Want to succeed at guitar auditions? This post that will cover how to go about approaching interviews and auditions positively. It will outline a general process, the audition itself and offers some helpful hints, pieces and stress management tips – which are applicable to all performance situations.
(In my job as guitar tutor for the Royal Welsh College‘s Junior Conservatoire I have many roles to fill. Two of which have coinciding aims for my students. First I am on the panel for any potential young guitarists that wishes to study in the junior department and at the other end I am also tasked with preparing students for auditions into the upper colleges, such as the Royal Academy, the Royal College; or specialized music schools such as Chethams, the Purcell school or even Universities. So with that in mind I have prepared this post to help with both those processes, the only difference between the them is the repertoire. The junior conservatoires’ generally begin at grade 5 level whilst the Colleges’ require diploma level pieces. [Ed])
“Failure to prepare is preparing to fail”
This quote sums up perfectly what you really need to know about what went wrong or will go wrong in an audition. The time and effort you put in before going into an audition has a direct correlation to how successful you will be after it. Or as Ricardo Iznaola puts it in his indispensable hand book On Practicing :
“What happens on the concert stage is a direct consequence of what happens in the practice room.”
So if you wish to improve or nail those auditions for college, or a course or even an appointment, read on.
The key to successful auditions always rests on how much preparation you have done.
What does that actually entail though?
Work, and lots of it? Or something else?
It means approaching the audition with a long 6 month plan; that has a 3 month check, a 2 week check and then an on the day a details check. It means having “bloodied” the repertoire well in advance with your toughest audience: family and friends (or the toughest of the tough: prospective partners families). It means knowing the pieces inside out, so that no matter what happens you can always course correct when playing. It also means having some basic stress management strategies in place to deal with any excitement (A.K.A nerves) on the day or just prior to it. It also means having done some research into your chosen place of study. Lets step through each one of these for a closer inspection of details.
To be successful you have to plan. There is no going round this fact. You need to have learnt your pieces by 6 months before the audition day. Depending on how good your skills are at learning music, you are probably looking at a whole year of your life to nail those music auditions.
Break the pieces down and start with the most challenging, or longest first. Build it up slowly and perfectly bar by bar. Then move onto the next. That way you will have been playing the most challenging piece the longest. Once you hit 6 months before the deadline you should be in performance mode. Testing the pieces out, refining their phrases etc. At 3 months before the deadline, check if you can play them from memory. If not get the scores out and go over them again and read them (see below). 2 weeks before the deadline you need to double check the memory facet as well as the musicality. Does it sing? Does it express the emotions you want it to? Planning means patience and understanding; you will be living with this music for the best part of a year, so choose well.
The harshest critic and best checking mechanism in the word is a microphone of some sorts. So record yourself at 6 months, 3 months and 2 weeks. Use these to fine tune and fault check the music. Be honest, but be kind!
This section is a no-brainer really. Get as many opportunities in to perform the audition set list to as many different people in as many locals as possible. Friends and families first then move outside that circle and on to girlfriends/boyfriends families et. al. Local churches, or small venues, open mic nights etc. The more you perform the pieces the greater your confidence with them will be.
And that is key to a successful audition: Confidence. Build it up slowly and store it! Then all you have to do is unleash it on the day.
All professional musicians interact and use scores away from their instrument. It is crucial to really learning the piece. This means reading the score and hearing the notes. It means getting into the harmony and key changes, the pieces structure. Where are they? Where does it alter course? It also means fine tuning your interpretation. Can you hear the musical decisions you are making? Is that pp just right for that phrase? Asking questions of the score will hone your musicianship and help solidify the music in your brain. If you are new to this start slow with a piece you know really well and have played a lot. I can guarantee that the bar you can’t hear and read or even visualize is the bar the will come undone under pressure. In which case pick your guitar up, play it, feel it and see it. Then put the guitar down and start again by reading the score. From the beginning, until you can read it effortlessly.
You should aim to be reading your entire set through last thing at night the week before an audition. Get to know the music intimately.
This section will help with answering questions in the interview stage. So use the wonder of the modern age: the Internet, and research the crap out of your chosen colleges and their faculty. What are their strengths? Or weaknesses? Is there any chosen pieces you have to learn and perform on the day? What is the preferred repertoire of each faculty member or even the chosen field of research? This will help during the interview stage of the audition, from supplying questions to ask the panel to just having a remark you can add to the conversation.
Research shows you have lots to offer, are enthusiastic and that you have done more than just show up and play.
Look lets face facts, we all get nervous, especially on a day that is so important as an audition day. Keep two things in mind though.
First the sun will come up the next day, no matter what happens during that audition: good or bad – life goes on.
Secondly if you have not prepared properly there is no hiding that fact from yourself: so prepare really well. (See Ben Franklin above!)
Nerves generally stem from our inner most fears of being judged or on how well we perform. If you have prepared well and know your pieces inside out the only nerves you will need to deal with is the excitement and adrenaline rush of getting ready to play for the panel.
And that is a normal feeling and needs to be embraced: learn to love that feeling, do not fight it!
Recognize that the panel is there to asses your potential not how well you played note 15 in that hemi-demi run in bar 104 of what ever piece you felt sucked the most, after performing it. They want to see musicality and expression along with good technique.
- First tip: have a routine established which you can use to warm up your fingers and calm your body. That means the same exercises daily in the safe environment of the practice room well in advance of the day – 6 months before. Use it as a daily meditation on how good you are and how relaxed you feel. Build that feeling into your body. Routine breeds safety.
On the day prior to the performance,
- Second tip: eat a banana. Why? Well that fight or flight feeling is the adrenaline pumping into your system and the first thing it will eat are your stores of blood sugar and then you get the shakes. Never good. So you need to replenish this with healthy food: a banana.
Breathing is key: a deep breathing exercise will help calm the heart and slow the blood flow down along with the synaptic responses in your brain. You don’t need to think fast on stage, not that fast at any rate. So..
- Third tip: have a breathing exercise built into your daily routine as the last thing you do before going to perform. (See Don Greene below)
Lastly most guitarists find that due to the increased blood flow to the heart, the extremities (hands and feet) get cold. So…
- Fourth tip: fill a basin with warm water and soak your hands in into for a few minutes prior to going to perform.
This and the breathing exercises could be combined with some positive affirmations as you stare into the mirror waiting to get feeling back.
These tips are key stress management systems and are utilized by all professionals, not just musicians.
Choosing pieces can always be a subjective experience. However try your best to pick pieces that will highlight your musical and technical strengths as well as nail the level you are meant to be playing at. Do not pick pieces that you think will impress the panel by how fast they are, how cool they are or because Billy, your best friend, says its a shoe-in. You need to show potential, not how fast you can play. It is a generally accepted rule that most guitarists always pick pieces that are above their technical ability; Auditions are not the place to confirm this rule. So go for gold with pieces you know you can play well. Note: most auditions have a time limit, do not go over this, it shows lack of planning and foresight. Make sure your set fits in exactly with their time constraints. If needs be trim repeats or even bars, remember – its all about potential.
Choose a set of four contrasting pieces, old, not so old and modern (a.k.a Baroque, Classical/Romantic and 20th century) that you know you can nail. That translates into three main audition pieces and one spare, and have them learned and under your fingers 6 months before the audition date.
So finally an external heads up to sites, books or videos to help you achieve guitar audition success. Knowledge is after all power!
First up is Dr. Don Greene who is so vastly experienced, and has worked in so many fields, I am not going to even bother listing it here (follow the link), he has also written two very highly recommended books, Performances Success and Audition success. He explains how to harness your inner calm with centering, a technique that is well founded, to help calm nerves. Along with Process Cues, all of which he has already tested on professional athletes. They work for them, why not for you? His books are worth the money and time invested into reading as his insights help a whole range of individuals in very high stress jobs, not just musicians.
Next is Dr. Noa Kageyama who has trained at the worlds best musical institute, has a PhD in Psychology and invested a lot of time helping musicians with a range of issues (He also studied under Dr, Greene!). His articles on stress management, confidence and nerves are worth reading, however those are but a drop in the ocean to all the others he delivers, just search his site to see what I mean. He even has done a step by step guide based on Don Greene’s teachings which is indispensable as a stress management system guide.
On The Day
As a musician auditions are a procedure that will be repeated often in your career and should be approached with due diligence. Each audition will be contrasting with different outcomes, so do not get hung up with any anomalies in the method. It’s normal to leave at the end of the day having a vague feeling of being in a spin cycle; as there are always time constraints to this process. It’s important to prepare solidly and completely months before an audition. This will involve some research as well as dedicated practice.
Remember: This is your opportunity as well. So ask questions and find out and experience as much as you can about your chosen institution. Be confident, smile and enjoy the process as much as possible. Auditions can be interesting.
Below is a check list before the day.
Make sure any prerequisite assignments are completed and sent off.
Know the audition requirements thoroughly.
Is your program tailored to the Institution’s time limits or prerequisite pieces?
Dress appropriately – aim for neat and well presented.
Do you have all your gear, footstool, pieces, nail files etc.
Do you know which building/room you’re in?
Do you know how long it will take to get there? Be early, not late!
Below is free guide for pieces that I know work for most college auditions, or any audition generally, as they are of a certain quality and standard.Download