This morning I am serving on the committee that will decide who the KSO's next principal 2nd violinist will be. (Nobody is leaving at the end of this season. Due to a musician returning after a leave of absence and the late resignation of our former principal second violinist, we're faced with shaking things up in the violin sections somewhat.) The road to landing a job with a symphony orchestra is a process unlike that in any other profession, and, in my opinion, has little to do with skills needed for the actual job.
At an audition, musicians generally draw lots to determine the order in which they will play. The committee hears candidates in rounds, listening to everyone in the first round and then eliminating more and more people in subsequent rounds until a winner is chosen. In early rounds great lengths are taken to make sure the identity of the candidates is kept anonymous. The committee sits behind a screen so that the musicians can be heard but the committee cannot see who is playing. If the musician has a question they ask the proctor who relays the information to the committee. In many orchestras candidates are disqualified for speaking directly to the committee or even coughing excessively during the screened rounds. Some orchestras even lay a carpet down so that it isn't possible for the committee to identify a man from a woman based on footsteps.
Why all the trouble? A few reasons. For a long time orchestras were made up entirely of white men. That era has passed, especially in the U.S., but the screen does help to eliminate any other bias that might pop up. The classical music world is a small one. The screen polices committee members from passing their friends on to future rounds or holding back people they don't like from advancing. It also serves as a privacy fence for candidates who may not wish to advertise they are shopping for a different job or who have a bad day and botch the audition. In the final round the screen comes down, we are allowed to speak with the finalists, and can see their resumes.
When the votes are in and the winner has been picked we have listened to the winning candidate play for a total of 20 to 30 minutes over the course of a day or two. The winner is the musician who managed to play the most perfectly that day. Sometimes they happen to be the best musician present at the audition and sometimes they aren't. Most of the time we get lucky and they fit nicely within the section but sometimes they don't.
My biggest beef with the audition process is that it doesn't test how someone will do in the thick of the orchestra. Sure they can play Don Juan perfectly, but how do they do in the section? Can they blend? Are they prepared for rehearsal? Are they easy to get along with? How do they react to correction? Conversely, I fear that many players who would be great assets to any orchestra are eliminated far too easily because they simply do not audition well. Auditioning is a skill in itself that is very much separate from being able to fit into an orchestra. Some orchestras invite a few finalists to spend a week in residence rehearsing and performing, before making their final decision. This is helpful, but also quite expensive for the orchestra and it doesn't help the musicians who are eliminated early in the process.
The audition process as I described it is industry-wide and I don't see it changing any time soon. For now I'm just happy to be on the listening side of the screen.