From the Other Side of the Screen, Four Excerpts Revealed

Mark Sparks | October 2012

   For most auditions today, musicians play behind a screen in the early rounds. The screen is used to ensure that each performer remains anonymous to the audition committee and is judged only on the performance. Once a flutist wins a position, he is often appointed to an audition committee and has the opportunity to sit on the other side of the screen. After serving on several audition committees, certain things become apparent.
   At a preliminary round of flute auditions, a string colleague pointed to a spot on the page and asked, why nobody could play those notes in time. He was correct as none of the flutists had played the passage accurately. There are spots in every excerpt where almost all players make the same errors. The musicians who win auditions are the ones who have solved these technical and musical problems the best. Avoiding these common pitfalls is one way to stand out from the crowd and get to the next round.

The Very Brief Performance
   Many flutists play well, but sound inappropriate or inexperienced when playing an excerpt because they are not familiar with the entire work, do not understand the context of the section, or the importance of clear rhythm. All too often an audition begins with a good concerto performance. The hopes of the committee are raised, only to be dashed with the excerpts as the candidate chooses inappropriate tempos, plays almost everything mf-f with the same tone color, and rushes through the excerpts in a show of shallow bravura. The candidate is dismissed, befuddled as to why his stay on stage was so fleeting, while the committee is disappointed at having to reject yet another fine, but inexperienced player.

Mantra: Listen, Listen
   Make a practice and listening plan. If you have not played the compositions before, much of the foundation preparation should include listening to multiple recordings of the pieces. Pay attention to older recordings especially, as they provide a valuable perspective on the performance evolution of the works. Learn the entire flute part and listen with a score so you can precisely identify the context of the flute line. (Try for vintage recordings and for free full scores and parts. For more on this topic, see “The Complete Part,” Patricia George, Flute Talk, Nov. 2011.)
It is crucial to develop your own style, but at some point it is important to hear someone play the excerpts really well. Jeanne Baxtresser’s “Orchestral Excerpts for Flute” recording (Summit Records Orchestra Pro Series) is an important resource for those wanting to hear accurate and lovely performances of the standard excerpts.

The Excerpts
   The following four excerpts are standard fare for most flute auditions. These comments and reflections are based on sitting on the other side of the screen and should offer some suggestion to help you advance in audition rounds and win a position.

Beethoven: Leonore Overture
No. 3, Op. 72b (1806)
Measures: 1 – 24, Adagio

   The opening four measures are one of the most challenging tonal passages in the entire flute orchestral repertoire. In addition to the slow tempo and dynamic demands, the flutist plays the passage in unison with the 2nd flute, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, horns and the entire string section. By measure 3, several of the winds (2nd players, oboe, and horn) have dropped out leaving the flute, clarinet, bassoon, and string sections to continue in unison octaves. Perfect tuning is not optional.
   The opening G6 begins ff and makes a diminuendo to piano exactly on the downbeat of measure 2. Use a tuner to check the accuracy of the pitch. Study your embouchure position when the pitch is correct and make a mental note of it. Most players sound flat in the diminuendo partially because they begin the G6 so sharp. Pace the long diminuendo printed in measures 3-5. It is the primary musical message. The tempo should be a steady quarter=69. Do not use too much vibrato, but also avoid letting the tone be cold and bare. Experiment with a narrow vibrato cycle. Do articulate the F#5 in measure 5.
   As you enter in measure 17 after 11 measures rest, the tone color and vibrato should not be arbitrary. The sound must reflect a misterioso atmosphere. Players often sound too loud and intense here. The flute passage is in octaves with the second violins, only the flute is marked piano to their pp. Make sure the tempo is the same as the opening and continues to be consistent. To avoid the common error of losing the tempo in measure 19 on the half-note, subdivide the internal eighth-note pulse by thinking a background of 16th note triplets. Subdividing the measure before measures 20-23 will prevent a tendency to change tempo.
   Many flutists struggle with tone and tempo in this passage. Rhythmic subdivision is the first priority as the first violins echo the flutes notes an octave lower during the rests. While playing, hear the violin part in your head or have a friend play the passage with you as a duet. With the metronome practice these measures until they are perfect and automatic. Shape the triplets so they do not sound mechanical and play the eighth notes in each measure on the longer side. In measure 20 avoid accenting the first note of the bar since it is a resolution in the key of B major, the dominant. The flute will naturally sound louder on the ascending triplet triads. Try making a small diminuendo on each partial triplet while leading into the violin echo triplets.

Measures 328-360
   Unfortunately many flutists attack this solo like a mad dog. Tame your virtuosity. Do not let the style become aggressive by adding accents or playing too loud and fast. Lightness, beautiful tone, and elegance are more appropriate in this rather Mozart-like, delicately-scored solo. Rushing the tempo tops the list of offenses. While it is true that some conductors prefer a faster tempo, and others something more relaxed, hurrying is always frowned upon.
   Begin subdividing (1+2+) at least by measure 326. The first violin and cellos have quarter notes that should align with the counting. This subdivision will help flutists accurately place the ascending G major scale. The scale is marked crescendo, so to Romantic composers this meant to start softer and grow louder. The natural ascent of the notes will help the crescendo. Do not overdo the fp in measure 330. Rhythmic instability has a tendency to begin at the syncopated rhythm in measure 330 and then snowball through the descending quarter notes in measures 332 and 334. Think about the underlying eighth notes in the violins, violas, and cellos and place the flute’s notes so they align with the strings. A mordent of vibrato (faster vibrato) on the first note of a slur, as in a Mozart concerto, adds a mature touch. Avoid unwritten accents in measures 333 and 335 because the important voice in these measures is the bassoon. This duet continues in measures measure 338 and 339. The grace note in measure 338 and again in measure 342 is played before the beat as an acciaccatura.
   In measures 342-351 concentrate on good tone production and articulation. Tonguing should be rhythmically even. Avoid the common urge to play a shrill fortissimo. The change in subdivision to triplets in m. 346 (over the repeated eighth-notes in the strings, i.e. 3:4 relationship) is difficult partially because the first two notes of each beat are slurred. Record yourself to check the tricky transition. If you play lightly and beautifully in measures 346-349, you will win admirers. It is rare to hear the downward slurs connected properly. In measure 352, the dynamic is suddenly pp. The flute is playing in octaves with the clarinet, bassoons, and horn. This note requires a rather large contrast, and most flutists are flat on the D6. The change in embouchure position must be quite dramatic. Beyond these basic considerations, shape each phrase well. It is delightful to hear this solo played elegantly.

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1885)
Movement 4: Allegro energico e passionato
Measures 89-96

   As is often in the case in Brahms’ music, this solo demands great expression within the rhythmic framework established by the accompaniment and the performer’s ability to keep the energy of the phrase going through the rests. Flutists often seem in a hurry to get this solo. Stop and smell the roses. Enjoy the lovely, delicate passage in measure 89-92. Rhythm is of prime importance. Do play the first note in measure 89 as a full value quarter note. Then within the piano dynamic (no softer), play the bar lyrically and expressively in tempo, working for the often-neglected little hairpin crescendos and diminuendos in measures 89 and 91. In measures 90 and 92, play a full-length, singing eighth-note on the first beat in duple subdivision. The rhythms in these measures are doubled with the violins and the harmonic anchor is in the first clarinet. The flute is marked dolce and the violins molto dolce. Gauge the dynamic correctly and you should be able to start the scale in measure 93 a bit softer than you left off in measure 92 leaving room for the additional diminuendo starting the third beat of measure 94. Use a shallow vibrato for the descending scale. The 2nd flute and two clarinets harmonically fill out each chord in quarter notes while the violins and violas echo each quarter note on the off-beat. Follow this recipe carefully and you will shine.

Measures 97-105
   Players make similar errors when they get to the solo in measure 97. Some suddenly bring up the dynamic as if accidentally pushing the volume control, some vibrate the tone hysterically, and many change tempo. Ease into a slightly fuller dynamic for the solo without making a statement out of it. It does not need to be loud or intense as there are no competing voices in the accompaniment. The accompaniment consists of piano and dolce off-beat quarters in the first horn, violins, and violas. Keep the same pulse as the previous section. Brahms is quite clear about this. He notes in the full score and flute part that a quarter note in the previous section equals a quarter note in this section. Simply select a tempo that works for both the solo and preceding passage.
   Avoid vibrato accents in the long line, seamlessly adding and subtracting lyrical intensity. Precise control over the duration of recurring eighth rests in the solo is obviously crucial, but many players are good stewards of the note preceding the rest. This takes real listening and patience. Some flutists suddenly and inexplicably vibrate this note before the rest as if it were an arrival, while others rather crudely chop it off. If the rest is to sound proper and fit into the scope of the whole phrase, the note before the rest should be unaccented, rather softer than its preceding note, and long enough to dovetail into the beginning of the rest.
   While the dynamic scope of the passage is left to interpretation, (most players become quite loud at the top of the phrase, myself included) the crescendo of measure 103 is clear, and frequently neglected. You may have to prepare this crescendo by reducing the dynamic a bit in the preceding phrase. Ignore the urge slow down at the end of the solo, and play the last note as a quarter-note, no longer.

Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61 (1842)
12 Measures before P to the End
   Speed demon flutists are united in their determination to play this excerpt faster than written. From the other side of the screen, it sounds rather immature and too aggressive for this light, magical piece. Playing the Scherzo faster does shorten the duration of the long phrases, but frequently also results in a delay in time after the breaths. There are some virtuosic tempos out there, but most of the time the tempo does not exceed MM=88 or 92 to the bar. It is better to save the display of velocity for Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns where it really belongs.
   Play the ascending arpeggio nine measures before P elegantly without accenting the G6. Count the rests before P carefully (it helps to imagine the orchestra playing) with subdivisions as the committee will listen for security of pulse. Sometimes players rush the pick-up D natural into the bar before P. This leads the committee to wonder if you can subdivide.
   Playing a crescendo in the seventh and eighth measures before Q defeats the printed nuance in measures six and seven before Q. On the ninth bar after Q, many flutists are too soft dynamically. Instead, stay a bit fuller, and then continue the diminuendo over the next five measures. This is a lighter alternative to the heroic and gratuitous crescendo executed by many into the 15th measure of Q. Most auditioning flutists do not risk the pp dynamic at the end of the excerpt, but most conductors will insist upon it.
   Beyond these details one of the biggest challenges is tone quality. Without sounding forte throughout, the passage must have enough tone to cut through the orchestra. The orchestra accompaniment is pizzicato throughout this section written at a pp level. Work all the bugs out of your tone and articulation technique to achieve the correct amount of low-register core to the sound.

Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894)
   This is a chance to create a dreamy atmosphere with the sound. It is important to have a multi-faceted approach to the use of vibrato and timbre. Many flutists have a fine tone which is cheapened by their vibrato or made boring by a lack of color.

Measures 1 – 4
After achieving a state of inner peace, go for a very gentle start, without the common and abhorrent whistle-tones. In an attempt to play the opening phrase in one breath, many players sacrifice expression. The one-breath approach is entirely possible, beautiful and impressive, but phrase-shaping and good tone production in the soft dynamic should be first priority. Be aware of the specific effect of the vibrato in the phrase. A fast vibrato heightens the energy, and a slower vibrato relaxes it. Either speed can torment the listener if overdone. Keep everything on the level of subtlety.
It is uncommon to hear the C#5 of measure 2 played for the correct duration. For the first C#5 in measure 1, tempo is not as crucial because it is your secret. After the first moving notes, your tempo is revealed; and the committee will pay attention not only to the sound and expression, but the rhythm and tempo. In measure 3, I have heard many distortions of tone and intonation. Match timbres of the notes in this measure and pitch will also improve.

Rehearsal Numbers 1-3
   At rehearsal 1, do not suddenly play ff. The tone needs to be a bit fuller than the opening because the melody is accompanied at that point, but avoid a large change in dynamic. Play with awareness of context also. The C#s at 1 and 2 both should begin without vibrato because the flute is taking the theme from the horn and clarinet, respectively. Three measures after rehearsal 2 make sure to play with a full tone in a solid mf dynamic. The orchestration is a bit thick, and the sound has to project without sounding aggressive. In the following bars crescendo all the way to f or ff. Flutists frequently barge ahead through the 5th bar of 2. It is traditional to take time there. Whereas the tempo is usually quite flexible at 2 and the ensuing bars, keep the pulse steady for the 5 bars before 3. For some reason many flutists neglect rhythm in this passage. Add a gentle ritardando at the very end of the phrase. Sustain the final note for the full value of 8 beats as it is the end of the first section.
   Most flutists seem to ignore Debussy’s dynamic nuances between rehearsal 2 and 3. At 2, there is another crescendo printed at the end of the bar, and yet another at the following downbeat. For these and the other reiterative crescendos (4 bars before 3) gently bring the dynamic back to p momentarily and make another crescendo. It is a wonderfully expressive effect if done well. Do the opposite for the rewritten diminuendo 2 bars before 3.
   For all flutists breath control is a challenge in this piece. Often phrases require the utmost stamina, and many are simply not prepared to take those risks, resulting in extra breaths. Between rehearsal 2–3, the most acceptable breathing spots are: between the 2nd and 3rd bars after 2, 3 bars after 2 directly following the E natural, 4 bars after 2 before beat 7 (only if necessary), 5 bars after 2 following beat 4, 4 measures before 3 while the second flute plays, and 3 measures before 3 after the tied A# on beat 7. Try to avoid the very common breath 2 bars before 3 as it interrupts the dynamic nuances.
   With some of these passages, Debussy mercifully arranged for two flutes to play in unison so breathing is not as difficult in the ensemble. In the audition, you do not have that luxury, and it helps the committee to know that you can play the solos well without the aid of another flutist. Also it is good for collegial relations if the second flutist does not feel that he has to come to your rescue. This applies most notably to the passage from rehearsal 10 to the end, which is tricky for rhythm and breathing. Sometimes committees, especially conductors, like to hear the end of the piece to assure themselves that the flutist is familiar with the final section. Some conductors have enough trouble getting through it themselves. For my performance guide to the complete work, see Flute Talk, March 2003, p. 11.

The Complete Package
   Following this advice may help keep you in the committee’s good graces for a time, but it is far short of a recipe for success. The most frequently asked question by those who do not get the job is, “what was the committee looking for?” The answer can certainly be elusive, but perhaps it is fair to say the committee is looking for a complete package: a player who has mastered the fundamentals, demonstrates a thoughtful and appropriate approach, and within this framework performs with passion, contrasts and imagination. This is a tall order and easier said than done, but basic good judgment, insight and integrity can go a long way towards success. By confronting the most common challenges in the excerpts you may yet find yourself in the finals.