Advice for Youth and Student Auditions
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post giving advice to professional violinists doing orchestral auditions. Well, now it’s time to get the kids involved. Student auditions happen many times during a child’s violin education. There are auditions for school orchestra seating, all-region orchestras (in the US), all-state orchestras (again, US), and other various youth orchestras wherever you live. If you are a student, read on for some great advice. If you are a parent, read on and give this information to your child to help them conquer their next audition.
Student Auditions – The Basics
Fact; auditions are not fun. Anyone who currently makes a living playing or teaching an instrument (your humble author does both) has had dozens of auditions in their youth. Probably more. When students are advancing on their given instrument, there are always auditions along the way. They are unavoidable. As a result, students are subject to a variety of emotions and anxiety in preparing for them.
No matter if you are auditioning for a seat in your school orchestra or for the best youth symphony in your state, most student auditions are pretty standard. Prepare carefully and know what to expect and you’ll do just fine. For most auditions, the judges cannot see you. This is to prevent favoritism. If they know you, they might mark you differently (good or bad depending). There is normally a proctor, a person who communicates with each candidate. The judges will almost never have any contact with you. If you have questions once you are in the room, only ask the proctor. Speak quietly but clearly. Also, make as little sound as possible while waiting outside the door. There will only be one or two of you at a time out there, but do nothing to disturb the person playing inside.
Most auditions are in a classroom at a school or small room in a church. These are comfortable settings that put students at ease. Sometimes auditions are on stage in a bit auditorium. These are a little more scary, but you have to put aside any stage fright when you perform. The other hurdle to overcome is warming up. You will have a lot of trouble finding a private place to practice and warm up. You have to deal with it and remember that everyone else is performing under the same conditions. Do the best you can to stay in your routine.
Student Auditions – Audition Material
There are normally three sections in these auditions; scales, solo, and sight reading. If you can master all three, you are in great shape. However, even if you are strong in two and weak in the other, you will still succeed.
Scales are pretty straight-forward. Not only should you practice scales for your audition, you should be playing them every day in your regular practice routine. Scales are like reading the dictionary. If you read the dictionary, you learn all the words. If you play all the scales, you learn all the notes.
There will be a list of what scales are required. Depending on the level of the group, there could be either 2-octave or 3-octave scales, or both. The list will also specify which keys to learn. When I auditioned years ago, there were always two scales you had to play and the judges chose them. There is always one in an easy key (D major, G major) and one in a difficult key (E-flat, A-flat). The best advice I can give you is, learn them all.
Scales must be played perfectly. The notes are easy right? It’s just one right after another. Because the notes are so easy, you need to play them with a beautiful tone. I recommend aiming for a solid mezzo-forte. If you try to press and play really loud, your tone will suffer. If you play too softly, the judges can’t hear you.
Also, practice all of the notes around the changes of position. If you have to shift, the notes around the shift are the ones that suffer for it. Practice at least two notes on either side of the shift, both backwards and forwards. Focus only on the most troubling spots.
Finally, unless specified, I recommend playing 3 notes per bow. The audition committee might specify how many (if at all) notes per bow, but if not, I always choose three. It will end the scale evenly. Four notes per bow ends mid-bow. Try to avoid that if possible.
Depending on the audition requirements, you will either choose your own solo piece or play the one that is required. If you can choose your own solo, be careful. Judges hate it when players come in and try to impress them with a solo that is just a tad too difficult for them. Choose a solo that shows off your technique, but one that you can play at the highest level. If you can play the Bach E Major concerto very well, and the Mendelssohn concerto pretty well, chose Bach. You don’t get extra points for choosing a difficult solo.
Sometimes you are required to play a specific concerto, or choose from a small list (usually 2 or 3 pieces). If this is the case, you need to approach your preparations a little differently. Everyone will be playing this piece so the judges will hear it upwards of 100 times. Make sure you play all the dynamics. Be that one player who plays the music instead of just the notes. Yes, you have to play all of the notes correctly, but adding some phrasing and dynamics will set you apart.
One last thing about solo repertoire. Do not play a sonata. Stick with concertos and unaccompanied Bach. Sonatas are actually chamber music and not solos at all. Many (like Mozart’s) actually are called “Sonata for Piano and Violin.” Unaccompanied Bach is always a good choice, but don’t play the Chaconne. It’s too long and too hard, and too perilous. Stick with a movement that you can play very well. If it’s one of the fugues, fine, but play it well. Rather, you should play one of the fast movements without tons of double stops like the d minor gigue.
Surely you can’t practice sight reading right? Baloney (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s super easy to practice. Go to IMSLP and download some chamber music. I like to use Mozart and Haydn string quartets (1st violin part) to work on sight reading with my students. Just go to the search bar and type in “Mozart String Quartet” then chose one. Any quartet will do (as long as you’ve never played it before). Then, choose a passage that is about 3-4 lines long and practice the sight reading audition.
Sight reading can be terrifying, and it is certainly the least popular part of every audition. Just remember to take advantage of the rules of your audition. That means; don’t just pick up your violin and start playing. Take as much time as they will let you to look at the music (without putting your fingers on the violin) and see what is ahead for you. You need to recognize the following:
- Key signature and time signature – this should take about 10 seconds
- Tempo marking – it might not be in the section you are to play so look backwards until you find it
- Scan the entire passage, looking for trouble spots (accidentals and fast notes) and tempo changes
- If you have time, look for articulations and the composer – you might even ask the proctor who the composer is. He doesn’t have to tell you but you can ask. DO NOT address the judges.
Armed with this information, you can now play the passage more accurately than any student who doesn’t take the time to look first. Normally, the committee will give you a full 60 seconds to look over the passage. Use them all. Look through the music until someone tells you to play. Likewise, practice this procedure on your chamber music you downloaded every single day.
Student Auditions – Psychology
Whenever you have kids involved in something competitive, there is going to be trash talking. Kids are ruthless when it comes to trying to psych out fellow competitors. You will hear kids playing concertos like Tchaikovsky and Sibelius just to intimidate anyone listening (they are not playing them for the actual audition mind you). You will hear actual trash talk. When you are waiting outside the audition room, you will hear pristine playing coming from inside. Don’t let any of this get to you.
Here’s a saying that my teacher told me when I was 13 years old – everyone sounds great from behind a door. Very true. The best thing you can do is find a private place to warm up, away from anyone else. That probably isn’t possible when you have hundreds of kids waiting to audition, but at least try to find a secluded place and quietly warm up. No reason to play loud. Just play some scales and maybe slowly play the most difficult passages from your solo.
Student auditions are a little different than professional ones. Professionals warm up quietly and usually do not interact with other candidates until after the audition. Student auditions are loud affairs with kids talking all kinds of smack wherever they can be heard. Don’t engage in it yourself, and certainly don’t let it get in your head.
Student Auditions – Final Words
More and more youth auditions are asking for orchestral excerpts. Depending on the quality of the ensemble, these might be pretty tough. Your teacher will help guide you through the excerpts just as he or she will with your solo and scales. Maybe the excerpts are pieces you’ve played before. That would be a happy accident.
Begin your preparation as early as possible. Once you know the audition material, get to work right away. Never try to cram for an audition. You won’t play well. Audition preparation is a marathon, not a sprint. Do a little each day until it’s time to show your stuff. When it comes time to go to the audition, make sure you have eaten and are fully hydrated. Go into the audition with a good attitude and you will have success. Remember the old saying, garbage in/garbage out. You will get out of each audition what you put into it.
Finally, you need to learn from every audition you take. Bad auditions will happen. You will play badly at least a few times in your life. Remember what happened and fix it for next time. Did you mess up your scales last time? Work extra hard to play them better. Did you botch the sight reading? Do some sight reading every day and conquer it next time. If you are able to get feedback from the judges (often times they will send you their forms with comments and scores) by all means do it. This can only help. Do your best and remember – confidence through preparation. Good luck!