Improving The Musician Audition Process

Before we dive too far into this rabbit hole of a topic, we should confirm that the apply-audition-award method that is the typical professional US orchestra process is perhaps best described as the “best bad option available.” This isn’t a post about reinventing the wheel, rather, it’s about looking under a few rocks to shed some transparency on an otherwise murky topic.

For whatever reason, my inbox has been flooded as of late with a small deluge of messages from various stakeholders pointing out problems at one recent audition or another. In each instance, the respective problems are rooted in long standing issues. So when I can across Vu Le’s 4/18/2016 post about how the nonprofit field as a whole should be doing a better job at treating job applicants, it seemed like a good sign to address similar issues here.

To that end, here are some points the field should consider for improving transparency and accomplishing what Le defines as “treat[ing] our professionals with respect so they don’t run screaming into real estate or other professions (no offense to real estate or other professions).”
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  1. Create A Uniform Application: I have yet to encounter an organization where the audition committee doesn’t have a clear idea of exactly the sort of information they want to consider when determining which applicants to invite. Consequently, this should be used to streamline the application process so all incoming material is delivered through the same online, form based user interface. Only ask for what you need, but make sure you genuinely need what you’re asking for.
  2. Establish And Publish An Audition Committee Code Of Conduct: Ever since the onset of social media, there seems to be no shortage of audition committee members who seem willfully blind to the unethical nature of releasing any information or opinions about candidates during or following the audition process. In addition to crafting a committee code of conduct, it should be acknowledged in the announcement material and made publicly available to candidates in advance of the audition.
    Example: I recall seeing a Facebook post from a musician serving as an audition committee member who, while the audition was underway, wrote “candidates should never play [specific concerto], it’s an automatic disqualification in my book and I just booted someone for playing it.” But the real kick in the kididdlehopper for the poor audition candidate is this was never listed on the audition’s concerto no-fly list even though the work selected fell within the audition’s stated “19th century concerto of candidate’s choice” threshold. This is what Le appropriately describes as a holier-than-thou attitude; but in this case, the candidate is the one who unknowingly pays the price.
  3. Disclose Invitees Or Internal Candidates: One of larger dirty-little-secrets in the field are auditions where an orchestra knows exactly who they want to hire, but holds an audition anyway. From a professional perspective, there aren’t any issues with fast-tracking a musician into a position, especially a leadership chair. At the same time, that organization needs to be respectful of their candidates’ time and disclose in the official audition announcement that one or more musicians may be advanced directly to a semi-final or final round. Most orchestra’s resist the idea due to a “you never know what may show up and we don’t want to discourage anyone” perspective but if that were the case, then all candidates should play on an even playing field.
  4. Disclose Minimum Audition Length Provisions: This is closely related to item #3 where auditions where one or more invited candidates tend to produce impatient committee members. The result is a number of initial round candidates get dismissed after only a few minutes (and in some cases, seconds) of playing. In the end, this is very much a problem with a “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” solution. If an orchestra decides to auto-advance musicians; fine, but every candidate prior to those invite rounds deserves a full and uninterrupted audition. Like many items in this list, the guaranteed audition length should be included in official announcements.
  5. Enough With Hidden “Litmus Test” Qualifiers: Time for another dirty-little-secret. Some orchestras have specific criteria they use to determine which candidates to invite that are perhaps best described as being less than subjective. Remember item #2’s example? That is a good example of an item that should be sorted out among committee members during the planning stages then included in a list of acceptable repertoire for an audition’s concerto portion.
  6. Disclose Screened Audition Status: To screen or not to screen, it’s one of many circular debates inside the field. But regardless an orchestra’s position, whether or not candidates will be auditioning behind a screen for one or more round should be clearly stated in the audition notice.
  7. Solicit Formal Candidate Feedback: Ask any orchestra what they think about their audition process and most will assert that they are a paragon of integrity and the entire process from start to finish is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, none of them ever bother to ask the actual candidates and until that happens, they may want to hold off on the back-slapping. Fortunately, we covered this very issue back in 2013 where I provided a host of reference material on how to properly design audition feedback surveys right down to recommended questions.
  8. Prompt, Deadline Oriented Communication: This may seem to go without saying, but I run across far too many instances of audition candidates lamenting a lack of prompt communication. One useful trick is if your organization has the ability to create an email auto-responder that acknowledges receipt, include a note asking the candidate to reach out with a follow-up if they don’t hear back by a set amount of time. In many cases, spotty communication is the result of a spike in messages combined with an already overworked operations staffer. As a result, letting candidates know that s/he can reach out will help alleviate any stress over being a bother while reducing communication that otherwise gets inadvertantly lost in the cracks.
  9. Let Candidates Know How Finalists Are Selected: It never ceases to surprise those who aren’t already familiar with the situation, but the process used for actually selecting a finalist varies, in some cases wildly, from one orchestra to the next. Some groups provide each member of the committee and the music director one vote each and the winner is determined by a majority but in others the music director may have a weighted vote. Others have the committee select a short list of finalists then the music director selects one from that groups. Typically, this process is spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement so there should be no trouble providing it to candidates along with typical audition details.

For those interested in learning more about these issues, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) maintains a Code of Ethical Audition Practices, which was first adopted in 1984. The code is a collection of recommended guidelines as opposed to an enforceable regulation; at the same time, most orchestras use it to help determine their own practices.

I’m curious to hear about any items within the existing apply-audition-award audition process you think would benefit from change.

In the meantime, Vu Le ends his post with some insight that the orchestra field not only could, but should take to heart.

We need to shift our perception of candidates as people who are lucky if they get a job with us, toward the belief that all of us are working toward building a better world. The success of our work depends on our people. Let’s treat everyone with consideration and respect and let’s live out our principles of equity and community.

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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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13 thoughts on “Improving The Musician Audition Process

  1. Excellent post! I think creating some kind of industry standard towards auditions would go a long way in helping candidates. Injecting more transparency and objectivity into a process that tends to be subjective and often political is key. (as you have suggested). Best, Dileep

  2. Fascinating. Keep pushing for reform and I might regain some respect for the Establishment!

    Le’s last words are interesting: “We need to shift our perception of candidates as people who are lucky if they get a job with us.” Couldn’t this also read: “We need to shift our perception of audiences as people who are lucky if they get to hear/ hang out with/ attend a concert by us.” In my experience, it seems entitlement is rife throughout the Orchestra world.

  3. Thanks Stephen, however, I think it is worth pointing out that I don’t see any of this rising to the level of what I would consider reform. The apply-audition-award process is more than capable of producing worthwhile and deserving candidates. consequently, I have yet to identify any need for massive redesign of the entire process.

    I won’t be the least bit surprised if this topic inspires feedback and discussion along those lines but in the end, I have yet to encounter an idea that doesn’t produce more problems than it attempts to solve. Instead, the more discussion that happens along the lines of improving transparency via the items included here, the better.

  4. Along those lines, it has been interesting to see how ICSOM’s audition code has evolved over the years; specifically, the screened audition element. The language now is far softer than it used to be and this is one area where musicians have such a broad range of perspective that it isn’t surprising to see something presented as universal suggestions with so much flexible language.

    Nonetheless, it also serves as a good example for how much trouble a lack of transparency can produce on the artistic side of the fence. In almost every instance, the root of the problem comes down to the “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” conundrum; attempting to hedge your bet is one thing but doing so at the expense of the greater talent pool is an exercise in futility and contributes to a culture of apathy.

    Even more interesting is the lack of discussion along these lines among administrative circles. Most discussions there involve dismantling the apply-audition-award process so as to remove existing levels of input and control from artistic stakeholders. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I encountered a meaningful, public discussion/examination about how to improve the existing model. If someone has, I’d love to know about it.

  5. Yup. Agreed. Thanks for that insight, Drew. As always, growing within the confines of existing rules of operation is definitely a noble cause, but generating the permission to think differently, albeit within those confines, eventually does encourage thinking beyond what exists. I am encouraged by these discussions of transparency and look forward to how sharing live music through the orchestral medium will transform in years to come! Perhaps one day we will catch up to those who suggest we need to Re-Imagine! (Peters), Rework (Fried & Hasson), and Crush It! (Vaynerchuk).

  6. These are all excellent suggestions. I work both in the orchestra field (bassoon/contra Spokane Symphony) as well as a software engineer (Basho Technologies).

    It is becoming more and more common in the software field to “audition” people by having them work alongside other employees for a day to solve a problem and see both how they work and their fit into the company culture. The “five minutes of perfection” model of orchestral auditions is about the least-realistic method that could be used to find the best candidate. Instead, orchestras should hold initial rounds electronically (this is 2016, after all) and invite several candidates to perform with the orchestra for a concert series. An individual audition could be part of the week as well. These trial weeks would, of course, be paid and the expenses of the auditioners should be paid as well.

    Not only would this be a more realistic environment in which to find candidates it would eliminate the huge expense that auditioners make traveling to one audition after another, only to be rejected within minutes.

  7. Hi Luke, thanks for the feedback and I think you touched on one of the most difficult aspects of the audition process in that having someone sit in via a section is an ideal option but finding a way to integrate it into the actual process either places a great deal of burden on either the candidate or the ensemble’s musicians. I have seen groups that incorporate a live environment model into a final round; that isn’t terribly difficult for groups where musicians are salaried, but in per-service orgs, it is a larger logistical challenge.

    Integrating finalists into a section via a scheduled rehearsal typically involves placing greater burden on the candidate in the form of a return trip or settings aside the additional time but not knowing if it is needed until you get to the audition.

    Extending the final round to trials is also problematic for the candidates, especially those who already have positions in other ensembles. Taking that much time off is typically not an option so you end up back at the same circular trouble spot.

    With regards to the value of electronic or streaming auditions for initial rounds, the technology isn’t quite there yet vis-a-vis providing an even playing field to evaluate each candidate from a controlled environment. I do believe the potential is there, but it will be a few years (or more) before capacity catches up to the point of producing reasonable levels of quality control.

    Nonetheless, a good bit of what you’re touching on is related to other side of this larger coin: the probation process.

  8. Great list of suggestions! There’s just one other thing from Vu Le’s list that I’d love to see given greater emphasis in the audition world – salary disclosure. Legendary orchestras that are known to pay well don’t need to provide specific compensation figures, but orchestras hovering around the poverty line need to be clear about what’s on offer.

    I once flew across the continent to audition for an AFM orchestra in a second woodwind position. The ad did not specify pay or indicate whether the position was salaried or per-service. My online search found only compensation info for the principals ($30k/yr) and I didn’t want to call and hassle the proctor. I went and discovered at the audition that the orchestra had a full-time core, and the rest of the orchestra was per-service and making about 10% of the figure I expected. The committee and I ended up very angry with one another – I felt my time and money had been wasted, and they thought I’d shown up solely to take an “easy audition” for an ego boost.

    Recently, my own orchestra has been posting audition ads without compensation data. I asked a friend a while back if she was coming to try for a vacancy and she responded that she wasn’t sure – there were two auditions that week, and she had no idea what our orchestra was offering in terms of pay, whereas the other orchestra had clearly stated it in the audition ad.

  9. Those are excellent observations Mike, I was going to touch on that topic but decided to edit it out for length. But yes, these discussions tend to get buried in the details but it can become helpful to take a step back and as “are these considerations valid for a job that pays $4000/year?”

    Although the AFM makes wage info available, it isn’t exactly accessible. Members can obtain some info at AFM.org, but even then, it may be a season or two out of date. Other options include:

    1) Asking the employer for a copy of their master agreement, which will spell out base weekly wage and number of weeks in the season for salary groups and per-service rates plus any minimum service guarantees for per-service ensembles.

    2) Contacting the respective Local AFM office and ask for a copy of the master agreement (in some cases, your respective Local may have to request a copy from the other Local).

    3) Contacting the orchestra’s respective players’ committee (but as you’ve pointed out, cooperation is not guaranteed).

    4) Contacting ICSOM/ROPA/OCSM for a copy of the orchestra’s most recent “settlement bulletin, a document that provides an overview of key items in the most recent master agreement, including compensation info.

    5) Contacting the AFM’s Symphonic Services department, which exists to “offer advice, assistance and support with all symphony-related questions.” You can ask for access to the current season’s “Wage Scales and Conditions in the Symphony Orchestra” document (available in pdf and online spreadsheet)

    I doubt employers will begin listing minimum compensation figures as part of the job listing but the AFM really should do more to make the info easily accessible and up to date. Nonetheless, knowledge is power so here are some resource links to some of the items above:

    AFM Symphonic Services
    AFM Document Resource Center
    Find an AFM Local Office
    ICSOM Contact
    ROPA Contact
    OCSM Contact
    Seattle Symphony Players’ Organization Contact

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