15 seconds

Every couple of years or so, someone in the mainstream media decides that Orchestral Auditions Are Interesting and does a story on them. This better-than-most iteration, written by Janelle Gelfand, appeared online at cincinnati.com, the website of  the Cincinnati Enquirer:

“If a candidate has made it to the final round of our audition process, they are undoubtedly an excellent musician. I ask then to approach the same musical passage in different ways, with different meanings, colors, styles, phrasings and articulations,” [CSO Music Director Louis] Langrée said later. “What I’m listening for is flexibility, imagination and, of course, skill. I also listen for how the finalists would match the CSO’s identity and style, while at the same time anticipating what fresh elements they would bring to our ensemble.”

[CSO Principal Violist Christian] Colberg admitted it was a tough decision.

“The only way it was going to be decided was to hear them all again. It’s what is called a super-final. It’s happening more and more,” he said.

In a way, it’s a kind of endurance test, “to show how being tired affects you,” he added.

“There are times on tour where, had it not been for local coffee bars next to the hall, I’m not sure I would have survived the concert, with jet lag and constantly being on the road,” Colberg said. “You’ve got to have that instinct of having your muscles go on auto-pilot.”

And in the end, it boils down to five minutes of musical excerpts.

“If you want to absolutely precise, it boils down to about 15 seconds. We can tell with a pretty high degree of accuracy what kind of a player you are within the first 15 to 30 seconds. The rest of the time, we’re there to make sure that our initial assessment was correct,” Colberg said.

Oddly enough, I have some actual evidence to back up Colberg’s statement. For a number of years, I’ve been running a little experiment while listening to auditions (of which I’ve heard quite a few as principal violist). I give myself up 30 seconds to make a prediction about whether the committee will advance the candidate to the next round, and then compare that prediction later to 1) my own vote; and 2) the committee’s decision. (That first 30 seconds, in our auditions (as, as far as I know, in most orchestra auditions), will be a solo work, and not excerpts. And, like virtually all American orchestras, our preliminary and semi-final rounds are behind a screen.)

Here’s what I’ve found:

  • It often doesn’t take 30 seconds; 10-15 seconds is usually enough, as Colberg suggests.
  • When I predict that a candidate in the preliminary round won’t be advanced, I’m right about 95% of the time.
  • When I predict that a candidate in the prelims will be advanced, I’m right about 60% of the time.
  • When I predict that the candidate will advance from the preliminaries to the semi-final round, but then I vote against the candidate advancing, it’s invariably because the candidate messed up the orchestral excerpts in one of the many ways it’s possible to do that.
  • When the committee votes against advancing a candidate to the semi-finals, it’s almost always unanimous. When the committee votes to advance a candidate, it’s almost always close to unanimous. Close votes either way are very rare.
  • My predictive ability falls off sharply in the semi-final rounds.

What this suggests to me is that there some fundamental quality that audition committees listen for above everything else, and that whatever that quality is manifests itself immediately and in everything the candidate does. If that quality is there, the candidate has a chance to advance to the semi-finals if the excerpts are acceptable. They don’t have to be flawless, but the candidate can’t demonstrate cluelessness about what the excerpts are supposed to show.

In the semi-finals, however, all of the candidates have that fundamental quality, so my predictive vote is not about something that everyone on the committee is listening for, but rather simply my preference for certain kinds of playing, which will not be shared by everyone on the committee.

So what can budding auditioners learn from this experiment and the observations in the article? I suggest these points:

1) Excerpts are important, especially in the later rounds. But what gets candidates into the later rounds is the overall quality of their playing. My personal impression is that, assuming that the excerpts are well-played by all the candidates in the finals, the overall quality of the playing is what makes the difference in the end as well. Flaws in the excerpts are used to eliminate candidates if clear distinctions can’t be made between the candidates’ overall quality of playing. I can’t think of an audition I’ve heard where, in the end, the best player – in the sense that most musicians would use the term – didn’t get the job, although there have been instances of having finalists who play equally well, but differently, and having to choose one.

2) The outcomes of auditions aren’t random, regardless of how things might appear to the candidates. Those few minutes behind the screen are more than enough for audition committees to make an informed judgement, especially in the preliminary rounds. Committees are listening for a quality that, if not quantifiable, is reliably identifiable by musicians of widely differing backgrounds and tastes. In most cases, if candidates who weren’t advanced were to play the preliminary round again but with a different number, the committee still wouldn’t advance them.

So what is that quality? I describe it to myself as a sense that the candidate is in control. Listening as a string player to string auditions, that sense of control is some combination of very good basic pitch – ie, the ability to play consistently in tune in a single position – a steady pulse, excellent contact between bow and string, and a vibrato that’s present but not distracting. Overall, it presents as a sense that the player is in control of the instrument and not struggling with it. Of course, auditions add the ability to cope with nerves to the equation. But I suspect that the basics show through any level of stage fright that’s not actually incapacitating. (And, of course, being incapacitated by performance anxiety is a problem, even for section musicians, in an orchestra.)

I’m sure that observation is less helpful to would-be orchestra musicians. Telling students that accurately playing excerpts matters a lot in auditions is useful, because accuracy can be both taught and learned for specific excerpts. Telling candidates they simply have to be better instrumentalists than the competition doesn’t provide much guidance to either teachers or students. But it is the reality.




— Robert Levine

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