Let’s Talk About That Audition

By Guest Writer, Adam Hopper

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to judge several auditions for various middle and high school honor bands at the district, region, and state levels.  It seems that each time I adjudicate one of these events, I am more and more impressed with the overall ability and percussion talent of the candidates, but I am still confused by some of the habits they develop.  It goes without saying that if you want to be selected for such an ensemble you will need to perform the audition repertoire correctly, all the while taking special care to nail the notes and rhythms, dynamic changes, sticking patterns, accents, and musical nuances.  It seems that every time I judge, I see more and more students make the same mistakes that sometimes cost them the spot for which they are auditioning.  Many of these mistakes that candidates make are well within their control, and can be avoided with some prior preparation.  Here are some things to consider when you are preparing for your scholarship or honor band audition.

The Prep:

Most auditioned parts will require that you demonstrate a variety of percussion abilities on various instruments.  The majority of middle and high school students seem to gravitate towards one instrument in the world of percussion, and only focus on that one in particular.  It is certainly fine to have a specialty, but part of our job as percussionists is to be able to perform on everything in the back of the room. You may be the world’s best snare drummer, but if you can’t demonstrate a decent understanding of mallet playing, you will not get the gig.  Likewise, if you have got mallet chops for days, and can not execute a decent long roll, then enjoy watching the concert from the cheap seats because you won’t be on the stage.  Therefore, when you are preparing for your audition, I suggest starting to practice the instrument you feel the least comfortable with first.  If you are primarily a marimba player, as soon as you get the audition music, start working on the snare drum sections of the audition.  Never assume that you can win the audition by only performing one aspect of the repertoire.  It is amazing how many people come in with only half of their audition music prepared at an acceptable level.  Those people never make the cut.  Never.  As your audition date approaches, start doing mock auditions.  Set the room up how you think the audition room will be.  Wear the clothes you are going to wear to the audition.  Play for your family, or friends to get the feel of an audience watching you.  The more ways you can prepare for your audition ahead of time, the more likely you are to get the gig.

The Tools:

It should go without saying, but you should come into your audition with the necessary sticks and mallets to win that audition.  That means your snare sticks should be in good shape without chips or notches knocked out of them. Furthermore, they should be concert snare drum sticks.  Do not bring drumset sticks, and certainly do not bring marching snare sticks.  When a kid walks in with marching sticks and tries to play something from the Cirone or Delecluse book I immediately deduct a million points and pray for the child’s eternal soul.  Marching snare sticks are great for their intended purpose–playing outdoors on kevlar heads really loud–but they do not work inside the orchestral or concert band setting. Using marching sticks for concert snare drum parts would be like using a Louisville Slugger to squash a bug.  Sure it can do the job, but you could probably find something better.  Another common mistake deals with mallet selection. Your mallets should not be frayed or mismatched, and they should be the proper mallets for that instrument.  In other words, don’t bust out xylophone mallets for a marimba part, or timpani mallets for a glock part ( yes, I have seen both of those things happen. ) I suggest students have a variety of mallets available for the audition.  Not only does this give you options when you come into the room, but also shows the judge that you have the tools to handle a multitude of situations.  If there is a multi-percussion secondary part, make sure you have those instruments with you.  If you need a triangle, make sure you have a high quality instrument that produces a clear tone. Also, you will probably need to bring your own beaters.  Select beaters based on the dynamic level needed for the audition music. Have the triangle set up in a way that you can hold it and play with proper technique.  If a tambourine is required, please for the love of all things good and holy bring a tambourine with a head.  In the orchestral, concert band or wind ensemble world there is rarely ever a time that you will need a tambourine without a head.  In fact, unless your a 1970’s rock star you’ll probably never need one.  The selection of your implements are things that you can control.  Do not give points away in the audition because you fail to make wise decisions when selecting your sticks and mallets.

The Audition:

Be on time for your audition.  If you are audition number five, then you should be outside the door when audition three walks in.  Don’t be nervous, and if you are nervous, don’t tell the judge.  It’s incredible how many students profess their fear and nervousness to me before an audition.  We are picking students to perform difficult music in front of a large crowd, if you freak out in the audition it does not instill a lot of confidence in your ability to not freak out on stage.  Play the repertoire as you practiced it.  If you hear other people in the warm up room playing it differently, do not let that intimidate you or change your way of thinking.  View this is as a professional audition, and treat it as a job interview, because that’s essentially what it is.    That being said, it is ok to have a little personality with the judges.  Introduce yourself, shake hands, and be cordial.  Most of us are pretty nice people, and we are most likely going to be happy to make your acquaintance.  Make sure you know your scales and rudiments.  Most audition pieces will have you learn some specific scales and rudiments to be performed at your audition.  Please learn these.  The chances of you getting the gig if you can’t play a G Major scale is pretty slim.  Know your rudiments too.  Open closed open and about a mezzo forte level.  Again, I am always a little shocked by the amount of students that have their audition material down ice cold, but can not play scales or rudiments because they simply forgot to practice them.   Yes, there will be sight-reading, and yes, you will be awful at it.   That is all right, though. Honestly, most judges pick sight-reading that they know you can not play.  What the majority of us look for during the sight-reading portion of your audition is how you go about learning a difficult part.  What method do you employ to read through unfamiliar music?  Get the dynamics, the proper style and tempo, and counting as best you can, and that is all we really want to see.  It’s ok to play the sight-reading a little slow.  Before you start, a good rule of thumb is to find the measure of the music that seems to be the most difficult.  Think through that measure, and decide about how slow you would have to play that measure to play it correctly.  Then, play the whole piece at that slow tempo.  Never tell the judge things like, “this is going to be bad,” or “I’m going to be awful at this.” Again, it’s all about instilling confidence in your ability, and announcing your inability to learn the part is not a good way to do that.

FINAL THOUGHTS: HOW TO LOSE THE AUDITION IN 10 SECONDS

When you are waiting to come into the room, remember to play your marching band music on your drum pads in the hall really loud and really fast.  I speak for all judges everywhere when I say that we love to hear those awesome show beats from the last few seasons, as we are huge fans of your high school marching band.  Your ability to play tap drags and flam fives impresses everyone who walks by and strikes fear into the hearts of your fellow competition.  What is even better is if you can play the snare breaks and percussion features of your favorite drum corps as well.  Also, be sure to tell everyone that will listen how you made Blue Devils, Cavies, the Cadets or Crown last season, but you didn’t march because “you couldn’t afford it” or, “something came up.”  That is a great story and we all love to hear it.  If you bomb the audition, make sure to tell the judge that you “didn’t have a lot of time to practice your audition rep, since you were preparing for your audition camp for (insert drum corps here .)”  It makes us feel really good knowing that you did not spend adequate time preparing for the audition that we are judging.  If you don’t make whatever band you are auditioning for, or don’t earn the chair placement that you thought you deserved, be sure to talk about how “the judge doesn’t know what he’s talking about” to your band director, or private teacher.  The percussion community in your town is huge and chances are we will never hear about your statements. It’s not like we ever talk to each other or anything. You know what, on second thought, just prepare for the audition, perform at a high level, get the gig, and move on.  That may work out better for everyone.

IN CLOSING

Auditions do a great job in preparing you for life.  They force you to prepare, to educate yourself, and to perform in a one-on-one high pressure scenario.  These are skills that you will find to be very important as you continue on through your musical career and your life.  Understanding and applying all of these tenets in your audition will not guarantee your success, but it certainly will go a long way in preparing you to perform a great audition.  Now go out there, win the audition, and enjoy your weekend in honor band counting rests in the back of the room.

Adam Hopper is currently the director of bands at Southern Middle School, and the director of percussion at Southwestern High School in Somerset, Kentucky.  Mr. Hopper has written and arranged percussion works for schools at the middle, high, and university levels in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio as well as for groups in the W.G.I and Tri-State circuits.  He holds a B.M. in Music Education and M.M. in Percussion Performance from Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Kentucky.  Mr. Hopper also holds professional affiliations with NAFME, PAS, and KMEA.  Mr. Hopper is a proud endorser of Vic Firth drumsticks and mallets, and BDL Pads.  He currently resides in Somerset, Kentucky with his lovely wife Sarah, and their two cats Thelonious and Bossa.

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