Take This Audition And Shove It

There has been some intriguing discussion as of late among some cultural bloggers about the audition process. It started off on 4/5/2009 with a post by Jeffrey Weisner at the Peabody Double Bass Blog examining the sometimes slippery process that results in a “no-hire” audition. Weisner’s post is refreshingly candid and offers a valuable glimpse into the audition process. A few days after Weisner’s post, Robert Levine posted something at Abu Bratsche based on his years of experience as principal violist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (or in his words, lead viola operator). Although each post presents offers thoughtful observations, it is difficult to avoid noticing they both acknowledge some procedural tension between audition committees and the music director…

There are ways to reduce unnecessary conflict between audition committees and music directors.
There are ways to reduce unnecessary conflict between audition committees and music directors.

From an orchestra manager’s perspective, this is especially useful since procedure is one of the areas where managers can be most effective at creating a productive audition environment. Historically, one of the most common times for audition unrest between stakeholders is during the initial years of a music director’s tenure. Although the amount of influence a music director wields at an audition is usually considerable, how it is put into practice varies from one organization to the next.

Odds are, an incoming music director hasn’t taken the time to review the master agreement’s audition procedure language first hand; as a result, a shrewd manager will make certain to take the necessary time to review that language prior to the onset of auditions. The music director may not like certain aspects of it but that’s no excuse for subverting the process and ultimately, it is something he/she will have to discuss with the CEO at a later time.

Yet, after reading Weisner’s and Levine’s respective posts, it is hard to escape the reality that some of the troubles they defined might have been marginalized by employing some better-safe-than-sorry best practices for all stakeholders.

  1. Each day of a new round of auditions, set aside time to review the audition process as defined in the master agreement and/or any other institutional documents defining the process.
  2. If the music director doesn’t enter the process until a later round, revue those same procedures again with everyone in the room so he/she understands how candidates have been advanced (yes, you might get a few eye rolls and complaints about wasting time but it will be worth it).
  3. Leave at least one print copy of the rules and procedure for the committee during each round.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much a manager can do to prevent musicians or the music director from engaging in the sort of negative behavior Weisner describes as “personal enmity between committee members, resentment of principal players, a desire to “stick it” to the favored candidate of another committee member, or even simple racism, sexism, or ageism.” Granted, people with bad intentions will behave badly but setting the tone by making certain everyone is aware of the official process just might be what it is needed to keep good people from giving in to lesser instincts. Worst case scenario is the music director or audition committee blatantly refuses to abide by the contractually mandated process and in those cases, it is handy to have the CEO or General Manager on call to enforce the defined process.

Ultimately, managers don’t care very much which audition candidate is selected; after all, that’s the prevue of those entrusted with artistic decisions, training, and experience to implement said decisions. However, managers are the stakeholders that have to deal with the byproduct of a dysfunctional audition process which includes everything from irate candidates and petty artistic stakeholders to the added expense and loss of precious man-hours associated with implementing a subsequent audition (not to mention the possibility of time spent investigating shenanigans related to the unsuccessful audition).

Postscript: Imagine how useful it would be if a professional development course with the goal of training new operations professionals on how to implement an efficient audition process existed. Ideally, it would be staffed by a group of veteran managers and musicians instructed to behave with prescribed PITA personality traits and throw as many curve balls as possible to said ops newbies. What fun.

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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6 thoughts on “Take This Audition And Shove It”

  1. Good post, Drew. I would add that it’s helpful in every situation for at least one member of the management team to have the CBA completely learned and within their grasp to understand and apply its language (and intended results) to situations BEFORE they arise.

    At the OSO, we have a copy of the audition policy available for the candidates to read, and every member of the committee and the MD have it available to refer to during the audition.

  2. Thanks for the insight Charles. It’s good to hear that you have a copy of the audition policy available for candidates too. In fact, I wonder if there’s some value in having it sent to them (or a link pointing to an online copy) along with the rest of the audition material.

    In my world of ideal orchestra manager training, there would be a system to measure how well ops personnel (not to mention union stewards) know the CBA. But that’s a separate topic…

    • Good question, I’m not aware of any study that measures the audition process based on whether or not a candidate was offered the position. I don’t think it would be impossible to conduct an objective study since many of the measurable factors are likely spelled out in the respective master agreement. And if not, it would be a good exercise for a group to clear up any unknowns.

      To be comprehensive, the study would need to include an examination of the tenure process (which would add anywhere from one to three years to the study) since that is an integral component of determining a successful hire.

      From a non-musical perspective, it’s even easier to measure and evaluate the process. If anything, it’s certainly an intriguing project – assuming you can find an orchestra willing to have their process examined objectively.

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