Control in an audition

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It’s been said over and over: you can only control your own performance, not how the other applicants at an audition play. This barely scratches the surface — the list of elements you can’t control is extensive:

  • You can’t control what you play. The audition requires that you play the excerpts the panel wants in the order it wants them. If you don’t want to play the Organ Symphony right after the Rhenish, that’s your own problem.
  • You can’t control the acoustics of your environment. In fact, you won’t know what the room sounds like until you’ve already played your first note. Any adjustments you make in response to the resonance of the room are either speculative or retroactive.
  • You can’t control the panel’s tastes. Unless you have some inside knowledge, chances are you won’t even know the panel’s tastes. I played an audition once where I thought three of the trombonists were head and shoulders above all the other candidates. None of my three picks even advanced past the prelims, because the panel clearly wanted a different playing style than I did.
  • You can’t control your own body. Some people take beta blockers, some people eat bananas, some people meditate, but these methods are only partial solutions to the fact that our bodies rebel under pressure. Dry mouth, weak chops, and shaky knees are far too common. Half the challenge of an audition is learning to play the excerpts excellently, and the other half is trying to represent that skill in spite of the audition scenario.

The usual point of this discussion is that the only thing left to control is your preparation. This is supposed to inspire you to hit the practice room with extra fervor in advance. But, it offers precious little to help you once you’ve actually signed in at the audition. At that point, you’re left to your beta blockers and dumb luck.

But, there is one element of an audition that you can, in fact, control. If you’re playing Bolero in the orchestra, the snare drum establishes the time some eight minutes before you enter. You have exactly zero control over when you have to hit that high B flat. In an audition, there is no snare drum. You can begin when you’re good and ready, and the committee will happily wait the few extra seconds. While ten seconds feels like an eternity to the person facing the screen, it’s negligible — almost imperceptible — to the person who has been listening to four hours of auditions. Are your chops still recovering from the massive Tannhäuser you just nailed? Take a break to let them recalibrate, and your Brahms 1 will be that much more delicate.

You can’t control anyone else’s playing. You really don’t have full control over your own, either, because of performance anxiety symptoms. But, nerves cannot force you to play when you’re not ready any more than the panel can. Taking a moment to slow your breathing and let your heart rate calm down is very reasonable, and it’s one of the only tools available in a rigidly controlled audition context. As much as it would be nice to be able to just “trust the preparation” and “treat the audition like every other mock audition,” it’s not that simple. The fact that this performance matters more than the others is inescapable and imposes additional challenges. Your only choice is to either pretend that playing an audition isn’t more difficult than playing in a practice room, or to acknowledge reality and take advantage of anything that can help deal with the heightened environment.

For me, audition rooms are hostile environments. Candidates shuffle through one at a time, obeying the commands of the committee without any autonomy. To combat this, I carve out a 2 foot by 2 foot square in the middle of the stage to be my “batter’s box.” If I’m not in it, the pitcher is not allowed to throw the ball at me. In between excerpts, I physically step outside of that square. I turn my pages, envision the next excerpt, and get myself ready for the next pitch. When I feel ready, I step back into the batter’s box and proceed. This is only a psychological game, of course: the fundamental reality is still that I stand in front of the screen and play each excerpt as instructed. But this ritual creates a physical manifestation of my freedom to play whenever I want. Just the amount of time required to step in and out of the batter’s box gives my embouchure and heart a chance to relax between excerpts, and any time I spend outside that box is reserved for preparing for the next excerpt. Inside the batter’s box, I am on the committee’s time; outside, I am in control.