Trouble With Auditions

by Michael Becker

I walked on stage feeling confident: Mozart Requiem, Bolero, The Ride. These are excerpts that I feel good about and confident that I can sound great on. I took my warm-up notes as I usually do. (Not only to test the acoustics of the hall, but also to relax a bit. Warm-up notes are also sounds that the committee does hear and it gives you a chance to play great sounds!) I thought by now I had experienced just about everything in the audition process, but I was about to have the shortest audition of my life. I played exactly two excerpts which took roughly two minutes. With time between walking on and warm-up notes, I would estimate my entire experience at this audition lasted, at most, 5 minutes! I honestly thought that when I heard the voice from behind the screen say “thank you” ( a euphemism for we are tired of listening to 100 trombonists play the same thing all day and we want to go home.) that they REALLY were saying thank you for playing that so well, now go on to the next excerpt. However, as the monitor on stage rose and opened the stage door for me, I got an inkling that the audition was over. This experience, as well as a variety of others in my career, has led me to explore some of the problems in auditions and ways the process could be improved. I will address a few of these problems and offer a few suggestions that may help increase the chances of well qualified players in orchestra auditions.

When I took my first audition in 1985, I knew nothing about auditions. I had no expectations or opinions about the process. The only thing I knew was that I had to be prepared to play the excerpts on the list, as well as where and when to show up. Generally speaking, that is all one should ever think about when auditioning. Everything else is irrelevant and may cause distractions. The more one is prepared musically, the less he or she will be prone to distractions. One thing that is essential for the sanity of a career auditioner is that you can only be responsible for one thing: your playing. The rest is out of your control.

When you play in an orchestra, you do not play excerpts one after another. Rather, you play the music in context. You also must have the ability to adapt and change styles within the context of the music and the demands of the conductor or other musicians. Over time, good sections grow and continue to improve and really gel, often feeding off each others’ abilities and attributes. Much like a good relationship, a section can continue to grow and improve over time. In order to get that job in that orchestra and that section, you are required to play a preliminary round usually consisting only of excerpts. In my experience it is only in a few cases that a solo was heard in the first round. In contrast, German auditions use the solo as the first round. If the solo does not pass the committee’s approval, then you are done… no excerpts. What if I were to suggest that people get married after meeting someone for 10 minutes and experiencing only the view of their face and right elbow? That would be absurd. Many orchestra relationships last much longer than marriages, and not always by choice! You want the fit in the orchestra to be a good one! What if all sporting events were decided in a similar way? For example, it’s the finals of Wimbledon, and the players take the court and get one serve, one volley, one backhand and forehand and an overhead. If they are lucky, they get a chance to hit all of those strokes. Maybe they will be eliminated if they miss one into the net. In fact, a tennis player can make 50 errors in a match and still play well and win. I am not suggesting that every audition allow players 3 hours on stage, but there are too many players auditioning for one position to be heard adequately with the current model. In many cases the process does not allow for the best fit in a section. Allowing a more in-depth process could reduce the incidence of players failing to acquire tenure.

Here are some suggestions to improve the audition process.

Audition committees should be made up of the instrument family that has the opening, plus the music director. For example, brass, woodwinds, strings, etc. If they feel they want someone else on the committee then that is their decision.

One of the troubling things I have learned from both sides of the screen is lack of preparedness from the committee. They often do not agree beforehand on what they want to hear from the players. They should discuss the following issues: What is most important in the section and for the orchestra? How will we decide what values are most relevant in deciding whether to consider this player? Is musicianship more important than accuracy? How should these elements be weighed against each other? How should we organize the time spent in each audition? How should we weigh excerpts, solos, section playing and ensemble playing? A majority of the job is playing in a section; therefore, it may make sense to place more weight on how a player fits in with and works with the section. This is especially important in section positions. This is the reason only the corresponding sections should make the decision. They generally have a sense of what will work for them.

In order to deal with the numbers at some auditions, split committees have been used. This is not a good solution in most cases. The candidates who are unlucky to pick the odd number are placed in a hall that has inferior acoustics compared to the concert hall that the others get to play in. That is a monumental disadvantage. Acoustics play a big part in the way we sound and how we approach playing. If the hall or room we play in is dry, we may force to make up for the lack of reverb, thus causing fatigue and in some cases a distortion in the style to the committee’s ears. In addition, two committees that are listening simultaneously may have two completely different ideas about who they decide to pass or cut. Because of a lack of common goals or ground rules between the two committees mentioned above, a candidate may be eliminated by one committee who would have been advanced by the other committee.

Some orchestras allow several days of preliminaries to reduce the load each day and allow the candidates more time to show how they play past the initial nerves. Smaller orchestras may find this idea harder to implement due to the cost involved in paying the audition committee, but it may prove cost effective in the quality of the ultimate decision.

Another aspect of an audition that makes no sense is the lack of requests from the committee to the auditioner. This is caused most likely by the urgency to hear everyone. But with fewer players on a given day, there would be more time to ask a candidate to play something again, or more important, to play something differently. The actual job requires us to constantly play things differently at the request of the conductor. Sadly, this aspect of auditions is left for the finals where they may take more time to listen to a player.

Orchestras should be flexible in immediately advancing people to semis: using personal knowledge, track record, recommendation, etc. (Some orchestras have started doing this.) In the London Symphony, players can get invited for a trial period for positions if they are known, and subsequently can be appointed to the position. What is the best way to tell if one is fit for the job? By doing the job. This brings me to my final point.

Why is it so important to pick a winner on the day of the audition? Some orchestras now have a finalist play a trial with the orchestra. This adds some additional cost to orchestras (travel and lodging) but pays off in the long run by leading to the appointment of a musician who best matches the musical needs and personal work and communication style of the orchestra. This should be standard practice in the audition process.

I have been auditioning for orchestras for over 20 years. In that time I have learned much about how to perform successfully at an audition. Each audition I have taken has been a lesson, even if it has not been immediately apparent.

We need to start finding creative ways to improve auditions. The ASOL or the AFM could be more involved in trying to create a forum for musicians who are taking orchestra auditions in which there is a free exchange of ideas with orchestra personnel managers. This forum could be used as a resource for orchestras to improve their auditions.

It is time we start discussing ways to help create a more positive environment for those participating in auditions. I invite anyone with suggestions, comments or stories about their audition experiences to share them with me.

The current system has flaws and can end in the rejection of the most qualified candidates. This constitutes a serious cost both to the auditioners and to the orchestras which end up with unsatisfactory players. The question then becomes: Are orchestras willing to find creative ways to improve their audition procedures, or do they want to maintain the status quo?

Michael Becker is currently Principal Trombonist of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. He has held positions with the Savannah Symphony and Honolulu Symphony. He has been a regular substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing, recording and touring with them frequently. He has also performed and toured with the Detroit Symphony, London Symphony and the World Orchestra. Becker runs a summer boot camp for young players focusing on orchestral audition preparation. For more information, please visit his web site.