Monday, July 16, 2012

The Audition

Here's a great article about the audition process at a Big 5 orchestra. The BSO had not one but two percussion positions open, a highly unusual circumstance. The article follows the preparations of one of the candidates, following through his getting cut in the first round. It also covers the story of why there were two positions open: a previous job winner, a former classmate and friend of the main candidate, didn't get tenure. The article gives the public a lot of detail about that process, a lot of comments about what went wrong. Very unusual, I think, and very informative.

I have a number of reactions when reading about this. Sympathy, number one. Sympathy for all the participants in what seems to me to be a terrible system. Relief is another. Had I made different choices as a teenager, that could have been me. Maybe I would have been one of the lucky ones, who knows, and ended up with an orchestra job. And then spent my life performing the standard repertoire, over and over, to increasingly gray-haired audiences. Imagining it, I'm not sure "winning" is the right term for this outcome.

Finally, annoyance. Do these people really not see that the audition process is at the root of the cultural ossification of classical music? Maybe one could defend the process as necessary to find the best musicians. Classical music performance is demanding and conservative, I get that, and you want to find and train people who can do it well at a high level, making as few mistakes as humanly possible. But classical music performance is by no means the only profession where mistakes are to be avoided. Off the top of my head, I can name other demanding, high risk job: venture capitalist, jet fighter pilot, and heart surgeon, say. Every mistake a VC makes costs $20M, or whatever they risked on their investment. Fighter pilot errors cost about the same, assuming they eject and survive, and the only loss is the taxpayer's plane. Surgical errors are even worse: they kill people. Does anyone really think that a few wrong notes in a marimba solo have anything like the consequences for society as errors in these other fields? And yet, somehow, we are able to train and select VCs, pilots, and surgeons in a manner that's both more humane and, I expect, more effective than the one classical music uses. Yes, more humane, and yes, I know about residency. These fields work the trainees extremely hard, in the name of having them as prepared as possible for their high risk, high impact jobs, but the existence of the careers themselves are not at risk. Once you get into med school, to pick one example, you're basically guaranteed, barring some disaster, to end up a physician. Classical music puts the selection bar at the very end, after people have invested decades, and grants a sustainable career entirely on the success of a single artificial performance.

Moreover, the process has bad implications for the art itself. People will seek to achieve their pinnacle at whatever metric is the most critical. Success at the job audition, because the stakes are so high, is that most critical metric. Get better at some other metric, pleasing audiences say, or convincing them to come and pay, and you risk being beaten by candidates who are better at pleasing audition committees. The more competitive the environment, the more risk adverse the candidates and the committees become. And once people are in the system, having passed through the hazing, they become captive to the system, serving on committees, defending the system that granted them a job against any efforts to change.

Can you imagine what pop music would sound like if performers were selected in the same manner? Lots of really fabulous, high quality renditions of Elvis tunes. And they'd require government support, since only handfuls of devotees would turn out. It's no wonder, as Sandow points out over and over, that classical audiences are both dwindling and greying. I don't know if the audition process is the entirety of the problem, but I feel confident it's a large part of it. For every organization, how you hire defines your culture. Is the audition process creating the culture that classical music needs to thrive?

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