Audition Advice From 3 Renowned Performer/Teachers

Auditions may be many things, but for most musicians, “fun” is not one of them. Yet they are an integral part of many musicians’ lives and careers.

So if we’re stuck with auditions, wouldn’t it be nice if there was at least some sort of how-to guide for how best to prepare for them? With answers to questions like “When should I start preparing for an audition so I peak at the right time?” Or, “Should I focus more on scales, etudes, and fundamentals? Or just the excerpts from Day 1?” Even, “How much metronome or tuner practice should I do?”

The list of questions is endless, and fortunately, there are a growing number of musicians – like trombonists Douglas Yeo and Toby Oft, violinist Nathan Cole, and percussionists Jason Haaheim and Rob Knopper – who have opened up about their audition preparation strategies and philosophies.

And believe it or not, this has also been a topic of study – at least amongst a small handful of doctoral students who quietly toiled away in anonymity for years to produce dissertations on this topic. I recently stumbled across one by tuba player Golden Lund, in which he interviews three renowned tuba players whose students have had great success in winning auditions over the last 35+ years.

Wait! Don’t let the word “tuba” dissuade you from reading the rest of this article. Whether you play the piano, piccolo, or bagpipes, I think you’ll discover from the findings below that on some level, auditions are auditions are auditions.

The secret sauce

We all know that success requires talent and hard work, but on some level, we’re also deeply curious about the “secret sauce,” or those tiny, but significant little details that can be the difference between advancing and going home, or winning and being runner-up.

And because there are certain teachers whose students seem to have more success in auditions than others, Lund’s dissertation aimed to identify commonalities in how three particularly successful artist/teachers prepare their students to win auditions. Specifically, Indiana University tuba professor Daniel Perantoni, former NY Phil principal tubist and Juilliard faculty member Warren Deck, and Mike Roylance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who teaches at Yale, NEC, and Boston University.

Let’s have a look…

How much does the teacher matter?

The most renowned teachers and performers tend to attract the most talented students, so sometimes it can be difficult to figure out how much of a student’s success can be attributed to their teacher’s influence, and how much is due to the student being pretty darn good to begin with.

All three teachers felt that it’s a little of both. Yes, the guidance that they contribute to their students’ learning absolutely has some impact, but much of what leads to the students’ success and growth is already within them.

Perantoni, for instance, said he believes that auditions are won by the “musical soul,” or the musician who happens to play the tuba, as opposed to the tuba player who plays orchestral tuba excerpts. Therefore, he believes his job is to help students discover and cultivate their own unique musical style, not simply become a better technician. For instance, the author recalled a lesson in which he played a passage especially well, to which Perantoni responded “That was great – you didn’t sound like a tuba player!” That being said, Perantoni emphasized the importance of repetition and consistency too. The idea being, if you could “clone” a passage, or play it 10 times in a row, exactly the way you want, you won’t have to worry about your ability to do so under pressure.

Deck was even more specific, noting that he believed that his students’ successes are 99% them, and 1% him. He felt that it was important for his students to be able to teach themselves and not become overly dependent on him for too much direction, so he focused on cultivating and building off of whatever was already working for the student.

What matters more – talent or hard work?

All three teachers admitted that they can’t always predict who is going to be successful, and are often surprised by who wins and who doesn’t. Perantoni noted that it’s usually the student with both remarkable talent and tons of determination who does well, but that even then, there’s no guarantee.

Roylance observed that those of his students who were more modest seemed to have more success than those who were more self-assured. As in, those students who worked hard and were willing to take advice seemed to do better than those who already had great training and may have been too confident; less eager to learn new things and put in the work.

Any specific recommendations for mastering standard excerpts?

Perantoni recommended listening not just to the excerpts, but to a wide range of music, both within and outside of the classical realm. Sure, it’s important to know the excerpts well and be able to perform them on command, but that’s not enough. Developing one’s own voice and style is important too – and this comes from having diverse musical influences.

Deck also emphasized the importance of listening, specifically, to ensure students understand how their part fits into the orchestra as a whole. To that end, he also recommended playing along with recordings.

Roylance emphasized the importance of fundamentals, and has developed a highly structured and systematic 10-week audition preparation plan which he has his students follow. It’s similar to the kind of progressive training plan that one might use in preparation for a race, like the Couch to 5k program. Roylance’s program is detailed on page 33 of the dissertation, if you’d like to take a closer look (you know you totally want to; just click here).

What matters more – accuracy or artistry?

Ah, the age-old technique vs. musicality question. Spoiler: it’s the same answer you give when your kids ask you which of them you love more.

Perantoni believes that “musical sound” is what wins auditions, but notes that such sound isn’t going to happen if a student’s technical abilities aren’t up to par. So it’s important for students to work out as many of the technical details (e.g. intonation, rhythm, etc.) on their own as they can, so that there is more time in lessons to work on higher-level musical concepts.

Deck also acknowledges that a fundamental base of technical mastery must exist, to serve the artistic vision of the student. He breaks this down further in suggesting that good technique and execution will get you into advanced rounds, but what wins you the job is your ability to make music.

Roylance also suggests that you need solid technical execution to pass the early rounds, but that it’s the artists, not technicians, who make finals and win jobs. As such, he focuses first on fundamentals, and then progresses to musicianship and music-making as the audition approaches.

So the consensus seems to be that musicians need both solid technique and musicianship if they want to win an audition. If the goal is simply to advance, then clean playing alone may be enough. But if the goal is to win, the musician must also have something compelling to say.

How do lessons change as the day of the audition draws nearer?

Perantoni has his students play through the list just once. He also asks students to play contrasting excerpts back to back, or to play excerpts differently – louder/softer, in a different style, etc., to get better at making adjustments on the fly.

Deck focuses on bigger, more complex issues further out from the audition, and then narrows the focus to smaller, easier-to-fix issues as the audition approaches. He also has students focus less on producing “perfect” performances and more on striving for “optimal” performances.

Roylance has students focus more on musicality and less on technique in their countdown to the audition. Lessons become like mock auditions, and students begin to “taper” and practice less about 3 days prior to the audition – to make sure they are fresh and not physically (or mentally/emotionally) burned out when the day arrives.

How important is mental preparation?

All three teachers appreciate and value the mental aspect of audition preparation, but have different approaches.

Perantoni prioritizes the ability to reproduce quality sound on each excerpt, and encourages his students to work on excepts even when there is no audition on the horizon, so that they are as familiar and comfortable with them as they can be when an audition does present itself.

Deck utilizes relaxation techniques, emphasizes the notion of optimalism vs. perfection, and recommends books like Don Greene’s Performance Success and Timothy Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis to help them work on the mental game.

Roylance is a strong proponent of positive thinking and building confidence, also recommending Don Greene’s Performance Success, and others like Normal Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

How do you avoid getting discouraged?

Someone once said that “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.” Which is way easier said than done when you feel like things aren’t going your way. And sometimes you get knocked down so many times that you start wondering if it’s kind of insane to keep getting back up. So how do these experienced musicians and teachers help their students persevere during tough times, and stay optimistic about future auditions?

Perantoni encourages students to take responsibility for continuing to learn from each audition, but also emphasizes the importance of self-compassion (like so).

Deck believes that the most important thing to do after an unsuccessful audition is identify the cause of the problem, and then address the underlying issue before the next audition (like this).

Roylance shares with his students some slightly counterintuitive advice he himself received from Chicago Symphony tuba principal Gene Pokorny. Specifically, that one should never go into an audition with the specific goal of winning the job. Instead, one should simply aim to play their best. Which is very similar to the advice Bryan Cranston once gave to aspiring actors .

Want more insights?

There’s obviously a lot more in the original document than I could mention here. So if you’d like to glean more specific details from Lund’s interviews, download the dissertation here.

Additional reading

Here is a sampler of other musicians’ input on how to approach the audition process.

Douglas Yeo

Symphony Auditions: Preparation and Execution – tons of info on repertoire, preparing for an orchestral career, and even audio of Yeo’s Boston Symphony Orchestra audition tape, as well as how to prepare for an audition.

Toby Oft

Audition Success – a interview/Q&A with Boston Symphony trombonist Toby Oft.
Orchestral Audition Success – an outline of Toby Oft’s formula.
A Tale of Two Auditions – insights into trombonist (and new bloggerDouglas Rosenthal‘s formula, and how he won two auditions in two weeks.
Audition Success in Kansas City – All About That Bass – insights into trombonist Adam Rainey‘s process, and how he won his KC position.

Gene Pokorny

Orchestral Tuba Playing and Playing for Auditions – Chicago Symphony tuba principal Gene Pokorny’s advice on preparing for and winning an audition.

Nathan Cole

Nate’s Violin – LA Phil associate concertmaster Nathan Cole’s blog on practicing smarter.

Jason Haaheim – Met timpanist Jason Haaheim’s blog on effective practice and learning.

Rob Knopper

Auditionhacker Blog – Met percussionist Rob Knopper’s blog on winning the audition game.

Something missing?

Do you know of a must-read audition preparation guide, how-to article, or case study which should be added to the list above? Please share below in the comments!

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