On Audition & Contest Preparation for Wind Instrument Performers (The Unwritten Rules) By Joseph D. Goble
After a number of years of studio teaching and observing students in different adjudication settings, it seems appropriate to revisit the topic of prepar ing for auditions and/or competitive performances. Typical problems observed include performing with unsupported tones, unmeasured ties, a tendency to slow the tempo for challenging passages while speeding up on simpler sections, and a general lack of musical style. Certainly the ability to play higher and faster is impressive, however, saying something musically must remain the ultimate objective in any performance. In short, whether auditioning for university admission, a talent grant, membership in an elite ensemble, playing for a jury, or competing in a local, regional, or inter national competition, many younger students do not appear to know by what criteria they are being judged.
Many of the skills required to achieve success can not be found written in any text, but are necessarily passed down from one generation to the next in the studio. One might refer to these skills as the unwritten rules of musical performance. By no means are the points brought out in this article intended to be the last word on the subject. Instead, it is the hope of this author that ideas presented will initiate further thought and discussion among both students and young teachers. Many suggestions may seem obvious to some, however, based upon the author’s observations, they are worth reiteration.
Musical achievement is a direct result of dues paid in the practice room. One cannot hope to be successful by cramming the night before. In this respect, musical performance is different than other curricular subjects, due in part to the muscular development and endurance required of each piece of music. Also, musical ideas often develop over time spent thoroughly learning a piece and mastering the skills required of it. Only then will the confidence involved in musical self-expression make itself evident in portraying the tension, release, and general nuance in musical line.
Tone Quality and Intonation
There is no substitute for having a good, consistent tone in all registers, first and foremost. In reality, without a rich, warm, round, and full sound, who would care to hear the performance? Since intonation is directly related to tone quality and the ability to blend with other instruments, it seems doubly important to be able to produce a characteristically full tone at all times, even in technical passages. Long tones, melodious etudes, and other lyrical works provide excellent training materials for tone development.
For wind players, breathing is critical in maintaining a full tone and playing in tune. Plot out breathing carefully and mark breaths with a pencil. Begin by identifying the musical ideas (phrases). Ideally, breaths should follow longer notes at the ends of phrases, however, there are exceptions, particularly with instruments that require more wind. In unusually long phrases, a breath at the end of a sentence may be necessary in order to maintain a full sound. In extended technical passages, look for wide skips or leaps as potential spots to breathe. With each breath, think the syllable “Oh” to open the throat and take in as much air as possible, then maintain that open feeling while playing. These larger breaths may seem unnatural at first, but should eventually become second nature. They would be more akin to breaths taken to swim the length of the pool under water than the average breath taken under less strenuous conditions. Have a back-up plan for breathing in case of nervousness in the performance. Mark these alternate spots as well, perhaps with a different shade of pencil.
When tuning before an audition or performance, use a chromatic tuner if the performance is to be unaccompanied. However, if an accompanist is required, it is important to tune with the piano to be used in the performance. Hearing the reference pitches from the piano is a bit different than from another wind instru ment. For that reason, the following four step procedure may work best:
1. Listen to the pitch.
2. Hum the pitch to yourself.
3. Play the pitch.
Repeat the steps as necessary until satisfied.
Just because the tuning note is in tune, there is no guarantee that all other notes on the instrument will be. Every student must spend time alone with an automatic chromatic tuner, discovering which notes are characteristically out of tune on his/her particular instrument, then developing a plan for adjusting on those notes. Being in tune is often arriving at the best compromise.
If vibrato is appropriate to the style of music being performed, use it in a subtle and judicious fashion. It should add to the warmth and beauty of tone instead of being a distraction. Rather than attempt ing vibrato on every note, start with the longer notes at cadence points. Choose the type of vibrato (breath, jaw, or hand) that best suits the instrument and desired effect. Decide in advance upon the speed of the fluctuations and whether they should be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Straighten the note back out toward the end to allow for a normal tapered release.
Strive for a clean attack at the beginning of each note. Speak the note clearly with no extraneous tongue noise or preliminary air noise. Generally, the most intense part of the note should be its beginning. Allow the style of the piece to dictate the proper articulation, “T” or “D” syllables. Follow through with an “oh” for low register notes, an “ah” for middle register notes, or an “ee” for upper register notes. Blow through each note, remem~ bering that every note has a beginning, middle, and end. Many students only concern themselves with hitting the right pitch. Certainly the way in which it is articulated, sustained, and released are of equal importance. Strive to make each note full and fat, even in rapid technical passages. Try not to hammer every single note in a rhythmic figure with your tongue. Instead, slightly emphasize or mark the notes that fall on the beat, then play the remaining notes on the rebound. This tends to give the line a sense of forward motion instead of causing it to bog down and sound sluggish. Noone wants to hear a performer labor through every sixteenth note, beating them to death. Stress accidentals that appear in important spots and/or on strong beats. Lean on them! Often, these color tones help establish a modulation to a different key center. A tapered release or lift on the final note of the phrase is just as important as a clean attack at the beginning.
Solo dynamics are at least one degree greater than ensemble dynamics. One goal should be to make the piece sound easy and this may be partially achieved by sounding confident as opposed to shy. Dynamics do tend to be a measure of confidence.
In general, try to avoid playing every~ thing at the same level. There is a time to be consistent, however making a differ~ ence is what makes music interesting. Rise or build intensity toward the highest note of each phrase, then fall away when appropriate, even though a crescendo or decrescendo mark may not be printed in the music. Also, sequences and repeated motives a step or a third higher should get louder as they build. Exhibit confidence when approaching any modulation to a new key to be convincing.
Do not always sit still on long notes. Go somewhere! Either build or decrease intensity, depending on the location of the note in the phrase. Work on both crescendo and decrescendo/diminuendo to achieve gradual increases and decreases in dynamics. Many students have a good conception of crescendo but neglect work on decreasing volume gradually.
Remember also that dynamics may need further adjustment for players of non-directional instruments such as the euphonium or tuba). When using a grand piano as accompaniment in the performance mance, the height of the lid may need adjustment, depending on the relationship of the accompaniment to the solo part, to bring the dynamics in the solo part to the right level. While rehearsing in the hall, ask someone whose opinion and judgment may be trusted to sit in the audience and listen for proper balance. The strongest, most convincing parts of any piece should be the beginning and the end. Hopefully, what comes between will prove to be meaningful as well, however, if one does not capture the attention of the listener in the opening, much of what follows will be lost. Certainly, a convincing ending leaves a positive memory in the mind of the listener and should go a long way in leaving a lasting impression.
Tempo and Rhythm
Speed is often NOT the objective. Rather than attempting a new speed record, concentrate on making a musical statement. Get into the piece! Allow emotions to surface and make musical self-expression the goal. Strive for a consistent tempo without slowing in difficult passages and rushing through easier sections. Practice with a metronome. Avoid rushing to the end of the phrase to catch the next breath. Count through ties and rests carefully, feeling each beat and fraction thereof. Do not guess! Feel each rest, especially those falling on the beat. Allow the appropriate amount of ilence to occur. Silence is as important a ound and tends to build suspense. Sixteenth nots are not always fast! Be assertive on scalar runs, but do not rush. Students should measure out each rhythm by counting carefully to themselves. Subdivide if necessary and practice with a metronome. Space in certain rhythmic figures (dotted eighth ~ sixteenth, eighth and two sixteenths) in some musical styles adds clarity and definition and is expect~ ed. Overdo rallentandi, ritardandi, and accellerandi for dramatic affect. Do not leave the listener wondering if the change was intended or an unmastered technical passage. Be convincing! If an accompanist is required of the music, remember to lead. The soloist sets the tempi and determines where and how much to accelerate or decrease speed.
Sight~Reading and Scales
Many students leave sight~reading to chance, however it is possible to prepare for this aspect of an audition as welL Incorporate sight~reading of anything and everything into the daily practice regime, remembering to: 1. Check the key signature. 2. Check the time signature. 3. Look for patterns. 4. Look for changes in key or time. S. Scan with your eyes. Don’t allow the eyes to fix on individual notes, but constantly look ahead. If scales are required, decide in advance what rhythmic pattern and tempo will be used. Articulate each note in a confident and measured fashion while building intensity during the ascent and decreasing intensity on the descent. In this manner, even scales may be played musically. It is always refreshing when a contestant demonstrates attention to detail and musicality.
Give some thought to the order in which you wish to play required selections at the performance. Since tone is the most important aspect of the performance, perhaps it would be best to get that established at the outset by performing a lyrical piece first, followed by more technical selections. If scales are required, save them for the end along with sight~ reading.
It is a good idea to play through prepared pieces for friends a day or two before the event. If a person can perform well in front of friends, it is often much easier to play well before strangers. Try to schedule a dress rehearsal/performance in the final stages of preparation. This will provide the opportunity to gauge how one may react under the stress and pressure of the real event.
Exciting performances result from being well prepared, well rested, and having a generally good selrimage. Along those lines, it is important to get plenty of sleep the night before the event. Shower and dress up for the performance. Appear~ ances mean a great deal to some, how~ ever, it is even more important for one’s own selresteem. Eat a good breakfast/ meal, but try to avoid milk before playing to eliminate the possibility of dry~mouth occurring during the performance. Should it happen, chew on the sides of the tongue during a rest to force the mouth to salivate.
Plan to arrive at the site with plenty of time to warm up. During the warm~up, cover all the bases; long tones, lip~slurs, tonguing, intervals, range, and scales. Be sure to warm up past the highest note required in the performance. Time the warm~up so that it occurs immediately before your scheduled performance with a little cool~down time remaining. Report to the performance space on time, meaning a minute or two early. Ignore the show~offs in the warm~up area and do not allow yourself to be psyched out by the person performing immediately before you. Do not wait in the hallway listening to the performer scheduled before you. Remember: no two individuals will interpret the same piece in exactly the same way.
Upon entering the performance area, smile and remain cordial to everyone. Face the audience or judge when perform~ ing. Once set to begin, take a couple of deep breaths to relax and hear yourself successfully playing the opening of the first piece with your inner voice. Keep a clear head and maintain focus and concentration throughout the piece. This may be the biggest challenge of public performance in itself. Forget about any mistakes that may occur and go on. Often, that first mistake will cause a performer who is a perfectionist to relax and enjoy the remainder of the performance.
At the completion of the last note, smile, bow, and acknowledge any applause and remember to recognize the accom~ panist. Even if it did not go as well as planned, do not shake your head and frown. Perhaps no one noticed! If well prepared, there were probably many aspects of the performance worthy of praise.
Experiences in performing, auditioning, and competing usually improve the more often one engages in the activity. Hang in there and have faith! Remember: the audience and/or judges are on your side and wish you well. Musical performances are much preferred over pyrotechnics. Perfection is nice, but not when it comes at the expense of musicality. Pay the dues in the practice room and take no short~ cuts. The music made is a reflection of the total individual.
About the Author
Joseph D. Goble is a veteran public school band director who currently teaches both privately and at Quincy University. Mr. Goble also serves as District One Chairperson for the Illinois Grade School Music Associa~ tion. His low~brass students have consistently placed well in both Illinois High School Association and Illinois Grade School Music Associa~ tion Solo & Ensemble Contests, Illinois Music Educators’ Association District and All~State, The Quincy Symphony Orchestra Young Artist Competition, The Quincy Community Concert Band Young Artist Competi~ tion, The Western Illinois University Symphonic Wind Ensemble Concerto Competition, The Falcone Inter~ national Tuba and Euphonium Competition, The International Tuba and Euphonium Association Young Artist Competition, The National Band Association Honor Band, and the Yamaha Young Artist Competition.