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.

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