Sunday, April 5, 2009

The "No-Hire" Audition: a view from the other side

This morning, I saw a post on a discussion thread at the site regarding the recent audition for principal bass of the Alabama Symphony. I was seeking out information about this audition because I know two of the finalists - one is a former Peabody student, and the other has subbed with my orchestra, the National Symphony. At this audition, despite having four finalists, the orchestra decided not to hire anybody. The TalkBass poster asked a good question: could anyone form the other side of the screen offer any thoughts on this very annoying practice? I've been on committees at the NSO that didn't hire anybody. I've also taken (and almost won) auditions where nobody was hired. At Peabody, faculty members sometimes don't take on any new students, even when they have space and interested applicants. and I have good friends who have also gone through the no-hire scenario from various sides. Given this variety of experiences, I'm going to step forward and offer a few thoughts.

When an orchestra holds a national audition and hears lots of well-trained, talented and motivated players, it can seem completely incomprehensible when they announce that no one has been hired. For students and auditioners, the message they get from this result is usually something along the lines of:

"None of you bassists are good enough! We heard you all and you all stink. No one is worthy to play in our august ensemble. Go away and resume your pitiful lives."

Not only does this seem insulting to an auditioner, it's also transparently ridiculous. The people in the finals of any major audition in 2009 are almost always all excellent and talented bassists and musicians. They have worked hard and are eminently qualified to play in an orchestra. For any orchestra to reject all of them as unacceptable would be the height of hubris and absurdity. This is especially true when those very same players later attain success in other auditions!

The first thing I can assure you is that this is NOT the message that orchestras are trying to send to auditioners. Orchestra musicians know full well how difficult it is to audition, and as I'll explain below, the reality is that in most cases almost everyone on a committee wants to hire one of the finalists in every audition. The failure to hire someone is not a failing of the players in most cases - it is a failure of the audition committee and the modern audition system to properly function and do its job. Here is the real message you should take away from a "no-hire" audition:

"The committee and music director were too divided by artistic opinion, personality conflict, or lack of mature decision-making to select one person from among the candidates. Because of the requirements of the modern audition system, our only solution is to start again."

Anyone who has been on a committee of any kind knows that getting a group of people to agree on anything is a tricky business. Not only must an audition committee agree on a single candidate for a permanent, tenure-track job in their orchestra, they must also then convince the music director that their choice is a good one. Often, sincere disagreements between committee members can grow sufficiently heated that you end up with a "hung jury" scenario, where there is intractable disagreement between factions on the committee and no one can break the logjam. Theoretically, the music director should serve a tie-breaking function in most orchestras, since in most contracts it is he or she who has final hiring authority. However, often a music director will look at a sharply divided committee and not want to take sides. What if the principal and assistant principal disagree? The M.D. might not want to incur the enmity of either first-stand player. Also, the conductor's job in the audition is much easier than the committee's; he or she usually only shows up for the finals and doesn't attend the hours of prelims. For him or her, doing another audition isn't nearly the huge hassle it is for the committee - or especially for the people who auditioned! Thus, holding another audition might be the path of least resistance for many M.D.'s, rather than wading into the politics of the committee and finding a solution.

How can committees be so divided? There are some very good reasons, and some less-good ones. Art is a subjective matter, and musicians may disagree about the type of sound they want in the orchestra, the technical merits of various playing styles, or even whether a candidate is playing in tune or in time. Some committee members may sincerely feel that, for whatever reason, no one candidate has the combination of abilities they are looking for in a lifetime colleague. Some less-good reasons include personal enmity between committee members, resentment of principal players, a desire to "stick it" to the favored candidate of another committee member, or even simple racism, sexism, or ageism (in orchestras where the finals are not behind a screen). I wish that I could say that I've never seen any of these reasons play a factor, but sadly that is not the case. Orchestra musicians can sometimes be flawed or even cruel people, and they can fall victim to their passions as much as anyone else.

In other types of auditions, such as for festivals or schools, these same factors can come into play in various ways. Teachers at a music school might disagree over the merits of an applicant, or might allow their personal issues to bias their decision making. A music festival audition committee might have similar issues.

Does this mean that it is always wrong when a committee doesn't hire anyone? Not at all. Orchestra jobs usually have lifetime tenure - this means that people on a committee may have to live with someone's musical personality for 30 or 40 years. By ensuring that the person chosen is acceptable to at least half of a committee, the audition system makes it more likely that there will be a harmonious functioning of the orchestra as we work on playing well and making music together. But there are definitely many times when the no-hire situation is a default solution for a divided committee and not the best choice available.

As I said above, the vast majority of people on committees in my experience always vote for someone to win the audition. The committee isn't rejecting all the finalists. Rather they are too divided to select just one finalist from the many qualified players.

I hope this view from the other side is helpful. Don't give up....


Cameron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cameron said...

Please allow me to clarify my previous comment, at the end:

Having served on various audition committees over the years, I agree with your overall analysis of why candidates are sometimes not hired.

It would seem to me that these divisive factors intensify when the position is for Principal, as in the case in Alabama.

Todd said...

Thank you for that perspective. Even though I didn't take that audition, it still pisses me off, but now my urge to kill is subsiding.

BPbass said...


Hey man. This is very well said and I'm so glad you could shed some light from the other side. I hope many people will be able to read this. As you know, I think it fits perfectly what happened to some of us one recent Nov. evening up in Beantown. : )


oz said...

Thank you so much for your insight. This sort of thing has always been a mystery.

kurt said...

I am wondering if the same applies for auditions where no one gets past the 1st round? surely one person in 300 is good enough to pass the 1st round of an audition?

The Peabody Double Bass Faculty said...

Hi Kurt - I think that, when no one gets past the first round of an audition, it's often just a very advanced case of all the same sorts of dysfunction that happen more frequently in the finals. People disagree in some way about what is happening in the audition, or on what the standards for hiring someone SHOULD be, and their only way these people think that they can protest this state of affairs is to throw a wrench into the whole process and not pick anyone. The audition result is the symptom of a dysfunctional bass section and/or orchestra, not the cause IMO.

Joe Alfred said...

I'm agreed with "Kurt" their is minor chance of passing the 1st round.

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Sarastro said...

No-hire auditions are terrible. Now there is a site listing the orchestras that engage in this practice, so audition candidates may choose to avoid them!