The Trumpet Audition

It would seem that my blog became unusually busy yesterday. Not that it isn’t popular or that I am normally disappointed with the ratings and ‘stats.’ I posted the cartoon below by Gary Larson. It is one of my favourites of his, actually. Having posted it, along with the blog title ‘The Trumpet Audition’, my site was besieged by aspiring young trumpeters, all expecting to find the secret of how to do a successful audition. Feeling rather guilty and to avoid causing any further disappointment, I have decided to bow to significant pressure and post my thoughts on auditioning for trumpet vacancies in orchestras.

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Occasionally, I do post the odd trumpet related matter, especially when something particular is on my mind, or when a few students are asking similar questions. Among my reasons for reluctance in posting about how to do this or that are not because I do not know or am unsure about what to say. My thinking is that people will misinterpret my stated views or the students reading them will find themselves in disagreement with their current teachers, etc. However These concepts work for me and if people want to try exploring different routes, that is ALSO fine by me.

AUDITION = 10 MINUTES TO CONVINCE A PANEL THAT THEY CAN’T DO WITHOUT YOU!

That is what the word ‘audition‘ means to me, in reality.

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In order to arrive at a position to hold auditions, the vacancy must first be advertised all over the world. Candidates will be expected to apply before the deadline and a ‘shortlist’ will be drawn up by the panel, from what look like suitable players. The  last vacancy in the RLPO trumpet section attracted a ‘shortlist’ of three full days!

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What the audition consists of

Usually, the audition will consist of three parts…

1) The candidate will play a piece, or two pieces of solo repertoire. Quite often, the work is set by the panel, so that all the candidates can be heard playing the same piece. Sometimes there is one set piece and the candidate may then be allowed to choose a second piece. Sometimes, the choice of piece or pieces is left entirely up to the choice of the candidate. It is very rare that the whole piece will be heard. Auditions tend to last ten to fifteen minutes. Our own second trumpet auditions, several years ago, had three oversubscribed days just for the first round, so time tends to be short. Usually, there will be an accompanist provided. The candidate will be allowed a run through shortly before the audition. Some candidates prefer to bring their own pianist (I have never heard of this not being allowed). Some auditions do not provide a pianist. This can be for several reasons, not least that the room does not have a piano. The Haydn Trumpet Concerto 1st movement, on the B flat trumpet is one of the more popular choices for a set audition work.

2) Excerpts of trumpet parts from the general orchestral repertoire which the candidates have been asked to prepare beforehand. Sometimes the actual excerpts to be displayed are sent in the post, sometimes the candidate will just receive a list of works to be studied. Occasionally, some music is given to the candidate just a few minutes before the audition (Sometimes, players in orchestras are expected to play something with absolutely no notice, whatsover). There is no guarantee that the panel will ask the candidate to play the whole list. Sometimes a small selection is all that it is necessary to hear. The excerpts will be varied in style and will show differing techniques and mastery of control over the whole possibilities of the trumpet. Sometimes a member of the panel may ask for one or more of the excerpts to be presented a second time, with a request to perform the music differently. This may have no negative bearing on the players standards, but may simply be to see if the candidate can adapt. After all, conductors ask for this all the time.

Orchestral excerpt books and accompanying CDs are readily available

Orchestral excerpt books and accompanying CDs are readily available

3) Sight reading! The music will be ‘thrown’ at the candidate with no prior notice. This section is hard to define on paper because there are no rules – anything goes. Usually the music will be standard fare from the orchestral repertoire. However, there may be a ‘good test’ in an unusual piece the orchestra are currently performing. There may be a tough extract from a brand new piece or an extract from an unusual piece the orchestra has had to perform in the past. Quite often, there is no section two at all. The candidates will play their piece, then be expected to play orchestral repertoire, having been given no notice of which repertoire to expect. Sight reading, transposition, knowledge and experience will be tested in this category.

Sometimes the audition process can take on different forms. In France, there can be four rounds, over two days. A little like a solo competition. The first three rounds consist of all the candidates playing a different set work for each of the three rounds. The list of candidates is shortened after each round. The fourth round will have the set orchestral excerpts and, after which, a winner is declared. This champion will then start the job with a year’s probation. After the UK fashion, listed in 1,2&3, the successful candidate, or candidates, will be offered periods of trial work in the section to see if they are good enough for the post. Eventually, (hopefully!) these are whittled down into one candidate, who will be offered the job. Once again, with a cautious probationary period! Some auditions are held behind screens and some are in an open room.

What the candidate wants

The candidate for an orchestral audition will have been learning and honing his skills on the trumpet for about fifteen to twenty years, on average. Normally, the applicants will be graduates of major international conservatoires and those already working as professionals but without a permanent position, as yet. The candidate wants to turn his love of music and his technical prowess into paid employment. It is worth mentioning that opportunities for full time jobs like mine are all too rare. There are thousands more candidates for good jobs than there are vacancies. However, I remember being a young aspiring player and I have earned a good income playing the trumpet for over a quarter of a century. I have loved every minute of it, too. Therefore, I am never going to discourage anyone else from attempting to do the same, only give the best advice I can as to the best way forward. The candidate wants the panel to be so impressed by the ten minute display that a contract for full employment will be given as a reward for all those years of hard study. Sometimes, the applicant may be deemed unsuccessful for the full time vacancy but will be placed on the extra list and used subsequently by the orchestra as an occassional or regular freelancer. Thereby adding to his portfolio of income strands. The trumpeter in the audition wants to earn a living, doing something he enjoys!

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What the panel wants

First of all, when a vacancy arises, in an orchestra, I like to put myself in the position of the panel. Since I have not had to do an audition for the best part of twenty years, my more recent area of expertise has been sat across the other side of the room as a member of plenty of audition panels. The panel is there to find someone suitable to do the job which is vacant. I have never been a member of a panel that wants people to play badly or fail. Every panel wants you to play well. They want to find a new member of their section, after all.

The demands placed on a member of an orchestra are considerable. The expectation is that the successful candidate will be able to play at the top of their game, in any given repertoire, for years to come. For this reason, auditions are very tough and the tests that are set for the applicants are very rigorous. The panel wants a strong player who has a great sound. The production must be immaculate; the range must be there; all the varying dynamics must be evident and under control; suppleness will be tested; command of intervals; lyricism; sustained playing; multiple tonging… All aspects of trumpet technique, in fact. The candidate must remember the prime prerequisite expect by any panel, anywhere in the world, is that the performer must make great music. After all, the orchestra has not advertised for a machine. They want a brilliant musician. The candidates will do themselves no harm if they are smartly dressed, polite and carry a quiet air of efficiency about them. Going back on a point made slightly earlier, it is not necessarily the best technical player who gets the job. It is only necessary to play so loud, or to triple tongue so fast etc. The panel will be looking for an efficient player, who competes well in all categories technically. If no candidate were to fulfil all these requirements (this often happens), the orchestra will not hire the nearest failure. The job will remain vacant and the selection process will begin again, from scratch!

Preparation

Some may consider my next point a little controversial. Have been on quite a few panels and having spoken to a lot of other panel members, the main issue is not that we have to decide between hundreds of great players. It is not usually hard to pick out the relative few who are put forward to the next round etc It is certainly true that there are a lot of good technical, and musical, trumpeters out there doing auditions but there are generally an obvious few who are chosen to go forward. These same few seem to do well in all the auditions around and are soon snapped up to fill the vacancies.

Why is this?

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It comes down to preparation. I defy any aspiring trumpeter to sight read the symphonic repertoire. I just don’t think it can be done. The repertoire is just so vast and so damned hard! Most auditions are fairly similar, up to a point, so the more you do, the easier they tend to get. Auditions are so hard to win that conservatoires now include regular audition competitions as part of the study courses. There are any amount of trumpet orchestral repertoire books available now. There are thousands of free complete orchestral trumpet parts available on the on-line Petrucci music library resource. I tell every student I have going in for an audition that it is not enough to know the notes of the excerpts. They should know the whole piece backwards. They should know the other trumpet parts, complete. Even then, it is not enough to know the notes, they must know the music, intimately. With the availability of iTunes and Spotify it is possible to listen to many differing recordings of the canonic orchestral repertoire cheaply or indeed freely. There are often free scores available in stock or to order through the public library system, too. It has never been easier for the candidates to prepare and hone everything.

It rather goes without saying that the solo work for the audition should be as perfect as possible. I have heard candidates, good players too, who simply didn’t even know all the correct notes, in the audition! This is, of course, considered unacceptable. It seems that everyone has a smart phone these days. It is so easy to record your audition repertoire in the comfort of your own practice room on a regular basis, leading up to the audition. Digital recording doesn’t lie, and will tell you exactly what standard your preparation has got you up to. By recording yourself, you can be your own private audition panel. Listen carefully to every nuance and improve it, every day. In the audition, it is possible to very quickly tell those candidates who have gone the extra mile, burning the midnight oil, to prepare as thoroughly as they can. Start your preparation early: as far in advance of the audition date as possible.

Experience

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It is sometimes obvious which candidates have more experience. By this, I don’t mean they are older, but those individuals who have done a lot of orchestral playing already and who really know how the repertoire goes in performance situations. They know where there is a slowing down or speeding up in the music, etc. Students should take every opportunity to perform repertoire with amateur, semi-pro and youth orchestras to get used to running through these pieces as much as possible. Don’t just lock yourselves away in a private practice room doing technique and pedal tones etc. Of course, it is important to be in good shape for an audition, but technical wizardry is perhaps less important than many students realise. It is knowing how everything goes that appears to impress the panels I have been a member of.

Performance Anxiety

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Performance anxiety is a killer and it is here that I find it more difficult to mete out advice. I don’t think that there is any simple answer and many fine players are crippled by nerves in an audition scenario. It is so easy to say ‘believe in yourself’ or ‘don’t worry it is only music.’ I have personally suffered from this and some auditions would have been so much better if I had been better able to control nerves in an audition. It is a real shame for some candidates. Sometimes the nerves can be conquered and sometimes candidates fail. Very cruel!

I think the best advice is to adhere to what has already been said above. Some study of some breathing and relaxation techniques may benefit those who tend to feel nervous in performance situations. Avoid caffeine drinks and alcohol for a couple of days beforehand and try to be in good physical shape generally, as well as being in shape on the trumpet. I have heard of some even visiting sports psychologist types for confidence building sessions and to develop techniques of channeling nerves into positive energy.

On The Day

Personally, I am a little fussy ‘on the day’, when I do an audition. It is as well not to be too reliant on routine. Sometimes sheer logistics mean there is not too much time for a warm-up, or no room for one, either. I do like to get to the venue fairly early, making sure not to over eat or have too many black coffees. If I can warm up, I do, but prefer to leave the practice room under exercised. There is nothing worse than doing weeks of great preparation, only to leave your good chops in the practice room beforehand.

I hope these points help some to go on to audition success. I think all the above is pure common sense. Mind you, the great John Wilbraham used to say, “… Yes, well, Brendan; you can practice all your tonguing, all your slurs and scales, but you can’t take into account playing like a ****!” This is, of course, very true, but you can certainly improve your chances of doing well by following the above guidelines, too!

GOOD LUCK!

CLICK HERE FOR MORE THOUGHTS ON TRUMPET PRACTICE

About brendanball

Professional Trumpeter: Soloist, Orchestra Player, Chamber Music, Contemporary Music & Education.
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