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

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About this Virtual Discussion (Click to Show)


Robert Levine's Statement (Click to Hide)

Robert Levine  

Robert Levine

Senior Editor

I would like to thank the panelists for their thoughtful, intelligent, and well-written contributions. I think we may have succeeded in shedding more light than heat - not something that often happens in this business.

I have two questions for all the panelists to wrap up this panel. The first is for them all to answer the "instant poll" question about this VPD; namely,"An orchestra audition consisting of a movement from a concerto and excerpts is sufficient to select the "best" person for the job" [Agree or disagree]. If their answer (like most of those who have taken the poll) is "disagree," then I would ask them what single change in the process could most improve the process. (I hope no one will reply that most auditions aren't done that way, as most auditions in the US and Canada are done that way.)

The second question comes from the implication in several of the panelists' posts that the members of an orchestra will make better tenure decisions than will the orchestra's music director. I am not going to ask who the panelists think should make those artistic decisions; that's a question that would have to balance artistic interests against orchestras' need to function not only as artistic entities but also economic entities and as workplaces. (Any honest manager, union official, or orchestra committee member can cite instance upon instance where those three identities conflict.)

But I would ask whether or not they think orchestra musicians, acting as an audition committee or an entire orchestra, would make better decisions about hiring and tenure than would music directors. Why would their "ownership" of the orchestra lead them to act more wisely than the music director's "ownership" would lead her to act - or vice versa?

I also have a question specifically for Nathan and Fergus. Nathan wrote:

"Inherent in [Robert's] question is an assumption that US orchestras are somehow doing something wrong because they may not be denying tenure at the same rate as the Berlin Philharmonic."

Actually that's not true, although I do believe, based on my personal service on audition/tenure committees, that US orchestras are overly reluctant to reverse the initial decision to hire. (I know I am.) But it seems that Berlin may be overly willing to "un-hire" new members. Certainly the fact that Berlin throws 1/3 of its hires back into the water is not only a hardship on those thrown overboard but could be seen to call for more careful hiring in the first place. Hiring the right person the first time is obviously both kinder and more efficient.

So I would ask Nathan what he would consider a rate of tenure denial that whatever audition system he favors 1) should produce; and 2) is likely to produce. And I would ask Fergus if he can imagine any improvements in the "German" system that might result in more new hires retaining their jobs.

But mostly I'd like to reiterate my thanks to the panelists, who have given me new faith in the ability of this field to have a constructive discussion on important issues.

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Tanya Ell's Statement (Click to Hide)

Tanya Ell  

Tanya Ell

Cellist; The Cleveland Orchestra

I smile when I am asked the one million dollar question, "is our audition process fine the way it is"? I have learned to live with this process; it is a challenge that I have become accustomed to as a person who has taken her share of auditions. Still, it is impossible to say "yes" and leave it at that. I believe that it is true that orchestras most often find people who are able to fill their jobs quite well. Is this a perfect process? I would find it a challenge to find one person on either side of the screen who is completely satisfied.

It is of utmost importance that organizations as large-scale as symphony orchestras do not become entrenched in their ways simply because it is too complicated to do otherwise. The audition process has evolved to where it is today, and there is no reason why it shouldn't continue to evolve through careful thought and analysis. It is clear from the sheer volume of thoughts and responses in this forum that there is room for change.

To fully answer Robert Levine's final challenge, I would change the preliminary round of the audition in the following way. Everything would remain the same, except one would find three quarters of a string quartet on one side of the screen. A candidate would be ushered in and play ten minutes worth of chamber music. I firmly believe chamber music does not just test a musicians ability to "solo with in a group", but shows a candidates ability to follow others, have a knowledge of what to listen for, and know the function of their line. The orchestra musicians in the quartet would rotate throughout the day, and I think might even enjoy themselves throughout the process.

I would like to thank the moderator and other panelists for the opportunity to take part in such an important discussion.

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Neal Gittleman's Statement (Click to Hide)

Neal Gittleman  

Neal Gittleman

Music Director, Dayton Philharmonic

Some Day 4.5 thoughts...

On orchestra ownership of vacancies:

I second Rip's fascination with the concept. There seems to be a subtext that in the US, the vacancy actually belongs to the Music Director, and the audition committee (and, by extension the orchestra) is only along for the ride - narrowing down the field of candidates from whom the MD will choose. That's certainly the case in some orchestras, but it's not necessarily the case. And it certainly doesn't need to be the case.

At Dayton Philharmonic auditions, I have one vote out of a total of between 5 and 9 (depending on the position being filled). In the event of a tie result, I get a second vote. So far as I can tell, the system works just fine.

In addition, I see my role in the audition process as a facilitator/moderator. I try to involve committee members as much as possible in all aspects of the proceedings, and try to make sure that everyone has their say in the discussion phase. Having sat in on auditions back in my staff-conductor-days and seen MDs who monopolized the proceedings and stifled discussion, I try as much as possible to keep my thoughts on candidates quiet until all the musicians have weighed in. And in the cases where we don't reach a consensus prior to voting, I'd guess that musicians' opinions have swayed me as much as the other way around.

If musicians want to assume more ownership of vacancies à la Berlin, it should become an issue in collective bargaining. Some managements and MDs will resist, but in the long run, that resistance is futile.

On tenure decisions, a modest proposal of my own:

At the DPO - and I suspect at most orchestras - the tenure decision is essentially the MD's. But it need not be that way. As a matter of course, I make it my business to consult with the appropriate section principal before the tenure-granting contract is offered (and before a pre-tenure contract is renewed during the probation period).

The panel's tenure discussion makes me wonder whether, at the very least, the tenure-granting decision should involve not just the MD and the principal, but maybe the audition committee that made the selection in the first place. That would give the orchestra - through their representatives on the audition committee - a kind of ownership of the vacancy and a responsibility for following the audition-winner beyond the audition through the probationary period.

I can understand that some orchestral musicians might not want to assume the degree of ownership/responsibility that the Berlin Phil musicians take on, but by virtue of serving on the audition committee in the first place, those musicians have taken on a certain degree of responsibility. Extending their mandate through the probationary period could move us in the Berlin direction without completely changing our world, and could help us to make tenure decisions that were sounder, and, possibly, more politics-free.

As to Robert's Day 5 questions:

Question #1: Of course not. But a concerto movement, wide-ranging and carefully chosen excerpts, maybe some chamber music, and a seriously considered probation period of up to two full seasons? I think that should be sufficient for an orchestra to select someone who will be a good and trusted colleague for the long haul. But I don't think any system will ever leave you certain that you got the best of all possible candidates.

Question #2: It all depends on the music director, and the musicians/committee. I see no inherent reason why one or the other should make better decisions.

I'm interested in the premise behind the question... that musicians have a deeper commitment to the orchestra than music directors, which would lead them, perhaps, to make better decisions.

Because I'm a music director, I find the general suspicion of MDs interesting. (Not surprising, but definitely interesting.) Also the assumption that MDs are not as vested in the best interests of the orchestra as the musicians are.

What I read into other panelists' statements is that they're sick of MDs who are superficially engaged in their orchestras--who care more about who's playing first horn for "their tour", or who are too busy frying other fish to tend their own garden (or mix their own metaphors!)

Perhaps this should be a topic for a future virtual panel... Why do orchestras as institutions settle for MDs who are not fully/sufficiently committed to "their" ensemble? Why put up with a conductor who's only willing to devote a fraction of the time that the players devote? Why accept a situation where there's so much distrust of the MD's judgment / motives / commitment? And why, when MDs change, is it so often "meet the new boss, same as the old boss"?

Thanks to our moderator and other panelists for a stimulating discussion. It has inspired me to talk to the musicians on the DPO Players' Committee before they go into their next round of negotiations and ask if they'd like to discuss how satisfied they are with our current audition and tenure procedures. Perhaps they can go to the table with a "united front" of some possible improvements...

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Nathan Kahn's Statement (Click to Hide)

Nathan Kahn  

Nathan Kahn

Negotiator, Symphonic Services Division, AFM

Robert wrote:

"I hope no one will reply that most auditions aren't done that way, as most auditions in the US and Canada are done that way."

I disagree. In my years sitting on audition committees we would listen to a (by example, section viola auditions-sorry, Robert) finalist perform in a Mozart quartet, and I asked myself "what is it we are trying to discern at this point in the audition, and is the repertoire being utilized telling us what we want to learn?" My answer to myself was that we were supposed to be evaluating a section viola finalist's ability to work within a viola section. But to me, the Mozart quartet we were listening to was more demonstrative of the candidate's solo abilities within a small ensemble, and not of his/her ability to work within a viola section. Again, this was a section viola vacancy. I asked myself - wouldn't it have more useful in the final round to bring the entire viola section on stage, plop the finalists in the middle of the section, and have the Music Director conduct the section in excerpts like the beginning of Midsummer Night's Dream, #15 in Shostakovich Symphony #5, 1st movement of Tchaikovsky 6th, etc., and then the Audition Committee could not only use their own eyes and ears, but have the benefit of "on the job" feedback from the Music Director and members of the viola section?

Robert also wrote:

"But I would ask whether or not they think orchestra musicians, acting as an audition committee or an entire orchestra, would make better decisions about hiring and tenure than would music directors. Why would their "ownership" of the orchestra lead them to act more wisely than the music director's "ownership" would lead her to act - or vice versa?"

Inevitably, one of the first questions that would work its way into the question posed even for comparison purposes is who should make the hiring/tenure decisions, the orchestra or the section? I would personally be interested in a comparison of audition procedures between the London Symphony, where candidates audition for the section, and the Berlin Philharmonic, where candidates audition for the orchestra. Perhaps another discussion.

That being said, I think the word "ownership" and the word "involvement" are key. Across the globe we have Music Directors who hold multiple posts. For many orchestras, gone is the era of Szell/Cleveland, Ormandy/Philadelphia, Bernstein/New York-one conductor-one orchestra (except for guest conducting, etc.) I often wonder if the syndrome "if this is Saturday, this must be Stockholm" has an effect on a Music Director's involvement, and therefore "ownership." This is by no means expressed as a universal application, but a question to the panelists and readership: In your opinion, does the foregoing in any way affect tenure decisions? I think it is quite likely.

On the other side, I have had colleagues who were extensively involved in their orchestras, and other colleagues who performed quite competently, but at the appointed hour, left the service and pursued other endeavors, and did not feel the sense of "ownership" that some of their colleagues felt, for whatever reason.

I do not consider this a cop-out, but my answer to the moderator's question is that it depends upon the level of "ownership" of both the Music Director and the musicians. It goes both ways.

Robert finished with:

"So I would ask Nathan what he would consider a rate of tenure denial that whatever audition system he favors 1) should produce; and 2) is likely to produce."

I have no such number, nor do I feel that it is useful to seek one, because if the granting authority (be it the entire orchestra, the section, or the Music Director) are content with the musicians engaged, it doesn't matter.

This has been a most useful, educational endeavor. Thank you, Robert for raising so well some of the most important issues in our auditions today, and to all the other panelists for their most interesting and cogent points in this discussion.

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Fergus McWilliam's Statement (Click to Hide)

Fergus McWilliam  

Fergus McWilliam

hornist; Berlin Philharmonic

For this final day the moderator asks for reactions to the following statement: "An orchestra audition consisting of a movement from a concerto and excerpts is sufficient to select the "best" person for the job".

I have seen too many successful outcomes of just such auditions too disagree with this statement - although it is certainly easier at such an audition to identify those who will not be suitable for the job than it is to identify who will be the best person for the job.

However it is vital that an orchestra trying to fill a vacancy in its membership has an idea of what it is looking for. It is simply not enough to settle for a couple of the "best players" of the day and then nod in exhausted acquiescence in the direction of the conductor for the final decision. No string quartet would ever operate like this in the search for a new member. I applaud therefore all the suggestions and practices of trying out candidates in chamber music or orchestra rehearsals. It would be just so much more effective if the orchestra possessed a musical personality, style, tradition that it knew well. They would know what they were looking for, and just about any kind of selection procedure would serve. As I wrote earlier, trying to decide the best way to organize an audition, before knowing what one hopes to find, is putting the cart before the horse.

But how does an orchestra even start to answer such a question when they have had little or no experience of the impact of making the decision all by themselves and cannot articulate what they are looking for?

And here is the moderator's second challenge: "I would ask whether or not they think orchestra musicians, acting as an audition committee or an entire orchestra, would make better decisions about hiring and tenure than would music directors. Why would their "ownership" of the orchestra lead them to act more wisely than the music director's "ownership" would lead her to act - or vice versa?"

It's not that I believe musicians making the decision will always make the best choice, but that the decision-making process should be improved. I hold that as long as conductors ("Big Daddies") hold and exercise such critical executive power as in the hiring issue, orchestra members cannot easily evolve beyond the role of dependent, subservient employees.

"Ownership" of the audition process by the orchestra means that every member knows they have their position because their colleagues, not the conductor, chose them. This kind of "corporate maturity" should lead on to the membership being able to engage in mutual (hopefully constructive) criticism. Ultimately, such a self-disciplined environment will foster independence, solidarity, mutual respect and pride. It can, by the way, even help to reduce stage fright by instilling true self-confidence.

Finally, in response to Robert's question to me, "I would ask Fergus if he can imagine any improvements in the "German" system that might result in more new hires retaining their jobs":

It may also be happening elsewhere in Germany, but in the Berlin Philharmonic we now occasionally ask leading non-string candidates to play for a week of two in the orchestra. It helps sometimes. What cannot be tested in advance by any method I have heard of is whether the candidates have the nerves to withstand life in our orchestra.

Finally, a word about Berlin's merciless culling of a third of all our probationary candidates: the "blood-letting" has eased up a bit in recent years. Currently we also have relatively few vacancies.

I know I'm repeating myself when I say, I believe the quickest way to achieve a quantum leap in the quality of music making by an orchestra is to empower the membership, and the single most effective first step is for that orchestra to take back ownership of the audition process. It will be the first step on the road to musicians managing themselves with courageous artistic commitment. And it's so much more fun!

To all participants and readers, I have very much enjoyed both the challenge and the privilege of taking part in this forum. I shall remain keenly interested to follow developments in this subject as time goes by.

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Rip Pretat's Statement (Click to Hide)

Rip Pretat  

Rip Pretat

bassist and Assistant PM; Milwaukee Symphony

I would like to thank the other panelists, as Robert has done already, for their thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I am sorry to see our week come to a close, not only because I have found it to be an exceedingly interesting undertaking, but also because the subject which I view as the most important in the audition process has been touched upon only peripherally - that of ethics in auditions.

Before answering the moderator's first question, I feel compelled first to paraphrase a statement written earlier in the week: that there is no method that will ensure that the "best" musician will be hired to fill an orchestral vacancy. This is due in part to the fact that the most important criteria by which candidates are judged are inherently subjective, ensuring that conclusions as to the ideal candidate will vary from musician to musician as well as from orchestra to orchestra.

That said, I do believe that, particularly if we are interested in including all interested candidates in our selection process, the current method used by the majority of American orchestras of listening to twelve minutes (or less) of a concerto and orchestral excerpts is "sufficient" to allow a committee to select a much smaller number of the more qualified candidates for further consideration. In the instance where one person so outshines the other candidates in later rounds that he/she receives the enthusiastic recommendation of the both committee and music director, this method has often proven to be not only a sufficient, but, indeed, an effective method to hire a section musician. Where the outcome is less clear, a round of chamber music has proven to be very effective at clarifying the relative merits of the candidates. In the case of a titled position, a week (or more) of playing with the orchestra should probably be an integral part of the hiring process, even if the audition process has narrowed the field to only one candidate.

In regard to the second question, although I have come to the conclusion that it is perhaps more appropriate for the entire membership of the orchestra to make the ultimate decision regarding the granting of tenure (mostly because I believe that they have the ability to more consistently make that judgment in an impartial and objective manner, due largely to their number), I do not mean to imply, as Robert's question states, "that the members of an orchestra will make better tenure decisions than will the orchestra's music director". I merely am stating that, as a body, they appear to be in a better position than either a tenure review committee or a music director to make a decision that is based on what is best for the orchestra without at least the perception of being influenced by personal relationships. And, it can be argued that the musicians have more of a right to the "ownership" of that particular authority, since the consequences of that decision will affect them as a group far longer than any individual music director.

As to Robert's addendum posed to Nathan and Fergus, I agree for the most part with Nathan's philosophy that whatever works for an individual orchestra is right for them (as long as the process is conducted in an ethical manner). For example, if audition winners in Berlin are made aware that they are essentially considered to be long-term substitute musicians until they are granted tenure, then they know what they are getting into before they pack up their possessions and move to Berlin. On the other hand, as long as tenure is granted on the basis of a musician's musical contributions to the orchestra, who can quibble with the granting of tenure to 98% of an orchestra's new hires?

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Comments for Rip Pretat

It occurred to me after reading Rip's Day 5 response that some of the readers of this site may be unaware of the following (which was later also approved by the Regional Orchestra Players' Association-the Major Orchestra Managers' Conference was absorbed into the different orchestra area designations of the American Symphony Orchestra League):


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), 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. Auditionees 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.

nathankahn on January 26, 2019 at 2:38 AM


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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