Preparing for College Auditions
for high school string players
by Jody Gatwood
HOW TO PREPARE FOR AUDITIONS
1. My teacher, Ivan Galamian, distinguished 3 types of practicing. It is useful to recognize them and keep them distinct. Over the months that you are preparing your audition music you will want to engage in these three types of practicing:
Building Time -- this is the process of breaking up into small chunks (perhaps 1 bar to as much as 8 bars) the most challenging sections of the music. It is a process in which you practice, with numerous repetitions and interruptions, listening critically, often in slow tempo and sometimes with variations, for the purpose of total mastery of the passage. Sometimes a passage of music is so difficult that you would want to do only this type of practice on it for the first few days or even weeks.
Interpreting Time -- in this type of practicing you play without stopping a section of music (perhaps 1 line or as much as half a page or more). The purpose of this work is to explore the musical character, line, shape, color, etc. and to develop continuity. This type of practicing is essential for beginning the process of putting the piece back together after you have torn it apart (with Building Time).
Performing Time -- only when you successfully play through an entire movement or piece by memory without stopping for any reason does this type of practice begin. When you engage in performing time you are giving a simulated performance and you stay committed to it being a real performance with both continuity and full musical projection. You don't allow yourself to stop even if you stumble, have a memory lapse, or miss notes. (However, you should stop if you experience physical pain) If it is very difficult to do this, for example because you are missing lots of notes, you are obviously not ready to start this. You need to first work more in the other two types of practicing.
During the course of preparing a piece of music for performance there are two phases you must go through. The first phase consists of all the days before you have successfully played through the entire piece by memory. The second phase begins on that day when you successfully play through the piece by memory (or with music if it's a Sonata). From that day forward, you continue to perform the piece daily or almost daily. For me personally I don't step in front of an audience to perform a concerto by memory unless I've played it through successfully at home at least 30 times.
The chart below illustrates the changing relationship of the various types of practice. In the beginning of learning a piece it is only natural that building time would be emphasized. But as the performance draws near, building time is reduced to make room for the other two types of practice. This is just a textbook model. Reality is never quite this neat.
2. Other ways to prepare for auditions:
a. Perform the pieces for your audition in a different order each day.
b. When you feel very solid in your performances try playing your program through early in the morning without warming up. Be careful to stay relaxed to avoid injury. Stop immediately and discontinue this if there's any physical pain!
c. Record your program on an audio or video recorder. Plan your practicing based upon what you hear or see in the playback. Keep addressing your weaknesses and building on your strengths.
d. Perform your program for a group of friends. Let them choose the order in which your perform. Let them critique you.
e. Engage in positive visualization of a future audition, using your imagination as a tool to practice generating the feeling and mood of the performance you aim for (e.g. confident, fiery, emotional, ethereal, tender, angry, exuberant, ecstatic, centered, joyful, etc.). The more vividly you can imagine the music (i.e. actually hear it in your mind) the better. Of course this imagined performing has to be tempered by highly critical listening to your actual playing.
HOW TO LEARN FROM EVERY AUDITION
Within 24 hours after the audition, set aside time to reflect upon what happened. Review the whole experience from beginning to end, remembering each detail -- how you played each piece, how you felt, and any particular strengths and/or weaknesses which were revealed in the audition. There are two important opportunities in doing this: 1) to identify your weaknesses so that you can go to work on them, and 2) to disengage from any upsets left over from the audition. It is not surprising for a person who has invested thousands of hours of practice on an instrument to be upset when his performance doesn't live up to his expectations. Remember that to perform at 100% you will have to prepare to the level of 150%. This means that what you think is 100% preparation is probably inadequate. Performing and taking auditions can teach you this if you're willing to learn it. A 1988 study by a group of psychologists documented the prodigious amounts of practice time required for aspiring young violinists. They found that a "good" group of professional violinists had practiced 7,500 hours before age 20. But a "world-class" group, including members of internationally renowned orchestras, had practiced over 10,000 hours before the age of 20!
HOW TO MAKE THE BEST IMPRESSION
1. Travel to the city (if more than 100 miles away) the day before the audition, so that you are rested and free from any concerns about traveling. A student of mine once went to an audition in a city 200 miles away. Her plan was to arrive 3 hours early. Unfortunately there was a serious backup on the Interstate highway. She arrived at her audition with no time to warm up. It was very stressful.
2. Dress to kill! Dressing up, looking your very best, tells the audition committee that you consider this to be a very important event in your life. It shows respect for the audition committee, for the school, for the music, and for yourself.
3. Eat a good meal early in the day of your audition, and avoid caffeine (unless you are addicted to it). Drink plenty of water throughout the day -- more than you think you should. Don't skip lunch.
4. Stay physically warm in the hours before the audition, especially in winter. Often buildings, or particular rooms, are cold in the winter. While it is normal to experience at least some nervousness -- this is the body's "fight or flight" syndrome -- it can lower the circulation of blood to your extremities (i.e. hands and feet). In addition to that, if your core body temperature is lowered by being in a cold environment for a long time, that will also contribute to cold hands and feet. You can help counteract this by wearing warm clothing. A good strategy might be to wear a down vest during the hours before you play (don't forget to take it off before entering the audition room!). Perhaps also a scarf. Obviously you can't wear gloves.
5. Warm up on your instrument during the hour before auditioning, but don't strain yourself. Your purpose now is not to "cram for the exam", but rather to get yourself in a relaxed and comfortable state of mind and body in relationship to your instrument and the music. Relax. Some deep breathing and gentle stretching exercises can help.
6. Before you enter the room tune your instrument carefully so that you don't spend the first minute of the audition tuning. If there's a piano accompanist in the room they will give you an "A". If your instrument is in tune, don't waste time retuning it. But if you discover that your instrument is out of tune, you absolutely must tune it. There is nothing so annoying for the judges as listening to an audition played on an instrument out of tune!
7. When you enter the audition room move swiftly and confidently to the position where you will play. Don't bow to the committee. Don't make small talk with them (unless they engage you in it). Play exactly what they instruct you to play. If they ask you which piece you want to start with, tell them immediately. Otherwise play what they ask for.
8. Starting to play is a wonderful moment. You have to trust yourself. By this time you should know the music so well that you don't have to remind yourself of anything. The purpose of all that practice was so that you could surrender to the opportunity to play better than you've ever played in your life. If you're disappointed or upset by your playing -- if it doesn't go well -- remember that every member of the committee is, or has been, a performer. They know what you're up against.
9. Give up on trying to impress the audition committee! They can't be fooled into thinking that you play better than you really do. Conversely, if you think you are playing badly, the committee will see through that and recognize your talent and preparation. You can't fool them.
10. Surrender to the opportunity. Be gracious. Appreciate the time these people have taken out of their lives to listen to you.
Some additional thoughts on majoring in music, and choosing a teacher...
Tips on how to take auditions are almost meaningless compared to the importance of years of serious high-level training, practicing, development, and performance. But the tips offered here may be useful. Keep in mind that, at this point in history, it is vastly easier to win a scholarship for music study in college than it is to get a good job in an orchestra after graduation. A Wall Street Journal article* in 1998 asserts that in a typical year 7,000 music students graduate from accredited music schools in the U.S. seeking orchestra jobs, yet among orchestras paying over $25,000 per year there are only 250 to 350 openings. Among the top 10 orchestras in the U.S. today it's common for 300 musicians to audition for a single opening! Clearly today's top orchestras will reject those who don't profoundly love music and are not relentlessly committed to excel in it. But tragically there are some fabulously gifted orchestral musicians who are unemployed because of the glut of talent. More recently a musician's organization reported that during 2003, among the top 52 orchestras of the U.S. (the only ones paying a living wage) there were only 159 openings available to the 14,000 music students graduating that year.
Interestingly students who pursue a degree in Music Education (to qualify for teaching music in the public schools) generally have a good success rate in finding a job after college. But, putting all these considerations aside, it really is important for students who want to seriously study and develop on their instrument to seek out a good teacher. It is strongly advised that you make contact with a teacher of your instrument at a college or university you are considering during the year before you go to college. Some teachers are willing to meet you or even schedule a lesson, so that you can experience first-hand what it would be like to study with them. When you find a teacher you respect and trust, it provides some reassurance that you are choosing the right school. Here are some questions you might want to explore in choosing a teacher: 1) What do their current students say about them?, 2) How do their students play?, 3) What do their former students say about them?, 4) What are their former students doing?, 5) How does (or did) this teacher play the instrument?, 6) Does the teacher's playing inspire you in some way? There have been a few non-performing teachers of string instruments (Ivan Galamian was an example) who happened to be extremely talented and skillful in the art of teaching. But even those few exceptional teachers had, earlier in their lives, mastered their instrument. In other words, all outstanding non-performing teachers were at one time outstanding performers on their instrument. There is no exception to this.
After you have addressed these questions, you should also consider the pedigree of the teacher. Who did she study with? Where has she performed? What do critics say about her playing? There are in the world some violinists with extremely impressive performing careers, yet they lack teaching experience, ability, or even interest. Great performers are not necessarily great teachers.
* Freed, Gwendolyn. "Young Musicians Orchestrate Careers in Florida." Wall Street Journal October 27, 1998: A20.
Revised 4/1/05 --Jody Gatwood