A Game of Musical Chairs - Winning an Orchestra Job

A Game of Musical Chairs - Winning an Orchestra Job

Feb 3, 2012

When I was a kid, I never really liked playing the game "musical chairs". One small misstep and you were out for the rest of the game awkwardly watching the other kids play. Unfortunately, this seems to be a game I can't escape if I ever want to play in an established symphony orchestra. The process of winning an orchestral job is so similar to the slightly sadistic game that one of the main sites for job postings is actually titled "". We have all heard that orchestras are changing their approaches to drawing in audiences, but the one thing that seems not to change is the audition process.


On my way to Detroit for the Detroit Symphony section cello audition, I sat next to a man who was very curious about both my cello and the idea of auditioning. He asked, "It's like going on 'American Idol' without the celebrities, right? Do you get to pick your own song?", to which I responded, "Sort of....". While I am glad that a 'Simon Cowell' type personality isn't there to unabashedly announce to the world that my Debussy was woefully out of tune, or my Mendelssohn was a sloppy mess, I'm not exactly thrilled with the classical audition process either.


After excruciatingly meticulous hours of practice, resume tweaking, recording submissions and expensive travel arrangements, it can all be over in six minutes without ever even talking to a member of the orchestra. For almost all professional auditions, the first round and even subsequent rounds take place behind a screen. While "blind" auditions are intended to prevent favoritism, sexism and any other kind of bias so that the panel can focus on purely the music, it creates problems as well. After hearing fifty different players play in a row for five minutes each, can a panel really determine which have the best potential fit with an orchestra? It is a disservice to both the applicants and the orchestra to judge based on such a small sample of what each player has to offer.


The saying, "orchestra jobs only open up when someone dies or moves to another orchestra" isn't too far from the truth. With so few openings and so many musicians, you are almost guaranteed to have extremely qualified players for every job. Keeping orchestras alive today is as much about seeing the music, both onstage and in the community, as it is about hearing the music. Shouldn't the audition process reflect this? Can orchestras move away from the blind audition without compromising the musical standard? The table is open for discussion.



There is no doubt that the current audition process for an orchestra position is brutal and even though measures are taken to prevent overt discrimination, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Eliminating someone on the basis of 5 minutes of listening doesn't sound like a good way to pick a new orchestra member, but so far, it's the best system that anyone has been able to come up with.
The members of the orchestra's selection committee generally don't like the task of having to listen to hundreds of prospective candidates for days, just to get to a final group and then arguing over the relative merits and real or perceived "issues" that can (and must) be used to eliminate all but (hopefully) one candidate as the selection proceeds. It's often not fair, it has a high probability of eliminating someone who might be the best candidate, it's expensive, and it's very hard on everyone involved.
However, the audition process is really just a symptom of a much larger issue. In 2010 there were 1379 accredited music schools offering 2871 music degree programs. In 2010 those schools conferred 24,015 music degrees.
The number of music professionals with salaried jobs reached 63.990 in 2010, which was a significant increase from the number in 2006 (56,070 jobs), but not nearly enough of an increase to allow jobs for the 24,000 new graduates. The end result is that competition for the lowest paying primary school music teaching job is virtually as fierce as that for an orchestra position.
I sincerely believe that no one should ever be discouraged from pursuing their dream of being a professional, performing musician, so the bottom line issue is: how do we create the additional demand for musical performances and musical education? With the severe budget problems that our schools and the nation as a whole are currently facing, the prospects for increased support for arts (especially music) education are bleak, but if we don’t reverse the trend, classical music as we know it will have an even smaller audience, and the job prospects for young, talented classically trained musicians will become even scarcer.
It's something to think about the next time you enter a voting booth, whether it's to elect a new President of the nation, Senator or Representative, or just a member of your local school board.

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