Principles of Auditions - Part One: General Audition Philosophical Principles

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Auditions are a fact of life today in the classical music world. They are almost always required for getting orchestra jobs and into universities and festivals, yet are quite different than regular music playing. Therefore so it is an essential skill for successful classical players to master for a successful career.

I did a lot of auditioning over my career, and in the end took almost 100 auditions! I was fairly successful and won 10-20 percent of them, depending on how you count. Yet looking back on my auditioning days now I realize that I was not even close to my true optimal performance at almost any of my auditions. If I could go back and employ some some principles to preparation and auditioning that I understand now I believe I would have been super successful.

I realize also that I have done very little writing about the subject even though I have done so much thinking about it over the years. Please let me share some principles that hopefully will help you can find your dream gig in many fewer than 100 tries.

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, so this will be divided into three parts. Part One (today, and Week 27 of the Creativity Challenge) considers my general philosophy of auditions. Part Two considers preparation techniques and Part Three planning for the day of the audition and the performance itself.

These ideas will apply most directly to orchestral auditions but will also be directly applicable to university music students auditioning for summer festivals and the like. Also much here will be helpful for university auditions, and many of these principles can be adapted for other performance situations with great results.
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Part One: General Audition Philosophical Principles
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1) Consider the entirety of your audition career and work on developing it overall instead of putting the focus on a specific audition.

A musical career is a process, not a single event, and so is an audition career. For the vast majority of us, we do not win our first audition for our lifetime job. Instead, we start small and over time develop the skills and experience required to land a long term gig.

Furthermore, it is impossible to win every audition no matter how good you are. For the top orchestras there are many qualified players at each audition and deciding between them comes down to taste and chemistry. No one is right for every orchestra. Therefore, approaching each audition as a step in an audition career is a better way to manage the often apparently unsuccessful results of individual auditions.

Even if you don’t win an audition, it can still be considered a successful step if you improve yourself or your playing in the preparation process, if you make progress in personal performance or, or if you learn significantly from the process. Every audition should be viewed from this perspective and as a step towards the greater goal of your career.

2) Make explicit multiple goals when deciding to undertake an audition.

When you decide to take an audition, consider all the ways you can benefit from an audition. There are many ways to get the most of an audition, win or lose. Here are some possible goals we could set for an audition:

A) To improve personal technique and musicianship significantly in the preparation process.
B) To gain experience in handling onstage performance pressure.
C) To have an enjoyable musical experience in preparation and performance.
D) To have a good goal to motivate towards and spur personal progress.
E) To make contacts and friends with other candidates and other people involved in the process.
F) To visit a new city and see the local sights and try the local cuisine.
G) To win the job.

The list could go on and on, but as we see there’s a lot of ways we can benefit from the audition process if we don’t get too obsessed with the win or lose aspect of it. If we only have one goal (of winning) then we set ourselves up for a negative experience. However, to take an audition and clearly get 6 out of 7 of the above goals must be considered a success when viewed from the overall career perspective. That success spurs further success including later total victories.

3) We must start with the right “why”.

In order to truly do well at any undertaking, having our “why” in order is necessary. When we walk out on that stage for our 5 minutes, we want to feel good about why we are there and why we went through what we went through to get there.

So why are you taking this audition? There’s a lot of answers that people give for this one, and they make a big difference. However I believe that all answers can be divided into two categories for the most part- external reasons and internal reasons.

Studies show that external motivation is less effective and less rewarding than internal motivation. So by this principle, if your goals are about other people and their judgements and reactions to you it will be less successful than if your goals are about your own internal improvement and success.

Some good internal motivations include learning, getting better, expressing yourself artistically and enjoying the musical experience of playing and of preparing these great works.

Some external motivations that will not work as well are being competitive with another player or players, trying to not lose, trying to look good in the professional community, pleasing the committee, or pleasing a teacher or parent.

When I was starting out, I took a lot of auditions “for the experience”. This turned out to be a pretty good idea. I made friends, played some good rounds, didn’t stress about it since my goals were not limited to winning and learned how to win or lose without scarring myself emotionally.

My favorite why and one that is an extremely successful outlook is “to enjoy playing music and to have fun onstage”. That puts our intentions in a great place and if we have fun so will the committee usually. When I managed this why when I walked out on stage I always played well.

Make sure you have a good why when you choose to take an audition. If you make a goal of bettering yourself through the experience, you can’t lose no matter what the committee decides. Be explicit and repetitive with this why to yourself so you remember it when it counts the most.

3) Playing winning auditions is all about making the committee feel a certain way, not playing technically perfectly.

Remember that the committee you are playing for is made up of potential colleagues. Therefore, they are listening to you trying to imagine sitting on stage playing with you. They want to feel good while they play, and so they need to feel good when you play the audition.

This has more to do with general feel for music and for style and feel of the excerpts than technical perfection. If your focus is on technique, then so will be theirs and any little slip up will be unsettling for them. If the focus is on the feeling of the music, them they will feel it better and they will excuse the inevitable little technical glitches because the feeling is right.

Excerpts are music! They are parts of great pieces of music, and played correctly for colleagues that know the music, your performance will let them hear the entire music in their minds. That is how to win auditions.

5) Be the best version of yourself!

It’s very important to strive to be your true self and express yourself artistically with honesty and clarity.  Trying to change your playing significantly to please a particular orchestra or sound like another player will not work. It’s dishonest. Remember you can only be the best version of yourself, not someone else.

It is a losing battle trying to guess what the committee will want you to sound like. You can get the recordings by that orchestra, but conductors and personnel change, and the style may be different than when they recorded it. Even if you guess correctly how to give them the style they are accustomed to it is even more difficult to do that during the tenure process, and even if you do, you get stuck playing in a different way than your artistic soul wants, and that is a prescription for an unhappy artistic career. Just be yourself, the best version you can be, and the right fit job will find you.

6) Preparation is much more important than performance.

By the time we walk onstage, our performance quality is more or less decided. However we prepare is generally how we will perform. In the next installment I will discuss preparation techniques and ways to put ourselves in the best position to perform well on the big day.

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