auditions opera the orchestra world violin

how not to run an audition


There was an orchestral audition that took place this weekend at the local opera company.  It was an audition for nine violin positions.  There were twelve applicants.  Of these twelve, two were advanced out of the preliminary round to the finals.  It isn’t clear if anyone was offered a position at the time this was being written.  This is inexcusable.

I know many of those violinists who took this audition, and they are all superb musicians, and a good number of them are the best violinists in the city, freelance or otherwise.  How is it that so few managed to meet the obviously high bar that the committee set for these auditions?  I find it hard to believe that out of such a high quality field that only two were found worthy – and with NINE open positions to fill!

It also galls me because elitism-by-committee at any level of ensemble is deeply abhorrent to me.  Auditions that result in no-hires, with some exceptions, occur because a committee is run by (or bullied by) one or more musicians who think that only they know what quality is, and are of the opinion that, if you aren’t inhumanly tough, you’re lowering your standards,  and that’s just not acceptable within the hallowed halls of insert-orchestra-name-here.  Please!  Give me a break!

Also likely in mid-level and lower ensembles is the situation in which the committee is cowed by the level of auditioning talent.  They are intimidated, and don’t pass people out of fear.  It’s hard to be top dog if the new dog in the pack can eat your lunch for breakfast.  They’ll find idiotic excuses like “they didn’t play double stops in the overture” or other such nonsense.  And maybe that’s all well and good when you’re in the final round, but I’ve heard many an audition that had nearly as many candidates in the finals as this opera orchestra committee heard in their entire preliminary round.  Is it that hard to listen?  Is their time that important?  Are they that superior?

So now you’ve got pretty much every freelance violinist who isn’t in the orchestra already hopping mad about what a travesty this audition was, and how will that play out when it comes time to fill those 7, 8, or 9 open spots during the season?  How many takers will they have from the top ranks of the available freelance violinists?  How many will take the next (and inevitable) round of auditions?  I’m not sure what the answers to those questions are, but I do know that there are some musicians in Portland who have lost my respect, and they aren’t the violinists who took this audition.

10 replies on “how not to run an audition”

It is difficult to know what really goes on behind the screen at an orchestral audition, but I’ll say this much: several years ago, I asked a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to help me prepare for an upcoming national audition. I posed the question of whether or not one should play double stops when auditioning. He responded that it was such a minor point, the committee members were unlikely to notice at all. Charles, I sure hope you were writing metaphorically about that….auditions cost money to run, to say nothing of the wasted efforts of those auditioning.

You are obviously entitled to your rant regarding auditions, but Since you were not present at the Portland Opera audition – either as a committee member, auditionee, music director, union or management representative – perhaps you could be a bit less smug or insulting in your ill-informed critique and hasty judgements and suppositions regarding what transpired. Just a tip from one of your “mid-level or lower” fellow working musicians.


David – thanks for commenting. No, I was not present, and therefore I didn’t say anything about the audition beyond what I actually knew from people who were actually there, on both sides of the screen. I should have added, however, that this sort of things happens with Big Five orchestras, as well, from time to time, and with the mid-level groups such as the Oregon Symphony, too.

Charles – thank your for your return comment. I realize your motivation in support of your fellow (in this case, free-lance) musicians, and your point as to the all-too-human foibles of any audition committee. My entry was made as a member of the Portland Opera Orchestra committee, and as one who has served on a recent audition committe for that orchestra – though not the violin one in question. Although our work for that organization is of a part-time nature in terms of number of services, I can attest to the integrity and musical motivations of those I am fortunate enough to work with.

All best…David

If any of the musicians that participated in the audition have questions or concerns about the process, please feel free to contact me at Local 99.

Bruce Fife
President, AFM, Local 99

Hi Bruce – thanks also to you for visiting and commenting. I just want to make it clear that I’m not saying that something shady happened here, just something that wasn’t terribly effective. It’s very possible to follow every rule in one’s CBA and still make some bad calls – bad, yes, but illegal, no.

Charles, I was not implying something “shady” went on, just offering up my services, as it’s what I do.

Just a couple of global comments, having sat in on hundreds, if not thousands of hours of auditions, and the only one seated in the position of being able to actually see the whole process unfold. I should also note that my musical background is outside the Orchestral world, so these are simply my observations as a “monitor” of the process for a good long time now.

I have generally found audition committees to be very professional and they take the importance and responsibility of their jobs seriously while playing a critical role in the selection process. What is especially intriguing to me is how differently they all “interpret” what they hear. While one might want it to be a more “linear” selection process, that seems to just not be so, as it requires discussion and debate to formulate the final decisions that move candidates along in the process. That is why the committe structure is so important, rather than just one individual making the decision.

As for the auditionees, it’s a brutal way to get a job. So much work and study narrowed into a 10 minute opportunity to show your best. I have rarely ever seen a canidate that shouldn’t be auditioning, but I have seen many fine musicians not play their best under the pressures of the process. What is foremost to note here is that not being moved into the finals or winning a spot does not mean an individual is not a very fine musician.

My final observation is that I have never seen a candidate not moved along in the process because the committee thought they were too good and might be a threat. There are certainly nuances that determine the final outcome, like sound of the instrument and whether it will blend in the section, ability to adapt to directions, etc., but I have not witnessed the pettiness or elitism as described in the original post in my experience, just a desire to find, and agreement on, the best musician for the job, on that day.

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