How Do We Find New Musicians?

Auditions are bittersweet occasions for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. We have an opening because one of our musicians has retired or moved on to an orchestra with more weeks and higher salary. We will miss them, but we are also excited about getting a new colleague. It would take a very long article to take readers through our entire audition process, so let's just focus on the efforts we make to insure that our audition process offers each applicant a level playing field while allowing the audition committee to focus solely on the musical abilities of each candidate.

First, an opening is announced to the orchestra membership, and an ad is placed in the International Musician, a monthly publication published by the American Federation of Musicians listing audition vacancies. Musicians working towards a career with an orchestra all know to "check the union paper" to see what openings there are for their instrument each month. An eight-member Audition Committee is formed, including an alternate, consisting of musicians from the same or related sections as the vacant position. The committee's first task is to put together a repertoire list in collaboration with Music Director Sebastian Lang-Lessing. The list will include a variety of passages from frequently performed orchestral works as well as a concerto or another solo work.

Audition candidates prepare intensely for years to take professional auditions, and most professional musicians take many auditions before winning a position in a professional orchestra. On the day of the audition, utmost care is given to preserve a candidate's anonymity. The committee enters through a separate door in order to avoid contact with any of the candidates. Our crew places an opaque screen between the audition committee and the stage, so we cannot see the candidates. They also lay a rug down from offstage to the playing location so we cannot hear the clicks of heels that might hint at whether a candidate is male or female. The candidates are only identified by number. An onstage monitor communicates any questions or requests from candidates. To further guarantee the integrity of our process, a Union monitor and the Orchestra Personnel Manager make sure that the audition is run in accordance with our ethical practices. In each round, every candidate will play the same works in the same order.

Maestro Lang-Lessing usually joins us once we are ready to hear the final round. Together, we select the excerpts we would like to hear in the final round and vote on whether to keep the screen up or take it down so that we can see the candidates. Some committees decide that they would like to see the candidates play in order to develop a more complete understanding of the candidate's musicianship and skills. Other committees like to keep focusing only on what they hear. The screen will only be taken down if the vote is unanimous by secret ballot.

In our orchestra, once we have heard the finalists, we take a non-binding preliminary vote, again by secret ballot. In order to win, a candidate needs the vote of the Music Director plus 3 of the 7 musicians on the Audition Committee. If our preliminary vote shows a clear winner, we can have a binding vote right away. Otherwise, we will discuss the performance of the candidates and may ask one or more of them to play some more for us. If the committee and the Maestro conclude that none of our finalists can get enough votes to be hired, we will have to declare a "no-hire" audition and go through the entire process again from the very beginning (ugh!). This is disappointing for everyone involved, but we know that each musician we hire will change the entire orchestra, and we take that responsibility very seriously.

Each staff musician in the San Antonio Symphony went through this process in order to become a member of the orchestra. When he or she first gets the chance to perform the music they love for our community, they can take pride in knowing that they earned their position with the San Antonio Symphony on the basis of their musical ability. Those of us who are already in the orchestra will celebrate the fact that our audition process has once again allowed us to find a great new musician and colleague.