Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

What Auditions Are Like

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Folks, I remain more sick than well. But as I listen to my readers, and had a request a week or so ago to discuss what auditions are like, I figured, “Why not?”

Before I get started, I’d best explain something for readers who are somewhat new to me. I’m a trained classical musician; I also play jazz, have backed up pop vocalists, and understand most if not all musical forms. (I can even explain Gregorian chant to a degree, even if I cannot sing it.) I have two degrees in music performance — specifically, in saxophone performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and in clarinet and saxophone performance from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. My first instrument was the oboe, and I was known for that in high school; I took up the saxophone at age 15 because I wanted to play in the jazz ensemble, and took up the clarinet at age 17 because I liked the sound of the instrument (besides, on jazz charts that needed the clarinet, I felt inadequate because I didn’t know how to play it).

All of this may give you some idea as to what my qualifications are, but in case it doesn’t, let me make it clear. I’ve auditioned for colleges, both for positions and for scholarships; I’ve auditioned for symphony orchestras; I’ve auditioned for local groups, upon occasion; I’ve auditioned for small groups, large groups, jazz groups, classical groups…you name it, I’ve probably auditioned for it.

Regardless of your instrument, there are some things every musician who auditions for a group or placement needs to consider.

First, what’s the venue? If it’s an orchestra, you’re going to need to bone up on your orchestral excerpts — and the orchestra in question will send you a list of the pieces they’re expecting you to play, so you’d best get familiar with them. If it’s a jazz band, you’ll have to prove you can sight-read a few jazz charts, and possibly show that you can improvise a jazz solo with a rhythm section (you’ll especially need to do this if you’re auditioning for tenor saxophone, bass or trumpet, but you should be prepared to improvise if needed on any instrument). If it’s a pop group, you’ll need to sight-read, show that you can play a short, tasteful improvised solo (as for the most part, pop groups play with vocalists and they are the stars, not you), and if it’s for anything else, you’ll need a familiarity with the music being played and a willingness to sight-read anything put in front of you.

Second, what instruments are you going to need to bring? I am a woodwind specialist and play three instruments — oboe, clarinet, and saxophone. But if I’m going for an audition with a symphony orchestra to become their principal clarinetist, I’ll need to bring my clarinet and an A clarinet (a clarinet tuned one half-step below a B-flat clarinet, the standard clarinet played in the United States). If I’m going to an audition with a jazz ensemble, I might need to bring my saxophone and my clarinet (only rarely will you play oboe with a jazz band). And if I’m going to an audition with a concert band, I’d best make sure what instrument they want and what additional instruments they may need me to play down the road before I go.

Third, you need to have a strategy when you audition. You need to be prepared for your nerves, for the possibility of long waits that run far over your expected audition time, and as many other problems as possible in order not to get thrown so you can perform the best possible audition you can.

My last symphonic audition for a position as a clarinetist with a symphony orchestra is a case in point (note: this was over ten years ago, but very little has changed since then). The committee was running at least an hour and forty minutes behind, it was the middle of summer and the air conditioning had conked out, and the toilets were overflowing — one of the worst possible combinations I could’ve ever imagined auditioning amidst, to be perfectly honest.

But those weren’t the only hurdles. There were the other clarinetists warming up that I couldn’t help but hear, all of whom sounded (in the moment, at least) better than me. Some had better “pedigrees” than I did — that is, degrees from more acclaimed music schools, or better-known teachers, or who were younger and/or had traveled the world with other groups and could prove it. And some had all of the very best and most up-to-date instruments with all of the optional trill keys, and of course none of their keys were sticking despite the humidity and the terrible conditions, but mine were, and then they called my name…

Under such bad conditions, it’s surprising anyone can win an audition, to be honest. (To be fair, most auditions are held under much, much better conditions. Thank goodness, or none of us would be likely to try for jobs.) You’ve practiced for hours, sure, and you have the music down cold, but you weren’t expecting any of the other stuff to occur.

In my case, I did not win that audition. I did, however, perform credibly enough that I was asked to stick around for a few hours while they made a determination (meaning I wasn’t one of the first people dismissed to go home). And under those particular conditions, I was happy with that — and secretly, I wondered if I were better off not to win this particular audition.

Now, how does an instrumental audition compare to a vocal audition? Most of what I just told you is the same. You prepare a piece or two of your own, usually, and must be ready to sight-read something or prove you can sing (or play) another style if requested. You have no control over the venue, you have no control over how long they may be running behind…the only person you can control is yourself.

That’s why I said something about audition strategies. Because thinking in advance about what the worst-case scenario could be sometimes brings peace of mind. And thinking in advance about the best-case scenario — that you are going to give your best-ever performance, that they will love what you’re doing and want to hire you on the spot — certainly does no harm, either.

Figure out which strategy works for you, whether you’re a fatalist, an optimist, or a combination of both. And use it.

That’s the best way to make sure you’ll have a good audition. Because you’ve done all the work in advance to set yourself up for success.

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