“Do you remember that 80 year old piece of crap bassoon? I won First Chair All-State on that POC! Well, and maybe the 104 degree fever helped.”
I know exactly what my friend Michelle means. It sounds odd, but there’s something about being ill that removes all expectations we place on ourselves in an audition. I remember the first time I auditioned sick; it was also the first time I won.
I was a junior in high school, and I overslept. I woke up to my friend Amy pounding on my window, an act she had resorted to after ringing the doorbell and knocking on our front door proved worthless. It was the day of our District Band Auditions. I woke up, threw on some clothes and ran out the door to her mom’s car. I was under-rested, feeling cruddy, and I probably hadn’t even brushed my teeth. I closed my eyes and tried to catch some sleep on the hour drive to the high school where the auditions were being held.
Instead, I ended up thinking about all my failed auditions in the past. I was a good, strong player but a terrible auditioner. I would shake and forget everything I knew, everything I’d practiced, in the terror of the audition room. My tone would become this unfocused, nearly inaudible thing that only EVER appeared in auditions. Often, I would leave the room unable to remember or clearly articulate what even happened in there. My band directors were repeatedly flabbergasted when I didn’t get in, and frustrated by my lack of explanation.
I suspect my audition nerves were due to a combination of wanting it too much and low self-esteem. Back in my teenage years, I knew I was competing with students who’d had private lessons since the day they’d picked up the flute, (I didn’t get lessons until high school), and I somehow concluded this made them not just better than me, but more worthy somehow. I felt I had to prove something, which I now understand is a death knell to the process of building and executing a good audition. Nothing worries me in audition prep world more than when a student comes in and says, “I HAVE to win. I have to prove _______.” When they say that, I know I have to help them change their attitude and purpose, or the audition is sunk before it even starts.
When we arrived at the high school, I went to the audition table to sign up for a time. This year, my band director had wisely suggested I audition on piccolo instead of flute. “You excel on that instrument, and the competition is less tight. Maybe you won’t blow it on piccolo, Baughan.” (This sounds harsh, but my high school band director was never one to mince words, and we knew he had our best interests at heart. He was also fond of calling us by our last names.) We were permitted to choose any slot we wanted. I was the first to sign up. I signed up for number 10. I decided that would give me time to eat breakfast, possibly take another nap, and warm up.
I had not packed anything to eat. And so it was that I was sitting in the commons area of this school with a mouthful of concession stand donut when a friend came to tell me, “They called your number! Why aren’t you IN there?!”
“I signed up as Number 10. They can’t be to my number yet,” I replied, through a mouthful of jelly donut.
Some quick and frantic research turned up that the students running the sign-in station had let everyone choose their own number. All the other piccolo players had signed up to go BEHIND me. And so they were starting with 10. Gah! And so I ran to the warm up room and played a few scales and long tones, and the next thing I knew I was standing outside the audition room.
(Pro-tip to band directors hosting auditions: Do not assign the piccolo audition to a storage closet. Painful, very painful.)
I remember feeling my usual nerves, multiplied by the numbers fiasco, rush over me as I walked into the room. I remember noticing how small the room was, and realizing it was going to be dry. I remember thinking, “I’ve overslept; I didn’t eat; My warm-up was cut short; I’m sick. How could this get any WORSE?!” Oh. How could it get any worse. It couldn’t. I had nothing to lose. I also remember getting a little mad about the whole situation, and feeling a little bad-ass. And I remember deciding that I was just going to play the way I played – and so what if the judges didn’t like it.
I placed first in the piccolo line-up that year. And the following year, I successfully auditioned (though not as well, I still had much to learn about auditions) on flute. The lessons I learned from that audition have stayed with me. Of course I don’t recommend that my students oversleep or get sick, and I heartily recommend packing your own snacks along to any audition. But I began to draw on that feeling, that feeling of “who cares what they think”, “what have I got to lose”, with a little dose of flute bad-assery, (Out of my way, I will now rock this room), anytime I was in an audition situation and feeling the nerves and doubts creep in.
As my friend Michelle says, “When you are sick, you know nobody will fault you, so you just do your best. You feel so bad, you can’t be nervous or anxious. True talent shows through.”
A few years ago, I had a student win an audition while playing on only one lung. (The other one was collapsed.) She crawled out of bed, went to the audition, played the audition, and went home and crawled back into bed.
Of course, I’m a big proponent of musicians staying healthy. Eat well. Exercise. Manage the way you stand and sit and hold your instrument to develop a healthy posture that will promote longevity and reduce injuries. Get a good night’s sleep the night before the audition, and wake up in plenty of time so you’re not rushed in anything you do leading up to the audition. But when you’re standing outside the audition space, and the nerves and doubts creep in, maybe it’s slightly healthy to be a little sick.