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Inspiring Auditions

All this week I have been sitting on audition committees for my orchestra.  In three days we listened to 4 basses, 6 cellos, 3 oboes, 19 horns, and 11 tubas, many of them two and three times each.  We hired winners in every case.

 I LOVE auditions.

I am always inspired watching the Olympics, because I love seeing athletes work and strive and succeed.  I love imagining the work that has gone into each performance and I have such respect for the human body - for humanity, really - and for the power of focused effort.  But auditions, now - that’s MY field.  I know exactly what goes into that preparation, and I’m drawing ideas for my own future auditions - and I’m hearing the wealth of talent that has come to perform for US.  It’s humbling.

I could think of it another way, and become terribly depressed - that so many high caliber players would come to try out for a job as small and regional as the South Bend Symphony has to be a very bad thing for the future of classical musicians.  There are just not enough good jobs to go around, and everyone is trying to cobble careers together as I do.  But my preference, of course, is to glow with pride.  Pride that we can attract quality, pride that perhaps our performances will continue to improve despite all the odds, and pride in the candidates and the phenomenal effort they put forth.

I have taken more professional auditions than I will ever admit publicly, and I have a deep understanding of what that side of the screen feels like.  Standing alone on a stage, playing for invisible judges, every sound you make is magnified in your own brain.  Every moment feels enormous, every excerpt is a journey filled with obstacles to surmount and pitfalls to avoid.  Tiny mistakes take on disproportionate weight - or maybe the weight is perfectly proportionate.  If 30, or 50, or even just 10 other people want the same position you do, there is always someone else coming in who can play WITHOUT mistakes.  Perfection is the only way through the screened round, and even perfection is no guarantee.  The disembodied voice coming from behind the screen seems to be picking on you, personally.  It’s a brutal way to get a job.

But from the committee’s side, things feel very different.  When you hear cellist after cellist, for example, all playing the exact same short list of excerpts, you begin to hear what The Cello can do.  You start to understand the tendencies of the instrument.  It becomes clear that THIS moment is difficult, and why, and you quickly get a sense of what the average cellist can do with these few specific pieces.  From that moment on, you are listening for the above average candidate, and the below.   And the difference between the two is unmistakeable.

I hear people leave their auditions talking about that ONE note that they want back, or that ONE excerpt they could have done so much better if it hadn’t been so cold on stage, or if the proctor hadn’t distracted them, or if they’d had another week to prepare.  And in my experience on the safe side of the screen, that’s almost never what it’s about.  It’s almost always the case that in the first measure or two of the concerto the committee knows how things are going to go.  If the invisible player has an intentional sound, competent technique, good intonation, and a compelling musical interpretation, he or she is mine to lose.  They have to make more than one mistake to get a NO in the margin of my notepaper.  If any of those elements are absent, it takes something pretty spectacular later in the audition to get a YES. 

Speaking as a committee member, then - of course the task is one of weeding a crowd down to the few most qualified finalists, but I WANT to advance people.  I want to hear great playing.  When someone makes me sit up and take notice, I do it gladly, and I’ve seen the same in every colleague I’ve ever sat with in this context.  No matter how cynical you are about the process and the profession, good music-making is worth listening to.

Being able to consider the audition more of a recital than a death match makes me happy about the process.   It inspires me, and keeps me coming back for more.   Bring it on!


  1. I love auditions too. In Chicago we were a small group of friends who always went to the Met and the Lyric auditions. We would form a pool and bet on who might get the nod. Being the big gamblers we were, the winner might have enough afterwards to buy dinner and drinks for all of us.
    I am disappointed that I didn’t know that SBSymphony is holding regular auditions - or so it sounds from your post. If they are not open to the public, they should be; auditions as well as rehearsals. It keeps the aficionados engaged, and encourages more people to attend performances. Should we lobby for it?
    In 2009 the Met made a fabulous documentary titled “The Auditions”.It was screened here in Michiana on HD. It covered the 2007 auditions with some personal histories of participants. I strongly recommend it.

  2. SO interesting.

    Orchestral auditions are rarely if ever open to the public - probably due to concerns about privacy and anonymity. But I must agree that attending auditions could give the community a sense of ownership in the symphony, and keep everything even more interesting for those auditioning as well as those attending.

    It's an idea that I will float in committee meetings - I LOVE it - though I have no expectation that it will fly.

    I'll look for that documentary, too.

    Thanks, Dimitri!



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