Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thoughts on Another No-Hire Audition

It’s still not the primary topic of this blog, but recent events in a certain large Midwestern city have brought the topic of “no-hire” auditions out for another run around the track. I blogged about this last year in regards to the Alabama Principal bass audition, and already there has been considerable commentary on TalkBass regarding the recent scene in Chicago. In this case the situation is even more severe - not only did the orchestra not hire someone, they didn’t even advance anyone past the first round.

Some of the most cogent comments on this were made by my former colleague Ali Yazdanfar, principal bass of the Montreal Symphony. He pointed out a lot of great things that people concerned about this topic should be aware of. Ali is one of the most successful auditioners our there so we would all be well advised to follow his advice!

It’s understandable that no-hire auditions make folks angry, cynical, and frustrated. I feel some of those things and I didn’t even take the Chicago audition, although several colleagues and friends did. I have no access to anyone on the committee, so my thoughts are purely speculation combined with my own experiences doing auditions and being on committees. But perhaps I can offer both some general and some specific reasons why this sort of thing happens.

Whenever I look at the modern audition process, I remember the Churchill quote about democracy: that it is “the worst system of government except all the others that have been tried.” Despite all its flaws and failings, improving the audition process is a far trickier business than it initially seems - an improvement in one area often leads to more problems in another. in particular, the structures surrounding fairness and accountability in auditions can sometimes seem to conflict with artistic goals.

It seems likely to me that many of the problems in this recent audition are just more severe versions of ones that often lead to no-hire auditions: committee members are divided by some fundamental issues regarding either:
- the qualifications of the candidates;
- the way the audition was structured (invites, timing, audition list, etc.)
- the music director’s preferences;
- or some totally unrelated conflicts that may be job-related or may be entirely personal.

I very strongly doubt, as some have suggested, that the committee didn’t enter the audition wanting to hire someone. No one goes through the long and sometimes tortuous process of organizing and audition and sitting through days of preliminaries unless they have some sincere desire to find the right player for the job. It’s just too much work (and not enough fun) to do as some sort of exercise in futility. That doesn’t mean that some committee members might not have felt that no one was qualified! It simply means that I suspect everyone entered the process with a sincere openness to hiring.

Another very real factor that can enter into orchestral auditions relates to the organizational structure and power dynamics of orchestras in general. Before I discuss this factor, I want to emphasize that I am by no means saying that this is what caused the recent result in Chicago! I have no idea what issues entered that particular process. However, I have seen this factor occasionally affect audition committees, and it is something that can be hard to see from the auditioners’ viewpoint.

The life of a section string player in an orchestra is not one of power and might. You are the lowest ranking member of a system that is still totally hierarchical and top-down when it comes to artistic matters. Your job for the most part is to play well and to follow orders, which is fine in general but can sometimes be frustrating when it comes to your artistic differences with your principal or with your music director - or even with your fellow section members.

And yet there is one place where your artistic voice is important - the audition committee. In most orchestras, you have the exact same amount of power as your principal in hiring a new player. In some orchestras, you even have power over the music director! As a result, section players may use audition committees for displays of artistic frustration, sometimes about things that are totally unrelated to the audition itself. This isn’t fair to the player’s colleagues, and it is especially unfair to the auditioners themselves, but it does sometimes happen.

As long as I’m throwing some unpleasant audition truths out there, I will throw one more into the mix to conclude this post: As long as there are so many talented musicians out there, trying out for so few orchestral positions, the odds of orchestras not hiring will stay high. There is little or no risk to the Chicago Symphony in holding another audition; they can be sure that many musically qualified candidates will appear. The laws of supply and demand give orchestras little incentive to strongly consider the feelings and needs (or expenses) of auditioning musicians. That is unfortunate for orchestras in general, but it is a a reality that players will have to contend with.