Thursday, January 18, 2018

Auditioning for Music Schools: Tips from the Other Side of the Room

It’s early January, so for me, that means another season of listening to college auditions. Few things provoke more anxiety in young musicians than the prospect of only having fifteen minutes to (supposedly) secure your future. So from the perspective of someone who’s listened to a lot of auditions over the past decade, here are a few suggestions to help in your preparations:

1. First Impressions Matter. I’m going to give away a secret here. The vast majority of the time, I can make pretty accurate evaluations about a student’s musical abilities within the first ten seconds of hearing them play. Those ten seconds tell me if you have a good sound, musicality, if you can play in time and in tune, and what your major strengths and weaknesses are. The rest of the audition serves to either confirm or contradict those initial impressions, but the truth is that most of the time, my initial observations prove accurate.

Here’s the good news: You can practice for this! How many times have you started the first ten seconds of each of your pieces? It’s very easy—you could do it twenty times a day in the practice room and in front of teachers/colleagues/random people. Practice these initial impressions until they become so automatic that you can start your pieces in your sleep.

If you want to know how your initial impressions come across to others, record yourself. Listen back immediately and ask the following questions:
  • How does it sound? Is my tone full, clear, and resonant? Listen to your most favorite players and ask “how is their sound different from mine?” 
  • Is it musical? Would someone (not your parents!) pay money to hear you play this? Someone that doesn’t know your instrument or the piece? Again, listen to your favorite players and ask “what are they doing differently from me?” 
  • Is it in tune? Put on a tuner or drone pitch and check for reference. 
  • Is it in time? Put on a metronome and see where you rush or drag. 
2. Sound and Musicianship Are Your Primary Goals. Remember that you’re auditioning to study music—that automatically implies that you have a lot of growth and development ahead of you. I’m not looking for fully-formed prodigies in my studio. If you’re that good coming out of high school, you should be auditioning for jobs, not college! So I’m listening for potential as much as polish.

Two of the things that often take the longest to develop in young musicians are also the two things which will define you as a player throughout your career: sound and musicianship. These are way, way more important than being able to play the highest, the fastest, or the loudest. Make sure in your audition preparations that you are focusing on always playing with a great sound and always playing with compelling musicality.

The best way to gain musicianship is to listen to great musicians. Do you have a favorite player? Have you listened to her or him play many times over? Can you hear their sound in your head? If not, you’re not listening enough. Remember to listen to players on other instruments than your own. This can be a part of your practicing—listen for a few minutes in between playing passages. It gives you a chop break and helps to reinforce great concepts of sound or musicianship.

Finally, one of the best ways to work on these concepts is by playing fundamentals. Fundamental practice should probably be at least 50% of your practice time, right up to the day of your audition. If you need help on developing a great fundamental routine and figuring out how to practice i, ask your teacher. Or contact me—I’m always happy to give suggestions!

3. Select Repertoire That Makes You Sound Your Best. Really hard music played in a mediocre fashion is not nearly as impressive as anything else played well. Don’t try and game the audition process by picking music that you are “supposed to play” or that the panel “wants to hear”. Pick music that highlights your strengths and minimizes your weaknesses (of course, you are constantly working to shore up weak areas in your practice, but you don’t have to spotlight them in an audition). Make sure that you are always asking yourself “does this make me sound my best?”

Here’s an example of something I hear a lot. The Hindemith Trumpet Sonata looks easy on the surface—it’s not fast, the notes aren’t difficult, and there aren’t that many of them. But that piece requires tremendous endurance, breath control, and musicianship, traits which many young musicians haven’t yet developed. Virtually every year, someone chooses this piece to play in an audition for me. Most of the time, they don’t have the chops to make it through. Pick your repertoire carefully!

4. Finally, Ace The Intangibles. Going back to this idea that college teachers are looking for potential over polish, do everything that you can to show in your audition that you are the kind of student that will make their studio better. Here is a partial list of qualities that I love to see in my incoming students. The best students are:
  • Curious
  • Determined
  • Hungry
  • Team players
  • Confident without being cocky
  • Thoughtful
  • Kind towards others
  • Interesting
  • Organized
  • On time
  • Enthusiastic
Without going overboard (or putting on a false persona), how many of these qualities can you show during an audition? There will undoubtedly be time to talk with the panel—this is your chance to show that you are the kind of student that they definitely don’t want to pass on. One further thing with this: you will certainly have an opportunity to ask questions about the program during your audition. Just like in a job interview, have a couple questions in mind to ask. Make them well thought-out, intellectual questions that you can’t find the answers to just by going on the university’s website!

Hopefully this is just a bit of useful insight into the other side of the university audition process. It’s not as scary as it might initially seem, and do remember that you are evaluating the school as well. So test out these tips in your preparations, try to enjoy the process a little bit, and as always, remember to breathe!

Alex Noppe 
Trumpet Professor, University of Wisconsin