How to Fill Up your Concert Halls

When I sit down to write a blog post, I don’t know what I’m going to write about until I’m done. Sometimes I sit down thinking “I’m going to write about how many goddamn doughnuts I ate this week!” But then my first line leads to the next which leads to the next, and somehow when I’m done, I’ve written a piece on what beverages are appropriate to bring to a bluegrass jam.

So last week, when I sat down on Wednesday to write a blog post, I had no idea I was going to write about the chaotic world of orchestral auditions. I had no idea that it would get over 2000 views, smashing my previous record of 191 into the ground. And I had no idea that my post would move so many people to reach out who have been experiencing the same things throughout their careers—but have been too scared to speak up for fear of losing their livelihood. If you are “just a sub,” you have absolutely no job security, and people have been known to mysteriously disappear off the sub-list for asking so much as “Hey, umm, could you maybe put us in the program?” (My friend went to a concert one time and was very confused as to why every member of the amateur choir was listed in the program, but the subs who had been playing with the orchestra for upwards of 20 years, some of whom had solos that night, were not.)

I think if I had started writing my article with the intent of calling out the inconsistencies of the audition system, I might have chickened out. In fact, I wrote a very similar piece last year when I was going through my “I’m a writer, not a musician” phase—that I made the mistake of sending to a group-thread full of subs. To paraphrase their feedback: “It’s true. It’s great. But don’t shit where you eat.” So, I never posted it.

My friends were just trying to protect me—and I think at that point in time, it was sage advice. But something came over me as I was letting the sentences pour out onto the page last week. Even if it scares the shit out of me to publicly share my thoughts on auditions, it’s time to start speaking up. My God it’s not just fellow freelancers who reached out to me after reading my article, it was contract musicians from orchestras all over the world! Soloists! Chamber musicians! Teachers! Administration! We ALL think the system is fucked—except of course for “David,” who mansplained himself all over the comment section of my last post about how the system is not broken, you just need to practice 10 hours a day for 1.5 years and win your very first audition in a major orchestra. This method works best if you can go back in time 43 years.

One of the most beautiful side-effects of the pandemic is that SO MANY outdated systems are in the process of change right now. We got a break from the infinite conveyor-belt of distraction, and woke up to a lot of holes in the wall. We are finally taking stock of what holes need serious patching, and what walls need to be completely destroyed in a joyful rage with a giant sledgehammer, and rebuilt with different material.

Now, in terms of the injustices in the modern world, the culture within symphony orchestras is small potatoes. Holy crap is it ever trivial in the grand scheme of things. But why do orchestras have to stay in the middle ages, whilst the rest of the world grows at breakneck speed? Are we becoming one of those novelty places where you go just to watch how people lived hundreds of years ago?! “Aww, look how cute! They’re baking their bread over candle-light!”

The thing is, in order for a system to change, the very people who BENEFITED from that system need to admit that it is flawed, which is tough for the ol’ ego. Take our friend David up there. He doesn’t think the system is flawed, because that very system got him a spot in a MAJOR AMERICAN ORCHESTRA, 43 years ago. If indeed the system is flawed, that sours the taste of his glorious win—all those hard hours of work he put in don’t hold as much weight. It means, that maybe, he ISN’T a better orchestral musician than all the people he is gratuitously swiping left on from behind the screen at auditions. My post very likely triggered him! If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have felt the need to spray his scent all over my blog. He would feel confident enough in his own skin, that he could have just let my perspective be my perspective. (And I’ll admit, his comments then TRIGGERED ME into responding!! It’s just one big fat trauma festival over there in the comments section. I’d delete it all, but it’s wildly entertaining.)

What if we could just drop our egos for one moment. What if David could look a little deeper. What if, instead of defending the system that worked for him 43 years ago, he could practice a little bit of empathy?

My mom also won the first audition she ever took, 44 years ago. And she also practiced her ass off. I asked her one time if she had listened to Pink Floyd when they were big—and she replied: “I spent all of the 70’s in a practice room! I didn’t even know who Pink Floyd was.” But, do you know what she and her generation of colleagues say to each other at work, every time they hold an audition? “We would never win an audition now.” And that doesn’t mean they aren’t great players, it just means the system has gotten royally out of hand.

Just the other day, a principal player in the main orchestra I play for admitted to me after reading my article, that he just absolutely hates auditions. He hates the system. He said that sadly, because of the way auditions are run, the committee is often zoned-out for perfectly wonderful players. After 47 Don Juans, they all start to blend together. He said sometimes you’ll get wonderful players who don’t advance because of where they are in the order (say, the committee has already advanced 9 perfectly decent players, and they’re hungry, and the thought of advancing another person means they’ll have to wait that much longer to eat the leftover Chinese food in their fridge); and then you’ll get not-so-wonderful players who advance, because they play after somebody horrible and by comparison, sound pretty great.

Our friend David talks about “one out of tune note” being grounds for immediate dismissal at an audition, and how the point of holding auditions is to prove you are a “master of your instrument.” You know who played quite a few out of tune notes when he came to perform in my city recently? Christian Tetzlaff. He got a hooting, hollering standing ovation at the end of the concert from the audience, and foot-stomps from the musicians on stage (this is when you know we really like someone); but alas, I guess he is not a master of his instrument.

So there we have it. Complete and total chaos. As I told David in my over-zealous response to his comments: “We have completely lost sight of WHY we are even holding auditions. Why do we play in orchestras? True artists do not go into this career to prove over and over that we have achieved perfection. We go into it to connect to our communities—to create something profoundly beautiful that offers people a place to process emotions, to let go of their day-to-day stresses for 2 hours and connect to something bigger. ”

One of the best concerts I have ever attended was the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, performing Shostakovich 7 as part of their North American tour in 2016. I noticed how everyone on stage was very obviously interacting with each other throughout the concert—not just looking up in key moments, but moving and swaying with each other, looking at their colleagues far more than they were looking at the scores in front of them. I saw tons of inside jokes being acknowledged all over the stage—a giant shared smile and heads bobbing as the orchestra laid down a deliciously macabre passage—a goofy face flashed at a stand partner, to indicate that they’d just messed up, and thought it was hilarious. They were having SO MUCH FUN and the audience wasn’t like, “Scoff! Why are they smiling?? They are supposed to be SERIOUS MUSICIANS!” We freaking ATE IT UP. We leapt to our feet after the last note, screaming out our appreciation for such a spectacularly exciting and authentic experience. They let us into their world! We got to feel what they were feeling! For one night, WE were on tour with all of our best friends, having the time of our lives.

For decades, we have been telling ourselves that we need to be perfect if we want to satisfy our audiences. But AUDIENCES DON’T WANT PERFECTION. They want to see themselves reflected on stage. They want humanity.

So I’m asking, why not tear down the wall, and create a system of hiring in orchestras that reflects what we are actually trying to achieve? A system that supports and nurtures each other—that makes us all feel seen. A system that encourages creativity and JOY. I have a feeling our concert halls would start filling up again.

3 thoughts on “How to Fill Up your Concert Halls

  1. Brilliant blog posts, Lauren! Cannot wait for your next one, an obvious (major) third in this audition and orchestral career discussion – where do we go from here? How do we reinvent and revise the model without throwing the baby out with the bath water?

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  2. Wow, seems David got his Thanksgiving roast. Who’s the dindon de la farce now!
    The audition process seems to be (once the work is done obviously) a question of luck. I don’t think it takes away from any winner though – they still practiced their ass off. So I don’t see why David feels threatened. If he hadn’t actually been a good fit, probation would have kicked his butt anyway. He was best on that day and good enough to stay after – good for him. The thing is, it doesn’t mean no other candidate that day would have been a better musician for that orchestra. Poor David.

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  3. Yes!! I have some ideas floating around, and will do what I can to process them into a post…likely AFTER my audition has passed lol but it will hopefully just be the start of a giant brainstorm session we can all contribute to!

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