We all want our students to make All-State groups. Earning a place in these prestigious ensembles is a great experience for students. It’s something they can take pride in including on college applications, and a way to impress their peers. Not only does it benefit the student, but it puts a feather or two in our caps as educators. It also helps convince other students that there’s a tangible reward for practicing the etudes, scales, and excerpts we know will help them improve!
So how do we help our students achieve this honor?
Saying “work on the notes and rhythms” is a cop out. Here in Texas over 64,000 students begin a 3-round process to make an All-State group. I’ve been an adjudicator for all three rounds on a number of instruments, and I can tell you notes and rhythms aren’t the thing we use to decide who makes the cut.
More than Notes
Let’s face it, if you’re making it to the 3rd round of auditions the notes and rhythms of your audition material must be perfect. Even in early rounds, a player should always assume that right notes and rhythms should be mastered; otherwise the odds of making a region band are greatly diminished.
There’s another side to this: cracking one note doesn’t mean that you’re automatically disqualified. Judges can tell when a student has notes and rhythms mastered. Missing one in an entire etude doesn’t mean we just stop listening. We care far more about other, more musical factors that determine the audition. Of course, I’m not encouraging students to miss notes. I said “mastered” in the last paragraph for a reason!
When listening to All-State auditions, whether jazz or classical, I am primarily listening for three things: tone quality, musicality, and time. Most of the time, tone quality and musicality are even more important than time. Rubato passages and other musical factors can influence time, but tone quality and a musical performance are always critical pieces of a successful audition.
The best student audition performances (All-State and otherwise) will have a very mature sound. As judges, we’re not just listening for a “characteristic” sound from the instrument. All-State caliber players will be able to produce a tone quality that is past the point of a characteristic sound. They’ll sound as close to a collegiate level player as possible.
Judges are listening for a full, resonant tone that demonstrates mastery of technique. We all know that producing a great sound requires a number of technical elements to line up. We can all hear when something goes wrong, whether that’s a brass player not keeping their teeth apart, a clarinetist not voicing correctly, or a lazy bow hold impacting the sound of a string.
Part of the challenge of the audition material is maintaining these difficult technical considerations through a performance that may include difficult notes and rhythms. Students are demonstrating that the notes and rhythms are second-nature when they play with a great sound regardless of register or speed. Just as important, the tone quality needs to be in tune! When intonation suffers, judges notice. Encourage your students to play with a tuners and listen closely for their intonation in mock auditions.
Students who wish to rank near the top of the audition will need to demonstrate an understanding of:
- Playing with finesse,
- Correct ornamentation performance (i.e. trills, mordents, etc), and
In general they need to have a musical performance, not just a technically accurate one. It must be pleasurable to listen to.
Playing with finesse can be hard even for skilled high school students. This is where working with a private teacher can be incredibly valuable. A private teacher can discuss characteristic vibrato technique and appropriate ways to handle ornaments. They also have the benefit of experience when it comes to the standard etude repertoire.
For students that don’t have access to a private teacher, go in and mark their part. Help them with phrases, breath marks, bowings, and other notation that might not be written in the part. Having a clear performance plan (ritard here, be sure to play this note staccato, etc.) will guide students’ practice and make them more successful. Be sure they practice ornaments slowly so that they feel controlled in performance. Nothing sounds more like panic than a brass player rushing a mordent.
Help the student give each phrase a dynamic contour. As conductors we know these are the things that make the performance worth listening to. Students simply don’t have our depth of experience. We can help make sure they have a successful All-State audition by teaching them about these musical elements.
Lastly, I am a huge judge of time in young players. I am listening for not just the execution of technique but the also execution of that technique in time without any fluctuation of feel and tempo. That being said, some leeway can be given to portray a more musical aspect of the audition material.
An example would be at the end of a phrase where the musical line might lead a professional to modify the time. Musicality trumps time, but in a technical woodwind etude all those sixteenth notes need to take exactly the same amount of time. They need to be perfectly even, especially when crossing the break. This is often a tiebreaker for judges.
In summary, to have the best chance of ranking high in the ratings of the All-State audition process a student must exhibit signs of musical maturity. They must be able to demonstrate more than a mastery of “the notes on the page.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Additional tips to help auditioning students can be found in this webinar video.