Auditions 101

John Ericson

Notes on auditions and preparation for professional auditions

1. The successful audition
2. The typical orchestral audition in the United States
3. Preparing music
4. Preparing yourself
5. A final thought

This article was for some years in Horn Articles Online, and then was removed as it was incorporated into a book draft. This version is updated for 2013 and reflects on my own experiences taking auditions (around 30 of them!), subsequently hearing orchestral auditions as a member of the Nashville Symphony, and coaching many students toward taking auditions.

1. The successful audition

A successful audition is more than hitting the notes. What one presents to listeners in any performance or audition is a package. One element of this package for an audition is potential, and in a school audition potential could be defined differently than in a professional audition. For the professional, the audition committee is not hiring based on what potential for progress they estimate the candidate has; instead, it is a question of the potential to keep playing on the same high level or better for many years. In a school audition, the committee (teacher) is trying to estimate potential for progress as an element of the package, but also in relation to where the applicant is now, i.e., for his or her age. In either type of audition one hopes to successfully minimize the red flags and to hit the total package as well as possible.

In a successful audition horn players above all make music, with an effortlessness that indicates they know their scales and they know how to make rhythm flow properly. The sound should be good, centered, and full and those who are auditioning should sound and look relaxed as they play on pitch. Melodies are sung on the horn with good control and dynamic contrast. There is a personality shown both in the music and outside the music. Through actions, players show that they are focused on the goal of playing the horn well and they show potential to reach and maintain this goal. Beyond that, they show that they are making the most of the musical situation they are currently in.

In an unsuccessful audition, in contrast, a horn player demonstrates an ability to play the notes only, if that--and perhaps even misses many notes. The music is not effortless sounding and would indicate that they do not know their scales or have not learned them well enough. Rhythm is unsteady and would not fit with a metronome. Sound is only mediocre and not centered, and the player looks and sounds tight. Pitch will go sharp in high range, is always sharp, or is sharp here and there--the tuner is not well-acquainted with such a player. Musically, the notes are played, all at very nearly the same volume with either no personality or an overly quirky personality. This type of player may also show a lack of focus or unrealistic dreams of greatness, with no foundation of hard work evident. Finally, there will be very little proof that the player is making the most of his or her current musical situation.

As in all of life, horn players have many choices. To a large extent, the ability to play the horn well is based on hard work and building the musical package block by block over many years. Auditioning well requires similar work; you have to prepare and specifically practice with the goal of taking and winning auditions.

2. The typical orchestral audition in the United States

Usually, major and regional orchestral positions in the USA are advertised in The International Musician, the newspaper of the American Federation of Musicians. If interested in a position, you would write to the orchestra advertising an opening, sending a one- page resume and a short cover letter. Based on the resume you may be invited to audition, or a recording may be requested, although today this practice seems to be less common. Hopefully you won’t receive the “discouraging letter” that most orchestras send out to some applicants.

Be sure to send a very well polished resume. Get honest feedback on your resume from a teacher or colleague who has been through the audition process before it is sent out. Think about the fact that the committee probably does not know you at all and soon will be reading your resume forwards, backwards, and sideways trying to get a sense of who you are, where you have been, what kind of colleague you might be in the future, etc. Be clear and honest with everything in the resume, as the committee can tell if it seems padded or as if you are stretching the truth. It seems like this should not be the case, but a well written, honest resume can certainly tip the balance between two otherwise acceptable candidates. A good resume is a good sign for the committee, saying to them clearly that you are a professional who can do this job well if given the chance.

Prepare the full audition list carefully. On the audition day, anywhere from perhaps 50 to well over 100 people may attend the audition. It will be divided into several rounds, most commonly three. The first and second rounds will usually be behind a screen, depending on local union contract specifics. For the second round, perhaps 12 people will be invited to stay. The finals usually do not see over 5 candidates from the original playing day. Ideally, a winner will be chosen that day based on how well the candidates play. Certainly every audition committee hopes to hire someone; they really don’t want to go through the process more often than absolutely necessary.

Depending on the contractual situation of the orchestra, the winner, after being hired by the orchestra, is normally offered tenure after one or two seasons--if orchestra management is satisfied with not only their playing but also with how they fit into the orchestra and the horn section as a colleague.

3. Preparing music

There are three basic areas to work on in the preparation of orchestral excerpts. They are:

  • Rhythm
  • Rhythm
  • Rhythm

Seriously, there are several things to watch carefully in excerpt preparation.

Rhythm is one of the main stumbling blocks with excerpts and solos at auditions. Many if not most candidates that are dismissed in an early round at professional auditions are dismissed because of faulty rhythm. Rhythm must be perfect!! Audition preparation must include preparation with a metronome and recording yourself for carefully analysis, especially to see if the rhythm is correct. An audition committee can typically forgive small flubs of notes, at least in the early rounds--if the rhythm is right on the money. If the rhythm is off, however, one won't advance even if the notes are perfect. A rhythm problem is seen as being a problem that the candidate is probably not aware of and can't fix. In addition to things like “triplet” dotted eighth/sixteenth figures, I find myself frequently talking to students about “hidden” rhythm problems around the rests and bar lines and breathing points. Many excerpts must be quite metronomic, and even excerpts in freer tempi must have the right flow. Check rhythm very carefully.

Closely related to rhythm is tempo. This must be right. Tempos vary somewhat between conductors, but by listening to several recordings and consulting with teachers you can come up with a pretty standard tempo that sounds “right” or at least average. A committee will recognize that you know what it should sound like and will assume you will be able to play it slightly faster or slower as requested.

Finally, we have style to consider. Dynamics are an element of this--the overall volume must sound realistic. Tone is another part--you must play with the kind of tone appropriate for the literature. Musical lines and phrases are the final main element--they must sound “right” or at least average to the extent that they have some character and can be molded to that desired by the conductor.

The goal is to play in a manner that sounds like your horn playing will fit in with the orchestra perfectly, will be comfortable and easy for the current members to play with, and is in a general style that the conductor feels has the correct character.

I did not yet mention intonation or accuracy. These are assumed to be there from the preparation for the audition. At the least the people on the audition committee have a very strong sense of pitch or they would not be where they are; be aware that someone on the audition committee may actually be watching a tuner to check the accuracy of pitch. It really must be in tune; don't take for granted that you have good intonation if it is working well in the ensembles that you usually play in, as it is not uncommon for pitch to rise as one plays without the pitch reference of other players in an ensemble situation. Make a recording of the excerpts and listen to it with tuner in hand. What are the tendencies? Observe them and work them out.

In regards to accuracy, work the pieces out well and trust that the notes are there. Primarily go for the style and make music. The notes will happen. In the end you must trust yourself on this point and go for it.

Besides the excerpts, in an orchestral audition be very sure that the solo is great. Many players seem to get so keyed up about their excerpts that the solo (most commonly Strauss 1 or Mozart 2 or 4) sounds like they have not worked on it seriously since they took it to contest in high school; it is performed at some sort of deep “default mode” instead of at a polished level equal to that of the excerpts. Commonly the solo is the first thing requested at professional auditions, so you want to get off to a good start. Play a solo with great phrases, style, rhythm, and intonation. It will grab the attention of the committee.

4. Preparing yourself

As I took auditions--over 25 professional auditions!--I developed a routine for audition preparation. The key is aiming to peak at the audition. While I will describe below my own routine for an orchestral audition, there is no reason that one could not adapt the same plan for recital, solo concerto, or jury preparation as well.

In the weeks before an audition I would cycle through the solo and the excerpts alphabetically, focusing somewhat on the spots I expected to most likely be asked but not ignoring anything, aiming for three practice or performance sessions a day. I viewed this time as a period when I was in training, like an athlete. I tried to exercise and get plenty of sleep and learned to avoid caffeine, to eat healthy, and to drink enough water to say hydrated. Recording myself was also a must; I wanted to know what my tendencies were so that I could be very aware so as to avoid negative ones. Instead of mock auditions I personally relied on lessons with several teachers, gaining from them varied, honest feedback on what I was working on. Playing the same excerpts for three or four teachers can be very helpful if one already has them ready to bring to a fine polish. However I certainly recommend mock auditions and taking any type of audition that you can. Taking auditions is a skill like any other that is honed with practice. Be disciplined.

Two days before the audition was always my last regular practice day. By that point my feeling is that one simply knows the music as well as one ever will. The next day I would shift gears and do things I enjoyed. I have long been interested in the hobby of model railroading; I saved model railroad magazines to read that day and during breaks at the audition. The day before an audition I would not practice more than an hour, just warm up well and touch spots. It is a rest day, and I did not want to overplay--the goal is lots of chops the next day and peaking at the audition. Get plenty of rest. If you see long lost friends at the hotel, set up a time to talk with them after the audition. And don't practice Ein Heldenleben in the parking garage! Resting is a part of being in training.

The day of the audition I would do no more playing than needed to warm up well before the first round and touch on just a very few of the most technical spots, hopefully with no long gap of time between warming up and playing the first round. I felt that when I followed this basic method I would have lots of chops that day when they were needed.

So what about nerves and performance anxiety? Each player is wired a bit differently but for me careful preparation and knowing I have plenty of chops helps a great deal in relation to confidence and nerves. It requires some discipline but if one follows an opposite approach, for example getting little rest and then warming up furiously for three hours the morning of an audition; one simply won't have chops physically or mentally and as a result will certainly have plenty of reason to feel nervous.

Be ready to “zone out” quietly when waiting to play in spite of the folks practicing furiously next door and sounding great. So often these players peak in the practice room. The idea is to set up your day to peak on the stage. Relax when you can relax and go for it when it counts.

It takes discipline and focus. To help promote that focus in my own audition taking I read and reread the now classic Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey many times. I still like the Gallwey book a lot, and there are other, newer resources that are well worth reading as a part of the process of focusing in mentally toward any audition.

5. A final thought

While many strive to be the best, I would instead suggest striving to be your best. It is perhaps a subtle difference, but striving to be your best looks simply to do the best that you can do in any situation with your God-given abilities. Striving to be the best on the other hand invokes a sense of comparison that is irrelevant to actually doing your best job. Our heightened sense of our own shortcomings can also get very much in the way and, besides, there is always someone better out there in some way. Let others make their own comparisons and just aim to do your best in every situation.

This thought especially relates to performances and auditions. It is very helpful to take an audition and to really be ranked as to how you perform--you will gain perspective as to how good you really are and will also certainly see areas to work on--but what others will think of your playing is really out of your hands. Don't live or die by those rankings. Just strive to do your best.

Copyright John Ericson. All rights reserved. Updated 2013.


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