Thoughts on All-State Auditions

As mentioned in a previous post, Louisiana held its annual All-State Band and Orchestra auditions on Saturday, and I was asked to judge horn and tuba. I have judged these auditions before, but this time I have a blog with which to share a few of my thoughts about the day.  Things got off to an early start with a judges meeting at 7:30am, and the auditions began at 8:30.  Overall the auditions were quite fun and interesting to listen to — Louisiana has some very talented young horn and tuba players!  We judged from 8:30am until 3:30pm, with only a short break for lunch.  The auditions were screened, with a monitor in the room at all times to relay instructions from the judges to the players.  Repertoire for each audition was as follows: 1) Major scales in all keys (all 2 octaves for horn) 2) Excerpts from two prepared etudes, one lyrical and one technical, and 3) Sight-reading.  Although the audition times were scheduled at six minutes each, realistically this was not enough time, with most of the auditions lasting somewhere between eight and ten minutes.  Needless to say, we fell behind schedule almost immediately, and I do apologize to all of the auditioning students for this problem. As a judge I think it is important not to rush the players — I could tell just from listening to breathing that many of the students were quite nervous — and rushing them through the audition would have only made things worse.  Perhaps in the future the audition time slots will be extended slightly to accommodate playing all of the required materials. I didn’t have time to make any notes during the auditions – both I and the other judge had our hands full tallying our scores, and the auditions proceeded pretty much back-to-back.  I do however have  a few general comments about each part of the audition — scales, prepared etudes, and sight-reading.  If you are planning on auditioning for All-State in Louisiana in the future perhaps these thoughts will be helpful to you.

I. Scales

It can be tricky finding the balance between speed and accuracy, but if you go too slowly on scales the danger is that the judges may assume that you aren’t prepared and simply going slow because you don’t know the scales thoroughly.  On the other hand, if you speed through the scales and don’t play every note clearly, you won’t get the full points either. Pay attention to tone quality and intonation on your scales as well.  This is very important –  you want to play your scales cleanly and accurately, but that should never involve sacrificing tone quality and intonation.  As a judge I would much rather hear scales played a bit more slowly, provided they are in tune and with a good sound.  You want to be consistent, but not mechanical.

II. Prepared Etudes

If I had to make only one comment about the etudes I heard on Saturday it would be that the slow, lyrical etudes often sounded less prepared than the fast, technical etudes. Perhaps this is because the lyrical etudes somehow seemed to the players less interesting and not as flashy as the technical ones, thus meriting less practice time.  I would say that the opposite is true – the lyrical side of our playing often takes much longer and more working out than the technical things do, and playing one beautiful phrase in an audition is often worth just as much (or more) than blasting out lots of high, fast notes.

III. Sight-reading

As promised, I do plan to write more about this topic in the future – once I get my head around things a bit more.  For now, all I can say is that the sight-reading seemed to pose a number of challenges to the players this year.  I will offer a few basic hints at this point, hopefully with more details to follow.  First, absolutely pay attention to the key signature(s). If there is a key change that is one of the big things the judges will be listening for.  Same thing goes for meter changes as well.  Unless specified, you must keep a steady tempo throughout the duration of the excerpt. Remember that these are basically ensemble auditions, and poor rhythm will wreck an ensemble far more quickly than the occasional missed note.  I would not recommend going back to try to “fix” anything you miss along the way – simply keep subdividing in a steady tempo and continue through the excerpt.  As a high school student one of the best things you can do right now to improve your sight reading is work on ear training.  Check out websites like Good and for free ear training exercises.

That does it for my general comments.  Congratulations to everyone who auditioned this year, and keep practicing!

A Different Approach to Sight-reading

Skill at sight-reading is traditionally considered a trait of an accomplished musician. From All-State auditions to Hollywood recording studios, excellent sight-readers are revered for their skill.  However, I’ve found sight-reading quite difficult to teach from the standpoint of methodology.  I suppose the classic approach to improve sight-reading is to simply do more of it, and I do encourage my students to practice sight-reading.  Although this method seems to work in some cases, I am not entirely sure how effective it is across a diverse range of students with varying ability levels.  Of course, a solid grounding in ear training and music theory is crucial, but I wonder if it would be possible to create an actual method for improving this ability.  I often hear students claim “I’m a terrible sight-reader – I just need to hear how it’s supposed to go before I can play it.” I plan to post more about this in the future, but in short, there are a number of ways to practice sight-reading, although no one method is necessarily a guarantee for improvement. In The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney presents a fresh view of sight-reading, along with a few precautions about its “dangers.”

He notes that “Not only can good sight-reading be a useful, marketable skill, it is further glorified by the chorus of praise (and envy) from those who find sight-reading a struggle.” (p. 133) However, he goes on to say that too much sight-reading can create tension and a lack of physical awareness in some performers.  Here is his explanation.

Why are they at risk? Because everything about sight-reading is technically unwholesome, according to the principles outlined in this book [whole-body learning, mind/body awareness, etc.].  If healthy playing is characterized by full awareness, relinquishing of control, and thorough physical commitment, sight-reading encourages the exact opposite…Skillful sight-reading depends on more self-supervising, more self-consciousness, not less. And one can never play with physical thoroughness while sight-reading, because it is based on shrewd approximating–or, to put it more bluntly, faking. This is why, if you’re planning to learn a particular piece of music, you shouldn’t sight-read it very much or introduce sight-reading into your practicing.  It simply confuses the body.[emphasis added] (p. 133)

In a later passage, he provides more information on the potential negative effects of too much sight-reading.

Sight-readers pretend to know, by playing in a pseudo-polished way, notes which their muscles don’t in fact know at all, since there has been no chance to program the requisite motions with the patience that is so essential. In this respect, sight-reading is a lie. Physically, it is terribly inefficient as well; the same muscles which should be used for well-integrated actions are now used instead for reactions–hunting quickly and shallowly for the notes as quickly as the eye spots them, and playing tentatively just in case the eye happened to be mistaken. As a result, energy that should flow from the body-center out through the extremities now backs up, from clever fingers inward. This lack of good energy flow leads to muscle tension, incomplete playing, and a colorless tone quality. (p. 134)

And he closes the chapter with this advice for the student.

The ability to sight-read well can be enjoyable, and a major musical asset, and it makes sense to develop this skill. But to safe-guard our health, we must do it for only brief periods of time and–most important–treat it as a separate musical activity entirely, not to be mingled with the technical learning of a piece. (p. 135)

In general I agree with Westney’s comments, although I think he has a particular kind of “sight-reading” in mind, that which attempts to render the never-before-seen work as close to the notated music as possible, with full dynamics, tempo, etc., without stopping.  However, I think sight-reading can also refer simply to the first time one plays through a piece, or its sections,  which we all must do at some point.  When faced with a brand new piece to learn, I tend to sight-read each section extremely slowly, sometimes at half the marked tempo, stopping often to mark important places to practice later. I often don’t make it through the entire piece within a given practice session.  I agree with Westney that plowing through a piece full-tilt the very first time doesn’t really do much to help us learn the piece on a deep level, and can in fact create hangups which hinder our future progress. Yet, this kind of sight-reading is a reality of music making, and one which we have to learn to handle in a healthy way.

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