Thoughts from the other side of the screen

This season I’ve sat on two audition committees for the KWS. These auditions were my first time on “the other side of the screen” in a professional context, and the contrast between the two sides couldn’t be any more surreal. On one side sits a musician who has just heard the same four snippets of music played repeatedly by different players for an hour. The process on this side is remarkably repetitive. On the other side is a musician who has prepared for weeks or months for this moment. They have been warming up and waiting for hours and will be granted probably less than five minutes in which to persuade the committee they possess the musical skills needed in a modern orchestra. They must do this under extreme psychological pressure. It’s hard to reconcile the almost bureaucratic feeling of the committee with the fear and tension I can remember from the other side from when I came here to be judged by the people who are now my colleagues.

It’s cruel that only one person can win when you hear so many examples of excellent playing over the course of an audition. It’s also tough that you hear a lot of people who don’t seem to measure up to the best candidates, but who play some things extremely well – well enough that you start to wonder if the playing issues you’re hearing are just attributable to an “off day.” I wonder sometimes if I’ve voted down someone who’s actually a better player than I am. At Indiana, Mr. Ludwig used to remind the bassoon studio when orchestra placements were assigned that an audition is not a reflection of your worth as a musician, but a snapshot of your musical abilities [and sometimes the tastes of the panel] at a particular moment in time.

When I was a student I used to talk about “the committee” like it was a single hive-mind entity, and I understand now having seen the process up close that this is far from the truth. In both auditions I sat on this year I was struck not only by the number of cases in which the committee and I advanced exactly the same candidates, but also the cases in which the committee’s will differed totally from my own. Keep this in mind when reflecting on the audition results – they aren’t a unanimous ruling on the quality of candidates. Failing to advance does not necessarily mean that you failed to impress someone on the other side of the screen – you could absolutely blow the socks of four members of the committee and fail to advance if five are a little uncertain about you for whatever reason.

It gets said a lot that an audition has to be note perfect and that’s nonsense, not least because true musical perfection would be physically impossible. When I auditioned for the principal chair in Calgary, their second bassoon, Michael Hope, said something to me to the effect of “you made some mistakes, but what we were looking for was someone so musical that we wouldn’t care about mistakes.” I suspect this is the case in most auditions and anecdotes abound of players winning truly elite jobs despite some extremely blatant and painful mistakes in their audition. In an audition, you hear the mistakes and slip-ups, but IMHO it’s pretty obvious when you hear these errors whether or not they truly reflect the candidate’s musicianship and preparation level. If someone demonstrates both a great command of their instrument and musical sensitivity to the context of the excerpt they’re playing, the little mistakes don’t get in the way of the listener’s enjoyment. (For the record I’ve messed up something significant in the final round of every audition I’ve won!)

To wrap up, a quick word on “no-hire” auditions. As I have mentioned above, the committee is not a unified entity, and an audition that does not result in a candidate being hired may just reflect a lack of agreement on the committee. That being said, the number of vacancies that aren’t being filled in spite of huge numbers of extremely qualified applicants is becoming a concern, and has very little justification. The situation can easily be fixed by structuring the audition process, as defined by the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement, such that a winner has to be chosen. Until a greater number of orchestras embrace this change, will remain necessary. Read their calculations of the man-hours – sorry, man-years – of productivity wasted by no-hire auditions. Eye-opening stuff.


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