Nepotism, Diversity and the Audition Process–This Could be an Opera Plot

I’m going to riff a bit on Robert Levine’s January 15th blog post, Sometimes it’s hard to have a screened audition, where Robert points out the absurdity in the New York Philharmonic’s decision not to identify clarinetist, Burt Hara, who was playing what most musicians would call a trial week.  The NY Phil is looking for a principal clarinetist to replace the legendary Stanley Drucker, who has retired after a 60 year career.  If you haven’t done so already, you can read Robert’s post to get the gist of why Mr. Hara wasn’t identified, even though he was given a solo bow by the conductor, Alan Gilbert.

What I want to present is another take on the trial week, and as a point of departure I’ll use a piece, commentary, observation—whatever you want to call it—by Peter Dobrin, the music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, from July 2009.  I’ve kept it on my computer since last summer because it reminded how the audition process works, and how, even though we try to be fair and balanced, we might unknowingly stack the deck for some auditioners.  Mr. Dobrin writes about the audition process itself, nepotism, diversity and trial weeks.  Dobrin’s example is the Philadelphia Orchestra. Here’s a link to his original article, which you can go to, but you’ll miss my insightful comments if you do.  They are in italics.

Here is what Mr. Dobrin wrote if you didn’t go to the link.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Thursday 7/30/09

Proof That the Talent is There

By Peter Dobrin, Inquirer Classical Music Critic

Defenders of the status quo will tell you two things about African Americans and the American symphony orchestra: The reason there are so few blacks in orchestras is that the talent just isn’t out there, and racism can’t be the issue because auditions are played behind screens.

Several years ago I wrote about the fact that 16 years after announcing a cultural-diversity initiative, the Philadelphia Orchestra still had the same three African American members it hired in the 1970s. The reaction from musicians, rather than introspection, ranged from complacency to defensiveness.

And the excuses they offered didn’t wash, not when you take into account the variety and complexity of the ways in which musicians get into the orchestra. Little has changed in recent decades, making the ensemble as tone-deaf to race as the Vienna Philharmonic is in its historic exclusion of women.

OK, He’s starting to get my attention.

But this month, in a relatively significant development at the Mann Center, the orchestra took a quiet baby step.  Sitting in the principal oboe chair Tuesday night was a substitute musician who happens to be African American. The orchestra rarely hosts African American substitute players, much less in so prominent a spot. In the Overture to La forza del destino, and last week in the Overture to Tannhäuser, this single player was cause to think that perhaps times are finally changing.

Why this is significant – he’s just subbing, after all – might not seem obvious until you think about the fact that many musicians land a spot in the orchestra by starting as substitutes. Such experience grants several advantages: It gives players a chance to hone their styles to the ensemble’s sound; they see and hear what others are doing and emulate it; they learn to fit in. And when at some later point a sub does get a chance to audition, the audition committee recognizes the sound of a kindred spirit.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, that’s how I first came to the attention of the musicians and conductors of the Rochester Philharmonic. That was 40 years ago.  I was an Eastman student and I got some calls to sub in the orchestra.  I was inexperienced, but I must have done OK, because when an opening did occur, I auditioned and got the job.   Humm. . . .Maybe it was to my advantage that I did a pretty good job as a sub—they already knew me.

Additionally, substituting is a tremendous schmoozing opportunity. Anyone who says personal relationships don’t help land jobs isn’t acknowledging hiring patterns. If you look at who has won a spot in the orchestra, it’s often been a spouse of a current player, a son or brother, a girlfriend, an in-law.

Look out, this could get heavy.

In 2007, when the orchestra hired 10 players, nine were related to or involved with other members of the orchestra, or had substituted with the orchestra regularly, and/or studied with members. Only one had no previous associations with the orchestra or anyone in it. (If interracial marriage and adoption were more frequent occurrences in the ensemble, the Philadelphia Orchestra would have had perhaps dozens of African American members by now.)

This is why I saved the article.  I wanted to look at my own orchestra, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, to see how many of my colleagues attended the Eastman School or had an affiliation with it.  I knew it would be high.  So, I looked in the most recent program.  The RPO has a somewhat unique situation in that the Eastman School of Music is in Rochester, NY and actually owns the theatre in which the RPO performs.  Because of the talent within the School, the RPO can function at a high artistic level by having a core orchestra of 59 players and 23 part-time or B-contract musicians.  These 23 PT musicians are most often Eastman faculty or former students who settled in the area.  Looking only at the “core” orchestra of 59 and without double counting, (some players might be listed twice—for example, clarinet and bass clarinet or flute and piccolo, and without including the personnel manager and the librarian who are core), of the 57 core musicians, 24 are Eastman graduates.  Yikes!!  If you want to get into the RPO you’d better go to Eastman.  Almost 50% of the orchestra studied here.  When the B-contract musicians are factored in, the percentage goes even higher.  Twenty of the 24 contracted part-time musicians have an Eastman affiliation, either through teaching or studying here.  That’s makes a grand total of 48 Eastman affiliated musicians out of 80.

I’m not saying that my colleagues (and myself) don’t deserve to be in this orchestra, or that we somehow slipped in the back door.  My colleagues are all fantastic players.  They all auditioned.  It was behind a screen for at least the first round, and they came out on top. But, I agree with Mr. Dobrin’s thesis.  If you get a chance to sub with a group, your chances of landing a gig when an opening comes up is probably better than the guy just walking in the door off the street.  Of course this presumes that you will do a good job.  It can also work against you if you don’t do so well.

Relationships that help players get into the orchestra don’t have to be personal or familial. They can also be professional, beginning in the teaching studio.  Sometimes a substitute gets a chance to play in the orchestra because he or she has auditioned for the official substitute roster. But sometimes a player in the orchestra simply taps on the shoulder of a student or former student and hires him for the night.  And after hour upon hour, year upon year of lessons, it’s easy for a teacher to recognize a student’s sound emanating from behind the audition screen.

This happens all the time.

Another loophole in the so-called blind audition process: Some important personnel appointments – concertmaster, principal oboist – are made by inviting a known musician to try out in the ensemble for a week.  (This is what occurred with the NY Phil and was written about in Robert Levin’s blog.) Obviously there’s no audition screen in those cases, and obviously if the orchestra were really interested in making its ranks more representative of the city in which it lives it could actively recruit African American players for those shots at a job.

The Philadelphia Orchestra has a lot of catching up to do, and those musicians who think it’s unimportant for the group to look something like Philadelphia are living in a fool’s paradise. Departing board chairman Harold A. Sorgenti – a longtime proponent of diversity at the board level – made sure the board included several new African American members. Former president James Undercofler lured a top African American member to the senior administration.

Will new leadership arriving in the next few months press for progress?  This season the Philadelphia Orchestra celebrated contralto Marian Anderson on stage at Carnegie Hall with a program that tipped the hat to African American contributions without any apparent awkwardness about the fact that it hasn’t hired an African American member in decades. Tomorrow night it takes its free neighborhood concert series to Deliverance Evangelistic Church at 20th and Lehigh.

These are nice overtures to a slice of the population the orchestra has largely avoided – but only that; the more significant overtures were the Tannhäuser and La forza del destino of recent weeks. For musicians, it’s an important bit of delayed justice. But the orchestra would benefit enormously by having an ensemble for which the entire city could feel ownership. Facing concerts just 80 percent filled last season, it has identified reconnecting with the city as its most critical task – and you can’t connect with a place that’s more than 40 percent African American if you’re an orchestra that’s less than 3 percent African American.

A better representation can happen, and it can happen without artistic compromise. In the last few years, just at Curtis alone, African American graduates have landed spots in the orchestras of San Diego and the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere.

It turns out that our oboe visitor studied at Curtis with a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. But he was called in to substitute because, as is required for playing in a principal chair, he has a title with another orchestra: He’s Shea Scruggs, hired in April as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s assistant principal oboist.

It’s time to stop saying the talent isn’t there, and to stop citing the objectivity of the audition screen. The only thing the screen hides is the audition process, and it’s not even doing a very good job of that anymore.

Some things to think about.

About the author

Ramon Ricker

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