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.