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All-State Preparation Tactics

Adrian D. Griffin | October 2016

Preparation for All-State (and similar contests) brings a host of feelings for teachers – concern about the difficulty of the chosen excerpts, anticipation of seeing our students make a leap in technique, and mixed feelings about what it will take from us to get students playing how they ought to. However difficult the music may be, preparing All-State auditions presents an excellent opportunity for band and orchestra directors to create something exciting for young players to aspire to. When this opportunity is presented in the right way, every student can experience personal and musical breakthroughs in preparing a great audition.
    On a practical level, before handing out the music, make sure the print is clear; blow it up for them if it is small, and create a more legible version for them if it is blurry. Review the music in advance and share what challenges and opportunities students will find in the music for their instrument. Within the first week, make sure each student has access to a recording of the excerpts. If there are no professionals in your community to provide a model for you, contact your college buddies and ask them to upload a video for your students to watch.


Use sectionals before and after school to provide students with guided and supervised practice. These sectionals will jump-start students who lack the confidence to face the challenge on their own. Once these students realize their potential, they will motivate themselves to keep going. During the first sectional, talk about effective practice strategies and break each etude into three or four shorter sections to help students focus and prioritize their practice.
    Sectionals save time for all students (including motivated ones) by ensuring that everyone learns the music correctly the first time. Universities in your area may provide a similar opportunity in the form of All-State clinics, which help students learn the music rapidly and create healthy competition as everyone who attends learns together.

Dust off the Recorder
    As students begin to progress on the music, use recording assignments to benchmark their progress, establishing in advance on which dates each segment of the music will be recorded. The first assignment should be a recording of the entire etude, so students can go back to this recording three months later and see how far they have come. Be sure to specify tempo and musical goals as appropriate, and consider using achievement levels (such as gold, silver, and bronze) to recognize superior accomplishment. Grade students on both preparation and improvement.

Partner Up
    A major audition can be a good opportunity to create a practice buddy system, which will continue to benefit students throughout the rest of the year. When making practice buddy assignments, match students who are playing at a similar level and whose personalities are a good fit. Encourage practice buddies to meet after school, either in a practice room or in one of their homes. Check in with students periodically to make sure they are meeting with their buddy and keeping each other on course.

Simple Tools, Great Results
    For students who are unable to purchase a tuner or metronome, create a sign-out list to use the band equipment (on school premises). Similarly, ask students if they have a quiet place to practice at home, and provide opportunities for students who lack this resource to sign out practice rooms or the band hall. When possible, use after-school time to listen to students practicing and offer suggestions as appropriate.

Sharpen Those Pencils
    Teach students to mark their music as needed, writing reminders in problem spots that are just big enough that they catch their eye when they play. Too many students like to keep their music in mint condition, but this is a mistake. Show them the markings your make on your music to reinforce that good musicians mark their music freely to avoid repeating mistakes.

Everybody Is Invited

    To encourage students who otherwise might not audition, it is helpful to make portions of the music mandatory for chair placement auditions or challenges. Besides providing a mock audition experience for students who are taking the audition, it engages students who would otherwise avoid this challenging music and ensures that they will receive some of the same benefits of preparing it.

Playing in Rehearsal
    In-class playoffs provide an even more intense attention-getter; nothing puts the students more on the edge of their seats than thinking they will be playing for their peers that day. Give students a few days notice so they have time to practice. Then, each day, draw a name randomly out of a hat, and ask that student to perform. Students work hard to not make fools of themselves, they get practice channeling their nerves, and you get a classroom of well-prepared students.

    Once students have begun to make headway on the excerpts, invite a professional to perform the music and give a masterclass for the students who play that instrument. Also ask them to prepare some comments for the band or orchestra as a whole about audition preparation strategies and tips for performing under pressure. Even if students have already heard the same thing a hundred times from you and their private teacher, students will take it seriously from someone they perceive as an expert. Prepare a handout for students on audition preparation and provide this to your private teachers so they can reinforce these lessons.

    Once the audition has passed, give some significant recognition in front of the full band or orchestra to the students who auditioned. Let students know in advance that the winners are the ones who went for it, not just the ones who made it. These students deserve recognition from the teacher and their peers for their hard work and audacity. Seeing this year’s students rewarded with praise will motivate other students for future years.