Boston Symphony Hall stage

Poll: Do orchestral auditions need a facelift?

As the Olympics get into full swing, many are the tales of instant glory, where just a few minutes— seconds, even—can seem to completely change a person’s life. In the orchestra world, a similar reality exists for Mike Tetreault and the countless of other classical musicians who take auditions every year. Tetreault was recently the subject of an extensive Boston magazine article by Jennie Dorris and subsequent NPR segment recounting his preparation process for an (ultimately unsuccessful) audition to fill two simultaneous percussion openings at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The 33-year-old Colorado-based freelancer spent a year preparing, leading a grueling daily schedule: after working a full day of teaching and playing gigs, Tetreault would practice until 1 a.m., wake up at six with a 3-mile run, repeat. After a preliminary round of screening in which he and other musicians had to send a video recording of 14 excerpts, Tetreault was one of 35 invited for a live audition.

When his turn came, Tetreault coasted through his first handful of excerpts before the audition committee. But, he told NPR, “I felt as though everything was a step away from me. I didn’t feel as though my reaction time, my instincts and my ability to execute things was really close to the surface.” When Tetreault got to Akira Miyoshi’s Torse III for marimba, something unforeseen happened—one of his mallets literally got stuck in the instrument. It was only a split second, but it was enough to make him miss a few notes. He didn’t even need to answer the phone later that evening—he knew he was finished.

Michael Tetreault practiced at times 20 hours a day leading up to his Boston Symphony Orchestra audition. Photo by Sean Hagwell

Behind such panic-inducing audition requirements, of course, is a desire to identify those musicians with the rare ability to blend flawless technique with expressivity. “I want someone to be so brilliant,” Dorris quotes BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe as saying, “that there’s no question.” But there seems to be a concern among the old guard that this style of audition has reconfigured the values of orchestral musicianship. One of the positions for which Tetreault auditioned had been vacated by Frank Epstein, who joined the BSO in 1968 at the age of 26. “The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship, the interpretive abilities of players,” Epstein says. “Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”

“The technique on the instruments has grown, but what hasn’t grown is the innate musicianship,” says Frank Epstein, BSO percussionist for over 40 years. “Sometimes that is the most difficult thing to measure in an audition.”

Such may have been the case with Lee Vinson, the other percussionist the BSO was looking to replace when Tetreault came knocking. In 2007, two years after graduating from Eastman School of Music, where he’d shared a practice studio with Tetreault, Vinson won a percussion job with the BSO. But Vinson was put on probation for two consecutive seasons after falling one vote shy of earning tenure. During that period, he told Dorris, Vinson repeatedly sought feedback from colleagues on how to “correct” his playing, with mixed results: the other musicians couldn’t quite put a finger on what was wrong. Finally, in 2010 Vinson was informed by his section-mates and a BSO personnel manager that he would be relieved of his position. Such is the uncomfortable flip-side of winner-takes-all auditioning: sometimes the person who nails that “one shot” isn’t the person needed to nail it day-in and day out. In Dorris’s portrayal, Vinson remains deeply scarred by the whole experience.

There don’t seem to be any easy answers; so we want to hear from you. Do orchestras need to rethink their strategy for hiring new players, perhaps selecting individuals from pre-established substitute pools for “trial” performances? Or are highly competitive auditions, coupled with the process of tenure review, still the best method? And how do you measure artistry or musicality anyway?

Should orchestras change their audition procedures?

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