Recently I have been looking for work once again, and in so doing have had to make myself available for job interviews, the humiliating grilling in which a person is expected to lay his life’s work experience on the line in the course of a few minutes. He is expected to know, remember, and be fluently conversant about everything he has ever done over a career that may have spanned decades. Sometimes it helps; sometimes it does not.
Mulling over the inadequacies of the process brought to mind an experience my father had years ago, one he related to me in some detail years after it happened.
My father was a prominent classical musician who made his entire living his whole working life performing as a violist, conductor, violinist, teacher of professionals, and occasional composer. He was primarily an orchestral and chamber music player, but principal (first chair) in most orchestras he ever played in except the Chicago Symphony, the best orchestra in the world, where he was assistant principal during his first of two stints there. His first tenure was in the late forties to mid-fifties, the second in the early seventies under Sir Georg Solti. Dad was Good with a capital G, and I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody who loved music more than he did.
He came up through the ranks before the days of the high-power conservatory training aspiring professionals now get. He got plenty of work because he was known all over the Chicago area by those who hired that kind of musician, whether it was for a pickup orchestra, jingle recording sessions, night club dates backing Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, or whatever; most professional freelance work was obtained by a well-known core of solid and thoroughly competent musicians. That’s how the business works, even today, except in today’s world of MIDI-produced electronic music there are fewer jobs and lots more competition.
Today if one chair in a major symphony orchestra such as CSO opens up, management expects 250 players to show up for an audition. These will all be people who passed the initial screening, by sending resumés demonstrating they’ve already had years of professional orchestral experience, and also submitting tapes, CDs, or DVDs. Even after all that, the conductor and management might not like any of them, so will hire no one.
Around 1971, when my father was working as a freelancer, he got a call from the CSO business manager, who asked him point blank: “Would you like to play the season?” They had a vacancy in the viola section, and no one permanent had been hired. Of course, my father was thrilled to take it. He left when Fritz Reiner was about to take the reins of the orchestra, because the old man had a reputation for eating musicians alive for breakfast. Dad didn’t want that kind of stress, plus he had in mind to expand his career as a conductor and entrepreneur, creating a fine arts festival. But if you want to make a solid living in classical music, nothing beats a regular orchestra job with the best orchestra in the world. Musicians who get that job rarely leave, because it doesn’t get any better than that.
So he played the season, during which the orchestra went on a historic tour of Europe, where they recorded some Mahler Symphonies that got rave reviews and piles of awards. Dad was in heaven doing exactly what he loved and was so good at. By this time he was already pushing 65 years of age, but could definitely cut the job. The next year, and I believe one more year after that, for whatever reason, the orchestra still could not find a real permanent player for that position, so my father continued as a contractor, with somewhat less money and benefits than a full member, and he was no longer assistant principal, just another section guy. But what a gig!
The time inevitably came where the orchestra’s management decided to make an all-out effort to find a permanent player for that open position, which meant they had to have open auditions. Dad was never offered the job outright, but was told that if he’d like to take a shot at it, he could participate in an audition along with all the recent conservatory graduates who did nothing but practice difficult orchestral passages and sight reading and basically prepare for auditions like a runner training to win a marathon
Dad said: No way! He’d love the job. The conductor, his colleagues, and everyone in the CSO management knew him, his artistry, that he’d even been the featured soloist with the orchestra on at least one occasion (more if you count Bach’s Brandenburg #6), and they knew his vast experience for what it was worth. If they wanted to hire him on that basis he’d be happy to accept. But in an open audition against some young hotshot who could play the Bartok and Walton Concertos in his sleep while whistling Dixie and stomping out the high hat part to an Elvin Jones solo with his feet he wouldn’t have a prayer. Dad’s position was that anyone who plays a good audition has proven exactly one thing: that he knows how to play a good audition. It demonstrates nothing about his artistry or whether he will hold up his end in one of the greatest ensembles in the world for the next forty years, and it’s a sure thing he hasn’t already played the Brahms 4th Symphony at least fifty times in performance. So Dad declined to audition.
That was the end of his Chicago music career. He and my mother moved to Florida where he taught for several years at the university in Tampa, was principal violist and associate conductor of the Gulf Coast Symphony until he finally really did retire — but he continued to perform right up the end, playing a recital with accompaniment just a few months before his death in 1995 at age 88.
My point in all this is that some people don’t do well in put-on-the-spot interviews or tests and will screw up badly, whether out of nervousness, or whatever. And what does it prove? Nada.