Recently, I sat on the audition committee for two days worth of auditions for a trombone opening with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, DC. 73 candidates came to the audition, and as always, it was a very educational experience for me.
First of all, if you are a performing musician, and you can find a place to sit on some sort of audition or competition committee, I highly recommend you do it! Especially with band and orchestra auditions, where everyone is playing the same short excerpts one after another, you get a vivid sense of what works, and what doesn’t.
I’m not here to poke holes in anyone’s performance the day of the audition. Auditions are very difficult situations, one of the most difficult you can experience as a performer. Nerves, environment, bad luck… many, many things affect the outcome of an audition. To be successful, you must be prepared to take a lot of them! Auditioning is a skill, and it’s one that gets better the more you do it. I have colleagues who won their audition on the first try. Others, like myself, took multiple auditions. I took 6 auditions for military bands, with three being for the Marine Band alone, before I was hired. What follows are my observations about things that I feel can be corrected, or at least minimized, by preparation and habits, based on what I heard from a large majority of trombonists at this audition.
First, time and rhythm is critical. I have written about this before, here. The very first, and most noticeable thing, to me, is a person’s time. I’m not talking about playing correct rhythms, but the consistency with which you apply tempo and subdivision to everything you play. Truly subdividing, and applying that subdivision consistently across the entire span of a round of excerpts, is what gets your foot in the door. Most people would be surprised at how few players are able to actually do that… It was very evident to me that very few auditionees record themselves, and listen to the recording focussed on their time consistency. I mean, record everything. I feel that in the final weeks before an audition that there are only two ways to practice. Slow practice working on any technical aspects of an excerpt that need work, ingrain pitch relations, and making certain that every note is centered is critical. Second, you should be performing the excerpt just as you would in the audition, and you should record it and listen back immediately. 99% of players won’t do this, especially the recording part, because it’s tedious and it takes a lot of time. One very real benefit of this kind of practicing is that you can play for much longer periods. When practicing alone, the playback time serves as built in rest, and the constant alternating between playing and listening gives you enough rest that you don’t get tired nearly as fast.
Finally, put yourself into multiple mock audition situations, using all the visualization skills that you possess to develop some stress and nervousness. Perform the excerpts exactly as you will in the audition either by themselves or as part of a set or “round”. Immediately listen back and listen for ONE thing. In this case, time. If it’s not exactly right, it’s not right. There is no close enough. It must be metronomic. If it’s not, and I’m listening to your audition, I will think that your time is not very good, and I’ll wonder how it will be to play a concert with you in the section and whether you will make my job easier. Of course, no one is perfect! Everyone will have inconsistencies, but you have to do everything you can to minimize them.
Let’s talk about pitch. We opened our first round (and semi-finals) with Mozart Requiem. The relative intonation of the opening B-flat statement is critical. If the first 3 measures aren’t in tune, it’s very hard to recover the confidence of the committee. Again, record and listen. This applies throughout the round, but especially in the beginning. Another place there was a lot of “pitchiness” was in the eighth note runs of Hungarian March. Practice them slow, record, and listen. Yep, you are gonna get REAL tired of hearing me say that!
Articulation is often a very telling aspect of a candidates abilities as well. “Breaking up” and “frackiness” are signs that a player may not be centering each note, or that they are playing beyond the point of controlling their sound at higher volumes. Being able to transition from the more forceful articulations of something like Hungarian March to the lightness of Brahms Academic Festival, or the quiet touch needed for Saint-Saens Organ Symphony is a skill to develop. Hearing what you want those articulations to sound like in your head is critical. We play what we hear in our head, and if we aren’t thinking about anything in particular, then we leave to chance what exactly is going to come out of the horn. Again, listen to your recordings to see if what you THINK you are doing is what’s actually coming out!
Speaking of higher volumes…. volume and tone quality work together to present a total picture of your characteristic sound. They give the listener a real sense of your musical goal, and your sensibilities. Everyone has a unique sound, and I know I don’t expect anyone to fit in to a narrow definition of “great sound”. However, many players play louder than they have to, all the time. In most cases, it seems to be an awareness issue. I think we get so used to playing loud in ensembles, that we don’t realize just how loud we are playing when we’re by ourselves. Many people’s preliminary round sounded like they were simply trying to play too loud. If it’s a loud excerpt like the Ride, or Heldenleben, then great. You have to leave yourself some room to show some dynamic contrast, as well as show the committee that you are a conscientious (and conscious) musician. Pick your places for both loud and soft dynamics, and you will show greater contrasts and sensitivity.
Finally, remember that you are playing for a group of people, not just one individual. Many people I have sat with on audition committees have different things they are listening for. We all have our individual biases and dislikes. Cover as many bases as you can, and do your best to showcase your excellent musicianship within the context of solid fundamentals. It’s always eye opening to see how far great fundamentals can take someone. I think we sometimes trick ourselves into thinking we have to offer something unusual, or musically out-of-the-ordinary to set ourselves apart. Time and again, the thing that gets people noticed is doing the basics exceptionally well.
I would like to offer my encouragement to the many players that came to this recent audition, and maybe didn’t progress as far as they had hoped. It is a life-long battle, this art we call music and this piece of plumbing called the trombone. Persistence is key. Glenn Dodson told me he auditioned seven times for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also used to tell his students, “there’s always room at the top.” So, so true. I remember reading somewhere that the late Jerome Ashby took around 30 auditions before he joined the French horn section of the New York Philharmonic. Among the ranks of the great players, you will find many (all!) that just didn’t give up. Continue your hard work, know that it never gets easy, and accept that you will have to continue the uphill battle if you want to reach your goals. Thanks for reading, and happy practicing!