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Samuel Thompson

The Audition Process?

November 14, 2007 at 2:01 AM

Earlier this week I posted a New York Times article that featured Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In the article she speaks of many things, including the audition process. While there have been many discussions about one particular aspect of the process - that being more often than not that auditions for orchestral positions are held with a screen, with the candidate on one side and the audition committee on the other - Drew McManus of www.adaptistration.com has written an incredibly enlightening article about auditioning that appears today at his website. Do feel free to read.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 12:06 PM
I was quite surprised by the comment's context, actually. The article was partly about the difficulties faced by woman conductors, and it almost sounded to me as if she thought that screened auditions were bad for women and minorities--that they were part of the entrenched discriminatory "system" that needed to change. Part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

But representation of women and ethnic minorities in orchestras has climbed since the introduction of screened auditions.

This article by Georgie Binks in CBC news describes that phenomenon. A couple of quoted paragraphs from the article:

"If you look at a 1997 study conducted by two American university professors, Claudia Goldin of Harvard and Cecilia E. Rouse of Princeton, you can see why the blind auditions are vital. In 1970, before blind auditions were held, fewer than 5 per cent of players in the top five orchestras in the United States were women. Once blind auditions were used that number jumped to 25 per cent and now stands at about 50 per cent.

Trombonist Abby Conant is well known in the battle for equality in the treatment of female musicians. In his latest book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about how Conant auditioned for the Munich Philharmonic in 1980. It was a blind audition pitting Conant, who the orchestra believed was a male, (her audition letter was addressed to Herr Abbie Conant) and 32 men. When the finalists’ numbers were called, there was amazement that she had been chosen. Initially Conant was hired, but then was demoted to second trombone, beginning years of battles."

I guess I don't really understand what Alsop is getting at.

From Mitchell Pressman
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 12:34 PM
Karen, as I read her comments about screened auditions I thought she was talking primarily about racial or ethnic diversity. I think she said something to the effect that it's important for the composition of the orchestra to reflect the community. So it was inferable that she was saying that screened auditions were screening out too many minorities. At least that's the way I read it. Interesting to know how the members of the orchestra reacted to her comments.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 3:46 PM
Mitchell, that's an interesting point, in that women and minority issues are often treated the same, even when they're not. And it's true while women's participation in orchestras has climbed significantly (outside of Vienna anyway), ethnic diversity has not kept pace.

But at least in some cases, screened auditions also benefit ethnic minorities. For example, see this article by William Osborne,"Why Did the Vienna Philharmonic Fire Yasuto Sugiyama?"

Here is a relevant paragraph from that article:

The memoirs published in 1970 by Otto Strasser, a former chairman of the Vienna Philharmonic, illustrate the attitudes Asian musicians have confronted:

“I hold it for incorrect that today the applicants play behind a screen; an arrangement that was brought in after the Second World War in order to assure objective judgments. I continuously fought against it, especially after I became Chairman of the Philharmonic, because I am convinced that to the artist also belongs the person, that one must not only hear, but also see, in order to judge him in his entire personality. [...] Even a grotesque situation that played itself out after my retirement was not able to change the situation. An applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury. He was, however, not engaged, because his face did not fit with the ‘Pizzicato-Polka’ of the New Year’s Concert.”

It's actually not completely clear to me where Strasser stood on this, whether he thought it was grotesque that a Japanese man won the screened audition or whether he thought that it was grotesque because the Japanese man was not hired because of his race.

Either way, these kinds of arguments have been around a very long time.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 4:39 PM
The screen was added to alow people to assess the quality of the playing independent of the race or gender of the applicant.

Now are we saying that the quality of the playing is to take second place behind the race or gender of the applicant?

What will the affect of this be? Will we start eliminating Asians from our orchestras because they are over-represented? Perhaps we can also start eliminating Eastern Europeans and other overrepresented ethnicities.

In many orchestras women are overrepresented. Should we move them out?

I have heard people argue with conviction that western music is the product of white European men and that they are its best exponents. Its kind of like saying that Korean music is the product of Koreans and they are its best exponents.)

If we were to take this line of reasoning seriously (and I hope not) then we would have to extol the Vienna Philharmonic for its position on women etc.

I am sorry: I vote for the screen. Color-blind, gender-blind etc.

From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 4:41 PM
I find myself totally agreeing with Drew McManus on this. Using a screen may have its flaws but I think its benefit easily outweighs any perceived flaws. At any rate, I have a hard time believing more minorities will be hired if they are seen during auditions. Wouldn't there be biase against their playing? If they wish to address minority issues, they could adapt a modified quota system and include minority members in the list of finalists when possible.

Ihnsouk

From Ihnsouk Guim
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 4:57 PM
Corwin, It is funny you quote the old saying that european music is the product of white european males therefore.... Only a few weeks ago we had a heated debate about Bloch, I think, that it is so jewish only jewish violinists could play, etc. No matter how developed we are, I have a feeling we can't let go our territorial instinct. We are so human.

Ihnsouk

From Karin Lin
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 6:27 PM
Another question to ponder is whether appearance should be a factor in hiring orchestra musicians at all. I'm not talking about race or gender, but about people who move excessively or slump in their chairs or do other things that might upset the visual effect of the orchestra. I've always believed that a concert experience is partly visual, in which case you care about more than just the sound.

And is there anything in the process like an interview (perhaps separated from the audition)? How do they make sure the person will be easy to work with? Basing a hiring decision purely on a screened audition seems to me a lot like hiring someone purely based on a writing sample or piece of computer code. Ability is certainly the most important part of the process, but I don't think it's the only one.

From Peter Carter
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 6:45 PM
I disagree Karin.As stated earlier,the tenure process is in place to make a final decision as to whether a person keeps his/her position or not.I fail to see how one looks when sitting in orchestra has anything to do with the quality of their playing.
I resent the fact that some auditions sometimes have the faint odour of being "rigged" by having the screen come down in the finals so audition judges can see if their friends have made it and then vote for them.When an audition committee sees someone they like or dislike,they usually hear only what they want to hear instead of being objective.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 6:56 PM
Even with the screen most players have to play for a period of time before they are granted tenure in the orchestra. A player who has "visual" issues can be counseled and removed after a period of time.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 6:59 PM
Peter, I am not a professional and have no direct experience here but I have heard that in many cases orchestra members who are competing for a higher open chair can join the audition in the final round. Even with a screen one could imagine that the audition committee could decide that this player who had not been heard in earlier rounds must be their colleague.

I guess the consolation is that the vacated chair would be awared to second place.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on November 14, 2007 at 9:11 PM
This is definitely affirmative action vs. equal opportunity. If there's a screen, it's hard to argue people aren't being judged equally :)

It seems like affirmitive action goes down one of two tracks. One, the expectation of eventually producing qualified people among the traditionally disenfranchsed by end-running less qualified people (via no screen in this case). The second track looks more like getting the people you want in the positions you want, with maybe less of a grand strategy behind it, realistically. Either one translates to somebody more qualified who doesn't eat. The question is does what you're trying to accomplish justifiy that.

From Peter Carter
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 1:46 AM
The lack of a screen in the finals is what takes away incentive from players trying to move up in the section.If one does not win an audition it should be based strictly on musical shortcomings,not their sex,how "good looking" they are,being "buddies" with the concertmaster etc etc....
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 2:38 AM
It would be interesting to hear from the "pro" side for taking the screen down in the finals...
From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 2:56 AM
Because if you've worked with someone for three years, and they are an asset to the orchestra in other ways, maybe that counts for something, if all other things are equal.
From Nathan Cole
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 5:26 AM
Let's not forget that the tenure process is an equal partner to the audition process! And just as each orchestra has its own audition procedure, each has its own for tenure. But no orchestra's policy is to hire someone based on 20 minutes' playing and then keep him/her for life.

To clarify, in Chicago: preliminary rounds are held behind a screen. There are exactly 9 committee members. There is a secret ballot for each candidate (yes/no) and a candidate must have at least 6 yes votes to advance to the finals.

In the finals, the screen comes down but the procedure is the same. In order to be offered the job, the candidate must have at least 6 yes votes PLUS the yes vote of the music director. In other words, a no vote from the music director is a veto.

Special cases: 1) members of the orchestra are automatically invited to the finals of a title audition. In such an audition, if there is an internal candidate, the screen stays up for the first part of the finals. Only after each candidate has been voted on does the screen come down.

2) for a title chair, up to four external candidates may be invited by the music director alone. These invitees must play a "pre-final" round, behind a screen, for the 9-member committee. The same 6-yes-vote majority is needed to advance to the finals with the other candidates.

Tenure process: within the first 2 years of a member's hire, the music director must inform the member whether he/she receives tenure. It is the decision of the music director alone.

As I say, each orchesra is different. We aim to provide each candidate with the chance to play his/her best.

From Peter Carter
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 12:09 PM
Yes Nathan this is similar to my orchestra but again,why does the screen have to come down?
I remember we had an audition about ten years ago for section violin.There were three finalists for the final unscreened round.After the first two played,and played very well the third was brought in.Because this candidate was obviously very attractive the conductor lets out a sigh and and says quietly "woooooow".It was obvious that the conductor was not going to vote with his brain on this audition and yes,they gave the job to this candidate.....
From Erika Millen
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 4:13 PM
In the final round, the music director will sometimes "conduct" or work with a finalist to gauge how flexible they are with different musical suggestions. You can't do that with a screen.

Also, some finals include chamber music with other members of the orchestra, in order to gauge how well someone plays in an ensemble.

From Peter Carter
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 6:15 PM
In my opinion,that could be done during the one or two year probation period that the candidate plays with the orchestra.
Perhaps that step should be eliminated in the audition process for the greater good of impartiality.
From Erika Millen
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 7:43 PM
But no one wants to have to deny tenure. After one or two years, everyone knows the player and it's an ugly, divisive situation when someone's contract is not renewed. It makes more sense to be a little cautious up front and make sure the candidate hired can perform up to the orchestra's expectations.
From Megan Chapelas
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 8:12 PM
I've done quite a few auditions, both with and without the screen. Here are some of my observations:

-It doesn't really matter whether there's a screen or not: teachers will still be able to pick out their students' sounds.

-How somebody looks while playing the instrument is very important in deciding whether to hire them. Somebody who moves excessively won't fit into a still section, or may even be distracting. Bow distribution is a huge question when hiring a section leader.

-In Germany, audition committees consist of the entire orchestra - or at least of all those who come to the audition. In order to win a job, you need a majority of all votes, and of the votes in your future section (sometimes it's a two-thirds majority, sometimes simply 50%). This does help avoid any rigging by committee members, though it certainly doesn't exclude it.

-There will always be prejudices: racial, sexual, ethnic, teacher/school of playing etc. etc.. And just because somebody's made it into the orchestra doesn't mean that their trial period won't be sheer hell - or that they won't be turfed out as soon as it's over.

I can't imagine doing a completely blind audition with a screen for all the rounds, just like I can't really imagine hiring a colleague without having seen him/her play.

Affirmative action is a difficult one, and I think programs like the Sphinx competition, scholarships or the Detroit Symphony residency are probably better ways to go there.

This is interesting. Laurie, can we make it a discussion thread?

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 10:30 PM
This is all fascinating and enlightening.

In regards to players moving, Greg Sandow has written a pretty amazing article about both the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Many of us, I'm sure, have watched both the Vienna and Berlin videos and marveled at the level of playing as well as the total physical involvement of the players.

Read on: artsjournal.com

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on November 15, 2007 at 10:57 PM
The screen coming down in the final round gives me the impression of thinly-veiled unfairness :) -if fairness depended on the screen.
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 12:04 AM
Yes Jim it does depend on the screen.You don't need to see somebodys' bow distribution .It will be heard behind the screen.In my 21 years playing in a professional orchestra I've never heard of a players movements becoming a deciding factor in their tenure(or refusal of).What if you're overweight? Will this be a deciding factor?
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 12:44 PM
I dont see Erika how it could be an ugly divisive situation,as you put it,if the candidate does not receive tenure.He /she knows the procedure from the very beginning of the process and its not over until the acceptance or rejection of tenure.There are progress reports along the way in which the candidate is informed of their progress(or lack of).
I appreciate hearing the "yes" side because no one in my orchestra wants to discuss this important topic,instead relying on the "as long as it doesn't affect me" mentality.
From Erika Millen
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 1:44 PM
There have been situations here in which it has been divisive within the orchestra, with some musicians supporting the Music Director and some supporting the player whose contract was not renewed. If you've not experienced that yet in your orchestra, I hope you never do.

Auditions one facet of the process of hiring good colleagues and should be approached as such. Some orchestras also invite finalists to play a week or two with the orchestra before making a decision. In all cases you have the tenure process to compete the hiring process.

From Peter Carter
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 5:08 PM
We indeed have experienced that and have even fired the music director in t5he process....
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 5:12 PM
sorry about that 5 I hit...
From Erika Millen
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 6:01 PM
Fortunately nothing here has approached that level of contention. But even a small degree of disagreement brings down morale and makes the process uncomfortable for everyone. So I can appreciate orchestras choosing to be cautious at the outset.
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 16, 2007 at 10:09 PM
Caution has to be observed for all parties concerned.The audition panel naturally wants the best candidate possible.I just believe there should be a more unbiased procedure so the audition committee has the use of their ears only,thus eliminating biases and maintaining neutrality as best they can.
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 17, 2007 at 2:29 AM
Do you play in a professional orchestra Erika?
From Peter Carter
Posted on November 17, 2007 at 3:33 PM
Anyways,I guess this discussion has been relegated to the back pages.Good while it lasted...
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on November 18, 2007 at 12:36 AM
Peter-Your comments have been really enlightening...and it actually looks as if the discussion is still going on. Maybe we should start a thread in the discussion section.

Peace,
Sam

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