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UoB's Auditions Under Review

Epigram investigates the auditions process within the University's most respected societies.

By Grace Whillis, Second Year, Music

After a few stunted years, music societies across Bristol are finally seeing a resurgence to pre-Covid numbers and above. Bristol boasts a wide range of musical performance societies, but whether it be BUMS or Acapella, one thing remains the same, people have to audition. The concept is straightforward—some sight reading, a prepared piece, and a range test—a familiar ritual for musicians. However for some time there has been a discourse surrounding this process, evoking both admiration and criticism.

Ultimately the purpose of auditions is to curate the students with the highest level of talent and musicianship, a process needed to create groups as successful as Big Band Society’s ‘Hornstars’, or the University Symphony Orchestra. While the audition process may have its imperfections, representatives from numerous musical societies concur that viable alternatives are scarce. And it is not that students do not want the opportunity of these high-quality ensembles, so what is it people oppose?

A representative from Big Band Society highlighted the inherently intimidating nature of auditions can’t really be avoided, and just because auditions are a nerve-wracking environment, does not mean that the societies are at fault. Equally, handling an audition environment is akin to navigating high-pressure performance situations and if a student cannot cope well in an audition, they likely won’t face performance well either. Speaking to representatives from the Music Department, they also clarify that 'we want players who are going to be able to cope with the demands; a player who is out of their depth will have a miserable time,' which although sounds harsh, is ultimately true.

In addressing concerns of bias or disadvantage, it's essential to recognize that auditions, in themselves, are fair, with every student facing the same expectations. A representative from Symphonia tells us that 'The auditioned ensembles are naturally biased in their dimensions, so string players in particular get more opportunities to play in the orchestras. It's impossible to be completely fair in a society where musicians develop in entirely different settings.'

So this brings me to consider, can the societies be responsible for accommodating to the standard of musical education students receive before they come here? Only so much can be adapted, and whilst encouraging musical education is important, it is also not the responsibility of these musical performance societies to do that. The wealth of performance opportunities at Bristol also means that un-auditioned groups are popular in most musical societies, with the formation of BUMS un-auditioned Minerva Choir only a few years ago. If a student cannot maintain the standard of an auditioned group, that does not mean they are excluded from the un-auditioned ones.

The ability levels panels receive changes year on year, with a large proportion of complaints from students being of favour towards those who have performed in the ensembles in previous years. It is undeniable that this is a common phenomenon, but whether it is due to favouritism or just representative of that students talent is more of a blurred line. It isn’t a complaint that can be dismissed, but whether it is true or not is also hard to state. This complaint can be more clearly understood in considering Societies like Acapella where positions are permanent, and members do not have to reaudition. As students that leave the university each year hypothetically spaces should open up, but that is not something that can be guaranteed, potentially limiting opportunities for new talent.

It is understandable that being unsuccessful in an audition is not a nice feeling, and the contempt it creates undoubtedly fuels a large proportion of the discourse that occurs. But it is important to distinguish between dislike for the process, and whether the societies themselves are at fault for any upset. Speaking to a representative from Big Band, they remark that they 'don’t mind the range [in auditionee standard] because auditioning is a good experience regardless of outcome, and we are happy to provide that and give feedback.' So as cliché as it may sound, despite the daunting nature of auditions the panels are ultimately invested in each participant's success.

While the audition process may face criticism for its inherent intimidating nature, they are undeniably necessary. The issue of favouritism or the perceived advantage of previous ensemble experience raises questions, but it remains challenging to definitively establish. Nonetheless, the discourse surrounding auditions should differentiate between disapproval of the process and the responsibility of the societies for any discontent. Auditions, despite their nerve-wracking nature provide valuable experience, and remain pivotal to the success of musical groups across Bristol.

Featured Image: Weston M / Unsplash

What's your experience of auditioning for one of UoB's socities?