Some thoughts about auditions

Auditions are a big subject; Polyphonic did a virtual discussion panel on the topic about three years ago and barely scratched the surface. We had two days of violin auditions at the beginning of the week, which gave me both a lot of time to think and some material to think about. So I thought I’d make some observations, based on the hours and hours we spent.

I. It never ceases to amaze me the extent to which audition committees agree on most candidates. My orchestra does the preliminaries and semi-finals behind a screen, so we’re forced to focus solely on what we hear; no other information about the candidates of any kind until the finals. It’s clear from the discussions preceding our votes that every member of the committee is hearing different aspects of candidates’ playing, is using different systems to evaluate the candidates, and in general is coming from a very different perspective from every other committee member. And the differences between most of the candidates were pretty subtle by any reasonable criteria.

A recipe for chaos, right? Hardly. Most of the time the committee was overwhelmingly of one opinion, and often unanimously of that opinion. Of the 40+ candidates my committee heard (we do split committees when we have lots of candidates), I recall one not being advanced by missing one vote, and maybe one more advanced by a one-vote margin. I find that very reassuring when I’m trying to make the kinds of decisions about the most subjective of comparisons; it tells me that I’m not crazy to think one candidate, who plays pretty well, should be advanced, while another candidate, who plays also pretty well, shouldn’t be – even if I heard problems, or strengths, that other people didn’t hear, and completely missed some things that my colleagues caught.

II. Most of the time, it takes about a minute to figure out who’s going to advance and who isn’t. For the past few years I’ve tried to make a snap judgement (within the first minute, if not sooner) about which candidates are going to be advanced by the committee. I get it right 9 times out of 10. Oddly enough, my snap judgement is not always how I end up voting. But clearly there’s something that’s very telling about a candidate’s playing that comes through right from the start.

I’ve tried to define it, and haven’t come up with a good definition (certainly not a useful one to pass one to students or colleagues). But I find that winning candidates generally come across from the very beginning as being solid and in control. It’s a combination of centered pitch, reasonable vibrato, and good bow contact. I think that what I’m trying to identify is a sense of control; that the candidate does have a threshold level of mastery of the instrument. That’s not to say that I’m expecting perfection – which is good, because I don’t ever hear that. But technical and musical solidity is not the same as perfection. Everyone makes mistakes; what bothers me are systemic flaws.

I tried an alternate system the other day; instead of forcing myself to make a snap guess, I recorded just when in the audition I made up my mind. Again, it usually happened pretty quickly; either in the solo or the first excerpt. I did find that once or twice I changed my mind after having recorded when I’d made it up.

III. Many are called but few are chosen. It’s taken me decades to really come to terms with the fact that virtually everyone an audition committee hears will leave disappointed. It’s made me more reluctant to vote candidates to the next round if I don’t feel really good about them, because there are just too many candidates that I feel OK about. I’ve had to learn that just feeling OK about a candidate is a pretty reliable indicator that the candidate is not going to do well in the finals, or even the semis.

IV. Auditions are a drag for all concerned. Obviously they’re a drag for the candidates. But they’re not pleasant for the committees either. Listening to 40 violinists in a row do the same excerpts, mostly making the same errors, is very demanding mentally, and almost as tedious. And I find that most audition committee members are very conscious that, not only are they doing something that is critical in terms for how well the orchestra is going to function for years into the future, they are doing something that will deeply affect the lives of at least some of the people playing for them, for good or ill. I think that really weighs on people’s minds.

It sure weighs on mine; serving on auditions committees always  leaves me feeling like someone working the guillotines during the height of the French Revolution.

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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