PG NewsPG delivery
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Home Page
PG News: Nation and World, Region and State, Neighborhoods, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Magazine, Forum
Sports: Headlines, Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Collegiate, Scholastic
Lifestyle: Columnists, Food, Homes, Restaurants, Gardening, Travel, SEEN, Consumer, Pets
Arts and Entertainment: Movies, TV, Music, Books, Crossword, Lottery
Photo Journal: Post-Gazette photos
AP Wire: News and sports from the Associated Press
Business: Business: Business and Technology News, Personal Business, Consumer, Interact, Stock Quotes, PG Benchmarks, PG on Wheels
Classifieds: Jobs, Real Estate, Automotive, Celebrations and other Post-Gazette Classifieds
Web Extras: Marketplace, Bridal, Headlines by Email, Postcards
Weather: AccuWeather Forecast, Conditions, National Weather, Almanac
Health & Science: Health, Science and Environment
Search: Search by keyword or date
PG Store: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette merchandise
PG Delivery: Home Delivery, Back Copies, Mail Subscriptions

Headlines by E-mail

Headlines Region & State Neighborhoods Business
Sports Health & Science Magazine Forum

Symphony Auditions: Where only the strong survive

Musicians vying for a few PSO jobs endure a pressure-packed screening process

Sunday, May 30, 1999

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

This is what doesn't matter when you audition for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra: Your résumé. The schools you attended. Your music teachers. Your grades. How long you've played your instrument. Any CDs you've recorded. The famous musicians you know. Your current job. Your references. Your demeanor.Your outfit.

Lorien Benet of Charlotte, N.C., performs her preliminary audition for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra behind a screen in Heinz Hall. The audition committee (not pictured) listens from the audience. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

Forget it. What matters, initially, is six minutes. Six minutes when you have to play better than anyone, ever. Six minutes for a prestigious, $83,000 job that dozens who play as well as you want, too. A measly six minutes playing under perverse conditions of nervousness before people you don't know and can't even see.

Sure, this is exactly why you became a musician.

Merely mention the word "audition" to orchestra musicians and they will wince, cringe or shake their heads in dismay. An audition, for them, can often mean a lifetime position, and when they're trying out for the PSO, which is one of the top orchestras in the country, the pinnacle of their career may be at stake. When you also consider that the positions they're after rarely open up, and that competition for them is fierce, you understand why orchestra musicians call auditions the most terrifying experiences of their lives.

This month, the Post-Gazette observed the PSO's audition process -- a process closely guarded by most orchestras. A reporter was granted access to every phase of the auditions for violin, save for the final meeting in which candidates were discussed and selected. The process was representative of most auditions at American orchestras, and candidates talked openly about their experiences, although few agreed to give their names.

Four violin positions were vacant, 51 people auditioned to fill them, and Heinz Hall over the course of five days in May felt more like a hospital waiting room than a concert hall.

Most of those who audition don't notice David Conner's pleasant manner when they arrive backstage.

Conner, the PSO's audition coordinator, greets hopefuls in the yellow foyer off Penn Avenue near 7th Street, returns their $50 audition deposit to them, shows them the musical passages they'll be required to play and assigns them a number.

They don't notice that, either.

"Audition brain," Conner calls it -- the state of being so nervous you can't absorb anything that's being told, shown or given to you. Conner is used to repeating himself to musicians whose minds are filled with the music they've practiced ad infinitum.

On May 8, he attempted light conversation with the auditioning musicians as he walked them to their practice rooms. "I played with you at a festival in Albuquerque!" he told one musician. "Ah, yes," the musician murmured feebly. Conner, an orchestra percussionist by training, knows not to push it.

Fourteen people came to play in the preliminary rounds that Saturday and 14 played the Friday and Saturday before. Seventeen played two days later, and six were invited to skip the preliminaries and play in the semifinals. Most candidates were in their 20s or 30s. Some were straight out of music conservatories. Others had jobs at orchestras around the country, and some were already in the PSO, hoping to move to a different section.

Usually the PSO has enough practice rooms for every candidate, but not all orchestras do. One violinist told Conner how great it was not to be placed in a room full of nervous fiddlers, as was the case with one orchestra. "It was a cattle call," she recalled.

Originally, 250 people sent résumés to the PSO for one of the four positions available -- associate principal second violin, section second violin and two section first violins. But in the end, many never scheduled an audition at all, or canceled the one they had.

No one is denied an audition at the PSO, though résumés are screened to determine if anyone can skip the preliminaries. Players in prestigious orchestras like the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Cleveland Orchestra automatically play in the semifinals, as do people who have made the PSO finals before.

At worst, the PSO will suggest to questionable candidates that they submit a tape rather than trek out to Pittsburgh, since musicians must bear their travel expenses themselves. But few submit tapes, viewing throwaway auditions as chances to practice the whole routine.

A few minutes before musicians are scheduled to go on stage, Conner fetches them from their practice room and brings them to the Green Room, where they continue practicing alone until the last possible minute. Inevitably, someone will peek out of the Green Room and ask Conner, "How much longer till I go on?" The whole process, he says, "is like seeing something bad happen to a little child."

Few of those auditioning, though, are visibly jumpy. For the most part, they are quiet and accommodating -- but nervously glancing at each other, taking deep breaths.

When it's time for a musician to go on, the PSO's personnel manager, Harold Steiman, knocks on the Green Room door and walks him or her to the moment of decision.

  They take their task seriously, but committee members appreciate a joke told by concertmaster Andres Cardenes (right) before candidates' tapes are heard. Sharing the laugh are, from left, bass player Micah Howard, Scott Bell, Mark Huggins and Marylene Gingras-Roy (center). (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Of proctors and privacy

"Candidate number one!"

The palpitating player first sees the proctor. On stage to pour glasses of water and remind the musician which musical selections come next, the proctor is usually a PSO musician or staff member. The unofficial requirement? A big heart. A PSO musician who proctored last year had to comfort a woman who began crying on stage. The woman didn't want to continue her audition but, with coaxing from the proctor, did.

Also present on stage is the infamous "screen," a large piece of black cloth suspended from a bar at the foot of the stage. The screen's purpose is to keep the musician hidden from the audition committee, a group of seven to 10 PSO musicians who sit in the orchestra and judge whether the candidate should advance to the semifinals or the finals.

Why hide the candidate? A few decades ago, orchestras in America were white male bastions. Conductors, who could handpick new players at whim, rarely chose women or minorities. But in the 1970s and '80s, American orchestras began using screens to weed out discrimination. Some orchestras even place carpeting on the stage so that high heels cannot be heard. Candidates are announced by number, not name, and committee members are restricted from going to the backstage area, where candidates gather.

A recent study by professors at Harvard and Princeton showed that, in 1970, women made up less than 5 percent of all players in the top five symphony orchestras in the United States. In 1997, they made up 25 percent. The study calculated that the switch to blind auditions could explain between 25 percent and 46 percent of the increase.

At the PSO, the screen is removed for the semifinal and final rounds so that committee members can observe musicians' technique -- for example, their fingering or the way they grip the bow. Some musicians in the PSO believe strongly in being able to see candidates, but others believe the screen should be up for the semifinals and finals, to prevent bias at every stage. In fact, there is a debate now within the orchestra over whether to use the screen in all rounds.

While the screen may be a useful guard against bias, what about cronyism? A musician could tell a friend on the audition committee that she will cough two times or click her heels when she walks on, signaling to the member that he should cast a favorable vote.

And some musicians report feeling inhibited by the screen. One violinist who auditioned this month surmised that she would play better if she could see the people she was playing for. "It's like I'm not playing for you. I'm playing to prove something to you," she said. "Instead, I should be enjoying it and to enjoy it, I need to see you."

Other musicians wonder what the committee is doing behind the screen. Reading newspapers? Sleeping? Putting sugar in their coffee? Lorien Benet, a violinist from Charlotte, N.C., who auditioned here this month and who has sat on audition committees herself, said it helps her to assume that that's what they're doing.

"My goal is to pull them out of their crossword puzzle and get them to pay attention," Benet said. "I have to play well enough to wake them out of their daze."

  Grigor Poghosyan, left, hugs his wife Lilit Danielyan of Bowling Green, Ohio, after learning she made the semifinals. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Behind-the-screen scene

Whatever they might be doing while the musicians play, members of an audition committee must stay as quiet as possible. They are bound by their contract not to signal to each other to influence votes. In fact, they sit a few seats apart to keep contact limited.

This month's violin committee consisted of the PSO's concertmaster, Andres Cardenes, four additional violinists, two viola players, two bass players and one oboeist. Musicians volunteer for the audition committee, are compensated for their time and don't have to play the instrument being evaluated.

It would be an understatement to say that the difference in comfort levels between both sides of the screen is drastic. While auditioning musicians sweated and shook, the committee was relaxed and in good spirits, passing around bags of cookies between candidates and trading jokes about the viola (a popular pastime among musicians -- even viola players).

But some committee members say the nervousness they felt at their own audition returns as they watch new hopefuls in later rounds. PSO violinist Claudia Mahave, who auditioned two years ago and was on the recent violin committee, said watching the candidates made her feel thankful for her job.

"You see all these very good players and think, they're doing their best to get the job I have," she said. "I also felt like I wanted to go home and practice. You hear a lot of good playing there and a lot of different elements -- things you can do better and things you can learn from."

Some days, the committee hears dozens of candidates. The finals alone this year lasted seven hours. With each candidate playing the same music, members can begin to feel dazed. They report having to force themselves to approach each candidate with fresh ears.

This time around, candidates in the preliminary round were required to play part of the first movement of any concerto chosen from a list of six. The committee listened to these selections as long it wanted, though Cardenes usually cut off players after a minute with a terse "thank you." The candidate had to then play measures from Mozart's Symphony No. 39, Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" Suite and Richard Strauss' "Don Juan."

After hearing the preliminaries, committee members vote on who should advance to the semifinals, often held the same day. The semifinal round this year required the concerto excerpt from the list, the second movement of any Mozart concerto and measures from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Prokofiev's "Death of Tybalt" (from the ballet "Romeo and Juliet"), Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, Brahms' Symphony No. 4 and Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture.

Most of those pieces are common in auditions nationwide, but selections are finessed by Cardenes and Mariss Jansons, the PSO's music director. Candidates are sent a master list of potential passages ahead of time, but don't know until the day of the audition which passages they will have to play.

When the screen comes down for the semifinals and finals, committee members sometimes talk to candidates. Cardenes told a few of them to play "Death of Tybalt" lower in the bow, using heavier strokes. Instruction such as this gives the committee a chance to learn more about the players and see how quickly they are able to adapt. Cardenes also asked candidates the make of their violin.

Sometimes candidates see their former teachers sitting on the committee. If they're in the orchestra already and hoping to advance, they see their colleagues. Some musicians have tried out so often at the PSO that the audition committee greets them fondly when they walk out.

Following the semifinals, the committee votes on who should advance to the finals, which is the only round attended by Jansons. Though Jansons has the ultimate say on who is chosen from among the finalists, he must trust that the committee has selected the best people from the preliminary and semifinal rounds. This year, the committee sent him 11 finalists for four positions.

It is clear that committee members take their recommendations to Jansons seriously. Debate ensued one day when some on the committee thought players whom Jansons would not approve of were being advanced. It was agreed that candidates should be advanced only if committee members were willing to defend them in front of Jansons.

Musicians say Jansons is eager to hear their opinions, while they report that his predecessor, Lorin Maazel, would sometimes "test" committee members in meetings, asking their opinions on candidates before making his own known.

For his part, Jansons says the process of selecting new musicians for the orchestra should be a collective effort, though he believes the music director should, indeed, have the final word.

"I am very much interested in teamwork," Jansons said in a phone interview from St. Petersburg, Russia. "If the jury knows what the music director is looking for, the jury will analyze with this in mind. The music director has the responsibility to be the leader, and he has principles which I hope the jury follows."

Jansons praised the recent crop of violin finalists, calling them "interpreters" who were "interesting, individual musicians who you feel have a musical personality."

Still, numerous musicians who auditioned appeared to be their own harshest critics. One who advanced to the semifinals but no further said immediately after his audition that he made too many small mistakes to justify advancement.

"If I was on the audition committee, I wouldn't have picked me, either," he said.

A cacophony of nerves

Nerves can easily throw a musician out of whack. At one point during the semifinals, Steiman walked on stage to tell the committee that the next candidate was insisting she could not go on. But she did, a few minutes later, playing well enough to advance.

Another candidate said she was so nervous the week before the audition that she dreamed about it. In her dream, she was at her own wedding, and as she kneeled at the altar, the audition repertoire began to play. It was out of tune.

"It was like a nightmare," she said. "I was cringing at the altar, saying, 'That's out of tune!' "

To deal with nerves, some musicians take Inderal, a prescription drug that blocks the effects of adrenaline in certain parts of the body. Commonly used to treat high blood pressure, it can slow down a rapidly beating heart and stop profuse sweating. But some musicians say it inhibits their musical expression, so they don't take it.

For some, though, relief sets in as soon as they start playing. There's nothing more to do but play. And when it's all over, they know if they've played well or not.

"I should probably wait until the vote before I call my ride, but it seems like a waste of time," said Alan Ross, 45, a violinist from Buffalo who admitted he had not had enough time to practice the repertoire in the weeks preceding the audition.

Another candidate waiting for the vote stood by the backstage door with his coat on and his bags in hand, ready to bolt as if sure he hadn't made it. He hadn't.

Steiman, who played trombone in the PSO for 29 years before becoming personnel manager, says the worst part of his job is announcing the vote to candidates.

"You wanna do this for me?" he asked a reporter.

He readied his clipboard in the backstage foyer: "Numbers 3, 4 and 6 made it ... 1, 2 and 5, thank you for coming."

The reactions of those who make it and those who don't are similar: There is hardly a reaction at all. Those who advance quickly remember that they have to prepare for the next round. Those who didn't are used to it.

"Many of them have gone through the audition process before, and many have been rejected," said Mark Huggins, the PSO's associate concertmaster who was on the recent violin committee.

A young man with a violin case in one hand and a small suitcase in the other quickly asked the backstage guard, "Where's the best place to catch a bus to the airport?" Many call their families or teachers, though it's often difficult to break the news.

"Calling home is just as bad," one candidate said. "Do you want to call home for me?"

Conner points out that people who have jobs to return to take rejection better than those who don't. Benet said she usually "crashes" after an audition -- and whether she got the job or not, "it takes me a couple days to recover."

And the winners are ...

Are the best candidates chosen from this gut-wrenching process? Generally yes, say people in the orchestra. But sometimes a person who is talented at soloing doesn't know how to play in an ensemble. It is assumed that such people are weeded out during the probationary period.

Jennifer Ross, principal second violin in the PSO, says the subjective nature of auditions makes them all the more nerve-wracking -- for candidate and committee member alike. Comparing an audition to the running of a race, she said both may be stressful and require as much lifetime preparation, but at least in a race you've got an objective clock that decides the winner.

Sometimes auditions are held and no one is deemed good enough to be selected. The PSO must then rely on substitutes until more vacancies pop up and another round of auditions begins. Some orchestras are so fastidious they go years without filling a position permanently.

This time around, the winners included two Pittsburghers: Carolyn Huebl of Bloomfield, who has been subbing in the orchestra for two years and won the assistant principal second violin position, and Sarah Clendenning of the North Side, who plays second violin in the PSO and was moved to a first violin position. Sergei Galperin, a member of the Houston Symphony, also won a first violin position and Sarah Brough, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, won the second violin position.

The PSO never had sit-down interviews with these candidates before selecting them, never checked their references and never negotiated salaries (they are pre-set by the union contract). The only facts the committee learned about them were gleaned from résumés handed out at the semifinals. Other than that, it was their music that mattered.

Benet said she understands that the audition process must be rigorous in order to be fair. But she lamented that those who deal better with nerves -- not necessarily the best musicians -- usually win out.

"It's a terrible process, a terrible process," she said after her PSO tryout this month.

After an audition, does she ever feel like giving up her instrument?

"Oh, yes. All the time," she said. "I think, 'Why didn't I go to business school?' "

bottom navigation bar Terms of Use  Privacy Policy