Playing violin in orchestra is one of the most enriching activities I get to do. But, it also seems like it is fraught with unspoken expectations. Things like “to be early is to be on-time,” “showing up without your pencil is a sin,” and that the inside player’s fingerings go beneath the line.
A metronome is arguably the most important tool in helping musicians prepare excerpts, and music in general. If you don’t have your own metronome, here is a simple one, although there are many also available for free on the internet, or on your phone. I like this one because it reminds me of the one that used to sit on my mother’s piano, before they all became digital (although those old ones didn’t fit in a violin case very well)
To use this metronome:
1) Select a tempo on the right hand side, or enter your own tempo on the top box.
2) Click on the knob to “wind it up.” (Click on it again to stop the tyranny)
As you probably know, auditions are the strangest things. They can turn the strongest players into a fumbling pile of nerves, the cleanest spiccato into a lovely martelé, and the steadiest scherzo into a Stockhausen pointillist etude.
Locking yourself in a practice room doesn’t solve this problem. Being able to nail a passage 20 times in a row with no pressure doesn’t fully prepare you for when you have to do it just one time for all the marbles.
I believe my students when they say, “It was better at home,” the problem is that this is called the “Performing Arts” not the “Practice Room Arts.” If you want to stay locked in a room for the rest of your life creating art, consider becoming a painter.
So the problem then is how do you prepare for an audition outside of the practice room? (I’m assuming you are still practicing for your audition–for which there is no substitute)
There are two seemingly conflicting schools of thought that I have heard regarding the solution to the audition blues, and I’d like to explore them a little more.
The first says:
“Take as many auditions as you can for ‘The Experience’”
And the second one says:
“Don’t take an audition unless you feel confident that you could win it.”
School of thought No. 1
My knee-jerk reaction to the first statement is, “Exactly what experience are you trying to get?” If you show up at the New York Philharmonic audition and you don’t really think you have a shot at winning it, it’s going to be a bad experience. Sure you may learn a few things about the procedures and hear some really good players, but you probably won’t advance, and that hurts. It may not hurt too much right away, (since you knew going in you probably wouldn’t advance, right?) but if you keep repeating this, it can create an unhealthy habit. I’ll explain:
The biggest problem with this mindset is that it promotes protecting yourself from the hurt of rejection by never being fully prepared.
Rejection may not be that big of a deal a couple times in a row, but what about after 10 auditions? 20 auditions? What if you would have won audition #31, but stopped after #30 because you were too burnt out from all the previous losses.
If you went into an audition and played the absolute best you could, and were still rejected it would be completely demoralizing: “My very best isn’t good enough.” So we give ourselves an excuse and say, “I didn’t play my best” or “I’m really so much better than I just played” in an effort to console our self-esteem after being turned down.
What’s really crazy is that sometimes we want to make this excuse believable, and so we purposely don’t prepare 100% so that it’s actually true when it comes time to say it.
The positive side about this advice to take auditions for the experience is that it does help if you know what to expect at an audition. There is a lot of unusual protocol at auditions, and not being thrown off your game because of these is important. Some of the things you may not experience in your practice room are:
· Being forced to warm up in the mass warm up room (a.k.a. the “Shark Tank”)
· Being herded around from the shark tank, to a private practice room, to the holding room, to backstage.
· Walking out on stage on the little strip of carpet and playing to a screen.
· Not talking to the panel, but whispering to the proctor.
Any one of these things would be strange on their own. If you’ve never experienced these things and were already a little nervous, they could really derail your audition.
School of thought No. 2
The advice on the other end of the spectrum says you should only take auditions if you know you could win it.
The dangerous thought progression with this adage is that we start to place way too much pressure on ourselves to actually win the audition. Because we know that we could win the audition, that means that we should win the audition. And when we don’t win, the rejection is especially painful since we feel like we were expected to win.
The key word in this sentence is could, and it should not be confused with will.
It’s very good advice to prepare yourself to the highest level you can, and be confident that you are playing everything flawlessly. But the reality is that even perfect playing doesn’t mean you will win an audition.
This advice is trying to save you from the inevitable and unnecessary rejection when you decide to go to an audition “just to see what happens.” However,
The problem with this mindset is that it can become easy to bail out of actually going to an audition because we are afraid that we couldn’t win it anyways.
They say “you’ll lose 100% of the auditions you never go to” so at some point your practicing has to be enough. You must be present to win.
Some closing thoughts
As you can see, neither advice is simply black or white. They are also not mutually exclusive, and I actually recommend elements from both ideas.
My advice if you’re starting out would be to simulate the audition environment as best and as many times as you can before actually taking one. Once you have done that, take a couple local auditions-anything within a few hours drive to get one under your belt. You don’t have to commit to joining the orchestra if you win it, but take it seriously.
Do consider reducing the total number of auditions you have to go to in your life, by taking each one seriously, and only taking ones you are completely prepared to win.
Go into it expecting to win it, but if it doesn’t go well, try to see rejection as part of the learning experience. Figure out exactly what went wrong, have a beer, and then work on fixing it for next time.
Be well, and practice well
Preparing for Auditions (In the Audition)
1) Make music:
So the moment has finally arrived that you have been preparing for countless hours. This is your five minutes to shine, so make the most of it. Of course you have to play in tune, in time, and with quality, but you also need to play musically. Contrary to what some people think-that the panel wants errorless robotic playing-the committee still wants to hear a beautiful, musical performance.
There are better times than others to do this-you probably don’t want to take any liberties in the Schumann Scherzo. So, your concerto is a great opportunity to make a great first impression. After playing your concerto, the committee has basically made up their mind about you anyways (if they didn’t already do that just from hearing you tune. A teacher of mine once even said he could tell a lot about a person’s playing just from watching them enter the room!)
So, go for it! Play beautifully and play musically.
2) Don’t stop until you are SURE the panel has asked you to stop.
While you are playing, you may hear the panel on the other side of the screen talking or making noise. They might be discussing your playing, or they might be ordering lunch. Whatever is going on back there, keep playing until you very distinctly hear someone shout “Thank you!” or something similar.
It is very awkward if you stop playing because you thought you heard something. You’ll have to start up again, and they might think you stopped because you messed up, or didn’t learn the rest etc.
When in doubt, just keep playing and let the panel shout a second or third time. If you really can’t hear them, the proctor will start waving at you or something. It’s much better to err on the side of over playing, than cutting it short (assuming you know all the music)
3) Move through the excerpts in a timely manner, but don’t rush yourself.
It’s important that before starting each excerpt you give yourself enough time to set the tempo, check the key signature, find the starting note, and remind yourself of any instructions pertaining to each excerpt (i.e. “Don’t rush,” or “start from the string”)
Switching between excerpts and getting set to play should happen in a timely manner, and hopefully be something you’ve practiced. If you just jump from one to another without thinking, you’ll likely be half way through the excerpt before realizing that you started in a terrible tempo and it will be too late to adjust.
If you take too long in between each excerpt, the panel will probably get frustrated and either cut your playing short, or conclude your audition before you have played every excerpt-that is not a good thing.
What is especially difficult about auditions is switching between styles across hundreds of years (i.e. from Bach to Shostakovich) in a manner of seconds. When you start an excerpt from the fourth movement, you have to sound like you already played the first three movements. What might be easy in context suddenly is not so easy out of context.
So, convincingly switching between excerpts and styles in a timely manner is a very big part of audition success.
4) If asked for sight-reading, prepare adequately in your head before playing.
Nothing strikes fear into the heart of musicians like Sight-Reading. Most musicians dread sight-reading in auditions, so you’re not alone. If someone tells you that they like sight-reading, ask them if they like pickled herring and fruitcakes-also consider buying a lottery ticket because you’ve got great odds.
So, here are a few suggestions to help your sight-reading experience go better:
• Figure out who the composer is. If it’s not visible at the top of the page, try asking the proctor.
• 1) Rhythm 2) Dynamics 3) Notes- This is a good rule of thumb for both orchestral playing, but also for sight-reading. Take a minute before you start playing and really establish your time signature and a tempo you can feasibly take. Look for passages with 16th notes or triplets to gauge how fast you should begin. Don’t ask the panel for a tempo-find one that works for you, and if you’re way off, they might ask you to do it again.
• Conduct and sing it in your head before you start playing. If you can’t sing it, forget about it going well when you try with your instrument-ain’t gonna happen. You probably don’t have time to sing through the entire piece, so make sure you have the first few measures figured out.
• Scan for tricky sections. Watch out for any key signature changes, or time signature changes. Also scan for difficult passages and try to figure out what you’re going to do before you play it.
• Don’t stop…Believing….Hold on to that feeling! Yes, Journey has some sage advice about sight-reading. Keep playing-even if you mess up, who cares if you missed that one note-get the next one. If you have no idea what the piece is, you may be more accurate than you think. The panel knows you are sight-reading, so go for broke, you’ve got nothing to lose.
5) After the audition, start practicing for the 2nd round.
Congratulations, you just finished your audition! Now get ready to do it again!
Well, you should definitely take some time to relax and recover, you’ll probably be pretty tired.
The most important thing I can tell you is, “it ain’t over, ‘til it’s over”
You may think that you bombed it and that you should start considering teaching snotty little children in some backwards remote country, but you need to stick around until the personnel manager posts the list of who is advancing. I’ve heard so many stories of people who thought they were done, packed up and started driving home, only to advance, and then the PM had to call them up, and they had to race back and play again.
Instead, after you finish the first round and have rested for a little while, start warming up again for the next round. You don’t have to do anything super intense, just be ready for the possibility that as soon as the PM posts the list, you may be the first to play. Sometimes they start the second round immediately after posting it, sometimes they set a time that it will start.
I hope these suggestions will help you have a successful audition experience, I would love to hear your feedback or stories in the comment section below.
1) Check in with the Personnel Manager
When you arrive, find someone who knows what’s going on (i.e. the personnel manager or the audition coordinator) and let them know who you are. Also figure out:
• Where you can warm up.
• A timeline of when things are happening (e.g. drawing numbers, when you can get your own practice room)
• If they are running behind. (in most cases-how far behind they are)
• Get your deposit back if applicable
2) If possible, check out the room where the audition will be held.
Lots of times, this is not possible-especially for larger auditions. But if you are there early, having an idea of what the room sounds like can be very beneficial. The goal is to be as comfortable as you can, and eliminating the surprise of what the room sounds or looks like can help you get there.
3) Check and Double Check the requested excerpts, and put them in order.
If the personnel manager posts a list of excerpts that will be asked for in the first round, pay attention. Often this will be a shorter list than all the excerpts you were preparing at home. Pay special attention to even shorter excerpts of the excerpts (e.g. Don Juan only til letter B-not the whole first page).
Do not gloss over it, and assume all the excerpts are the same as what you have been practicing.
Check and double check to make sure you have it right, before returning to warm up.
4) Warm up, but don’t exhaust yourself.
Yes, you need to warm up-but don’t go crazy and play for multiple hours before the audition to the point that you are exhausted. Remember, if you advance, you are in for a much longer day. And you need to save some energy. About 1 hr. to 1.5hrs. of warming up should be enough to get your fingers moving, and allow yourself to play through the excerpts under tempo.
Personally, I prefer to practice the excerpts a little under tempo at first. When nerves and adrenaline kick in, things often get faster. So, if was already practicing at 100%, trying to perform them at 120% is going to be disastrous.
When it’s getting closer to your audition time, give them a run at a more realistic performance tempo. Also practice starting each excerpt, keeping in mind:
• Deciding the tempo before your start.
• Finding the intonation of the first note.
• Deciding where in the bow you are starting, and if you are starting on or off the string (really, should you ever start from off the string?)
5) Take breaks and visualize a successful audition.
Warming up should not be limited to only warming up your fingers. You have to warm up your mind about what is about to happen-because it’s going to be weird.
Put your instrument down, and close your eyes for a minute. Think about everything that is going to happen:
Visualize yourself :
• Walking into the audition room. (This is where knowing what the room looks like helps)
• The proctor announcing: “This is candidate #____” (try saying this out loud)
• You putting your music on the stand and tuning
• Taking a couple of seconds to get comfortable
• Playing through your concerto, or first excerpt
• Hearing the committee say “Thank you! [Strauss] please!”
• Switching excerpts, and repeating this.
• The committee saying “Thank you very much”
• And you walking off stage.
In your visualization, you are in control, and everything you play is perfect.
6) Don’t be intimidated by other candidates.
Unfortunately, not every audition gives you a private, soundproof practice room to warm up in-at least not until an hr before your scheduled time (and definitely not soundproof). They may have a community warm up room, a.k.a. the “Shark tank.” These situations are not desirable, and sometimes the people there choose not to play anything at all. They either sit there and listen to their headphones, study their music, make awkward conversation with people they recognize, or play the “oh, you went to that festival, do you know Jimmy What’s-his-name?” game.
However, sometimes it’s a no holds-bar violin excerpt throwdown. Where everyone is launching into Don Juan faster, louder, and more brilliant than the guy next to him.
In these situations, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and let your thoughts start trailing off into something like:
• “Wow, all these people sound REALLY good.”
• “I don’t sound like that”
• “I’m gonna lose this audition for sure”
• “Maybe I shouldn’t try to be an orchestral musician”
• “I’ll never be a performer”
• “I’m gonna end up teaching snotty little kids in some backwards, remote country who won’t appreciate my talents or my efforts anyways.”
These kinds of thoughts aren’t productive, and there’s no way to predict what is going to happen in an audition. That person you thought sounded so brilliant, might come across as overly aggressive to the audition committee, or they just might not like his spiccato height-who knows?
Because there are other people also competing for the spot, it’s going to feel like you are competing directly against them. However, the real competition is within yourself, and with your own instrument.
7) If asked to go before your assigned time, you can decline.
Every once in a while, auditions actually run ahead of schedule, or perhaps the person before your time slot didn’t show up. The audition coordinator may ask you if you’d like to go earlier than your scheduled time, and the choice is up to you.
If you are ready, and would prefer to get it over with, go for it. However you have the right to decline and stick with your time. Here are some points to consider:
• The audition committee is not going to like your playing any more because you save them from waiting 7 minutes
• They are also not going to hold it against you if you decline and make them wait. (They have smart phones-they’ll find some way to fill the time)
Preparing for Auditions (How to practice)
I know, I know: it’s so painful to use a metronome, but a metronome is one of the most important tools for helping you prepare for auditions. Having accurate rhythm is so crucial to wining an audition. Being unsteady in an audition is the fastest way to get knocked out.
OK, how to use a metronome
Don’t just turn it on to keep you company, like your grandmother who turns on the tea kettle to keep her company…use it!
• Start off very slow until you know all the rhythms and notes, and gradually increase.
• Practice with different subdivisions, and macro beats. (i.e. put it on 16th notes, 8th notes-1 beat per bar, 1 beat per 2 bars etc)
• Practice with the beat not on the down-beat. This works well on Scherzi such as Mendelssohn’s midsummernight, Schumann, Beethoven 9 etc.
• Record your excerpts with the metronome running and volume on. Listen for where you rush, or are late against the metronome.
2) Record yourself. Listen to yourself. Make Changes.
You are your biggest critic, and you can make the most change in your playing. Of course it really helps to have a teacher who will point out things you don’t hear, but if you don’t have a good teacher, or are just in between lessons Record yourself. Recording myself is usually not the problem, I’m very good at recording myself and letting it sit on my device. It’s very easy to fall into the mindset of: I only have this much time to practice, and so I need to use all that time playing the instrument. False! The point of practicing is to improve, and if you repeating mistakes that you can’t hear, you are doing more harm than good.
Listen and Make Changes
This is where it gets hard. Listening to the recording you just made is so eye-opening, and often disappointing. You’ll inevitably hear things you don’t like, or be shocked that what you hear under your ear is not what people are hearing across the room. You’re a musician, you’ll never be completely happy with how you sound, that’s just how it is. You’re not alone. Don’t dwell on the negatives, or tell yourself that you suck, or relegate yourself to teaching snotty little children who don’t appreciate your talent or your efforts-figure out what it is you need to change, and work on making that change! Bravo to you for recognizing that you can be better, and knowing how to get there.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Listen to the same recording a few times, and listen for different things. Here are some possibilities of different things to listen for.
• The first pass, listen for rhythmic accuracy.
• The second pass, listen for dynamics.
• The third pass, listen for intonation.
Recording yourself is especially helpful the closer to the audition that you get, when you are more prepared and can be more specific about what needs to improve. However, the more you do it, the more you’ll improve.
3) Play along with recordings.
If you haven’t played the excerpts in their original context, (that is: in an orchestra) playing along to a recording can be extremely beneficial. If you’ve been practicing the excerpts by yourself, playing with the track can really put things back in perspective. Often when you start practicing by yourself again, you’ll be able to hear the other instruments playing in your head. And that’s exactly what you want.
A couple small suggestions when you’re attempting this:
• Try to get the volume loud enough, so no playing along with your laptop speakers: make it comparable to actually being in an orchestra. If you can get the volume on your stereo loud enough, you should be able to play normally and still hear everything going on.
• Tune your instrument to the track. This may be difficult if the excerpt is in 5 flats, you may have to tune it to a different part of the piece. Also Euopean orchestras tune much sharper than American orchestras, sometimes as high as A=445, so take that into account.
4) Play for other people
After you’ve been practicing and recording yourself for a while. Go play your list of excerpts for other people. If you can find musician colleagues to listen to you and give some feedback, excellent! If you only have non-musician friends around, play for them too and get some of your nerves out.
If you are planning on taking a lesson from a prestigious teacher don’t wait until it’s too close to the audition. You don’t want someone to tell you to change everything you’re doing a couple of days before the audition. It’d be better to go earlier even if you don’t feel ready (remember, you’ll never feel completely ready). You need some time to practice and be comfortable with new bowings or fingerings, otherwise when the pressure of the audition is on, you’ll revert back to your old method, or some strange combination of the two.
5) Simulate the audition conditions
One of the biggest difference between people who win auditions and those who don’t is experience. The more of them you take, the more comfortable you will become with the whole process. But that’s not going to help you with this audition that you are preparing for right now; what you need to do is practice taking auditions.
First of all, an audition is a very bizarre and unnatural situation. I mean, when else in life are you going perform for only a couple of people who cannot see you, and play 2 minutes of a concerto, 30 seconds of Mozart, 35 seconds of Brahms, and 30 seconds of Strauss? (Maybe a recital for blind people with A.D.D?) The point is, you need to practice simulating this strange situation.
Replicating all the conditions of an audition probably isn’t possible, at least not without some serious creativity and some accommodating friends. But if you can simulate a few of the common occurrences at auditions, you’ll be that much more prepared.
• Wear the clothes you’re going to wear on the audition day. If the audition is blind, this isn’t that big of a deal, as you can wear your bright orange sweat pants if you really want. But if you know the panel will see you, make sure you know what it’s like playing in your dress clothes, shoes etc.
• Recruit some friends or family to listen to you. Pretend they are the jury panel and have them call out excerpts in any order.
• Play behind a screen. This is where your creativity comes into play, pin a sheet to the ceiling, or drape it between two floor lamps. If you’ve never taken an audition before, playing behind a screen is more unusual than you’d think.
• Simulate being nervous by running up a flight of stairs before you start. This will get your heart beating a little faster than normal. (one flight is all it takes for me, if you’re really in-shape, repeat as needed).
• Adjust the temperature in the room. Do your hands get cold while playing? Do they get sweaty? Practice playing in those conditions, and they won’t be distracting on the day when it counts.
• Play through the repertoire-no stopping, no talking. If you have a large list of excerpts, consider holding multiple rounds.
• Have your friends ask for different interpretations: Sometimes the panel will ask for strange things-passages more off the string, more on the string, different tempi, dynamics, while standing on one foot and reciting the alphabet-who knows? Conductors often want to find someone who can change things on the spot.
• Have a friend conduct while you play. This can happen in an audition, so make sure you know those excerpts well enough to watch.
1) Make sure you know the dates and deadlines.
This seems pretty obvious, but if you are preparing for multiple auditions at the same time, you may get the different deadlines confused. And it doesn’t matter how well you play, if you miss the entry deadline, you won’t get a chance to play even one note. So get organized from the beginning.
There are probably two or three dates you need to go circle on your calendar:
The Application deadline,
the Pre-Screen/Tape Round deadline,
and of course, the Audition Day itself.
Put these dates on your calendar, circle them, block them off etc. And make sure you don’t book yourself for other gigs over the audition day.
2) Get the sheet music together, and bracket the excerpts.
Once you know the dates, find yourself some copies of the excerpts that you have to play. If the orchestra sent you all the excerpts, then you are in great shape, proceed to step No. 3. Sometimes the orchestra you are auditioning for will send you some of the really obscure, or hard to find excerpts: Shostakovich, Bruckner, Mahler etc. Before the days of imslp.org, it used to be a pain in the neck to find excerpts.
It still is a great idea to buy original parts to the entire symphonies that the excerpts come from if you have the cash for that. Otherwise, you may want to try to photocopy a good edition with some good bowings and fingerings from your friend, teacher, library, your local orchestra’s library etc.
Once you have all the excerpts together, be meticulous about knowing which measures of each excerpt are being asked. Excerpts vary from one audition to another, and Chicago might want 5 more measures of the same Mozart excerpt than San Diego, for instance. Bracket off the measures, and make a note about which audition it is for especially if you are preparing for multiple auditions.
It’s also a good idea to keep the list of the requested excerpts handy. Tape it to the back of your music stand and reference it often. The last thing you want is to get to the audition and realize you didn’t prepare one of the excerpts.
3) Listen to the Excerpts
By now, you’re probably eager to start practicing them, but do yourself a favor. Listen to them first! This is usually one of the most depressing parts of the journey for me, because I realize the amount of work that I am going to have to do to play the excerpts. It’s like staring up at Mt. Everest: there’s so far to go. But, listening to the excerpts gives you a headstart in learning the rhythms, notes, dynamics, tempi, and style.
Don’t dwell on the recordings forever, you’ve got to keep moving. Listening to the excerpts is something you should do early and often. When you have more time, listen to the entire symphony or work, and other works by the same composer. The audition panel isn’t just looking for someone who can play the right notes at the right time, they want someone who understands the style of the composer, and how their part fits in with the rest of the orchestra, and you have to know what else is going on in addition to your part if you want to win.
Listen to multiple recordings of the same excerpt if you can, and of course, if you can find a recording from the orchestra or conductor that you are auditioning for, definitely listen to that one.
4) Find a target metronome marking range for each excerpt.
While you are listening to the excerpts, grab your metronome, which is going to become your new best friend during the audition preparations. Find an approximate metronome marking for each of the excerpts you need to prepare. If you can, find multiple recordings of the same excerpt. You’ll soon discover that there are some very different interpretations of each excerpt. Find a target range of metronome markings to shoot for, and write them at the top or in the margins of each excerpt.
The opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 is a good example of the extreme tempo range. Leonard Bernstein and the NY Phil recorded it at about Quarter note = 38. But Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra recorded it at Quarter note = 60.
Leonard Bernstein: New York Philharmonic, 1967
Sir Charles Mackerras: Prague Chamber Orchestra.
That’s a pretty significant tempo difference and yet both are very convincing. Write down these tempi, and see what works with you. A tempo that works for the whole orchestra, might not work so well when played by yourself. You can finalize these decisions later, now it’s time to start practicing!
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