By Sammy Johnson
I had the unique opportunity to experience two auditions in two days, but in two ways. The first audition, I was on the panel as a principal woodwind and was responsible for listening and ultimately deciding who would be joining the ensemble. The second audition I switched roles and become the musician who was auditioning for the coveted spot of a principal woodwind. This was an interesting experience for me because I had taken many auditions prior to sitting on a panel for the first time, but the mindset of a panelist was fresh in my mind by the time I took my next audition, a mere one day later.
I took note of three important points during my time as a panelist and turned them into advice to help me (and you!) in future auditions.
1. Musicians Win Auditions
Thank you, Captain Obvious! But on a serious note (pun intended), musicianship is what makes someone stand out. Yes, rhythm and tone (notice how I didn’t say missed notes) matter, but the folks that popped right to the top of the pile were the ones that had confident, deliberate, and meaningful ideas about the interpretation of the excerpts. The panel overlooked missed notes and minor “blips” when the person had very clear ideas about the music and conveyed this through phrasing, dynamics, placement, and control. It became very apparent to me that I started not caring if someone missed a note, but I cared a lot if they missed a rhythm or played quite monotonous.
My advice: KNOW the excerpts. Know the orchestra accompaniment or the piano accompaniment for solos. Hear the orchestra or piano, as if you were in a chamber ensemble with your inner ear. Pretend the conductor is showing the exact phrasing and interpretation that you can’t help but follow. Practice mentally as well as physically by not only listening to multiple recordings of the excerpts but sitting quietly and hearing the excerpt in your head with the exact interpretation you hope to convey. This may also be referred to as envisioning, or imagining yourself playing the excerpt exactly as you would in the audition. And obvious but always true, use your metronome!
2. Tone Quality is THE First Impression
I hate to admit it, but bad tone was an immediate disqualifier for me. As a clarinetist, I get that we all have bad reed days, but it is hard to be sympathetic when you have an entire day of clarinets to listen to. I was listening to people I was going to have to play with, blend with, and tune with. For me, tone was almost more important than anything else because phrasing and interpretation are in the conductor’s hands once you are in the ensemble. It’s much easier to ask someone to lengthen a note here or add an alargando there, but it is tough to tell someone, “I am having trouble blending with your tone and tuning with you.”
My Advice: Love those LONG TONES. I agree, long tones are boring, but boy do they help ensure your air support and tongue position are where they need to be. Record yourself and be extremely nitpicky about your tone quality in all registers and in all articulations. For reed players, have at least 4 good reeds going into audition day. I like to have 6-8 to feel really comfortable. Reeds change as you travel to different climates or even different levels of humidity within a building, so a plethora of different strengths is a smart plan. Good tone will help build confidence and might actually make playing the audition excerpts enjoyable!
3. The Audition Begins When you Walk on Stage
I didn’t think we would run into this issue since the majority of our applicants were well-trained musicians, but the audition begins the moment you walk on stage. Even when you are behind a screen, you are being judged from your warm-up to the amount of time you take between excerpts. Your warm-up can truly break your audition. Please, do not play 32nd-notes through 6 registers as your warm up. This is cocky and completely unnecessary. You will have several eye rolls from the panel that you cannot see. And do not use your warm up to ‘test your reed’, meaning no bulges in sound or random squeaks. Your reed should be set and ready to go when you walk on stage. Taking an extended break between each excerpt can also throw off your presentation and potentially even annoy the panelists. I found myself thinking, “This person is not very confident about this next excerpt,” which unfortunately gave me a bad mindset once the person began the excerpt.
My Advice: Plan a simple warm up, probably within an octave or two, and play it at a mp or mf. Make it less than 3 seconds because the panel does not want to hear a long drawn out warm up. Your warm up should simply test that your reed is responding in the new room and allow you to quickly gauge the wetness/dryness of the reverb. The best auditions had a short, simple warm-up that did not distract the panel and did not give the panel a chance to create a biased opinion based on the warm-up of the musician. Take a reasonable amount of time between excerpts, as well, meaning take enough time to release air, clear any water in the instrument, exhale again, and intake a breath for your next excerpt, so maybe 10-12 seconds.