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 "musicalchairs.info". 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.