The Art of Auditioning

Published in Australian Clarinet and Saxophone: March 1st, 1998

True or False? Professional Orchestra auditions are often unfair, have little to do with how well you do the actual job, can be political, often have adjudicators who are worse than the majority of contestants, are often the only way to get a job or reach the trial stage. If you answered “true” to all of the above, you probably have some audition experience! 

Recently, when The Hong Kong Philharmonic advertised a clarinet job, I received phone calls from around the world asking for advice on preparation. I have been inspired to write this article in response, and in order to help people save money on their phone bills! If you’re tired of making perfectly legitimate excuses for why you didn’t play well at the last stupid audition and want to start doing well at auditions, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and look ahead…. But first, remember – if you prepare properly and you have done a good job – you’ve done your job. Now the jury has to do theirs. 

The point of doing an audition is to show in three minutes that you can do what nobody else who is after this job can do. This is done by impressing the committee with the refinement and security of your playing, not by showing how fast you can play. Think: would the jury rather sit next to a showoff or a team player? Even playing concertos from memory can be questionable. For instance, if you are applying for a second clarinet job, and play the concerto that the principal player performed last month with the music, you might intimidate him in front of his colleagues. Remember that the early rounds of auditions are usually used to eliminate the player, not to be impressed by particular qualities. So any chances you take that fail will count against you far more than they will impress the jury if you manage to pull them off. Never play as though you have a point to prove (even though you do). Just play with ease and enjoyment. Most juries will be sick of watching and hearing nervous contestants. 

I have found that three skills must be cultivated during the audition preparation period: 

  1. The one skill nobody neglects is learning the repertoire. If you have not played the pieces, listen to them. A day taken out to tape all of the excerpts – probably only twenty minutes of music could be time well spent for future auditions as well. You could listen to them in the car or while jogging. Practice all excerpts slowly to achieve complete solidity, dynamics, pitch, etc. Closer to the day, you can increase your tempi. Tape your playing and analyse – put on a metronome with the playback on the tape and listen closely. Where do you rush, drag, etc.? 
  2. Be consciously working on your basic technique all along. The point of playing excerpts is to see what your tone, pitch, rhythm, articulation, finger work is like. Do exercises every day to work on these. If you don’t get the job, at least you will have improved your playing! 
  3. Finally, and this is the most neglected skill: make sure that you represent yourself at your best on the day. How often have you heard a fine player walk out of an audition and say, “I played terribly”? Practice visualization – imagine yourself playing really well. Watch yourself from the audience’s point-of-view: You are secure and look as though you are enjoying yourself. Now put yourself inside your own body – not shaking, but feeling and sounding great. 
  4. One or two or two other tips: Play for people you highly respect and play for people who don’t like you- if you can play for people who want you to sound bad, you can play for a jury. Play the audition pieces through without stopping in various order for a tape recorder. Find out the pitch of the piano that will be used in advance if you can – you don’t need surprises! Set up a daily practice routine with mini-goals: For example, have a certain passage at a certain speed by a certain day. On the day – dress in “navy-blue.” Fashion experts call this “power dressing.” And, remember the preparation process includes making sure you have an appropriate reed for the big day. Bring a book to read-something which requires little concentration, but which you can’t put down (Grisham works for me). Bring some bananas, (which ease the nerves) and drink plenty of water. 

The above advice is my personal method. If you ask 100 successful auditioners what they do, you’ll get 100 different answers. Remember, great preparation breeds great confidence. Happy preparation!

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