I am excited to be presenting a Timpani Lab at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis this week! It will be my first time on a PASIC stage since 2005, when I participated as a student in a lab given by David Herbert. I'm grateful to Freer Percussion and Remo Drumheads for their support in making this possible (and for their great products)!
Auditions are a challenge for every instrument, but timpani auditions bring up some unique considerations. Unlike a violin audition where violinists will make up the majority of the committee, or a brass audition where the majority of committee members will be part of the same instrument family (even if they don't play the exact same instrument), timpani audition committees frequently consist of mostly non-timpanists and non-percussionists.
As a timpanist, it's reasonable to expect that you'll have 1-3 people listening that have some degree of familiarity with the specific challenges of your instrument but that the rest of the committee (often another 5-10 people) will not.
This has some benefits: we may not have to worry as much about being cut because we don't match a specific sound concept or school of playing familiar to the majority. Plus we're not playing for people who have “baggage” with each excerpt from years of study or who may focus on technical minutiae at the expense of bigger-picture skills that may be more important on the job.
When we can't count on the committee to place a premium on our instrumental skills, it's wise to take a broader view and try to provide answers to the questions non-timpanists are most likely to be asking: Would this person be easy to play with? Can I imagine their sound in the orchestra? Do I trust this person as a musician?
The best musicians I've worked with on audition committees are asking themselves these questions even when they are familiar with the specific instrument being auditioned. This isn't about focusing on big-picture musicality instead of technical proficiency; it's about expanding your approach to make the most convincing argument for yourself as a musician.
Bringing the Orchestra to Your Audition
The title of my lab, Bringing the Orchestra to Your Audition, has a double meaning. First, my audition strategy is based on the idea that if I can get the audition committee to hear the full orchestra playing in their heads while I'm performing my timpani part, they're much more likely to see me being successful on the job.
Second, I want to put on an audition performance that invites the orchestra members on the committee to be engaged with my performance: I want them to understand and appreciate my musical decisions and to expect that things are going to sound good before I play them, which is something I've experienced as a committee member when I've heard a really great audition round.
Accomplishing this requires making a vast number of small decisions that, if made thoughtfully, create an overall positive impression. The goal of this lab is to construct a framework for evaluating and making those decisions for yourself.
I've divided the components of each excerpt into three categories: fundamentals, context, and opportunities.
If we structure these as an “Audition Committee Hierarchy of Needs,” fundamentals, naturally, are where we start. Without establishing that we can play in time and in rhythm, in tune, and with great sound, all other aspects of our playing will be undermined.
Understanding and showing the context of each excerpt goes a long way toward getting the committee to hear the orchestra while we're playing. How we shape our performance around the other things that are taking place during and around our excerpt, our sense of style, phrasing, and time-feel all contribute to accurately conveying the whole piece through our part. Even small things, like muffling decisions, can have a large effect on the listener's impression.
Finally, we want to seize the opportunities provided by each excerpt to demonstrate the full range of our ability as a musician. Obviously this must be done tastefully (Mozart's Magic Flute Overture, for example, may not be the best excerpt in which to display your tone quality in extremely loud dynamics), but the idea is that over the course of the audition, we'll provide the committee with evidence of all the technical and musical attributes that would make someone an asset to their ensemble.
With the help of five lab participants, I'm going to apply this framework to excerpts from the music of Beethoven, Schuman, Shostakovich, Bartok, and Mahler.
Finally, I should add that this philosophy extends beyond audition preparation. While the execution may differ slightly, the approach of evaluating what needs to be addressed through the lenses of fundamentals, context, and opportunities is also effective with ensemble playing. By focusing on broader goals rather than keeping audition and orchestra strategies separate, growth will be more efficient and widely applicable. This is a strategy for auditions that flows seamlessly into growth as an orchestral musician.
Jeremy Epp's Symphonic Timpani Lab takes place Saturday, November 11 at noon in room 120. Jeremy will also make an appearance at the Freer Percussion booth in the exhibit hall immediately after the lab.