By Adam Groh

A few weeks back I was commenting on a post on DrumChattr that related to grad school application and auditions. It’s early November, and if memory serves me right, most applications start coming due around the first of December. So… ‘Tis the season for thinking about grad school auditions. However, in posting on the DrumChattr message boards, I got myself thinking about auditions in general, and I have some thoughts that I want to share, namely some tips for improving your audition skills.

First of all, as musicians, auditions are part of our lives. It doesn’t matter what type of music you play or what level you’re at, there’s a good chance that you are having to audition. People audition for their high school bands, they have auditions to determine seating in their sections, they try out for drum corps, college auditions, grad school auditions, professional orchestra auditions, scholarship auditions, and many other things. Unfortunately, auditions are a necessary evil. I can’t think of a single person that I know who actually enjoys the stress and anxiety and nervousness associated with auditioning (both leading up to and when they’re finally in it). This is compounded by the fact that almost everything audition that we take is the gateway to something that we really want. Maybe it’s to be principal of your university’s wind ensemble, or to play with a regional orchestra, or for that $5,000 scholarship, or to get into your dream school, or win your dream job. In any situation, there’s a lot riding on auditions, and if we want to have successful careers then we need to find a way to excel in these situations.

Now, I’m not going to spend any time talking about how to actually practice whatever music is required for the audition. There are countless articles out there for people to read, and I would think that most people who are actively auditioning for things either have teachers or mentors who can help them with the “nuts and bolts” of perfecting the music that they are working on. However, I will say that if you really care about doing well in auditions, then you need to invest the appropriate amount of time into practicing. Don’t think that there is any substitute for a good 8 hours a day in the practice room. There’s not. What I am going to talk about is the one thing that I think is most often overlooked by inexperienced auditionees… PRACTICING AUDITIONING.

There’s an old saying that says “You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall back on your training.” Unfortunately for most people, their training includes a whole bunch of time in the controlled environment of the practice room, and very little, if any, actual time in a real-life audition situation. All kinds of things can trigger an onset of panic… The tone of voice that the audition committee uses when addressing you, the placement of instruments within the room, the acoustics of the room, the order that the pieces are asked for, uncomfortable clothing, and many other things can (and will) contribute to freaking you out. Sometimes people refer to these things as “curveballs.” Simply put, it’s just anything that you weren’t mentally prepared for throwing you off your game. Even still, some people have unavoidable physiological reactions to stressful situations which cause them to sweat, tremble, and lose focus. Our goal is to minimize the effect of all of those things, and like everything else that we musicians do, the best remedy is practice.

You can find a number of professional musicians strategies for auditioning in books or online, but the following are things that have worked for me, and I’ll try to explain each one a little bit. Most of them are written with college/graduate school auditions in mind, but they can be applied to almost any audition scenario. Enjoy!

1. Get all the instruments in the same room! – For a lot of people this is the biggest problem. At most schools practice rooms are big enough for one large instrument or two medium-sized instruments. It is easy to get used to spending an hour in the marimba room, an hour in the timpani room, an hour playing xylophone, and an hour playing snare drum. All of these are separate occasions, but unfortunately auditions are all-inclusive. The simple, and most important aspect of preparing for auditions is to set up and do full runs of all the repertoire on all the instruments. If your school has a percussion studio this is relatively easy. If not, then you need to get a little more creative. Beg, borrow, and steal your way into the band room or anywhere else that you can use to set everything up. Go in at 1am if you have to. Go in on a Sunday morning when everyone is gone. Just get in there and do some full runs. It’s not negotiable.

2. Play through everything. – Now that you’re in the room with everything set up, practice running through every piece that you have. In most situations (for a graduate school audition) it’s going to take you about 30 minutes to run through everything that you have. That’s a test of your endurance (mentally and physically), and you want to condition yourself to be able to make it through all of your material without any issues. Be ready to play it allt.

3. Play through almost nothing. – Even though you should be ready to play everything, there are very few times when you will be asked to play everything on the list. In some cases, you’ll play what seems like nothing. At one audition I played my snare drum etude, one short snare drum excerpt, half a timpani etude, one quarter of a movement of Bach, and a two minute excerpt of a marimba solo. I had way more material ready to go, but it just wasn’t necessary. Most teachers don’t need a full thirty minutes to dissect your playing, they can do it in the first 15 seconds after you start. Practice running through very limited amounts of material, and have people cut you off in the middle of things. It’s bound to happen at some point, so don’t let it surprise you or make you think they don’t like your playing.

4. Play through randomly selected excerpts. – Most likely you will play somewhere between what numbers 2 and 3 describe. However, it’s hard to predict what exactly will be chosen so the absolute best way to prepare is to get used to randomly selecting combinations of repertoire to run through. There are many ways to do this. Common ones include dropping individual excerpt names into a hat and drawing them out, putting pre-made combinations of repertoire into a hat and choosing, or just simply having your friends come in and randomly select things from a list. Don’t forget to start on different instruments as well. You want to be ready to start with solo repertoire or excerpts on any instrument and to go in any order. You may have a choice, or you may not. Either way, be ready for anything to be called in any order.

5. Practice starting things. – Often times the hardest part of playing in an audition is starting things. Make sure that you have a set way to start each piece or excerpt, and practice starting them. Once you’re “in the groove” of a piece things get much easier, so make sure that you are comfortable starting each piece.

6. Dress the part. – One of the things that we think about the least is how our clothing affects our playing. Wear clothes that are similar to what you will wear in your audition during some of your run throughs. Make sure that your shoes don’t make your feet hurt or cause you issues when operating timpani or vibraphone pedals. Figure out if the sleeves to your shirt catch on your sticks or mallets so that you can roll them up if necessary. Don’t let something this simple affect your performance.

7. Enlist your friends. – An audition is a lot like a performance in that having a warm body (or multiple bodies) changes the entire dynamic of the situation. Just like you pull your friends into the practice room to hear you leading up to your recital, or you play in studio class to get feedback before juries, get people to listen to you run through your audition repertoire. This also relates back to number 4 since your friends can pick and choose the order and pieces that you play. They can also give you feedback on your playing (up to a certain point before the audition when more feedback becomes overwhelming).

8. Enlist your recording devices. – If you can’t get people to listen to you, or even if you can, record run-throughs of your repertoire. Your friends’ feedback is very valuable, but you should also listen to yourself to make sure that the way that YOU want to sound is how you are sounding. Recording devices also have a way of changing the dynamic of a performance much like having an audience does.

9. Move stuff around. – Change the position of instruments within the room so that you don’t fall into too comfortable of a routine. Face a different direction or just randomize them so that you they sound different or the background scenery is changing.

10. Interview yourself. – Another commonly overlooked part of an audition is the interview process. If the people listening to your audition are interested in you they will generally ask you some questions to get a feel for your personality. Don’t let these questions catch you off guard. Make sure you have thought about (and practiced answering out loud) questions like: Why did you choose to audition at this school? What are your future goals? What are your specific interests in percussion/music? What do you have to offer to the school that you are applying to? And many others. You should also get comfortable introducing yourself, talking about your previous experiences, and discussing the pieces that you are playing and why you chose them. Don’t let a great audition be ruined because you didn’t think about possible interview questions that may come up.

11. Visualize success. – This is an especially effective tool if you have already been in or seen the room that you will be playing the audition in. Spend time in the days leading up to the audition silently thinking through the entire process. Close your eyes and see yourself walking in, greeting the committee, playing through your material (in real-time, don’t just say, “OK, I played” and move on), talking with the committee after you’re done playing, and then leaving. Even though you only get to do the audition once, you can get numerous repetitions in your mind before the real thing. There are countless books and articles about the power of visualization. It’s a powerful tool that you should definitely use!

12. Cover your bases. – A common mistake that people make is to not be prepared to play every bit of material that is on their list. This happens most often with orchestral excerpts and less frequently asked entrances. People will practice all the major entrances, but when the committee asks for something less common they’re unprepared and their performance suffers. Obviously, this is MUCH less likely in a graduate school audition where you are in control of the repertoire list, but it could happen, and you should be ready for it.

13. Don’t trust yourself to remember anything! – A great trick that I learned a few years back was to use post-it notes on music to remember specific things that could help me in the heat of the moment. In some cases it’s a simple word to remind you of the mood you’re trying to capture (Spirited, Melancholy, Aggressive, etc) in your performance. You may also need something very straightforward like “Don’t Rush!” It could also be a good idea to put something funny or encouraging at the front of your music binder like “You’re Awesome” or “Kick it!” to remind yourself that you’re going to do great! For that reason, even if I have all of my music memorized I still carry a binder with all the music into the audition. Even though I don’t need to read the music, I can put notes in it to remind myself of things. This keeps me from having to remember all of the details that I would otherwise forget.

14. Have a game plan. – In a lot of cases (at least in auditions for college/grad school) the committee is going to ask you where you would like to start. Even though you might not get to do everything in the order that you want to, at least have a “best-case scenario” plan. Know where you want to begin (somewhere that you’re confident is going to sound great) and then know where you want to go from there. You may get to choose the order, or not, but just be ready in either case.

15. Remember Murphy’s Law. – I say this as the catch-all. Just be ready for anything. ANYTHING. One of my favorite lines in the movie Se7en is when Morgan Freeman says “If John Doe’s head splits open and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it.” Basically, mentally prepare yourself for just about anything to happen. What if the fire alarm goes off in mid-audition? What if a committee member has the flu and suddenly runs out of the room to the bathroom? What if it turns out that you’re auditioning for the teacher plus all 23 percussion students at the school? Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Are any of the previously listed things probably, no way. But just be ready for everything, and practice in ways that simulate almost any possible situation.

I hope that these tips are helpful, and I’m sorry that this got so long! If there’s something I forgot about I would love to hear from you! Thanks for reading!

What other tips do you have for those preparing for auditions? Specifically, what interesting things have happened to you that you are now always ready for? Perhaps no UFOs flying out of heads, but I’ve heard some great curveball stories. What are yours? Talk about it in the comment.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on November 6, 2010.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Shawn Carpenter on

Dave Gerhart

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