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

In Part One of this post, I wrote about a few observations I'd made while listening to this spring's Detroit Symphony Orchestra timpani/percussion audition which applied specifically to musicians playing those instruments. Here, I'll cover a few additional thoughts on auditions which can be applied more broadly.

As with Part One, it's worth noting that these are my opinions and that another committee or individual may feel differently.

1. The committee wants you to play well. The majority of candidates don't advance in early rounds. When you walk out on stage, the only sounds are muffled whispers and paper shuffling. The only human interaction you have during your round might be a "thank you" from a faceless voice behind the screen after you've finished your excerpts. It can be easy to assume that the audition committee is a serious bunch of snobby judges for whom no one plays well enough, and who have about as much empathy for tiny missteps as a parking enforcement officer with a ticket quota to fill. Feeling like the committee is out to get you can add pressure, increase feelings of nervousness, and prevent you from playing your best. Luckily, if this stereotype is true of some audition committees, I've never observed it.

The best-case scenario for the committee is to end up with a final round full of well-qualified candidates, and to have the luxury of choosing the one that fits their orchestra best. No one wants to spend two or three days listening to auditions only to come up empty, so committee members are rooting for each new candidate to come out and show signs that they might be The One. The nature of narrowing a large number of applicants down to a select few finalists in an anonymous setting can make the process seem cold, but behind the screen are musicians who are hoping you'll make it easy for them to say "yes."

2. Especially in the early rounds, the “basics” get the vast majority of candidates cut. If you've taken an audition, you've probably heard someone lamenting that they didn't advance from the preliminary round because of "one note" or some other small detail. Sometimes, they even express frustration at the unfairness of the committee or of the audition process as a whole, complaining that their many incredible traits as a musician were overlooked due to one insignificant error. Listening to auditions has taught me that these people are most likely wrong, and that something much more fundamental was probably to blame for the fact that they were not invited to the next round.

Time, rhythm, intonation, and sound quality are the foundational building blocks of being a great ensemble player, but they're also among the most difficult things to master. These fundamental issues can hide in plain sight if you're not recording yourself and playing for other musicians on a regular basis, which can lead to the aforementioned candidate's misdirected frustration. Candidates who demonstrate consistent command of these elements through the round can be forgiven the odd slip when it's apparent that it isn't indicative of a bigger problem. More often than not, persistent concerns about one or more foundational issues keep committee members from giving someone their support.

3. Pay attention to detail! Among the most surprising things I observed when I started listening to auditions was how often audition candidates didn't follow the instructions given. This has included playing excerpts out of order, starting or finishing excerpts at a different place than indicated, or skipping excerpts altogether. Considering that much of a musician's job involves observation and attention to detail, it's in your best interest to put your best foot forward in this regard. Use the time before you go on stage to double check all of these details, and ask the proctor for clarification if you're unsure. If everything else is going well, an issue like this likely wouldn't be disqualifying, but it certainly impacts the overall impression of a candidate.

4. Take advantage of the opportunities provided by the music. Make the committee lean in to hear your pianissimo, and fill the hall with a big, great-sounding fortissimo. Many candidates hang out in a dynamic “safe zone,” and miss chances to impress the committee (as discussed with snare drum playing in Part One). Playing a Mozart excerpt right before something by Tchaikovsky? Your sound and style should make it clear that you understand that the pieces shouldn't be approached the same way, and that you are capable of communicating the difference to your audience.

5. Adjust dramatically (within the realm of good taste)! An enormous part of being a great ensemble musician is being able to adapt to the wishes of a conductor or principal, to a different performance venue, to an impromptu musical decision by someone you're playing with, or to any number of other factors. When a committee member asks you to do something differently, it's a good sign: they're interested enough to want to dig deeper. Be sure to take the opportunity to display your flexibility as a musician. Whether the request is to play softer, louder, brighter, darker, more articulate or anything else, be sure you demonstrate a change in a way that will be clear to the committee, keeping in mind that what may seem like a noticeable change to you may need to be slightly exaggerated to translate well out in the hall. Just be sure you're not sacrificing other musical elements to do so. For instance, if you're asked to play more loudly, don't play so loud that you lose good tone quality.

6. Play the music how it goes. All of your decisions about style, tempo, phrasing, etc. should come out of a thorough understanding of the work you're playing and how your excerpt fits into it. As a listener, I'm constantly trying to put a candidate's playing into context; to imagine them fitting in with the rest of the orchestra. The candidates who end up playing in the later rounds tend to put the committee at ease by playing with command of fundamentals and understanding of the music. The best auditionees, like the best performers, have a way of making the listener expect that what's coming next is going to be great.•

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