When the Audition Has No Winner

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we can choose a player for our orchestra from these candidates.” Has anyone you know heard words similar to those recently? I wouldn’t be surprised if you said “yes” because it’s been happening across the country with increasing frequency for several years now. A couple weeks ago I listened to the finals of an audition and was stunned to learn later that in spite of the great playing I heard, no one “won” the audition. The finalists were clearly well prepared, had plenty of experience, seemed cool, calm, and collected…but no one was “good enough” to win.

Ever since that audition I’ve been trying to figure out the rationale behind “no-winner” auditions. I’ve had long talks with several friends and we’re all baffled. One of those friends told me that his former teacher (a bass player in Houston) told him the “no winner” auditions started as far back as the 1980s.

I think it’s fair to compare an audition to a high-level sporting event, perhaps the Kentucky Derby. As everyone knows, horses train for years to even enter such a prestigious event. It helps if they have a strong pedigree, (very few horses in such an event are truly unknown to the racing world), as well as top-ranked trainers and jockeys working with them. On race day, however, all kinds of variables become additional factors, including weather, starting position, illness, injury, or some unforeseen combination of several of those. But inevitably the starting gun goes off, the horses whip around the track, and one of them is a winner, whether it’s by a nose or by several lengths.

After the race, the first horse to cross the finish line is taken to the winner’s circle, the trophy is awarded, the photographers go to work, and the horse is an instant celebrity (ditto for the owner, the trainer, and the jockey.) Now try to imagine what would happen if the track announcer suddenly broke into the celebration by saying, “Ladies and gentleman, race officials have decided there was no winner today because no horse broke the current track record.”  Pandemonium wouldn’t begin to describe what would ensue.

Now substitute “musician” in place of horse, teacher instead of trainer/jockey, and school instead of bloodline; I think this is an accurate analogy. At a major audition, there are no really unknown players. They all went to good schools, they all had years with good teachers, they all put in thousands of hours of practice — how is it possible that none of them are considered good enough to win? There has never been a deeper, or larger, pool of good players to choose from.

I’ve heard the usual excuses. Someone on the committee will say, “No one played with enough accuracy to impress me.” Really? When was the last time anyone played a flawless concert? Or someone will say, “None of the finalists had a good sense of style.” How do we know that based on a few short excerpts? With no disrespect to either conductor, I can tell you from personal experience that playing a Beethoven symphony under Leonard Slatkin’s baton is very different than playing the same one under Kurt Masur’s: the conductor dictates the style in an orchestra concert. So why are candidates rejected by the boat-load for their “lack of style”?

I played a fair number of auditions before I was hired by the National Symphony Orchestra. It used to be that during the finals a music director would ask, “Can you play that more espressivo, with a bigger crescendo at the end?” and applicants would play the excerpt again. On another excerpt the MD might say, “Take my tempo,” and the excerpt would be played again, either faster or slower to accommodate their wishes.

After winning an audition, (IF someone wins), new players go through the tenure process, which in my orchestra lasts about 18 months. That’s plenty of time to find out how a player fits into their section, how they respond to the MD, whether they are “growing into” their position, how quickly they learn new repertoire, etc, etc.  If the chemistry doesn’t seem to be right, a player doesn’t have to be given tenure.

One aspect of the “no clear winner” system completely baffles me. What do I tell my students? I can teach them to play with greater accuracy and better rhythm, and I can drill them to play more consistently, but what do I teach for “no one wins”?  How many auditions (at great expense) is a young player supposed to take, without winning, and still have the confidence to try yet again? I’ve known excellent players who audition for the same orchestra 3 or 4 or 5 times, they make it to the finals every time, but no winner is ever chosen. Doesn’t this create a climate that discourages our best and brightest? Is that what we want, during a time when our very existence is in danger?

Is it possible that conductors (and committees) come to the audition with a set idea of what they want to hear, whether it’s from a favorite 1930s recording or a concert from the ’70s? No young player in 2011 is going to sound like that, and they shouldn’t! If I’m playing in a string quartet, I might have a favorite recording which inspires me, but as I work with my quartet colleagues something very different takes shape. Plus there are always variables—on the day of the concert my allergies are acting up; traffic was bad so someone arrived late; the lighting in the auditorium isn’t bright enough — the list never ends. We can only do our best under whatever circumstances we are presented with.

But apparently when we listen to auditions, we forget all of those experiences we’ve had, because over and over the same thing happens: no one wins.

Could the “no winner” syndrome even be a factor as to why so many orchestras are struggling financially? Are we so mired in the past that we can’t look forward? Don’t we need to be open to new sounds, and new interpretations, within our organizations as well as outside them?

I’d love to see this topic discussed on both sides because I truly don’t understand what’s going on.

About the author

Yvonne Caruthers


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  • With all due respect, Harry, most of those “Asians” to whom you refer are, in fact, Americans. One can’t help but wonder whether you really meant “whites.”

  • Those auditions are mock auditions and an insult to a professional musician. The reality is that the orchestra already has a candidate and the hold these auditions to comply with some Union, local or state law. The result is that nobody is hired and the real candidate is appointed.
    Corruption rules any organization and that is what is truly sad.
    The process discourages gifted musicians and the whole system loses.
    When I visit a city I try to attend the concert venue. I am not xenophobic, but I see so many Asian musicians occupying positions in the orchestra where Americans should be. Many state the Asians tend to be more concentrated in their musicianship, and that may be a factor. Yet, I believe that the system tends to discourage Americans from applying and therefore Asians do not seem to care whether they are hired or not, they have nothing to lose by auditioning.
    I do have a question: why does a second position have to audition for the first position when tenured to the orchestra?

  • I’ve been on both sides of the screen in recent years. I don’t think I’ve ever taken an audition that felt “rigged,” but maybe I’ve just been lucky. I’ve certainly never participated in one from the committee side.

    Unrealistic expectations are undeniably part of the process, though. Perhaps we need a pre-first round in which the members of the committee all play through the list, are recorded, and listen to all those recordings as a group. Having established the “standard” of the orchestra that way, they are then allowed to listen to the prospective candidates. The recordings will be destroyed if they pick a winner.

  • Hello Yvonne,

    I don’t think we know each other but I did want to address the topic of no winners at an audition. I have a fairly complete perspective on this subject since I have experienced it from both sides of the field. I was a principal string player for over 17 years so I sat on countless string auditions. I also spent several years as many of us have taking auditions. I feel I know the answer to the question as far as how this happens. I would guess many know the answer, or should I say, the answers but to speak of it might be perceived as risky. The truth is ugly and multi faceted, touching many areas of the orchestral world. Truthfully, the only reason I am about to say what I am about to say is that the orchestral world as we have known it is in serious trouble and some of these unspoken reasons are a big part of it. Here goes.
    The number one reason why auditions are held with no winners is because there is a specific musician that is desired to fill the job. Union rules require an audition be held for a vacancy. Appointments are generally frowned upon unless the appointment is a stop-gap measure until an audition finds a new musician. Appointments before an audition are harder to mess around with then appointments after an audition in which no winner is chosen. When I was taking auditions I could assess with 100% accuracy if the audition I had just prepared for was on the level or not just by the way it was run. Every audition I took that the orchestra was seriously searching for a new musician, you couldn’t miss it in the way you were treated, how the whole audition process was run and so forth. Just as obvious was the audition for the sake of an audition. I once went at considerable expense to an audition and when I arrived at the building, I spent almost an hour searching for a way into the building. There was one sign announcing the audition entrance. It was in a back ally next to a trash dumpster, mostly hidden from view. Once inside the treatment didn’t get any better and no surprise that there was no winner. Six months later a mysterious appointment was announced and that was that. When I sat on auditions, what I saw from my so called colleagues confirmed my own experience. I saw good candidates quickly cut because they represented a threat to “someone else”. I saw screens come down in finales and when it became obvious that a “friend” wasn’t among the finalists, no winner was picked. One such audition I saw re-held 4 times with no winner ever picked until the people who kept making finales got disgusted and stopped coming. The “friend” finally got it then.
    The next most common reason no win auditions happen is musicians being musicians. There is an old saying that desire to run for public office should be grounds for disqualification. Musicians get beat up during the years of taking auditions and getting treated poorly so when they finally get to be on the other side of the screen, watch out. It’s Karmic pay-back time! I have to say that the people I would be huddling behind a screen with would often come down brutally hard and people taking auditions. Almost without fail, the musicians who spoke the most harshly about contestants were the most suspect as performers themselves. I observed this for years and guess what? It shapes an orchestra.
    The last reason why there are sometimes no winners picked is management. It’s cheaper to float subs and not pay benefits especially during economic lean times. So many of the US orchestras have positions that need to be filled but haven’t and nobody is in a hurry to do so right now.
    Once and awhile, there actually is an audition that doesn’t produce a winner. It is extremely rare though.
    Today, nobody cares. Once it was understood that you had to take care of the organization you worked for so it would in turn be there for you, thick and thin. Those days are gone. Today it’s about taking care of oneself. It is why I am out of the orchestra world forever and also why the orchestra world is in trouble. Trouble that runs deeper then just the economy.
    Recently I got a phone call from a musician friend of mine who also serves as an officer of the local musicians union. He was aghast. A local orchestra that shall remain nameless had just submitted it’s proposal to management during contract negotiations, to the union for review. Normally this is a no brainer. In this particular case the Union could NOT endorse this proposal and not because it was too pie-in the-sky either. It was because the five musicians serving on the committee had drafted a proposal that somehow managed to give all five of themselves, massive pay raises and massive pay cuts to everyone else in the orchestra. There was absolutely no attempt to conceal this either. It was done without a blush. The union, who normally will support the most optimistic proposal had to actually tell these five musicians who in theory, are representing the entire orchestra, that they could not line their own pockets and ignore the entire rest of the orchestra.
    Sadly, this attitude and belief structure is becoming the norm and increasingly accepted as a valid way of doing business. The frequency of no win auditions is just one of many symptoms starting to show up as the cracks get larger and deeper.

  • Yvonne,

    I think your article is great. I agree with your assessment inasmuch as I feel the system is flawed- but having sat on a committee with a no-win situation, I can finally understand the reasons.

    The only problem with your racehorse analogy is that they do not spend the next 18 months working alongside you after they win the race. I think that 99% of committees REALLY want a winner (it really sucks to sit there for days listening and not get somebody). But in a final round, at least a fair and comprehensive one, a player must prove that he or she is flexible by playing with their prospective section in a number of different styles…if they are unable to adjust after numerous attempts, it becomes difficult for a committee based on the information they are given to justify hiring that person over trying again to see who shows up next time.

    The problem is not the committees or the individuals on them- the problem is the system itself. As you pointed out, it would be better to see how they play in orchestral situations, not by themselves or even just with a section playing 45-second excerpts. That’s why I would personally love to see the European trial system prevail in this country over the blind audition process.

    In the blind process, if a committee knows it is not happy with a candidate, they are left with a terrible choice. Not hiring gets people speaking negatively about you, while hiring just for the sake of appointing a winner and giving them a year and a half to “change” is less honest than just being straight with them on the day, and the candidate could begin their probation with an immediate disadvantage. In many European orchestras, however, an audition candidate will probably be given a trial, and the entire orchestra gets a say at the end of it. This eliminates the possibility of favoritism and simultaneously ensures that someone will be hired on the merits of their overall playing in an orchestra, rather than in a 20-minute audition round.

    While I agree that no-hires have increased astoundingly, and some committees do chronically waste everyone’s time by getting carried away with their standards, I would like to see a system that simply doesn’t allow for this type of psychology to prevail.

  • Your commentary hit the nail right on the head. I am baffled by the quality musician who must endure cost, time, hours and hours of practice, to be told that no one was hired for that spot.
    That is totally insane.
    It an extreme discouraging tactic that will only lead to more and more foreigners entering domestic orchestras.
    The process is totally flawed.

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