Notes from a Master Class on Auditioning

This week I’ll be posting notes from various master classes I’ve attended over the years, covering such topics as orchestral auditions, college job interviews/applications, and performance anxiety.  Today’s notes come from a class by William VerMeulen given at the Round Top Festival Institute in the summer of 2003. Looking back over these notes I wish I’d either written more or just recorded the entire lecture! However, I think what’s here gives a good overview of the material presented in the class.

Audition Master Class with William VerMeulen, Round Top Festival Institute, 2003

  • The person with the largest “envelope,” and who stays within that envelope, wins the audition.
  • There is tremendous power in the words “I can.”
  • Play with controlled abandon.
  • Adopt a declarative attitude.
  • Audition for the right reasons.
  • Preparation: use penalties, and simulate the performance environment. Never stop at the point of a mistake, but continue through until the end of the excerpt. Stopping at the point of a mistake tells the brain that it is ok to make that mistake. Categorize the excerpts into three different groups based on how much work they need. Play for other people, and simulate the conditions of an actual audition.
  • Mental Preparation: Use positive self talk, and personify your negative side – this makes it easier to get rid of him or her. [My note: some people even have a separate chair for their negative, judgmental selves in the practice room. Thus, one can more easily tell this aspect of your personality to be quiet and get out of your way.]
  • Use affirmation cards. Write short, positive sentences saying what you want to accomplish in the present tense form. Say the phrase(s) ten times in the mirror morning and night. The law of accommodation is stronger than the law of reality.
  • Mental training and visualization are incredibly important.

These ideas have helped me quite a bit in auditions, and in preparing for other performances. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For some more resources on auditioning, check out the online index to The Horn Call: Journal of the International Horn Society, and search by subject for “auditions.”  Other useful publications include The Inner Game of Tennisby W. Timothy Gallwey, Audition Success, by Don Greene, and Horn Playing from the Inside Out, by Eli Epstein.

Weekend Report

Here’s a brief report from my busy weekend. The Shreveport Symphony rehearsals and concert went very well, including the 3rd horn solos in the Academic Festival Overture by Brahms. The other pieces on the program – Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 – weren’t as involved for the 3rd horn but still very enjoyable to play. Bravo to Tom Hundemer and Kristine Coreil (1st and 2nd horn on this concert) for their marvelous trills in the final movement of the Dvořák. The conductor asked them to play bells-up during the final statement of the trill passage, which probably wasn’t any louder but was an impressive visual effect for the audience. Soloist Vadim Gluzman gave an exquisite performance of the Bruch, which also had some very nice horn writing in all three movements. I couldn’t help thinking of Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie during the second movement – see for yourself (skip to 2:30 and 6:08 for the best examples). There are also some good horn solos in his Scottish Fantasy, and as a horn player I really wish Bruch had written a horn concerto!  There are some more fun concerts coming up for me in the next few weeks, and I’ll be posting updates about the repertoire for those programs.

On Sunday, the SSO held an audition for 2nd and 4th horn, and I was fortunate enough to win the 4th horn spot. I’ve subbed with this very fine orchestra numerous times in the past, and I’m really looking forward to performing with them as a regular member. Congratulations to Adam Black, who won the 2nd horn position. Adam is a graduate of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA, where he studied with Dr. Kristine Coreil (regular 3rd horn in the SSO). Adam is currently a student of Randy Gardner at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Well done Adam!

For those who might be curious, you can check out the excerpt list here: SSO Horn Audition List

In preparing for this audition I spent a large part of my time working out of Randy Gardner’s book Mastering the Horn’s Low Register He covers most of the major excerpts that appear on low horn auditions, and provides suggestions and helpful exercises for perfecting each one. For the first several weeks of preparation I spent more time on the exercises than on the actual excerpts, which I think paid off in the long run. Constant practice with a metronome and a drone helped solidify rhythm and intonation. As the audition date got closer I practiced playing through the entire list, using flashcards to put things in a random order. Recording myself on several excerpts also helped provide some feedback. Another resource I used quite a bit in the last couple of weeks before the audition was Eli Epstein’s new book Horn Playing from the Inside Out.  His thoughts on auditions, dealing with performance anxiety, and numerous other topics were both practical and inspirational. A more extensive review of this book is forthcoming, I promise!

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Part 2, Listening with your Eyes

In  Part 1 of this series on Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink, we touched on some of the parallels that could be drawn between professional tennis players and brass musicians – namely the concept that even professionals in both fields might not always be aware of what they are doing physically to achieve high-quality results.   When I read this chapter (which is fairly early in the book) I thought, “Cool, here’s something from an unlikely source that can be applied to music.”  Little did I realize that the final chapter of Blink would deal directly with something in the music world – professional orchestral auditions.

For those who might not be familiar with the recent history of the orchestral audition process, Gladwell provides an excellent summary.

The world of classical music – particularly in its European home – was until very recently the preserve of white men…But over the past few decades, the classical music world has undergone a revolution…Many musicians thought that conductors were abusing their power and playing favorites. They wanted the audition process to be formalized…Musicians were identified not by name but by number. Screens were erected between the committee and the auditioner, and if the person auditioning cleared his or her throat or made any kind of identifiable sound…they were ushered out and given a new number. And as these new rules were put in place around the country, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women. [pp. 249-250]

Gladwell ties this extraordinary story into the overall theme of Blink by explaining that our first impression of how players sound is often “corrupted” by how they look.  In this case, the ability of even highly trained musicians to make split-second evaluations of a player’s skill is compromised.

What the classical music world realized was that what they thought was a pure and powerful first impression – listening to someone play – was in fact hopelessly corrupted. “Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,”one musician, a veteran of many auditions, says. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have that belabored look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear. The audition begins the first second the person is in view.” [p. 250-251]

The chapter goes on to quote none other than Julie Landsman, recently retired principal horn of the MET Orhestra.

Julie Landsman, principal French horn for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, says that she’s found herself distracted by the position of someone’s mouth. “If they put their mouthpiece up in an unusual position, you might immediately think, Oh my God, it can’t possibly work. There are so many possibilities. Some horn players use a brass instrument, and some use nickel-silver, and the kind of horn the person is playing tells you something about what city they come from, their teacher, and their school, and that pedigree is something that influences your opinion. I’ve been in auditions without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don’t affect your judgement. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart.” [p. 251]

Gladwell closes this chapter by noting that screens allowed audition committees to form more accurate impressions of players, without being prejudiced by their appearance.  Referring once more to Julie Landsman’s audition for the MET (which I’m told is one of the few orchestras that have screened auditions all the way through the final round), he writes, “Until they listened to her with just their ears, however, they had no idea she was so good. When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was.” (p. 254)

Blink is an impressive book, and worth a read, as are Gladwell’s other books.  One thing that occurred to me though as I was writing this post is that because  people listen with their ears and their eyes, we as performers need to take charge of not only how we sound, but how we appear as well.  If you’re interested in reading a little bit about stage presence, check out this post.

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