PASIC 2015 Preview!!!!

I am very happy to officially announce that I will be conducting the Mallet Percussion Lab at PASIC 2015 in San Antonio, TX. The Lab will be presented at 1:00 pm in room 006 on Thursday November, 12th. I have been wanting to announce this for quite some time but I had to wait until all ducks were officially in a row and the date and time had been set.

If you are interested in participating please email Dan Ainspan at to put your name on the list. Space is very limited but there is a wait list as it is quite common to have cancellations.


Rather than do a typical mallet lab where we listen to Porgy and Bess for the 23,426,899th time I thought it might be interesting to do something different. Plenty of time is spent discussing excerpts and honing our skills on xylophone, glock, and vibes as far as excerpts are concerned. But not a lot of time is spent on the solos we are asked to play in these audition environments. Yes, I know that tons of time is spent on marimba solos in our field, but not in the context of an audition. Specifically an orchestra audition or a summer festival audition. In these environments you don’t have the time to play the heavier repertoire that many prepare for recitals and college auditions. In an orchestra audition, the focus is on your orchestra playing. The solo is just a nice dessert. So how should it be treated and prepared differently? THAT is what we will discuss in the Mallet Lab this year at PASIC!

2015-09-05 15.12.25

If the committee wants you to choose your own solo then they want to get a good sense of your musical personality. Just the choice of a solo tells a lot about you. Is it aggressive? Is it soft and sweet? Is it ironic and humorous? This will help them get to know your solo voice. Since it is a solo of choice, they are not looking to compare you to others, so much as to get to know you.

So what sort of musical content should this solo have? Well the committee is leaving it up to you so they are obviously looking to be impressed with some personality and expression. Since you have the committee’s attention at this point I think it is important to grab it right away. A long, slow opening can take too long to develop in this situation. The committee is used to listening to excerpts that are over in 30 seconds. A solo that takes 60 to really get going will lose them before you really began.

Chops are important to have but I think are largely overrated in this scenario. If you have made it to the finals, they know you have chops, now they want to see if you have a voice. So the difficulty level doesn’t have to be a 10 out of 10. I think there are several advantages to playing a moderate solo as opposed to a difficult one. First, the chances of success are much higher with something you know you can pull off 99 times out of 100. Second, a truly difficult piece could be lost on the committee. There might be some that are really “wowed” but chances are a good portion won’t know what they are listening for and could be more perplexed by the difficult repertoire than impressed. Giving them something very approachable and easy to grasp, yet still impressive, is the balance you should try and strike. The last point I’d like to make about the difficulty level is one most don’t consider. Preparation. This is an orchestra job. Not a soloist job. If you spend 40% of your time working on a really difficult solo, then your excerpts (what really matter) will probably suffer. Pick a solo that you are comfortable with and won’t take too much time away from your excerpt preparation.

When a committee asks for a specified solo, they are still looking for all of the personality I discussed above, but they are also looking to more easily compare your playing to others. It is much easier to compare 5 candidates when they all play the same solo, than 5 different ones. If this is the case then you should still think about ways of showing your own personality but perhaps in a conservative way. You want to stand out in a good way. I have heard many players trying to do too much and end up standing out in a bad way. The committee is listening to the same solo over and over again so a lot of it is going to sound exactly the same. When they do hear something different you want the committee to say “Oh that was very clever, I like what they did there.” Rather than, “Well…. that was different.”

Bach is often asked on auditions as well. Sometimes as a Bach solo of choice but also as a specified Bach solo. Either way Bach is a great way to hear solo playing in a familiar style so all on the committee. However, anyone who has played Bach in front of a group of people knows that it is very difficult to please everyone with Bach. There is no shortage of opinions on how one should interpret Bach, especially when it is played on an instrument the work was not written for. With this in mind, I usually suggest a conservative interpretation of Bach. You do want to show expression and musicality for sure! But you also don’t want to run the risk of offending anyone. This is a great moment to remember that you are being judged mainly on your orchestral skills. The Bach solo probably will not win you the job, but could potentially lose you the job. A conservative approach is probably the safest bet.

The students playing in the Lab will all be asked to prepare the Minuet No. 1 from the E major Partita for Violin by Bach. This will let everyone prepare the same solo as well as a work by Bach. After they have performed the Minuet, they will also be asked to perform a solo of choice with the instruction that we are simulating the audition environment. This will give the students the opportunity to both choose a solo for this situation, as well as prepare and perform that solo.

Finally I would like your help. I would like to compile a list of good audition solos to distribute at the class at PASIC. It will also be available on my website. Because I have still not conquered the task of knowing every piece in the repertoire, I would like your suggestions for good audition solo pieces. They don’t necessarily have to be for marimba either, but you should consult the general guidelines below. Post a comment below with some of your suggestions and I look forward to seeing you at PASIC 2015!!!

Will James’ Solo Rep List and Guidelines for Auditions



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