Should You Take That Audition? Five Things For Student Orchestral Players To Consider

October 20, 2021, 10:40 AM · This fall, it's been exhilarating and cathartic to witness the return of orchestra at every level, from professional concerts in the world's most famous concert halls, to school orchestras and community orchestras starting again. With the return of school and youth orchestra comes the return of the need for students to discern which ensemble, and which honor orchestra (such as district, regionals, or state) - if any - is the best fit for them this year.

As a former public orchestra student and now a private teacher of students navigating the same system, I offer five important considerations before signing yourself up for an ensemble audition.

violin Brahms excerpts

1. Schedule

Do you have time in your schedule for the ensemble you're auditioning for? Is it compatible with your weekly schedule? Are you free for all the rehearsals and performances? Also, do you have time in your schedule to practice the repertoire for the ensemble?

2. Time

Do you have the practice time to prepare for the audition? At the absolute minimum, I typically recommend five additional minutes of practice time per scale on the audition, and 15-30 additional minutes of practice per excerpt. I also recommend starting to prepare a minimum of one month in advance to build the muscle memory needed.

3. Skill

Is the audition repertoire and repertoire that the ensemble you are auditioning to be a part of at *your* skill level? I have noticed a trend lately of students (and their parents) wanting them to be in the most advanced orchestra they possibly can be, even if they just barely are accepted into the very back of the section and actively struggle with the repertoire.

This is where having a trusted mentor - such as a private teacher or your school orchestra director, assess your skill level - is very valuable. As a private teacher, I am quite conservative in what auditions I recommend for my students to take, waiting until I know they are at or above the skill level of the audition whenever possible. This means that my students are approaching the audition process with more confidence from the very beginning, needing to take less lesson time to focus on audition repertoire (so they can continue building their skills and learning solo repertoire), and (usually) placing quite high in the orchestras they audition for, so they’re able to participate fully in the ensemble, and, if they make principal, gain valuable leadership experience.

You want someone who both knows your playing and the skills the audition requires to assess your playing. And, as challenging as it can be, the very emotional desire to prove yourself, to "level up," or to keep up with your friends does not equate to the technical skill on the violin to take an audition. And, unless your parent is a trained violin teacher, while they can help you assess what is best for you from an emotional or logistical perspective, they likely will not be able to accurately assess your playing level.

4. Health

Are you in a place where taking an audition will be beneficial to (or at the very least non-impactful) to your physical, mental, and emotional health? If you are coming off of a performance injury, are actively working to break old tension habits in your technique, or are not used to playing for long hours, a challenging orchestra audition might not be right for you at this time.

I once had a student who was working through both technical changes and experiencing pain in her left arm/wrist when playing. The student was seeing a physical therapist, and was only able to play violin for about 15 minutes a day when the audition repertoire for the next level of youth orchestra was released. One of the etudes was Rode #6, the opening of which requires the violinist to play very high up on the G string. This etude would have been challenging but potentially doable if my student had recovered and was playing regularly. But spending that precious few minutes of practice time with the left arm twisted into the position needed to play high on the G string would have actively strained the arm, potentially reinjuring it, and delaying the healing process overall. After a challenging conversation with the student and parent, they ultimately made the right decision for the student's health - not to take the audition.

Mental and emotional health is also a consideration when making choices about what auditions to take or not to take. In my studio lately, I’ve seen a lot of incredibly stressed out teenagers who are struggling to manage academic stress, completing their assignments for private violin lessons, and navigating the experience of being back to school in-person, five days a week. If you already feel overwhelmed and stressed on a daily basis, adding something to your plate that will require time, focused attention, and putting yourself in a competitive situation where you will literally be ranked on a list against your peers may not be a healthy thing for you at this time.

Teachers need to take students’ total experience into consideration when advising them on auditions. They also should examine their own motivations for the advice they give. Are they trying to achieve a quota for our district for participation from our orchestra members? Trying to make the studio or school orchestra “more advanced” by requiring that everyone audition for honor orchestras? Do teachers have their own reasons for disliking an ensemble or experience that have nothing to do with our students, but may lead to our active discouragement of our students having an experience they really are ready for?

Teachers should also listen if a student says, “I am overloaded. I do not want to do this.” Most students are not going on to a professional orchestra career. Those who seek a professional music career will have ample opportunities to prepare audition excerpts. Those who are not seeking music as a career may be motivated to be in orchestra because they love the connection, the teamwork, the music, and the overall experience. There’s no need to push competition or additional stress on them, or to turn orchestra into yet another part of their lives where they are tested and evaluated constantly.

5. Motivation

Do you want to take the audition? Ask yourself that question, and pay attention to the instant response that comes to you -- that is what your instincts are telling you. If the answer is no, or if it feels like you have to talk yourself into it, that might be something to explore.

Often, students seek out auditions not for the audition experience itself, or even for the ensemble experience that could result from winning the audition. Sometimes, they are simply looking for validation. “Yes, I’m good enough - see, I was accepted into the Most Advanced Orchestra.” “I really am better than my friends, look, I’m above them on this list!” “I do have what it takes to make it, I won the audition!”

If this rings true for you, then talk to your teacher or a trusted mentor about other experiences you can plan for yourself to help you build confidence. Are there other solo performance experiences that will help you trust yourself on stage? Are there changes you can make in your practice to accelerate your progress? If you don’t have a private teacher and are very serious about wanting to advance your skills, this is the time to find one!

If you've carefully thought about all the elements above and have decided to take an audition, congratulations! Stay tuned for the follow-up post about thoughtful audition preparation. If you've carefully thought about everything and decided not to take an audition, congratulations! I hope you find the musical experiences you crave this year that bring you joy, connection, and confidence.

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