On the one hand, it feels silly to talk about orchestral auditions, because winning one is like getting struck by lightning. It also feels silly because so many great musicians are making their careers outside the auspices of the traditional symphony orchestra. But … the truth is, hundreds upon hundreds of young musicians at conservatories all over the country, right now, are dreaming about landing a big orchestral job. These jobs are still the most coveted full-time performance jobs available to instrumentalists, and music schools still talk about them like they are actually achievable for some of us. So it would be wrong for me, thorn-in-your-side music blogger, to ignore how totally crazy the audition process is.

My husband is a philosophy Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern. In a lot of ways, the academic job market could be compared to the orchestral job market: it’s hyper-competitive, involves a live “audition,” and includes a trial period and a tenure review process once you’re hired. It’s also similar in that your job search often takes you to cities far less exciting than the city where you got your debt — I mean your degree — in.

(This is the farm where you'll continue your career.)

Here’s my understanding of how academic search committees function. They post an opening, receive hundreds of resumes, screen them heavily, and then invite just a few candidates — the ones they’re really interested in — to campus for a full-on job talk. The university pays for the candidate’s flight, hotel, and a few meals. The candidate gets a chance to present her/himself as a complete human being, meeting with students, chatting with other professors, giving a lecture, responding to challenging questions.

You want to know how they don’t function? They don’t post an opening, receive hundreds of resumes, and invite hundreds of candidates — regardless of whether they’re REALLY likely to get the job — to show up to campus on their own dime (incurring thousands of dollars in expenses). They don’t let hundreds of people start their lecture and then, deciding the candidate is no good, interrupt them a minute in (“Thank you!”).

(Beta blocker, anyone?)

By screening candidates more carefully, American orchestras could save young professional musicians thousands of dollars that they need for rent and food. But it seems like they’re too cheap (or let’s face it, broke) to take on that responsibility themselves. So young musicians, already in debt from their graduate degrees and instrument loans, embark on what has to be the most expensive and excruciating job search in existence.

Getting to know the academic job market has brought me to another amazing idea. Did you know that every year, philosophy departments have a national conference where job candidates can do preliminary interviews with several schools at once?? Can you imagine how much easier it would be for job-seekers if several major symphonies, who all have a violin opening, held their auditions at the same time and place? It seems out-there and unheard of, but competing academic institutions are already doing this together in other disciplines.

A friend recently compared the orchestral audition situation to the Olympics. And I think it’s an apt comparison. Except that we aren’t competing for Champion of the World status here. We’re competing for a salary and healthcare in some midsize city in the Southwest.

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