Competitive Auditions

In many ways, the act of auditioning provides a stark contrast to almost everything else described in The Savvy Musician. The lengthy preparation phase before an audition has been compared to training for an Olympic event, culminating in a highly competitive experience that allows only one person to emerge victorious.  It requires a separate set of skills and preparation techniques than those needed for delivering a winning performance, recording, or other musical product.  Especially in the case of blind auditions, where a screen between the committee and applicant ensures complete anonymity, this is one of the few examples in the music world where performance excellence, and little else, counts.  People skills, marketing prowess, and entrepreneurial inclinations won’t help you here. 

Consider, for example, a typical orchestral audition scenario.  After the job listing has been posted, up to 200+ applicants submit resumes.  Hopefuls receive a repertoire list of material to prepare, usually containing a solo piece (often a concerto) and a dozen or more standard orchestral excerpts, totaling up to ninety minutes.  Invitees are responsible for transportation, lodging, and food expenses.  Either upon their arrival, or at the audition itself, candidates are told which passages to play.  Onstage, the only human contact they have is with a proctor or audition monitor, who communicates with the panel on the other side of the screen.  The auditioning ordeal lasts six minutes.  After every hour or two, the proctor announces the handful of musicians who will advance to the next round (usually around 10%), and others are free to leave.  An intermediary, or semifinal, round usually follows, where committee members listen longer and more discerningly to identify the select few who advance further.  The final round of a major orchestral audition most closely approximates an actual concert performance, where the screen is often removed, the candidate is announced by name, and the music director is in attendance.  One top performer is eventually selected for the job, capping off a long and exhausting day for those on both sides of the screen. 

Of course, many variations exist, and every audition is different.  Some groups begin by screening recordings.  The audition process can be spread over the course of several days, or finalists may be asked to join the ensemble for a trial period.  Individuals may be allowed to choose their solo piece(s), and sometimes a sight reading component is added.  The process also fluctuates when auditioning for festivals, chamber ensembles, teaching positions, regional groups, or other types of opportunities.  But in all cases, auditioning requires thorough preparation, focused concentration, nerves of steel, and top-notch playing.

AUDITIONING TIPS

Effectively preparing for auditions, particularly with highly competitive groups, can be a grueling process.  It is not uncommon to spend months training rigorously without a day of vacation.  The goal, many claim, is not “to practice until you get the music right, but until you can’t get it wrong.”  When preparing, here are some helpful strategies:

  • Devote at least 2-3 months on the literature, working consistently on a daily basis.
  • Learn entire movements, not just the excerpts, in order to understand their context. 
  • Study the scores, analyzing your part’s role within the ensemble, and play along with several recordings that feature varied interpretations. 
  • Practice at a number of tempos (or even transpositions) to learn the music inside and out. 
  • Getting dressed up and playing mock auditions to simulate the high stress environment, especially for orchestral players who have served on judging panels, can be helpful. 
  • Record and critique the results.  

When the day finally arrives, make sure you are well rested.  Once at the location, keep to yourself.   Do not fall into the trap of comparing your level with others.  This behavior can be nothing but distracting and self-destructive. Instead, simply focus on the task at hand.  Before playing, take a deep breath and a moment to focus, concentrate on the tempo and character of the music, and try to enjoy the experience. 

Being a great player may not be enough to win a competitive audition.  Results are based solely on how you perform that particular day; a single dropped note or mistake can mean instant disqualification.  Yet even a flawless rendition may not be enough, as many elements are out of the applicant’s control.  For example, while adjudicators usually break down evaluations into specific categories, including tone, technique, intonation, rhythm, accuracy, and musicality, all of these areas and their relative weights are subjective.  (What is the difference between a 7 and 8 in tone?  And how much is determined by the instrument itself or the personal tastes of a committee member?)  Judges may look for different qualities—in fact, sometimes they are not able to agree on a winner, and nobody is offered the job.  And with so many players competing, the cards may be stacked against you before even beginning.  In other words, prevailing at an audition is a bit of a crap shoot.  Most people serious about obtaining work as a full-time orchestral musician are forced to take many auditions before receiving an offer.  Others never get that golden ticket. 

All performers are required to participate in competitive auditions at some point in their careers, and many have to do this repeatedly.  Discipline, consistency, and other important lessons can be gleaned from this process.  However, in the face of possible rejection, it is essential to develop thick skin and stay positive, remembering why you love music.  The more pressure you heap on yourself, the more likely you will crash, so keep things in perspective.  Try to enjoy the experience regardless of outcome, and view it as a learning opportunity.  And as a savvy musician, remember that there will always be other opportunities in the future.

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