Audition Musings

10-11-03

During a recent weekend, I had the opportunity to hear nearly 90 tuba players audition for my orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra. Having served on several audition committees over the past seven years, I have heard more than 25 separate auditions for NSO vacancies. Most vacancies have occurred in the string section, but in the recent past I have heard auditions for flute, clarinet, English horn, French horn and timpani. While each of these instruments has a distinct nature and varying inherent challenges the audition procedure remains the same. This most recent round of tuba auditions prompted me to make some observations on this subject with an eye toward the preparation and training necessary to assemble a successful audition.

The Three T’s
It has been said that traffic police can pull over just about any vehicle at any time for a citation, because the odds are very good that most drivers are breaking motor vehicle laws. Be it excessive speed, an incomplete stop, faulty equipment, failure to wear seat-belts, tailgating, cell phone use, littering, uninspected/uninsured/unregistered vehicles—the list goes on and on. As an audition committee member, I frequently feel like a traffic cop with the ability to write up a ticket for an audition candidate at almost any point in any given excerpt; playing out of tune, incorrect tempo, wrong style, playing too fast/slow, playing too inaccurately and so on. The thing is, as a committee member, I am not seeking to penalize the musical scofflaws of the world. I am looking for the good drivers! I want you to play well. Believe me, committees are pulling for you not against you.

When so many candidates “break the law” over the course of an audition, it does become disheartening for the committee. Remember every member of that committee was an audition winner at one point, so they are uniquely qualified for their post. The recent tuba audition announcement garnered 225 resumes from applicants around the globe. Approximately 80 were encouraged to attend, and all of those candidates had either graduated with a degree from a college/conservatory of music or were currently enrolled in studies. Many were also currently employed as full time professional musicians.

The three “must haves” of auditioning are what I call the three t’s: (time, tuning and tone). As an audition committee member, I wonder why so many candidates are unable to master these seemingly simple musical tasks. Am I wrong to assume that four years (or more) of training at a good college/conservatory of music is adequate enough time to master these three basic objectives?

Too often, I encounter young brass musicians in training who are technically gifted yet musically bereft. Most need a bit more exposure, experience and time spent living life to become seasoned players. The typical music education in the U.S. places an emphasis on developing technical mastery of ones’ instrument. Nurturing the artistic and creative elements of a student are usually secondary to technique. That said, should an audition committee expect even more from this music school graduates’ grasp of the three t’s? Do the audition candidates realize their faults? Was it a lack of talent, aptitude or poor instruction that failed them in their quest? Do they believe that they are capable of winning a major audition even with their faults? In my experience, a player with the “total package” usually wins and a good committee is seldom fooled by anything short of that.

Transmission Failure
Perhaps even more disturbing for me as I listen to auditions is when a candidate simply fails to make music. I would say that making music involves the transference of thoughts, ideas, moods, styles and/or emotions from the performer to the listener. If the performer has failed to transmit these things successfully to the listener there is “transmission failure.” Better call AAMCO. It could be that the candidates are so bogged down in the muck of technical mastery that they have forgotten to simply put forth their musical ideas in a coherent manner. In other words, they cannot see the forest for the trees.

I have never sat on an audition committee that found a candidate to be excessively musical. Audiences and audition committees want to hear what is inside a performer’s musical soul. Much of the selected orchestral audition repertoire for brass instruments lies within a low to medium degree of difficulty. Yes, the rest is usually very difficult. The easy stuff is often selected so that a committee can lob a musical softball at a candidate and see how far they can hit it. Can they take something simple, shape it nicely and present it as a polished product? Too often, candidates will make the wrong musical decisions or, worse yet, make NO decision. The successful ones will take the softball into the upper deck because they made their musical decisions with conviction and communicate them effectively to the committee.

Final Round
My main objective in offering all of these rantings and criticisms is to point out that all of the basics of music making must be firmly established in order to put together a winning audition. Playing in time, in tune with a good tone should all be givens. The ability to convey your musical personality is also very important. When you step onto that concert stage, be it behind a screen or not, remember that you are there to make music for an audience, seen or unseen. Granted, the audition experience is an artificial one; your audience is actually a committee assembled to critique you, and your music consists of brief snippets of pieces intended to fit into a much larger symphonic puzzle. Even with these limitations, the audition candidate must make music somehow. Believe me, it can be done. I have done it a few times and have been lucky enough to hear many others do it as well.