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



Learning How to be a Performer: Focusing in the Moment


A performance is really a continuous series of moments in which one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance. That’s a heavy statement right there… Learning how to focus in those moments is a life’s work. I believe everyone has this skill, even those who claim to have severe performance anxiety. The difference between all of us is where our performing skills shine. Some of us have the ability to focus when performing music, some have the ability to focus while cooking. I couldn’t possibly stay calm and focused during surgery, but to a surgeon it’s just another day at the office. However, that surgeon might be petrified to play a single triangle note onstage. We all have our areas we are more apt to succeed in. Today we will discuss how to focus onstage.

Earlier I said “one’s sole focus is on executing their contribution to that performance.” This is the crux of performing. If I am playing bass drum on Stars and Stripes, fitting those quarter notes in the right spot is 100% where my mind is. I am listening to the basses and the low brass to make sure my placement is perfect. If they move ahead a smidge, I want to be right there with them. Earlier in the concert I could have been playing the tambourine part to Carnival Overture and in that moment it would be focusing on leading the ensemble. The reason Bolero is so difficult is not because of its technical difficulties. The challenge lies in the ability to focus and keep the group together for the entire 15 minutes of the piece. Having big ears and adjusting and moving the group into some semblance of the same tempo throughout the piece takes a lot of mental energy. This is the perfect example of a piece that demands focus and being in the moment. Learning how to sharpen our focus will be the goal of today’s post.

The first time I really worked on this was at Northwestern’s summer music camp the summer of my junior year in high school. I must admit, it was not a fully conscious effort. The players I was playing with were the best I had ever been around and I certainly didn’t want to be the weak link in the group. It was a wakeup call. I thought to myself, “Hey, you better dial it in here to fit in with these other kids.” That motivation caused me to focus more during rehearsals and especially in concerts. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid to mess up as I wanted to play on the same level as these other fantastic young musicians. I realized that I was learning how to be in the moment and concentrate solely on the task at hand; playing music. That “zen” state I was in was one that I have been working on perfecting ever since.

So how can one get better at this? Learning to focus in the moment is incredibly difficult. And there is nothing less helpful when trying to focus than someone saying…… FOCUS!!! Even those that are great at it still have wandering minds. (I find myself distracted by the backyard that needs mowing as I type this…) I find a lot of the tactics to deal with a wandering mind to be a little too “hocus pocus” for me. I know they work for some people, but I never found them helpful. The drill I have found to be the most helpful is to ask myself the question “What is my goal?”. A very simply question, but one that gets right to the point. What I find is that my mind immediately goes to what I am trying to accomplish. If I am playing the Third Movement of Scheherazade and I ask myself “What is my goal?” my brain immediately goes to:

project a light, lilting style

very steady and supportive

sensitive, round dynamics

energy in the rhythms

Ask yourself the same question about Porgy and Bess. Take 30 seconds to make a list of your goals.

What you will notice is you came up with some very concrete musical goals to accomplish. What you will also notice after the fact, is what you weren’t thinking about! You weren’t thinking about your shaky hands. You weren’t thinking about how you always miss the A natural in that one spot. You weren’t thinking about how out of control the grass is in the backyard either. This is a great way to focus in a performance or audition and essentially distract yourself by asking the right question. That question might be different for you but asking yourself some version of “What is my goal?” shifts your brain to what is important. This is a topic discussed at length in the book I mentioned last week Fearless Golf, with obviously much more of a golf focus.

So why a question and not a statement? A question is a better way to refocus because it causes you to focus on what YOU think is the answer. A statement is merely a list of facts you believe in, but a question engages the brain in a much deeper way. It almost starts a conversation in your brain. For example which thought do you think is going to be more helpful?

“What is the style of this work?”

“Don’t rush.”

Asking yourself about the style is significantly more helpful! It conjures up multiple adjectives and thoughts that are going to help your performance. Telling yourself not to rush may prevent you from rushing but will not be helpful in any musical way and may even cause you to drag!

Obviously this is incredibly easier said than done, but it is an exercise that I really believe works. Just like music, being able to focus is a lifelong pursuit. Even when life is great it is easy to be distracted, let alone when things aren’t great. For anyone who has stood onstage in a performance and felt really involved in the performance and been tuned in knows what a rush that is. That is exactly the goal! Good luck with your own pursuit of being a performer; now I’ve got to go mow the lawn!