Orchestra Audition - Blog
Michele Antonello Frisch
Principal Flute, Minnesota Opera

“The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.” 
Michel Debost, flute professor, Oberlin
Why do auditions make me so nervous? Why do I even panic sometimes? Why are my palms sweating, hands shaking, heart beating fast, breathing choppy, having trouble concentrating? Why do I sometimes feel like running out of the room? You have a very good reason for that: your body is programmed to do exactly that in a crisis! Those symptoms are all caused by a protective response to a scary / excited / dangerous situation, namely, adrenaline.
Now, this comes in really handy when you are fleeing a house on fire or lifting a heavy branch off someone or outrunning a crisis. This surge of chemicals protects us from some situations that could cause us harm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always distinguish between a genuinely dangerous situation and one that just makes us excited or nervous. And once that adrenaline starts flowing, we are in fight-or-flight mode, ready to run from the scene, or so hyped-up that it’s difficult to control a passage of notes.
So…let’s see if we can use this adrenaline burst to our advantage, rather than allow it to sabotage our concentration, control, and freedom to play our best in an audition situation. Let’s see if we can envision the audition as less scary, and use that leftover adrenaline to our advantage, to be on top of things. For this we will use a formula we’ve learned for when we have caught fire and need to put out the flames safely and quickly:
STOP: Think. What can I control?
  • Preparation – Listen to yourself. Practice slowly, with metronome. Isolate passages. Practice backwards. No repetition without understanding! Listen to recordings for guidelines. “The will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.” Your top priority in practice should be the quality of your concentration, not just the quantity of time.
  • Familiarity – Play your audition material for people in a situation that will cause you to be nervous. Do this several times before the actual audition. Learn from your mock audition: what went right, wrong?
  • Attitude – What audition or competition or recital doesn’t seem overwhelming when we begin to learn, shape, and refine it? Make a plan.
“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” Leonard Bernstein, conductor, composer
  • Self-care – A healthy body works better. Get plenty of rest, exercise, and nutrition. Optimize your chances of feeling good on audition day!
  • Thorough warm-ups – Loose, pliable fingers, shoulders, arms, and lungs perform best when warmed up. Music is a sport! An athlete wouldn’t dream of running a race, pitching a game, or kicking a field goal without first warming up his/her body. Small motor muscles require the same loosening, because they are used repetitively. A steady, strong bow arm or an even, pliable wind sound is best accomplished with careful warming up before a practice / rehearsal / performance.
DROP: those bad habits!
“We first make our habits and then our habits make us.” John Dryden, poet
  • Practice schedule – consistent, organized. Work on the five practice zones: Warm-ups, exercises and etudes, solo, ensemble, sight-reading. If you are able to practice longer hours, rest in-between.
“Start off in the morning; put your violin away; practice in the afternoon; put it away; practice before bedtime.” David Oistrakh, violinist
  • Metronome work – Rushing, dragging? Aim for consistent evenness.
  • Unproductive body movement – Aim for simplicity. Explore Alexander Technique and other methods that teach the excellent use of your body.
  • [Fill in the blank] – What have you been working on with your teacher?
  • Negative thinking – “I’m not talented enough,” or “There’s too much competition.” Self-talk is powerful. Make it positive!
  • Procrastination – The first step leads to a world of possibility.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Mark Twain, author
ROLL: with the punches! Expect the unexpected. Anticipate the issues and events beyond your control.
  • Audition room too hot/cold/breezy/bright/dark/dry – Just assume that it will be one or more of these and prepare to play in any setting.
  • Judges intimidating – Smile anyway. You cannot control a judge’s attitude or style. Play for yourself, at the standard you have carefully prepared. If asked by a judge to do something different or replay a passage, do so with a humble spirit and a concentrated effort.
  • Difficult or confusing sight-reading – Stop: you prepared for this! Take time to look it over and then – it is just you and the music. Drop: the bad habit of stopping. Roll: expect to make mistakes, but keep going.
“Do not stop. This is the only secret for sight-reading. If you do so, it means that your head is in the past, however recent, whereas your eyes and thoughts should turn forward. Silence your guilt machine: everybody makes mistakes. The only sin is to stop.” Michel Debost
  • Car trouble, weather, wrong time, accompanist late, hiccups, etc. – Plan well to minimize the unexpected: prepare to arrive early, reread audition sheet, communicate with accompanist. Beyond that, assume that you will be dealing with an interesting variable and take the adrenaline and put it back into your music. Be glad for an exciting performance!
“Remember, the most important elements of your playing are not your hands, fingers, or lips, but your head and heart.” Michel Debost
“You must play for the love of music. Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart.” Mstislav Rostropovich, cellist and conductor
The material above was prepared for and given to middle school and high school musicians in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies. It is specifically geared to the pre-college student as an aid for taking youth orchestra auditions, and preparing for competitions and placement auditions. Some of the material was gathered from two sources, specifically:
1) The Simple Flute, from A to Z by Michel Debost, Oxford University Press, 2002; Chapter entitled “Practicing,” pp. 187-190.
2) The Musician’s WayA Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein, Oxford University Press, 2009; Chapter 7, “Unmasking Performance Anxiety,” pp. 133-151.

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