Auditions are a fact of life for musicians from young players auditioning for school or youth orchestras to adults applying for a university professorship or orchestra position. Every flutist must make peace with this prickly process. I have been through the orchestra audition maze many times. The process can be difficult and competitive, but with a positive approach you can be successful and become a better player too.
The professional orchestra audition system in particular is a negative experience for many flutists because there is so much competition for positions. Auditions are intended to be a meritocracy, but are often flawed in execution. Orchestras publish lengthy lists of required repertoire and applicants usually submit a pre-screening recording to be invited to the audition. If admitted to the audition, the flutist is often thrown together with the other players to warm up in a room like gladiators awaiting battle in the arena. An attempt at impartiality is made in the initial rounds by using a screen. When the screen is removed, all bets are off, and the process can become very unpredictable, especially if there is no clear winner in the final rounds.
Preliminary rounds can be brief, lasting several minutes, and a single error can send a flutist straight back to the airport. In the final rounds musicians are often dismissed without explanation. Sometimes the music director holds the trump card and can negate the findings of previous rounds. Once a player is selected, there is still no guarantee he will actually end up with the position.
This is at the very least a test of one’s fundamental abilities and can resemble trial by fire. The process has become so complex and challenging that taking a professional orchestra audition is now a specialized area of study. Students should develop their audition skills and methods of preparation at the earliest opportunity. Players who dislike auditions rarely win them. For most, auditioning is an acquired taste, but it is possible to enjoy it.
Your psychological view of the experience is one of the most important aspects of preparation. Try to stay positive no matter what happens. Auditions have a negative potential which can turn against you like a bad lunch. For example, consider your attitude towards the competition. In Desiderata, a famous prose poem written in 1927, the author Max Ehrmann, says, “Do not compare yourself to others or you may become vain and bitter for there always will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” This is easier said than done. Think of the audition as a spirited competition among able candidates. Respect your competitors, but do not think about them too much. I have done best when I compete with myself.
Negative thoughts will undermine your self-confidence. It is natural to experience performance anxiety and fear of failure. If this happens, sit still and concentrate fully on a positive message. “I have a right to be here. I am prepared. I am happy to have this opportunity and will do my best.” Breathe slowly and deeply. If you hear others playing excerpts, try to ignore them. Remember that almost everyone sounds great through a wall, and keep a set of earplugs handy.
Plan your preparation thoughtfully and in a way that builds confidence. Just practicing eight hours a day will not help and may result in injury. Develop a heightened sense of self-evaluation, but balance that with positive thoughts. When you play something well, acknowledge it. Ask an experienced player or teacher for help and encouragement. Positive visualization is a powerful technique. Use the power of the mind to see a good outcome to the experience. Remember the overall goal is not to win one audition but to become a better musician. This attitude is what will eventually put you on top.
Good preparation also takes time. Preparing for a big audition is like building a house. A month or more may be necessary for a long excerpt list. Allow some days off to avoid burnout and lay the groundwork with adequate sleep and a good diet. Now is not the time for major changes in your life.
Pay special attention to fundamentals; warm up patiently and efficiently. Learn to quickly find a beautiful tone and ease of technique. Focus on posture, breathing and relaxation. One of the best ways to hear yourself objectively is with an audio recorder. Start by recording simple examples. Then listen carefully and make a list of disagreeable aspects. Attack those nasty areas individually and patiently by applying knowledge of fundamentals. Equally important is to make a list of things you like. Learn to clearly define your likes and dislikes.
Use your imagination. Figure out your ideal version of the passage and develop this through experimentation and listening to other recordings of the piece. I like to imagine what the passage would sound like if Ransom Wilson played it, or Moyse, or the pianist Uchida for example, and try to copy it. I used to listen to recordings of Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra so much that I still imitate Maurice Sharp’s sound in some passages. There is nothing wrong with being inspired by someone else’s sound and style, if you make it your own.
Adam Kuenzel, principal flutist of the Minnesota Orchestra once said, “To win an audition you must be able to play perfectly for ten minutes.” What is your version of perfect? Personally I believe that the right notes have to be played and fundamentals should be proper, but beyond that I focus more on beauty than perfection. Train yourself to notice the big picture and all the details simultaneously. By learning to hear all aspects of your playing at once, you can create a notion of beauty and perfection. This is what makes you unique as a player. Hopefully the committee will agree with your vision.
A concerto or solo piece is usually the first thing on the audition, and it is a chance to play like a great soloist. Work patiently on each passage for technical and tonal security, then concentrate on the big picture. Imagine yourself in front of a great orchestra projecting the sound to the last row of the audience. Perhaps you should work on a bigger tone or more emotional contrast. Do not lose sight of the basics in the quest to sound like the next Galway. Pay attention to proper fundamentals, especially with tone production, intonation and rhythm. Many players become accustomed to hearing themselves in the vacuum of the practice room if they do not perform frequently. Play in a variety of larger spaces to keep perspective on your solo playing.
Next, focus on the list of orchestral excerpts. First listen to a recording of the whole piece even if you think you know it. Enjoy and rediscover the beauty of the music to define the role of the excerpt within the entire work. Make the passage an example of your skills without losing perspective of this larger role. This miniature should be exquisite in detail and color like a Vermeer painting: somehow accurate and spiritual at the same time. Each excerpt has a special individual identity which you should discover and bring to life. (See The Complete Part, November, page 18 for more on excerpts.)
Resist picking up the flute and look at the music separately. Notice every detail and think about what the markings mean and why they are there. If something is confusing, find a good score or knowledgeable person to ask.
When you begin to practice the excerpt, work on each element, vibrato, rhythm, phrasing and articulation, independently. Be organized in the approach. Start by playing the notes accurately and easily. Only move on to other areas of focus after you achieve this. There are many ways to practice technical passages, but repeating small sections very slowly works. Stay relaxed and do not be in a hurry to increase tempo. If you take breaks to give the brain and body time to assimilate the material, faster playing comes more easily.
Rhythm is the police department of the orchestra and should be respected. Audition committees are drawn to good rhythm like bees to blossoms. This includes accuracy of pulse and subdivision. Play with a metronome and record yourself repeatedly until you can execute even the most expressive excerpts without deviating from the pulse. Play exactly with the metronome. Then record the passage without it to see if the rhythm is accurate. Tap along as you listen to the playback to see if there are weak spots. Do not worry about playing expressively at this point in the preparation. The metronome is your friend, but do not become dependent on it or you will feel lost when it is not clicking away. Turn it off immediately after the exercise. Remember to think about tempo before playing instead of after.
The overall goal with rhythm is twofold: to become more sensitive to rhythm while playing so that your use of rhythmic freedom is subtle and effective, and to be able to play very accurately when needed. Rhythmic precision does not imprison expression but enhances and focuses it. Learn to play expressively, but in rhythm, especially for orchestra auditions.
Apply the same attention to other areas such as tonal focus, vibrato, dynamics, and intonation. It never hurts to go back to basics and focus on a specific fundamental area if you find a weakness. Make sure you have a firm grasp of the harmonic context of the excerpt, which is a crucial element in achieving an authoritative delivery.
Controlled contrasts are the meat and potatoes of great playing. Use the recorder to check if contrasts really occur. Sometimes we hear only what we want to hear. The player who wins an audition is often the one whose skills are consistent throughout the repertoire, rather than the one who has a few outrageous strengths. It is good if you can play really fast or loud, for example, but focus those skills appropriately. Do not play technical excerpts faster than appropriate just because you can.
At an audition we are like students who must turn in all their homework at once. With a big list of material this can be tough. Once you find what works for an excerpt, practice it the same way each day for efficiency. Gradually you should be able to play more of the excerpts one after the other. Take time between excerpts and avoid playing them in the same order each day.
Next record the excerpts. Listen to each element. Check whether the rhythm is still accurate after adding expressive nuances. Notice if you distort the intonation at certain dynamics. You should also be able to reproduce a favorite version several times. This really pays off on audition day because it builds confidence and consistency. In addition, when more of your intentions are automatic in basic areas, you are free to be spontaneous in poetic areas.
Get out of the practice room and perform often for others. Your Mom might love to hear you play, but you really should play the excerpts for people who make you nervous. Put together a mock audition and ask friends, colleagues, or a teacher to be the jury – remember to buy them lunch first.
When you perform, it is time to stop thinking so much. Careful prepration allows more aspects to occur on the subconscious level, so you can just have fun playing. This letting go is crucial especially after so much detail work. Personally I find the audition environment liberating, much like performing a piece for solo flute.
At some auditions you may be asked to play tutti passages that can be harder than the solo excerpts. When you can play the entire flute part, an audition committee sees that you are not only good at taking auditions, but more importantly are the best qualified to hold the position. For professional auditions, take the time to learn other challenging passages in the repertoire that are not on the audition list. To improve sightreading skills, play through duets with a friend.
The Journey Inward
This degree of focus may seem obsessive, but to me it represents a journey towards your true musical self. If you get there, suddenly it does not matter where or for whom you are playing. You stop thinking of the committee as an audience and just forget about them. This degree of focus can help those who are distracted by the screen at auditions. Other distractions can take a toll too. Even with the rules governing auditions, conditions can be highly variable and sometimes just traveling to the audition is an ordeal. Prepare for the worst and stay cool.
Unfortunately, losing auditions is part of the process. This is emotionally very difficult and reasons for not getting the job can be elusive. Occasionally things do happen which seem genuinely unfair, but never give up and keep improving your playing. If you can obtain some feedback from an audition, evaluate it dispassionately to see if it has merit. More than likely, you have not solved a playing problem. Objectivity is the key. Sometimes you have to look past your playing, to find the root of your difficulties. Maybe lack of confidence is producing tension which undermines your efforts for a big sound.
If you have taken many auditions without success, then it means that many qualified listeners think there is something wrong with your playing. Seek the advice of someone who will tell you the truth even if it may feel like a visit to the dentist. There are quite a few examples of great players who lost many auditions before finally winning the big one.
It could be that you have not found the right situation. This happens when a committee has a general notion of the kind of player they want, and it is not your type of playing. You have no way of knowing this, so don’t worry about it. Think about it this way, if you are hired by an orchestra which is not a good fit, you will not be comfortable there. Keep at it until it is your time. Remember that if you sound terrific, you will eventually get a job.
If you advance, it is a victory, but do not start celebrating yet. Success in the initial rounds of an audition does not mean you will get the job. The music director is not usually brought into the process until late in the audition, and he is the boss. If he likes your playing, you may win, but if not, it will almost never happen. Keep adjusting expectations downward.
Another aspect of the real world is that auditions are not always based solely on how you play that day. If the screen is removed later in the audition, it does not hurt to be known to the committee and conductor. One way to advance a career is to do well in some big auditions even if you do not win. Word travels fast. This can lead to substitute work, which is a great way to get experience and become known to conductors and a wider network of players. The hardest orchestra audition to win is the first one.
After a couple of practice auditions, you are wasting time and money to audition just for experience. Avoid becoming a professional audition-taker. Only audition for a job you really want.
In every audition, try to find something positive to take from it. “What did I learn?” is the best question. Examine everything you did, and determine what needs improvement. Despite its many flaws, the audition process can be an invaluable opportunity to become a better musician. Do not be a flutist who plays the music, be a musician who plays the flute.