True Grit: The grueling ritual of orchestra auditions for performer and committee

orchestra auditions are a grueling process

This past Monday I served as a judge on a nine member committee for the Columbus Symphony Principal Viola audition.

It's like being a shaman conducting a ritual sacrifice, all the while knowing that shamans are as human as the victims, but having to choose anyway.

This was the first of several auditions which will take place over the next year or so.

The reason? Vacancies piled up after a three year period with no music director (during which we are contractually unable able to hire any new players). During the same period the orchestra suffered a mass exodus of players due to declining salaries. Some who left went to more secure teaching positions. A few chose to freelance in more lucrative large cities such as Chicago. One or two switched careers altogether.

The Principal Viola vacancy, however, has a more somber story behind it. Our longtime Principal Violist, David Shmookler, passed away a year ago, after several years of declining health after a massive heart attack. He was only in his 50s. We all miss him and his splendidly musical playing.

Now that we have a Music Director, the gifted Jean-Marie Zeitouni, we are finally able to fill the many vacancies left by departing musicians.

Of the nine orchestra members on the committee for this audition, I was the only non-string player on this committee; the monkey-wrench in the string-works so to speak. (For non-musician readers, string players tend to believe they are the most important part of the orchestra; they sit up front and outnumber all the others. I mean this tongue in cheek, but the cliche sometimes proves true.)

We convened at 9AM, a particularly early hour for musicians, who normally have to be at their utmost best between 8 and 10 at night.

Luckily, meals were included, a variety of breakfast materials, a very nice box lunch and a dinner. Dinner was particularly good this time because Music Director Jean-Marie offered to treat us to the best takeout in town, Rigsby's kitchen. Sadly their online carryout menu was tragically out of date, resulting in major disappointment for me. I had to settle for roast chicken, rather than the tantalizing wild duck breast entrée I had salivated for in vain! 🙁

After being reminded of audition procedures and rules, we settled down to a long day of particularly grueling work requiring intense and prolonged focus for all parties. The full process took 13 hours. This was a short audition with only 25 preliminary applicants, compared to those for popular instruments such as violin or flute, which can draw 100 or more applicants for the preliminary round.

Psychological fluxes occur in even the most well meaning committee judges.

In the interest of impartiality, all US orchestra auditions are held anonymously. All contestants are reduced to a number until the final round. This makes for a particularly detached, even cold, experience for both players and committee members. A robot could be playing and we would not know. You'd be surprised at how such a tiny psychological detail can amass into a failure of judgment after many hours. It's easier to justify eliminating a number. Or to simply space out during one or two contestant's playing. The connection of seeing someone play is lost.

Another ritualistic oddity of the audition process is that dozens of obscure excerpts must be played out of their musical context. Music is usually a group effort, especially for an orchestra player. There is something disconcerting about hearing one part intended to blend with many, like focusing on just the ears of a group of people to find the best. It almost fetishist, warped by repeated exclusion of any real perspective.

Yet, while few other formats ensure objectively hearing a large number of players to choose the best player for the job, it is painfully ironic is that, despite all attempts render the process as scientific as possible, a player's entire career may still be fated by the simple fact of drawing the dreaded number 1 position, for example, lost in the early shuffle. Or being a relative star among a batch of hacks, or becoming one of any number of victims of a grumpy committee hungry for lunch!

Granted, musicians treat auditions with as much detail and attention as their own music making. Most take the job seriously. After all, we will be working with the player we choose. However, odd little patterns develop in my own thinking, much as I try to be consistent and objective as the shaman judge needs to be. It's certainly humbling.

If after hearing five or ten players I have heard someone really phenomenal, I tend to eliminate more players after that. Once I know we have a great player in the mix, others may not be able to match it. It seems a natural reaction. But preliminary rounds are often extremely short, 3-5 minutes, barely enough time to get into the music and the acoustics of the hall. Suppose an inconsistent player has a great first round? After all, it's a microscopic example of overall playing abilities. Chances are one player may get to play all his best excerpts in the first round. So I try to be consistent in my judgement throughout.

A similar but opposite tendency occurs when no really good players appear after hearing a dozen or so. I then wonder if I was too harsh in my earlier standards, eliminating potentially good players inappropriately.

Another psychological effect can occur while listening to dozens of players play exactly the same excerpts. Such repetition causes a sort of allergic reaction to hearing them over and over and over. Sometimes I become numb, tuning out. Other times I may become more and more picky, looking for anyone who can play that one lick just right! Either way, perspective can falter into emotional decisions about a candidates performance. Am I sacrificing the wrong candidate?

One pattern in particular frustrated me in Monday's viola audition. Inconsistency marked even the best player's offerings. Each had clear weaknesses in one or another excerpt. I admit that my perspective may be biased by the more consistent note and pitch accuracy in wind instruments than stringed instruments. Perhaps that perspective is part of my job as the only non-string player on the committee.

I was really surprised that most candidates rushed tempos, not in just one but several fast excerpts. Maybe it's a string thing. I know that bow control is magnificently difficult (magnificent because it's so beautiful to watch the dance between arm, bow and strings) and perhaps it is safer to rush a bit than suffer discombobulation while attempting to change the bounce speed of the bow already in motion. But I was a little surprised that few, if any, candidates rendered all excerpts to my satisfaction.

A multifarious variety of factors play into a purportedly fair process. Perhaps it's a little like democracy, messy but it works most of the time. As the sole wind player, I was certainly the outsider looking in. I like to think I added just enough variety to the spice of our final choice.

All in all, it's a beautiful if grueling process. It's also a tiny, but very human part of the glorious and rewarding ritual of entering into a lifelong career as an orchestral performer.

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2 comments for “True Grit: The grueling ritual of orchestra auditions for performer and committee

  1. February 24, 2011 at

    As a high school band and orchestra teacher, I frequently have to sit on audition committees for the PMEA District, Region, and All-State Festivals. Our auditionees are also reduced to a number, and after sitting through 60 clarinetists playing three major scales and the chromatic, it is definitely challenging to maintain one’s focus and present a fair adjudication for each.

    In the end, everyone really does end up where they should be. Everything happens for a reason, even if you never really discover what that reason is.

    • February 26, 2011 at

      Indeed, Tom. “In the end, everyone really does end up where they should be. Everything happens for a reason, even if you never really discover what that reason is.” Well put.

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