Audition is such a dirty word sometimes. But every orchestral performer has to go through the experience at one point or other. The other day I was exchanging audition stories with a couple of colleagues over dinner. This kind of conversation almost always goes the same direction: 1)Auditions are not always the best way to find a performer 2) When an orchestra decides not to hire anyone after a day of auditioning it is never good for the orchestra 3) There is not really any other fair way of selecting a future colleague of an ensemble.
It’s a frustrating conversation that I’ve witnessed and participated in for years. But when I was exchanging audition stories with my friends, we came to the conclusion (partly in jest) that there may be a way to make over the process so that auditions would be less of a negative experience for all.
First of all it’s important to understand the usual method of auditioning any orchestral player:
- A general advertisement is sent out to which a musician sends back a resume.
- An invitation is sent to the musicians who have resumes that the audition committee feels might be the best candidates for their orchestra.
- A list of repertoire is sent to the candidates. Repertoire on that list is usually diverse to give the committee the best hearing of technique, musicality, and how that candidate may blend with the ensemble. Part of the required repertoire is a solo or concerto.
- At the audition the repertoire is heard in two-three rounds (many times behind a screen to protect identity), each narrowing down to a smaller amount of candidates.
- The final round (where the music director usually joins the audition committee) is to determine who will be awarded a job in the ensemble.
- A player is hired and maybe a runner-up is named. Sometimes there are no offers of jobs (a multitude of reasons for this occurrence), which makes everyone have to go back to step one.
While much of the conversation about slightly altering the audition template was in hypothesis and or jest, our conclusions were based on some downright obvious observations we’ve made over the years as professional orchestral musicians.
First of all, the above list would remain the much the same, however a few fun tweaks might create a more efficient and sincere way of picking a new colleague for any ensemble.
- Instead of just the standard repertoire, include one or two standards that your orchestra plays regularly. An example might be the John William’s Harry Potter Suite, Sleigh Ride, 1812 Overture. You may laugh but I’ve seen some musicians who cannot syncopate Sleigh Ride, musicians who discount John Williams since it’s “just pops music,” and musicians that completely blow it on 1812 Overture for no good reason.
- Shorten the required repertoire list. It’s ridiculous (and unfortunately very common) to require large amounts of music for today’s orchestra’s auditions. I’ve been invited to auditions that have more repertoire on the required list than the ensemble plays in 2 seasons. Nobody should have to give up living or working to prepare five-15 hours of music that can only be heard in the space of two-three rounds.
- Make it a requirement for the music director to listen to ALL rounds. As the highest paid musician in the orchestra, and the one that carries the biggest deciding factor in the auditions, it would help to eliminate the “non-hire” auditions where the audition committee sifts through hours of candidates for a final round only to have the music director decide that nobody will be awarded the job. Also, perhaps in the first round the music director should get an equal vote to everyone else on the committee, helping create a balanced feeling in the preliminary rounds.
- Drop the required solo except for principal player auditions. It never ceases to amaze me how orchestras require a flashy solo, which no doubt will impress any committee, but after hiring someone will claim the new hire plays like a soloist and can’t blend with a section. Shocking.
- If there must be a requirement for a solo, let it be more to show a personality of the candidate. Everyone always gets super tense and defensive about the solo requirement in an orchestral audition; complaints range from, “It isn’t standard repertoire!” to “If I have to hear another Brahms or Sibelius concerto I think I’m going to throw up!” It is common knowledge to most people on the audition trail that they will probably get punished for playing something out of the ordinary. For violin auditions, it’s almost always the same expectations: Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Mendelssohn are the “safer” choices. I’d love nothing more than to walk into an audition and lay down the Fire and Blood violin concerto by Michael Daugherty or Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize winning violin concerto.
In reality, orchestral auditions will probably continue on the same path as they have the last few decades. But as orchestras are struggle in so many places, it’s ironic that so much effort goes into “the perfect audition.” In all seriousness, perhaps there needs to be an additional round: How will you support your family and lifestyle if our orchestra goes bankrupt in a year.
In the meantime, I’ll continue thinking about fun ways to re-invent the wheel. Maybe I’ll even write a list of new requirements for conductor auditions…