Notes from the other side of the audition screen - Part One

As many of you are probably aware, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra held an audition for the position of Assistant Principal Timpanist/Section Percussion this past spring. Having had the opportunity to listen to auditions for several instruments, I thought I'd share some observations from the committee's side of the screen. Some of these may not be immediately apparent to those performing, but over the course of listening to several hours of auditions, certain patterns and trends, both good and bad, start to stand out. Some of these observations align closely with how I approached auditions as a candidate, while others were significantly more important than I'd expected prior to experiencing auditions from the other side of the screen.

All of the things I'm going to discuss in this post will be primarily for timpanists/percussionists, and in Part Two, I'll write about things that are likely applicable to any instrument. It's worth noting that I can only speak for myself; another committee or individual may have a slightly different take.

1. The overall level of accessory playing has improved significantly since 2014. While the finalists in both the most recent audition and our 2014 Associate Principal Percussion audition all demonstrated a high level of proficiency on tambourine, cymbals, and triangle, the overall ability of the field of applicants had increased dramatically. In 2014, those candidates who performed well on accessories really stood out; in 2016, a lack of polish on accessories became a big liability. The best percussionists - those that advanced and received the strongest consideration for the job - were strong across the board. This is a good sign for the orchestral percussion community in general, and a reminder that growth and improvement throughout the field is happening very quickly.

2. Soft snare drum playing was louder than 2014. This was surprising, especially since the committee was actually farther away from the candidates than we had been at the previous audition. You're taking an instrument that was originally designed to be heard clearly over great distances and trying to make it suit the most delicate, intimate musical moments. You know it's challenging, and so do we, but that's why these spots are on audition lists! Your mp rendition of Lieutentant Kijé probably isn't a audition-ending offense (provided you play it pp when requested - and it WILL be requested), but it doesn't win you any points and could take away from the overall impression you're trying to create of a polished professional.

3. There is room for improvement in the level of timpani playing for this type of audition. The number of candidates who played timpani at a high level was smaller than I'd anticipated. The first big issue was intonation. This is somewhat understandable given that as a percussionists/timpanists, we only have to concentrate on intonation a small percentage of the time, while most other instrumentalists in the orchestra are thinking about intonation on every single note they play. We don't get as much practice as a matter of course, but that doesn't excuse playing out-of-tune. The second issue was one of sound quality. It seemed as though many candidates weren't approaching the instruments with attention to producing a clear, ringing, pitch-centered sound. To be clear, it's not that the committee only valued a certain style or "school" of playing: timpanists with varying approaches sounded good and advanced, but many performers didn't seem as comfortable getting great sounds out of the timpani as they were on other instruments. My impression is that many candidates could afford to spend more time listening and refining their idea of how they want timpani to sound rather than simply focusing on playing the excerpts. With a few combined timpani/percussion auditions on the horizon, there's a huge window of opportunity for those who may be more comfortable on percussion to bring up the level of their timpani playing, as well as for those who may be primarily timpanists to do the same with percussion. Candidates who sound comfortable on the entire range of instruments are rare, and quickly set themselves apart from the crowd.

4. Tuning quietly never hurts. While certainly not an issue that would get someone eliminated in and of itself, loud timpani tuning always raised questions: Is the candidate tuning loudly because they have trouble with intonation? Will they tune this loudly in performance? In most cases I suspect the answer to both questions is “no,” but it's to everyone's benefit if there's no doubt. Tuning doesn't necessarily have to be silent, but it shouldn't be loud enough to sound like part of the performance.

5. That one note you missed on xylophone? It likely didn't matter. If you miss one note on every keyboard excerpt, it raises eyebrows, but if everything else is going well, a single note is probably not enough to get someone cut. Most committees understand that you're playing a bunch of the hardest spots for your instrument (instruments, in this case), alone, back-to-back-to-back. In all likelihood, no one is getting out unscathed. Committee members are trying to form the most complete picture of you as a musician, not nitpicking at outlier mistakes. What does this mean for you as a performer? Have a short memory. Let your mistake go, and focus on the next excerpt.

6. As soon as you step on stage, you're performing. OK. It's not exactly like a performance. There are a whole bunch of logistical things that have to happen in an audition that wouldn't occur in a recital. But keep in mind that the committee is likely hearing everything you do while you're setting up and getting comfortable on stage. Pick up and put down your tambourine as if you were performing with an orchestra. Same thing for your mallets. Even with the screen up, the little things affect the committee's overall and sometimes subconscious opinion of you and your round. Your attention to detail here has the potential to send messages (accurate or not) about what kind of colleague you'd be. What assumptions might a committee make about how careful and respectful someone would be in a rehearsal or performance when they're careless about making extraneous noise during their audition? As with some of the points above, this probably isn't something that will get someone cut on its own, but it's another aspect of auditioning that successful candidates have almost always mastered to enhance their overall appeal.

I should add that I touched on some of this with Rob Knopper in the “candidate to committee” episode of his auditiontalk series, which can be found on my Video page.

In Part Two of this post next week, I'll touch on six additional things that apply to auditions for both percussionists and non-percussionists. As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or if there are additional topics you'd like to see discussed here!

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