Audition Tips by Brian Sands
Auditions are a part of life for musicians at every level, from beginner to professional. After completing many auditions with varying degrees of success and coaching many high school students through auditions, I have compiled the following interrelated thoughts on these musical trials.
1. Know your music
Almost every audition experience will involve a list of music from which you will be expected to perform. This can range the gamut from fundamental scales to etudes to excerpts to my least favorite – the piece composed specifically for that audition, made entirely out of common pitfalls and devoid of music. The more time you spend practicing the music, the better prepared you will be. While seemingly obvious, there are students who simply fail to put in time on the music. Certainly a clean and smooth performance is desirable, but making music out of the printed notes will be something that sets you above your peers. This is easily intended but tricky to accomplish. Past columns have approached concepts like phrasing and musicality; apply these to everything – even the most simple and boring of etudes! Musicianship will set you apart behind the screen.
2. Know your panel
In the average high school setting, the audition panel will begin and end with one person, your ensemble director. Auditions for all-area (all-county, all-state, or whatever political subdivision your region prefers) will likely be someone’s ensemble director or similarly knowledgeable music teaching professional. Knowing that your ensemble director will always be looking for certain things can put focus on your preparation. For example, the ensemble director at a local high school always, always, always asks for scales. Always. So when assisting a student in audition preparation, I pop quiz scales. Students who don’t have a mastery of scales won’t make first chair at their school. Scales are generally asked first on such auditions, so performing scales poorly creates a poor first impression, and your ensemble director may not be as receptive to a spectacular performance on the next portion of your audition. High school musicians will most likely see the ensemble director in front of the ensemble several times per week. If the director is spending a lot of time on one piece or working one section of a piece, you might be well advised to spend some practice time making sure you have that particular part together. If this is your first time auditioning with this person, you can ask around to get an idea of what the experience will be like.
3. Know yourself
Personally, I have endured dozens upon dozens of auditions through my career, ranging from high school seating auditions to job auditions. The most valuable thing I learned over the years is how I react to stress. Even after many auditions for ensemble seating, all-state and the like, I found that in my first audition for a job, my reaction was more intense than expected. My breathing went weak and shallow. I choked (figuratively). With that in mind, I made sure to acquire tools, mental and physical, to approach the next audition suitably prepared. How do you react to sudden scrutiny and pressure? The silence following “please begin” can be daunting. The usual reflex is to become tense, accompanied by shallow breathing and a rapid heartbeat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. I am sure no one reading this publication needs to be reminded of the negative consequences of shallow breathing on the low brass player. If you find yourself in the “hot seat” experiencing this issue, remember that the audition is your time. Take it. A moment spent taking a couple slow, calm breaths can reduce the tension and put you a better position for a successful result.
At the end of the day, an audition is just a small panel’s opinion of a small sample of your performing ability. Very few musicians make it through life without a disappointing audition. So even if things do not turn out in your favor, keep perspective and try to learn something from the experience. Maybe you will learn something about yourself that will make for a better likelihood of success the next time around.
Brian Sands is a professional tuba player in Washington D. C. He also teaches middle school and high school students in northern Virginia.