Symphonies and Performing

Back in the late 80's, most major symphonies in the United States made a fundamental shift in how they auditioned potential symphony players.

At auditions, a board of directors (all musical experts, of course) would listen to each applicant while they performed behind a special screen. If the performer coughed, made any distinctive noise, or even clicked their shoes on the ground too loudly, they were made to leave the room and re-attempt their audition in a different place in line.

Up until the 80's, symphony directors or conductors were directly responsible for selecting which people were ultimately part of the orchestra. They picked the person that they felt was most qualified for the job, and were notorious for being biased toward flashy performers and personal friends.

With the advent of the screen auditioning process, judges were supposedly freed to make a completely unbiased opinion- they listened with only their ears, and not their eyes. It didn't matter what the performer looked like, what they wore, or the how they talked. They had achieved the purest, most unadulterated form of auditioning in the history of music.

Since the 1980's, symphonies worldwide have almost universally gone from being profitable and drawing large audiences, to struggling to fill concert halls and facing severe budget problems.

Symphony directors have been at a loss as to why this trend continues to play out. The musical quality is better than ever before- why are audiences not connecting like they once were? Why are we in the red year after year?

While I'm sure there are many reasons why symphonies are struggling (attention spans getting progressively shorter, the unionization of the classical music world, etc) I think one of the often overlooked, and possibly most vital reasons is the audition process itself.

With the screen process, it doesn't matter if the musician looks bored while he's playing his piece. It doesn't matter if he doesn't dress sharply. It doesn't matter how he holds his instrument, or how passionately he communicates his love for music to others. All he has to do to win a seat is play perfectly. And without all those lovely intangibles, all the audience is left with is a cold, sterile recording of a classical song they could stream for free on Pandora.

As a musician, accuracy and technique is important, but remember- you're selling a performance. You're selling what makes you uniquely you. And when you've honed that special personal flair into a masterful performance, that's what will make people come back night after night.

(Note: I'd like to extend a special thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for sharing the tale about classical music in his book "Blink". I highly recommend reading it.)