by Michelle Zapt-Belanger
In April 2020, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra held two entirely digital, contactless auditions.
At the time, the North American pandemic response was in its early days. Our 2019–20 season had just been cancelled weeks before. Nevertheless, we found ourselves with two vacancies—bassoon and cello—for the following season. While the idea of planning auditions, and contactless ones at that, seemed daunting, it was decided that we would make the effort. To convert our audition process to a contactless one, we were forced to take a hard look at how auditions have worked in our orchestra in the past. In planning COVID-era auditions, we made some surprising discoveries that may affect how we do auditions in the future, even post-pandemic.
For this article, I interviewed two people who were instrumental in conceiving these auditions: Erik Hongisto, personnel manager and principal trombonist; and Gwen Buttermer, oboist and the steward for our local. I was the orchestra committee chair at the time and had a front seat to the process, from early planning brainstorming and beta testing, to running some of the audition panel’s Zoom meetings. We were all committed to making the process as fair to the candidates as possible.
The TBSO collective agreement has provisions for what is called a “pre-recorded audition,” an option that was rarely used in the past. However, existing procedure was a good starting place. We advertised as for a regular audition, and the accepted applicants were given a list for a first and second round, which they had to record in a continuous performance on video. Both rounds were sent to the personnel manager.
“First I watched them all to make sure they were all authentic and there were no cuts or edits,” says Hongisto. “Then I took all the videos and extracted the audio for the audition panel to hear.”
The audition panel were sent the first-round audio files of all the candidates only a few hours before a scheduled Zoom meeting, so they would have the opportunity to hear a blind first round but not listen to each candidate over and over. Any discussion, as per our regular audition procedure, could happen during the Zoom meeting, and when discussion was concluded, an online vote was sent out. The personnel manager and steward went into a Zoom breakout room to count votes, sharing a screen to ensure transparency.
Second round audio files were then sent out, and second round discussion and voting set for a few hours later in the day.
“I as actually surprised by how well it did work,” says Buttermer, who sat in as steward for the cello audition but was on the panel for the bassoon audition. “Despite some technical difficulties and differences in audio quality, it was surprising easy to adjudicate a candidate’s playing over a recording.”
Instead of awarding the spots outright, candidates who passed the second round were each offered a two-week trial in our next season. It has allowed us to evaluate the candidate’s playing a bit in person and ensure they fit into an orchestral context.
This method of auditions has many benefits for a small, isolated orchestra like the TBSO. “Online auditions waste a lot less time for all the committee members, we don’t have to find appropriate space, there’s no production, there’s no rental of anything,” says Hongisto.
But the main benefits are to the candidates. In an industry where musicians are expected to pay their own expenses to travel to an audition location, the cost of audition season can be prohibitive. Candidates are often forced to choose between auditions or to save up to try for one or two auditions a season, prolonging their job search by years.
Buttermer: “We had a much bigger turnout than we would have had with a live audition because there wasn’t the additional pressure of travelling here. That made the audition way better for them, but also for us because we had a bigger pool to choose from. It was a big plus.”
When the candidates come to do their final round in a two-week trial, they are being paid for those services, which helps to offset travel costs. “The position is vacant, so I have to hire somebody anyway for the concert, so why not hire a candidate, who flies to Thunder Bay to do their audition, but they’re making money to do it. It’s not an expense for them, and it's not an expense for us. It’s efficient, and to me it’s logical,” says Hongisto.
Orchestras have a lot of work to do in the areas of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Is an audition fair if the pool only includes those with the ready cash and free weekend to present themselves in a strange city for evaluation? It has become clear that video auditions are an important move toward accessibility, since they allow for people of less means, people who are caring for children or elders, and people who may have other jobs or situations they can’t leave, to nevertheless put themselves forward.
Because of this, the TBSO may never go back to the way auditions were run before. “Hopefully in non-COVID times we will do it again, because I would like to do it again. It just seems much more fair to the candidates,” says Hongisto, noting that after a year of pandemic distancing, most musicians have much better recording setups than they did in April, leading to even better audio quality if we repeat the video audition process. “I was very pleased with how it went, but it will be better next time.”