How to Change the Way You Feel About Auditions

Have you ever heard the phrase “perception is reality?” I read a book the other day in which the author described one such experience.

During a ride on the subway, a man and his young children entered and sat down near him. The children were yelling, being rowdy, and disturbing the other passengers, while the man stared off into space, seemingly oblivious to their antics and rudeness. After he had seen enough, the author asked the man if he might do something to control his children’s behavior. The man looked at him, apologized, and explained that they had just come from the hospital where his wife had died about an hour ago, noting that he wasn’t sure how to deal with this and that the kids probably didn’t know how to handle it either.

Imagine you were this author. Can you imagine how quickly your feelings would have shifted from irritation to compassion?

Reframing reality

Admittedly, that is a pretty dramatic example, but what if there were a way to “reframe” the way you see performances, competitions, and auditions, and by doing so, feel differently about them? To feel more positively about them, and perhaps even to enjoy them?

I think you can — it’s just a matter of finding a believable framework that allows you to go into a performance situation with a more positive mindset. Whether the framework is objectively “true” or not is beside the point — try to resist the temptation to evaluate its validity. In other words, whether the man’s wife really died, or if he had lost his job, or if his sister was in a severe car accident doesn’t matter. The point is that when we change how we see things, it changes the way we feel.

Here are a couple that you might try on for size.

A framework for performances

Have you ever heard people say that they see performances as an opportunity to give the audience a gift? If that works for you, terrific. Somehow that never worked for me. I did, however, see opportunities to play for people as a rare and welcome privilege.

In fact, I was talking to an acting coach recently, who illustrated this even more clearly. He said that being able to act in front of real people was always a joy, since the alternative is basically to talk out loud to himself and play make believe with imaginary characters all by himself. Think about it, would you want a career in which you could practice and play music every day to your heart’s content, but could never let anybody hear you?

A framework for auditions or competitions

Call me crazy, but I always enjoyed competitions and auditions more than performances. Did I get nervous? Absolutely, but I loved it anyway.

How did I become such a nut case? Well, in my mind, juries, audition panels, and competition judges were an ideal audience (remember, we’re looking to adopt a helpful framework, not prove whether this is objectively true or not).

How do I figure?

They’re trapped

For one, jurors are a captive audience. A regular audience is free to leave mid-concert, fall asleep, read program notes, or compose snarky Facebook status updates on their phone. A panel of judges could do the same I suppose, but since it’s their job to sit there and listen to me, I’d like to think that it’s a little less likely.

More sensitive ears

Second, they know the music better than anybody else, so they are capable of noticing and appreciating every intricate little detail. The cool little bowing you came up with, the little slide you used to get from one note to the other, the subtle shading of dynamics, the extra time you took, the control it took to play the whole phrase in one breath, the accents, the phrasing, the articulations, and so on. All of this is more likely to be noticed by a panel of true experts.

Why this is a good thing

Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword. If you aren’t prepared, if your playing is devoid of ideas, or if you’re just trying to get by on technical proficiency alone, you’re probably toast. But assuming you have put time and thought into preparing your music, and have “made it your own” as teachers like to say, who else is going to notice these nuances? The average concertgoing music lover will probably not. In fact, the average musician will not. Unless the listener has played your instrument and knows the piece well, these things will go unnoticed and underappreciated.

For instance, I was listening to a percussion mock audition the other day. The percussionist was playing the soft snare drum excerpt from Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite. I had heard that this was a difficult excerpt, but would never have guessed from how easy this individual made it look. Later, he tried to explain to me some of the differences between mallets and the reasons for some of the choices he made in other excerpts. Could I have identified these details on my own? Nope.

Want to see another more startling example of just how much of your performance probably goes unnoticed by most concertgoers and musicians? Watch this video, and notice how few people stop to listen (or look for that matter), even though from the audio, this seems to be a pretty skilled musician.

Who is this street musician? Click here to find out.

One implication of this experiment is that most people can’t tell the difference between a great performance and an ordinary performance, in much the same way that I may not be able to discriminate between differing levels of percussion playing. Sure, there are other ways to interpret the results of this experiment, but again, we’re just trying to find a reasonable framework that will help you feel differently about an audition panel, not determine what is true or false.

A super duper privilege?

If it is a privilege to be able to play music for real live people, wouldn’t it be an even greater privilege to play for not just one listener with a high degree of sensitivity and appreciation for the nuances of your performance, but a collection of such individuals? When else are you going to have the opportunity to have such an audience take time out of their day to listen to you? You can’t buy a more perceptive audience.

When I took the time to really work out a piece, I was pretty opinionated. I had definite ideas about how things should sound, and liked experimenting with unconventional fingerings and bowings. Having done this much work, I wanted someone to notice all of these details. I wasn’t thrilled if the listener disagreed with or disliked my choices of course, but this was far better than the details going unnoticed. It was like telling a joke, and nobody realizing that I just told a joke.

Create your own

Keep in mind that these frameworks are just suggestions, and you are free to take them or leave them, depending on how they resonate with you. The idea is to create one that helps you adopt a mindset that is more conducive to performing your best. There is no prize for having the most accurate view of reality (well, actually the prize seems to be a state of mild depression – read this brief explanation that is either depressing or encouraging or funny, I’m not sure which).

If these particular ones don’t fit, you can totally invent some of your own — and please do share in the comments if you have one that really works for you. It’s likely that someone else could really benefit from it too.

The one-sentence summary

“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.”  ~Albert Einstein

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


3 Responses

  1. Another interpretation of the Joshua Bell incident is that perhaps Bell has more experience playing full recitals than busking, and both was put in an unsuitable place — where people are hurrying to work — and was performing unsuitable material for that setting. Put him in a place where people are lingering, spending leisure time and are already in the frame of mind for dropping cash, and have him play something a little less dark and demanding, see how the results differ.

  2. I really enjoy and find most articles on this website helpful. Getting ready for two auditions, I was hoping to find something in this article that would ease my mind. It seems though, that I feel completely opposite. The audition/competition committee is there to catch any mistake they can to eliminate you from the next round. They are trapped and, in my mind, they cannot wait to leave. They don’t enjoy how we play and that makes me very tense and prevents me from enjoying the moment myself.
    I have friends who appreciate music, but aren’t musicians. They often leave mediocre performances with a feeling they just took part in something extraordinary. I usually get very positive feedback when I play for non-musician audience, but most importantly I don’t feel a bit nervous and often I do play my best. I wish I could take that mindset to my auditions, but I don’t seem to be able to make a connection. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Jaba,

      Ultimately, the audition panel is irrelevant. Meaning, focusing on them takes your precious attentional resources away from playing your repertoire as you want to play it. You can’t directly influence what the panel thinks they’re looking for, whether they like the piece you are playing, or whether they may only be thinking about an argument they had with their spouse earlier in the day or how they really need a bathroom break.

      Your only responsibility is to go in, and make sure that you play in such a way that you are happy with what you’ve done. That way at least one person comes out of that room happy – you. The alternative is that nobody comes out of that room happy.

      Good luck in your auditions!

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