It must be that time of year – football seasons are half over (except those of you football teams is boasting a 5-1 record like yours truly) , homecoming dances are playing their last slow dance (here’s hoping it’s Stairway to Heaven), and directors of ensembles everywhere are thinning out paperwork and are finally able to find portions of their desk (except yours truly). But the other item that is drawing upon us (and sometimes surprising quickly) are auditions. Auditions in the school ensembles, auditions for honor groups, auditions for college and university bound seniors – the list goes on and on. It can be a stressful and fretful time for directors and student alike, and if not handled correctly can be the cause of a groups’ loss of synergy and cohesiveness.
One of the first things I address with each of my own ensembles is the rationale for auditions. I have found that students carry misconceptions about why they have to audition, and it causes undo anxiety that adversely affects their performance. My first point to the group is that this is a collection of data about their current abilities. I want to put them in the best possible position for growth, development, and ultimately success as a musician. The formative data collected from auditions allows me to plan individual instruction (in lessons), and ensemble rehearsal plans based on the strengths and weaknesses in each group. It is also a factor in the selection of music – is this the right year to showcase the clarinets? What song would best develop the young low brass section? Does this piece give the ensemble an educational opportunity to develop musical expression and sensitivity? Some years the results of auditions let me know I have a lot of work ahead of me. Other years it has let me know to keep setting the bar a notch higher than the students’ think they can reach.
Students equate a bad audition within our ensembles equal to a bad grade. The further downward spiral is that the student feels that they can never make a positive musical contribution to the ensemble. Granted, some of these students may never get a scholarship for their musical abilities. That does not excuse us (as directors) from attempting to give them the best music education experience possible. My own opinion is that once auditions within my own groups has been completed that I give the students full credit for that “assignment” or “test”. Each time I administer playing exams later in the year, I take into account where the student started after the first audition and their progress to that point. The audition data allows me to track the student’s individual progress and grade them accordingly. Students also get upset because following an audition they may be assigned a lower part than they feel the deserve. Again I revisit my role and desire to educate them and put them in the best possible situation for success – if that means a whole semester playing second alto, or singing soprano II so you can improve and make the ensemble better – that is exactly what I am going to do. I have had years where after I audition the group, the part assignment for the group did not change. Other years, a massive reorder of chairs is necessary. Not every director probably would choose this method, but I feel it is the best of all options for helping students achieve their full musical potential.
The worst scenario in an audition is watching and/or listening to a student who completely crumbles under the pressure. A former assistant, Doug Butchy, shared with me one day a thought on auditions from one of his private teachers – “You have to be 110% ready for the audition, because any case of nerves at all is going to knock you back down.” I use blind auditions – student helpers assist with the audio recording, I don’t know the student names until auditions are done – and it is very frustrating to hear a student completely fall apart and rattle themselves right out of being musical. During my tenure at Mercer, I have heard many great auditions at our District Festivals (also blind, but live auditions) – and likewise where a student cannot win for trying. Other auditions that fall in the middle (in terms of scoring and rank) show flashes of great musicianship but not the great consistency from start to finish. Preparation for auditions is of paramount importance. Auditions usually have dates attached to them. The key is reminding our students of these “deadlines” and make sure we are active in helping them block out their preparation time wisely.
I offer some suggestions (and I would enjoy hearing some of yours) for preparing students for auditions:
1) Make a practice schedule: Know the date of the audition, and work backwards to map out what you need to work on, and when the work needs to happen. Veteran directors and private studio teachers are a tremendous resource that could be tapped into better understanding the musical demands of the auditions.
2) Make the audition an extension of the process: Is music ends or means? Is it product or process? My contention will always be if the means/process is sound (no pun here, sorry), logical, and sequential the ends/product will be great. Don’t audition for Honors Band just to make the band – audition for Honors Band to push yourself as a musician. Some of us crammed for finals at least once in our life. Cramming for an audition is like serving a microwave dinner on Thanksgiving – it looks good on the box, and may smell vaguely familiar but you know full well the quality of the meal is going to be missing.
3) Seek advice from others: Some directors fear their students studying privately with another teacher. I don’t. I embrace it. I love to hear about it. It is an opportunity for your student to grow, mature, and give back to the rest of the ensemble a fresh perspective you may not have thought of yet. If it is counterproductive, meet the truth head-on: confront the student and the private teacher if you question the advice/instruction that has been given. It doesn’t have to be an ugly situation – it should be thought provoking for all involved.
4) Arrange for pre-audition presentations: I make every student who auditions for our District Honors Band play at least half of their solo for the entire ensemble. A room full of 40 of their peers really breaks through the nerves. It is also an enriching experience for the ensemble as they listen. New respect found from class mates. Inspiration can find younger musicians. It can be an upward spiral. I am fortunate to have two ex-music teachers (Hendley Hoge and Tina Greig) in my building. I have utilized them on many occasions to get a fresh set of ears to give feedback to an auditioning student.
5) Be healthy leading to auditions: Sounds easy right? Wrong. Students should be reminded their mind and body need rest to prepare for big auditions – just like athletes prepare for big games. Don’t think that diet should not be a consideration either. This is going to sound crazy but on the day of auditions: Turkey sandwiches and ginger ale. Ginger ale settles the stomach, and the triti….the trich….the stuff that makes you sleepy found in turkey – can take a little bit of the edge of a mind that is racing and apprehensive.
6) Make clear the expectations: Make sure that the student you are helping understands your expectations of him for the audition (It varies a lot from director to director). But don’t leave the student out of expectations! They need – as Dennis Leary said years ago – “to set goals” and expect certain things of themselves throughout the entire process.
I once asked a student what the best part of his audition was. He responded by saying “When I got done!” When I asked him what he had learned about going through this process he told me “I was more nervous playing for the three backs of the directors than I was playing for a solo on the 50 yard line! I thought this was going to be as easy as pie.” Auditions are not easy as pie – and from someone who has self-proclaimed “mad pie making skills” – making pies can result in failure just as easily. They can fail to play a series of ascending chromatic runs. They can fail to play or sing with good intonation. They can fail at performing a section in mixed meter. The biggest failure we can make with a student after an audition is not taking time to help them understand how to improve. Students will only fail an audition if they do not learn something about themselves as a musician after it has been completed.