How I Learned to Enjoy Festival Auditions + Improved My Scores
My favorite memories of middle and high school were all related to band. Hands down, the best experiences were performing in festival bands and orchestras - and not just because I got to miss a day of school! The pinnacle was performing in the Massachusetts All State Orchestra at Symphony Hall. I cried tears of joy while playing piccolo on Saint-Saëns' Bacchanale from Samson & Delilah. We also played Debussy's Fêtes from Trois Nocturnes, and it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard, and is still one of my favorites.
My auditioning career did not start off with a bang, however. It was pretty dreadful.
My first audition was for the regional band festival at the middle school level. Here are all the things I did not know going in:
- I knew I would be warming up in a room with other people, but didn't know I'd be hearing them flawlessly play everything I had to play.
- I didn't know that the girl who nailed her chromatic scale in one breath while warming up would be first chair. (I assumed everyone was as good as her - they weren't.)
- I didn't know that I should not be wearing jeans, a hoodie from PacSun, and bright red Vans sneakers on my feet. (After this, I found a pair of black dress pants, and decided to always wear a nice green top for auditions, because I heard that green makes people happy.)
- I didn't know about rhythm. I later went back to the piece I had learned after a few years of lessons, and when I played it while actually reading the rhythms, I realized that I had been playing the main theme all wrong.
- I knew I would get to choose one scale, and the judge would choose the other, but I didn't know she would choose one of the hardest ones.
I ended up getting the second-to-last chair in band, and the only thing I remember about the festival rehearsals was hearing the first flutist playing beautiful solos. (I'm pretty sure I just pretended to play at the entire festival, because I was so nervous.)
Thinking about it now, it is hilarious that I was intimidated to play in a middle school group. I was picked for a reason, even despite my terrible rhythms! They wanted me there, and it was okay to play.
After this, I gained confidence from my flute teacher and learned how to enjoy festival auditions. My scores improved each time I did it, and I enjoyed the festivals more and more.
If you ever feel nervous, someone will be there to tell you, "stop worrying, you'll be fine!" They'll probably also tell you to "just take some deep breaths." While this is well-meaning advice, it's not always intentional or specific enough to help.
I learned to play well under pressure once I replaced nervous thoughts with excitement and curiosity. Treat the entire experience as an opportunity to learn something. Curiosity asks questions like this:
- "I wonder if I can miss notes but still enjoy performing."
- "I wonder what it is like to play in a really hot/cold room!"
- "I wonder if I can enjoy each moment, including the mistakes."
Also say affirmative things to yourself, even if you don't believe it at first. It can be very effective in replacing nervous or negative thoughts:
- "They're going to be so impressed!"
- "I can't wait to show them how much I love this piece!"
- "I can't wait to play just like (insert favorite musician)!"
- "I hope I get to play after the best flutist here!"
Find freedom from nervous thoughts by twisting whatever you're nervous about into something that you hope will happen. You're outsmarting the nervous thoughts and staying one step ahead! (It sounds CRAZY to hope for all the things you don't want to happen, but this really works! It's all about perspective. Hoping for them will NOT make them happen. It WILL relieve you from feeling like you have no control over anxiety.)
- Don't repeat quick-read mode: When you first get the piece, avoid the temptation to read through at tempo over and over. Eventually, whatever we thought the first time, we end up repeating over and over until it is a habit, meaning we're ingraining our first impression of what the piece should sound like. Always learn first, then practice!
- Learn the rhythms first: Take the time to study the rhythms, saying or clapping with a metronome on. From my own experience, bad rhythms become a habit very quickly. Even if there is guidance to correct them, it can be difficult to hear the difference with less experience. Before you've heard the incorrect rhythms too many times, be sure to learn them.
- Practice the audition day: Ask older students and your band director for as many specifics as possible to envision what the day will be like. Not only is it necessary to practice the music and scales, it is immensely helpful to envision the audition day environment as well. Take yourself through a mock audition day at home, practicing how you'll warm up, then walking to the audition room, etc. Also, play for as many people as possible, especially people who make you feel nervous!
When looking back on my first audition, I can say now that it was okay to get it wrong. It was okay to be scared, but it wasn't necessary. I wasn't in danger. It takes courage to allow yourself to enjoy an experience despite feeling pressured and nervous, but it is a skill that translates to any other experience in life. Give yourself permission to enjoy - the judges will enjoy too!