“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.