What makes musicians bitter: a view from the Met

My Standpoint column on the miseries of music has provoked widespread discussion. I indicated a couple of likely causes for the negativity. Susan Laney Spector, oboist of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, has a further suggestion

susan laney spector

It begins at audition

by Susan Laney Spector

I once asked my sister-in-law, who is Deputy Director and Head Curator at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York if, in her experience, there exists in the modern art world a bitterness among artists about the relative “success” or popularity of a fellow artist versus their own. I seem to recall that she confirmed that such jealousies–and perhaps meanness because of them–do exist in that world as well, but that there were plenty of examples of visual artists being supportive of one another and even collaborating and celebrating a peer’s success as a victory for the visual arts as a whole.

Certainly, I have seen examples in the professional classical music world of a certain pettiness and mean-spiritedness towards one’s colleagues–both overtly and of a more subtle nature. Here is my personal theory on one probable cause:

The route to most full-time jobs for musicians is through winning auditions. For an instrumentalist in the United States, such openings are advertised in the American Federation of Musicians’ monthly trade publication. If one is interested in auditioning for an advertised opening, he/she sends a resume and is assigned an audition date. (Occasionally, if the resume of the applicant does not reflect a level of experience requisite for the position, a pre-screening recording might be requested.)

If the position is a coveted one, there can be an overwhelming number of candidates, and auditions can take place over the course of 3-4 days. Especially in the Final Rounds, when a judge or panel of judges is hearing performers at an extremely high level of performance and professionalism, it can understandably be difficult to perceive differences between the contestants/performer, a least those of a purely technical nature: missed notes, incorrect tempi, poor intonation, faulty rhythm, etc. With so many qualified applicants, the judges are left to make decisions and personal rankings based upon subjective thinking, i.e., personal taste. If one has performed flawlessly, but the judge(s)’ choice is based upon a style/tone/approach not of one’s own, then it becomes very easy to become cynical and bitter and think afterwards, “Why did HE/SHE get the job?”

ORCHESTRAL REPERTOIRE WORKSHOP: MOCK AUDITION

I took fifteen auditions–for regional orchestras as well as Top Five American Orchestras–before winning my position with the MET Orchestra 23 years ago as one of about 250 applicants. I would venture to guess that in 15 previous auditions, I gave a fair representation of my abilities and strengths at perhaps 10-12 of those auditions. In other words, at only a few of the auditions would I have been forced to admit that I had “flubbed” the audition or made mistakes that should have prevented my advancing further in the auditions. In fact, I was in the Semi- and/or Final Rounds of perhaps half a dozen auditions.

While getting that far in an audition is encouraging, it doesn’t pay the bills. Not only that, but once the audition is over, one must wait for the next vacancy to occur. Audition-taking is subject to the vagaries of when and where openings occur, and the travel and lodging expenses (and the cost of missed work) can be great. (Do I sense a young conservatory student KickStarter campaign idea here?)

If one has been encouraged as a student or young professional by those in the business who seem to think he/she has “what it takes” AND one has succeded in conveying this talent without it being marred by stage fright, bad reeds on audition day, a poorly heated audition space, or an ill-timed migraine, then, yes, one can become bitter–at least about the PROCESS by which orchestral musicians are hired in this country. One could also become bitter about the RESULT if he/she knows the playing of the winner and judges him/herself a better all-around musician. But, you see, that is my point: there is so much about music and the arts in general that is subjective.

An audition is not like a spelling bee or a math competition. Many instruments, the oboe included, have “accepted” regional styles of playing, e.g., American versus German versus British, etc. (The Viennese even play on an entirely different INSTRUMENT than oboists elsewhere). For this reason alone, very few aspiring American players audition for foreign orchestras.

Even within any one country, there are all sorts of “dialects”–usually stemming from one influential teacher and his “family tree” of students and their own students, etc. A  product of the “Philadelphia School” of oboe playing, my playing would probably not compare favorably–all other things being equal–to a protégé of John Mack (Cleveland) or Ray Still (Chicago) in the eyes of a judge who had been schooled in one of those styles. While there is certainly “cross-pollination”, distinctions between styles and the approaches and preferences of proponents of each style do exist.

Up to now, I have merely mentioned musical “prejudices”. In fact, far more personal assumptions can be made, based upon a candidate’s appearance, age, sex, and whether or not the candidate is known to someone on the Committee, either as a friend or student. I have attended auditions where a screen separated the Committee from the contestant—and I even saw installed a carpet runner so that the sound of the approaching candidate’s footwear would not reveal his/her gender. But even those orchestras who do conduct auditions behind a screen in an effort to force judges to rule only on what they hear do not keep the screen in place for the Final Round. In the Final Round, if not before, those auditioning for orchestras in America are visible and known to the members of the Committee.

The only American orchestra which does not conduct auditions in this way is the MET Orchestra. Auditions for our orchestra are conducted from start to finish in anonymity, the candidate being referred to as a number and his or her identity revealed only after a vote has been taken and a decision has been reached. I cannot help but think the large number of fine female musicians, as well as the number of very fine youthful musicians just out of music school, that can be found in our orchestra is a direct result of our audition procedures.

I was personally able to recognize early on that I could play a flawless and aesthetically perfect audition—as defined by myself and perhaps by my teacher –and not be the winner. I reconciled myself to this and decided that I did not wish to live with that kind of bitterness and anger after every audition I took. I decided that the only way I could continue to subject myself to these trials would be on the condition that I would only be angry if I had screwed up at my audition. THAT, I rationalized, I had control over.

Whatever “baggage” or personal history each judge brought to the room that day, and therefore the result itself, I had absolutely no control over whatsoever.

So, perhaps the majority of musicians, highly competent as they are, that leave auditions without an orchestra job become bitter because of the arbitrary nature of the audition process. That is one theory.

audition screen

 

However, this theory does not necessarily explain the circumstance of those musicians who WERE the “winners” and are within the ranks of those high level orchestras and yet feeling bitter and worthy of something “more”.

I’ve seen “malcontents” at every level, professionally: successful teachers who are bitter about not getting performing opportunities, bitter section string players who feel their talents would be better spent playing chamber music or as a soloist, bitter pit musicians that long to play onstage and be the focus of the audience’s attention, rather than the spotlight being upon singers or ballet dancers. I attribute this to human nature and am fairly confident that some variation of this kind of discontent exists in other competitive fields.

I honestly feel no such bitterness. I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to play with the MET Orchestra and to play with such great artists onstage and in the pit. Additionally, I feel that in my tenure with this orchestra, I have worked to continue improving my performance in my rather unique role of blending and supporting two different principal players. As a second wind player, I do not get the solos, but I derive satisfaction from my less obvious but nonetheless critical role in the performance and how well I perform that specific task. I also am called upon to play Principal several times a season; I appreciate the personal challenge, and I have performed well, but I am always ready to leave the “hot seat” after a few performances there.

My guess is that, for any number of reasons, those bitter and vengeful musicians have not found a similar gratification wherever they have found themselves. Some of the successful yet bitter musicians I know are in situations in which there is some less than ideal component: a section leader who is difficult to deal with, being assigned a more grueling work schedule than others for whatever reason, or something as random as one’s seat being in close proximity to the low brass or percussion—a physical challenge that has resulted in tinnitus and other frustrating hearing issues.

However, at least some of the bitter successful musicians I know have failed to come to terms with the role that entirely arbitrary decisions have played in where these individuals find themselves.

My teenage daughter is now taking auditions for Pre-College programs and, soon, for acceptance into a music school. Because this subject is again “on my radar”, I have found two other recent posts which make excellent points with regard to auditions and, in particular, the importance of gaining the ability to reconcile oneself with the reality that success in the field of music (and the arts in general) is determined, at least to some extent, by arbitrary decisions.

Susan Spector

Oboist, MET Orchestra

Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023

440PerfectPitch@gmail.com

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  • Patrick says:

    Very insightful comments, thanks. I would only say that prospective professional musicians should keep all of this in mind. Is this the kind of environment I want to work in? Are other professions more acceptable?
    Given the huge competition in the professional musician world, I would not for a second consider such a career. It seems to drain music of the sense of play, joy and relaxation that I think are essential components of it.

  • If you want to be a true artist, you need to learn to feed off of bitterness. I’ve never known a successful artist who wasn’t cynical and bitter to the core.

  • bratschegirl says:

    The MET is by no means the only American orchestra that conducts auditions which are screened from start to finish. It may be the only one doing so among the very top orchestras, but this practice is actually rather common among orchestras in the “regional” budget category.

    • Susan Spector says:

      Thank you for the clarification, Bratschegirl. I am quite delighted to learn that this practice has been adopted elsewhere! I am quite certain, though that the Met Orchestra is, as you suggest, the only orchestra in the top U.S. orchestras to do so.

  • Doug says:

    In a nutshell: today music schools teach students how to perform an audition and not how to grow as an artist. And there’s your problem.

  • Susan Spector says:

    Doug, I am not presently affiliated with a music school nor do I presently devote time to teaching. Because I do not have direct involvement with music performance education, I don’t think I can intelligently comment upon what you’ve suggest is the problem here.

    I can say, though, that it has been particularly eye-opening for me to have served on countless audition committees over the course of twenty-two years for the Met Orchestra. I consistently come away with same two observations–on any instrument: (1) there are a LOT of technically gifted musicians, and yet (2) it is absolutely astounding to me how very few players come across as having anything unique, expressive, or compelling to say, musically, in addition to that technique.

    Yes, I realize that one must not play with too much rubato lest the judges think the candidate does not have good rhythm. Yes, if it’s an audition for a 2nd wind chair, one does not want to scare the pants off the judges with sheer volume of sound at the fortissimo levels. Any display of volume must be logically balanced with an attempt to display one’s pianissimo range and ability to change colors of sound in order to “blend” or “play well with others” as well, especially if the position for which the candidate is auditioning is a subordinate role.

    Oh, and that reminds me of a third observation: the musicians who do show a variety of dynamic expression and tonal colors definitely stand out. They are rare indeed. I still remain astonished at the unbelievable numbers of players making only brief and subtle deviations from a general mezzo-forte.

    So then–is this lack of original expression but prevalence of technical prowess the fault of these candidates’ teachers? To their schools? I cannot answer that question. Perhaps others might weigh in on that.

  • Jim McCreary says:

    Whimsical selection in the finals happens in almost ALL high-performance professions. For instance, brand-name management consulting firms interviewing at high-end business schools often get 4x as many resumees as they have interview slots, so the last 20 or 30 eliminations often wind up being done on very arbitrary bases, including sometimes coin-flipping. The same is true in high-end college admissions. If you choose to aim high in your career in almost any industry, you will encounter this phenomenon. Persistence pays; those who refuse to give up often wind up with the jobs.

  • Anna Seda says:

    It’s a tough fight- and yet a labor of love. I think I really realized how hard it is in this field when a section cello audition will open up next year and this is my chance, among hundreds of cellists, and it’s the only tenured performing arts position where I grew up and have family. Fighting my own internal bitterness and lack of confidence in the arts is immeasurably hard- and harder knowing that that doesn’t normally go away after you win.
    At the same time I also wish musicians spent more time abroad- my first job was on faculty in South America and the conservatories in developing countries would absolutely fawn over the level of players in North America and Europe. I had some of the most amazing life experience things- in performance and life- perhaps that is another bitter-combator!

  • jenn stahl says:

    I think the survey that came out about job satisfaction many years ago in the Times says a great deal. The chamber musicians were near the top, and the orchestra players near the bottom. Since most orchestra players do not receive a living wage compared to the number of hours of sheer devotion and commitment they have invested, as well as having very little artistic control, all while working for business-model people who do not know what art is, it is no wonder to me that they are frustrated and bitter on many levels.

  • Trudy Kane says:

    Excellent article, Susan. A very important way to look at auditions and life.

  • Blake Duncan says:

    Excellent article. I am now retired from playing. But in my young post-conservatory years I desperately wanted a full time orchestra job and took many auditions. The experiences varied widely and sometimes (late 70’s) the process itself was very flawed and very demanding – things like managers handling the auditions who had the attitude that they were doing yoiu a favor by just letting you in the stage door. Like you sometimes I did well and sometimes not – I made it into the finals for two major orchestras but for the rest of my auditions I didn’t make it out of the preliminaries. In one case I remember playing, what thought, was a flawless audition and yet, was eliminated – I still do not know why. It all took a huge toll on me, not just the cost and the auditions themselves but the work that was required to prepare. I play English Horn – most lists consist of long and exhausting soli which alone are hard enough to prepare – but to constantly be playing all of those soli over and over. After a few years, it was too much and I went into teaching and had a wonderful career as a teacher playing in regional orchestras. I am not bitter. I have great admiration and respect for the wonderful musicians who hold those chairs. Now what I see are young players who almost make a career out of audition preparation – I don’t think that is such a good thing. Don’t we want mature and accomplished musicians in these chairs, not just ones who can pull off a set of excerpts? I don’t know what the solution is – but I still believe that the way orchestral musicians are auditioned is not the best or optimal way to find and identify outstanding musicians.

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