I have a theory to describe orchestral auditions – more of an analogy, actually. Some have called my analogy cynical and bitter, but I truly think they’re mistaken. On the contrary, my analogy was born from the desire to make auditions a more positive experience for myself, my friends and my students. Here it is, expressed in the classic old-school SAT analogy format:
Winning auditions:being a good musician::getting a 1600 on the SAT: being smart
That is, winning an audition bears the same relationship to good musicianship as acing the SAT bears to being intelligent. What am I saying by this? That any professional orchestral audition is a standardized test. (Please note that I really mean only professional orchestra auditions; other auditions, such as for schools, are not as standardized and are ultimately testing for very different things. More on this another day....) All aspects of an audition are standardized for all applicants: The date of the test, the material to be tested (the repertoire), and the grading system for each applicant (the committee). Few things in the otherwise highly subjective world of the performing arts are as carefully designed to be as objective as possible.
We all know that the relationship between the SAT and intelligence is a complex and debatable one. Most people who do well on the SAT are intelligent, but not all otherwise intelligent people do well on the SAT. While the SAT may accurately measure certain aspects of intelligence, such as close reading, it doesn’t measure others, such as creativity and interactive problem-solving skills. This isn’t the fault of the SAT; it wasn’t designed to test those skills. Nor is it that colleges don’t think those other skills are important. Rather, it’s simply difficult to create a standardized test for those skills that isn’t either impractical or not sufficiently standardized to be fair. So colleges do standardized testing for the skills that can be tested for using that methodology, and try to find other ways to test for these other skills.
Love it or hate it, the SAT is an important part of any college application and it does play a role in our college choices. So, even if our intelligence isn’t the sort that the SAT focuses on, we need to try to do the best we can on it. If we struggle with it, we can study for it, or even take specialized courses to get better at it.
Orchestral auditions are similar. They test well for many key skills that any serious orchestral musician needs to do their job, such as consistency of rhythm and intonation, mastery of technical elements, and knowledge of certain difficult passages of repertoire. They test less well or not at all for many other key skills, most notably ensemble skills, musical flexibility, and the ability to communicate effectively with colleagues. Is this because orchestras don’t think these skills are important? I don’t think so. Many orchestral musicians (and those hoping to be orchestral musicians!) openly long for a hiring system that would test for these skills. And the tenure system in most orchestras exists precisely to see if the newly hired musician has all these other skills. However, like with the SAT, testing every applicant for ensemble and interpersonal skills would require orchestras to either have each person play with the orchestra in rehearsal (impractical) or invite a smaller number of applicants to audition (unfair). So the audition system is inherently limited by what aspects of musicianship it can accurately show.
There is one key difference between the SAT and auditions. The SAT is a part of a total package that a college applicant submits. If you don’t do so well on the SAT, you can hope your excellent essay and fabulous recommendation letters will carry you through. Auditions are the entire gateway to orchestral employment in most cases. To have any chance to have your other skills demonstrated, you first have to do well on the skills that are tested on in auditions. Is this a good thing? No, but it is understandable given that orchestras have decided to make auditions above all a fair and impartial process. If you want impartiality above all, then you force orchestras to emphasize those skills that can be tested in an unbiased, standardized way.
So what can we do about this? Throw up our hands in despair? Get bitter and blame the system? Not only are these options corrosive to our well-being as musicians, they also don’t change anything. Orchestras are unlikely to change the system in the foreseeable future (although I think they probably should – a topic for another day…), and there are plenty of talented applicants who will take the audition should you decide to boycott in protest.
I think our solution for audition frustrations are the same as our solutions for SAT frustrations:
- Remind ourselves that just because we struggle with auditions doesn’t mean that we are necessarily untalented or bad musicians
- Remember that, like any standardized test, auditions overemphasize certain important skills while underemphasizing others.
- Work not only at becoming better musicians overall, but also at becoming good “test-takers” through focusing on the particular skills that auditions test for.
- Persevere and realize you’re not alone!
So work hard, have fun and good auditioning to all.