12 Thoughts from the other side of the screen…

12 Random thoughts from the other side of the screen

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During a recent audition for the Saint Louis Symphony, I kept a separate note pad next to my chair and made some notes that I thought would be helpful for those taking auditions. They are a combination of do’s, don’ts and general thoughts from a committee perspective. I always found it helpful to evaluate my playing from the committee’s perspective, because after all, they are the one making the decision.


1. Be running next to the train before you attempt to jump on.

When starting an excerpt or solo, make sure your brain is already subdividing in the tempo you want. If your tempo takes a bar or two to settle in, it tells the panel you were not ready to start the excerpt and you are going to struggle with entrances in the orchestra.


  1. No one expects a note-perfect round. Really!

Notes are important, but the musician playing them is infinitely more important. The committee is picking a colleague, not a winner of a competition. They want someone willing to take risks and contribute to the rest of the ensemble. Mistakes happen for everyone.


  1. Fundamentals are more important than being note-perfect.

Along the same lines as #2, the committee can generally tell the difference between a fluke mistake and a mistake due to a fundamental problem with an applicant’s playing. Once the committee picks up on a fundamental problem, your chances are not good.


  1. Every sound that is made from the door opening until the “Thank you very much”, is being judged.

This may seem unfair but think about who leaves the better impression. The player who noodles a little on the instrument, takes a lot of time between excerpts, makes lots of noise taking things out of their bag or the player who walks in quietly, plays efficiently, takes their time but doesn’t rush, doesn’t need a tuning note, and methodically plays the list? Point made hopefully.


  1. Don’t let technique dictate the music.

Every musician in history has gotten this direction from a teacher but it bears repeating. All instruments have their technical challenges but those who make them sound easy are the pros and very quickly stand out from the rest.


  1. Play the music first and the notes second.

This point was jotted down when I kept hearing trumpet players play the opening of the Promenade from Pictures note perfect but with radically different articulations throughout the excerpt. A consistent articulation throughout is valued much higher than note-perfect.


  1. A good risk can stand out from the rest.

Think about the life of a committee. They have to sit in the same place for hours on end without being able to move and have to listen to the same thing over and over. When someone takes something a little bit different in a good way it can score some major points. The key is making sure the risk is a good one.


  1. Find a few excerpts on the list that you can be incredibly expressive on.

So much of an audition excerpt list is testing technical chops. Make sure you take advantage the ones that are all about expression. Use them as an opportunity to move the panel.


  1. Don’t freak out if the committee asks you to play something again and differently.

Again, think about this from the committee’s perspective. Why would they ask to hear something again if they didn’t like something about it? They may know qualities of the hall that you haven’t picked up on yet and are giving you direction to make it better. They may just be testing your flexibility. Almost 100% of the time being asked to play something again is a good thing.


  1. Ask to play something again if you KNOW you can nail it a second time.

You don’t have many of these cards to play, but it is a valuable one to use when you need it. We all screw up. Asking immediately to playing something again and nailing it shows the panel that you know it wasn’t right and the first time was a fluke. This can be impressive.


  1. Don’t play too carefully.

This can go unnoticed for an excerpt or two but it will catch up to you. Careful playing ultimately sounds boring and that isn’t a trait you want associated with your playing.


  1. Focus on the beginnings of solos and excerpts.

The panel’s focus will never be higher than at the beginning of your round. It’s just human nature. Making sure your solo or first excerpt gets off to a solid start is very important. Remember #1 and making sure you are running next to the train before jumping on.


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These points are by no means all inclusive but were some thoughts that jumped out at me. I include a picture of the chair I was literally camped out in because this is the visual I would use when auditioning. This is where the committee is living for a full day. I wanted to make their job easy when it came to picking me. There are lots of topics I could jump into such as the mental game of the audition and how to prepare, but these thoughts were strictly from a committee’s perspective. I thought they could be useful to those preparing. If you have any more thoughts please leave them below.



14 thoughts on “12 Thoughts from the other side of the screen…

  1. Very encouraging and thoughtful for all those out there now attempting. I only took two auditions and then gave up years ago. I really believed I had to be note perfect for years after college. I came in to my own around age 35 and then thought I was too old. Writing, teaching, and composing are my focus, now. These tips might feel like a hug before an audition to those out there now. Mr. James, I bet you are an awesome teacher!– [Oh, I had many awesome teachers, just was somehow brainwashed into thinking I needed to be perfect. All those perfect sounding recordings could have been part of it. I guess the moral of THAT story is: Try not to be so hard on yourself and enjoy the music.]–

  2. This is definitely worthwhile information thanks for the perspective on what maybe expected in auditions to make the grade

  3. Bill,
    This is really helpful. My previous conductor emailed this to me, I’m actually preparing for auditions. I never tried previously because I thought you had to be note perfect, and my nerves are debilitating in auditions, whereas in performance they work for me… I just started studying with Steve Rose from the Cleveland Orchestra. He asked me why I’m afraid, I told him I didn’t think I’d ever be able to recover from a missed note. He said he’s never heard a note perfect audition. That everyone makes mistakes, that he made some for his winning audition. Is there a chance that you have anything written about the mental obstacles of preparation, of auditions, and how to overcome them? I’ve graduated with my master’s, I’m getting older, and I really want to go for my dreams and land a job in a bigger orchestra. The smaller orchestras, bouncing around, it’s getting exhausting, not to mention it isn’t fiscally cutting it once you’re in those later 20’s. Any advice about conquering panic attack level fear of auditioning?


  4. As I prepare for a career in percussion, these blog posts have proved very helpful. Similar to Katie’s question above: What are some ways you manage shaky hands–that is if that even happens to you while you are nervous? Maybe you could dedicate a blog post to getting nerves under control?

    Thanks for this wonderful advice, Mr. James.

    • Katie and Luke, thanks for your messages. You aren’t the only ones worried about nerves. Stay tuned!! Thanks as well for all the support!

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