10 Preparation Strategies I’ve Learned from Audition Winners

Written by Jason Heath, Founder & CEO of Contrabass Conversations

I’ve been doing a podcast about the double bass for the past decade.  While I didn’t realize it at first, what I was really doing was creating an oral history from the best in the business.

I interviewed new bassists each week for my podcast.  Soon, I had talked with hundreds of people.  Principal bassists from major orchestras and world-renowned teachers shared their approaches to audition preparation.  When a bassist won a major job, we scheduled an interview and talked through their preparation process.

I decided to compile this audition advice into a 4-part series called Winning the Audition.  I divided the series into four parts:

•      Part 1 – Preparing for Audition Success

•      Part 2 – Practicing Techniques for Peak Auditions

•      Part 3 – Preparation Routines That Work

•      Part 4 – Sealing the Deal

Through this process, I discovered 10 strategies that came up repeatedly in these talks with audition winners.  I hope that you find this list useful!

NO. 1 – SLOW PRACTICE

This is a fundamental technique for all audition winners I’ve spoken with.  Like analyzing golf swing, slow practice allows you to hone in on all the details that you might glaze over at a faster tempo.

Audition winners are methodical in their slow practice and map things out over a long period of time.   Here’s a quote from my interview with Andrew Raciti (Milwaukee Symphony, Northwestern University) about what slow practice does for him:

“That was a big breakthrough as far as being able to sit down and play, and even though I was playing faster in my mind I still felt like it was slow and relaxed, and I had the space. You know, that hyperawareness you feel in an audition, that often feels like a detriment, you’re aware of every time that you blink, and, “Oh my God, the hair on the string moved a little bit.” It changes it from that kind of panicked uncomfortable feeling to this extra space that you can sit in—the zone or the flow. You actually have space to phrase, or to feel this gesture and hear this crescendo. It’s very liberating—it’s a good place to be.”

NO. 2 – RECORD YOURSELF

Every audition winner I spoke with spent a great deal of time with a recording device.  A recording is objective.  It separates the act of performing from the actual sonic result.  It shows exactly what needs to be practiced, and it builds confidence.

Ira Gold (National Symphony, Peabody Conservatory) shared this with me about recording:

“If I have the opportunity to set aside some time to record myself, I’ll do that. That way I can go back and listen to it and decide if what I’m hearing on the recording matches what I’m hearing when I’m actually playing. Sometimes those two things don’t match up.”

NO. 3 – NEVER PRACTICE, ALWAYS PERFORM

If you wait until all technical details are perfect, you’ll never end up practicing like you’d actually perform a piece.  Audition winners practice everything—even scales—as if they’re performing.

Alex Hanna (Chicago Symphony, DePaul University) shared his thoughts about practicing versus performing with me:

“In the practice room, you should make every effort to perform all the time. You know, the word practice kind of has a mindless connotation for a lot of people, which I think is really bad. This is actually kind of a Bud Herseth quote: never practice, always perform.

My piano teacher used to tell me this too, when I would sometimes kind of come into a lesson and play something a little uninspired. She said that I had a “musical button.” And so she would just push my musical button, and you know, it’s kind of like that thing where you engage and you start to… maybe it’s like a right brain/left brain thing, but you always want to have that button turned on, whether you’re playing scales and Simandl or you’re playing the Koussevitzky Concerto, you want to be performing all the time.”

NO. 4 – DEVELOP TEMPO CONSISTENCY

How consistent are you with tempos when you play an excerpt?  Gaining control over your consistency is crucial for taking auditions.

Jack Budrow (Michigan State University) has a great technique for establishing tempo recall for excerpts:

“I give metronome markings for every excerpt. And then, after students learn the excerpts and they’re playing them, I ask them every day, “when you get up, I want you to play the excerpt, and then I want you to turn on the metronome to see how close you get to this tempo. And then practice for just a few minutes with the metronome on, and then practice for a few minutes with the metronome off.”

I think the recall is good, because a lot of times people get into auditions, and they get the adrenaline going, and they try to play too fast. Occasionally they try to play too slow. So the recall of the actual tempo is pivotal, so that you know that before you start playing exactly how fast it’s going to be.”

NO. 5 – PRACTICE IN A LARGE SPACE

How much of your practice time is spent in a tiny space?  Probably a lot.

Musicians communicate using sound waves.  These sound waves behave differently in a small and a large space.  In a small space, the sounds we create bounce back to us immediately.  Therefore, we need to take every possible opportunity to play in a large space.

Here’s Brandon McLean (Pittsburgh Symphony) on this topic:

“It was relatively late in life that I really got to spend a significant amount of time by myself in a large space, in like a concert hall practicing. I’d been a real practice room practicer for a long time, and my concept of sound was based on the fact that things were bouncing back to me from three feet away as opposed to 300 feet away or more.

A really helpful thing for me was getting into big halls and putting a microphone a long way away from me, and realizing what I actually sounded like to the people that were listening on the panel a long way away from me.”

NO. 6 – DEVELOP YOUR STYLE PALETTE

Do you play with the same concept of sound for each of these composers?  Do you change your articulation style, phrasing, and vibrato?

Developing a stylistic approach for each composer is critical.  Jack Budrow advocates developing different sounds for each composer, and practicing playing one composer in the style of another for flexibility:

“I don’t agree that sound should be one sound at all. I think that’s the part of the style differences between composers, that you have a Mozart sound, then you have a Beethoven sound, and then the Brahms sound is a little different from that. And they’re all a little bit unique. Conductors love that.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but occasionally I’ll say to my students, “now play this Beethoven excerpt as if it were Mozart… how would it sound?” And then I’ll say, “let me hear this Beethoven excerpt as if it were Brahms.” And make them go from one style to another playing the same music, just so they stay flexible and they understand the this is really what Mozart sounds like, even though Beethoven wrote it. I just think it helps them stay flexible”

NO. 7 – VISUALIZATION

Mental practice, or visualization, is a powerful practicing technique.  In fact, many find it to be almost as effective as physical practice.  Combined together, visual and physical practice are incredible.

Ed Barker (Boston Symphony, Boston University) encourages his students to use visualization when preparing for auditions:

“There is a well-known phrase that I always like to use with my students: when you’re building your performance—you’re getting ready to perform and you’re practicing as if you’re performing—when you’re in the practice room, you need to imagine or visualize what it’s like to be where it is.

If it’s an audition, you’ve got to imagine being behind a screen, in a darkened hall, having walked down a long hallway first, before having to play this audition. You need to imagine that—you have to imagine this from your practice room setting.

And then, when you’re in the audition or the recital or whatever, you have to imagine that you’re back in your practice room.”

NO. 8 – ADVERSITY TRAINING

Adversity training puts you in non-ideal performing situations in order to learn how to manage yourself physically and mentally.  It’s a similar concept to basic training for the military.  Even though music is not a life or death situation, our primal “fight or flight” instincts kick in when we feel under pressure.  Our stomach starts to churn, our muscles tighten up, our breathing gets shallower and we start to sweat.

How do we learn to deal with this?  Ian Hallas (Lyric Opera of Chicago) describes what he does as the audition nears:

“10 days out, I’d do two things. The first is that every morning… I’m a morning guy, so I’ll get as much work as I can done early in the day. I’ll unpack the bass, tune, put a little bit of rosin on, and just run excerpts. If it’s an orchestral audition, I’ll run standard excerpts that I assume are most likely to be asked on a prelim round. So for example, it might be first and last movement of Mozart 35, it’s going to be Heldenleben [rehearsal] 9, some Brahms 2, Beethoven 5 scherzo/trio. And it’s so hard on the first day because it feels just awful. You might not have even stretched, you might not have even gone anywhere, if you’re practicing in your house you might have just gotten out of bed and done it.

But the goal is to improve your worst playing, because if you can do that, when you walk onstage and have to do it the first time, you’re going to know that you’ve done this work if you can pick up the bass without having warmed up at all and play your excerpts down at a high level. So that’s the first thing I’ll do—and I do record that—to get all the bugs, the hiccups, burps, and farts all out of there.”

NO. 9 – PLAY FOR PEOPLE

This is one of the most important techniques for successful audition.  Every single audition winner I spoke with stressed the importance of playing for as many people as possible.

Matthew McDonald (Berlin Philharmonic) describes how important it was for him to play for people as he prepared for his Berlin audition:

“I think the audition was in April 2008, and I started practicing for it in September 2007, practicing quite a lot then. And then basically got it to a point about a month or two before where I was running it every day or two. I even played it for a bunch of four-year-olds once—I would just use anybody as an audience.

I would have lots of friends come out and listen, or I would go to them. I had some big run-throughs, run-throughs for a couple friends. I don’t know how many I did… dozens. So that by the time of the audition, I felt like I’d been through as many nerve-creating scenarios as possible, and I felt very free on the day.

A lot of students make the mistake, they’ll run through it for their tape recorder or something, but it’s very different than playing it to your peers.”

NO. 10 – BALANCE

It’s easy to become obsessive in your practicing.  I have struggled with this many times.  But practicing to the exclusion of everything else in your life is more likely to harm you than help you.  Keeping a healthy perspective and making sure to do other things outside excerpt practice is important.

Ju-Fang Liu (Indianapolis Symphony, Butler University) shares how she finds balance in her preparation:

“I don’t like to be overplaying, because the music or the excerpts tend to get stale if you over practice them, in my opinion. I think you want to have a pretty good balance.  If you like running, you should keep running.  Stress management is important.  For some people, it’s like life and death.  You want to get a job, and every one of us has gone through that, I’m pretty sure.  So if you over-practice there will be anxiety issues, and you cannot perform your best.”

FINAL THOUGHTS

I hope you find these strategies helpful!  Here are a few more resources to take your auditioning to the next level.

I hope you find these strategies helpful!  Here are a few more resources to take your auditioning to the next level.

auditionhacker – Metrolopitan Opera Orchestra percussionist Rob Knopper’s awesome site

Performance Success – Don Greene’s manual for developing audition skills

Audition Success – a fascinating sereies fo intervews with Don Greene about auditioning

Fight Your Fear and Win – another great book from Don Greene to develop audition skills

Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal text on peak performance

Jason Heath is the host of Contrabass Conversations, a podcast devoted to exploring music and ideas associated with the double bass. His blog and podcast are highly regarded in the music world and have been featured as top offerings in the world of arts and culture for the past decade.

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason taught double bass at DePaul University for seven years and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years. He also previously taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and at Trinity International University. Jason previously served as President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and as the Illinois Music Educators Association District 7 Orchestra Division Co-Representative.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Jason currently performs with the IRIS Orchestra in Memphis Tennessee, and with he Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin. He was a member of the Elgin Symphony for 16 seasons and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

Audition Tips

Testimonials