My viola teacher Atar Arad, a professor at Indiana University, always said the following about auditions: “Play like an artist and you will win any job”. It’s an inspiring statement from a terrific musician I deeply admire, I quote it often, but in practice, I am not sure it always applies. And that is a real shame. In fact, I believe the way we conduct auditions is one of the reasons why going to symphonic concerts can be a lackluster experience nowadays.
You often hear that it’s not always the best musician who wins the audition. I have been on the winning side and the losing side, and I know many winners and losers well. I agree with that statement.
I know a Principal player in a major U.S. orchestra who did not know who Duke Ellington was, yet was about to play a piece of his. I know a fine violinist who, having played the opera “Hansel and Gretel” many times, still didn’t realize it was sung in English (and I can assure you, the singers’ diction was excellent). There are musicians in top orchestras who, while very solid players, aren’t the kind of artists you’d want to hear play a solo recital. There is mediocre musicianship and the kind of cluelessness I have mentioned at the very top, among some of those same players who were able to slay huge lists of excerpts into submission with ease. How is that possible, and should we do something about it?
Enormous progress has been made to ensure more objectivity and a level playing field in awarding orchestral jobs. I salute those improvements and am proud we’ve come to a point where getting a job isn’t about who you know, unlike many things in the music world. You can be an outsider, not know anyone you are auditioning for, and you can definitely win if everything aligns right.
That said, winning a job in an orchestra is not primarily about how good and flexible a musician you are, with a review of your ability to process the demands of orchestral playing added on. It is exactly the opposite. These priorities serve music poorly.
The orchestral excerpt world has morphed into something perverse. Playing excerpts is being treated as a separate skill, distinct from other musical endeavors. We’ve come to a point where very long and highly standardized lists of what ought to be learned are worked on tirelessly, but not to spread art and beauty. Instead, enormous stamina, relentless fine tuning and consistency are valued above all else. Artistry is secondary to craft, endurance and solidity.
While I recognize that having a player fit within a certain framework is necessary and desirable for any orchestra, in my experience this tends to go too far. Listen to orchestras in North America and Europe and tell me how much consistently appealing, soul grabbing, varied and inspired playing you hear. To my ears, only a few orchestras fit the bill. (And some of those that do have interesting audition practices – more on that below.)
I realize that a lot of this relies on conjecture, and what one should look for in an orchestral player is subject to debate. We will not all agree, far from it. I am not going to go into the use of the screen for anonymity, or how votes are tabulated, or anything of the sort. I want to suggest a simple rule which will have far reaching, universally positive consequences. This change would have a tremendously constructive impact on classical music as a whole, no less! And that is…
Make excerpt lists shorter, no more than 15 minutes in length, for all auditions. I believe anything beyond that is less about substance and more about making it unnecessarily hard for those who compete to succeed. (Solo pieces would be in addition to those 15 minutes.)
Auditionees spend too much time and effort trying to learn everything that is required and keep it in their fingers. This makes auditions too much about endurance and extensive strategizing in the many weeks of preparation necessary, and certainly drives many potential candidates away, some of which might able to play better than the victors. While playing full-time in an orchestra is hard and there is lots of repertoire to learn, there is little correlation between that and having to learn large amounts of excerpts beforehand. Let’s make it so that the barrier of entry to complete preparation to an audition is as low as possible. Let’s trust our ability to identify who is right for the position quickly, without having to put them through the wringer before making a decision.
Nowadays, you often have to learn 45 minutes of excerpts or more (plus a concerto and possibly other pieces) for auditions. In fact, when whole symphonies are required, which is not uncommon, good luck to you – you might need to know hours of music. The stress associated with this is tremendous and does little except reward those with the right kind of brain circuitry to deal with it. In my years of experience and mingling with many accomplished colleagues, I yet have to hear a satisfying answer so as to why that is necessary. In fact, you hear “well, you can usually hear how good someone is pretty quickly”. My point exactly.
Fifteen minutes should be enough to cover all major areas – the classical style, Romanticism, early 20th century and contemporary music, including some tricky bits for your particular instrument. You often hear the claim that people playing solo repertoire well can lack the right kind of skill to play orchestral music, and that is true. That’s why we have excerpts in auditions, but there is a point of diminishing returns. The Berlin Philharmonic usually asks for no excerpts in auditions, even for Principal positions. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra have short, manageable lists. Is it a coincidence these are some of the world’s finest orchestras?
It is this type of change that I think could truly change things. Classical music has enough problems as it is – dwindling audiences, an unwavering body of standard repertoire that is being played into calcification, with few new pieces for anyone but connoisseurs to get excited about, plus overreliance on tradition and “correct” ways of doing anything. It would be nice if we got to a place where excerpts were a minor niche in what it means to become a good musician, with emphasis on chamber, solo playing and overall musicianship instead (see: the Duke Ellington incident above). It would be nice if training programs for excerpts at graduate or post-graduate level were not even necessary. We should let intelligent, sensitive musicians get ready for an audition sensibly, with an emphasis on showing what you can do in a concentrated manner, while trusting that the committee will make the decision they can trust quickly and reliably. Winning a job might not be easier – in fact, it might be harder, if those who stay away can now compete too. But sharply reducing the amount of excerpts required would be a win for all involved.