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The audition process

17 Sep 2008 09:53 #171 by Robert Ward
The audition process was created by Robert Ward

I was wondering if you wanted to comment on the current state of Symphony auditions.

1) Personally, I sort of long for the days when a candidate would sit down and play for the conductor. How do you feel about the "Old way?"

2) With the cost of travel now, it is even worse for auditioners to take the risk of an audition. Couldn't there be a video tape option at a local studio, where the technician signs a release that there was no stopping of the tape, and there is standard mic and equipment?

Thanks for your forum participation!

Richard O. Burdick

Bob Ward's answer:

Hi Richard,

1. I can't see going back to the Good Ol' Days. Every orchestra has its Master Agreement (a.k.a. The Contract) and in each orchestra, it has evolved based on the history of that particular orchestra. So when an elaborate system is negotiated with screens, committees and votes it's because, somewhere along the line, there was a problem with the Old Way. Try and imagine what it would be like if your conductor hired someone you felt was the wrong choice - right now the way most contracts are written, the audition committee and the Music Director essentially must agree on the choice. Having a voice in the choice is an important part of the responsibility of being a member of an orchestra, and one that I would not want to give up.

2. No question, travel is expensive. But I have had some experience with video taped auditions, and it's very hard to hear horn sound on a video tape. Plus, the candidates would then not all be competing under the same circumstance, and unfairness could arise as a result.

All that being said, I know that there is dissatisfaction with the audition process from many people. Candidates feel that they don't get a fair shake when we cut them off after hearing only a few minutes. Sitting on a committee is a mind-numbing experience for the players listening. Conductors probably would love to go back to Olden Times, since they could then do what they want. What happens in most orchestras is therefore a compromise between the various branches of government, creating a system of checks and balances that has mostly worked. I helped negotiate 5 master contracts in my early years here, and audition procedure is always a contentious issue.

I'd like to close by repeating a post I made at - the original was written in response to some grousing by the trumpet community that we had held a number of auditions and not hired anyone. It fills in some of the technical details about how our auditions work here in SF.

Original at:




Hi all,

Bob Ward here from the San Francisco Symphony horn section. I've been following this discussion with some interest, and have appreciated what many of you have written. Without getting into the specifics of this audition or that (because I think it would be unethical to talk about how Candidate A played or why Candidate B didn't advance), I think that there are some misconceptions about what happens in our auditions that need to be addressed.

In order to get the full-time, tenure track job, a candidate must be qualified by a vote of the audition committee. If no one is qualified, then the audition is over. The committee may qualify as many candidates as they like, and from that pool of players, the Music Director may hire one, or none. Or he may extend the process, hear the candidate play in the orchestra, and then make his decision So the musicians and the MD must agree on any candidate for them to get hired, which seems fair to me.

Sometimes that doesn't happen, and no one is qualified, or the MD doesn't like the player(s) who have qualified, and the process ends without someone being hired. It happens in every orchestra. When that happens, it's an incredible disappointment to all of us who serve on committees. It's very time consuming and difficult to try and find the right person, and it's a real let-down when the process ends without resolution.

I can categorically state that we do not have favorites picked out before an audition - we do our utmost to run fair, anonymous auditions. We try and set up the situation to make the candidates as comfortable as possible, in order to encourage them to play their best under very stressful circumstances. Nor do we hold auditions having decided in advance not to hire anyone. If you think that, you are wrong.

As far as having the union step in to enforce fair auditions: every orchestra is bound by the contractual languange that pertains to the audition process (each orchestra's rules differ somewhat) , and we abide by those rules, which have been negotiated over many, many years between the management and the players. Just because no one is hired, doesn't mean that rules were broken.

Similarly, many of you have pointed to how we hire for one-year, temporary positions as evidence of some kind of problem. The SFSO contract provides for 4 methods of hiring one-year players:

1. The Music Director may select a Musician who has qualified for a tenure track position within three years prior to the appointment

2. The Music Director may select a Musician who has qualified for a one-year substitute position by a vote following a tenure track audition audition within three years prior to the appointment. [this is confusing language - after every audition, a vote is held to determine whether any of the players would be acceptable as a one year sub]

3. By agreement of the Music Director and a majority "yes" vote by secret ballot of the members of the section where the vacancy exists.

4. By the holding of a one year substitute audition.

Every player who holds a one year sub position with the SFSO has been hired under these guidelines, including me.

Again, the Musicians and the Music Director must agree on who is hired.

The bottom line here is that no one beats the system. To win the full-time job, you must win the audition. The system is more flexible when one year subs are concerned, because time is of the essence sometimes, and a full audition can't always be held. And it also allows for a one year sub who is doing a good job to be re-hired without an audition for another one-year term if the temporary vacancy still exists. But that player still must win the audition for the full-time job to get it.

Does that person have an advantage? In the 25 years that I've been here, I think it's pretty much a wash. Sometimes the player wins, sometimes they don't. When I first got in the orchestra, I used to think it was a curse to have the one year spot, because few players got the Gold Medal. So I don't think that you can generalize one way or the other. But is certainly isn't a lock, that's for sure.

I think it's only human nature to be frustrated when a player puts a lot of time and energy into preparing for an audition, only to see no one being hired. But I also know that we run fair auditions, and to see a conspiracy where none exists only distracts a potential auditioner from the job at hand, which is to play his or her ass off at the next audition.

Do I think that the current system has some problems? Sure. Do I wish that we hired someone at every audition? You bet. Can I come up with a better system? That's a tough one. And until the rules change, we will continue to abide by them, and hire people that meet the standards for our orchestra.

I look forward to hearing you all at our next audition.

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