A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I would create a post with some thoughts about auditions. This season in public schools sees many auditions for district, regional, and all-state band and orchestra events. I have judged on audition screening committees for many years and have also sent hundreds, if not thousands, of students into auditions as part of their regular process in high school orchestra over the past 31 years. So, after a busy couple of weeks over the holidays, here are some of my tips and thoughts.
1. Always focus on accuracy.
Too many students get focused on learning a whole piece at tempo that includes hard passages. In other words, they look at the big picture too quickly. In reality, it is the details that matter: clear intonation, accurate rhythm, accurate style and technique, confident accurate fingering, appropriate bow technique. Adjudicators are looking for clean, accurate performances in auditions. Show that you have done the foundational practice.
2. Never stop practicing slowly.
This is an extension of accuracy. I recently spoke with a conductor from a major US symphony who told me that the top soloists in the world still review difficult passages slowly in their dressing rooms just prior to performances. Students tend to get a passage learned and up to tempo and never slow down again. Bad idea. Your brain has the opportunity to make all necessary neurological connections if you repeatedly practice fast passages slowly and methodically - even after you can play them fast. A good plan for fast passages is the following: 4 times slow - 1 time fast, 3 slow - 1 fast, 2 slow- 1 fast, 1 slow- 1 fast. Repeat. Every day. This promotes accuracy and clear intonation. I encourage students to do a very slow and careful run of difficult passages as their final bit of prep before going into the audition room.
3. Pay close attention to all markings in the written score and make the judge know that you have noticed them.
Judges are looking at a copy of the music. I would estimate that on average 80% of auditionees ignore all or at least a large percentage of dynamic markings. It is your job to make the judge notice that you have noticed them! Of course there are other markings as well. Look for martele' accents, staccato or legato markings, rallentando, stringendo, and others. I encourage students to practice their piece with an eye toward EVERY written mark in the score at least once a day. Emphasize wide dynamic swings and extremes. Don't let the judge think that you didn't know the marked dynamic.
4. An audition that is a few clicks slower and accurate is better than a few clicks faster and sloppy.
As a judge, I would always prefer to hear an audition a bit slower and clean over fast and sloppy. Again, I think that kids feel like they have to be at the tempo of a recording and feel like the tempo is the most important thing. Obviously clean AND fast is best. But, sloppy is never a good idea. and, sometimes just going a click slower can make you feel like you have extra time to think during the audition.
5. Tone quality matters.
Tone production should be an integral part of preparation for an audition. This would include bow use and technique. Focus on a beautiful sound in all phases of preparation. It sounds like a no brainer, but so often I hear students focus on passages and not on tone. Also, new strings a week or so before the audition might be a good idea. You would be surprised how many times I see/play student instruments with strings that are several years old. A new set of strings can do wonders for student tone. (By the way, don't change strings right before an audition - they may need a day or two to settle in.) By the way, rosin your bow! Tone is definitely impacted by rosin.
6. Find the shape of every line.
Those of you that know me won't be surprised by this. I want to hear direction of every line. Where is the line going? When does it arrive? When does it depart? The answers to these questions must be obvious to the judge. And, the student musician must have a vision for the direction of every line. This is what breathes life into a passage. This is what shows up in the "musicianship" score.
7. Judges are looking at your bow hold! (At least I am.)
Seems simple. But, I will bet that 80% of the students that I hear/see in an upcoming regional orchestra audition room will have a flat right thumb. It is that simple. An appropriate bow hold impacts tone and technique at every level. I can tell immediately if a student has a good bow hold.
8. In the audition, focus on your task at hand (your performance), not on the desired result.
Read the book "Choke," by Sian Beilock. It gives lots of great justification for this. If we let ourselves think of the desired result, (a high seat or getting into the group) our brains are distracted. Think of your brain as a CPU. There is only so much capacity for information. Use the capacity for the task at hand. Focus on the performance. Focus on all of the techniques that were solidified by your slow, thoughtful preparation. The results will take care of themselves.
9. Don't neglect scales and sight-reading.
In North Carolina, scales and sight-reading are 50% of your score. So many students do well on the solo and give points away on something as rudimentary as scales. Practice scales with a drone. Practice scales slowly, for true intonation. don't just play scales for the "right" fingering. Think tonal center at all times. Practice sight-reading daily. Have a routine: look for key, time signature, accidentals, shifts, time changes, etc. Don't give away potential points on scales and sight reading. https://practicesightreading.com/create.php http://thesightreadingproject.com/
10. When preparing your scales, focus on accuracy, not just on fingering .
See above. Practice scales with drones. Practice slowly. Pay attention to tonal center. Know them inside and out.
11. Practice your audition in front of anyone who will listen as much as possible.
You will play better in an audition if you are comfortable in new performing situations. So, practice new performing situations. Play for friends, relatives, friends of relatives, relatives of friends. Play for anyone who will listen. Try to create situations in which you are a little nervous. There is no substitute for experience.
12. Auditions are like photographs. Sometimes when we have our picture taken we look better than we should and other times we look worse than we should. Pictures (auditions) rarely provide an exact picture of your development. Think about it: in order to get one good set of 5 or 6 senior pictures, there might be 100 actual photos taken. We don't get a perfect photo every time and we don't get a perfect audition result every time. There are so many factors that come into play. Is it early or late in the audition day? Were there hundreds of auditions that day? Did you have a big lunch? Did you hear a really good audition right before you? A really bad one? The list goes on and on. I have seen so many students over react to a seating or placement as a result of a 3 minute audition over the years. Play the audition. Do your best. Let the judges create a seating or result and if you are disappointed, get over it fast. Use it as motivation for sure. But, don't let it ruin your day. It is rare that a seating in an orchestra is an exact representation of the quality of musicianship from chair 1 to chair 20. It gives a general idea of the picture you took on that day at that time for that judge. Period. Don't ever let a single audition be a litmus for your long term work and preparation.
So, these are my ideas today based on my years of experience. I hope you find it helpful. Please share this with your students and colleagues. And, most importantly, all you students: Good luck on your upcoming auditions. I hope this helps you to be just a little more prepared as you walk into that audition room. And, for those of you that want more perspective on performance and auditions, I really recommend that you reach Choke. It is a good read with lots of application to the audition and performance process.