Principles of Auditions - Part Two: The Preparation Process

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In this second installment of my audition series, and for Week 28 of the Creativity Challenge I would like to share some techniques and tips for preparing for orchestra auditions. For Part One which considers general audition philosophy please click here.

Quality preparation is key to any successful performance. Any good coach will tell you that most of the winning of any sports contest will be in the preparation. For John Wooden, widely considered the greatest basketball coach of all time, the outcome of a competition was largely decided in practice leading up to the game. While we are musicians and not athletes, this principle is just as true in an audition as any sports contest. We perform how we prepare.

I take a very broad approach to the concept of audition preparation. For good preparation, much more is needed than playing the material over and over until it’s technically spotless. To be truly well prepared we need to prepare our entire selves for the experience. This includes musical preparation with and without the instrument, mental practice, emotional work, physical conditioning, rest, nutrition and other considerations. This article will cover 10 of my favorite principles of preparation.
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1) Use as long of a time period to prepare as possible. Get started as soon as possible!
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It is best to use a long time period to prepare for an audition. That way you can employ one of the best proven techniques for resilient learning: spaced repetition. Spaced repetition means we repeat learning a task over a long period of time with space in between. This makes learning more permanent and flexible.

For an audition, this suggests a strategy of starting work early. We begin in this scenario by looking though all the excerpts several months before the audition, working through them slowly and easily, then setting them aside for a a while. We want to forget them a little bit and then relearn them, which strongly solidifies learning.

After this, I suggest picking up the excerpts once a week for the first month or two, and allowing rest in between. This will yield better results than cramming all of the preparation into a last few weeks of intensive work. Easy unhurried spaced repetition will lead to better performance under pressure and less stress and pain during the preparation process.

I also suggest to get the repertoire list and get the repertoire assembled in an audition book right away. Don’t procrastinate this step. Make a Youtube playlist or the like and start listening right away also.

For more discussion on the science and application of spaced repetition please check out the excellent book Make it Stick by Brown, McDaniel and Roediger.

2) Slow practice is key.

Those who know me well know that I have preached this point for many years. For fast technical passages, if we can’t play it slowly we can’t play it quickly. In preparation, I suggest to learn everything slowly at the beginning. Make sure that every note and articulation and phrasing is how it should be at a much slower tempo at first. Speeding things up later will be much easier if it’s solid at a slow tempo.

3) Know the entire music well, not just the individual part.

When we play an excerpt the goal is to recreate the piece the best we can in our minds while we play, and do the same in the minds of the committee. Therefore it is imperative to be very familiar with the entire music and not just our excerpt. The better we can hear the entirety of the piece in our minds as we perform the better we will play and the better the performance will feel to the committee as we generate much more musical energy in performance.

I have listened to many auditions over the years when it seemed that the candidate was not familiar with the music they were performing. Sometimes it was hard to explain why. Maybe it was a subtle timing thing, or a dynamic that didn’t make sense, or articulation or note length that wouldn’t have worked in the orchestra. It just didn’t feel right.

To play in a way that feels right, learn to hear and feel the whole orchestra and music. To develop this, listen to the piece many times. This can be largely done passively, with a mix tape or playlist we can listen to as we go about our daily lives. We should also actively listen to learn the music that immediately precedes our entrance, as well as what comes directly afterwards. We should also learn the parts of the other instruments that play during our excerpt.

If we can accurately and with the right feeling sing the 15 seconds or a piece before an excerpt begins, the other instrumental parts during the excerpt, and the music for 10 seconds after the finish then we know we are in good shape here.

4) Learn how to get into the feeling of each excerpt before beginning.

In auditions there is no time to “play ourselves into” the performance. Excerpts are too short and every note counts, especially the first one. We must be ready to play our best from the first note in an audition. Therefore, we should learn how to feel the music for each excerpt before we begin. That way the musical flow will pick us up and carry us through the excerpt. This is much easier than trying to start the music from a full stop.

How do we do this? Singing the music to ourselves before we begin is a great way to start. But we can do much more to feel the spirit of the music. It helps to have a picture or image ready of what that excerpt feels like. I like to get my body moving to the groove or feel of the music. This might mean a little dancing even.

Music is something we do with our whole selves, so the more we can feel the music before we play the better. Make sure to practice this before audition day.
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5) Self-record often.
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Self recording yields great results. It gives us a much more powerful ear to evaluate our playing. This is needed because we cannot accurately judge our performance while we are playing. It is not possible to play our best and self judge at the same time. It takes too much brainpower. To truly play our best, we must put our entire attention on the music we are playing.

We do need to accurately hear what we are doing, however, so we can correct any little technical or musical things we miss. Therefore regular self recording is necessary.

With modern recording software, including free software like Audacity, we can record and look visually at our playing as well. This is quite helpful especially when evaluating dynamics and articulation. We can even use sound evaluation tools to view tone quality visually in helpful ways.
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6) Evaluate and focus work on different elements of your performance separately.
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When we play an excerpt, many things need to be correct for the excerpt to feel right. Many times we can fall in trap of focusing all of our preparation on a few of the elements and neglect some other critical element. For example if we play with good rhythm, dynamics, tone and feel, but have bad intonation, we will lose the audition.

We tend to get blinded by our own technical worries in classical music. Too much single minded focus on developing some particular part of technique or to correct some perceived fault can blind us to the many other facets of music. At the audition we think we are playing well since we are playing well in our area of focus, yet we are completely neglecting some other critical area or areas. Then we get cut and wonder, “What happened?”

I suggest a more systematic method of self evaluation and practice. To do this we divide music up into separate elements and work on them individually. For example different days or different practice sessions could be devoted to specific elements. Your list of elements could include:

A) rhythm
B) intonation
C) tone
D) articulation
E) dynamics
F) emotion or feeling
G) phrasing
H) space
I) the notes

There are many ways to improve any excerpt, and an easy way is to pick an element we haven’t worked on recently and to look at our performance through that lens. Focusing on an individual element allows for rapid improvement in that element and can make a big difference in how an excerpt comes off.

For more on the different elements of music, I recommend my favorite book ever on any subject, the amazing “The Music Lesson” by Victor Wooten.
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7) Play for other people, colleagues, fellow students, friends, family, anyone!
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We need lots of experience playing for other people to feel comfortable doing it under pressure. This is true for all performance and none more so than auditions. So play for other people!

Any performance counts and activates a certain “performance” program in our minds. We want to practice and develop experience feeling good and performing comfortably in front of other people. It is a huge advantage to walk out onstage feeling comfortable and normal on the big day.

It doesn’t even matter very much who we play for. Colleagues and teachers are great of course but playing for an “uneducated” listener can also be very helpful. They will help produce performance pressure and you may find their feedback surprisingly useful as they can give you the listener perspective which is usually much more about the feel of things instead of the technique. I even play for my dogs and they provide surprisingly good feedback. When I am playing or singing with heart and with my full attention, they listen raptly. When my mind starts to drift and I start playing without heart, they lose interest and lick themselves.

8) Learn and practice the art of mental preparation and visualization.

All champion athletes visualize successful performance. It is an extremely powerful tool. If we can live the experience of a successful audition in our minds many times before the real audition, it gives us experience of success almost as helpful as real-life success. Study after study proves this.

I suggest daily visualization practice an essential part of audition preparation. Get relaxed and imagine you are watching a movie screen of yourself playing the audition and feeling great and playing your best. Make a mental movie of yourself succeeding. Every day work on your movie, editing and refining it, until all of the details are clear and you can play the movie anytime you want in your mind. Then take a few weeks and watch the movie every day a few times without changing it. This will powerfully convince your inner subconscious of success and can have stupendous results. This topic deserves a separate article which I will write later. For more on this topis I suggest the classic book Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.
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9) Get in the best health possible while preparing the audition. *

The easiest way to improve performance in anything is to improve overall health. I recommend a health and fitness plan as part of the audition preparation process. Get regular exercise, eat healthy clean organic food, get a lot of sleep and rest, do a regular yoga or qigong or meditation practice and avoid drinking too much or doing other unhealthy things.

Also mental and emotional health are very important. I have seem many people put so much expectation and personal energy into an audition that it damages their personal emotional health. Balance is key, and with the stress comes with an extra need to maintain healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
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10) Enjoy the preparation process!
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The preparation process is my favorite part of auditions. In the process of leaving no stone unturned in getting ourselves ready, we can improve so much as players, people and musicians. We can also fall more in love with music as we delve deeply into the repertoire.

We learn much better when we have fun and are happy, so enjoying the process is also a way to learn better. Stressful, end result-focused preparation is not fun and it’s a bad way learn. Instead, enjoy the feeling of relaxed, enjoyable, balanced and artistic preparation and the end success will come as a natural by-product of that joyful process.

In the next installment of this series I will discuss techniques for the big day of the audition, from what to do the day of to get ready to play, and how to handle the brief but important moments onstage. Until then, get preparing!

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