Does your orchestra run no-hire auditions?

Does your orchestra run no-hire auditions?


norman lebrecht

March 08, 2016

We hear the Montreal Symphony recently held auditions for three vacant viola positions. Very few candidates turned up and some Montreal players fear the orchestra is getting a reputation for not hiring after auditions.

Candidates for to vast trouble and expense to audition and then fly home broke and disillusioned.

Of course there may be other reasons not many turned up for the Montreal auditions – the weather, for instance, or the bilinguality, or some viola thing.

But the incident has led us to a site that reports orchestras which call auditions and fail to hire.

Check it out here.

vienna phil audition2


  • Halldor says:

    Pretty spectacular sense of entitlement on display here. Every recruitment process for every job in the world requires applicants to travel (often at the candidate’s expense) to prepare, to make an effort, and to accept that they might not be hired despite all that. No business wants to go to the expense of running a recruitment process with no useful end result (and yes, that includes orchestras: believe it or not, they’re not running auditions simply for fun). But if none of the candidates are deemed good enough, none will be hired. This is completely routine and in any other sphere would be considered entirely normal.

    You weren’t good enough: you weren’t hired. Nor, necessarily, was anyone else on this occasion. These precious little snowflakes need to learn from it, grow up and move on.

    • berket says:

      Some orchestras have rules in effect by which every vacancy must be filled through an audition which is open to all qualified candidates. Whatever you describe sounds fair, by this system. They’ll just announce the vacancy in International Musician again, and all interested candidates may apply.
      However, many orchestras do a private invitational audition after having a public, international audition. In many cases it was well known that they probably wouldn’t hire anyone from the audition and planned to invite people they know afterwards. In many cases, they invite people to the private audition who already did the public audition and failed. This happens very often. What does this tell you?

      • JJC says:

        Calumny. Since you have chosen to accuse and besmirch a process which has become stringently fair, why not name those you think you know about?

      • Fabio Luisi says:

        I have never heard of such procedures.

        • Benedict Lea says:

          Neither have I.

        • Berket says:

          I’m surprised you haven’t heard of this.
          Ask around and you’ll hear plenty of cases of this. I can think of 6 just off of the top of my head.
          It would be tasteless to be specific about this on a public board.

          • Benedict Lea says:

            I have heard of not hiring a candidate; it happens occasionally when nobody plays well enough on the day. I have not heard of orchestras purposely not hiring for no good reason and I know nothing about hiring in private auditions. It certainly doesn’t happen in Austria.

    • MacroV says:

      Your analogy, while compelling at first glance, is flawed.

      No company worth its salt would announce one vacancy nationally and require 100+ applicants fly in at their own expense from all over the country to interview. Indeed, to fill a vacancy for a highly-skilled worker, they will beat the bushes in search of the right person, or hire a headhunter. They will fly him/her in, wine and dine, etc.. Companies that hire a lot of new law or MBA grads will fly in large groups of candidates (at company expense) for interviews. It’s called recruitment. And in those circumstances, where the company has borne the expense, it has every right not to hire anyone.

    • Janis says:

      I’ve never in my life had to fly or travel to a job interview where my expenses weren’t fully paid for by the company. The few times a company wouldn’t pay my expenses, I (accurately) judged them as amateurs, unreliable and probably not long for this world. I’ve never been wrong; expecting a candidate to travel on their own dime is the hallmark of a shoestring startup looking to fleece their employees and get bought out by Google as fast as possible.

      Especially when you are dealing with people who are famously poor, as most gigging musicians are, forcing them to pay airfare and hotel fees and then hiring no one is a load of crap. Most conservatories and music programs are graduating far more people than there are positions; I can guarantee that there was at least one person who was perfectly well-qualified in just about all instances.

      One thing that I definitely have seen happening in the business world that is a probable parallel to the no-hire audition is the practice of advertising an open position that one is legally required to advertise, while the hiring folks know full well that they have no intention of taking in any of the outside candidates because they already have someone else in mind for it.

      I do concede your point that orchestras can do this, nothing is stopping them, and they are perfectly within their rights to carry out their hiring however they may like, but they they can’t bitch when they gain a lousy reputation and hence no one shows up. “Suck it up” is a sword that cuts both ways.

      • Qwerty1234 says:

        No, you cannot guarantee that there are always qualified people auditioning. Just because someone graduated from a prestigious institution or studied with a famous teacher, doesn’t mean they are in any sense qualified for the job they are auditioning for.

        In Germany a-level orchestras will pay for the travel costs of the audition candidates and (if they are of a very high caliber) even hotel costs. Sometimes for all those invited…and more often for those reaching the second round or beyond.

  • Matthias says:

    Hi Halldor, or as I prefer to think of you, run-of-the-mill snowflake: you’re not the first to express these hostile feelings anonymously online. This conversation already played out on another site (MyAuditions) months ago. Did you really think you were special?

    • Halldor says:

      We’re not on another site months ago. We’re here now. Care to answer the general point, one anonymous poster to another?

  • blenda says:

    The MSO also had an audition Friday for a vacant bass position. Result: no hire.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    I don’t understand the current philosophy that a hiring organization can do what it likes, the cream will rise to the top, and the unworthy have only themselves to blame. Orchestras want to hire good people, so be it. But, while these many-years processes run their course, there is usually a substitute player filling the seat and playing. If excellence is so hard to find, why isn’t the chair vacant until the hire? Putting candidates through this routine is troublesome on many levels, especially when it is at the candidate’s expense.

    • Bill says:

      Simple: people are optimistic that they’ll find The One soon, and naturally, they expect The One will be a stunning improvement over the sub. Meanwhile, the sub gets better and better at playing exactly how the MD wants, which may make it harder for anyone else to become The One as the standard of comparison improves.

  • Leo says:

    I’ve been watching the Montreal on line lately and they look like a very stressed bunch of players. Not a smile or other signs of emotion anywhere. I wish orchestras would show a bit of emotion during their performances.

    • Emil Archambault says:

      I’m not sure where you get that from. From speaking to musicians, I can say that as far as I know, the mood in the orchestra is perfectly fine. Not many orchestras “smile” or display signs of emotion while playing – it’s usually an effect of concentration.

  • Anon says:

    Orchestras don’t want the expense of spending time doing auditions, (venue hire, accompanist costs, panel costs either financial or days in lieu, management costs as more than one person is running these days, ushering candidates, etc. Nor do they want to spend years paying trialists expenses for accommodation and travel etc for no result. Sometimes there are no suitable candidates auditioning, sometimes panels disagree, sometimes principal players prefer one while the section prefers another. Stalemate, start again. It happens.

    • Raven says:

      Thank you Anon for your realism.

    • Janis says:

      Be that as it may, they should pay candidates’ hotel and airfare. I really don’t give a damn if it’s a lot of money; every small business I’ve worked for and been hired for has had a budget far smaller than most orchestras, and they have ALL paid my travel expenses.

      As I said above, it’s true that orchs don’t have to do that, but then candidates don’t have to show up, either.

  • Robert L says:

    Cleveland violin auditions, especially for titled positions – total sham!

    Boston Symphony, thinks that after four auditions there are no violinists meeting their level…

    The sad part of it is that subs who can’t win an audition keep playing…Good enough to play a concert and go on tour, but not good enough to be given a full-time job? BS

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      This was the case at the Paris Opera a few years ago. A stage pianist job came up and 32 people were invited on the basis of their CVs to audition, including some who had been working at the Bastille on the contemporary operas for years (the pieces the full-time staff never want to do). There were some exceptional candidates in the mix, but no-one was offered the job. As it happens, no-one in the final was French…

    • FreddyNYC says:

      Before long the entire Cleveland first violin section will be filled with family and friends of Bill…….

  • Bruce says:

    In my limited & anecdotal experience, the reason for no-hire auditions tends to boil down to the conductor.

    The one no-hire audition I was ever involved in as a committee member, the conductor threw up his hands (behind the screen) at our final candidate and called out “That’s enough! Thank you!” Once they were gone, he announced to the rest of us that none of these people had any idea what they were doing and we weren’t going to hire any of them. Since according to our contract (as with approximately 100% of other orchestras) the conductor’s agreement is required to hire a musician, that meant the audition was over.

    The one no-hire audition where I was one of the finalists, the committee had narrowed it down to two of us. Presumably they thought we had potential or they could have called the whole thing off after the semifinals; anyway, the conductor came to hear the last two players and was unimpressed, and made no attempt to hide it. (I compared notes with the other finalist afterward; we both noticed his sighing, eyerolling, fidgeting, etc.) When the committee came to us to explain that there would be no one hired, they were visibly annoyed.

    I remember in the 90’s how the Boston Symphony required something like 6 years (and several auditions, as well as numerous “guest” principals) to hire a principal flutist upon the retirement of Doriot Anthony Dwyer; and when the player they finally hired left, the post was vacant for several more seasons (and several more auditions). They also required extra time to hire a principal oboist during the same period. When Seiji Ozawa left and James Levine came on, they held a principal flute audition and hired someone without any complications. Coincidence? I’m guessing not.

  • DAVID says:

    I actually think part of the reason for this is that there is a strong entrepreneurial trend among young performers today that simply did not exist perhaps as recently as ten years ago. Aware of the sheer difficulty — if not quasi-impossibility — of landing an orchestra job (i.e., not merely winning the audition, but passing the probationary period) and also aware of the lack of artistic fulfillment that is often prevalent in orchestra culture, more and more young performers are now creating their own opportunities and trading in the financial security of an orchestra job for more musically meaningful enterprises — groups such as ICE or Eighth Blackbird come to mind. Whereas a generation ago one became either a soloist, a teacher, or an orchestra player, today’s performers are incredibly talented at thinking outside of the box and finding ways to use their skills that are not confined to these three alternatives. The market is incredibly saturated — there simply are too many talented players for the amount of jobs available, and more and more players are well aware that life in an orchestra comes with its own price to pay. Choosing between players has become an exercise in futility nowadays, as the jury of the last Tchaikowsky cello competition recognized before announcing its finalists in the last edition. As scary as that is, taking an orchestral audition nowadays involves competing with players who 30 years ago might have had a solo career, but who today won’t, due to the new playing field which having a career involves, and which involves much more than just playing well — one wonders indeed if a Rubinstein or an Oistrakh could even have a career today, despite their incredible artistry. The reality that one may find, in many orchestras, laureates of some of the world’s most important international competitions gives indeed much food for thought. This does not mean that such a high level might be sufficient for securing an orchestral position: there is a joke in orchestral circles according to which Heifetz would never have landed a job, which is probably true. One indeed wonders sometimes what might be deemed worthy enough by some audition committees who often seem to take their degree of exigency to rather ridiculous, if not utterly disingenuous, levels.

    • Janis says:

      In addition to the idea of young players being more entrepreneurial nowdays (which may be possible), I think there may also be a far more practical reason for this:

      “It’s going to cost me $800 to fly out there, and another $300 for a hotel room for however many nights, not to mention food and public transit. I just don’t have the money.”

      And I’m still a bit skeptical of the entrepreneurial explanation. I have a feeling that a lot of the people who would audition for these positions are mixed in terms of age. You may have some younger kids who have internalized the “outside the box” advice, but I think you’d also have a lot of people who have been out of school for quite some time and who would be happy to get an orchestra job.

      Push comes to shove, I think it’s just a matter of people not wanting to waste the money (or not having the money to waste) for an orchestra with a reputation for not hiring.

  • MacroV says:

    “No-hire” auditions are nothing new, and can happen at orchestras at all levels. Sometimes orchestras just get a little too full of themselves in terms of their expectations.

    No-hire auditions are galling because in today’s music world, the standard of play is generally so high that it defies credulity to suggest that nobody at an audition is good enough, especially since many of the candidates are probably orders of magnitude better than the person being replaced.

    In the case of Montreal, if they got an unsatisfactory number of applicants, perhaps they should rescheduled the audition in the hopes of getting more candidates. The post doesn’t mention it, but Canadian orchestras often do a national (Canadian-only) audition and only do an international audition if they don’t find anyone satisfactory; not sure if that’s the case here – Montreal would seem to be a very attractive job for the orchestra and lifestyle the city offers.

    Of course one cannot discuss this issue without going back to Old Reliable, the MET. Famous for holding blind auditions beginning to end, for not giving anyone special treatment, and for always choosing someone. And for that, they have what some OSM members feel they may have lost: Credibility. People show up because they know they’re not wasting their time, and they know that anybody who wants the job has to audition – no back-door processes (an issue for another post). And the MET’s credibility is so high that other top orchestras have of late been hiring away a number of its well-regarded players, sometimes when their own processes fail to turn up an optimal candidate.

    • Mike says:

      Montreal has a screen up from the beginning to the end of the audition. They are also required to hold a national audition to attempt to fill a vacancy before moving onto an international audition.

      • MacroV says:

        Good for them. I am wondering of Mr. Lebrecht – whose understanding of how the music business works in the western hemisphere generally doesn’t seem to match his expertise about doings in western Europe – overlooked the possibility of it being a national audition, where the failure to find a suitable player (or 3 in this case) would be a bit more understandable.

  • Robert Roy says:

    Maybe the viola players were expected to play in third position and simply shrugged when asked…

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I’m surprised that, given the large number of capable players schools are turning out, it is not possible to fill even one section viola vacancy.

  • Eric Carlson says:

    One of the fallacies that regularly gets trotted out when no hire auditions are discussed is the “if X number of players each wasted Y number of hours on a no hire audition, the total wasted is X x Y.” That is simply not true. The only candidate whose time was wasted is the single person who won the audition but was not hired. All the also rans should thank their lucky stars that they will get a second chance to prove themselves.

    The other consideration that is rarely mentioned is levels of harm. Yes, it is tough on the winner of an audition to not get hired. But, it is exponentially worse when an orchestra hires a player that they have doubts about and then fails to grant tenure. Lives get totally upended when that happens. Better to be really sure from the start than risk ruining someone’s career.

    • bratschegirl says:

      I don’t agree that a no-hire is preferable to a probationary period that ends with tenure not granted. The audition process reveals nothing about how the candidate will function on the job every day, what kind of a colleague this person will be, how well-prepared he or she is for the new music that comes up week after week, rather than for the 25 minutes of music on the audition list that he/she has been furiously prepping for the last 6 months. It can be wrenching not to get tenure, of course, but given the benefit of the doubt and a trial period, the vast majority of the time probationary players do just fine as new members of their orchestras and do get tenure. And if they don’t, at least it’s based on the experience of their performance in the actual job, rather than in the completely artificial laboratory setting of an audition.

      • Eric Carlson says:

        I guess my perspective is colored by personal experience. A friend of mine turned down a job in a very good orchestra to take a job in a great one. What he didn’t know was that he didn’t have strong support from the committee at the great orchestra, but they decided to “give him a chance” to prove himself on the job. By the time he was denied tenure, the other orchestra had filled the post that had originally been offered to him. My guess is, knowing the orchestras and the person, he would have done very well in the second tier orchestra.

        If there are doubts about a player, offer multiple trial weeks or don’t hire. But whatever you do, don’t get someone to uproot their lives and move to your orchestra if you even suspect that they may not be a good fit.

    • Sarastro says:

      “The only candidate whose time was wasted is the single person who won the audition but was not hired”
      Consider a lottery or raffle, where the people running it decide not to award a prize after a winner is drawn. Whose money was wasted: only the person who drew the winning ticket, or everyone? Obviously everyone’s time and money were wasted, not just the “winner” who was denied a prize. There’s an old joke about this exact situation, involving a farmer and a dead horse.

      • M2N2K says:

        In a lottery, each ticket buyer knows that probability of winning is very small. The same is true of auditioning candidates. Therefore the waste of time and money for them is of their own doing and is intentional. If the prize is not awarded to the owner of winning ticket or if the “winning” candidate is not offered the job, only such persons suffer losses that they do not deserve. The rest get exactly the same they would have gotten otherwise, if the prize was awarded and the “winning” candidate was offered the job – to be precise, they get nothing. Therefore no one except themselves is guilty of causing their losses.

  • Musician says:

    I think these were national auditions, i.e. open to Canadian citizens only. Canadian orchestras are required to hold these before an international audition, and frequently don’t have a quality candidate to choose from. So they don’t hire anyone in order to hold an international audition for the position.

  • Auditionsarehard says:

    Sometimes candidates who can wow you in the practice room, studio class, in chamber music or recital, etc. just don’t play well in an audition situation. It’s very brutal on the nerves and even musicians who are quite successful in that environment will tell you how unpleasant and seemingly antithetical to music making. Sometimes people you ‘just know are so good’ unfortunately for everyone don’t deliver.

    If the committee chose someone who played sub standardly at the audition because they ‘just know’ he/she is so good, heard them in recital, knows their teacher, whatever, would that be more fair than a no-hire?

    • Julie says:

      This is very true, the audition process is pretty much the opposite of playing in an orchestra. Playing orchestral passages solo or with piano accompaniment has little to do with playing with an actual orchestra, blending with your section and following the conductor.

      The entire process is counter-productive for the applicant: if you play your orchestral passage too well, ” sorry, you sound like a soloist, we don’t want that”. If you play in a boring way in order to blend with an orchestral section ” Sorry, too bland”. You have to please the jury in other ways, regardless of your musical ability.

  • Milkka says:

    The truth of the matter is simple but swept under the rug because it exposes the corruption
    of the system ….being a competent player is just one aspect of an orchestral audition
    what is important is who you know .. and how you manipulate the road blocks …just
    love the photo the hypocrisy of pretending to being neutral ….

  • D.S. says:

    They could at least have the decency to have a more aggressive screening process (via resume, recordings, etc), before travel and lodging expenses come into play. It’s bad enough putting so much time and effort into the audition’s preparations, but I would rather not have to shell out up to a grand just to have my heart broken.

    • Milka says:

      Nine chances out of ten by the time an unsuspecting victim arrives for an audition the
      search has been settled –no one will be picked – or someone already has the inside track .
      Most go through this dance so as to appear an equal opportunity employer and give
      hope to unsuspecting victims . Of course if this is pointed out the sad truth is that both sides will deny anything of the sort takes place . To believe one gets into an orchestra by just
      being a top player is to believe the moon is of green cheese .Save your travel money .

      • Gerhard says:

        Everybody on this site has learned that you hold very strong convictions, to put it mildly. Here you make factual claims about the general audition process in orchestras. Would you care to disclose what inside knowledge about which orchestras you really have? Thank you.

        • Milka says:

          When over the decades you serve on various so called artistic boards, you come
          away with a knowledge of the human condition better unsaid and truth is a stranger .

      • Bviolinistic says:

        Simply untrue!

  • M2N2K says:

    When a good orchestra has auditions for a vacancy, the audition panel and the conductor always try to find a person who would make that orchestra better – be a net gain, so to speak. When a substitute is hired to fill a vacant chair, the goal is not to make the orchestra sound worse – in other words, not be a net loss. There is a difference between the two purposes. That is why musicians who were not hired by the orchestra as permanent members may nevertheless sometimes be fine temporary subs. When an audition does not produce a winner whose playing impresses the panel (and/or the conductor) to the point that they want to make music together with that musician for the next several decades, then no one is hired. That is the simple reality of the situation.

    • bratschegirl says:

      But they often *do* wind up making music for decades with those very musicians who they find wanting in an audition situation. The major orchestra nearest to me has, atop their string sub lists, players who have performed essentially every service the orchestra has mounted for 10, 15, 20 years. Every rehearsal and performance of the home season, every recording, every tour. They could have been displaced by offering a 1-year contract to someone else who finished higher in the rankings at subsequent auditions, but that never happened. So the orchestra has, in fact, declared them de facto “good enough”; they’re just, apparently, not good enough to wear the label of “actual member of the group.” And if they are hired per-service, rather than on a year’s contract, the orchestra also isn’t obligated to include them in the health insurance or pension plans.

      That said, I have never had the experience of sitting on an audition panel where I thought any of my colleagues had the goal of not filling the chair. As Bruce says above, I can’t always say that about conductors.

      • Janis says:

        ” … if they are hired per-service, rather than on a year’s contract, the orchestra also isn’t obligated to include them in the health insurance or pension plans.”

        Bingo. They’re basically temps, or “private contractors,” like Uber does with its drivers. They want to be a company with none of the downsides of actually having any employees.

        • bratschegirl says:

          But they *are* companies, with employees, often upwards of 100 when all the administrative staff are taken into account. We’re talking about institutions that are many decades old, with budgets in the tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions of dollars per year. I don’t think the startup analogy really works. They certainly don’t want to treat these long-term substitutes as well as they do their employees, though.

          And candidates paying their own way to auditions is, and always has been, the industry standard. In part, this evolved in order to open up the audition process to anyone who really wanted to try out, rather than limiting the candidate pool to the music director’s hand-picked pets. No orchestra, not even one with a multi-million dollar budget, could afford to pay the expenses of 200+ candidates coming in to audition.

          Some orchestras do an initial round of screening by recording, or by resume screening with identifying information (supposedly) removed; the orchestra I referred to above had an announced standard one year that the only people who would be invited without requiring screening by recording were “recent Juilliard graduates and those already holding positions in major orchestras.”

          In sum, auditions suck, but there’s no system that’s really better.

          • Milka says:

            It’s not that auditions suck its that they are run in such a corrupt fashion . To assume
            a Juilliard graduate is entitled to an unscreened audition speaks to ignorance on a
            grand scale .

          • M2N2K says:

            Certainly that kind of “standard” is unwise which is why apparently it only lasted one year, according to the commenter who wrote about it. However, no matter what kind of arbitrary criteria is used for screening candidates before inviting them for auditions, in major American orchestras everyone is still allowed to come and play behind the screen, so a mediocre instrumentalist, whether (s)he is a Julliard graduate or not, has no chance of winning no matter what. In my several decades being on countless audition panels I have never seen a situation where more than one or at most two panel members did not want to hire anyone for whatever reason. Usually everyone is eager to find a great player and is sincerely disappointed when sometimes no one is deemed up to that admittedly lofty standard.

    • Paul says:

      Interesting that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra never seems to have this problem. Somehow they manage to pull off a goddamn miracle at every audition they hold and hire good people every single time.


  • Thomas M says:

    This is common practice with many orchestras in Germany, too. Positions are being left vacant for YEARS sometimes to offer freelance musicians and musicians from other orchestras private gigs to boost their regular income. Sometimes it takes multiple auditions to fill a vanact “seat” in the second violins!

    • Orchestral musician says:

      That was certainly my impression when working in Germany for a number of years in the noughties – it was particularly prevelant in top 10 orchestras with huge rosters of players (eg Dresden, Leipzig, Bavarian State Opera).

      Professionals from such orchestras with free chairs could almost make a second living travelling to gigs with other orchestras, quasi in exchange for offering gigs in their own orchestras. A vicious circle that ensures jobs are often never filled (or not for many years), and makes it harder for student, graduate and freelance players to build networks of their own in the higher echelons of the orchestra world.

      Don’t get me started on all of the leading players who claim a full-time teaching salary, full-time orchestral salary, and somehow regularly pop up as guest players, teachers and soloists elsewhere! The notion of full-time employment in some top German orchestras would be considered by some as a joke…the argument is of course that practice time is needed at the top, but filling every other waking hour with teaching and gigs won’t help that 😉

    • Christian A. says:

      I play in a German Orchestra, and it is sometimes very difficult to find the right player for the job. Here, however, it is not so much corruption as the difficulty of convincing 50+ musicians that you are the right player. Auditions are held for at least 50% of the orchestra, who all vote. The conductor or gmd is rarely, if ever, present, and in my orchestra, is allowed to voice an opinion, but must then leave for the voting process.
      We also audition ~ 20 people at a time, and it can take 5-6 auditions to fill a tutti seat.
      Keep in mind, the right player might show up, but he or she needs to also have a good day. Auditions are a bad way to hire musicians, but unfortunately every other way is worse.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    I’m curious:

    1) The right person is important because the music making may last decades in which case the process sounds like a hazing ritual. Is this any way to treat a prospective colleague?

    2) MDs overrule musicians or prolong the process due to scheduling
    – If so, why does the MD have a vote? S/he is usually a Contractor, not usually in town, and expected to leave every few years. Continuity (See 1) can’t be an issue
    – MDs usually have multiple orchestras and guest engagements. They conduct whoever is in front of them and are expected to deliver. Why do they have such a say over whichever orchestra they are fronting for at the moment?

  • Jimmy D says:

    Who won the viola audition? Someone mentioned above that one position was filled.