PEDAGOGY SECTION: Tips for Tuba, Volume VIII C
by David Porter
“aarp – teacher reality check”
Having been blessed over the years to have students place or win in solo competitions and mock auditions, preparing young students for auditions is a regular part of life. Contrary to many adult music positions, students can count on being in a state of flux because of bi-annual chair auditions, playing tests and chair challenges along with the outside attractions of regional competitions, community youth ensemble auditions, and ITEC regional, national and international competitions. Because they are auditioning two to four times a year, about 50% of our total lesson time is spent on audition or test material. There are already many preparation guidelines and advice materials available for auditions. So, why would I be writing about auditions? Because for today’s young students, reality is a little different than college and professional level auditions and competitions. Let’s analyze some unique things about young students.
- They have to learn scales for most of their auditions. Yes—the building blocks of music that we sometimes put off when we are older. However, scales are one of the hardest things to play beautifully and will show quickly a musician’s true level of ability. Lastly, complete knowledge of scales lead to better sight reading, remembering key signatures, and recognizing patterns quickly.
- They audition with prepared material, not necessarily all excerpts (especially for band). High school ensemble directors do not always know ahead what they are playing. Standard excerpts may be too hard for sight-reading, and the directors want to see what a student will do with prepared material because high school and middle school ensemble performance music will usually be a lengthy prepared process.
- The students will have sight-reading. While in professional ensembles, sight-reading may be a small part of the audition, for young students, it is a large part of the audition and sometimes counts 35% of the score. Sight-reading gives ensemble directors an immediate idea of what they can expect from young students as a determining factor for difficulty of music to select and the time required for preparation.
While these three parts may be on other auditions as filler or additional items, for the young student, these parts are the main focus. Other variations include some excerpt, etude, and solo work. Let’s take a quick look at suggestions to enhance each part.
- My students are famous for trying to memorize scales by fingering pattern only (drives me crazy). Here are a few ideas to help them diversify their ability to apply the scales to their music.
- Have them memorize the scales academically. Be able to speak the note names and/or fingerings to you with out playing. Most ensemble directors have the means to teach this from their theory training. It is my personal belief that knowing and visualizing the scale will help the students play scales and their music quicker and more efficiently for years to come.
- Have them move their fingers through the scales without playing while looking at the notes. This eliminates the focus on the playing and keeps it momentarily on learning the notes with the fingerings.
- Have them play the scales looking and then not looking at the music. Use the whole step/half step relationship to help them. Use their ears to hear how the scale should go. Play along with them.
- Relate the scales to the key signatures and patterns in their ensemble music.
- Nowadays, many students receive a mandatory prepared piece from the ensemble directors. I personally am in favor of this for several reasons. It allows the directors to measure each student’s ability more accurately. It is convenient for the student and teacher to work on (instead of searching for etude excerpts suited to each student). The downside is that it will show the student’s weakness that may not apply to the prepared material actually being done in the ensemble. It also cuts out the customized music being picked for each student’s strengths. In either case, basically help the student to prepare the music like a solo performance, exaggerating the dynamics, showing accurate tempo and notes and yet allowing musical phrasing when possible.
- Sight-reading continues to be a major part of auditions. Young students do not like it, but I agree that it is necessary for training later in life. Here are some quick steps I use that might help. Key signature (think of the scale), time signature (top and bottom number meanings), scan for accidentals (notes marked different from the key signature), scan for key signature notes (notes that are part of the scale to key signature relationship), scan for rhythm intricacies (move fingers through these and most importantly—find where the downbeats are in the rhythms), move fingers through anything else if time permits, don’t stop after starting to play, and don’t forget to breathe!
So what else? Well, again being blessed this year to have one student in the ITEC Young Artist semi-finals and that student and another student accepted in the ITEC High School All-Star Ensemble, it was a challenging and fun year for audition preparation. I learned a few things. One must never underestimate what might happen on an audition. Both of my students surprised me. After placing as they did, I had some acceptance of audition responsibility preparation to figure out.
- Allow lots of lead-time. Search for audition material guidelines early and start training the students early. Play through the material with them. Give them lots of time to practice a few things at a time.
- Microphone placement and room are worth the effort. We spent some time scheduling a reverberant room for the recording and trying different mic placements. Sometimes moving the microphone a little for each student. It really paid off for the sound quality from the small recording device we were using.
- Be prepared to accept the challenges of helping a student who has done well. I realized that my schedule was actually so busy that I was concerned about having enough time to help my students. They had passed the taped first round for ITEC, but then needed a lot of help preparing for the live appearance. Because of school year commitments and some email miscommunications (high school students do not check email), we wound up with less than a month to prepare for the ITEC appearances. Needless to say, I was very busy as they were preparing, so I had them come to my house to practice for hours at a stretch. Then I knew they were practicing, and I could listen both closely and from a distance as I was doing things to prepare for my summer long travel (8 weeks) of Christian rock festivals, mission camps, and music camps. This was also good because young students can’t remember 100 things from lesson to lesson. With them at my house, I could tell them a correction and have them practice it right then while I worked. I did not charge them for the time, because I could not always sit there with them as they practiced. I took the view that if I am going to encourage them to enter auditions, then I need to be ready to help them at all costs to do well after their acceptance, especially when it involves family expense and travel.
- Make students do complete run-throughs early on. Young students today are almost incapable of going straight through without correcting themselves.
Amongst all of this, don’t forget young students have ensemble music to work on for a grade, chair auditions, homework, extracurricular activities, and family responsibilities. Whew! Yep, life as a teacher—gotta love it. Seeing young students come alive is worth the effort. Part of the coming alive is breathing. Although it goes unsaid in these articles, you can count on the fact during all audition work, we are planning our breathing and that I often say—don’t forget to breathe!
David Porter serves as Principal Tuba with The McLean Orchestra and performs as a member of the Camerata Brass Quintet. He is also faculty on The Masterworks Festival and Director of Youth and Youth Music at Fairlington United Methodist Church.