Instrumental auditions, whether for an all-state ensemble, or college admission, represent significant milestones in your students’ lives. You can help make these experiences positive by guiding your students through the process. To follow are some suggestions, based on my experience both as an adjudicator and instructor, to help your students prepare for (and succeed at) auditions.
Many auditions have several components, including scales (major and minor), a work from the major literature, and sight-reading. Usually scales are the first part of the audition, often with tempo and rhythm requirements. Keep in mind, these are the first sounds that the adjudicator or panel hears. It is important that they are played with a beautiful tone, accurate intonation, and solid time.
Practicing scales with both a tuner and a metronome will ensure even tempo and good intonation. While this may seem tedious, students will develop a sense of time and intonation that will transfer to other pieces of music. Give students simple exercises and treat them like warm-ups; short, sweet, and performed every day.
In some instances, a list of excerpts or literature will be suggested or provided. If a choice is given, select works that show your students’ strengths. As educators, we are often in a position to assess student strengths and assign repertoire accordingly. Woodwind players with particularly good finger coordination but who struggle with register changes can find etudes that emphasize speed rather than range. Brass players with excellent tone in the low register can find solos that emphasize this strength.
Refine the technically demanding sections (again, a metronome may be the key) and work to perform the solo demonstrating command of appropriate style and musicality. Teach students to be cognizant of articulations, dynamics, and other expressive markings. If anything, have students overemphasize these markings so that the audition panel has no doubt that the student is performing them accurately.
If an accompaniment is required, be sure to engage an accompanist who can complement the performance. Only a few pitches are tuned to the piano. It is necessary to adjust all other tones with minor changes in embouchure, slide, finger placement or alternate fingerings.
There are students who have very successfully used SmartMusic for their accompaniment. A few of the benefits of SmartMusic are that it follows tempo, provides an opportunity to methodically develop technically demanding sections and record each take. The recording allows the performer to assess performance. In addition, an accompanist does not have to be engaged. No appointments need to be made or fees paid. The SmartMusic accompanist is always present. However, accompanists report that students who prepare with SmartMusic, prior to the first rehearsal, are better prepared than those who do not.
Frequently, the final segment of the audition is sight-reading. Students are given a short amount of time to study the example. It is possible that a metronome might be employed to set tempo prior to study and at the conclusion of the study period prior to performance. In some situations, students are not permitted to make a sound on their instrument during study. Under this circumstance, students need to think the rhythms, visually scan the example, check for accidentals and silently go through fingerings on the instrument. Students who can successfully navigate the sight-reading examples in SmartMusic Sight-Reading Exercises, Level 10, are generally successful performing audition sight-reading.
Students do get nervous in an audition setting. They need to be reminded of all the hard work and time that went into the preparation. One strategy for gaining confidence is to have students perform the solo in front of different groups of their peers. Have the peers react to the performance. It is a great learning opportunity for the performer as well as the listening students. Provide the peer audience with several written questions, which could be general (“What did performer do well?”) or specific (“Could you tell which notes were intended to be staccato or legato?”). Ask the peer audience to write several sentences in response to the question. Not only will this make the audience focus on musical values, it also links to Common Core requirements.
Besides the musical performance, students are giving a visual performance. Posture is not only an important component of the visual performances, it is important in tone production as well. Attire is important; encourage students to dress appropriately and nicely. This sends an important message to those viewing the performer.
Make sure that your students’ instrument is in its best playing condition. For example, brass players will need to make sure that the slides are greased and valves lubricated. Woodwinds make sure to have playable reeds that show the most beautiful sound.
Finally, on the audition day, encourage students to spend time warming-up, but not to the extent of being exhausted before the audition, and to be focused for the task at hand!
David Dolgon taught band, music and AP music in NY’s Syosset Central School District until his retirement in 2007. He also developed and taught eight graduate-level staff development courses for the college of New Rochelle, and has presented workshops from Maine to Maryland. Currently he performs as a clarinetist with the Concert Pops of Long Island, Atlantic Wind Symphony and the Lehman College Band. He is an adjunct music lecturer at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, City University of NY where he has taught music technology, woodwind methods and supervised student teachers. He is also a NYSSMA All-State and major organization adjudicator.