My old pal Ken Woods posted a great piece in response to a Boston Magazine article that I’m not going to link to because their servers are already toast and wouldn’t be able to handle the tens of additional readers from this space about orchestral auditions and the unnatural toll they take on musicians. This of course got me thinking about my own former “career” and the nature of the music business and politics and fairness.
First, a thought on the entire construct of the system: it’s fucking insane. Being able to throw down a flawless excerpt or two says quite literally nothing about your ability to be a contributor to the greater good of an orchestra, especially if you’re not a principal player. What the hell does it matter if I can play a balls out Tschaikovsky 5 solo when I’m auditioning for 2nd horn? What matters are things like the nuances of intonation, matching styles, understanding of the repertoire and more importantly your place in it, and the thousand other things that have nothing to do with how awesome your solo with no chipped notes was. To cherry pick a sports analogy from Ken, if the NFL were like orchestra auditions, the greatest player of all-time may not have even made it – he was considered slow for a wide receiver after running a 4.6 40-yard dash and, you know, receivers often run 40 yards in a straight line with no football equipment on before stopping and getting dressed at the top of the route to make the catch and get tackled. It’s led to the homogenization of orchestral playing, with every important band filled with musicians of staggering ability who don’t seem to bring anything distinctive to their ensembles. Yes, that’s a generalization.
The illusion that the system is “fair” is what props up the entire idea. Nothing underhanded could possibly happen because of this screen I stole from a tuberculosis hospital in 1896 and placed here to obstruct the view of the judges! I know of at least two stories that took place at auditions that I took in which the winner was supposed to be someone who was pre-selected by the conductor and panel. At one of these whatever high sign the pre-selected candidate was to have given didn’t work out, because the committee chose someone else “by mistake.” Ultimately, they had a “re-audition” and perfected their respective understandings of the “high sign” and found who they were looking for. I mean really, all one needs is an agreed upon clearing of the throat or stmop of the foot to let a committee know who they are.
But whether or not it’s fair isn’t really the point – the point is that it may not actually getting the best musicians for the job. There’s so much more to being a musician than being able to fucking crush the Mahler 5 trumpet solo, and a lot of them don’t even have anything to do with the instrument you’re holding. Are you reliable? Can you communicate effectively with various types of personalities? Are you adaptable? Are you punctual? Are you able to take criticism even when it may be unwarranted, from conductors, peers, critics, etc.? There is no way to find any of those out in an audition, with the exception of punctuality.
Are there any solutions? Ken mentions the UK model, which is certainly a drastic improvement. Ultimately, it’s always going to be about playing the shit out of something in a pressure situation. But to carry the NFL analogy to its logical conclusion, perhaps we could place more emphasis on “game film” or previous work. This obviously applies more to the highest tier of orchestras in America, but why not focus more on the actual business of being in an orchestra…playing with other people? Whether that’s the trial system they use in the UK, or just getting a chamber ensemble comprised of people from your band to play with the newbie and see how they respond to people who are firmly rooted in your band’s approach, there’s certainly some things that could be tweaked.
Or we can continue down this path of creating musical killing machines who can execute a flawless Don Juan but may or may not be able to coexist with the other 80 people in the orchestra, musically and otherwise.
One final note about auditions which I addressed in my comment on Ken’s post – one thing auditions definitely do is give you a keen sense of performing when there are expectations. I currently work for a government contractor managing people, many of them attorneys, analyzing Freedom of Information Act cases for United States Citizenship & Immigration Services. We have a 90-day probation period to meet certain production standards, and it has been the cause of great stress for some, including many who do very fine work. And while I’m very sympathetic to their concerns (I promise, I really am), in the back of my mind all I can think is “ok, imagine we told you to analyze literally three cases and would make our decision based on that.” Makes 90 days seem like forever, right?
So, uh, thanks for that, completely irrational audition process.