Someone sent me this blog post by the conductor Kenneth Woods about the inhumanity of the orchestra audition system. Written in response to Jennie Dorris’ now-viral article “The Audition,” it sets out a thoughtful and compassionate alternative to the current, rather brutal way of doing things.

Reading Woods’ opinions reminded me of why I’ve never been much interested in the audition circuit. I never really wanted to have an orchestral job, mostly because my passions are for smaller-scale musical forms: string quartets, the cello-piano repertoire, Bach’s solo suites, and, these days, piano trios. The other reason is that I’ve seen what friends on the circuit go through. Countless times, they willingly spend money and time they don’t have going to audition after audition, dropping upwards of $1,000 on travel expenses (more, if you play an instrument that needs its own seat on the plane) for the chance to win one of those elusive, coveted jobs in a full-time professional orchestra.

I’ve seen first-hand the immense preparation that goes into the audition, and the crushing disappointment of losing. The number of people I know with doctorates and no jobs far exceeds the number I know who do have jobs.

And yet, I wonder if issues like the number of excerpts in an audition are really the main problem. (Well, of course excerpt requirements are a problem. I’ve done a couple of auditions myself, and always resented having to prepare as many as 20-30 excerpts–particularly things like that idiotic Bartered Bride overture by Bedřich Smetana, a piece that isn’t actually played that often.) The biggest problem, as I see it, is that there are far, far more qualified applicants for the existing number of music jobs, and as a cello professor, I’m part of that problem.

It’s recruitment season right now, and I’ve spent the past week going into high schools around the Northwest to talk to the students about careers in music. I typically play a bit of Bach for the students, answer their questions (first up is always “Where are you from?”), then join them in the cello section for the remainder of their rehearsal time. I always have a blast doing this, and really enjoy the company of bright, geeked-out kids. But looking at their shining eyes always gives me a pang of conscience too. Is it, I wonder, immoral to encourage intelligent, capable young people to spend a grotesque amount of money training for a profession where there are few openings, and thousands of intensely competitive applicants? Are music schools nothing better than degree factories, peddling dreams of success, but delivering only disappointed hopes?

And yet, my own employment depends in part on my ability to recruit new music students, so I keep playing my role in the system. I tell myself–we all tell ourselves, I think–that my profession enables willing, music-loving young people to get better at music. Even if they don’t make it in the profession, we will have taught them discipline and a work ethic that will benefit them in any career. Plenty of people don’t end up in careers directly related to their college major–just ask someone with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. These music graduates will love music all their lives, will be patrons of the arts, will attend the concerts of the lucky few who did make it, will make sure their children study music–in short, they will help keep the system going. Possibly with a six-figure debt that will take a lifetime to pay off.

Should we make “The Audition” required reading for anyone contemplating studying music at university? Part of me thinks it’s the only moral course of action. Part of me is too afraid that they’d be scared away. If any such cautionary tale existed when I was a teenager in the late 1990s, I didn’t know about it. I’m not sure if I’d have chosen a different career path, or if I’d have arrogantly assumed that I would be one of the lucky few who made it. When I’m in recruitment mode, I point out the ways in which our program prepares students to “hit the ground running” once they’re out in the profession. I train string teachers in my Preparatory Division; if the dreams of stardom don’t end up happening, at least they can earn their bread and butter with a private teaching studio, or in a school orchestra classroom, if their degree is in Music Education. Otherwise known as… the feeding device for collegiate music programs. The circularity seems ironic.


2 thoughts on “Overcrowding

  1. I agree with you, and have been trying to figure out how to frame my involvement in music education. This is part of an article I wrote for my orchestra, the Green Mountain Youth Symphony’s, newsletter:

    This last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits of music and music education in our society. As any graduating senior who asks my opinion about their options will tell you, I am not a strong proponent of students going directly from high school into a specialized, mostly very expensive, music program. I think it’s a better investment for students to get a well-rounded education, so they can learn skills that will enable them to be flexible in the changes that happen in our rapidly evolving world. Things like writing at a high level, being very competent with computers, and higher-order critical thinking are all necessary in many fields, and people who are able to do these things will have many more options than those who don’t. At a conservatory, you practice your instrument a lot, and get really good at it, but it’s at the expense of the other aspects of a person’s development. There was a very sobering article a couple of years back in the New York Times regarding recent graduates from the prestigious Juilliard School. Approximately half of the graduating students are not professional musicians, and many don’t play their instruments at all!

    So, why do I spend so much time teaching music? What’s the point? Well, even though going into music as a profession is an iffy proposition, playing, performing, and practicing music have huge benefits in and of themselves. For example:

    Dr. James Catterall of UCLA performed a study in which he analyzed the school records of 25,000 students as they moved from grade 8 to grade 10. He found that students who studied music and the arts had higher grades, scored better on standardized tests, had better attendance records and were more active in community affairs than other students. He also found that students from poorer families who studied the arts improved overall school performance more rapidly than all other students.
    Students of lower socioeconomic status who took music lessons in grades 8–12 increased their math scores significantly as compared to non-music students. But just as important, reading, history, geography and even social skills soared by 40%.
    —From Nature; Gardiner, Fox, Jeffrey and Knowles
    Students of music continue to outperform their non-arts peers on the SAT, according to reports by the College Entrance Examination Board. In 2006, SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 43 points higher on her math portion than students with no coursework or experience in the arts. Scores for those with coursework in music appreciation were 62 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math portion.
    — The College Board, Profile of College-Bound Seniors National Report for 2006

    Evidence of these effects can be seen looking at the schools where our graduates enroll. Take a look at the top students at your local schools; chances are, many of them are serious music students. These are smart kids, and their brains are more effective because they play music! Beyond all these cognitive benefits, I think there is a huge social benefit. Much of the motivation for getting up on Saturday morning and coming to GMYS is playing awesome music, but, more than that, is playing awesome music together. In a world where social interaction can be more frequently from behind a monitor, there is something very healthy and gratifying about working together to make beauty. Music for adults leads to a healthier brain as well: in a recent study at Emory University School of Medicine, it was shown that older folks (ages 60-85) who studied music had significantly higher cognitive test scores, especially in cognitive flexibility, the ability to respond to new information. There is even a study mentioned in the British Medical Journal in 1996 that says people who participate in the arts live longer!

    There are so many opportunities for adult players, community orchestras, chamber groups, continued study, and even as an educated audience member; this is a lifetime activity.

    In closing, if you want to study music seriously, do it! But, do it at a liberal arts school where you can learn other skills to expand your ability to make choices. You can always go to graduate school in music after you gain those skills. Regardless of your level of seriousness, keep playing; music is one of the only things that uses your entire being. It is physical, you think deeply about it, and it expresses emotions; your brain processes written, auditory, visual, and social information while playing music, and you interact socially with others. It’s good for you, and it’s fun!


    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Bob. I loved the article. I am a great fan of the really wonderful liberal arts education my students get here at UI. There’s no such thing where I went to university in New Zealand–you’re supposed to focus on music. The more I work in the American system, the more I think it’s nicer not to be forced into such single-mindedness at such an early age.


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