This post is written by Benjamin Fairfield, Principal Trumpet of the Abilene Philharmonic and Co-Principal Trumpet of the Midland-Odessa Symphony. He currently lives in Dallas, TX and was previously a member of The United States Continental Army Band at Ft. Monroe, VA. He holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree from James Madison University, and Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees from the University of Miami Frost School of Music. For more information, visit www.benjaminfairfield.com.
Auditions can be the cause of an undue amount of stress for many musicians. To others, they appear as a necessary evil but surely the audition winner must possess some form of musical magic. The mere mention of the word sends still other musicians running away in terror. The key to successfully navigating the audition process and emerging as the winner? Preparation, preparation, and preparation. It also helps to be familiar with the entire process, start to finish, so that you remain calm and relaxed throughout. The more auditions you take, the more familiar you become with how to win. Early on, this will involve failure. Necessary failure. Do not let that be a deterrent. Everyone else is going through or has already gone through the same process. Very few people are successful at their first (or even second or third and beyond) audition. It’s a nerve-wracking process that takes some trial and error to get right. Below, I will outline some of my own personal “process” that was recently successful at two straight orchestral auditions.
There is simply no substitute for proper preparation. Everyone invited to and attending the audition can play the instrument at a very high level. The audition winner will be the person who is the most prepared to win. Sounds simple, right? It is. On paper. In actuality, we need to look at what proper preparationmight mean in order to determine how to be successful.
Once the audition list is posted or sent to you, compile the excerpts in a notebook in the order in which they are listed. If at all possible, compile complete parts for each of the pieces, not just the excerpts. By learning the complete part instead of just a small excerpt, you are showing yourself (and your listeners, the audition committee) the proper musical context for each of the required excerpts. As the former Principal Trumpet player of the New York Philharmonic, Philip Smith says, “Don’t be a lick-learner.” By that he means, learn the part, not just a small sample from that part. Another important step in learning the music and not just the notes of the part involves compiling scores for each of the pieces on the list. Listening to the pieces while studying the full score provides further musical context and understanding of the excerpts, which will show in your playing during the audition.
An often-overlooked step in audition preparation is allowing enough time to live with the excerpts for a while. It’s never a good idea to “cram” for an audition. Your rushed preparation will surely be exposed during the audition. By allowing yourself enough time to digest the music, you are able to make subtle changes to your approach or performance of various excerpts. If nothing else, the extended time teaches you a flexible approach to learning the excerpts, which will be a much-needed tool at the audition itself.
The audition winner will have no weaknesses in his/her playing. Audition lists are chosen to show many different aspects of performance and the eventual winner will not have any weaknesses. In most cases, eventually, as auditions proceed to the second and subsequent rounds, weaknesses in many performers are exposed by one excerpt or another and they are eliminated from contention to win. Don’t let this be you! What does it take to have no weaknesses in your playing? Consistent effort. Sustained, everyday excellence. Practice slowly! Dive into every small detail of each excerpt and make it perfect. Over and over and over again. Constant, correct repetition is the key. You want a good, resonant sound at all times on every note, no matter the duration. Your sixteenth notes must ring as well as your whole notes. There is nothing unimportant about your sound. Above all else, your sound must remain resonant, with the appropriate style and color for each excerpt. You must also possess good intonation. Understand what you are playing. Is this a scale? Is this an arpeggio? What should I do with this particular note to show the committee I understand that at this point in the music, I am playing the third of the chord? All these questions and many more must be answered long before audition day. Leave no stone unturned. Your preparation will most definitely show during your audition. You have to play with rhythmic integrity at all times. This does not simply mean to play with good rhythm, which is obviously a must for any audition. This means that in addition to solid time and correct rhythmic values, you must also play with rhythmic integrity, showing the committee that your time and rhythms are not only correct but very musical and that you can be relied upon at all times to be someone who correctly fits your part into the overall musical structure. In addition, you want to show you understand the correct style for each of the excerpts performed. Don’t be afraid to change the way you practice each excerpt, even inventing new ways to practice the excerpts (slur, change placement of accents, vary the articulation patterns, etc..). This way, you may gain a new perspective on old material while also learning to be flexible.
As you can see, preparation involves far more than simply learning the notes of the excerpts. Now that our preparation is done, it’s time to move on to audition day. Ask ten performers what their audition day routine consists of and you are likely to get ten very different answers. There is no right way or wrong way to approach an audition day. It’s simply a matter of personal choice as far as what works for you. This is where experience plays more of a factor than anything else. The more auditions you take, the more comfortable you will get with the process and begin to develop your own audition day routine. The following are samples as to what some my audition day routine looks like and some universal guidelines.
During the audition, stay as relaxed as possible. Any tension created will most definitely show in your playing and you want to avoid that at all costs. I generally take headphones to listen to music throughout the audition day. This is especially important if you are placed in a large warm up or holding room where many performers will be warming up or performing the excerpts. I do not want to listen to what other people are doing on audition day. I want to be concerned only with what I am doing and how I am approaching the music based on my preparation. What others are playing, whether it is good or bad or indifferent, correct or incorrect should be of no concern to you at that moment. Focus on yourself and what you can control. As I generally tend to overplay in the warm up room when I am a bit nervous (a lesson learned the hard way through many auditions), I like to distract myself and relax by putting on headphones to tune out the other auditionees. What you listen to on those headphones is completely up to you. It could be someone whose sound you admire performing the excerpts. It could be your favorite recording of the pieces on the list. Or it could be something completely different altogether to help you relax and focus your mind.
When going through the audition day, be confident and not just while you are playing. Approach the day with a sense of confidence and have great trust and faith in your preparation. Now is not the time to doubt yourself and your ability to play the excerpts. Pick out a simple phrase (one that you actually believe) that can be repeated. For me it was, “This is MY job!” (I said it out loud to myself in the warm up room at both recent audition wins). One final tip. You are not at the audition to socialize until AFTER the audition is over. You will see friends and colleagues at the audition and many of them you will not have seen in quite some time. Approach the audition as a business trip. Do your socializing after the work is over. You certainly don’t have to be overly cold to your colleagues before the audition but it should be clear that you are there for one thing only and until the playing portion of the audition has concluded, your sole focus needs to be on presenting as solid a musical product as you are able.
When playing the audition, remember, it’s about the music, not about you! You’re getting a chance to play some of the greatest music in the world on a beautiful concert stage. Enjoy it! Communicate your musical message, don’t focus on technical details. Present a convincing musical product. It needs to be technically proficient yes, but it does not necessarily need to be perfect. Of course you want to be accurate but not at the expense of your musical product. Take some (pre-calculated) risks while playing. This is your chance to show the committee why they should advance you to the next round and ultimately, hire you as a colleague. Don’t be safe and boring in your interpretation. That being said, don’t stray too far outside the acceptable box for each particular excerpt. If you sound good and the committee wants to hear something different in your interpretation of an excerpt, they may ask you to play something again. This is a good thing! DO NOT PANIC! They are interested enough in your playing to want to hear more and want to see how flexible you can be under pressure. Show them! This is not the time to get into your own head thinking, “Well they didn’t like how I played that…” Yes, they did. They liked it enough to ask you to do it again but perhaps a bit differently. They wouldn’t waste their time if they weren’t interested in your playing. There are LOTS of people to hear throughout the day. While we’re talking about your thoughts, remember…it’s not up to you what the committee thinks of your playing. Don’t fill your head with thoughts of, “I wonder if they liked how I played X, or Y.” Your job is to perform. Their job is to evaluate. It’s difficult enough to be the performer in an audition situation. It’s impossible to simultaneously be the performer and the judge so don’t try it.