The New (Model) Hampshire audition system

At the beginning of the 2009 New Hampshire Music Festival season, the Festival’s musicians were informed that they would be required to re-apply for their positions in the orchestra if they wanted to return for the 2010 season.

It’s hard to overstate just how unusual this is in our business. “Unprecedented” would not be too strong a word for it, in fact. And not because of the unionized nature of our industry; it’s because it’s highly unusual for any enterprise, in any industry, to require its entire workforce to re-apply for jobs they already hold. (Of course, in the interests of accuracy, I should note that the entire workforce of the NHMF wasn’t asked to re-apply for their current positions- only the musicians. Apparently the staff were doing their jobs just fine, at least according to the staff making the decisions.)

There are good reasons why most employers don’t require such re-applications. Smart enterprises judge their current employees by the job they do, rather than by their aptitude for getting hired. The reason for this is obvious: how someone has done a job is a far better predictor of how they will do the same job in the future than any hiring process could ever be. If an employer isn’t happy about the performance of some employees, the usual solution is to fire those employees – ideally after giving them a chance to improve – rather than require them to re-apply for a job they’ve already proven they can’t do to the satisfaction of their employer.

So why the charade of “we’d love to have you back next summer, but first, take these tests”? It is barely possible that management truly believed that the changes they were proposing essentially made a different job of being a member of the NHMF orchestra. In the notification to musicians of the requirement to re-apply, management included the following:

How the New Business Model Differs from the Current Model:

  • Curators and orchestra musicians will be selected on carefully selected criteria
  • Orchestra musicians will mentor exceptional student musicians
  • Orchestra and chamber musicians could rehearse 20 to 30 hours per week as compared to the current 10 to 13 hours per week. Each musician will have the opportunity to have input in rehearsals.
  • Rehearsals will be collaborative and there will be more recitals and concerts each week.
  • Compensation for professional musicians will increase, we project at least.

And the “carefully selected criteria” (which are actually not “criteria” at all, but ways to assess skills that are implied rather than explicitly laid out)?

The criteria have been developed in order to allow you to demonstrate who you are as a musician and the breadth of your imagination.

o This will include demonstrating musical ability in two ways:
(I) Performance on a DVD(s) or CD(s) –in disc or e-format –that the musician feels best represents himself/herself as an Artist, These will include:
a. Mandatory: Music from each period:
1. Before 1800
ii. 1800-1950
iii. Post 1950 The following b. through e. are optional and no musician will be disqualified should (s)he choose to decline to include these in hislher portfolio. However, the Festival encourages you to submit examples from the list to enable us to evaluate your interests and talents beyond classical music:

  • Examples from jazz, world music or other music
  • Examples of improvisation
  • Examples of composing
  • Examples of arranging

(2) Essay questions to be submitted in either PDF or Word format. Answers to all three essay questions are mandatory:

  • Describe your most creative and fulfilling experience in music
  • Discuss your approach to mentoring student musicians
  • How do you see the role of Musicians in the 21″ Century evolving?

What I find most interesting is how poorly the skills required by the “new business model” line up with the hoops required by what management describes as the “portfolio.” Most obvious, of course, is the failure to assess whether or not the musician can survive the truly insane hours being required of them. “20 to 30 hours per week” and “more recitals and concerts per week”? Even for “we project, at least” more money? It would take a substantial increase from the current $500 per week plus housing to be fair compensation for that kind of schedule. And even oodles of money wouldn’t make 6 weeks of that kind of workload feasible.

What about the “mentoring” of “exceptional student musicians?” Is this anything more than a way of justifying free labor from the “students”? If the only assessment required of the professionals’ ability to add value to the students’ experience is an essay “discuss[ing] your approach to mentoring student musicians,” the answer is probably “no.”

Examples of composing and arranging? Why? Examples of improvisation to be submitted on a recording? Come on. For that matter, “performance on a DVD(s) or CD(s) –in disc or e-format –that the musician feels best represents himself/herself as an Artist”? Haven’t Festival management ever heard of “editing”?

Almost as interesting are the skills not being measured. The ability to perform live, the ability to play in an ensemble, the ability to follow a conductor, even the ability to provide what management describes as “input in rehearsals” – all go unassessed. Why is a musician’s ability to write about their “most creative and fulfilling experience in music” more important to Festival management than their ability to actually play together with other people?

These are truly lousy selection mechanisms for musicians to play in an ensemble. But they are a perfect hodge-podge of the new thinking about how to hire musicians. The emphasis on non-playing skills, the required buy-in to ideas about the “evolution” of the role of orchestra musicians – all are intended to move away from the current emphasis on playing skills. And cynical observers might suspect that the emphasis on what a musician thinks, rather than how a musician plays, might be designed to hire more compliant employees than the current orchestra of the New Hampshire Music Festival has proven to be.

There was sufficient push-back from the musicians (including the second organizing campaign in two summers) that this iteration of un-hiring the current orchestra was abandoned. But management came up with an alternative, which I will discuss in future posts.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • It is not too hard to shoot holes in the tortured logic of David Graham and Henry Fogel. If you try to look at this “logically” you realize it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It is only when you jump to the conclusion that management has an ulterior motive behind this action. The aim is not to evaluate the present personnel, but to clear the field so that management can go ahead and hire another group of musicians, Then it all start to add up.

    Hypothetically of course, put yourself in the position of being an orchestra manager who wants to get rid of the present personnel to make way for others. How would you do it in such a way as to not make it look as if you fired ANYONE? Well that’s easy, present them with such a ludicrous system of “reapplying” for their jobs that they say “No thanks, take your job and shove it!” Make the system seem, to the public at least, unbiased and fair. Make the details of the “new model” as vague as possible a) because it’s just a cover for your actions – you don’t really have a plan and b) the vaguer it is, the easier it will be to tell applicants “Sorry, you’re not what we had in mind.”

    Graham and Fogel should be commended on such a plan. And it would have worked! The only thing that stopped them was that they underestimated the public. Isn’t it funny, the union didn’t do a damn thing for the musicians, it was the public that gave them any kind of chance.

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