Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Second Bassoon Audition

We held an audition for second bassoon last Sunday.  From around 200 applicants, the field was screened by resume -- in some cases, by recording-- to 46 invited candidates.  From that number, 37 attended our audition.

The audition was held on the stage of Severance Hall.  The candidates played from a position in the middle of the stage, approximately where the second bassoonist would sit in the orchestra.  The audition committee sat in the hall on the orchestra ground floor.  A series of room dividers was put in front of us as a screen to provide anonymity in the first round.

All applicants in the first round played the exposition of the first movement of the Mozart Concerto, the first four lines of page 2 from the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, the solo from the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Symphony #4 and, in some cases, the second bassoon part from the opening of the second movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto.

We chose six candidates from the first round to hear again in another round.  Excerpts asked for that round were:

Mendelssohn Symphony #3, second movement tutti passage just before letter F
Tannhauser Overture opening
Ravel Piano Concerto in G, 3rd movement, 2nd bassoon part only
Bach B minor Mass, Quoniam
Verdi Overture to "I Vespri Siciliani" opening three passages

After hearing all six play and following brief discussion, the committee and Franz Welser-Most decided that we had heard no one who was sufficiently qualified that day for our second bassoon position.

Results like these are frustrating for all involved -- auditionees, committee members, music director and personnel managers.  I'd like to devote the rest of this blog to sharing my thoughts as to why the day was not successful.

In spite of the result, I think our audition system works pretty well. Not only do we try to give applicants the opportunity to prove their worthiness, we try very hard to be discriminating during the audition process.  It is much more difficult and painful to deny tenure to someone who, after being hired, demonstrates deficiencies during a season or two of performing.  Better to do the weeding carefully from the beginning, if possible -- at the audition.  If that means not hiring anyone, so be it.

First of all, we don't usually invite that many people to play live, so we're not trying to filter through a couple of hundred players over several days.  We usually try to conduct our business in a single day's time.

Second, those that are not invited based on their resume are given the opportunity to submit a recording of their playing for evaluation and possible invitation.  This is not just a bone thrown to those younger, less experienced players we may not want to hear.  Indeed, four of our most recent hires started their audition process at this stage and were only invited after the committee had heard them.

Regarding the second bassoon audition, we invited only one person from the group of recordings to the live audition.

Third, because we limit the number of live auditions, it is usually possible for Franz Welser-Most to hear all candidates in every round of an audition.  This is very unusual -- maybe unique among major orchestras.  Having him in from the beginning lends more focus and discipline to the listening we do.

So what happened Sunday? 

I would summarize the lack of success in two ways:

1. A great majority of the candidates did not seem to have good control, pitch or evenness of tone in the low register.  This is extremely important for any second bassoonist and was signally lacking in most of the playing we heard. 

None of the second round candidates displayed mastery of the soft dynamic, secure articulation and solid intonation in the Tannhauser excerpt, in particular.  This one and the Brahms Violin Concerto from the first round were the "money" excerpts for me.

In addition, there were a number of players who exhibited a rough, percussive style in the Mozart Concerto.  Accenting every downbeat, emphasizing bar lines, and using explosive articulation in a piece that has a nobility and grace made the bassoonists on the committee embarrassed at times for the way our instrument was being treated.

2. Most of the candidates did not "play the hall".  While it's generally not possible to play in the audition space prior the event, players can usually try a few notes to check acoustics.  It's smart to make small adjustments in approach based upon what you hear coming back to you after checking some notes.  I usually play a few detached notes to hear the reverb time and then go.  Choose your best notes!  This is not a time to check things about which you are not sure!

Be aware that when playing technical passages, if the committee is sitting out in the hall or is placed far away from you, it may be necessary to take a click or two off of your tempo so what you play will be clearly heard.  Severance Hall has world-class acoustics. The stage is very sensitive and projects the sound into the seats with ease.  There is no need to strain or over play to put your sound out there.

So many Figaros and Ravel piano concertos we heard just sounded like a blur.

Nerves, a lack of awareness of the acoustics and an inability to gauge how the performance is heard in the seats made many candidates rush through technical passages.

There is another factor to consider:  a majority of most audition committees is made up of non-bassoonists.  They will be listening with different ears.  Many will be more concerned with a general impression, instead of focusing on the specifics of bassoon playing.  A surprising number will be rather unfamiliar with some of the repertoire you're playing -- especially second bassoon parts.

Those auditioning need to keep this under consideration.

I hope what I've had to say here will shed some light on how things played out last Sunday and help any of those we might hear for this position in the future.

At this point, it's unclear how we're going to proceed to fill the position.  Another audition needs to be scheduled.  I can't speculate on how we will go forward at this time.


  1. Nice article - a good read for players of any instrument.

  2. Excellent insight. I recently played an audition and received the same feedback about the Mozart that you outlined. I chalked it up to trying way to hard for the technical aspects by sacrificing the linear ones. It definitely opened my eyes on how to better approach the Mozart.

    Thanks for the insight. For the aspiring bassoonist, the perspective of the committee is invaluable.

    Frank Chambers

  3. Thanks for the post Mr. Stees, very informative.

  4. What an amazing post. One of my mentors at college shared it via facebook and I very much appreciate the view of the audition committee member. It will allow me to put myself in the committee's shoes when I begin auditioning for symphonies.

  5. If only 'musicality' and 'ensemble playing' was a more important part of the early filtering process. It seems the stress is more on a 'micro' level in the early stages of the audition.

    I think this could be solved by a more intelligent/unique choice of excepts/solo pieces in the first round, however few orchestras in the US are brave enough to break the convention.

    1. What "szcl" says is sadly true in a lot of cases. The sheer number of auditionees sometimes makes the process more like a "last man standing" situation.

      However, I'd like to point out that in our first round we included Tchaikovsky 4th slow movement solo (good for musicality) and Brahms Violin Concerto second mvt., second bassoon part (good for ensemble playing.)

    2. "However, I'd like to point out that in our first round we included Tchaikovsky 4th slow movement solo (good for musicality) and Brahms Violin Concerto second mvt., second bassoon part (good for ensemble playing.)"

      So you're saying "we picked these excerpts because this will allow us to see if the applicant plays how we want him/her to play"?, Did you ask the applicant to replay a passage if there was something you didn't agree with? The way that a musician plays in an audition is often quite dissimilar to how he/she plays in the ensemble. You're saying that you asked for an excerpt that demonstrates "good ensemble playing", yet it's the first round, so obviously the applicant is not playing in the ensemble.

      I agree with asking for "musicality" excerpts in the first round... but! if you think that an applicant has the potential to play they way YOU WANT TO HEAR, but doesn't play up to that potential, ask them to play again, and say what you want to be done differently! It doesn't have to be the whole passage, maybe just a few bars. If the applicant can show that he/she understood what you asked, then you should reconsider, and if not, then feel free to dismiss.

      And honestly, why would you ask for an "ensemble playing" excerpt on the first round, and dismiss the applicant due to inadequacy on said excerpt? Any competent musician will only need one rehearsal to adjust to the acoustics of the hall. Many orchestras do not allow for "practice notes" at the beginning of an audition (to feel around the acoustics of the hall). So save the ensemble excerpts for when the applicant is actually playing in an ensemble!

    3. Dear KM, Thanks for the comments. I can't find in this thread where I ever said, "we picked these excerpts because this will allow us to see if the applicant plays how we want him/her to play"?, but maybe I missed it. Anyway, we did ask for candidates to repeat excerpts, often giving specific instructions. As to the "ensemble" excerpts, yes, you're right, you can't really tell how someone would fit in an ensemble playing by themselves, but for the sake of expediency, a committee must make an educated guess. Using the Brahms Vln Concerto, we could deduce whether or not a candidate had good intonation, control of low notes, a sense of line and understood the part's role in the score by how they played the part solo. These criteria are all important when the person joins an ensemble. In addition, John Clouser played duet excerpts (Rhapsodie Espagnole, Bartok Concerto, Bach b minor mass) with final candidates in one of the auditions. So I think we covered that ground thoroughly.

  6. I'm assuming that the bassoonists invited to audition are amongst the best in the country, and this article sounds like "the best bassoonists in the country are still not good enough for the Cleveland Orchestra". Or, maybe those who are amongst the best are already working. OR, maybe those who are amongst the best don't have the resumes to make it through a pre-screening. I don't know - how can something like this be remedied?

    1. Garrett,

      Excellent comments! The process in the U.S. certainly has its flaws. I think the way we screen applicants works very well, actually.

      Those with not enough experience listed on the resume can submit recordings of their playing. Several of our recent hires were invited to the live audition only after a committee listened to their recordings, so this process definitely works.

      With the Music Director listening to ALL live auditions, it's just not practical to have a large number of invitees, thus, we're pretty aggressive in our screening.

      I think I was pretty clear in my original post about what was lacking in the players we heard. Most of us aren't trained from the beginning to be second bassoonists, so those skills are often de-emphasized at the college level.

      So sad, because 90% of what ANY bassoon player does is play long tones and scales written in the music. Very little solo or melody playing. The ability to control the instrument is paramount in everything we do. Unfortunately, we sometimes lose that focus when working on excerpts. I don't know why this is?

    2. I agree. I find it really difficult to believe that with the incredible amount of applicants for the position, no one was "good enough for the Cleveland Orchestra". What you are asking of people seems rather impossible.

  7. Thank you for this post! It is always helpful to hear the other side of the story.

    One thing that I have difficulty understanding is why orchestras (especially major ones, with the money for such endeavors) do not have a pianist accompany the solo piece. I auditioned for the Winnipeg Symphony a couple of years ago, and despite not being a large orchestra, they had a pianist during the first round, and it was a win-win situation (at a very small cost to the orchestra, relatively speaking). It made the audition much less uncomfortable and artificial for those auditioning, and talking to committee members afterward, they said that it was enormously helpful in gauging the ability of the candidate to play with others, which is the most important aspect of the job. Unfortunately, it is the skill set about which the audition process (as it currently stands) is the least revealing.

    1. The New York Philharmonic, the LA Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony regularly use a pianist in their auditions for the solo piece.

      As that piece is usually the Mozart Concerto, my experience has been that this is usually to see if you can play in tune (or at least tune with an equally tempered piano) and -- especially important - PLAY AT THE PITCH LEVEL OF THE ORCHESTRA. A=440, 442 or whatever.

      It has not been my experience that this is used to see how someone plays with others. Indeed, it's often jarring to first enter the Mozart 1st mvt after the pianist messes up the Bb scales just before. Really hard for them and the reduction is generally very awkward. A real test of your composure!!

      Sometimes the pianist starts with a different tempo than you prescribe, too and STAYS that way!

      Often they are really great pianists, but have just had to play the piece 40 times that day and no one can be "ON" for each one.

      I don't think this is a time to be flexible and try to play chamber music with the pianist.

      Quite the contrary, I think, especially if the pianist is having difficulty, it is up to you to lead and not follow!

      I'm glad you had a good experience in Winnipeg. I have in this situation, too, but mostly it's been a bit of a struggle.

      Not sure why we don't do it here in Cleveland. We have a wonderful keyboard player in Joela Jones. In know Szell used to sometimes play piano with applicants. Now that would have been scary!!

  8. Why go to the trouble of auditioning if you already know what you want? Just send out a scout or make some calls to find someone who plays the way you want! Or hire someone you know can adapt to your needs!

    Not trialing anyone after 37 people spent serious money on getting to the audition, plus time and effort preparing for it, is just plain insulting, and shows just how elitist American Orchestras can be. No matter how you try to justify it, it's still a slap in the face to those who are qualified and interested. At some point, you have to get over yourselves and accept who is available to you! What's so special about these orchestras that they won't hire someone in good faith? Orchestra musicians can, and should be fired if they can't live up to the needs of their position! That's reality, even if it makes people uncomfortable!

    This elitism and over-cautious attitude towards music is a big part of what makes Cleveland Orchestra concerts these days such a bore when compared to earlier recordings! What happened to that big American sound? Where's the heavy, yet sophisticated expression? Where's the clarity of rhythm? I see now. Fearful attitudes like this killed it, rather, refined it out of existence! People keep getting hired on the basis that they don't offend anyone in particular, and eventually there are no personalities left in the orchestra! Sad! A solution might be to place more trust in the music director to pick his musicians as he sees fit. Unfortunately, conductors themselves are hired on a similar basis!

    1. Ouch!!

      There's a lot of bitterness in your post! I'll try to answer without getting down in the mud.

      A trial week is a really good way to see how a player does in a real-life situation. However, it's very expensive for an orchestra (American orchestras are all trying to cut costs these days.)so bringing someone in to play with the orchestra should only be done after a positive evaluation at the audition.

      Unfortunately, that day, we didn't hear anyone that merited a trail week.

      Elitist? Guilty as charged!

      Of course we're elitist! We have to be. We are all in an elitist business. Not everyone can do what we do and we prize those that do it best, not those who do it just for fun.

      The proposition of firing someone after a year or two of probation in an orchestra is a serious matter. It is very painful for the person involved, who's invested a year or two of their life in the new position. Much better to "fail" at a single audition than to be given a job on a hope and prayer that it will work out!

      By the way, our music director picks the musicians, does the hiring. We are merely advisory to him.

    2. I apologize for my apparent bitterness, but as someone who cares, living in a musical climate where established orchestras are beginning to fail, and not without reason, where droves of decently talented conservatory students graduate every year only to remain unemployed while positions are left unfilled, where we can sit in our living rooms and browse old recodings and videos on youtube to find that the same orchestras used to sound just as good (better in my opinion) with significantly fewer technically-able musicians at their disposal, bitterness is the result!

      How expensive could a trial week really be? Someone must be paid to play second bassoon anyway, right? How much more could it cost than holding another audition?

      Truthfully, I'm all for elitism in classical music! But elitism and diplomacy aren't a good combination! If someone is offered a position and isn't up to snuff, their ass needs to be fired, just like in any high paying job in any field! Thats elitism! It's one thing to hold someone to the highest standard. It's another to say that you won't hire anyone because you don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. People get fired. It happens. They survive. This is a fact of any competitive job anywhere.

      Yes, of course the conductor has the final say at the audition, but that doesn't mean that he's hand-picking musicians! Surely there would be a different result if it were up to him to find someone on his own. Surely he wouldn't use such a dysfunctional process.

      No, I was not diplomatic in my post, and I'm very sorry if it came off as a personal attack. I'm simply trying to say things that have gone largely unsaid in musical circles. No one says these things to established musicians because they are afraid for their futures, and afraid of not being diplomatic. You've clearly written this blog post in defense of the Cleveland Orchestra and how it, and many other American orchestras handle the hiring process. So here I am to voice the reverse opinion that does not get enough acknowledgment.

  9. I had a few questions.

    With 200 candidates it seems statistically unlikely that there would be no acceptable candidates. Is it possible that the process was the problem not the players? Possibly a screening process that weeds out the kind of players you would actually want in the group? Possibly hyper focusing on less meaningful aspects of playing in the early stages, thereby eliminating the “good” ones?

    Is it reasonable to expect that a player know and adapt to a hall within a 5-7 min audition to the potential acoustics from the audience perspective? It seems like playing well in such a uncomfortable situation is challenging enough. If an excerpt is too fast for the acoustics of the hall, can't the committee just ask the candidate to try it slower, or more gently or whatever the committee needs? Seems like not reading the hall is different from “bad playing”.

    Is it better to not hire someone than to put someone on a trial or tenure track? It seems like the best player in a crop of 200 players is probably a good bassoonist (unless the committee totally failed in their job). Auditions are about a game of musical drop the needle and only tell a limited amount about the player. During the tenure process the orchestra can communicate with the player about their needs and the player can have time to adjust to accomplish the demands. Because they are a good player and because they want a job, they will most likely try to make the needed changes (if the orchestra does their job and communicates their needs). If you don't hire someone then you will have to hold another audition and most likely will see all the same people again. If you offer the job to the best candidate then you have the potential of NOT having another audition. Worse case scenario is that you have to hold another audition. There seems to be more of an advantage to hiring someone then not.

    Just some thoughts.

    1. Good comments, and more diplomatically posed than the above.

      Thus, I'll try to reply point by point.

      Yes, our process has its problems. I do not know of a perfect way to screen applicants and hold auditions.

      I just know that while I've been in the Cleveland Orchestra we've hired some amazing people. Some were hired in one day, others were hired after "failing" the first time, etc.

      I know there were some great bassoon players present at our audition. However, to be completely fair, we need to go solely by how someone plays on that particular day, otherwise we disadvantage younger players or those whose playing we don't know.

      As mentioned above, I feel it's very important to be as sure as possible before you hire someone. After the hire, they often need to resign from a previous job, get a leave of absence, move, etc. to join the orchestra. A huge gamble for both parties. If unsuccessful, it's a lost year for everyone. A failed audition is much less pain and trouble.

      Our previous second bassoonist, Phil Austin, played here for 30 years. This is the kind of position we're trying to fill. We aren't looking for someone who's "just passing through". Therefore, it's important to be extremely conservative in judgment.

      At the next audition, I'm sure we'll see some of the same people and that's good, because a lot of them sounded like great players just having a bad day. Lots of reed trouble, missed attacks, etc.

      Maybe one of them will feel better the next time and really show us what he/she can do!

  10. Very insightful,

    Thanks Mr. Stees!

  11. The tone of the article is very rational and thoughtful.

    However, I've got to disagree with the "unsuccesful" adjective when describing an audition like this. It's absolutely the responsibility of an orchestra to invite a qualified pool of players to an audition. It's a total failure of leadership when there are no hires from an audition.
    You don't like the applicants? That's squarely on the orchestra, its management, and the conductor. When each individual is spending $1000+ to travel to your city, practice the repertoire, etc., it's on the orchestra to have a legitimate process in place to invite applicants and make hires. You've got to assume that the panel of applicants you have is the best available at the moment.

    One of the most egregious examples of audition failure happened in my city. Our conductor walked in to the audition with a letter from his applicant friend, indicating that the applicant was very sorry to not make the audition, but was still interested in the spot.

    No hires on that day. Big surprise. And no one was brave enough to make a formal complaint. It's not always the case, but audition failure is sometimes a sign of bad communication, or even unethical practices.

  12. Dear violinaudition, I'm sure you speak for a lot of musicians, including me (I stopped counting the number of auditions I've taken after the 50th one many years ago.) who've experienced frustration and sensed unfairness in the process. However, I must state that the attendees at our auditions for 2nd bassoon had resumes that read like a Who's Who of Bassoon Playing, so I think we covered the bases with the responsibility you mention. What's really in effect here are two separate things; the quality of the invited pool of players as represented by how they play on that particular day (all a committee can go by with screens and the attempt to hear with unbiased ears) and the need of the orchestra to maintain, if not improve the standard of playing through new hires. It is a hard reality that no orchestra is under legal obligation to hire anyone at an audition. If the quality of the playing at the audition does not satisfy the committee (in our case actually, the Music Director), then the orchestra may decide not to hire anyone. I've explained in a previous post how expensive and time consuming it is to offer trials and my orchestra has generally chosen not to use this option. In our Second Bassoon audition we were looking to hire someone to replace Phil Austin, one of the finest bassoonists I've ever worked with. He set the kind of standard we try to maintain with new hires.

  13. The candidates played from a position in the middle of the stage, approximately where the second bassoonist would sit in the orchestra. The audition committee sat in the hall on the orchestra ground floor. A series of room dividers was put in front of us as a screen to provide anonymity in the first round.

  14. Funny how the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra never seems to have this problem.