I was recently looking back over some of my first posts on this blog and thought it would be fun to revisit a few and see if I am still in agreement with myself.
Seating Auditions are Traumatic
September 12, 2008
Seating auditions are traumatic. Anyone that has ever played in an orchestra knows it. A musician's seating is a concrete expression of a musician's "rank" in the ensemble and one really can't hide from the number. (1st chair, 2nd chair, 14th chair, etc.)
I have to constantly remind students in my ensembles that auditions are not a concrete ranking of musical expertise. They are more like a quick snapshot, capturing a single moment in time.
Sometimes photos give a very true impression of a person's image. Sometimes they really don't. Sometimes our eyes are crossed and we look horrible. Other times, we see a shot of a person that just makes them look fantastic. They are all the same person, but that snapshot can go either way.
Auditions are similar. Sometimes we go into an audition, get nervous, and end up being the subject of an audition "photo" that depicts our eyes crossed and hair totally messed up. Other times, we show better that we actually are. But, in the long run, generally speaking, the image is still us. And, in both "good and bad" auditions, we give some kind of general impression of the player that we are.
The beauty of the orchestra and string ensemble is this: once the auditions are over, we all have the same responsibilities - to prepare our parts, participate in rehearsals, lead from any chair, and work to be as integral a member of the group as everyone else. Seating order ultimately does not matter. Yes, it provides a tangible "rank." But it really doesn't change anything. We are an ensemble. And, by definition, it is all about the entire group. Ensembles are only successful when everyone understands their importance to the sum and fully commits to that concept. (Just think of the last time you watched a dance ensemble performance where one of the dancers didn't operate at the same level as the rest of the group. Ruined the effect - didn't it.)
Here is where I usually go into sports analogies and the need for team play, but I will spare you that line of argument today. My orchestra received their seating on Wednesday right before rehearsal. It was a weird rehearsal that day. Players were getting used to their new stand partner, adjusting to the reality of that new "ranking" that they had just received, and generally getting comfortable. I really hope that today is better. This is such a fantastic group of musicians and I have such high expectations for the year. For now, we move on as an ensemble. Seating doesn't matter. That is the first key to success as an orchestra. A chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Now we get to the real work of developing musicianship, artistry, technique, repertoire, and a commitment to the goals at hand. I will enjoy the journey!
As I read this today, I certainly still agree with every word of this brief essay. But, in 2022, we should also be seeing seating, particularly in the classroom, through a new lens. How does your ensemble seating look when seen through a racial equity and inclusion lens? How does it look when seen through a gender equity and inclusion lens. Frankly, that would not have crossed my mind in 2008. But, if the actual seat of player really doesn't matter, as I said in 2008, then what are we telling the student who is always in the back of the section about their value and worth? Or, better said, what are they perceiving we are saying to them? I tend to rotate seating much more than I did 12 or 13 years ago. I try to be conscious of unintended statements seating may be making about my students. I also try to pair up students in creative ways which help everyone succeed in the long run. There is no "right" answer here. But there is plenty of room for self-reflection and sensitive deliberation when making seating decisions.
I have conducted a few honors groups in the past few months as we are just getting ramped up again post-covid. I have noticed a great deal of discussion about a new and different level of nerves in seating auditions. In fact, it was the topic of conversation just last weekend at the NCMEA Eastern Regional Orchestra Festival. Our kids have become used to the comfort of the video audition and playing by themselves in a live setting is more foreign that it used to be. It is time for us to start getting back to those live auditions. There is value in feeling those butterflies in the stomach and maybe even making a few mistakes in the audition room. Life doesn't end with a bad audition. We simply learn about where we need to grow. These are good lessons!
In the end, I still love the analogy of a snapshot. We recently had some family photos taken and in most of them, the wind had blown my hair into an odd place. I absolutely hate when my bangs go straight down. They should be combed to the side to look "right." Only in the last 3 shots, after I had taken a look at the photos, did my hair look right to me. Oh well...not the greatest look, but at their core, the photos still look like me. My wife claims she really didn't even notice. I know I did. But, I still can live with the photos. And, there will always be another chance!