behind the screen

Imagine for a moment that you were very interested in dinosaurs in Kindergarten and that interest permeated all aspects of your life as a six-year-old: you had a toy stegosaurus, you watched Land of the Lost every Saturday morning, your copy of Dinotopia and Kids Discover magazines were worn ragged because you asked your parents to read them to you every night, you had dinosaur sheets on your bed, you couldn’t wait until you were old enough to be able to see Jurassic Park.

Imagine that this interest never really faltered. Your interest in all things prehistoric turned into an interest in natural sciences in junior high school, and when it came time for you to attend college you were offered a scholarship to study archeology at a prestigious university. After your Bachelor’s degree, you went on to do extensive fieldwork both at home and abroad, and returned to the United States for your Masters and post-graduate studies.

You are now an accomplished scientist and researcher with many years’ experience and have been offered the opportunity to interview for a faculty position at the university level, a position that would allow you ample time to teach and continue pursuing your individual interests in the field. This position offers a comfortable salary and is highly competitive; however, the interview process is somewhat non-traditional. Instead of submitting resumes and examples of recent publications, references, and qualifications, you have been asked to present a lecture to the university’s current faculty of highly-skilled archeologists. You will be given an hour to present a lecture — free from media, print materials, or other aids — which highlights all of your experiences, projects, papers, and qualifications.

This job opportunity excites you, and you spend week upon week selecting the anecdotes and examples from your life and research that will put your best self forward to the interviewing audience. It is difficult to pair down all of your experience into just an hour’s worth of spoken word, but you’re certain it can be done. You are a strong lecturer with compelling speaking points and a genuine interest in the subject. However, there is one odd catch: the interviewing committee has asked you to be acutely aware of the nature of your delivery, and you will have no visual contact with the committee itself. Any “filler” words — um, uh, etc — may be held against you in their evaluation of the lecture. Errors in word usage or grammatical structure and any disruption in the flow of your speech may also disqualify you from consideration. And finally, you may not actually have an hour in which to present — most likely, it will be closer to 10-15 minutes. Still, you know you are a strong candidate, and you are not intimidated by these unusual requirements. You have begun to record your lecture and tweak your presentation to make it the very best it can be.

More than two months have gone by since you were invited to interview for this job, but now the time has come. You flew out to the city the day before and spend the night in a hotel that was a little out of your price range but was most convenient for your morning commute. As alluded to in the requirements, you will only be given 10 minutes for your presentation. The administrative assistant who greeted you asked you not to worry: every interviewee has been given the same amount of time to present. She encouraged you to stay calm, drink some water beforehand, and do your best to present an equally moving lecture, just in a shorter amount of time.

And you did. You’re not sure exactly how you managed to do it, but you showed how interesting, creative, dynamic, and well-trained you are, and the interview committee was impressed. In fact, they were so impressed that they invited you to come back to present another lecture the next day! Of course, you accepted.

On your way out, the administrative assistant informed you that your lecture time would be similar tomorrow — only about 10 minutes — and that your lecture, while still open-ended, should be focused on the same topics…for the same people…who are looking to be “wowed” in the same way. And if you did well, you’d be invited to give the same lecture to the same people again the next day. If you can successfully give your lecture 3-4 times to the same audience and be uniquely interesting, creative, and singularly spectacular during each lecture, you may be offered the job.

But, in the end, the committee decided that they’d rather wait another year to fill this position and hire substitute professors for class in the meantime. “It wasn’t that you did anything wrong,” one of the committee members told you over drinks that night, “You just weren’t exactly what we were looking for.” Apparently, the university has a long list of equally-qualified lecturers on hand to teach classes for a reduced rate, and they think that maybe their applicant pool will be more impressive in a year.

Disappointment aside, doesn’t this sound like an absurd hiring practice? However, it is how every single major orchestra chooses their musicians. On average, an aspiring musician can spend about $500-1,000 out of pocket per audition (not including those who travel internationally to audition) once transportation, lodging, meals, and application fees are paid. This also doesn’t include lessons with orchestra members prior to the audition – a common practice in audition preparation since each orchestra has its own approach to the performance of certain excerpts – and it doesn’t include all those little “extras” that musicians need for the audition itself (new strings, reeds, bow rehairs, etc).

Most musicians can agree that this is a highly-flawed process, but the complaints of those who haven’t won a job yet fall on deaf ears, and those who have secured their own chair are grateful (and relieved) that their stars finally aligned – so why try to improve upon a process that worked in their favor?


Solutions should not come from the musicians themselves, but rather from the personnel managers who oversee the audition process and, ultimately, the hiring process. If orchestras really want the “best” musician for the job, an important first step might be to consider the difference between having an amazing talent and being an ideal employee. Of course, ideal employees also must have a significant amount of talent, but having paramount technique and supreme creativity does not mean that same musician is capable of productive collaboration or professional conduct.

Personnel managers perhaps should consider taking a page from the HR manual of any other field and begin to recognize that experience and work history may be a better indicator of who that “best” musician may be. Resumes are already collected as part of the audition process, but performance resumes seldom list professional references – conductors, section leaders, personnel managers – related to their work history. Why not? Isn’t it important to know if a candidate was always punctual, if they were an asset to their section, if their conduct on social media and outside the concert hall was becoming? Forget the prescreening tape and add a prescreen interview – on the phone, in person, etc – with someone from the orchestra’s administration. Isn’t it important to know if a candidate can speak knowledgeably, advocate on behalf of music in the community, and present a positive image to patrons? If it seems too much to investigate an applicant’s background or prescreen with an interview, then it should be more widely accepted that orchestras are NOT looking for the “best” candidate and that the best player will do just fine.

Suppose everyone already knows that “best” is being defined in terms of concerto competition winners these days and personality has no role in the orchestral hiring process. Can we all agree, if finding the best employee is not the goal of an audition, that creating a fair hiring process is important? There is a lot of secrecy that surrounds orchestra auditions, from what excerpts will be selected from ever-growing lists of pieces from the standard repertoire to anonymity behind a screen in early rounds to the highly subjective decisions of a committee that can make or break someone’s career aspirations as easily as voting “no” (with no other comment, suggestion, or rationale). Candidates can sometimes receive comments after the process has been completed, but they aren’t allowed to record their own audition to compare to the feedback. I value many of the arguments for such levels of secrecy, but I am continually baffled by the increasingly common practice of taking down the screen in the “finals” or “super-finals” round. Some committees will argue that there is a value in this face-to-face round, during which requests to change an element of performance are sometimes made and committee members can peruse the resumes of the candidates who made it that far, but I would argue that dropping the screen welcomes back every bias – intentional or otherwise – that the early rounds sought to dispel. By all means, look at resumes, but replace each applicant’s name with an identifying number or letter! See where they went to school, what festivals they’ve attended, what other orchestras they have worked for! See the important things, hear the important things, and guess at all the rest. Guess their age, gender, nationality, religion, height, and sexual orientation. Take a guess if you’re hearing your own student play or if it is someone who sounds just like them. Be left wondering if they paid $20,000 for their instrument or $200,000. If you’re looking for the best player and desire a fair process, the rest of it doesn’t matter. But, it turns out, all that other stuff still matters – at least a little – or that screen would stay up.

So how, when so much emphasis is being put on college and career readiness, do music teachers prepare their students for these highly subjective experiences? How does a private teacher, who might have never won a job in their life despite their extraordinary skill and work effort, properly equip their students with the tools they need to be successful? How does a public school ensemble director encourage their students to work their hardest and do their very best when they can reasonably expect to be competing with over 500 applicants from around the world for each job they seek?

The answer is that they don’t. Music teachers can only do their best to prepare students with what they know and what they have experienced. If a student’s ability exceeds that of their teacher, a good teacher will know to pass them along to someone even more skilled and experienced. Public school teachers do not have this luxury, nor should they be guiding most – if any – students toward this type of career. For a public school music teacher, college and career readiness in the performing arts is something that they will only see a few times in their career, and so it is important for a music faculty to understand that, while performance at a high level of musicality and skill is desirable, most students will achieve readiness for college and careers outside the arts because of the emotional, self-, and social awareness that study of an instrument fostered.


Podcast Report: American Orchestra Forum – Chapter 1

The American Orchestra Forum was an initiative by the San Francisco Symphony during its 2011-2012 centennial season and consisted of probing conversations with representatives from seven of America’s leading orchestras: Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony. During these meetings, a series of podcasts were recorded and released to iTunes. The next few blog posts on this website will be reports and summaries of those discussions, annotated with my thoughts and other background information.

Chapter One: Historic Context of the American Orchestra features content from October 23, 2011 with moderator Steven Winn and speakers Neil Harris and Jesse Rosen. Steven Winn is an award-winning journalist and author at the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and has conducted 20 onstage interviews with San Francisco’s City Arts & Lecture Series. After receiving his doctorate and serving as an assistant professor at Harvard, Neil Harris moved to the University of Chicago to become a professor of history and art history. He received a National Foundation for the Humanities fellowship and much of his writing focuses on art’s role as a social force in history. The League of American Orchestras was founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress in 1962. Led by president and CEO Jesse Rosen, the League of American Orchestras links a national network of thousands of instrumentalists, conductors, managers, administrators, board members, volunteers, and business partners. It is the only national organization dedicated solely to the orchestral experience, bringing together knowledge, innovation, advocacy, and leadership advancement.

Steven Winn opened the conversation:

“Launched with a 19th century need to assert their growing cities’ status with the established markers of European culture, major orchestras face a rising tide of social change…No ensemble that hopes to survive — and survive meaningfully — in a diverse and inclusive 21st century America can afford to float along on the methods and practices of the past.”

What is meaningful survival for an orchestra? On the surface, this survival may be a version of uninterrupted service: regular concerts with full ensembles and maintenance of the performance venues that their audiences have come to recognize and expect. Survival may also mean limiting or even eliminating community and educational outreach programs in order to provide for the more basic performance needs of the orchestra. Unfortunately, this type of step would most likely cause the American orchestra to appear even more elitist and unapproachable than it already does to the general public, and so survival in this way – if any – would be brief.

When orchestral personnel consider the survival of their ensemble, they consider the artistic means necessary to present quality performances. To be surviving meaningfully, an orchestra should be maintaining musicians of high caliber compared to that orchestra’s history, proper instrumentation for each composition, and appropriate compensation for performing artists so they can thoroughly prepare, practice, and rehearse for the orchestra concerts. Musicians, when considering the impact of an orchestra on a community, gladly assume that their audiences want the best that they have to offer and are happy to take responsibility – as highly educated and talented members of their field – for creating diverse and meaningful programs.

Musicians are often very interested in their audiences, not only for the financial role they play in health and well-being of an orchestra, but because audiences are an integral part of the performance medium. Audiences energize concerts and validate performances. Because of this, musicians are acutely aware of the need to attract new audiences and maintain the interests of younger generations. Musicians breathe life into an orchestra’s community and educational outreach programs, and they show great interest in the cultural needs of their society.

There are many orchestras who survive today through the most basic parts of survival: concerts and venues. However, many orchestras are looking for a “quick fix” approach to survival and losing sight of the values of music that attracted them to the profession. Reduced concert offerings, entire programs of popular music, and gimmicks that overshadow the need for a deep understanding of classical music’s historical role in our society are not the answer in this quest for meaningful survival. Instead, orchestras need to find a way to bridge old values with new ideas.

Neil Harris:

“A lot of our history is local history…it is what communities make of themselves and it’s interesting to note…that many American orchestras were founded in a 20 or 30 year period —  just really the decades preceding 1911 and just afterward — and I think the role of the community there is, in effect, to credential it by the founders of the orchestra. What does a real city need to have in order to make claims that it is a “real” city? One of the things at the turn of the century was an orchestra.”

What makes a “real” city today? How many of them are left in our country? Are orchestras still important markers of culture, innovation, tradition, and prosperity in a city the way they were 100 years ago? Although a symphony orchestra performance may not top the tourist guidebook lists, an orchestra is still a very important entity in a metropolitan area because the health of an orchestra reflects the political, social, economic, and cultural health of a city.

Neil Harris went on to describe the establishment of two important orchestras – The San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony – as markers of “Phoenix cities,” cities that experienced a compelling desire for rebirth. Both Chicago (following the 1871 Chicago Fire) and San Francisco (following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake) needed ways to demonstrate that their cities were getting back on their feet, and the formation of these orchestras did just that. Even recently, the Louisiana Philharmonic symbolized renewal of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with the reopening of its concert hall.

Jesse Rosen spoke on the transformational change that orchestra musicians experienced during the 20th century:

“The 1930s were a tremendous period for orchestras under the Works Progress Administration– 11 orchestras were either founded or restarted in the WPA program. After the second world war and moving into the 1950s and 60s, what we began to see happening was a movement to institutionalize the performing arts and to raise professional standards and elevate the performing artist as a legitimate citizen who was entitled to a living wage and a season of music making. This was the galvanizing idea about American orchestras for a very long time.”

This idea of high professional standards and performing artists as legitimate working citizens is still being questioned today as we see orchestras being locked out by management, seasons being cancelled, and local governments retracting financial support. Unfortunately, musicians are once again being seen as inferior to those in executive and political offices mainly because the average person is not invested enough in the well-being of their community’s orchestra to find and analyze all information in a given circumstance.

Steven Winn adds:

“Spurred by the post-WW2 boom in American education and the rise of the affluent and aspiring middle class, music flourished and spread. Big cities were no longer the exclusive private reserves for orchestras…people heard Bach, Copland, and Stravinsky on the radio and watched concerts on TV. Wherever they lived…they longed for music in their own communities.”

“Bolstered by the visionary and generous grants of the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, the number of orchestras and orchestral concerts increased dramatically. Today, there are some 1,800 orchestras in the United States attended by 25 million people annually. About 90% of those ensembles — according to the League of American Orchestras — have relatively modest budgets, under $5 million.”

Jesse Rosen continued on this topic:

“There’s something about the smaller scale of these 100s and 100s of orchestras that make them somehow easily woven into the fabrics of their communities. Our larger orchestras — which play on an international stage –are in some ways more challenged to maintain both international artistic standards, touring schedules, a lot of resource into core subscription activity, while at the same time developing meaningful work in their community.”

“It is important to set the record straight and recognize the enormous strides orchestras have made to become more far reaching cultural citizens…Thirteen American orchestras are combining instrumental instruction with social justice in disadvantaged neighborhoods… Meanwhile, the world was changing, and our country was changing in terms of who lived in it, who lived in the neighborhoods our concert halls were in, who was populating our country, and what our sensibilities were about what it meant to be a non-profit organization in contemporary America.”

Indeed, almost every orchestra today has some sort of community or educational outreach plan ranging from discounted senior or student tickets to youth symphonies with professional coaches to free performances in the community to music education programs. Though the settlement house movement is no longer being practiced and no longer being able to offer orchestras as a way to integrate people and generations, one remnant of the settlement house movement is the Settlement Music School, founded in 1908 when members of the Philadelphia Orchestra offered to provide lessons for College Settlement children. Expanding to include all interested applicants, the Settlement Music School provided instruction for thousands of Delaware Valley Children. In 2013, there were branches in Philadelphia, Willow Grove, and Camden, NJ. Similarly, El Sistema programs (Play on Philly!, OrchKids, YOLA, Harmony Projects, etc) bring high level musicians into high needs communities to teach instrumental music and ensemble skills to children who would otherwise not have access to such instruction.

New York Philharmonic Conductor Alan Gilbert comments on the role that he hopes that the NYP can fill in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world:

“Even for people who don’t go to concerts, my ambition is for them to feel a sense of civic pride that the New York Philharmonic is an internationally-recognized cultural focal point, and it is particularly hard in New York because there is so much going on. In any given week you can choose between 3, 4, or 5 different orchestras…We are very actively trying to be not “an orchestra in New York,” but “New York’s orchestra.’”

During this forum discussion, a question came in on Twitter from an audience member:

“Do orchestras still credential their cities?”

Neil Harris believes that they very much do:

“One very good example of that is in Pittsburgh: periodically there are trips made to Europe and Asia to introduce the city of Pittsburgh as a hospitable place to set up a business, and these trips usually conclude with musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony and their staff who go along and speak to the fact that this is a city that has a symphony and so it is a symbol of pride and a symbol of richness.”

That the Pittsburgh Symphony is also a phenomenal ensemble with impressive concert offerings and a stable operating budget makes this example of an orchestra credentialing their city even more impressive.

Jesse Rosen concluded this chapter with a statement about the multiple layers of responses from music lovers and the experiences that people have when attending concerts:

“One [of the responses] had to do with intellectual stimulation, another had to do with a sense of group identity, another had a spirituality, another a sense of community, a generally social sense of being part of something with other people…We need people in our society to be stimulated and to experience beauty, to also have experiences that they — and this is unique to our art form — can’t put into words.”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a musician as “A person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented.” includes the same statement as Oxford, but adds “any person, whether professional or not, skilled in music.” Wikipedia delves a little deeper with its definition: “a person who is talented in making music or performing music creatively, or one who composes, conducts, or performs music. Musicians can specialize in any musical style, and some musicians play in a variety of different styles.” Just like music itself, these definitions leave much open to interpretation. Who gets to define talent or skill when it comes to such a subjective field? That’s a topic for another day.

Instead, I’d like to know how musicians define themselves. Everyday, musicians get labeled. There are good and talented musicians, there are bad musicians, there are amateur and professional musicians. There are musicians who perform cultural rituals (such as those who sing the national anthem at the start of a baseball game or perform at a halftime show), and there are muscians who try to redefine culture. Some musicians lead amateur performances (cantors and other church musicians), and other musicians help pass the time (background music for social events). Some musicians study the effects of their art, and some work always to enhance it. Some musicians perpetuate their skills through instructing students, and some seek to learn in every situation.

If you are a musician, can you choose one of the following statements that defines you? Probably not. Can you sum up what your musicianship means in one statement? What kind of musician do you aspire to be? Who are your role models, and what statement do you think best defines them?

Here is my comprehensive list of self-defining statements:

  • I am an entertainer. My performances are primarily to entertain audiences.
  • I am a curator. My work is to present music in a way that helps audiences understand its artistic, cultural, and historic significance.
  • I am a historian. My job is to create music that sounds as close as possible to what the composer intended in their era.
  • I am an artist. My job is to use my creativity to find new and different ways to perform familiar works and to help create new music.
  • I am a facilitator. My job is to follow guidelines of sound, style, and technique put forth by my professional peers and superiors.
  • I am a student. I am constantly seeking new knowledge and innovative solutions to everyday challenges.
  • I am a master. I have completed my training and am the best musician I can be.
  • I am an entrepreneur. I value the career flexibility of ensemble, repertoire, and schedule that allows me to participate in performances that appeal to my various interests.