Audition season is just around the corner. In fact, I am flying to Boston on Friday to do 10 days of cello auditions for one of the youth orchestras there. All around the country, young musicians are gearing up to audition for various ensembles and getting their audition video materials ready for last-minute summer festival admission. I remember those days well, and I mostly remember that I did not have a clue what was being asked of me, how these things worked, or how I needed to prepare. So I thought I would compile a list of things I wish I had known when I was taking auditions.
1. The judges want you to play your best.
We really, truly do. We are 100% on your side. If we sense that you are nervous, we might make small talk with you or crack some jokes to try to put you at ease. We are NOT trying to trip you up, we are NOT testing you, and we are NOT sitting there counting your mistakes. We are always looking for the good in your playing, so you should focus on that too.
2. It is far better to play an “old” piece really well, than to play a “new” piece that hasn’t settled.
When I was growing up, my teacher had a clear progression. Suzuki books–Haydn C Major Concerto–Boccherini–Saint Saens–Kabelevsky–Lalo–Rococo–Elgar–Shostakovich–Dvorak–Prokofief. So I thought that playing a scrappy Saint-Saens was better than playing a solid Boccherini, because the Saint-Saens meant I was more advanced, and therefore, a better player. That is ridiculous. Saint-Saens didn’t sit down looking at the Boccherini score, and set out to write a piece “a bit more difficult”. So, while it might seem like a momentary disappointment to play a piece that you thought you had “retired”, it will serve you better to audition with a piece that you are comfortable with and will allow you to focus on the musicality, rather than “omg, I hope I make this shift!”.
3. You’re not being asked for scales for the sake of the scales.
I don’t know what fingering your teacher taught you and I don’t care if you accidentally used a different fingering. I want to see that you have a fluid bow arm and can make a gorgeous, full, rich sound on your instrument. And no, you do NOT win extra points for playing your scale as fast as you can. That tells me that you are impatient and that you don’t care about your sound, and that you really want this audition to be over as soon as possible :-).
4. Dynamics will get you far.
Insta-musicality. The death of any performance (and particularly an audition performance!) is to be boring. Dynamic contrasts will help create different colors and will create shape and interest in your playing. Dynamics are your friends. See #6 below for more on this.
5. Figure out the essence of each excerpt/piece and really go for that.
It is fairly standard practice to ask for “two contrasting pieces” in an audition. And those contrasts are usually going to be fast/slow, baroque/romantic, etc. Figure out what makes each piece. Is it a slow, lyrical piece? Then go for sustained sound, smooth bow changes and long phrasing. is it a rustic peasant dance? Then really go for that kind of character in your articulations and dynamics.
6. Sight-reading: it’s not a speed test. it’s a “can you follow instructions” test.
I was raised to not ever keep people waiting, so whenever I was handed that dreaded sheet of sight-reading, I would try to dive in immediately, so as not to waste my judges time with my petty “thinking”. Oh, poor little me. Don’t be like that. We judges are testing whether you can look at a bunch of black dots and foreign words and translate them into music. It would behoove you to take a moment and look through the entire thing. take note of the key, meter, clef, how high and low it is going to go, and locate and count out any tricky rhythms. Bonus points for actually playing the dynamics as well! You want to have an idea of how it goes before you play a single note. Take your time. I have, a few times, had to tell an auditionee that they had taken long enough, and we needed them to start playing, but I have NEVER faulted them for it. If anything, they have shown that they care, and that they want to play it well.
7. Dressing up helps
I have seen auditionees come in wearing their pajamas. We want you to be comfortable, but also, have a little respect. Even if you are going to be behind a screen, dress as if you are going to a job interview. Because essentially you are. More importantly, when you are dressed for a performance, you focus for a performance. It really does help you play better.
8. Be friendly, but don’t lose your focus.
I have always been a pretty outgoing person, and I never wanted to be perceived as being a diva. So, if I was in a warm-up room, I would find myself chatting it up with the staff, the other auditionees, parents, ANYONE. The problem was not in my friendliness, nor did I really need another 5 minutes of practicing, but I would walk into my audition, and I would be in social mode, not in cello mode, and I would find myself making silly mistakes because I was distracted. In hindsight, it would have been far better for me to just smile, say hello, and then sit in a corner going over my pieces slowly–just to stay in the right mind frame.
9. Practice playing something from memory in front of people (or your dog). take note of where your eyes go.
Do you practice in front of a mirror? (like you should!). I do too. But then you show up to a performance or an audition, and not only is the mirror not there, but instead of a mirror, there are judges. It’s amazing how different it feels to go from playing something and seeing the mirror image straight ahead of you, to suddenly looking DOWN at your hands. Everything is in a different place! So I would be sure to practice your piece a few times without a mirror and with people in front of you. Figure out where you want your eyes to focus on (sometimes I just close my eyes) and start getting accustomed to how it feels.
10. The results are totally out of your control (and often out of our control too).
Sometimes, there are tons of kids graduating, or moving up, or have moved away, etc. and for whatever reason, there are PLENTY of spots for all of the people who audition. Sometimes that is NOT the case, and the competition is stiffer that year. A person can play the EXACT SAME AUDITION, and have completely different results based on random factors that have nothing to do with their abilities. This is where life lessons come in. Sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes in life, you will be disappointed. I promise you, you’ll get over it, life will go on, and give you more pleasant surprises. All you can do is play your best, and if you use your audition date as a practice goal, and then learn as much as you possibly can from every moment of the process so that the next one can be even better? Well, then you’ve come out ahead in so many ways, no matter what the result is.
If you are taking an audition this spring, best of luck to you! Keep the above information in mind and let me know how it all goes! If you’re auditioning for me, please know that I am so excited to hear you play, and I hope that you have a really great experience. Colleagues, what other tips/advice would you add to this list? Have any of you readers had any particularly amusing audition experiences?