Meet the National Alliance for Audition Support
Johnia Stigall, Project Manager, National Alliance for Audition Support
For El Sistema students with aspirations to pursue music as a career, the idea of becoming a professional orchestral musician can seem daunting. It can be a tough, competitive journey, and for Black and Latinx musicians, who currently represent less than 5% of musicians in American orchestras, the journey can present challenges not readily understood or acknowledged by others in the field. To address these challenges, three organizations are working together to support musicians of color in achieving success.
This past April, the Sphinx Organization, New World Symphony, and the League of American Orchestras (representing 700 orchestras across the U.S.) announced the establishment of the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), an unprecedented effort to move the dial for diversity in orchestras. With the support of a four-year, $1.8M grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, along with additional financial and programmatic contributions from America’s orchestras, the NAAS works with Black and Latinx musicians to develop their audition skills and increase their participation in auditions, and, ultimately, to increase Black and Latinx representation in orchestras.
Through research and years of discussions with musicians, administrators, and other stakeholders, the NAAS has identified four areas of need commonly expressed by Black and Latinx orchestral musicians to address through this initiative:
1. Mentorship. In the same way that it can be challenging to spot a musician of color at any professional orchestra performance, it can be difficult for pre- and early-professional Black and Latinx musicians to seek out established musicians as mentors who can identify with or understand the intricacies of navigating an orchestral career as a musician of color. The NAAS’s extensive network of musicians and industry leaders allows for countless possibilities to support each musician’s needs and career goals through mentorship and coaching.
2. Audition Training. A surprisingly common observation we’ve heard from musicians across all career stages is that many learn the professional audition process through trial and error, but few were ever trained in auditioning as a career skill. To increase audition readiness for Black and Latinx musicians, NAAS Audition Intensives hosted by the New World Symphony provide three days of audition preparation training, with mock auditions, lessons with orchestral musicians and teachers of orchestral playing, and optimal performance training with a performance psychologist. The inaugural Audition Intensive took place in June 2018 with 18 Black and Latinx violinists, violists, and cellists ranging from conservatory undergraduates to tenured professionals seeking to advance their careers. We’re planning more intensives for Black and Latinx woodwind and brass players.
3. Financial Support. Taking a professional audition in which the musician might play just a few notes can easily cost over $1,000 in travel, housing, and missed work. Thinking about financial sacrifices to take an audition can sometimes be as stressful as the audition itself. To remove the financial barrier to participating in auditions, the NAAS provides Black and Latinx musicians with grants to cover audition expenses, instrument-related needs, and expenses incurred while performing as a substitute musician.
4. Audition Previews. The Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions (SOPA) take place during the annual SphinxConnect conference in Detroit, MI. Musicians play a mock audition for representatives from orchestras interested in advancing diversity in their institutions through access to and engagement with a qualified pool of musicians of color. The process simulates a professional audition experience as closely as possible, but unlike a real-life audition, musicians receive an audio recording of their audition, written feedback from the orchestra representatives, and participate in a talk-back session to discuss the audition process. Following the SOPA auditions, many musicians are contacted by participating orchestras for future job and performance opportunities.
We look forward to working with El Sistema programs toward our shared goals of empowering musicians of color from all backgrounds to reach their full potentials. Learn more about the NAAS here.