Hamilton Ulmer

Tools for Data Analysis & Deep Work

Orchestral Auditions: or, a most brutal hiring loop
Apr 18, 2022

Last year I spent a day proctoring auditions for a small orchestra in the Bay Area, which is to say, I brought musicians onto an auditorium stage one-at-a-time, announced their candidate number, then walked back to the wings and waited while the musician played through the pre-selected excerpts. I then helped them gather their things and gently guided them offstage.

These days, most modern professional orchestra auditions are double-blind. There’s a curtain between the judges and the musician, and neither side speaks during the process. This is so that the judges don’t know who’s playing and the musician doesn’t know who’s judging. This practice was established in the 1970s, when most orchestras were full of men. After these double-blind auditions became the norm, women and underrepresented groups began winning seats. In theory, it’s a pure meritocracy.

The double-blind setup is why I stay in the auditorium – in case the musician needs to communicate with the judges, I’m their voice. They might need to run to grab something else from the on-deck room where their instrument case is, or clarify any number of random small things or misunderstandings. So they wave me over, whisper in my ear, and I shout it into the ostensibly empty auditorium. There’s a judge’s proctor behind the curtains who shouts back a response. In our case, the judges were up in the mezzanine, so probably 150 feet out and up from the edge of the stage.

Watching these auditions from the wings reveals how weirdly impersonal it is. I’m the last person these musicians see before they spend five to ten minutes doing the thing they’ve spent their whole lives preparing for, five to ten minutes playing alone just as they practiced ~ but also not alone at all. Your audience is a totally silent and disembodied judge’s panel. Is anyone even behind the curtains? Who exactly is judging my entire self-worth over there? Often, the only feedback the musician gets is that they either win the job (not a high probability when there are many candidates) or they don’t.

So you can imagine the nerves, and from the wings, you see a lot of rituals and quiet spasms of frustration. Silent prayers, deep, dramatic breathing between excerpts, musicians conducting the first four measures for themselves so they don’t rush through it, people nearly falling apart in tears because they cracked a note on a difficult excerpt, musicians silently mouthing an expletive after they screw up a small part that they’ve practiced perfectly for weeks, months, years. Viscerally startled faces when the judge’s proctor cuts them off mid-phrase during their solo excerpt. One guy accidentally knocked a framed piece of art off the wall of the hallway to the stage and it shattered into a million miserable pieces. This happened right before he went onstage.

Auditioning is an inherently nerve-wracking thing, because you know there are a hundred people that would gladly take the seat you’re trying to win. That’s because music schools are churning out more orchestral musicians than the market can support, and the musicians vying for a seat are competing against hundreds of others who’ve oriented their entire lives toward practicing & playing for a judge’s panel. Put bluntly, to be an auditioning musician is to attempt to sell your labor in a shrinking buyer’s market for shrinking pay & benefits.

Given that these jobs are both rarer and less lucrative than they used to be, it’s pretty common that a musician in the US cobbles together a career playing lots of different gigs with regional orchestras, playing with smaller groups, and maintaining a private teaching studio. But people tend to hit their income ceiling by their mid-thirties, and it’s a life of constant hustle for low pay, at times demoralizing and exhausting. It’s not really what you signed up for. So when an orchestra announces an audition, people will clear their schedules and train, train, train, like the athletes they are.

That’s why winning a major orchestra job can be life-changing, because if you win the seat, all of a sudden you’ve got a big part of your income guaranteed. Once you’re tenured, you are in theory immune to the hustle. Not to mention the prestige of actually having made it.

Major orchestras know this, and anticipate that hundreds of people will fly in from all over the country to audition for one spot. In some cases, it can be decades before a seat opens up. A flutist finally retires after a long career, a percussionist wins a job at a better orchestra and creates a vacancy where they currently play.

One major catch: an orchestra might not even pick a winner by the end of the audition process. Perhaps budget concerns compel them to hire a substitute contractor for the season (or several seasons, in some cases). Sometimes the orchestra already has a musician in mind and that person gets automatically advanced to a final round (which is sometimes not double-blind) – a useful escape hatch from the supposed meritocratic spirit of the endeavor. Or maybe the union requires the auditions even if no one is serious about picking a winner. So they go through all the motions, and the auditioning musicians will only know after the fact that it was all just one big waste of time and money.

But hey, you might win, right? There’s always that slim chance, and then yes ~ you have really made it. Well, not exactly. Before tenure there’s often some kind of trial or probation period where the orchestra sees if you actually play well with the ensemble & you’re a good cultural fit, not to mention to see if you’re a serious, well-prepared kind of person. The probation can last anywhere from a few concerts to a full year (and sometimes longer). If it’s a longer-term probation, then that probably means you’re going to have to move to whatever city the orchestra plays in. It’s a lot like getting a tenure-track job at a university; you are doing the thing you’ve worked so hard to do, but you may be moving to some place where you maybe never saw yourself living. So you have to be ready to upend your life and move to play with this orchestra, and if the conductor decides they don’t like you or you don’t quite fit into the culture, that’s it … no more job. You moved for nothing.

Yes, this really happens.

I could keep going down this path and describe some outcomes around what life is like when you actually get that tenured seat in a major orchestra – joy, wonder, boredom at playing Beethoven’s 5th for the 1,000th time to a sea of wealthy senior citizens, laziness, entropy in the quality of your playing. But I’ve digressed away from my weekend proctoring auditions for a Bay Area orchestra. The double-blind part has undoubtedly done some good, but it tends to favor those who are good at mastering excerpts, not at playing well with others or being well-rounded musicians. These other skills are critical to excellent ensemble playing. And of course, there end up being a number of other invisible gates along the way that keeps out orchestral musicians from traditionally underrepresented groups. Most people who care about equitable hiring pipelines in other industries can probably see the red flags from a mile away.

I’ve been in the music world for a long time, so I know that most people who aren’t in it tend to romanticize the lifestyle. The reality is, for every wonderful success story of grit and determination winning out against the odds, there are thousands of cases where it didn’t quite work out, and those people have to find a way to survive in this world with a skill set that isn’t valued very highly. For many, the thing that moved them to become a musician in the first place might disappear at some point after they discover they have to actually make a living. It’s not to say that playing music with others isn’t an incredibly rewarding experience, a chance to enter a wonderful flow state for a living. It’s just that the system we have today – and the incentives that come with it – are stacked against a musician in a way that tends to brutalize them into hating the entire endeavor.

Whether a musician eventually quits is another thing entirely. Sometimes people break. The pandemic gave many of my friends an excuse to leave the industry. But it’s always complicated, since there is literally (and I really mean literally) nothing better than making music with other people. You don’t even have to be a musician to understand that.