With the exception of adjustable baseball caps and Snuggies , few things in life are truly one-size-fits-all. Whether it’s training for a 5k or preparing for an audition, everyone begins in a slightly different place, with a diverse range of needs and priorities and strengths and weaknesses, so I don’t know that there’s a single approach that works equally well for everyone.

That said, while some of the details may look different from person to person, I do think there are probably some common principles or best practices that are applicable to all of us.

But what are these, exactly?

Well, I was curious about that too. And so a few months ago, percussionist Rob Knopper and I had a chance to sit down and chat with three musicians from the Detroit Symphony. We were curious to see how similar or different their answers would be to the same three questions about audition preparation.

Specifically, 

  1. On the day of an audition, what do you do backstage to keep yourself in an optimal physical, mental, and emotional state?
  2. From the time you wake up, to the moment you play, what does an ideal audition day routine look like for you?
  3. What does your practice and preparation process look like in the final week leading up to audition day?

As expected, there was some overlap between their answers, but also some interesting differences, suggesting that there are indeed some universal principles in preparing optimally for performance, but also some personal idiosyncrasies that may be important to allow for as you figure out what works best for you.

Meet Caroline Coade

Over the course of the next week, you’ll hear from flutist Amanda Blaikie (Wednesday, April 22nd), and oboist Sarah Lewis (Sunday, April 26th), but kicking off this mini-series today is third-chair violist Caroline Coade, who has been a member of the orchestra since 1996, and also serves as a member of the string faculty at the University of Michigan.

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • How being “physically exhausted” prior to performances actually works best for her. (3:05)
  • What kind of playing she does on audition day, and why she keeps her playing nearer the  softer end of the dynamic range in warmups. (3:51)
  • Her love of adjectives, and how she reminds herself of the contrast between excerpts. (6:13)
  • The importance of the question “Why is the committee asking for this excerpt?” (7:45)
  • How the committee is looking for someone who can “think on their feet” and demonstrate their ability to make “micro-adjustments” in the moment. (9:00)
  • The “expect the unexpected” mindset, and the misconception of auditions needing to be perfect. (10:25)
  • A few signs that the musician in front of the screen has either a “student” mindset or an “artist” mindset. (11:44)
  • The four things committees will ask you to do. (13:34)
  • What it means to practice “to bulletproof” (15:07)
  • Her regular daily routine on audition day, and what that looks like, from coffee (yes? no?), what to eat, social media, etc. (16:33)
  • How practice looks in the final leadup to the audition, with mocks, practicing everything “upside down and backwards,” how to make sure you’re “in the ballpark,” her three tempi strategy, and my personal favorite – her awesome 90-second recording rule. (19:56)
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Noa:
My kids started watching this YouTube channel called TwoSet Violin. I don’t know if you’ve seen… There was one video that was the “16 different kinds of people backstage.” Right? So there’s the person eating bananas, there’s a person last minute cramming and there’s a person just belting out there concerto. There’s the person doing yoga like so there’s different things that happen backstage before a performance or audition. I’m curious what you find most helpful to stay in a good physical place, a good mental space, a good emotional state during the wait just to be prepared for the moment.

Caroline:
So what I’ve learned is actually you want to be super collegial, backstage kind and appropriate and professional, but not over, not overdoing it with people. So really I found keeping to myself was really sort of best and saying to friends who of course you’re going to see at the audition, it’s really nice to see you and I’ll talk to you later. So for me, best game plan is to just stay very focused on on what I’m doing and stay more quiet.

Noa:
When you say focused on what you’re doing, like does that mean looking into score or listening to music or reading a book and it does it change as you get closer and closer to the presumed moment of

Caroline:
I usually go to the audition extremely well warmed up so that I don’t want to play my first notes backstage. I want to almost be physically exhausted prior to the audition. I find that that really works for me or actually before any big performance, I want to be physically exhausted because there will be plenty of adrenaline and so I found that that for me is, is the best. So at an audition then I usually will be quiet and quiet, meaning to myself and I’ll find a corner and just play a little bit, but really lightly and softly and just kind of keep my mind focused on the job that’s in front of me, which is to do my very best.

Noa:
Do you have a preferred type of warmup? So whether it’s in that warmup before we go to the hall or the warm up that you do when you get to the hall, is it, do you stay away from the excerpts or do you play other things maybe that you aren’t going to have to play or do you just scales long tones? Like what, what seems to have worked for you?

Caroline:
For me, I will be really active with the excerpts. Meaning I’m digging in really slowly. Digging in, might be the wrong word there, but I’m trying to sort of anticipate any problem that might come up. I’m hoping that in the practice room I’ve literally practiced to Bulletproof so that I’ve really planned everything out, all the variables and then warming up. I do, I want to play scales, I want to play long tones. I want to keep it all sort of on the softer dynamic range just because I want to sort of keep it all about me and about my playing. I think it’s so easy to get distracted by what you’re hearing in the wall adjacent to you, you know, the adjacent practice room or to hear voices outside the practice space or in the case of bigger orchestras when they have the group warmup room. That is just the most terrifying experience on the planet. I think it’s really important to stay, I keep using the word focused but to stay sharp and clear and stay in your own game, in your own, in your own plan. And hopefully you’ve done plenty of work before that. So you’re clear on what that is. I think you’re specifically asking me what that is…

Noa:
To the degree that you’re able to remember or share, like the, the piano dynamic thing was really, or the softer end was interesting to me. Like what is it about that that seems to work for you?

Caroline:
So I guess in that moment, I’m imagining back when I took an audition for a major symphony orchestra that had the group practice room and I remember thinking this room is so loud, I could add to it by being loud also. And, or, and sort of block out the sound that way. Or I could just sort of pull everything inward and keep all my energy inward and stay focused on the clarity of what I needed to do with each excerpt, with the clarity of my 10 to 12 minutes on stage, with my breathing. Keeping all that focused, I think it’s very easy to get outside yourself and more challenging to stay really focused on what you are going to do to your best degree at that point.

Noa:
Is that sort of like remembering your musical cues through the excerpt as you go through it or like emotion words or like what sorts of things do you focus on as you’re getting ready for that?

Caroline:
I love adjectives and so I’m focused a lot on adjectives. Also obviously emotion of what’s going on in the music. I think I’m trying to think a lot about the contrast of what I’m going to be performing. So what my concerto offers in terms of maybe bold, extroverted character contrast that with lyrical sections and then maybe, you know, Don Juan is going to be extroverted and heroic, virtuosic Roman Carnival might be lyrical and operatic tenor. So I’m trying to imagine how sort of the skillset that I need to bring to the table for each excerpt. I try and think a little bit also about what the committee, why did they ask that particular excerpt and try and get in a little bit behind what they’re thinking. So if they asked a particular excerpt why the why of it, why did they ask that?

Caroline:
Is it the bow stroke? Is it the legato quality? Is this a, a solo, is this a section solo? Those kinds of things. And to go back to the idea of quiet practicing again, just I think kind of reigning it in. It’s so easy to be distracted by other people’s energy. A lot of people I think become a little bit hyper backstage and verbose and that’s their expression. But it’s going to throw me off my game. And I know that about me and I know that I’ll do better if I’m physically tired playing-wise. I’ve warmed up really well and then I just stay quiet.

Noa:
And I’m assuming just going back a second time, the asking yourself, why did the committee want to hear this? That’s not something you ask yourself for the first time when the day of the audition,

Caroline:
Gosh, no

Noa:
Beginning and then you’re reminding yourself the purpose of where your intentions.

Caroline:
So it’s a great question because I feel in my, in my career, I do, I wear two hats. I wear the hat of a university professor at the University of Michigan and I wear a hat as a professional orchestral player, third chair with Detroit symphony. And so in training my students, what I’m saying to them is you need to think about why the committee is asking that excerpt. I mean these are a series of snapshots or postcards and the idea is to figure out why. Why would they ask this? It’s probably bow stroke. It might be a soft articulate bow stroke that needs to have great clarity as you play versus something that’s really lyric and romantic versus something that’s bold and extroverted. And so each excerpt, each idea is a little snapshot there on stage. And it’s your job to perform that to your best ability.

Caroline:
And you’re right, you do need to be thinking about this as you’re preparing. What type of tasks are in front of me? What do I need to Ace; what are they looking for? And I think, you know, putting on the orchestral player hat of a person on a committee, we don’t want students, we don’t, we don’t want somebody who needs to be told how to play these excerpts once they get the job. We want to have somebody who can think on their feet. And so that’s something I talk to my students quite a lot about and something that I implement quite a lot in my own playing is am I thinking on my feet? Because things will go wrong. And can you make that micro adjustment that’s necessary at the moment to do what you need to do. And the only thing that you’re there to do at the audition is to do your best and hopefully win, but to do your best, I mean maybe the win that day is getting on the sub-list, maybe the win that day is getting over a block, a roadblock that you had about a particular excerpt. So it can come in many different forms of, of win

Noa:
Actually, can you say something about the micro adjustment? Like can you think of a specific example what you mean by that?

Caroline:
Sure. Micro adjustments are something that I think we’re doing all the time. So as a professional orchestral player, I’m noticing what my stand partner’s pitch center is and I’m blending with him. I’m noticing obviously what’s going on in the rest of the orchestra and in terms of sound quality, bright, warm, dark, and trying to blend with that. So my job is to literally as a professional think on my feet all the time or think in my seat might be a better way to say it as an orchestral professional. But in the audition process, I think it’s really important to expect the unexpected. Something will go wrong. Some you’ll hear a noise that throws you off a little bit or you’ll be a little bit colder than you know there’s a breeze on stage that you didn’t anticipate or your flight’s running late or your pitch center, your string slips, so your peg slips, something like that.

Caroline:
But there’s always a reason to be thinking proactively and think on your feet and be able to solve the problem. I think actually one of the misconceptions of auditioning is it has to be a perfect audition and I personally do not believe in that and I don’t teach that for my students. I teach thinking on your feet so that you can adjust. You can make those micro adjustments that are necessary either. Maybe you’ve pulled your bow in a little close to the bridge, so maybe you need to change the sounding point a little bit or the climate is dry and you took me to make an adjustment to that. But I think constantly that would happen in your recital playing that you’d be thinking on your feet and it seems like it’s something that’s really vital and not taught a lot as from my experience, not taught a lot.

Noa:
And maybe this is a related question, but you said, and this makes sense, you don’t want to hear a student on the other side of the screen like you want to hear like…

Caroline:
Artists

Noa:
Can you pinpoint some of the things that come across behind the screen that immediately makes you think, Oh, this is a pro or this is an artist?

Caroline:
Yes. A couple of things come to mind. Number one would be somebody say somebody behind the screen who’s concerto is phenomenal and then the excerpts are mediocre. To me it says they didn’t care enough to prepare and bring their A game across the board. And probably they’re a student in that case. Maybe taking a first audition, maybe just getting their feet wet and they should be allowed to do that. I certainly did that. I think everybody should take that first audition, but you’ve got to be respectful also and be respectful to your craft and to the committee’s time and why would you go and spend $1,000 or more getting someplace if you’re not really truly in it. So that would be something that sounds studenty to me. The other thing would be perhaps somebody who doesn’t have a good sense of rhythm and can’t do that.

Caroline:
Micro adjustment. Of course we’re uncomfortable. I hate nervous. I hate that word, that I think makes our bodies do strange things. I think uncomfortable is a better word. So we’re all uncomfortable, mostly uncomfortable on stage at an audition. We’re putting a lot of ourselves into this and I think somebody who, who is not able to recognize in that moment, okay, my rhythm is slightly off. I need to adjust it, fix it in the moment and get it right or I didn’t do a great shift. I missed something here, can you fix it? And I think that’s part of the professional world is you do need to fix that. I guess another thing that would stick out as maybe when you get to the final round and either the curtain is down or it’s clear that we’re now giving some instruction from committee side to the person behind the screen and when that person is not able to adjust to me comes across as somebody probably who is a bit of a novice in this way, that that they’re not able to adjust.

Caroline:
And I have found they’re basically only four things that will be asked of louder, softer, faster and slower. And I’m thinking that again, if you go back to this idea of thinking on your feet, if you can’t think on your feet and adjust and make those things obvious, make that change that comes across from the music director as a discussion point or as a request to me, again, that shows the novice because a seasoned professional would know, Hey, that’s asked of me every day on the job or I’ve heard that at my orchestra gig and I need to do it.

Noa:
The key phrase seem to be in make that change. I don’t remember exactly how you put it, but make that change apparent or make that change clear.

Caroline:
Yes. It, yes. Make it clear. Make it clear. So you know be in the ballpark. You know, some of these, some of these excerpts have a wide range of Tempi that are acceptable and you want to be in the correct ballpark at least. And you have to expect that when you get into the finals, if you’re Midsummer Night’s Dream tempo is really fast, you’ll probably be asked to have it. Could you do this again a little slower? And you have to be able to, again, get in the ballpark of what slower is not to the point of ridiculous, but what is professionally appropriate and you want to be able to show that your stroke will remain as clear and that your precision will be as excellent and that you can do it slower or vice versa. If you’re too slow, if you’re too slow, you might not make the finals, but you know that you’re flexible thinking on your feet and able to adjust.

Noa:
This reminds me of something Toby Appel once said, he doesn’t practice what he’s going to do on stage so much as he practices all the things he might do on stage.

Caroline:
Yes. Well, I mean, isn’t that the point I tell my students, I talk about practicing to bulletproof and the idea is that you’ve practiced every single variable you’ve practiced with reverse bowing. You’ve practiced slurs you wouldn’t have normally put in. You’ve, you’ve adjusted fingering, you’ve adjusted timing then that you’ve got all these variables in your back pocket. So that when, you know, I think that’s an amazing saying that when you get on stage, adrenaline will kick in very likely. And that you want to have a certain amount of flexibility, but it’s not because you’re winging it, it’s because you’ve, you’ve practiced it and you’ve got these variables that are a win for you.

Noa:
Next. We zoom out a little bit to find out what Caroline, Amanda, and Sarah found helpful to do on the day of an audition.

Rob:
What does your ideal audition day itself look like? Not playing wise, but like from wake up time to what you eat to how you deal with the waiting, the audition moment.

Caroline:
Oh my goodness. Well for me it’s probably a guaranteed, not a good night’s sleep the night before, so I’m going to make sure that I’ve slept pretty well for the couple of days prior and just pretty much plan on a little bit of adrenaline or a lot of adrenaline kicking in. I actually kind of like making friends with the adrenaline because if you fight it, it just gets worse. So wake up. For me, I’m an early riser. I like to get up early. I’m going to do my same regular routine. I’m going to get up and probably have a cup of coffee and probably hit the workout room. If I’m in a hotel, I might just do a workout in my own room, but at least a good hour of that, that’s probably including quite a lot of stretches. But again, for me, I like to be physically tired. I find that that does really well for me. And that was something I had to work on. I had to figure out that I do better that way

Rob:
So what is your wake up time and then what exercise? Generally?

Caroline:
Wake up is five or pre 5:00 AM and I like that anyway, so I’m just to do the same routine. I mean gosh, I’m going to probably stay off social media. I’m going to stay away from email. It’s distracting. I think that is the one day that is the one change that I will make is I’ll not try and reach out to a lot of people and I’m not going to call my friends and say I’m taking this big audition today. I’m going to be very singular focus and maybe that goes back to the question of quiet. Quiet means just stay focused on me that I’m, I’m out of town, I’m taking this audition, I want to do my best, I’d like to win. That’s the plan. Breakfast. Absolutely. I’m going to eat, I’m going to do high protein and probably fruit and no carbs.

Rob:
Coffee doesn’t affect you negatively on audition day?

Caroline:
You know what? I’d rather have that feel than the headache that I would have if I discontinued coffee. Yes, exactly. So I’m going to do my regular routine with that. I’m might water it down down a little bit, but I’m gonna know I’m probably going to do the coffee. Yeah, absolutely. So I’m not gonna water it down. That’s a whole lie. Yeah. I gosh, I still remember my hotel room when I came in, took the Detroit symphony audition and it was a long, I didn’t play till the afternoon, so I remember I just read, turned on the TV a little bit. I didn’t call anybody. I just stayed really focused, played a lot of, slow scales, did a lot of stretching. I wrote in my journal a little bit, probably dear diary stuff.

Caroline:
Wow. Today’s the day. Gonna get this. I remember my outfit. Yeah. But just mostly just, I dunno, I guess for me, the feeling of gratitude, how lucky I am to be in the city, to take this audition, to be able to play, to have the finances, to be able to do all the preparation to get to this point. And gosh, I hope I get on the sub-list at the, at the, at the minimum. Wouldn’t that be great? Yeah, just stay really focused. It was a long warm up. I remember that before Detroit, a very long warm up and a five day audition by the way. Day one, prelims day three, semi-finals, day five. They took it from 108 to the final group for finals. And I remember I had to be sort of on for five days. Wow, that’s hard.

Noa:
Finally we zoom out one more time and ask the musicians what their practice looks like in the last week leading up to the audition. Here’s what Caroline had to say.

Rob:
When you have one week left before the audition, what does your practicing look like and what are you spending the most time doing? And especially how does that exactly change the last 48 hours?

Caroline:
Okay. I’m really methodical and I’m very organized. So prior to this, one week I probably have been on some sort of rotation with the repertoire. There’s probably an A set of repertoire and a B set. And so every other day I’m going through the lists. So week of now I’m ramping it up. I hope at that point I’ve already done a bunch of mock auditions, certainly for Detroit Symphony. I remember it was more mock auditions than I ever thought I would need. And if you think one or two are good, you’re kidding yourself. There’s that rule of 10,000, what is it, 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. So actually again, putting on my teacher hat for a moment here, I referenced that with my students. You know, how many times did you practice that shift? And they’ll say, Oh, maybe 20 or something like that.

Caroline:
And I’ll say, really? That’s all? Because to them that seems like a victory until they know what my mental process is that, you know, I’m thinking in the hundreds if not thousands of times for that. I think in the week before what’s really critical is the minutia of everything really. Again, sort of practicing everything I would say upside down, backwards and forwards. So as a string player, reversing the bowing, practicing shifts on a reverse bowing slurs that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. Practicing lots of variables and maybe listening even more critically so that I can really listen to anything that’s a transition that felt like maybe it was okay before. Did I really listen well? Am I really playing the character? Am I in the ballpark of tempo? Relistening to recordings, multiple recordings to make sure I’m really in that ballpark of that tempo zone, that that’s really appropriate per each excerpt recording yourself of course ad nauseum.

Caroline:
I personally have a rule though, no more than 90 seconds on, on a recording because I will not listen back. So if I do a 90 second run through, turn on the recording, do a 90 second run through, listen back and then be my own best critic is the best way to do that. Any longer I’m going to lose interest. I’m not going to listen back. You know those two hour recordings that you made of of a lesson and a long practice session that you never even listened to and that nugget that was so brilliant at minute 54 you’ll never find it again. So 90 seconds and that’s it. So you don’t ramp down, you ramp up. I ramp up, I ramp up. Yeah.

Rob:
Basically all the various strategies that you’ve used previously in the audition prep, you try to pack them all into the final week?

Caroline:
Yes, yes. With probably an emphasis on everything slower. So lots of slow practice. I kind of call it dipping my toe into the pool. So a lot of slow practice. I like three Tempi, slow, medium and at, at tempo. And so a lot of slow practice, a lot of medium practice, medium tempo, and then touching my toe in the, in the pool and making sure at tempo works and then backing right out of that again. So spending a lot of time with the minutia of is that articulation clear? A lot of off the string playing too, you know, are those off the string excerpts really clean a lot of mental focus to, what’s that committee? Wait, let me, let me, let me double check the list and make sure because I’ve gotten caught once with, there was a wicked page turn and a little bit more and I had to figure out a few minutes before Nope, it was the night before how to do the page turn.

Caroline:
This was back in the 90s. You know, how to do the page turn, how to get that successfully across in the audition. I knew the notes. That was not a problem, but just the mechanics of the page over and how to do that. But yeah. Did I check the tempos are transitions good? How’s my intonation? Yeah. Ramping it up. Really micro, micro looking at everything. Yeah.

Rob:
And then in the last couple of days, is there anything different?

Caroline:
Gosh, the dishes don’t get done. Do they? The dishes don’t get done. I hope that I would have packed something reasonable, cooked, something reasonable a couple of days before because the adrenaline is going a little bit nuts. I think

Caroline:
I just kind of ignore every outside force, phone calls, emails. Honestly, it’s all about me and my playing at that point. It’s really, it’s not about me, it’s about the playing, but it’s about the investment of I’m about to take this big audition. I’m going to travel. Is my bag packed? It’s not your time to visit every single person you ever went to summer camp with who lives in that town that, that’s my thinking is it’s really your turn to be very selfish and, and go into your best.

Notes

  • I mentioned a TwoSetViolin video on things musicians do backstage…you can see that here: 16 Types of Musicians Before a Concert

Where to find Caroline

You can learn more about Caroline and reach out to her here: Caroline Coade | University of Michigan

* * *

Developing your own “best practices” for auditions and performances

When Rob and I recorded these interviews, it was early February. We thought that this would be a great way to get into the topic of performance practice, and audition preparation in particular, as we began enrollment for the online summer audition intensive (a.k.a. “audition bootcamp”) that we’ve taught the last few summers.

Of course, the world looks quite a bit different than it did just a couple months ago, and for some, audition prep is understandably not top-of-mind at this moment. Which is completely understandable.

Yet we also heard from some folks who are looking for community and structure and tiny goals to work towards in anticipation of having to make screening tapes, take school or graduate school auditions, enter competitions, or prepare for exams and recitals in the coming year…

So if an online performance practice intensive sounds like something that would be a meaningful way to stay engaged and motivated to practice through the next few months, we certainly want to do what we can to support you in this, and would love to be a part of your summer.

You can click here to see what we have planned for this year’s bootcamp, and enroll if it sounds like a good fit.