Picture of Nicole Martín Medina

Nicole Martín Medina

Gestora Cultural – Abogada/MBA


They are what they are: unfair and subjective

Audiciones de orquesta


This week’s topic is orchestra auditions. For non-experts, by orchestra auditions, we mean the process of selecting musicians for an orchestra. One might think that auditions are then on a par with job interviews for other professions, but nothing could be further from the truth. The auditions, with their particularities, are the path that every musician must follow if he or she wants to obtain one of the few places in a professional symphony orchestra. A path with very complex demands and extremely difficult to overcome. Consequently, much has been said and written on the subject. There are those who call the auditions not only unfair[1] and resistant to change[2], but also inhumane[3] and cruel[4]. This opens the debate whether the system of auditions is appropriate and suitable[5] for finding the right professional for each orchestra.

Some of my readers may wonder why I am writing about this subject, as I am neither a professional musician nor have I ever passed an orchestra audition in my life. My professional path has forced me to approach the subject from an organizational point of view. Moreover, as a lawyer, I always see things from a different angle. I would like to enrich this debate, which has been at a standstill for a very long time, with this article, but without claiming that what I express should be directly put into practice. What I will express here should, I believe, be discussed among all parties involved in a hearing.

I often think, from a philosophical-legal point of view, that we must come to terms with the imperfections of human beings and their methods of solving day-to-day problems. In other words, we must accept that human beings will never be objective or fair. It is not in their nature. Human beings, no matter how hard they try, will always be subjective and, therefore, unfair. So auditions, no matter how hard we try, will never be fair and objective, and neither is any selection process.

But let’s take it one step at a time.

Nicole Martín Medina - ORCHESTRA AUDITIONS


What are auditions generally like?

In general, we can say that the selection process of a musician consists of several phases, usually three. A first audition phase, usually behind a curtain or screen, in which the candidate is asked to perform a certain repertoire. After this, the best candidates go on to a second audition phase, which may or may not take place behind a curtain, depending on the orchestra. In this second phase, candidates are usually asked to play a pre-selected repertoire again, but sometimes they are offered a choice of several options. Finally, the person who passes the second phase enters a third phase, which is no longer an audition, but a limited trial period in the orchestra. At the end of this probationary period, a decision will be made whether to hire the candidate on a permanent basis.

There are orchestras that demand to play unknown works without prior rehearsal[6]. Others, on the other hand, ask applicants to play in a chamber ensemble[7], but none of these cases is the norm.

What all these situations have in common is that an extraordinary level of technical and artistic interpretation is demanded of the applicants, as well as an extraordinary emotional control, since in most cases only a few minutes are available to demonstrate talent and skills. The waste majority of candidates who participate in an audition are often excellent musicians, and in the end, the best one does not always win. And even if the best one wins, it does not guarantee that this musician is the right candidate for the vacant position.

According to the general opinion this[8]  is due, firstly, to statistical reasons, as sometimes hundreds of people compete for a single position, and secondly because the auditions do not consider the skills needed in an orchestra on a day-to-day basis[9]. In particular, an applicant’s ability to play and interact with the ensemble, so important to an orchestra, is rarely tested in an audition process. Rather, all candidates are required to have outstanding soloist skills, and this, especially in the tutti string positions, makes little sense if these are the very positions that demand musicians with expertise in ensemble integration and teamwork. 

What I, personally, find difficult to understand is becoming more and more frequent: that a musician who has worked with an orchestra for months – or even years – as a back-up or interim, cannot apply for the position he has occupied for so long because he is unable to pass the first round of auditions. The audition lasts only two minutes, and in that time it is not possible for them to overcome their stage nerves. Although these musicians are well known in the orchestra as good colleagues and musicians, this detail marks the life or death of a professional. 

For the interested reader who wants to go deeper into the subject, I refer to all the footnotes of this article.

Nicole Martín Medina - ORCHESTRA AUDITIONS


Some critical thoughts on the current system

The catalog of opinions exchanged among experts is really long, so I will only highlight a few.

People are arguing that the hearings are fair because they are usually held behind a curtain, thus avoiding any distinction based on gender, race, age or the like. In fact, the use of the curtain arose in the 1970s in the United States to send discriminatory decisions and ensure a diversity in the orchestra that represents society. However, from practice[10] we know that injustices are not completely excluded employing a curtain either. Manipulations are always possible.

As I have already mentioned above, there is criticism of the repertoire required in the auditions, as they are widely known and prepared works. This forces the applicant to achieve excellence as a soloist to win the audition, which seldom corresponds to the reality of a working day in an orchestra. This is why many musicians advocate the inclusion of works to be played at first sight in the auditions, at least from the second round onwards.

Every time an orchestra holds auditions, it faces a great logistical challenge. There are usually many candidates for a single place. Musicians from all over the world apply to compete for a much sought-after stable job. This means that the orchestra must, on the one hand, form the corresponding evaluation panels according to its employment agreements or internal regulations and, on the other hand, pre-select from among hundreds of people those who will finally be invited to audition.

The setting up of the evaluation panels alone is a huge administrative task due to the frequent need to make preliminary choices for the forming of the panels among the musicians of the orchestra and the musicians of the respective section to be auditioned. And let’s not forget the invitation to independent soloists from outside. Moreover, there will be the already mentioned large number of musicians invited to the audition, even though a selection has been made beforehand.

However, the organizers don’t really know until the day of the audition how many people will show up. The list of no-shows who do not show up in the end, even though they have confirmed their attendance, is very long. This makes it quite difficult to establish the shifts and schedules for each candidate, which is why a much criticized way of proceeding is mostly chosen: the candidates are called together at a certain time in the morning, and the exact order of performance is assigned by lottery. As a result, there will be candidates who will have to spend the whole day waiting for their turn to perform for two minutes at some point, without even having a private study room. Of course, this is not at all helpful from a psychological and emotional point of view.

It is often impossible to hold auditions financially speaking, since the auditions can last several days and during that time the members of the panels and, if necessary, the accompanying pianist has to be paid. Nor should we forget that not all orchestras have adequate facilities for an event such as a mass audition, which often means that a suitable space has to be rented to separate the candidates from the members of the panel in order to guarantee anonymity, and this, again, increases the cost.

Possibly, one of the biggest problems is, according to the orchestra and its internal regulations, the actual composition of the panels. Imagine that auditions for flute have been called and in the tribunal, after the selection process, the orchestra’s maestro, the general manager -who is not necessarily a musician-, a concertmaster, two flute soloists (one from the orchestra that called the auditions and one independent), a representative of the works’ committee (who can be an administrative or technical staff) and, in the remaining positions of members, viola, double bass, percussion players or, as I have said, people who are not even musicians. It is sometimes the case that, to continue with our example, a flutist is evaluated by 8 judges of whom only 2 are flutists. Isn’t it curious?

Finally, very few orchestras have established specific and detailed selection criteria that the tribunals must apply both in the pre-selection and in their voting on the day of the auditions. Almost always a pass-or-fail-vote is cast and that’s it. Personally, I find this procedure deeply unsatisfactory for a person who perhaps comes from a distant country and has spent a lot of money on tickets (some instruments have to pay for a ticket to be transported by plane), hotel accommodation, etc. All this only to be paid attention to for two minutes. This person, with his or her hopes and illusions, overcomes his or her insecurities and fears and faces the audition so that, in the end, we tell him or her nothing more than “suitable” or “not suitable”.

I know there will be readers of mine who would now like to kill me for writing this. It is not that I have not listened to their arguments, but I will always argue that we need to reflect on what we do and subject ourselves regularly to critical evaluation. I am not talking here about issuing legally motivated decisions, but they should be provided from a human point of view. It cannot be so difficult to tell candidates, at least succinctly, how to evaluate certain points such as intonation, articulation, rhythm, dynamics, accuracy, sound quality, sight-reading if any, or other factors have been evaluated by the panel. Maybe a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 could be used to grade each category and to calculate an overall result. In this way, the auditions would become, for the applicants at least, a real learning process from which they could take away some tips for further improvement.

As I said, this is only a small part of the points to consider and rethink. For those of you who are interested in some of the – allegedly real – barbarities that have occurred at orchestra auditions in the United States, I recommend Drew MacManus’ article[11], which I find really flabbergasting.

Nicole Martín Medina - ORCHESTRA AUDITIONS


Finding a fair selection system is impossible![12]

Admittedly, fear of change can be observed on both sides, on the side of the organizations and on the side of the musicians. The organization fears financial, legal or reputational consequences if it does not organize decent auditions. On the other hand, the musicians as a collective dread that, depending on the changes imposed, they may be harmed on an individual level. But in the world we live in, there will always be someone who loses out, no matter what decision we make. The balancing of the collective interest against the individual one (which is rarely satisfactory for everyone) is something normal for jurists. What is favorable for some is detrimental for others. In other words, human justice, as a universal concept, does not exist. A jurist who does not clearly understand this is stuck in the first year at law school.

I am not the only one who defends the idea that no selection process is fair or adequate. All of them are flawed in some way. Think, for example, of competitive examinations, traditional job interviews, skills-based interviews, assessment centers, intelligence tests, university exams, official language tests… Not even court rulings are guaranteed to be fair and correct. 

Each decision mechanism mentioned in the previous paragraph will have its advantages, but also its disadvantages, and many of them, in the end, have little to do with daily or work reality. We could define them as gimmicks from which we hope to obtain a result and that is, in the case of selection processes, to find the right candidate for the vacancies, but we all know how often we are wrong.

Democracy itself, as a political system in the vast majority of countries in the world, is anything but perfect, and it’s not only me saying that. Adela Cortina[13], with this suited surname[14], says that “democracy is the fairest and most positive political regime” of all. In other words, in the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been put to the test before”. And that could apply to the hearings as well[15]. We just have to come to terms with it and accept it. From this point on, we can look for ways to make the hearings as fair and appropriate as possible.

For this reason, I would like to launch the idea of equality in the sense in which we use it in law being applied to auditions. We generally understand that we are all equal and must all be treated equally, but this definition, which normal people tend to employ in their daily life, is neither correct nor complete. From a constitutional law’s perspective, we are all equal before the law, but the constitution itself tells us what is meant by equality.

The right to be treated equally applies to equal situations, so unequal situations can and should be treated unequally. In order that there might be no misunderstanding: not everything and not everyone indiscriminately should be treated equally! And I think this idea could help when discussing improvements in the audition system in orchestras. Based on these considerations, we can justify, for example, applying a different regime to a musician who has been in an orchestra for years and has proved his or her worth satisfactorily compared to any other candidate.

To reduce the arbitrary part in the discretionary decisions of the evaluation panels in the different rounds, I am thinking of the criteria of administrative law for public administrative acts with discretionary decisions and some ideas from the business world.

Of course, choosing a musician is something based on subjective decisions. It cannot be avoided; it is impossible to establish exclusively objective criteria. (You could say: “The candidate has played all the notes correctly”. That is an objectively measurable criterion, but such an argument is evidence of a huge lack of artistic knowledge and should therefore be discarded). However, within subjectivity or discretion there are margins that have to be met.

Firstly, it must be ruled out that the decision is arbitrary or based on an abuse of power or superiority. Furthermore, it must be an appropriate decision to achieve a certain end. Thirdly, the decision must also be necessary, which means that no means must be more harmful or detrimental than the decision taken. Finally, it has to be a proportional decision in the strict sense, which means that the right defended or recognized by the decision prevails over any rights denied by the decision.

I understand that at first glance it sounds very complicated, but these are terms that can be rephrased in the case of auditions and that, at least, prevent panels from doing whatever they want, to put it colloquially. I will perhaps explain in a new blog post how to do this.

Finally, I would like to add a few thoughts on the pre-selection of applicants which, once again, I borrow from the business world. It is not only for positions in an orchestra that hundreds of applications are received. The same is true for many positions in the private sector, both highly qualified and unskilled. However, no company would even think of calling up hundreds of applicants for a position as legal advisor, let alone in a single day.

There is a much more thorough pre-selection in companies, and I believe that this could improve the situation for musicians as well. To achieve this, video presentations are already being used in some orchestras, which I find rather interesting because not only the recording provides information about the candidate. Their summary of experience, if we know how to read and interpret it well, also offers a lot of useful information to narrow down the pool of applicants previously. This is something that would considerably facilitate the organization of the event and would save a great deal of financial, psychological and artistic effort for a large part of the applicants that most probably will not even be valued, simply because the members of the panel are also just human and have a limit of concentration per day.

In fact, there is a study included in Kathrin Ballmann’s PhD that shows how the members of a jury change their evaluation criteria when[16]  presented with the audition recordings after some time has passed. In other words, the reliability of the jury members’ judgement is very doubtful.

Obviously, if we reduce the group of invitees, we might miss a very interesting applicant, but I think that inviting fewer candidates and allowing them a little more time to show their talent is definitely fairer, even for those who are left out, as they save a lot of money, time and dashed hopes. Moreover, the current system also does not guarantee that the offered position will not become vacant and that the audition will have to be repeated. That is why I consider the idea of reducing the pool of invitees to be a good starting point.



Orchestra auditions are a very particular and special personnel selection process, with needs that are unique to symphony orchestras and cannot easily be compared to other selection processes. Nevertheless, it is a system that is resistant to any change or modernization, despite all the criticism it receives. That alone should give us pause for thought. And although it is not possible to apply the rules of any other selection process to the auditions directly, analogies can be drawn. We have to start somewhere.

And let’s not forget: there is no such thing as human justice, not even in auditions. Let’s be humble.


Nicole Martín Medina

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria,

January 2022

Originally Spanish, Translation DeepL/Revision NMM

[1] Sánchez, Carla (2015) on

[2] Helmut, Welscher and Bellmann, Kathrin (2020) on

[3] Haider, Ulrich (2015) on

[4] Woods, Kenneth (2012) on  and NMZ (2008) on

[5] González Portillo, Teresa (2016) on

[6] Play at first sight.

[7] There is a round played in a chamber formation required by the Deutsche Philharmonie and the Bremer Kammerphilharmonie; please have a look at

[8] González Portillo, Teresa (2016) on

[9] Helmut, Welscher y Bellmann, Kathrin (2020) on y Woods, Kenneth (2012) on y Haider, Ulrich (2015) on

[10] Woods, Kenneth (2012) on

[11] MecManus, Drew (2006) on

[12] Galdón, Miguel (2015) on

[13] Cortina, Adela (2021) on

[14] The Spanish surname Cortina means curtain.

[15]  MecManus, Drew (2006)  on

[16]  Helmut, Welscher and Bellmann, Kathrin (2020) on


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