Auditions are fun!

Maybe sometimes. But my orchestra recently conducted a few inconclusive auditions, including one last week that involved about 125 candidates. Although I can’t comment on actual audition results or discussions, these episodes did get me thinking (again) about how antiquated and inefficient the orchestral audition process can seem in today’s high-tech world. Unusually, I was not on any of the recent audition committees, but was of courseĀ  aware of the painstaking process at hand, having been through it many times (on both sides of the screen, by the way). The audition last week involved some 21 hours of preliminaries. Perhaps it is finally time to examine possible alternative procedures that don’t involve 125 people flying in to play for ten or twelve minutes apiece.

How about Skype for preliminaries? Or maybe just a live recording? Before the traditionalists barrage me with email, consider the massive advances in audio and bandwidth technology just over the last five years. Yes, audio on Skype can be spotty, and there will always be issues with anonymity and “live” vs. “recorded”. But isn’t it time to explore some options?

One intriguing alternative was presented by my colleague Robert Levine on a polyphonic.orgĀ discussion a few years ago. Basically, he proposes that a consortium of “member groups” act as remote sites for each others’ preliminary auditions. The audition would be recorded “live” with the list played straight through, then processed instantly. Although Rob proposes using CDs and snail-mailing, with today’s technology these audio files could be labeled and immediately emailed for a committee to evaluate.

It’s pretty clear what the advantages are- no one would be flying around, anonymity and the “live” audition would be preserved, and auditions could almost certainly be scheduled more frequently. Semis and finals could have predetermined dates, with perhaps a number of “preliminary” recording times leading up to them (instead of one cattle-call day, followed by semis/finals the next).

Admittedly, this could be tricky from an administrative perspective, at least at first. And there would be expenses relating to recording, etc. But it seems to me those costs would be minimal in comparison to what occurs now, not to mention the hassle and time involved flying all over the place instead of just emailing an audio file.

And if I can teach a Skype violin lesson, isn’t is possible that the same technology might somehow work for orchestra auditions as well?

Hopefully someday soon.

10 thoughts on “Auditions are fun!”

  1. I am increasingly astonished at the chasm that exists between the two worlds of playing well in an orchestra and playing well in an audition. I agree wholeheartedly that upgrading the process would be beneficial to all parties involved, especially given the technology. Perhaps our orchestra could be a pioneer with this philosophy. Also, in the past I have auditioned for orchestras that offered the option to send a tape (Boston and Chicago) as a preliminary round.

    • The problem with sending tapes or CDs these days is that anyone with a laptop can make a perfect audition recording. That’s why the “live” option is so important. Agreed that some orchestra someplace needs to set the standard for a new process; maybe the MSO.

  2. Why not do what America’s Got Talent did last year and have people upload their videos to YouTube? Most people have video cameras on their phones these days and the resolution keeps getting better all the time.

    Only a professional video person could alter the audio (pitch correction) but even so, you can judge a lot of the performance by viewing their technique.

  3. I know that’s not the business you’re in, but what about the loss of tourism to Milwaukee if people stopped coming for auditions?
    Hotels, restaurants and the chance for these musicians to see how truly magnificent the City is would be at a loss.
    If given the chance, how many do you think would choose to “phone in” their audition as opposed to going through the trouble to be here in person? Would allowing an audition to be sent in greatly increase the number as you would normally get?

    • Thanks for the comment. Hey, I’m all for tourism and civic pride. But the purpose of an audition is to hire the best person for the opening, not to drum up business for airlines, hotels and restaurants. After they win the job, they can go to the zoo or whatever.
      Further, the problem isn’t attracting numbers- we had 125 people show up for one opening- it’s a matter of efficiency and attracting the best talent (that second element is a long conversation). Plus the possibility of more frequent auditions by avoiding scheduling issues w/the hall, Music Director, committees, etc.

  4. We have a similar problem in Edmonton. Great band, great hall, decent pay, but we’re in the middle of nowhere and it costs the proverbial arm/leg to get up here. This would increase our pool manifold.

  5. This is an important issue for everybody in this business, and I agree that it is time to think up some new procedures that will help everybody, orchestras and auditionees, alike. Being a somewhat younger person, who will be auditioning in the future for some of these jobs, the bit that strikes me the most in this post is the phrase, “Inconclusive auditions”, which I assume means, after bringing in those 125 people, no one was hired.
    I believe this is a trend which happens way too often to be a good thing. When I think of the talent at the New World Symphony or Chicago Civic, or at this country’s best music schools and conservatories, I simply can not believe that 125 people can show up to audition for an orchestra with the strong reputation of the Milwaukee Symphony, and there was No one even good enough to give a one year contract to?
    Some years ago, an oboist from the MET opera orchestra wrote an article for the Double reed journal mentioning that group’s philosophy of hiring the best person that auditioned, without leaving positions vacant for years at a time, which seems to becoming the norm for American big city orchestras.
    I only can echo that strongly. I urge audition committees to hold auditions to actually HIRE people! If an orchestra does not want to do that, (for example if they would just hire away a principal clarinet from a rival orchestra, or test out various prominent people by having them substitute for concerts during their season) then Don’t have an audition.
    Sorry if this sounds like a rant.

    • Hi, and thanks for your comment, which I don’t see as a rant at all. In fact, this is a pretty common topic both from the candidate’s and orchestra’s perspective these days, as well as out in blogland. You’re correct in that we’ve had a couple of principal auditions recently that I characterized as “inconclusive” in the piece, meaning no one was hired that day. The process to fill both positions is ongoing.

      This is a very complicated subject for a variety of reasons, but I’d like to emphasize a few points. First, after having sat on literally dozens of committees with various orchestras over the years, I can say without hesitation that no orchestra holds auditions in order to keep a position vacant. It is not in their interest on any level, artistic or otherwise. Auditions are expensive, time-consuming, often tedious, and very cumbersome to administer and schedule. It is also worth emphasizing that audition procedures for major orchestras are pretty detailed in the CBA, and (in the US at least), the final decision almost always rests with the Music Director.

      With all due respect, you have no idea what the level was at our recent auditions, or specifically why no one was hired that day. Neither do I, since I wasn’t on those committees. And neither position is a one-year opening. The audition process can seem very convoluted and baffling in many ways; for certain it is not a perfect process. But I can assure you we’d like nothing more than to hire two musicians for these positions as soon as possible. BTW, the MSO hired someone this week for yet another vacant brass position (after two days of auditions).

      I’d invite you to read the entire polyphonic piece I referred to in the article, which discusses much of this in greater depth, and from various perspectives. It’s a few years old, but still quite relevant.


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