The Art of the Audition

By Damien Bracken
Republished with permission from Artists House Music

To this day, I will never forget my first audition experience. I was studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, a very fine institution with an outstanding reputation for classical music instruction. I had practiced for about six months to compete for scholarship to attend my next semester. I was 12 years old and I was very serious about my music, practicing every chance I could get. I had started piano instruction at the age of 10 (equivalent to being a senior citizen in a city where most children begin their music instruction at the age of 3 or 4) and was told by my instructor at the time that I had a lot of catching up to do if I was thinking of pursuing music as a possible career. I was and did. But on this day my 12-year old self walked into the audition room and realized almost immediately that I was not ready. A very distinguished gentleman had been flown in from London to adjudicate. It was just he and I in the room with the beautiful 9-foot Steinway grand piano. The Brahms piece that had been selected for the competition was just a tad beyond my technical reach. I was shaking with nerves. When we got to the sight-reading he asked me to play through a Bach chorale. I struggled with sight-reading. He might as well have put a full symphonic score in front of me and asked me to reduce it on sight (oh yes…it can be done). As I plodded through Bach’s exquisite chords the adjudicator stopped me. “Is this your first audition?” “Yes,” I confessed (my cover was blown!). “Well, you are clearly musical but you are not yet ready for this level of competition. I would encourage you to keep at it and perhaps I will see you next year.” I was dismissed. I was so upset. “What am I doing? Maybe I should throw in the towel. My mother is paying a fortune for these piano lessons.”

So, what went wrong in that room? Perhaps the gentleman was right. It probably was too soon for me to compete although at the time I boiled it down to my nerves getting the better of me and I needed to learn to control my nerves when I play. And oh yeah, there was the reading part.

An audition does not have to be a ego crushing, world crashing experience. There are some fundamentals to the art of auditioning (and it is an art) that will give you more control in the audition room, and giving a good audition is all about that – control.

Choosing the right prepared piece is a critical first step. At Berklee College of Music where I work, we audition thousands of students each year in consideration of both admission to the college and possible scholarship. We do not provide a list of pieces to choose from. Why? Because we want to hear what the student does best. For some, that might be Brahms. For others it might be Coltrane, or Zappa, or Sting or Van Halen or Ellington, or….well, you see my point. One of Berklee’s incredible strengths is the rich diversity of styles of music that we teach and play. We look for that diversity in our applicant pool each year as we select out of thousands of applicants who will join our next entering class. But for a young college-bound student applying to Berklee, it is difficult to absorb the idea that they should not select the most technically challenging piece of music they can find to impress the adjudicators. Don’t do it. Find a piece that you know is within your technical range while still demonstrating your level of musicianship.

Listen to what you are playing. Internalize the music so that when you perform you can focus solely on the music and not what the adjudicator is writing in their evaluation of your playing! Seek out opportunities to play your prepared piece with other musicians or perform it for family and friends so that you can get used to being in that moment. If you do not have access to other musicians, there are several “music-minus-one” play-along resources on the Internet and at music stores. It is important to practice playing with other musicians, even if they are virtual. This will also help you to control your nerves, not that you would ever eliminate being nervous. I don’t think anyone ever does. Some people just get better at turning that nervous energy into something that gives their performance a personal edge. It is important also to practice your prepared piece away from your instrument. (Excuse me? Away from my instrument? What kind of practice is that?) This is part of the process that all musicians use to help internalize the music. Practice running through the piece in your inner ear and visualize the music with your eyes closed. This will feel awkward and perhaps even silly at first. However, it is a powerful technique that will ultimately help you be in that moment when it is time for you to perform. You may have witnessed this yourself at a concert or a show, where the musician transforms once they begin to play. They are in total control. They can fully anticipate how they will articulate the next phrase because they have learned to internalize the music.

No, this does not mean you don’t have to practice your scales and arpeggios. Great performances come about through a combination of tactile, visual, and aural practice and preparation. You must become comfortable with the fingering and instrumental geography of the piece. But that is only step one.

As I continued to study piano and compete and audition, I realized that this process of internalizing the music, hearing themusic internally before actually playing my first note, gave me a powerful sense of control. I was no longer blurting out the music so to speak. I was making an artistic decision prior to every phrase and then articulating that phrase exactly as I heard it. Control. Once you master this technique nothing can stop you.

Years after my 12-year old maiden voyage into the world of auditioning, I am waiting back stage to perform a Scriabin study that happens to be in Eb minor. I am now 17. As I begin to step onto the stage, the monitor whispers to me “The Eb below middle C does not sound.” Un-phased (I was already performing the music internally) I managed to perform this technical behemoth in Eb minor without the Eb below middle C ever sounding. My performance earned me a 2nd place medal in the competition. The winner chose a piece in a more suitable key for that particular instrument, no doubt.

Damien Bracken is the Director of Admissions, Scholarships and Student Employment at Berklee College of Music.

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