About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, July 28, 2014

Perfection versus Musicality

"To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable."

An article in the Sunday Chicago Tribune of July 20, 2014, titled "A classic case of tryout panic," delved into the audition process that aspiring symphony players must go through to win a job in an American orchestra. The article, written by Donna Perlmutter, focuses on the difficulty of winning an audition in an American orchestra today and the process involved in auditioning. What struck me most were quotes from several orchestra members stating that musicians auditioning today must be perfect. "'Today perfection is a requirement,' says David Taylor, assistant concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. 'You must have flawless intonation, you must be a machine.'"

This theme of needing to play perfectly in an audition and the negative side effects has popped in a number of places recently, one of them being a remark by Glenn Dicterow, the retiring concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, in a New York Times article. "'It's a given that you're supposed to play perfectly, virtuosically,' he said. 'But maybe there's a bit of the generic quality in music making - people don't have as much individual style. I think that's just a product of the age we live in.'" Here in Chicago those great musicians with individual style included Adolph Herseth, Arnold Jacobs, Ray Still, and Dale Clevenger. You would not mistake their playing for someone else's.

A talented young musician of my acquaintance who has been taking auditions commented in frustration that at a time when orchestras are worried about selling tickets and continuing to have an audience for classical music, that the newer musicians joining orchestras are perfect, but boring, players, because that is what orchestras are looking for and hiring.

The Tribune article went on to discuss the audition process and how it has changed from an informal audition with the music director, often in his hotel room, to a structured process with much more involvement of the orchestra's members. Auditions today are behind a screen until the final round. Aspiring orchestral musicians spend endless hours practicing excerpts, the small parts of pieces that include solos and difficult parts for the instrument.

I was taking auditions 30-some years ago, mostly for smaller orchestras. Screens were becoming more standard at that time, which almost immediately increased the number of women in orchestras. Getting a job in an orchestra was becoming more competitive and difficult. I remember my teacher in college telling me "in the old days" orchestras would call up and ask him to send some players to an audition in order to give themselves enough to choose from. Part of the increase in competition when I was auditioning was from women, who dramatically increased the number of professional musicians when orchestras started hiring women more. Another factor was probably more graduates from more music institutions.

One of the auditions I took was for the Portland Symphony; probably 2nd or 4th horn. They were also auditioning for a trumpet position on the same day. The horns went first and took longer than the audition committee had expected, so they announced the finalists (including me!) and that they would hold the trumpet preliminaries next, then have the horn finals. After waiting hours for the trumpets to finish, the committee decided to continue with the trumpet finals, so we continued to wait, into the evening.  Once we had finally all played, the committee talked and then announced that they couldn't decide. They would let us know later and we should all go home. My impression that day was that the orchestra was astonished at level of the musicians who had come to the Portland Symphony audition and this was why they had such a difficult time making a decision. In the end, they chose the local horn player who had been filling in.

The number of outstanding players has only increased in the years since. It appears to me that with all these wonderful players, orchestras have grasped at perfect playing as a way  to pick musicians. What is lost, at least sometimes, is musicality and personality. The quote at the top of this post is attributed to Beethoven. It is undoubtably true. But to young musicians looking for a position today, it may sound like a luxury.

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