Auditions: The Process And How It Works

Auditions: how do they work? We’ve all heard about them; but what are they all about? They are the means by which musicians are hired by most symphony, opera, ballet and theater orchestras. Employment is won in a competition for the best; that is what we mean by “auditions.”

Over the years, and as a result of the effort to make them both fair and decisive, audition procedures have evolved into a standardized process. Describing how musicians are hired by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a typical example of the process. It is both objective and subjective.

Openings occur in every musical group because of death, injury, resignations, retirement, illness or discharge. The size and instrumentation of many of these groups is set by the terms of the applicable collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Auditions are scheduled only in anticipation of an opening that has already occurred or is about to occur. They are not permitted to take place to determine whether someone not now in the organization may be better “qualified” than the individual who now has the position in question.

Once there is a legitimate opening, dates and locations for the auditions are determined and announcements are posted in appropriate journals and by other means. Anyone may apply, although a refundable deposit is required to assure the applicant’s presence. However, not everyone will be permitted to complete their audition. (More about that later).

Auditions are divided into two parts: preliminary and final. Successful candidates who have passed through the preliminary auditions advance to the finals.

Upon arrival at the audition location, each applicant is assigned a “number” randomly by lot. A time is set aside for the applicants to “warm up.” The preliminary auditions are heard by an Audition Committee composed of nine elected members of the orchestra, who serve for a season. At the auditions, the members of the Audition Committee are not allowed to be seated near each other, nor are they allowed to communicate with each other during the entire process.

The auditions take place in the auditorium or concert hall the group generally performs at. An administrator is the only person with the applicant who is auditioning in order to give the applicant instructions and communicate with the Audition Committee for the applicant. The applicant is not permitted to speak to the Audition Committee, only to the administrator.

The applicant, in the order determined by the random numbers assigned, is brought to the stage whose front has been screened off from the auditorium where the Audition Committee is seated. The path from the stage door to the front and center of the stage is carpeted to muffle the sound of the applicant’s foot-steps. The screens and carpeting are used to preserve the anonymity, age and gender of the applicant. The applicant may only speak with the administrator, but must use hushed tones so as not to be heard by the Audition Committee.

The audition begins in the same way for everyone. They are asked to sight-read certain passages in the repertoire. The Audition Committee is listening to see whether the applicant is familiar with the passages, knowing both the tempo and style in which it is usually played. They are also listening for technical competence and facility. Also being measured is the degree of composure displayed by the applicant in this stressful and competitive environment.

The audition also permits the applicant to perform something of their own choosing. The musicality displayed throughout is important. When an applicant is heard who is obviously not of the standard required by this organization, they are summarily dismissed with a “Thank you very much” before time is wasted. The process has no patience for obviously substandard performers.

There is a secret ballot vote taken after every applicant has finished. The balloting is generally handled by the administrator. Each committee member has a piece of paper with the applicant’s number, which is announced by the administrator in advance of the first note played by each hopeful applicant. A simple “yes” or “no” is placed on the ballot after each applicant has concluded their audition, and then the ballot is turned in. The question each committee member must ask themselves is simply this: Do you believe the applicant is qualified to become a member of the orchestra? Each Audition Committee member uses their own judgment to answer the question.

Every applicant who receives at least six “yes” votes out of the nine votes cast is advanced to the final auditions. The results are announced immediately after the last applicant has concluded their audition. It happens on some occasions that no one is advanced to the finals. In that case, new auditions are scheduled and the whole process begins all over again.

The final auditions for the fortunate few are scheduled at a later date. In the finals, the screens are down, the Music Director is also present, and discussion is permitted. The Music Director, in consultation with the Audition Committee, makes the final decision about a winner, if any. The results are immediately announced after the auditions are concluded and that individual is offered a contract to join the orchestra, subject to a two-year probationary period. Successful new members receive tenure only after they have been in the orchestra for two full seasons.

There has been a great deal written about preparing for auditions, so that will not be duplicated here. Yes, it is a long and grueling process. But fair auditions have been largely responsible for the general improvement of America’s orchestras. While the process is not perfect, it is the means by which replacements are now hired.

In earlier times, the system for hiring new members was both arbitrary and discriminative. Conductors would hold “private auditions” for vacancies that did not exist. When vacancies did occur, principal players would often recommend their friends or subservient students as replacements. Often, these replacements were far less competent than winners of the current process are.

As a result, discrimination of every conceivable type was rampant and endemic. The process had to change, not only to avoid the discrimination, but also to improve the quality of the replacements. An orchestra’s reputation is often dependant on its overall quality. It is therefor in its best interest to achieve the highest level of competence available.