Five Ways to Level Up your Auditioning this Year

The Weekly Brew

Episode #11

Do you ever notice how many more people there are at the gym the first week of January?  It’s nuts.

How about the second week of January, though?

For most of us, New Year’s resolutions are passing whims, and we quickly settle back into old habits.  This is true for fitness, diet, practicing, and every other daily activity.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up five simple things that you can do to take your auditioning to a new level this year.

1. The small stuff is the big stuff

Tim Ferriss frequently describes how small things, done consistently, end up being the big things in life.  I’ve found this to be true in countless areas of my life.

We so often think that making progress in our lives requires a herculean effort.  Frustrated by our lack of success in auditions, we double down on our practice time.  We spend a week cramming in 4-6 daily hours of anxiety-ridden practicing, collapsing exhausted in our bed at the end of each day.

Two weeks in, we miss a day.  The next week, we miss a couple of days.  Before we know it, we’re back on the couch eating potato chips and binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix.

What if, instead of guilting ourselves into hours of meandering practice, we tried the following?

  1. Record our five most challenging excerpts.

  2. Make a list of three technical areas of concern for each excerpt.

  3. Spend five minutes per day on each of these five excerpts, addressing one technical area with each of those five minute blocks?

What would those 25 minutes of focused practice look like?  

This is the method that Cleveland Orchestra Principal Bass Max Dimoff described to me during my interview with him.  You can hear Max’s advice and those of several other audition winners in my podcast episode Winning the Audition 2: Practicing Techniques for Peak Auditions.

We can apply this concept of small daily doses for many areas of our life.  Here are some things that I’ve successfully applied the five-minute daily dosage to in my own life:

  • Deep breathing / meditation / mindfulness

  • Planks and push-ups

  • Brain dump / freeform journaling

  • Reading something inspiring

  • Writing out three daily goals

Rather than charging chaotically at large, ill-defined goals, think about making incremental changes to your current habits.  Small goals addressed on a consistent basis produce massive gains.

2. Get back to your "why"

The professional musician career path is filled with pitfalls.  Frustration and discouragement are hard to avoid.  It’s so easy to get burned out and quit making progress.

Think back to why you got into making music in the first place.  Why did you decide to take this path? What drew you to music?  It probably wasn’t a love of sitting in a small room playing the same passages over and over.

I’ve interviewed a huge number of audition winners for my podcast, and I often ask them about their “a-ha” moment.  When did they finally break through that invisible barrier and find success on the audition path?

I asked Los Angeles Philharmonic Principal Bassist Chris Hanulik a variant of this question: what does he see holding people back most in auditions?  

Here’s what he said:

I grill my students mercilessly on technique, facility, being clean, being accurate. In no way to I want to minimize that.
— Chris Hanulik

Ultimately, it’s not about that, though.  It’s about what you’re saying.  We’re making music.  

What are you saying as a musician?  What do you want that phrase to do?  How do you want that to go?  What sort of statement do you want to make when you play that phrase?

A while back, I made a curious discovery: the people that seemed to be finding the most success on the audition trail weren’t the ones who were obsessively holed up in their practice rooms every Friday night:

  • They were the ones who headed to symphony concerts.  

  • They checked out string quartet concerts even if they were a brass player.  

  • They sat in on flute master classes.

Some of my classmates at Northwestern University locked themselves in the practice room all day and all night.  

Others practiced but seemed to be more musically curious.  They’d go to concerts rather than getting in the extra couple of hours on Friday night.  Ultimately, they were the ones who ended up being more successful.

I often think about this quote from my interview with Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Bass Jeff Turner.  Jeff chaired the PSO audition committee for many years and listened to every single audition, and he describes the “musical values” that committee members fall in love with:

Over and over again, I see people succeed at auditions who have just played two or three recitals that year, who are still in love with playing music and enjoying the bass, and I think we've got to find balance when we're in a situation like that, about playing with beautiful sound, making phrases, and enjoying the music and playing for other people, not just turning it into this technical Olympic-type event where you play the pitch and play the rhythms and bark them out in perfect time. I see a lot of that, and that's not the people that I see being successful at auditions.  

My experience over the past 20 years that I've been listening to auditions... as a matter of fact, I've had the great fortune of getting to be chair of the audition committee for the Pittsburgh Symphony for several years, which meant that I got to listen to every single audition on every instrument, and that was a fabulous education.  At any audition, there are going to be people that simply aren't ready for that job.  Some of it might be for technical reasons, some of it might be for lack of imagination about any kind of sound quality.  Let's say there are whatever percentage of people that show up who just really won't be ready for the job.  And I think there also are going to be some star players.  At any given audition, there might just be three or four of them, but there's always going to be that supply of people who, just whether they're naturals on the instrument or have worked really hard, get out there and give a great presentation.  I would say that the level of the folks in the middle has risen remarkably in the past 20 years.  The average level of technical competence is better, not just at bass auditions but pretty much across the board.

The musicians that I know on committees, what really happens is they fall in love with the musicianship of a particular candidate or a few candidates.  And then they go through their checklist of, "let's see, could I sit beside this person because: is the pitch OK, was the rhythm in this particular passage all right, is it a sound that would work well in the setting of the orchestra?"

But remember, I said at the beginning that I thought it was that they fell in love with their playing first.  It's hard to talk about why they do that, I guess, but it's a musical thing.  Things that audition committees and music directors fall in love with are musical values, not really technical values.  Those technical values you've got to have, but it's just not enough anymore.  

Words of wisdom from someone who has spent a lot of time on both sides of the screen!

3. Read a book on sports psychology

David Allen Moore, bass professor at the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Philharmonic member, gave his students a sports psychology reading assignment over winter break a few years ago.  Ian Hallas, the newest member of the Lyric Opera of Chicago bass section, describes how this assignment changed his audition preparation for the better:

[David] gave us a little winter break book project.  He bought us all this book called Toughness Training for Sports by James Loehr, and it's a book on mental toughness training, increasing your own resilience and how you deal with stress.  It's a really interesting book, but something that really struck me as important was the notion that he said: a peak performance is only going to last for one to two weeks. And he's talking about athletes--I think in this context he was talking about sprinters.  So sprinters are going to work on mechanics for a bunch of time and when they're building up to a race, they'll really start to hit their stride one to two weeks before.  

Using that in my own audition context, after I'd read the book I started to use about two weeks, and things were still consistent at the end of those two weeks... when I would show up with two weeks of run-throughs it was a little fatigued.  I don't want to say that I got complacent with the way things were, but I didn't really feel like I was in the pocket when I would play those things with two weeks of run-throughs.  So I decided 10 days, and that's what I did for both Atlanta and Lyric, and the results kept getting better.  

So 10 days out, I'd do two things.  The first is that every morning... I'm a morning guy, so I'll get as much work as I can do early in the day.  I'll unpack the bass, tune, put a little bit of rosin on, and just run excerpts.  If it's an orchestral audition, I'll run standard excerpts that I assume are most likely to be asked on a prelim round.  So for example, it might be first and last movement of Mozart 35, it's going to be Heldenleben [rehearsal] 9, some Brahms 2, Beethoven 5 scherzo/trio.  And it's so hard on the first day because it feels just awful.  You might not have even stretched, you might not have even gone anywhere, if you're practicing in your house you might have just gotten out of bed and done it.  

But the goal is to improve your worst playing, because if you can do that, when you walk onstage and have to do it the first time, you're going to know that you've done this work if you can pick up the bass without having warmed up at all and play your excerpts down at a high level.  

There are many parallels between training for peak athletic performance and an audition.  Here are a few of my other favorite books on the topic:

4. Become a musical scholar

Oftentimes performance majors end up being the “jocks” of the music world.  Developing and expanding your physical skills on the instrument is crucial, of course.  However, spending time analyzing music, doing historical research, and listening to various interpretations might be just what you need to move forward in your auditioning.

Caleb Quillen, the most recent addition to the Kansas City Symphony bass section, described to me how he would listen to as many pieces as possible by the composers on the audition list to develop a more three-dimensional concept of each one’s style.  He’s dig into string quartets, piano works, and vocal works to get the broader essence of that composer's style.

Over time, I’ve developed these eleven methods to bring more musical scholarship into my playing:

  1. Listen to three recordings of each of the pieces you're preparing for the audition.

  2. Notice similarities and differences in interpretation.

  3. Think about each composer's style.

  4. Listen to performances on period instruments and modern instruments.

  5. Listen to at least three other pieces by each composer.

  6. Notice similarities and differences within the craft of each composer.

  7. Find pieces from different periods in the composer's life.

  8. Listen to chamber works, symphonic works, and vocal works from these composers.

  9. Notice similarities and differences between genres for each composer.

  10. Read about each composer.

  11. Picture the historical period in which each piece was written.

5. Practice in a large space

Most musicians spend too much time practicing in small spaces.  It’s easy to get used to “practice room sound” and have a fuzzy concept of how we actually sound in a hall.

Resolve this year to spend as much time as possible practicing in a large space.  Get to the concert hall early and play through your excerpts with a recorder in the middle of the hall.  You’ll be amazed at what does and doesn’t carry out into the hall.  It’s likely that

Pittsburgh Symphony Associate Principal Bass Brandon McLean described to me how beneficial practicing in a large space was in his auditioning:

It was relatively late in life that I really got to spend a significant amount of time by myself in a large space, in like a concert hall practicing.  I'd been a real practice room practicer for a long time, and my concept of sound was based on the fact that things were bouncing back to me from three feet away as opposed to 300 feet away or more.  

A really helpful thing for me was getting into big halls and putting a microphone a long way away from me, and realizing what I actually sounded like to the people that were listening on the panel a long way away from me.

One of the more helpful things for me has been getting over the idea that I don't really know what I sound like just from listening through my own ears.  I guess it's similar to the way that you hear your own voice.  Whenever you hear your own voice back on tape, it's like, "this doesn't sound at all like me" because you're listening to your own voice through all these bones and muscles and all these things that are changing the way you're hearing your own voice as opposed to the way other people are hearing it.  

It's the same way with bass playing.  The angle that you're listening to yourself playing the bass--nobody else is hearing [it] at that angle, you know.  You're above the thing, the “f” holes are close to you but they're not pointed at you, and you're moving around a bunch, and you're doing all these things that are getting in the way of really hearing yourself.  So I got really serious about recording myself, and I think that was when things started to turn a little bit for me, when I really got a sense of what I was doing that made a difference to the actual listener.

Final Thoughts

Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by unrealistically big New Year’s resolutions.  Pick one or two of these five ideas and try them out for five minutes a day.  After a week, take a look at your work habits and see if these small additions are helping.  If so, add another one or two.  If not, adjust course until you find a combination that works for you.

Thanks for reading, and my best wishes to you and your audition journey this year!

Jason Heath

Founder and CEO, Contrabass Conversations

Jason Heath is the host of Contrabass Conversations, a podcast devoted to exploring music and ideas associated with the double bass.  His blog and podcast are highly regarded in the music world and have been featured as top offerings in the world of arts and culture for the past decade.

An active double bass performer and teacher, Jason taught double bass at DePaul University for seven years and served on the Board of Directors of the International Society of Bassists for many years.  He also previously taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and at Trinity International University.  Jason previously served as President of the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and as the Illinois Music Educators Association District 7 Orchestra Division Co-Representative.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Jason currently performs with the IRIS Orchestra in Memphis Tennessee, and with he Midsummer’s Music Festival in Door County, Wisconsin.  He was a member of the Elgin Symphony for 16 seasons and has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony, and numerous other professional ensembles.

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