsibility. A music director appointed by, and employed by the board of a typically American orchestra on the other hand, will be expected to have at least the last word.

The fact is that hiring procedures and authority are powerful internal and external signals about who "owns" the orchestra. The ability to decide if, when and how to pragmatically modify search and hiring procedures in the interests of the ensemble, will be determined more by the power structures within the organization than by artistic factors.

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Chuck Ullery's Opening Statement (Click to Hide)

Chuck Ullery  

Chuck Ullery

Principal Bassoonist, SPCO

I think that the 10-minute, open-to-all audition still has a place in the scheme of searching for new players for an orchestra, but mostly as a way for a player with no experience and/or credentials to be heard. For me, it is more important to focus on who the audition committee is, how well the current orchestra players feel represented by it, and the extent of the committee‚s power to make decisions.

I feel that the audition committee should have some titled players who are obliged to serve, and be open for full membership to any other players in the orchestra who are willing to take part in the whole process, that is hearing all of the auditions from preliminaries of all forms through the finals.

I also feel that the process should never be rushed. Players that make it through to the final round should not only have substantial trial periods with the orchestra, but need to have ample chances to show their personalities via a short recital and/or chamber music playing with their potential 30-year colleagues.

Finally, if an orchestra has a music director it would like to involve in this process, it would be good to keep in mind that the new player, together with most of the current players in the orchestra, will probably be working together far beyond the golden era of the current music director, and that that should determine whose preferences and tastes should have greater weight in making this important choice for their organization.

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General Comments on This Discussion (Click to Hide)

I agree that the audition process does not always result in the right winner, but that is why we have the probation period. However, it would be better if we can prevent an unqualified musician from spending the money to move all their belongings to a new city only to be fired a few months later. A chamber music segment sounds like a great idea, though harpists and percussionists would need the music ahead of time. Some conductors jump the gun and grant early tenure in a burst of enthusiasm, only to regret their decision later. This practice should not be allowed. Pathological personality types sometimes play great auditions but do not make great stand partners. Why not have an interview process? Other jobs do. Even if it means a couple of weeks of playing in the orchestra, that's like an interview. I also agree that the resumé should not be a big factor. There are some fantastic candidates who have not gone to the expensive schools nor had a job before.
Plucky on January 22, 2019 at 6:34 PM
I'm surprised that all these comments fail to mention the importance of recommendations and references. If a screening/live audition process can offer a slate of qualified applicants, then recommendations can help narrow down "the right player." There are plenty of questions a live audition cannot answer-and these avoidable issues ofte emerge in a probationary period.

1. Does the player show up late?
2. Does the player have an odd personality such that he/she causes discord in the ensemble?
3. Does the player work well under pressure?
4. Does the player actually like music? Is He/She curious? Well-read?
5. Can the player speak to groups of schoolchildren?
6. Does the player speak badly of others behind his/her back?
7. Is the player always complaining about his/her salary?

In some of the best chamber ensembles, players are hired based on recommendations from others in the group.
gibarian on January 23, 2019 at 12:46 AM
I like the idea of the trial period before the probationary period--a lot of players can shoot off a Paganini caprice, but cannot count rests or blend with a section. I think the decentralized recording setup has too many inherent flaws, as others have already pointed out.
jengreenlee on January 24, 2019 at 6:51 PM
This is in reaction to the post of "gibarian":
What do any of things have to do with the job an individual is capable of doing in an orchestra? Most musicians are "odd". If the person was able to win an audition, I would say that they "work well under pressure". If the player did not "actually like music", I think they would have given it up by now. "Curious" about what? The ability to speak in front of groups of children should not be a requirement. I don't feel that questions 6 and 7 are applicable, either. What makes it okay for the reference to "speak badly of others behind" the back of the prospective hiree? Regarding showing up late, that depends on what your definition of "late" is, and if it became a problem for a newly hired orchestral musician, I'm sure it would be handled properly by the Personnel Manager.
I hope that people don't forget that one of the most important aspects of being a musician is the actual PLAYING.
erinpuffin on January 26, 2019 at 5:26 PM
The probation period is, IMO, a fundamental part of the audition process. Just because someone comes out on top at the audition before the music director and/or committee or the entire orchestra doesn't make the job offer a done deal. The job position is Orchestra Musician, and that means that the musician must be able to perform as a member of the orchestra, in rehearsals and in concerts, in accordance with the established performance standards. If "odd personality" is an issue, then by what standard is a personality odd?
I'm fascinated by the Berlin model, and while it may be brutal to some, it puts everything on the same level. The concept of a face-off of the candidates (Mozart at 20 paces!) has a particular appeal, at least to me. No politics - no excuses - everyone knows how the competition did.
pcklar on January 27, 2019 at 8:26 PM

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