Published in The Floot Fire Book: Advanced
When I was a senior in high school, I was excited at the thought of continuing my education in music, so I decided to pursue a music degree in college. Despite my enthusiasm, I was completely oblivious to the entire audition process! Sure, I had taken a few small auditions over the course of my brief experience with the flute but nothing of such magnitude as a college audition. I remember going for the audition to the school I ultimately attended feeling like a frightened mouse wandering through a maze. I felt overwhelmed and had little idea of what to expect. I can almost guarantee I looked like a deer in headlights when it came time to play. Over the years, as I gained more audition experience, I learned an audition does not need to be overwhelmingly scary; if anything, the audition should be thought of as a tool to help us grow as musicians.
The following article is a collection of tips and strategies I have learned over the course of my experience auditioning for schools, competitions, and professional orchestras. Use it as a practical guide to offer advice regardless of where you are in your personal journey with auditions. Some of these ideas may work for you, others may not; as you gain more audition experience, you will discover what works best for you under pressure. Auditions are excellent goals for which to strive; they push us to learn new repertoire and hone our technique and musicianship, which ultimately improves our overall performing ability. View an audition as a stepping stone to enhance yourself as a musician.
Before you even pick up the flute, you have to address the real instrument: you. Mind and body, you are the real instrument at play here, and you need to be functioning properly in order to have any chance at performing a successful audition. Take care of yourself. Everyone gets busy; things pile up, and we often overlook ourselves because there is so much schoolwork, rehearsals, extra-curricular activities, not to mention family and friends. In order to perform your best, focus on three fundamental things: diet, exercise, and sleep. It may seem trite, but I cannot stress enough the impact something as basic as taking care of your body has on the success of an audition. Exercise helps relieve stress and tension that may have built up from the chaos of a given day. Plus, it provides a boost of energy when you need it most: studying and practicing your music after a long day of school or work.
Mentally, you need to prepare yourself for the long road ahead of audition preparation, and with this comes the realization of sacrifice. Sacrifice goes beyond just determination and discipline; those are implied. To sacrifice for a goal, you must be willing to say to yourself, your family, and your friends that you need to allocate a certain amount of time every day to practice. Sometimes finding a free half-hour on a particular day might mean not getting to socialize. Seeing the bigger picture and visualizing the goal of winning an audition will help maintain the drive necessary to facilitate such sacrifice. This is not to say you need to stay locked up in the practice room every waking moment for the next few months. It is equally important to find at least one non-musical hobby to get your mind off music when tension mounts and you risk having a bad practice day. Rather than practice through the frustration, turn to your hobby; personally, I enjoy running, cooking, and reading as my outlets to relax. Engaging in pursuits like this will allow you to recharge and refocus when you head back into the practice room.
Another step to take before honing in on practicing is planning. The logistical side of taking auditions sometimes can interfere with your performance, so it is helpful to try to plan accordingly so there are few, if any, surprises as audition day approaches. Set up an approximate practice schedule for when you would like to have pieces learned as well as when applications, along with any potential recordings, may be due.
If you are considering college auditions, research as much as you can about all potential schools to which you want to apply. Consider taking a lesson with the flute teacher at each school. If you are going to be studying with someone for the next four years, it is important that you work well together. Simply because a teacher is affiliated with a reputable school does not necessarily mean that he or she will be the best teacher for you. If you find that you really enjoy the teacher’s style of teaching, then you have done yourself a couple favors by finding a school you truly want to attend and introducing yourself to the teacher before the audition day; allowing them to put a face to your name will help them remember you and how you were able to learn under their instruction.
Throughout your upcoming practice regimen, maintain a practice journal so you will have something tangible to refer back to when you take your next audition. You can track what worked for you regarding practice methods, mock auditions, notes from teachers, and more. If the occasional bad practice day occurs, write down why you felt it was bad and how you overcame it; should this happen in the future, you will have something to reference. Also, you can reference a great practice day and try to replicate what that felt like for optimal practicing.
Perhaps the most important part of taking any audition is the work you put into it in the months prior. By now, you and your private teacher have narrowed down the repertoire you plan to study in preparation for your audition. If the piece is unfamiliar to you, take the time to get to know it thoroughly. Find multiple good recordings and study the score. If you have to play with piano in the audition, it is helpful to understand how the flute and piano parts fit together as an ensemble. It can be beneficial to play along with the recording in the preliminary stages of learning a piece if you are unable to rehearse with a pianist. If you happen to play an accompanied piece or an orchestral excerpt without accompaniment in the audition, the panel will listen to you with the accompaniment in mind, so it is important to know your repertoire well enough that you can hear the accompaniment in your head as you play. Listen to other works by the same composer as well as other composers of the same time period; this is an opportunity for you to grow as a musician and artist. Understanding the style of the music from a certain time period will only strengthen your musical interpretation.
For any given audition list, consider why each piece is required. What style and character can you portray in a particular piece? How do the pieces differ from one another? As you continue to study and learn the music, seek out ways to differentiate your playing style amongst the entire repertoire to help exhibit a variety of musical characters.
In terms of technical study, be realistic. If necessary, say to yourself, “This piece is quite challenging; I think I will need at least a month to work out the technical passages.” One of the most effective ways I have found to truly learn a technical passage is to begin incredibly slowly. Start at half tempo and keep the metronome there for all your repetitions on that passage for the whole day and the next. Only increase the tempo if you know without a doubt you can play it both cleanly and comfortably—without stress in your mind or hands. Little by little, you will start to build the tempo; as time progresses, you will have performed so many repetitions, it will become second nature.
Another practice tip: if a particular piece or passage proves challenging, practice focusing on one musical element at a time. When you learn a piece for the first time, it can be daunting to concentrate on every little aspect the music demands; isolating individual elements can be more efficient. The first few repetitions could focus on technique, then once you are comfortable with the notes, pay attention to the articulation, then dynamics, breathing, musical phrase, and so forth. By selecting one element at a time, you allow each element to have your full attention before putting it together.
Once you have put all the musical elements together in your practice, record yourself. In many ways, you can be your best teacher through this method. Since we often are our own worst critics, recording provides the opportunity to hear yourself objectively as other people will hear you and what you may not have noticed initially while playing through a piece. Record excerpts in the middle of a practice session; that way, you have practiced beforehand and will still have time to work on the parts you think need extra attention.
A few weeks before the audition, begin playing for others; not only will they provide vital objective musical criticism, but you will also get a chance to see what, if anything, happens to you when you get nervous. The more opportunities you have to address nerves, the better you will understand how to cope with them and improve your chances of playing confidently on audition day. Find a number of different people to play for: peers, band directors, teachers, and parents. Even if they are not musicians, it will still help to gain experience playing for someone else. A mock performance will also give you the chance to play in front of an audience. You can finally break free of the confines of the practice room, so try to play past the music stand and connect with your audience.
This is it. Finally, after months of preparation, the audition is here. In the week before the audition, remember to get enough sleep and try to significantly reduce any caffeine and sugar intake as these are major contributors to audition day jitters. The day before should not be a last-minute cram session. Slow, deliberate practice is key; allow your brain and fingers to feel every note you play.
On the day of the audition, make sure you eat and drink plenty of water; staying hydrated will help ease possible dry mouth and keep your embouchure flexible, since there is a tendency to tighten up when nervous. If possible, try to do a slow, comfortable warm-up at home prior to leaving for the audition; there are so many distractions once you leave that you must ensure you feel your best about your playing whenever possible. Today is not the day to do any fast, technical work. No double-checking challenging sections just to make sure you “have it.” Should you make a mistake in that moment, panic inevitably will strike. The goal of the warm-up is to make you feel confident in your playing. I find it best to focus on tone; many people can wiggle their fingers accurately, but more important is the sound that comes out while doing so. I do a series of long tones, making sure my sound is resonant and never forced. Especially on audition days, practice long tones in the third octave softly; this will help keep the lips forward and flexible as well as control your air speed. Following long tones, I move on to a few simple melodies, still paying attention to beauty of tone while producing a musical phrase; a couple great books, both by Marcel Moyse, are 24 Little Melodic Studies and Tone Development Through Interpretation. Some short scale and articulation exercises come next just to get the fingers and tongue moving a bit, but again, not forced or stressed.
Make sure you arrive at the location early enough so as not to feel rushed; you want to stay as relaxed as possible. Bring snacks like almonds and bananas—something that is quick and easy to eat; you never know exactly when you will be playing, and you want to avoid playing on an empty stomach. Be professional and courteous to everyone you encounter during the audition, both the administrating proctors as well as fellow auditionees. The music world is a small one, and I can guarantee you will encounter many of these people again in the future, particularly your competitors. If you are put in a communal warm-up room with several other flutists, find a relatively quiet corner to sit and not play. Assuming you have already done your own private warm-up, you are good to go; now is the time to focus and save your mental energy. Besides, it is always incredibly difficult to hear yourself amidst a flood of anxious flutists who most often blast through the most technical passages. Instead, try listening to music or reading a book to divert your attention from the noise. Eventually, whether put in a communal or private room, replicate a condensed version of the warm-up from earlier in the day. Keep it brief; when playing during the entire warm-up period, anxiety can build, which leads to doubt. Instead, find time to breathe. Do your best to keep your heart rate down by doing some breathing exercises. One that has stuck with me over the years has been what one of my teachers called an “F breath.” Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth slowly yet consistently as though you are going to say a word starting with the letter F. The stream of air should almost be inaudible. Repeat this exercise as many times as is necessary; you can even do it as you are walking to the audition room.
Once it is your turn to play, go through a quick mental checklist: swab your flute, check for water in the keys, take all your music and water, etc. When you are in the room about to play, take as much time as you need to feel ready and sure of yourself. Remember that the tone should sound beautiful from the very first note you play. Nerves are inevitable; rather than pretending they are not there, embrace the situation and play through it. A realization I had that totally changed my outlook on performing in front of a panel is when I finally thought to myself, “What an honor and privilege it is to perform for such esteemed musicians.” No one wishes ill of you; everyone wants to hear you at your best. And from there, just have fun! Smile and make music. After all the work you have put into this moment, you owe it to yourself to convey your musical personality in these few minutes you have in front of the auditioning panel.
My final piece of advice deals with competition. The music world is intrinsically rewarding yet inherently competitive. There will always be someone who has achieved more than you, but do not concern yourself with someone else’s past. Everyone has his or her own path. Forego constant comparison with others; only track your personal progress while on your own journey. If you want to be competitive, compete with yourself and constantly reach for greater things. Be proud of who you are, where you came from, and what you have accomplished.