Thoughts on Difficult All-State Etudes

High school students in many states are currently practicing for All-State auditions, while others have already completed the audition cycle for this year.  Overall I think All-State auditions and clinics can be wonderful learning experiences, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with students in several states as they prepared for these auditions.  One thread that has come up pretty often in the past is the difficulty of the audition materials, and how to help students deal with some of the more challenging passages in their music.  Since audition procedures and repertoire vary widely, I’ll avoid going into detail about any one state.  However, I hope students and teachers will find some of these general comments useful.

My first recommendation to students who want to audition for an All-State ensemble is to start taking lessons from a horn teacher.  Contact local universities and/or orchestras to find teachers in your area, or consult resources like the Teachers Database on http://www.hornplayer.net (which is now maintained by the International Horn Society).   While general lessons with a non-horn player can be very helpful up to a point, I think students preparing challenging music for auditions really need to study with a horn player, or at least a high brass specialist.  One last point about lessons is to start taking them early – not a few weeks before the audition!  A few lessons right before the audition might help a little, but if you want results it’s much better to think long term and take regular lessons over a period of several weeks or months.

Once you’ve started taking lessons (and before, as well) you must practice regularly if you want to have a chance at making All-State, or improving at all. Sometimes students (and parents as well) mistakenly believe that just taking lessons will equal automatic improvement, and this is just not the case. Without regular practice, lessons with even the most highly qualified teacher will deliver only mediocre results at best.  Of course, the specifics of how much to practice will depend greatly on the individual student’s current ability level, motivation, and long term goals.

Now that you’re taking lessons and practicing regularly, you can begin preparing your All-State audition materials in earnest.  Some states require all the major scales, while others only ask for a few; some states use solo literature for audition material, while others require contrasting etudes.  Whatever the requirements are for your state, make sure you know them thoroughly – ask your band directors and private teachers for help if something is unclear.  Many states now post their audition requirements online, and several private teachers have begun uploading recordings of their state’s audition materials to YouTube.  Take advantage of these resources – when combined with effective practicing, they can make for rapid improvement.

Occasionally I see audition materials which are a bit extreme in terms of range and/or technique.  While I understand the pedagogical value of selecting challenging repertoire, I think in some cases students can develop poor habits by playing repertoire that is too difficult for them.  I’m sure there are high school students who can play these demanding passages, but I wonder if this is in their best interests educationally. After all, these are not professional auditions we’re talking about here, but rather learning experiences meant to foster enthusiasm for the horn and music in general.  My advice to students who encounter seemingly unplayable passages in their audition materials is to consult the help of a qualified horn teacher, and together work out a practice regimen which will enable you to play the difficult passages with ease.  If after diligent practice and preparation you still find yourself forcing, consider taking something down an octave or leaving it out entirely.  No audition is worth creating poor habits in your playing.  On a lighter note, while poking around the internet I came across a humorous comic called “People You Meet at Your Local All-State Audition.” Illustrated by John Bogenschutz, it encapsulates I think many students’ experiences at All-State auditions.

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Very happy to see your, “I think in some cases students can develop poor habits by playing repertoire that is too difficult for them.” While learning to play the horn I was the only one in community band and always given the 1st horn parts. During an embouchure crisis me dawned on me that was part of the problem and told the director I needed to drop back to 2nd parts, and things got better right away. Your, “learning experiences meant to foster enthusiasm”, seems a better approach.

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