Nailing the District Band Audition

No . . . I’m not a week late posting this.  The time to begin your preparation for this audition is now!

My studio calendar was fully booked last week, and my Inbox was full of emails with requests for last-minute lessons and make-up lessons, and my students were practicing like mad.  The cause of this craziness?  District Band Auditions.

Basically, what happens here is that the band directors in our district (and in other districts all over the state) put together an audition day, held at one of the area high schools.  Middle and high school students who want to audition for one of the three District Bands (Middle School, High School Concert and High School Symphonic) show up and are shepherded through what is similar to a professional “cattle call” preliminary round.  The difference is that they are asked to play scales (two majors, chosen from a list of required scales, and the chromatic in a specified range, in our district) and there are snack concessions.  (I want to know why there were never snack concessions at any of the professional auditions I’ve played.)

While I have a few students who compete in other venues (regional and national), for most of my students this is a BIG DEAL.  For many, it is their first audition situation, which is why I take steps to help them get it right.  A solid first audition sets the stage for audition success to come.  I’ve done this for many years, refining the preparation process, and I’ve had great success with it.  My students routinely fare well in these auditions, provided they put in the work I’ve asked them to.  So, I’d like to share my tips:

Start early, be consistent:  In our district, the middle school flutists are only asked to know their flat scales up to 4 flats.  They are not required to know any sharp scales.   Then in high school, they are asked to prepare all major scales in 2 octaves.  Many high school band flutists are only comfortable playing in flat keys, and this becomes an issue as they rush to learn all their sharp scales at once.  I start my students in sharp keys during their first year of playing, and we drill scales year-round, not just at District Band audition time.  Practice your scales DAILY.  Maybe you’ll drill your flat scales one day, and your sharp scales the next.  (If it was good enough for Julius Baker . . . )  Maybe you have a Scale Jar (full of scale flash cards).  Maybe you’re working from a scale book.  Maybe you’ve created your own routine.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you’re working consistently at this.

And remember, the band directors didn’t put scales on the audition list JUST so they could find out if you know your scales.  They’ll be listening for tone, facility, and musicality.  These are not things that can be developed in just a few weeks before an audition.  You must work on them year round.  Think about that the next time you’re tempted to blow off your technique to practice repertoire.  Technique practice is like money in the bank.

Planning, planning, planning:  Planning is everything in audition success.  Plan to get a good night’s sleep the night before the audition.  (This is not a good night to host or attend a sleepover.)  Often, students must arrive at their school very early in the morning to take a bus to another school for the audition.  You NEED adequate rest to perform at your peak.

Speaking of being at your peak, plan to eat a good breakfast, too.  Something not too light (because it could give out on you and leave you hungry right at your audition time), and not too heavy.  (You need to breathe to play, remember?)

And pack snacks.  Lots and lots of snacks.  You may need to wait a long time before it’s your turn to play, and if you rode a bus with other students from your school, you’ll also need to wait until their auditions are done before you can leave.  There will probably be concessions, yes, but save that for a treat AFTER your audition.  Most concession food is not the kind of food you want to put in your body right before an audition.  Think like an athlete.

But don’t dress like one.  I know, I know, the adjudicators are behind a screen.  And yes, I recently posted about my tendency to wear athletic clothing while teaching.  Because we’re athletes.  We are.  But we are expected to dress professionally at performance time.  I know you’ll see other kids in jeans and maybe even shorts.  I don’t care.  I want you to get in the habit of dressing professionally for auditions now.  Because you never know who you’re going to meet, and you won’t get a chance to make another first impression.  At a professional audition, you’d perhaps meet other members of the ensemble, and members of the orchestra board and administration may be helping with the audition.  It’s a networking opportunity.  This happened to me more times than I can count.  At a district audition, you may meet music education professionals and professional performers (who are often hired to help adjudicate).  These people may be in a position to help you in the future.

Further, if you dress like you mean business, you’ll play better.  I promise.   But do make sure your outfit is comfortable to play in, and keep in mind that you may be asked to sit on a hallway floor while you wait your turn.  So pants may be more practical than a skirt or dress, ladies.  Business casual is the idea here.

I mentioned the whole WAITING bit when I talked about snacks.  Oh yes.  Plan to wait for hours.  Unfortunately, a good bit of this waiting may be spent in a group warm-up room, filled with players of other instruments.  Do your warm up when you get there (if you had to leave so early you couldn’t warm up at home without waking up the neighborhood) and then sit down and relax.  Read a book.  Do some homework.  If you don’t want to listen to that gal a few feet away blast through her scales on her 18 karat, specially engraved and monogrammed gold flute, don’t.  Move further away.  Chat with a friend.  Better yet, don some headphones and listen to something else.  Just be sure to listen for your name or number, and play a little bit every now and then to keep your flute warm.   (If you are not allowed to play until your number is called, then absolutely spend the full time you’re given playing!)

Nerves!

We humans have built-in wiring that can work for us or against us in an audition situation.  It takes courage to walk into an audition space, (often a classroom at districts), and play your soul out, knowing you are being judged on EVERY LITTLE DETAIL.  To prepare for this feeling, I like to “desensitize” my students to the audition experience.  We hold mock auditions beginning a few weeks before the audition takes place.  I’ve taken the time to familiarize myself with our district’s scoring system (and have adjudicated for this and other districts before), so I create a mock score sheet, and judge the student the same way I would on the audition day.  I have them go out into the foyer outside my home studio and wait, (because, as I mentioned, and as Tom Petty confirms, “The Waiting is the Hardest Part”), while I set up the sight-reading and the recording equipment.

I have even been known to sit on the closed toilet seat lid in the bathroom off my studio, with the door slightly ajar, so I could hear and adjudicate a student who was having difficulty with the idea of a “screen”.  (Many auditions are screened, as are districts, and it can be hard, psychologically, for some people, including myself, to “play to a screen”.)

After the mock audition, I sit down with the student and review her score.  We then listen to the recording of the audition together.  (You can even record and evaluate yourself at home, of course.)  And then we strategize ways they can correct mistakes and improve their performance (and scores).

Most of my first-time “mock auditioners” say this process feels “silly”. But they ALWAYS come back AFTER the audition and tell me how glad they were we did it.  I commonly hear statements like, “I just told myself, ‘You’ve done this before,’” and “It really helped knowing exactly what to expect,” and (my favorite), “I mean, they couldn’t possibly grade me harder than YOU do!”

Additionally, there are also many, many articles and books dealing with “stage fright”, now euphemistically renamed “performance anxiety”.  My favorite book to recommend for conquering stage fears is Eloise Ristad’s  A Soprano On Her Head.  Also check out the blog, The Bullet-Proof Musician.

The Prepared Piece

It is simply not possible to over-prepare this piece.  Plan every breath.  Plan extra breaths, because you may need them under pressure.  Consider the phrasing.  Practice with a metronome.  Even plan what COLORS to use on specific notes or sections.  Overdo the dynamics, because you will surely equalize them a bit under pressure.  Make sure you know what all the terms mean.  This year, the high school flute students in my district were assigned to play an excerpt from a Koehler etude which included the marking “In the manner of a barcarolle”.  Once my students took the time to look up the meaning of the word, (a barcarolle is a gondola or boat song), they completely changed their approach to the piece!

Sight reading

It’s been said many times but can’t be overstated:  The best way to learn to sight read is to sight read.  I have my students sight read at the beginning of every lesson, and often at the end too.  I want them to feel perfectly comfortable performing from sight if necessary.  That said, there is a bit more to sight reading strategy than simply “doing it a lot”.  Practice your technique like crazy.  The more tools you have in your technique “bag of tricks”, the easier sight-reading will be.  And when it’s time to sight-read, be sure to take time to notice a few things before you begin:  Who wrote the piece?  When did he live and what was going on around him at the time?  What sorts of tempo or style markings do you see?  What key is the piece in?  What meter?  Does any of this change during the piece? Make note of any technically difficult passages, and don’t play the piece any faster than you can play these well.

Pro-tip:  DO THE DYNAMICS.  Once, many years ago, I sat on a district audition panel, in a very competitive district, where we heard approximately 100 flutists during the day.  Many of them were quite good, a few played very musically, and most of them at least played the correct rhythms and notes.  However, out of the 100 flutists we heard, only ONE played dynamics in the sight-reading.  This candidate appeared near the end of the day, and the panel was exhausted.  Therefore, we were SO elated to hear the dynamics which had been missing from everyone else’s reading.  We gave this candidate VERY high sight-reading marks.  (She also had a beautiful tone, solid technique, and good rhythm.) Guess who won the day?  It can be hard to remember the dynamics when you’re just fighting to play the right notes, but it pays off!

Have fun:

Yes!  Have fun at your audition.  Like a performance, the practicing and rehearsing are where the work is.  Performing is the best part, and it’s why professional musicians do what we do.  Performing is FUN!  I once had a student who possessed excellent technique and was very musical, but sometimes tied herself up overthinking the piece.  That “overthinking” quality is what got her to such a high level as a player, so it’s not to be dismissed by any means.  We SHOULD overthink in the preparation process.  But sometimes I had to remind her to stop, smile, exhale, and play.  And she would.  And it sounded miles better.  Practice LOVING what you do, and you will soon be able to access that ability even in an audition.

Happy practicing!  Happy auditioning!  And have fun.

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About fluteromano

An active freelancer, private teacher, and university professor settles down to raise a few kids in a small town. For my professional bio, please see my studio website: www.charleneromano.musicteachershelper.com.

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