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Why Aren’t There More Tape Rounds?

Yesterday, clarinetist Richie Hawley posted an interview on his website about prescreening recordings.  He discussed many aspects of “tape rounds,” including why they’re becoming increasingly more prevalent in the classical music world.  While I definitely agree with Richie’s assessment that tape rounds are a fair process, I find myself asking a simple question:

Why don’t MORE orchestras make tape rounds an integral part of their auditions?

First, let’s look at how orchestras use tape rounds.  In my orchestra (the Nashville Symphony), when more candidates apply than we could possibly hear in two or three days (this is usually the case), the committee separates the candidates into two categories:  “please come to the audition” or “please make a tape, ” and once we review the tapes, we invite the candidates we want to hear to the live audition.  Most orchestras use a similar screening process, but some others approach tape rounds a little differently.  For example, in 2008, the New York Philharmonic did the entire preliminary round for its Principal Clarinet audition by tape, meaning only a small number of candidates were invited to the live audition.  A couple years later, the Chicago Symphony had an “optional” tape round for one of its Principal Clarinet auditions, where candidates could send a tape and receive a recommendation from the committee whether or not they should come to the audition (you have to wonder if anybody actually sent one of those).  When that audition didn’t yield a winner, the subsequent audition had a tape round (not an optional one) – that was the audition in 2011 that Steve Williamson won.

One orchestra that really has the tape round thing figured out is the Boston Symphony.  For their Second Clarinet audition in 2007, there was a tape round even for candidates who one might think wouldn’t be asked to make one (like the eventual winner, Michael Wayne, who was playing Principal Clarinet of the Kansas City Symphony at the time).  The tape round helped the committee narrow the applicant pool down to somewhere between 30-40 candidates for the live prelims, and those who advanced (9 candidates) were invited back three weeks later for the semifinals and finals at the expense of the BSO.

The Boston Symphony got things right at every stage of this audition.  First of all, they narrowed the field enough that they were able to conduct the prelims all in the same day, thereby eliminating any problems that might stem from committee fatigue.  Also, having only one day of prelims (as opposed to two or three) allowed the BSO to hold the audition on a Monday, which is the preferred audition day for candidates with jobs in other orchestras.  Paying for candidates’ travel expenses so they could return three weeks later for the semis and finals was also a smart move.  People might say that only the wealthiest orchestras can afford to do this, but that might not be true, and here’s why:  Here in the Nashville Symphony, it would cost about the same to pay one committee member for one day of auditions as it would to pay for one semifinalist’s travel expenses.  So if you can use a tape round to eliminate one day’s worth of candidates, and then narrow down the number of semifinalists to the same number of people you have on the committee (we have 9 for principal auditions), it’s pretty much a wash financially.  Even if it would cost a little more to do it this way, there’s a ton of benefits for all parties involved.  First of all, if the candidates advance from both the tape round and the live prelims and are then reimbursed for travel to the semis and finals, they’ll have more confidence that the committee really wants to hear their playing and will therefore prepare more thoroughly for the later rounds.  Also, the committee will have more confidence in the semifinalists – the committee can safely assume that these candidates are fully prepared for the audition and are therefore representing themselves more accurately.  As a result, the committee listens more realistically, and the odds of a no-hire are lowered.

After studying the way orchestras have successfully used tape rounds, there are still a few myths about tape rounds that need debunking.  First of all, some people might feel that making a tape is an expensive process that candidates shouldn’t be expected to undertake.  This might have been true twenty years ago, but nowadays there is plenty of widely available technology that candidates can use to make their own tapes.  All it takes is a computer, some sound editing software (some of which, like Audacity, is free), and a relatively inexpensive microphone (such as this one, which I have).  If you can’t record straight into a laptop, you can use a portable recording device (I use a DAT player – if you want something less antiquated, there are many options).  With the increasing ubiquity of tape rounds for schools, summer festivals, and orchestras, young clarinetists would be wise to invest in this equipment and cultivate the skills necessary to use them.

Another myth is that it would be more “fair” or “generous” for orchestras to allow EVERYONE to come take their audition.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If a committee reviews your tape and decides that you aren’t what they’re looking for, they’ve saved you hundreds of dollars in travel expenses.  Also, when a candidate makes a tape, he or she has an infinite number of attempts to nail the excerpts and to fairly represent his or her best playing.  It’s a privilege to have that kind of control over what you’re presenting to a committee – it’s certainly preferable to spending a bunch of money in travel and lodging just to have a crappy audition, or even worse, a great audition that’s not what the committee is looking for.   If your goal is to “gain experience” by travelling to an audition and warming up in a room full of other candidates, there are plenty of small orchestras that will afford you this opportunity.  Don’t forget that you can always try to simulate this process by having mock auditions with your friends in your home location.

All in all, tape rounds are an easy way to solve a lot of the inherent problems of auditions.  They make the process cheaper, they make it less grueling, and they give the candidates a better chance to represent themselves fairly, all of which increase everyone’s faith in the process.  So the next time you send a tape and the committee decides you’re not invited, maybe YOU should be the one saying “thank you” at the end!

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