Top 10 Non-Musical Things You Can Do To Increase Success at Auditions

We spend thousands of hours practicing for that one big moment. You would hate for your performance to suffer because of something completely unrelated to music or your preparation. Here are some of my most important non-musical suggestions for how to put yourself in the best possible position to play well!

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  1. Take care of your body

Plenty of people scoff at the idea that an audition is similar to training for the Olympics but I believe it is incredibly similar. We are asking our bodies to perform at insanely high levels. The last thing you would want is to play poorly because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep.

  1. Eat well but don’t change your diet

Along the same lines of taking care of your body, make sure you are eating good foods. Everyone’s body is different so I won’t try to tell you what you need for your body, but make sure it is good quality foods and you have eaten enough. Your body is going to need that fuel to help you rock out! Having said that though, don’t drastically change your diet a few days before the audition. Your body will react and wonder what the heck is going on? I would even bring food with me because I know the hotel would not have good options for me. I don’t eat a lot of carbs and ALL hotel breakfasts are mostly carbs. So, I would just bring food with me that I was used to and warm it up in a microwave.

  1. Don’t skimp on the hotel room

You have spent thousands of dollars on instruments, gear, lessons, and who knows what else. Penny pinching for a $75 room that is 8 miles away and has a crappy mattress just doesn’t make sense to me. Really? Right now is when you are going to try to save $75? Spend the $150 a night to sleep in a place you know will have a nice room, mattress, and will help you relax.

  1. Fly in the day before

Similar to not penny pinching on the hotel room. Don’t risk not being there in time by flying in on a 5:00 am flight. Your body will be tired (See #1) and you risk missing your time.

  1. Get to know your brain and what it needs to put yourself in a position to play well

Do you need to get amped up to focus and play well? Or do you need to stay calm and relaxed? If you need to get amped up, then don’t sit around all day. Be active and go for a walk or do a light workout. If you need to stay calm, then listen to relaxing music or read a book (that has nothing to do with music). If you find that you are worn out by the end of the day then make sure you pace yourself and find ways to rest.

  1. Wake up at the same time you will at the audition the week before

If you live on the West Coast and are flying to the East Coast, go ahead and make the time change a week early. You would rather be groggy for a few days the week before than the day of. Again, take care of your body.

  1. When traveling make sure all bags have wheels

Don’t carry anything. I mean anything! I don’t care how in shape you are, the airport takes it out of you and you want all your muscles to be in top form. If you have tons of gear to bring, make sure you have a cart or something you can wheel it around in so you aren’t carrying a 30 lbs bag across 2 terminals.

  1. Have warm-ups timed out

What is your plan if all of the sudden they say “Ok, you are playing in 15 minutes.” You better have a 15 minute warm up ready. Sure you probably want more time, but have a 10, 15, 20, and 30 minute warm up routine ready to go in case you have less time than you wish you did.

  1. Have soft hands

Studies have shown that in pressure situations your perception of how much your are gripping something (a stick, a bow, etc…) changes. What may feel to you like a 5 out of 10, may be more like a 7. Trust that your hands will hold on to the stick and relax. Know that what you are feeling is probably more tense than you think it is.

  1. Ask yourself positive questions

This is a huge one!!! This does 2 things. It keeps your brain focused on positive thoughts. Negative thoughts do not help at the audition. By asking a question, it also stimulates your brain to come up with a positive response, which in turn keeps you focused on what is important! Something like “What is the main musical element I am trying to convey to the committee?” is a very constructive, positive question.

WJ

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Examining Fear and Anxiety at Auditions

Fear is a powerful emotion. It can be crippling. Our body is literally programmed to protect us from what we fear. “Fight or flight” anyone? Auditions, sadly, can elicit fear and anxiety. We have all felt that feeling of wishing we could get off the stage and hide as fast as possible. There are many things one can fear. Things that are very serious like death or serious injury, to the not so serious like spiders or public speaking. While the conscious brain recognizes that taking an audition is not as life threatening as falling from a 4 story window, don’t even bother trying to explain that to the subconscious brain! I have heard from many of you that the fear you feel at auditions can be debilitating. This is also common for performances. Dealing with this emotion is vital to any form of success.

Today’s post will examine what exactly we are afraid of and why. Next week I will look at how we deal with that fear and how we can manage it. I broke this discussion into two halves for a couple reasons. I want to really dive into what makes us anxious and try to figure out why. Really understanding the why will help us know where to look to try and deal with this fear. Trying to examine why we have anxiety as well as solving those issues would also make this post quite long and I want to have plenty of dedicated space for a discussion on dealing with fear. Lastly, I want to give you a chance to weigh in, in case I’ve missed something that sends you over the edge. Leave a comment below or send me an email at william.j.james@gmail.com.

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So…. What exactly are we afraid of?

Not all fear is the same. Unfortunately there are many things that can cause fear and performance anxiety. Here is what I think most people are afraid of:

  • being unprepared
  • failure
  • success
  • personalizing fear
  • not meeting expectations

Let’s look at them one at a time.

Are you prepared?

I believe this is the main catalyst for fear at auditions. Who has thought “Am I really ready for this?” right before an audition? I know I have! And I’m guessing most of you have as well. I think this is for two reasons, that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

  1. You know deep down, you aren’t prepared and you are dreading when someone will figure it out.
  2. You genuinely aren’t sure if you are prepared or if you prepared correctly.

#1 highlights the physical preparation. #2 highlights the mental preparation. Any performance needs both physical and mental preparation. If you have the confidence and mental toughness of a professional but don’t have the hands, guess what? The result is going to be poor. If you have hands better than anyone, but have no confidence, you are going to crumble as well. This is why I think this is the biggest cause of fear. You have to have both. In many ways our mental preparation is more important than the physical. Our focus and mental state is so fragile, we have to be in a good place in order to play well. We will look more into how to do that next time.

Fear of Failure

Fear of failure is something we can all relate to. No one likes to fail. This was ingrained in our memory from elementary school when the teacher would ask you a question. If you got it right you were praised. If you got it wrong you experienced negative consequences like lower grades, disapproval from teachers, friends and parents, not to mention embarrassment. This doesn’t need a ton of explanation as we all hate to fail.

Success

I have asked this question in multiple masterclasses and it says a lot about the mental state of those taking the audition. What is your reaction when the proctor walks in the room and says you have advanced to the finals? Is it “oh boy..” and your nerves get jacked up? Or is it “bring it on, let’s go!”? It is easy to understand each emotion. It is also pretty easy to tell which one is better… Sure you might be anxious about failing but it very well could be that you are afraid of succeeding! I have met many young percussionists who are clearly not ready mentally to succeed yet. They will get there but this also harkens back to being prepared. If you are not sure if you are prepared, then you may worry about sneaking through the audition and then not succeeding at the job. It is also entirely possible that in one’s mind they would love the chance to win an audition. However, once the spotlight gets hot and the chance to win is there, they panic and no longer feel as comfortable as they thought they would. This situation isn’t always easy to recognize, and many don’t want to recognize it, but being afraid of success is common.

Personalizing Fear

It is very easy to take failure personally. We are afraid that being cut at an audition is a reflection of who we are personally and everything we have ever done. While logically we may know this is not true, in the moment it is pretty hard to convince yourself otherwise. I don’t need to tell you that there are a lot of egos at an audition and those egos can really get in the way! Everyone has an ego and fear of hurting that ego can have a real negative effect at an audition.

Not meeting expectations

Not meeting your own or someone’s expectations for you can cause severe anxiety. Big expectations can cause serious pressure! You may feel like you have to win an audition. You may be a sophomore and feel like you have to get out of the lower level ensemble at your university. That sort of expectation can be frightening and cause severe anxiety. Managing these expectations is very important. Expectations are good in theory because that means you expect good things, but keeping them appropriate is important. More on that next week!

So these are the main scenarios I have experienced or heard of causing fear and anxiety. Not fun!! I still experience these symptoms by the way! When I play solos I still get quite anxious because I am so used to playing with an ensemble. When it is just me it can feel quite lonely and intimidating. Challenging myself in that environment and forcing myself to face those fears helps me grow as a musician. Learning to cope and deal with these fears is very important, although not easy. I’m looking forward to hearing from you and commiserating over shared stories, but I am even more looking forward to next week and discussing how we deal with fear and conquer it!!

WJ

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.

 WJ