Welcome to another Flute Friday. Posting on time this week!
One of the realities of being a classical musician is that in order perform in a group, compete as a soloist, apply to college as a music major or simply participate as a performer at a masterclass there is often some type of required audition. The audition process varies widely from group to group and even event to event but the preparation necessary to face such a task often remains the same. I am not simply talking about practice. Practice is a given. I am referring to how we approach our preparation both intellectually (strategic practicing), mentally (stop freaking out!) as well as physically (beware of overdoing it). I have auditioned for a number of groups and competitions over the years. I have won auditions, lost auditions and others I have only barely placed as “mediocre.” What I have gained with each new experience is a new perspective regarding what worked, what did not, how I play under pressure and what I can do in the future to improve my auditioning skills. With Solo and Ensemble season drawing near and Summer Masterclass season following close behind, I hope these tips will be useful to all of those who may be auditioning for various groups and competitions or whose students may be facing auditions of their own. The key to auditioning is to learn from your experience no matter how “good” or “bad” and play the best you can under every circumstance.
- Plan Your Practice Schedule Weeks or Even Months In Advance. I realize that this is easier said than done but the best approach for achieving any goal is to plan ahead. Break daunting tasks (such as memorizing the opening movement of a concerto or learning a long list of piccolo excerpts that you have never played before) into smaller bite-sized pieces that you can work on each day. For example, if you worked on learning, sharpening and memorizing 5 orchestral excerpts per week for an audition list that included 20 excerpts, in 1 month you would have the entire list perfected and ready perform from memory. Leave 2-3 extra weeks before the audition to hold mock auditions before your friends, family and colleagues and you will be more than ready for your audition. The same goes for memorizing a piece of music. Devote 3 months, for example, to memorizing a 3 movement work. A reasonable memorization schedule for a typical concerto may look something like this:
Month 1, Week 1 memorize the exposition of the opening movement.
Month 1, Week 2 memorize the development section of the opening movement.
Month 1, Week 3 memorize the recapitulation and coda of the opening movement.
Month 1, Week 4 practice opening movement from memory start to finish. Fill in any missing memory gaps.
Month 2, Week 1 memorize the exposition of the 2nd movement.
Month 2, Week 2 memorize the development section of the 2nd movement.
Month 2, Week 3 memorize the recapitulation and coda of the 2nd movement.
Month 2, Week 4 practice 2nd movement from memory start to finish. Fill in any missing memory gaps.
Month 3, Week 1 memorize the exposition of the 3rd movement.
Month 3, Week 2 memorize the development section of the 3rd movement.
Month 3, Week 3 memorize the recapitulation and coda of the 3rd movement.
Month 3, Week 4 practice 3rd movement from memory start to finish. Fill in any missing memory gaps.
Of course if you are more advanced you may convert months into weeks to memorize (or rememorize) 1 new piece each month! #presentgoals
You do not need any specialized app or excel spreadsheet to make your practice plan – a simple pen and paper will do but it is important to have some sort of skeletal plan in place before you jump into preparing for your audition. I have experienced a number of what some musicians refer to as “11th hour auditions” where practicing was left until the very last minute. You do yourself an injustice whenever your perform an audition that is not truly representative of your best playing. Careful yet patient planning is the best way to create performances that will win over the harshest of critics and help you to become a better musician.
- If your audition material includes orchestral excerpts, make sure you understand how your solo fits into the musical texture. This requires listening to your music and following along with a complete score. Orchestra (and band) conductors want to make sure you know how to listen to other instruments rather than just your own part and that you understand what your role is within the larger picture. The flute solo in the 3rd movement of Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis, for example, may appear to be the star with its summersaulting rhythmic meanderings however it is actually an accompaniment to the melody played by the horn. The solo in the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony is accompanied by the strings and requires the flutist to keep a very strict, reliable tempo throughout the solo while remaining, pardon the pun, the “hero” of the music. Modern technology has made finding both a score and recording quite simple with sites such as YouTube and Imslp. Listen to your music and understand the role that your line plays in the symphony.
- Host mock auditions in front of your family, friends and colleagues. I always like to torture my husband with a mock audition whenever I am very nervous about an upcoming orchestra audition because playing for him terrifies me the most. If you have younger brothers and sisters, they may even find this process fun! Set up the living room the way the stage will be set up on the day of your audition. Perform your piece(s) in front of your family using a SmartMusic accompaniment (to practice your cues) or have them randomly select orchestral excerpts for you to play on demand. If you know that your audition will take place behind a screen, set up a curtain or create a barricade between your family of judges and your performance space. I once even asked my student to perform in the hallway slightly down the hall from my office while I shouted instructions to her from my desk. If you are in a school flute studio or perform regularly with a flute choir, request to hold a mock audition during the next group masterclass or meeting. It is quite unnerving to perform for other flutists and mock auditions are great opportunities to work out those insecurities.
- Record yourself. When you are listening to your own performance, you must listen with a critical ear. How can you improve this performance? What are your tendencies when you are nervous? Are you rushing? Are you dragging? How are your dynamics? How is your pitch (especially in the high register)? Can you make your vibrato sparkle a bit more? Are you using too much vibrato? Is your sound muffled in the middle register? If you are preparing for an orchestra audition, select random excerpts out of a hat or a ziplock bag, place them in the progression that you will play them and hit “record” (essentially hosting a mock audition for yourself). I like to tell my students that recordings are like mirrors for our ears. Use them wisely and they will show you elements of your playing that you did not even realize were there.
- Practice Sight Reading. Sight reading is the little “gotcha” that many conductors like to tack on to the end of an audition and it is an element of performance that catches most of us off guard. A great way to practice sight reading is purchase a new etude book (preferably one that you have never worked on before), select a page at random and record yourself sight reading. Having a recording device recreates the pressure of an audition environment. Remember the golden rules of sight reading – 1. Scan the key and time signatures, 2. Determine the tempo, 3. Search for obstacles such as crazy runs, difficult rhythms, key or time changes or strange articulations, and 4. DON’T STOP no matter what happens. The show must go on.
- Research and practice relaxation exercises to properly confront performance anxiety. You will get nervous. Even the best of us often crumble under fear and anxiety. Prevention is key. I have discussed many exercises on this very blog to deal with stage fright but you may want to take a few Alexander Technique lessons, practice daily meditation, make friends with bananas (bananas contain natural beta blockers which relieve some of the symptoms associated with anxiety) and purchase a breathing bag (simply breathing in and out using a breathing bag relaxes muscles and properly distributes oxygen to the body when breathing is otherwise shallow). A simple phrase to remember is think “up and forward” from the top of your head. This will help to properly align your head, neck and shoulders allowing you to breathe freely and retain muscular support. Research these techniques in advance and have a game plan on the day of your audition. Accept your nerves as a sign that creating music has profound psychological meaning to you and confront them using practical and easy to remember tricks.
- On the day of your audition, HYDRATE. Dry mouth is devastating for a wind player during an audition. It is difficult to breathe, difficult to control air support and difficult sustain longer phrases. Tone suffers. Techniques suffers. Focus suffers. Hydrate constantly from the time you wake up until after your performance. This seems obvious but it is fairly easy to forget these basic necessities under extreme pressure.
- Remember this mantra: “Early is on time. On time is late and late is unacceptable.” Make every effort to be at your audition site early and warmed up on time. Audition committees have very little patience for musicians that disrespect their time and it is simply unprofessional to ever be late to an interview or audition. Don’t give your committee a silly excuse to cut you from the first round prematurely.
- No matter what happens, play your best. If you make a mistake, channel Princess Elsa and Let it Go! Let it Go! Do not let silly lapses early in your audition derail your entire performance. Focus and play the best you can at the present moment.
- Learn from your experience no matter the outcome. Even if you win the audition take some time to reflect on ways you can improve in the future. When did you feel the most vulnerable during your audition? Was it during the sight reading ? Did you take breaths in places you did not anticipate? Did you rush particular runs? How can you correct this for future auditions? I do not recommend reliving your mistakes over and over again – simply think critically about different approaches you may take in the future and new ways to think about old problems.
Finally….. do not let a failed audition lead you to fear future auditions. Think of auditions simply as job interviews. Only 1 person can win the job. If it is not you than it is not meant to be but there are other opportunities waiting to be explored that may better fit your interest and expertise. Continue to learn and grow as a musician with every new audition. There is no such thing as a perfect musician but there plenty of musicians that achieve their goals using perfect planning. You can be one of them too!
How do you prepare for an audition? Do you have a good story of a audition that went exceptionally well? Exceptionally bad? What did you learn from your experiences? Please comment below!