10 Tips to Play a Fearless Audition

Last week we examined fear and what makes the audition an anxious experience. This week let’s look at how we can deal with the anxiety and perhaps even eliminate it. I’ve received several emails this week from those of you who have had audition nightmare stories. Take some solace in knowing you are not alone!! Thanks for sharing your stories and I hope our email correspondence and this post help reduce your anxiety.


All this fear and anxiety can manifest itself in so many “fun” ways. When I was in high school I would get so nervous that my hands would sweat profusely. Like so much they would drip. I actually tried a special kind of deodorant for my hands to try and keep them from sweating so much. File that story under “things I’d like to forget”. There are many other unfortunate symptoms we experience due to this anxiety.

  • shaky hands
  • negative thoughts
  • sweating
  • mental slips
  • muscle tightness
  • heavy breathing / heart rate increase

Just to list a few…

These are all symptoms of fear. Trying to use deodorant was not going to solve my sweaty hands problem. My hands didn’t sweat in the practice room because there was no pressure and no expectations in the practice room. Once it mattered was when my hands would sweat. Lots of you have told me you have shaky hands. The same is true. I doubt your hands shake constantly in the practice room; only at the audition. So let’s deal with the new variable in the equation: The Audition.

To combat this audition fear, we have to make the audition experience more like the practice room experience. This also means in our preparation we have to do the reverse: make the practice room experience as much like the audition experience as possible. As you will see the large theme of this post is preparation! Ultimately the audition or performance will always bring out a few butterflies in the stomach, but that is a good thing! It means you care! It means you want to succeed! The trick is eliminating the bad audition symptoms and utilizing the good ones to help you play and focus even better!

  1. Prepare the music

This may seem like the most obvious statement ever but prepare the music!! If you are walking into an audition with the thought “I really hope they don’t ask XYZ excerpt”, then you are setting yourself up for all kinds of failure. Sure you might sneak through a round because they don’t ask it, but your anxiety is through the roof and why would you add more anxiety to the situation. I could make this a lot more complicated than it is but a great start to eliminating fear in an audition is knowing you can play all of the repertoire on the list.

  1. Eliminate as many variables as possible

Eliminating the variables you can control puts your mind at ease that you have eliminated lots of the things that could go wrong. There are a thousand thoughts that go through your head every minute at the audition. Knowing you have addressed a lot of your concerns before the audition will reduce your anxiety. Feeling prepared builds confidence and knowing you have crossed all of your t’s and dotted all of your i’s goes a long way. For instance, I would change all of my snare drum heads 10 days before the audition. A new head would be fresh and after 10 days would hold tension very reliably. Virtually no chance of it breaking. Oh, and I would bring an extra head just in case it does. Check drumheads off the worry list! I would also bring a lot of my own food to the audition so that my diet stays the same and my stomach doesn’t get upset. I would also wake up at the same time I needed to for the audition the entire week before so my body was used to whatever time zone I was going to. All of these little thing add up and take a load off your mind.

  1. Prepare for the logistics of the audition

You want as much of your focus in that golden time of the audition to be on playing. Not wondering where you triangle beaters are or wondering how you will get all of this stuff on stage. There are lots of solutions to these logistical issues and you should find the ones that work best for you. First, develop a checklist while you are practicing of everything you need or could possibly need. That way when you pack, you know you have covered every variable. Next, figure out how you are going to travel to the audition. Make sure all your bags have wheels and you can get around an airport comfortably. You don’t want to play poorly because you were lugging a cymbal bag between three terminals. When you get to the audition, figure out how you are going to get everything on stage. Are you going to use multiple drums? Are you going to have stagehands or a proctor carry something? What are you going to carry? Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but make sure you have a plan! I use a little cart with rubber wheels to roll all of my mallets, tambourines, cymbals, triangles and everything else on stage. That way everything is easily accessible at a moment’s notice. Before the audition, I would have people call out excerpts and I would practice grabbing the mallet or whatever I needed and just starting it. I wanted that process to be as simple and easy as possible. I had a routine for triangle, for tambourine, for cymbals, for everything. All of this would allow me to focus solely on my playing and not be distracted by logistical details.

A funny story about my audition cart: My original cart hard extremely hard rubber wheels with treads on them. I was very proud of it and how organized it was. The first time I wheeled it on stage for a mock audition I realized I had made a poor choice. The treads on the wheels made the cart sound like an airplane was taking off!! **Note to self** Make sure the cart is silent when on wood surfaces. Lesson learned!

  1. Prepare for the unexpected

Weird things happen at auditions. Ambulances drive by. The heat turns on and the radiators make noise. Someone’s cell phone rings. The panel can ask you to play the excerpt again “as if you are floating on a cloud”?!?! Sure, you can’t prepare for everything, but if you practice occasionally in weird environments, you won’t be as stunned when a new one presents itself. Tell people in mock auditions to have you play things differently just to mess with you. And really try to do whatever they say. Have someone conduct you through a few excerpts in case the music director conducts you in the finals. Play with a fan blowing on you in case there is a bad draft. Don’t spend a large percentage of your time doing this, but try and get comfortable in case you encounter something bizarre.

  1. Prepare mentally!!

Hopefully you are catching on to the theme of preparation here, but it is key and preparing mentally may be the most important. I could do an entire post on the mental side of auditions (and perhaps I will) but I will touch on a few concepts and methods of preparation you should consider. First, I suggest you read a lot about performance psychology. There are a lot of experts who know more about this topic than I do and you can find the flavor that fits you the best. Some of my favorite books have a sports angle to them (no surprise to those that know me).

The Inner Game of Tennis

Golf is Not a Game of Perfect

How Champions Think

Think Like Tiger

Zen Golf


and my personal favorite Fearless Golf

All of these books will help your approach to auditions and eliminating fear. The main element I want to talk about here is a big theme Dr. Gio Valiante touches on in his book Fearless Golf. I am a huge fan of this book and his concepts. It is also the inspiration for the title of this post. His main focus is whether or not you are Mastery or Ego driven. Ego drive people are motivated by feeding their ego and receiving praise for their success. They are driven by success. That is what they crave. Fame, fortune, and admiration! In the same way they are driven by success, they are driven by the fear of failure. Failure means no one will praise and admire you. Your reason for competing is gone. Ego driven players are also concerned with details that are ultimately unimportant to the audition. Details like how many people have advanced? Who is showing up to the audition? What did they ask on the first round? This is an innately human way of thinking but it can be so dangerous.

A mastery driven player is motivated by the pursuit of improvement. The only concern of a mastery focused player is executing their round as perfect as they can. Who shows up to the audition, what repertoire is asked, and what time of day they are playing are totally irrelevant. The idea of perfecting something that cannot be completely perfected is fascinating and motivating to a mastery player. Hopefully you can see the enormous shift in how a mastery player perceives a situation vs. an ego driven player. This all boils down to motivation and where your focus is. Take a tough accuracy excerpt like Exotic Birds. An Ego driven person will be thinking about how great it will look if they nail it or how bad it will look if they drop 4 notes. A Mastery oriented player will be focusing on specific target points from their practice session that have helped them execute the excerpt in the past. A mastery driven person looks at failure as one step closer to mastery. Failure is a means for learning how to improve.

It is obviously very hard to live 100% in the mastery category. To some degree I do think it is healthy to celebrate and enjoy success but I very much believe this to be true after the fact. The celebration shouldn’t be what is motivating you. Again, I highly recommend Fearless Golf and the other books mentioned for a brush up on your “mental game”!

  1. Accept the final result, before it happens

This is obviously very related to the mental preparation but I believe deserves its own focus. An enormous aspect of auditions that is overlooked is the fact that you have no control over the outcome. Yes, that’s right, you have no control over the outcome. What you do have control over however is how you play. You can’t control how the committee is feeling. You can’t control what kind of player they are looking for. They are the one voting and all you can do is give them a product worth voting for. You can’t force them to vote for you. Knowing all of this is vital because it separates the result (whether you advanced or not) from what is most important, how you played! If your success at an audition is based on the result then you are giving someone else the control. If you walked into an audition and executed every single thing just like you wanted, then you had an unbelievably successful audition. It goes back to the mastery concept. The result will be what it is going to be. Don’t focus on the result, focus on your playing!

  1. Gain experience, but in a way that builds confidence

Having experience is great, but wouldn’t you rather it be positive experience. A lot of students decide to take auditions “for experience” while completely ignoring the fact that they know deep down inside that they are not ready to win and/or play the job. This works for some because they learn lessons like how to travel and how to get comfortable with the logistics of the audition. Despite this, I do not normally recommend it. Yes there are lots of lessons to learn, but there are places to learn those lessons.

My main concern with taking an audition “for experience” knowing you aren’t ready is very related to fear and the psychology of an audition we have talked about. I have heard from many students this week that the fear they experience is tremendous. The undertone to that fear is that there are still fundamental problems to fix in their playing. That’s fine! What is not fine is ignoring those problems for the sake of “experience”. Let’s fix those issues before putting ourselves in a position to fail. If you take 10 auditions before you are realistically ready, that means you have put yourself in a no win situation 10 times and that fear builds on itself. Then when you are ready, you have these failures weighing on your mind. All of your experiences have been negative and you have no positives to build confidence on. Now I realize this isn’t the case for everyone, but I have seen I a lot of students beat up by the process simply because they entered too soon.

So Will, where should I gain experience then? A very fair and important question. If you are a student still working out fundamental issues in your playing, then start in situations that you are more likely to succeed in. Focus on nailing your placement auditions in college. Focus on really doing your absolute best in a local Youth Orchestra audition. The repertoire lists are smaller and much more manageable. Your ability to have them fully prepared is much, much higher.

When you are having success there, start auditioning for summer festivals. Start with the small ones, then start applying to the more competitive ones. Your goal is to prepare the best you can and execute exactly what your are trying to do. These environments are also much more supportive and encouraging. You will gain a lot of knowledge as well as experience. Once you are having some success in summer festivals, start participating in mock auditions a lot. And I mean a lot! Mock auditions will really increase the competitive level but in a controlled environment. By using this progressive approach, you will become so familiar with the audition process and small details of it, that it will feel immensely more comfortable once you are out there competing for employment.

  1. Don’t avoid weaknesses in your playing

This one won’t take long. It may take a while to fix those weaknesses but that’s ok! Remember mastery driven people are motivated by what is hard! Find the weakest part of your playing and attack it! Resolve that a year from now it will be a strength. The ultimate compliment (to me) is that someone has no weaknesses. Sometimes we just need a change of attitude. Spin everything around 180 and chose to look at something in a more positive way.

I have done this with a lot of areas of my own playing. In grad school I really hated playing bass drum with cymbals attached. It was uncomfortable. It was hard. It was hard to play consistently. It was annoying to practice. Excuses, excuses. Well guess what? If you want to play in any orchestra, you have got to be comfortable playing bass drum with cymbals attached. One day I had enough and just said, ” Nope! Not anymore. I’m changing this.” So I set up a drum in a practice room we rarely used and practiced attachment for at least an hour every day for a month. Boy was that a productive month! My attachment playing was all of the sudden a strength. It didn’t take a million hours, all it took was a change in attitude.

  1. Take care of your body

Your body is your real instrument, and you want it to be in great shape come audition day. Treat the audition like a marathon. You want to taper and be well rested at the audition. The last thing you want is to do a lot of great work and then play poorly because you were tired or exhausted. Let’s face it, there aren’t going to be many monstrous improvements 3 days before the audition. Rather than spend that extra hour practicing at the point, spend it resting.

I also believe that exercise during the preparation is a great outlet for many reasons. It gets you away from the minutia for a little while. It keeps your body strong. Our instrument is a very physical one so being in shape helps. I also believe exercising is a confidence builder. We talked earlier about building on small successes. Working out is exactly that. A series of small successes that over time give a great result. What a great model to use for our own audition preparation.

  1. Play for people. LOTS of people

I saved a big one for last. Performing for your teachers, colleagues, and friends is the best way to gain all this experience we have talked about and put all of the preparation to the test. It tests if your playing is ready. It tests if you are focused on the right things. It mimics the experience of the audition in getting only one shot to play something. It tests whether you prepared correctly for the logistics of an audition. I can’t over emphasize this enough. Even the bad experiences give you something to learn. (See mastery driven player above!) Be sure to play for musicians who don’t play your instrument as well! You will get a lot of unique comments from them that will be very helpful. In the real world, audition committees are made up of more musicians that don’t play your instrument than musicians that do.

We will never be perfect and not everyone will enjoy our playing. In a way this is incredibly frustrating but it is also liberating because we can always feel like we can get better. I try to use these concepts to be a fearless player. I don’t always succeed but I strive to be a mastery driven and a fearless percussionist. I hope this post helps you do the same!


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