Auditioning the St. Louis Symphony

Every time an orchestra announces a vacancy and schedules an audition it’s actually holding a referendum among the world’s professional musicians.  That referendum is whether or not that orchestra is artistically worthy of attracting a certain level of player.

On January 3rd and 4th, the St. Louis Symphony had scheduled just such a referendum among the French Horn and Double Bass players in the industry, they had an audition.

There are a number of factors that determine the quality and quantity of musicians that show up for an audition, one of which that has had a significant amount of press coverage over the past year is how much the position pays.  It’s pretty easy to understand that particular motivation among the minds of any professional and it’s no different for musicians.

There’s been an equal amount of discussion about the vast “oversupply” of professional musicians coming out of music schools and conservatories.  I know some orchestra managers that see this as reason to not be as concerned about how well they conduct their audition process or how much their players are paid. 

During one discussion with an orchestra General Manager at a mid sized budget ensemble they told me “Why does it matter if our auditions run smoothly, players are a dime a dozen; we’ll always get them showing up in droves for an audition”.

Could you imagine that same sort of attitude among a highly competitive for profit industry such as breakfast cereals or automobiles?

It goes both ways

The recent cancellations at the SLSO auditions are bad for the orchestra not because it creates an administrative burden by having to reschedule them or a financial burden by having to reimburse candidates for travel expenses, but because those candidates were also auditioning the orchestra.

The SLSO is one of several orchestras which don’t pay enough to compete with the salaries at New York, L.A. and Boston for the top tier players, but they are in fierce competition with orchestras such as Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and – until recently – Dallas who has pulled significantly ahead after their last contract negotiation.

Although there are numerous candidates that audition for any given position, there’s typically a small core within group of players that migrate from audition to audition who have the best chances of success.  And those players talk to each other. 

How they are treated at an audition, even if they don’t win, may influence if they ever return to that orchestra for a subsequent audition.

One string player told me about an experience at an Indianapolis Symphony audition,

“Even though I didn’t win, they still sent me a very nice ‘thank you for coming to our audition’ note in the mail.  That meant a lot to me and once a position opens up in that orchestra again, you can be sure that I’ll do whatever I need to do to change my playing schedule around to show up, – even though I’ve won a job since then in a comparable ensemble since then.”

In the recent canceled SLSO auditions, some of the candidates were there because they passed the preliminary audition and others were invited to attend the semi final audition rounds; many of those invited already hold positions in other orchestras.

I contacted Jeff Trammel, Director of Communications for the SLSO, and asked him if the management ever considered the possibility of loosing some of those candidates when they reschedule the auditions,

“I wasn’t included in that process so I don’t know if those issues were ever discussed, but I can tell you that it wasn’t an easy decision for Randy [Adams, SLSO president] to make.”

Whether or not those candidates will have an easy time making the decision to return will be determined once the SLSO announces the rescheduled audition dates.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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