Today I mark my return to blogging after a summer off by reposting one of the more important and popular articles from this blog. With high school students are preparing for auditions for all-state groups and similar ensembles around this time of year, posting this article every fall seems appropriate.
Let me also remind Mississippi band students that I have posted a series of videos on my Ole Miss website specifically related to preparing low brass players to audition for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band. While some of the material below repeats information covered in those videos, the ideas here are intended to be more broadly applicable, both to students that play other instruments, and to those taking auditions in other states. Teachers, please feel free to share these ideas with your students if you think they will be helpful.
1. Keep your instrument in optimum working condition.
This should be obvious, but often a student’s playing is hindered by a slide that doesn’t move well, frozen piston valves, noisy rotary valves, etc. If your instrument has a problem of some kind, have your band director or private teacher check it. Perhaps all that is needed is a thorough cleaning, or a minute adjustment. If your teacher is unable to resolve the problem, take your instrument to be serviced by a qualified technician.
When your instrument is in good working order, make sure to clean and lubricate it regularly. Often mechanical problems that can “make or break” an audition are the result of a lack of proper care and maintenance, and these always seem to occur at the most inopportune time. Regular maintenance will not only prevent damage, but will make your instrument easier and more fun to play, help your practice sessions to be more productive, and very likely lead to success in the audition.
2. Practice. Every day.
When you’re not practicing, one of your competitors is. The students that earn the top chairs in all-state auditions have a disciplined and consistent approach to practice, often practicing for 10 to 15 hours per week (or about 1.5 to 2 hours per day), if not more. I recommend conceiving of your practice time in terms of a weekly schedule rather than a daily one, as this has the advantage of allowing you to plan for days that you might not be able to practice as much (because of band festivals, extra homework, church activities, etc.) and compensate by practicing more on the days when you have more time available. Do make sure that you do at least some practicing every day, though. Even 10-20 minutes on an extremely busy day is better than nothing.
3. Begin each day with a thorough warm-up/maintenance routine.
Some time each day should be spent on playing fundamentals, including breathing exercises, mouthpiece buzzing exercises, long tones, articulation exercises, lip slurs, and range extension exercises. Make sure that you have some way of systematically addressing each of these areas every day, seeking to both maintain and extend your fundamental playing skills. Some routines that I have constructed for this purpose can be found here.
4. Spend 20-50% of your practice time on playing fundamentals.
Continuing with the previous thought, the ideal “warm-up” routine contains much more material than the body needs to be ready to play a band rehearsal or even give a concert. Rather, successful players spend a significant portion of their practice time working on fundamental skills like those mentioned above. In my own playing I have found that the more time I spend on developing fundamental playing skills, the less time I need to spend in order to prepare actual repertoire for performance or auditions. And, since these fundamental skills apply to essentially every piece of music, I do not have to “reinvent the wheel” every time I learn a new piece. Instead, I am able to quickly discern what skills and techniques are needed for a given piece and immediately apply them, thus greatly reducing the amount of practice needed to learn and master a new piece of music. This means that I am able to cover a very large amount of music in each practice session.
When you are preparing for an important audition or performance, aim for spending at least 20% of your practice time (approximately 12 minutes of a one-hour practice day or 24 minutes of a two-hour practice day) on fundamentals. If you have nothing “big” coming up, consider spending as much as 50% of your practice time on fundamentals. This can seem repetitive at times, but it pays huge dividends for your playing in the future!
5. Play everything with the best sound you can produce.
Ambitious high school students tend to place a lot of emphasis on range and speed; to use a common expression, playing “higher, faster, and louder.” This tendency is not altogether bad, as one of the purposes of activities like all-state auditions is to push students to extend their technical capabilities on their instruments. However, it is easy to forget that none of these things really matter if one plays with a poor or uncharacteristic tone.
I often illustrate this concept to my students by playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the trombone. By most accounts, this is a difficult technical feat. The first time I play it, I play with a good, characteristic trombone sound, and students are usually quite impressed. But then, I play it a second time, this time with an extremely poor sound. I’m playing just as quickly, double-tonguing just as much, and moving the slide just as accurately, and yet students usually find this second performance to be rather unimpressive. Nobody cares how “high, fast, and loud” you can play if your sound is poor.
Make a concerted effort to play everything with the best sound you can produce. Even scales can sound great, and since scales are usually the first things played in an audition, you can set a positive tone (sorry) for the entire audition by playing them with a good sound. Then maintain that great sound through the prepared pieces and sight reading. This will certainly improve your score for the entire audition.
6. Memorize your scales, and practice them at least once per day. They have to be automatic!
Scales are a big part of every all-state audition, and yet they are so often played poorly. Successful students memorize all of their scales (this is required in most states, including Mississippi, but some states allow the use of a scale sheet during the audition, unfortunately). If you don’t have your scales memorized yet, make this a priority—you don’t want to enter the audition room still unsure about one or more of the required scales.
When the audition is several weeks or even months away, it is helpful to practice your scales slowly, in order to foster playing with a great tone quality (see above), and playing in tune. As you increase in proficiency, keep working to play faster, but if intonation or tone quality begin to suffer, return to practicing slowly. The goal is to play fast, AND in tune, AND with a good sound.
Most band students are more familiar with the “flat” scales than with the “sharp” scales. This makes sense, as most band music is written in “flat keys” (at least when referring to “concert” pitch). If you are having trouble with certain keys, then practice those scales twice as much as the ones with which you are more familiar. When you walk into the audition room, you want to be equally comfortable—or at least sound like you are equally comfortable—with every scale.
Regarding range, in some states all students play each scale in the same prescribed range. In others (including Mississippi), students are rewarded for pursuing extra octaves. If yours is a “prescribed range” state, then make sure you can play all of the scales in the prescribed range. Playing less than that will result in a huge deduction from your score. If your state rewards extra octaves, then play as many octaves as you can in the allotted time, but do not attempt range that you cannot play well every time. Hearing a student “nail” a “high R-sharp” is always impressive, and that student will earn a high score. However, the student that strains and reaches for that “R-sharp” might have scored better if he stuck with a range he could play well.
7. Know the definitions of all of the musical terms in your etudes.
Musical instructions are usually written in Italian, sometimes in German, and sometimes in French. Rarely are these instructions written in English. And yet, those listening to your playing will expect you to know what the terms in at least your prepared pieces mean, and to observe them in your performance. There is no excuse for ignoring these terms, and yet I have listened to auditions in which 70% or more of the students completely ignored one or more terms, and as a result gave performances that were wildly “off the mark.” If you want to earn a high score, follow the instructions, regardless of the language in which those instructions are written. To do even better, try to memorize a large number of common terms, so that you can also correctly observe any markings in the sight reading part of the audition.
By the way, “in the old days” we had to purchase music dictionaries in order to look up the meanings of musical terms, and sometimes we had to refer to Italian-English dictionaries, for example, in order to find more obscure terms. Today, you can quickly and easily find the definition of any term simply by “Googling it.” In short, there is no excuse. Know what terms mean, and do what they say!
8. Use a metronome, and practice your scales and etudes both slower and faster than the prescribed tempos.
These days, there is no excuse for not owning and using a metronome in one’s daily practice. Not only can simple metronomes be purchased inexpensively at most music stores, but also cheap or free metronome programs can be found to work with computers and most smartphones or tablets. I recommend using the metronome not only to foster correct rhythm and timing when practicing scales and etudes at the prescribed tempos, but also to enable systematic practice at both slower and faster tempos. The process I use is as follows:
First, practice materials at 50% of the indicated tempo. This is for the purpose of working out fingerings, articulations, and tone quality without the pressures created by playing faster. For etudes that are already slow, practicing at half tempo will foster better phrasing. Try to phrase in the same way and breathe in the same places as you would when playing at tempo. You will then have a much easier time making your phrases when you resume playing faster.
Second, practice at 75% of the indicated tempo. This provides a convenient “halfway point” between the slower tempo you practiced before and the tempo for which you are striving.
Third, practice at the indicated tempo. Having followed the two steps indicated above, you will find that playing at tempo will be much easier for you than if you had begun by practicing this quickly. Continue using the metronome to ensure that you are counting and keeping time accurately.
Fourth, practice at 125% of the indicated tempo. This is especially helpful for the scales and faster etudes. This tempo will feel extremely fast, and even frantic, but still attempt it, even if you are never able to make your playing as clean as you would like at this tempo.
Finally, return to the indicated tempo. Having worked out notes, fingerings, tone, tuning, and phrasing at slower tempos, and then at least tried to master the necessary technique at faster tempos, playing at tempo will feel balanced, even, and relatively relaxed. Alternate playing with and without the metronome for this step.
Not all of these steps need to be completed each day, particularly as you become more proficient at playing your scales and etudes, but these are necessary when first beginning work on your audition materials, and later on are still useful for occasional “refreshers.”
9. Mark your breaths.
One helpful practice that is neglected by many students is that of planning and marking breaths. While you will be playing your scales from memory, go ahead and practice breathing at the same place(s) every time you play a given scale.
In the prepared pieces, make a clear mark at the places where you know you will breathe, and then some smaller markings in parentheses in places where you can breathe “if you have to.” By planning your breaths and then breathing in the same places every time you practice your scales and etudes, you will deliver a more consistent and pleasing musical result, and will also take an important step toward mitigating the effects of nervousness. Because you will have practiced breathing—deeply—in the same places each time, when you are in the audition room you will be likely to continue breathing deeply in those places, rather than taking unplanned and shallow breaths as people tend to do when they are “on edge.”
In order to determine where to breathe, sit down with your prepared pieces and a pencil, without your instrument. Note the places where musical phrases end (look for the ends of phrase markings or slurred lines in particular), and mark breaths in those places, as well as during any rests. In short, figure out where the music itself indicates pauses, and plan to breathe in those places. If this yields too few breaths, or if you are afraid you might need some “extra,” mark additional possible breaths in parentheses. Because you are using pencil, you can always erase and adjust your planned breathing if necessary, but by planning breaths without your instrument you are allowing the music to determine where you breathe, rather than your subjective “felt need” for air. This will yield a very mature and pleasing performance.
10. Don’t practice something until you get it right once. Practice it until you can’t get it wrong!
As an applied lesson teacher, I can easily tell when a student has not practiced, but I can also tell when a student has practiced something until he “got it right once.” This student will play with a good tone quality and pretty good technique that are indicative of regular practice, but when playing scales, etudes, and solo literature he will make interesting mistakes. When questioned, he will say that he made that same mistake repeatedly when practicing. Immediately, I am aware that the student practiced that etude at least three times each day, making the mistake twice, and “getting it right” the third time. What’s the problem with this? The student has practiced playing incorrectly twice as many times as he has practiced playing correctly!
When preparing for the audition, don’t run through troublesome passages until you play them correctly one time—repeat those passages until you get them right five or even ten times successively. By doing this, you will make a habit of playing these passages correctly, instead of having to address the same mistakes each time you practice.
11. Sight read something every day.
The sight reading portion of the audition is the scariest part for many students, largely because it is the most “unknown” element of the audition. While it would be impossible to prepare for the specific piece that you will encounter during the sight reading portion of a given audition, you can greatly improve your chances of succeeding at this part simply by sight reading something each day. There are a number of books available with short etudes designed for sight reading practice, and I have even recommended a few of them, but the main thing is that you find unfamiliar music of a variety of styles, time signatures, key signatures, tempos, and levels of difficulty, and sight read as much of it as you can. This will make you more familiar and comfortable with the process. Make sure also that you have a teacher or some other knowledgeable individual listen to your sight reading from time to time, to make sure that you aren’t making any unnoticed mistakes.
12. Get a private teacher.
Even the best band director has too many obligations, too little time, and not enough expertise on every instrument to effectively coach all of his or her students for all-state auditions. If at all possible, arrange for regular lessons with a private teacher that is knowledgeable about your instrument and the audition process. This person will help you to put the ideas listed here as well as other helpful concepts into practice, and will (provided that you follow his or her instructions) greatly increase your chances of playing a successful audition. Ask your band director for names and contact information of qualified teachers in your area. You might also look for professors and students at nearby universities and community colleges, and perhaps even professional players if you live near a large city. (If you live within driving distance of Oxford, send me an email—I can take on a few more high school students.)
An added benefit of private instruction is that your teacher’s ideas will apply not only to the immediate goal of making the all-state band, but to making you a better player overall. If you want to continue playing in college—and particularly if you want to major in music—this extra help might literally “pay off” in the form of higher band scholarship offers.
13. Dress for the occasion.
One change in the “culture” of auditions that I have observed over the past fifteen years or so is the increasing informality of dress among students auditioning. When I was a high school student, it was not unusual for young men to wear a shirt and tie and perhaps a sport coat for auditions and for young women to wear a blouse and skirt or even a dress. In recent years, I have noticed more and more students auditioning wearing jeans and t-shirts—and not even their “good” jeans and t-shirts! This is not a positive development, in my opinion.
The way that you dress communicates something about the seriousness with which you take a given endeavor. When you make an effort to “dress up” for an occasion, you communicate to others (and yourself) that you believe you are doing something important. When I serve as an audition judge, a student that walks into the room smartly dressed communicates to me that he takes his playing seriously, and before the first note is played, I have unconsciously begun to form positive expectations about how that student will perform. Conversely, a student whose appearance is slovenly communicates a negative image, and my expectations are likewise negative. That might not seem “fair,” but judges are human, and will inevitably form “first impressions” of some kind. Make sure you the impression you make is a good one!
By the way, this counsel even applies in the case of “blind” auditions (those in which the judges cannot see the student auditioning). While it might seem absurd to “dress up” when those evaluating your playing will not be able to see you, there is something to be said for how your dress affects your own self-perception and carriage. By dressing well for the audition, you are mentally preparing yourself for the important task at hand, and you will be more likely to conduct yourself throughout the process in a manner most conducive to playing a great audition.
14. Be confident.
Part of playing a successful audition is carrying yourself and then playing in a confident manner. If you have prepared diligently for the audition, you have no reason not to be sure about yourself and your playing, and your entire presentation, from the way you dress (see above) to the way you play each of the required items should communicate confidence and poise. While this may not directly impact your score, self-assured students to tend to play better, which does have a direct impact on the final score.
Perhaps you are like me, and inevitably have a greater or lesser degree of “butterflies in your stomach” every time you play a high-stakes audition or performance. In such situations, you feel anything but confident! If this describes you, you might find it helpful to “fake it.” Put on an air of confidence, even though you don’t feel that way at all. Not only will your judges view your playing in a more positive light, but you might find that by feigning self-confidence you “psych yourself in” to actually being more confident, and thus playing better.
15. Have FUN!!!
Auditions are nerve-racking experiences, and the entire process—from practice and preparation to the audition day itself—can become anything but fun. In such situations, it is easy to forget that one of the main reasons we took up playing our instruments in the first place was the enjoyment that our playing provides to ourselves and others. Make sure that you include something “fun” in your practice time each day, and as you prepare the “hard stuff,” keep the end goal of the audition in mind. Performing great music at a high level with students that take music seriously is an exciting and fun experience afforded to relatively few high school band members. The hard work required to get there is worth it!