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Brian Hong

Keeping an Upbeat, Healthy Mindset: Thoughts on the Audition Season from a Student's Perspective

January 28, 2012 at 6:29 AM

And here we are: January, February, and March 2012, the busiest season of the year for a high school senior music student for one reason: auditions. Ok, well, there are many competitions too, but they don’t count because there are always dozens of those year round. As I have started my own personal season of 11 auditions and 3 major national competitions in the course of two months, I have found myself reflecting upon the emotional nature of such an ordeal. Indeed, this “tour” of sorts is not merely a physical exercise (even though the continuous trans-continental flights, the seemingly endless hours of practicing, and the stressful nature of the auditions themselves are quite taxing); no, this adventure is an emotional ride as well. Therefore, it is quite necessary to achieve the right mindset in order to be as successful as possible.

I am currently writing this blog on a plane headed to Atlanta, Georgia, and then I am taking a connection flight to Alabama for a competition. However, this is not the only travelling I have done; two weeks ago, I was in Mississippi for a regional competition, last week I was in Texas for an audition, yesterday I was in Boston, and in this coming week I will be back in Boston for two more days. Throughout the period of February and early March I will have about 8 more auditions and 2 more competitions in cities such as Boston, Bloomington, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Oberlin, and New York City. I will admit that the combined effects of navigating my way through this maze of a schedule, practicing several hours’ worth of music, and keeping up with a full school load that includes several AP and IB classes have taken its toll, but I am working very hard on keeping an upbeat, humble, light attitude that will carry me through March, and might hopefully even bring a few college acceptances with it.

In order to keep a healthy mindset, I think that it is crucial to understand WHAT artistic colleges look for in undergraduate applicants and WHY they are looking for it. The major and accepted consensus is that music schools want a fully developed player who makes little mistakes, who is virtuosic, and who is already prepared to take on the ubiquitous difficulties of the professional world. Now, if you will allow me, I wish to draw a big “X” on my imaginary chalkboard through that assertion. If an undergraduate applicant already has those qualities, well, he/she should just go straight into the profession! We students (and some adults, too) need to keep in mind that, although schools do want a well-set up player with a solid layer of musical ideas already in place (the desired “level” varies with the school, of course), the reason of going to college is for us to continue to learn, to improve, and to make those musical ideas that are currently present even more convincing, while learning new ways to come up with more.

Our modern technological age has brought with it the omnipresence of digitally edited recordings, which have elevated the expectations of the general musical audience to an unrealistic plateau (I say plateau because there is no way it can or will get higher). Listeners want clean, perfect, yet somehow incredibly musical performances, and we, being kind, sympathetic musicians, respond by trying to give them what they want. However, let me get this straight: it is IMPOSSIBLE to achieve that utopia, no matter how we try. Perfection is not a goal – it is an unrealistic dream and a well-travelled, admittedly attractive road that leads to an inevitable abyss of depth and despair. To my fellow high school music students: turn back! Keep those standards high, but understand that cleanliness is not necessarily the be-all-end-all goal here to make it into college. I am not advocating dirty playing; in fact, I tout almost the opposite. Notes must be learned, music must be made, and technique must be orderly to the fullest extent of your abilities in order to bring that music across. However, the key phrase here is “the fullest extent of your abilities”. I guarantee you that a musical, genuine, yet imperfect audition will go farther than a safe one filled with musical torpor.

So how does one achieve this “healthy” mindset? Here is where the road splits; indeed, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of ways that would work. The method I personally use is quite simple: practice to achieve self-confidence and acceptance. Nearly every moment that I am not practicing, I am thinking about sound colors, phrases, and techniques that I would like to achieve and where I would like to employ them in my pieces. Much of the time, I even think about sounds that I cannot yet produce due to my incomplete technical arsenal. However, if I spent all my practicing trying to achieve those goals, I would fall into a blue funk, because there is no way I can sound as good as Gil Shaham or Leonidas Kavakos at my stage of the game, no matter how idealistic and optimistic I may be. It is wonderful to see the glass as half full, but one must also keep in mind the size of said glass. My personal key to achieving my best performance is to divide up practice time very clearly between musical and technical work. I spend about 70% of my practice time on laborious, monotonous, time-consuming practice techniques to solidify intonation, control bow technique, and to increase efficiency. This is my self-confidence method: if I feel that I can hit the notes, my acceptance level of my own playing rises and I feel much more confident. Only then do I incorporate my musical work, focusing on bow distribution, vibrato speed, and sound colors to bring out the most effective phrase possible. The result? Rather than feel hampered by this equivalent of the musical scrubbing of floors, my increased confidence and muscle memory allows me to be as free as I desire onstage.

I fully expect that last paragraph to be rather controversial. Indeed, I have taken a rather Ellermann-esque approach of practicing by adding the musical layer on top of a relatively solid technical layer. A more progressive approach would probably entail building in the music along with technical work rather than draping the music on top of a pre-built technical scaffold like a blanket. Quite frankly, both methods are great depending on whom you are; for me, the latter is my path to maximum security.

I am of the opinion, at this moment in my young musical life, that confidence and fear are pre-determined mindsets, and that it is necessary to figure out how to “play the game” with one’s own brain to come out on top. Yes, it is possible to rely on placebo effects like bananas and that one minute of extra practicing before walking onstage, but as Ronald Copes once said to my teacher, “Stop worrying! It’s not like you forgot how to play your instrument in the past day!” What a man of wisdom. Funny, though, how such simple reminders can slip by our heads like flippant birds, and how we needed to be reminded of them time and time again.

Well, my rambling for the evening is over; the flight attendants are having me put my laptop away. Glazunov, watch out, buddy, I’m coming for you.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 28, 2012 at 8:33 PM
What a schedule! You are wise to be taking this larger view of things, while at the same time spending time on the details of your performances. Reading your blog, I'm reminded of the times that I've advised a student to "practice making this feel relaxed." I tell them that, in the practice room, it's possible, in addition to drilling yourself on a passage, to actually school yourself in viewing said passage as something you will enjoy, a place to relax your muscles to let them move quickly, etc.

Random thoughts. Go kick some butt on your auditions, Brian!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 28, 2012 at 9:02 PM
Wow Brian! You have figured out what I'm just now starting to understand.

Break a leg!

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on January 28, 2012 at 11:53 PM
You're such an old soul, and I mean that in a totally positive way. Best of luck; I have a feeling you'll go far...
From Elinor Estepa
Posted on January 29, 2012 at 12:49 AM
Best of luck! and you'll be great in every road you take. You work hard and you deserved the best! Safe travels.
From jean dubuisson
Posted on January 30, 2012 at 4:56 PM
Brian, wonderful. All my best wishes! Judging by the Beethoven sonata and the Chaconne you posted a while ago (if my memory serves me right), I think your chances of being accepted to college are good. Keep us posted!

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