The Morning Report
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A black drape hangs on a metal frame onstage at Copley Symphony Hall.
Earlier today, and again tomorrow, a committee of orchestra players is sitting in the auditorium seats, on one side of the drape. In the wings, French horn players wait for their assigned time to walk onstage and perform selected excerpts of music behind the curtain. A strip of carpet on the stage keeps muffled the distinguishing characteristics of women’s shoes and men’s shoes.
This is the intriguing, stealthy process of auditioning for a big symphony. About 50 French horn players are in San Diego to audition for the San Diego Symphony’s horn section.
To try to guard against potential biases like gender and race — or being a friend, or foe, of one of the judges — in the first rounds of tryouts, players perform the music behind the screen. It’s meant to ensure the most talented players win the audition, not necessarily the most attractive or those who can pull strings.
“You’ve got to be cleaner than Caesar’s wife when doing auditions,” said Robert Wilkins, chief operating officer for the San Diego Symphony for the last eight years. “As absolutely sterile as possible so we can avoid having anything said about us.”
To get the word out about the open seat, the symphony puts a notice on its website and in union newsletters around the country. Interested players apply and practice certain pieces of music that are pretty standard from orchestra to orchestra. Here’s the list of the music the horn players may be asked to play as part of their auditions today and tomorrow.
The committee hears a varying number of players, then takes a break to vote on who should continue. The next round involves more playing, still from behind the screen.
By the time the finals come later tomorrow, the committee will joined by Jahja Ling, the orchestra’s music director. There is no limit to how many players would make the finals, but it’s usually about five or six players.
The seats are usually lifetime positions, so the committee takes the process very seriously.
“They want to make damn sure that the process is right to hire the right person,” he said.
In the finals, the committee has the right on a case-by-case basis to decide whether to keep the screen up or to take it down to see the applicant play. Some committee members feel strongly that they should be able to physically see the musicians, he said.
“When I’m talking about appearance, I’m not talking about their appearance as a human being,” he said. “I’m talking about how the musicians are physically dealing with the instrument.”
But sometimes the pool of applicants for a particular instrument would be so small around the country, the committee members would leave the curtain up to guard extra carefully against allegations of bias.
Wilkins said the process isn’t perfect. The seats come open rarely, so the stakes are high. But there’s no solving for a player just having a bad day and being eliminated.
He said a colleague used to say that orchestra auditions are the worst way to hire someone, but no one’s figured out a better way yet. In the meantime, the committee takes the process very seriously.
“They want to get the finest, best, superlative player they can get,” he said.
On Friday, I talked on the phone with Kit Weber, a 31-year-old French horn player who drove to San Diego from his home in Salt Lake City this weekend to audition. In a good year, he said, there are maybe six or eight auditions for horn players at orchestras around the country.
“We really don’t have the ability to pick and choose where we’d go,” he said. “It’s usually whatever’s open.”
When a seat comes open in a symphony like San Diego’s, where it could perhaps be a musician’s fulltime gig, players perk up, Weber said. The current symphony contract for musicians carries a minimum salary of about $56,000 for a 37-week season, a week of education and outreach activities and four weeks of vacation.
Weber said he likes to prepare for five to six weeks for auditions, practicing intensely to a peak and then tapering off before the audition, like how a runner might save strength for the day of a marathon. There are particularly fatiguing mouth muscle maneuvers involved in playing the horn.
“You want to make sure the muscles of your embouchure are feeling really fresh the day of your audition,” he said.
Weber said he doesn’t like being hidden from the committee’s view. He’d prefer to see the body language and reactions of the people he’s playing for, rather than sweating to himself.
“You know that the next three to five minutes of your playing is going to determine whether you’ll move to the next round,” he said. “And that will determine whether you’ll be gainfully employed as a musician. It’s a lot of stress to deal with.”
Weber’s audition was scheduled for 2 p.m. today. He told me he’d let us know how it went.