Meredith Snow’s article on implicit bias is a wonderfully informative read. It was her reference to the McGurk Effect that got me thinking about the way humans perceive musical performance and the way we orchestra musicians respond to visual conducting gestures. I have often said that audiences listen as much with their eyes as with their ears, and that our stage demeanor influences how they “hear” the performance; a study from 2013 (link below) speaks to this intriguingly.
My own thoughts on how sight influences orchestral musicians stem from the observation that, for many musicians, a visual gesture may supersede the sound of the music as the arbiter of when to play. Ceding to the visual, instead of what we’re hearing, results far too often (daily, as a matter of fact…at every rehearsal and every concert), in less than optimal ensemble. Lip service is often given to the notion that an orchestra is just a big chamber ensemble, and that we should listen and play together according to the tenets of chamber music. But few baton-wielders conduct in a manner that reinforces that sensibility. Gestures/motions come too early, whether out of intent or ineptness, or perfunctory timekeeping, and encourage the visually-distractable to play ahead of those who are actually listening. The problem is exacerbated by conductors who angrily demand, “play with the stick!” Something related to the McGurk Effect is at play here, too.
Regarding the phenomenon of how humans perceive musical performance, I am providing a link to an eye-opening Harvard study, published in the Harvard Gazette in 2013:
“In a study by Harvard graduate Chia-Jung Tsay, nearly all participants—including highly trained musicians—were better able to identify the winners of classical music competitions by watching silent video clips than by listening to audio recordings. ‘In this case,’ says Tsay, ‘it suggests that the visual trumps the audio, even in a setting where audio information should matter much more.’”
For our music-making there should be more than meets the eye. There is no denying that what we see influences what and how we hear, but I believe that any orchestra musician worthy of the job must be able to reconcile what they see with what they hear, and not fall prey to “The McGurk Effect”. The ability to hear through the visual distractions from the podium is one of the extraordinary demands of the work, and crucial to attaining the finest ensemble.
Retired Boston Symphony Orchestra bassist
The litigation between Elizabeth Rowe and the Boston symphony has now been settled, and I am very grateful that my peers have been patient and supportive of their colleagues—most particularly, of course, of Elizabeth, who has earned that support every day, the last 14 years.
As trying as the litigation has has been for everyone, the controversy surrounding it dovetails with what has been an ever-growing concern of mine—that of whether orchestra auditions, in the modern era, have been “open”. It may also provide us with a teachable moment. I have begun to read a great deal in the national press about how the issue of equality in hiring is handled in our profession, replete with statistics. Great concern has been expressed for having a level playing field. We are now, officially, under the microscope of the national media, and the consequences of that are not yet clear.
It may be wise for both employers and musicians to review and even standardize, on a national level, what “open” means. We need to avoid any sign that we are running auditions in the US to maintain a special status as a privileged club (and here I intend no disrespect to the BSO, whose auditions, I firmly believe, are already “open”). Newcomers of all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds must be welcomed as applicants and potential future colleagues.
So what does “open” mean, at least to me?
- To allow a competent player a live hearing is critical, even though the sheer number of competent, trained musicians is overwhelming, of course.
- When a player is playing a preliminary audition, that preliminary should be run in a way that clearly gives the benefit of the doubt to the player. Rather than eliminating someone in an early round with many positive qualities who has uttered one questionable note, we are admonished in Boston to err on the side of giving that person a chance to play again.
- An ongoing problem is that of prelims yielding very low totals of players, and later rounds containing relatively high numbers of invitees. The result is an environment where players listening are looking forward to “the real audition” or “the real applicants”. If one advances 5% or less of auditionees from a first to a second round, it results in a totally random selection.
- Despite the difficulties during the transitional period to a new hire from a retiring player or one who has been released, with or without tenure, orchestras must be careful not to create “realities on the ground”. Too many national auditions in recent years have had obvious orientation towards players who, by invitation rather than audition, have had the inestimable advantage of being a familiar colleague to panels, rather than an anonymous peer—worthy of consideration, but not of advantage in the process.
- A critical element in auditions is closely regulating discussion, particularly in the presence of a Music Director, avoiding identifying language which might bias members of the panel towards a particular, known candidate. However, there are other reasons that discussion can get out of hand—for instance, explaining to the uninitiated the virtues or weaknesses of particular schools of playing, either specific conservatories or national schools of playing. The playing itself should show the merits or faults of the player.
- Finally, we may have arrived at a moment where it is necessary to propose that all orchestras maintain the screen through the entirety of an audition. We must avoid the slightest appearance of impropriety.
I am terribly worried that the public debate will begin to exert irresistible pressure on employers in our field to guarantee outcomes that are at odds with hiring the most artistically qualified.
Furthermore, it has been a very important part of my career to train young musicians. I have never seen the level of despair present in the conservatory and university trained population. They feel, justifiably, that they have never had less of a chance to be heard fairly. That is a cancer for the orchestral world. We are already facing great financial trials and decreasing number of jobs that pay a middle class living with solid benefits and pensions. How can we get in a pulpit about the nobility of our artistic strivings when we are showing less than full sympathy and due consideration to the youngest and least experienced amongst us? We may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to litigation against our employers, and that is a terrible waste of our industry’s resources.
Principal Oboe, Boston Symphony; Faculty, New England Conservatory, Boston University
Note: An earlier version of Mr. Ferrillo’s letter previously appeared on Slipped Disc (slippeddisc.com).
The editor welcomes letters discussing topics raised in the pages of Senza Sordino, reserving the right not to print such letters, or to edit them for length or propriety.