Enough Already With The Audition Nonsense!

The 11/11/2007 edition of the New York Times published an article by Anthony Tommasini’s which features an interview between the author and Marin Alsop. Since its publication, the article has been making the usual rounds inside the business due to Alsop’s comments regarding auditions. In that article Tommasini quotes Alsop as saying the process of blind auditions (where candidates perform behind a screen) is “fundamentally flawed.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, her comments have stirred up a Hornet’s Nest, especially with the recent announcement that the Cleveland Orchestra will now implement screened auditions. Regardless of the passionate feelings this article has stirred up, the fact is that the whole thing is just one big red herring…

Well, perhaps not so much a red herring as simply much ado about nothing. For those who may not be familiar with the issues at the core of screened auditions, here’s what you need to know.

  1. There are no laws, rules, or enforceable regulations dictating how professional orchestras must implement their audition procedures.
  2. In the early 1980s, the American Federation of Musicians, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, and the Major Orchestra Managers Conference (the latter having been rolled up into the American Symphony Orchestra League) adopted the “Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions.”
  3. Said code is simply a guideline and contains provisions which dictate that it is “œsubject to local contractual considerations.”

But I digress, getting back to the NYT article I couldn’t help but notice that nearly all of the reported points Ms. Alsop made against screened auditions were mostly non-issues. For example:

“you can’t get a complete picture by listening to someone play for 20 minutes behind a screen”

Two words: tenure process. In fact, the vast majority of professional orchestras have a lengthy tenure process which places a disproportionate amount of control over whether or not a candidate is granted tenure in the hands of the music director. In the case of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where Ms. Alsop serves as Music Director, in order for a new musician to receive tenure they must receive an affirmative vote from the Music Director. Without that affirmative vote they don’€™t get the job, regardless if the musicians on the Tenure Review Committee vote in their favor or not.

Furthermore, it was disappointing that Ms. Alsop didn’t mention, or it wasn’t reported, that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra actually implements what she espouses during the final stages of the audition process: no screens. In fact, they adopted this system well before Ms. Alsop arrived. In particular, the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates that in the final phase of their audition process “No screen shall be used and each candidate shall play in full view of the Music Director and the Audition Committee.”

As such, instead of mentioning that the Baltimore Symphony audition process, crafted by the organization’s musicians and managers,  incorporates the strengths from the screened audition policy endorsed by the Code of Ethical Practices for National and International Auditions along with the no-screen policy Ms. Alsop endorses in the final round, the NYT article went on to report:

“Orchestral musicians have a fundamental fear of change,”[Alsop] said. Her responsibility in Baltimore, she said, is to open up the issue among the players and discuss the pros and cons.

Based on the 3,187 words the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’€™s collective bargaining agreement uses to detail the audition process and the 246 words used to detail the tenure review process, it seems as though they’ve opened up the issue a good bit already (as an aside, those of you keeping score at home have probably noted that the entire NYT article uses 1,598 less words than the BSO collective bargaining agreement uses to detail the audition and tenure process).

In the end, the next time you run across this issue, do yourself a favor and remember that this is just one big non-issue for most orchestras. The only time it isn’t is when someone wants to pick a fight about it.

Postscript: Lisa Hirsch over at Iron Tongue of Midnight has weighed in on this topic in addition to a growing discussion thread at violinist.com.

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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5 thoughts on “Enough Already With The Audition Nonsense!

  1. Drew
    Two things about auditions. I think it is important that when deciding how they proceed or change, the players need to be an integral part of those decisions. Whomever their new colleague will be will most likely be there long after the current music director leaves, so even though the MD gives tenure, it is important the person up for consideration is a choice the players think was fairly made.

    Secondly, no matter what the procedure is, if everyone that day goes through the same process, then it’s fair!

    Good points Ron, in the end, I think it would be good to see some more comprehensive discussions around this topic. For example, it simply doesn’t do much good to talk about the issues raised in the NYT piece without including the tenure process. Otherwise, it creates a myopic set of parameters around a far reaching issue. ~ Drew McManus

  2. I don’t know enough about orchestra auditions to really have an opinion on the best way to handle them, and most of what you and Ron have said makes sense. This, however, isn’t really true:

    “Secondly, no matter what the procedure is, if everyone that day goes through the same process, then it’s fair!”

    Different processes give advantages and disadvantages to different groups of people, and in many cases those advantages and disadvantages aren’t relevant to the elements that are supposed to be the important ones. Some hypotheticals:

    If the industry is generally biased against hiring women or minorities, then a non-blind audition process advantages white males.

    If the industry is biased by pedigree, then screening with resumes that show educational and work background advantages people who attended (which is partially determined by who could afford to attend) prestigous schools.

    If the people organizing the audition process only speak english, non-english-speakers and many ESL people will be at a disadvantage.

    A person who can afford a better instrument might be at an advantage.

    In non-blind auditions, people who already know the people running the audition are at an advantage — or a disadvantage if they happen not to get along with somebody on the committee.

    If there’s pre-audition screening process with recordings, people who can afford to engineer a better recording are at an advantage.

    A blind audition robs people who have good showmanship skills of the chance to demonstrate them, disadvantaging them in comparison to a person with poor showmanship skills.

    And so on. Some of the examples I offered might be advantages that are legitimate considerations (maybe good english skills are important to good communication in rehearsal, for instance? I have no idea how important or unimportant that is.), but many are not. I don’t know what constitutes a fair audition, but it seems to me that fairness is worth striving for, and that if we assume any process that’s the same for everybody is fair we miss opportunities to change things for the better.

    Good stuff here Galen. I think what you’ve pointed out here, and this may not have been your intention so correct me if I’m wrong, is that each orchestra will create an audition process tailored to their situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the end results may have a number of similarities but most of the players I speak with who serve on audition committees (and negotiation committees who draft the process language) do their best to create a situation which allows every candidate to demonstrate the absolute best of their abilities and apply that process equally throughout the entire audition process.

    Perhaps usage of the word “fair” isn’t the best choice in this discussion since even that term can be subjective. Thoughts? ~ Drew McManus

  3. That’s pretty much what I was getting at, yeah. And it’s important to note that the same procedure might be good for one organization but bad for another one.

    Your point about the value of the word “fair” is good too. Plus, we should recognize that in some circumstances it’s appropriate to sacrifice fairness to individuals for the sake of fairness to a population–I’m thinking of affirmative action, but there are probably other situations where this applies as well.

    There is, however, value to outside review of procedures, since systems like blind auditions are designed to guard against problems that are easy to be in denial about.

  4. I found this whole piece really irritating for many reasons, but wanted to quickly address two points in the article. First, regarding a conductor’s gender and sexual preference, here’s a news flash- nobody cares. The overriding concern for orchestral musicians is the enormously complex set of skills required to be a top conductor, which include superb artistry, professionalism, an ability to inspire the best performances from the group consistently, respect for the musicians, and a whole litany of other elements including the most elusive of all, “chemistry”. 95% of the time these are the most compelling issues, and if you’re part of the other 5% most likely you live in Vienna. In my experience, many “name” conductors (including Ms. Alsop) do not connect well with certain orchestras, and are great with others. It is impossible to pin that fact on one specific thing (usually), but chances are it is some combination of the aspects listed above, not gender or sexual preference. As for leadership, it is worth noting that both the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have highly regarded and successful Executive Directors, both women. The question of why there are not more female Music Directors is complicated, and not easily examined in one more article that leans toward predictable (and simplistic) causes.

    As for Ms. Alsop’s comments on audition practices, first let me say I totally agree that the process is inherently flawed, and I think most orchestral musicians would concur. The problem is finding an alternative- I invite Ms. Alsop or anyone else to come up with a process that makes more sense. Thus far that has not happened, although orchestras do try and refine their own practices if they feel the need (such as Cleveland’s recent enlightenment). We are all aware that an audition with screens (removed for the finals in most cases) will not give a complete picture of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Drew is correct that this is a primary reason for the tenure process, which (in my opinion) is generally not given appropriate attention or gravity these days, and is often abused for various reasons. But that discussion is for another day.

    The fact is this- using screens has infinitely more upsides than downsides, and is directly responsible for the (minimal) diversity that does exist in orchestras today, including the abundance of women holding orchestral positions at the highest echelons. Does is not occur to Ms. Alsop that gender, race or sexual preference are difficult to determine behind a screen?

    Good points Frank and I think the key to finding acceptable solutions to most of the problems raised in the NYT article is in the tenure process. I think it would be fascinating to go through each professional orchestra in the U.S. and administer an identical pop-quiz to the music director, concertmaster, union steward, orchestra committee chair, and personnel manager on the details of their respective tenure process as it is dictated in the collective bargaining agreement and then compare the responses to see what each contingency really knows. ~ Drew McManus

  5. As a lowly student of the cello, I’d like to throw in my two cents about the professional orchestra audition process.

    I agree that the blind part of the auditions is definitely a red herring, since pretty much all professional orchestras remove the screen for the final round. But that doesn’t mean that the process isn’t still fundamentally flawed. When Ms Alsop says that “you can’€™t get a complete picture by listening to someone play for 20 minutes behind a screen,” I think she’s talking about more than just the screen. I have a feeling that she’s also talking about how auditions really don’t have much to do with actually playing in an orchestra.

    After all, the primary responsibility of an orchestra musician is to play well with others. But auditions are usually unaccompanied. So while the audition measures excellence in solo performance, it really doesn’t tell the committee a whole lot about how the musician will perform in an ensemble. The emphasis on preparation of orchestral excerpts also tends to put technical perfection and relentless preparation before musicality, at least as far as string players are concerned. It’s pretty difficult for cellist to get inspired when playing orchestra cello parts solo, after all.

    I understand that the tenure process is used to correct mistakes in hiring. But it seems counterintuitive that the number one job of an orchestra musician, which is playing in a section (for a string player at least), is not assessed in the audition. That’s sort of like holding an office job interview and bothering to find out whether a potential employee is a good team player.

    Since I’m complaining, I feel like I should offer some sort of solution. I say that orchestras get rid of excerpts on the first round. Have the candidates perform chamber music, behind a screen or otherwise. Or let them perform sonatas with accompaniment. Let them demonstrate their skill as communicators of great art, rather than just expert technicians. Not that they shouldn’t be excellent technical players, but for the music to be really good, the musicians need to be really musical.

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