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Audition Observations
Tom Gibson


I was recently afforded the unique opportunity to sit on an audition committee with my section-mates. In discussing the experience afterwards with some of the candidates, I came to realize that a majority of them were unaware of their musical and physical reactions on stage. For their benefit, and for all of us who plan on taking auditions in the future, I decided to document the experience in order to shed light on the matter. I truly believe that we can all gain from others' experiences.....good or bad.

Nothing contained herein is new or revolutionary. Many fine teachers have discussed these matters for a great many years. Nevertheless, it couldn't hurt to refresh these ideas and present them concisely and coherently. I originally posted this article on the Trombone-L and received overwhelming response. This indicates to me that maybe these ideas are not "old hat." In fact, some aspiring trombonists had not thought of these things before.

The Audition

A terrific group of candidates was present for the audition. The resumes were spectacular, with some of the best schools and teachers being represented. The committee was excited to hear the candidates play, and we had every expectation of hearing some truly stellar trombone-playing.

This bears repeating: we were very excited to hear these people play! None of us looked forward to hearing someone "crash and burn." Quite the contrary, in fact. We were ready to revel in some glorious trombone sounds, to delight in the intensity and passion of the performer, and to share in their joy at playing this most noble of instruments!

We were saddened, however, when none of the candidates "knocked our socks off." Most were quite clearly nervous, but what was more surprising was the apparent lack of proper preparation on their part.

Preparation

We had requested that seven excerpts to be prepared, along with a Bordogni etude and the David Concertino.

The prepared excerpts should be just that -- PREPARED. A chipped note or two (not many more than two, though) is forgivable if the rhythm, style, and articulation are on the money. Don't confuse musicality with bad rhythm. When playing a Rochut etude, for example, don't be so free with the time that all sense of meter is lost. "Middle of the road" interpretations are probably better suited for an audition. We can't tell whether you're being incredibly inspired or you can't count! Don't make us choose!

In preparing for the audition, your best ally will be your tape recorder. It will fix all the aforementioned ailments and then some! Get in the habit of leaving a tape recorder on all the time while practicing. Then, when you rest for a few moments, listen to what you've played. The dividends paid by this simple practice cannot be overstated!

Articulation

Tonguing is a brass player's "bread and butter." The committee was listening for a player with crisp, clean, "sound-up-front' attacks. Surprisingly, the vast majority of candidates had scattered and uncentered (almost "tubby") styles of tonguing. This prompted one committee member to wonder aloud whether the "bigger is better" craze that's running amok in our ranks is causing unforeseen problems.

Without exception, the finalists at our audition had big, round sounds. This was due in no small part to their huge mouthpieces (and probably WIDE open lead-pipes). On the big excerpts they were great (even though nobody played a big enough forte for our liking!).

However, on the more delicate and nimble excerpts which called for light, fast tonguing, all precision was lost. Perhaps this is not due to equipment, but rather a lack of concerted practice in this aspect of performance. I have my suspicions, though.

Equipment

I am fully aware of how personal this topic is to each of us. I will strive to make a few quick points here and leave the rest to the individual.

More than a few committee members commented on the sheer size of the equipment being used by the candidates. Almost without exception, these players had big, dark, beautiful sounds. What they appeared to lose, however, was endurance and accuracy in the upper register and a nimbleness and delicacy of the tongue.

play on surprisingly small equipment with no adverse effects to their tone. I have eaves-dropped on enough "shop-talk" to know that young players are looking for the biggest stuff they can find! For those blessed with a certain physique and a very strong embouchure, bigger can often be better.It was my opinion, and that of other committee members, that some of these players had gone too far towards "big" and couldn't control their horns. Most obviously, they couldn't tongue precisely or quickly enough without that "tubby" sound. Perhaps the hardest task for us, then, is to strike a balance. No single set-up will be ideal for all styles of music. We must find the equipment that best suits us individually. It must do enough things reasonably well without sacrificing timbre and tone quality. Maybe a rule of thumb could be "just big enough to do the job."

Sightreading

The last part of the audition process was sight-reading. We put up a rather fast march, a jazz ballad, and a bravura excerpt with some rhythmic challenges. What I noticed right away was the fact that on the fast scalar passages in the march, players had difficulty playing quickly and in tune. These should be done every day and adeptly handled when encountered in music. Recognizing scalar and triadic patterns and knowing them like the back of your hand is probably the best preparation for sight reading.

When it came time for the ballad, only one player really changed styles. The notes were pretty simple and the rhythm not too complex. We were wanting to hear a real stylistic change from all that had come before. Versatility and adaptability were the reasons for putting this excerpt on the stand. Perhaps a moment of thought before jumping in would have helped. I know the next time I encounter sight-reading on an audition I will think to myself (after quickly scanning the key signature, dynamics, etc.), "What are they hoping to hear on this one other than right notes and rhythms?".

The last excerpt revealed that sight-reading rhythms is indeed a tough task. Err on the side of caution and proceed slowly (within reason, of course!).They can always ask you to play it again a little bit faster. Sub-divide like crazy in your head! Again, this can be worked on every day of our playing lives -- make it a HABIT! Other than that, I suggest sight-reading a wide variety of stuff on a regular basis. Etude books, solos, transcriptions, anything and everything you can get your hands on! Libraries are great places to start, or ask your teacher to 'unload' some piles of music on you. It can be a lot of fun to fly through stacks of music at one sitting, not stopping to correct mistakes! Liberating, in fact!

Presentation: Play Like You Love It!

As I noted earlier, everybody was suffering from nerves on this day. There may be no more common experience than this for musicians. We have all been in the audition situation (some of us many times). From personal experience I know all about the "jitters" before what is perceived to be a pressure performance. Been there, hated that, and will probably be there again!

Remember, however, that the committee was rooting for these folks to play not just well, but GREAT! Just knowing this would have soothed many an auditionees' tattered nerves. It is easy to imagine the committee as adversary. Their voices, if heard at all, are so dead-pan and serious behind that screen. Even worse are the whispers and the seemingly hour-long silences between excerpts! We've all been there....

  • "What are they thinking?"
  • "Why don't they speak in a friendlier manner?"
  • "Play it again!? They wouldn't want to hear it again if they LIKED it (or me)!"
  • "Oh, they HATED it!"
  • "Obviously they don't like me. If they did, they'd be nicer."

It was enlightening to observe these thoughts physically manifest themselves in the performer.

I had the unique experience of being on the stage-side of the screen with the candidates; a front row seat, if you will. As is the case for the onstage person, I was instructed to say very little. This is done in the interest of fairness and to dispel any biases that may rear their very ugly heads. No one is shown any sort of preferential treatment or favoritism. We speak very matter-of-factly and concisely so as to show little or no emotion. Not because we don't like the auditionee!

In a few cases, I was nearly overwhelmed with the urge to offer some encouragement.

  • "Hey...they want to hear it again, that's a GOOD thing!"
  • "That chipped note meant NOTHING....forget it and move on!"
  • "Take a chance, really GO for this crescendo."
  • "Ah, yes, big and proud! Keep that going."
  • "Are we having FUN with this yet!?"

Do you like the trombone? If a Martian landed right here, would he report to his superiors that you were observed having fun? Or, would he say it appeared that you were wrestling a shiny serpent, and not enjoying it at all!?"

Why do You Play?

One committee member remarked that the auditionees seemed so tentative he was uncomfortable listening to them trying to avoid mistakes instead of trying to make music and have some fun with the audition.

Herein lies the secret! If we can focus on nothing but the music in front of us, we can turn this nervous energy to our advantage.

I was waiting for someone to step out on the stage and project the attitude that "here I am and I know how to play this thing! You're gonna LOVE this, just listen to me!" Instead, everyone was "tip-toeing" through the excerpts.

It is during these most stressful times that we should reflect on the basics: why do we love playing the trombone and how can we convey this love to others?

If our objective is to win the job at all costs then we probably are doomed to fail. If, however, we strive to make as much music as we can, we will undoubtably fare better. At the very least, we will have communicated something of great value to another human being. This is perhaps more important than "winning." From experience I know that when I get very nervous, this need to communicate is the first to be sacrificed, and my motivations have become a bit more selfish. (How will I be perceived by others...why must they judge me? All those goofy (and useless) thoughts brought on by the ego!!).

Think about why you play....what drew you to the trombone in the first place...and why you've pursued it with such devotion. Magically, these sentiments are heard coming out of your bell and a tangible energy is transmitted. People are drawn to this energy. It's infectious, contagious, and self-propelling. Being creatures of habit, we can practice this every time we pick up the horn! Strive to say something and convey some positive energy every time you play.

And the Winner is:

As you may have guessed, we were unable to hire any candidates at this audition. I personally agree wholeheartedly with those that say the audition process is flawed and often not indicative of a player's talent. We're stuck with it, though, until we think up a better way. For this reason, I hope that this article will be of some benefit to those embarking on the audition circuit. I welcome any comments and will address any questions at my e-mail address: TboneGib@aol.com


Tom Gibson has been a member of the Navy Band in Washington, DC since 1993. He earned a Bachelor of Music Degree at the University of Michigan and then a Master of Music from the University of Northern Colorado. Currently, he is completing a Doctor of Musical Arts at Catholic University. He has appeared as soloist with the Navy Band on more than 20 occasions, including two national tours. Recently, he premiered a Wind Ensemble arrangement of the Hindemith Sonata at the Eastern Trombone Workshop, where he was accompanied by the United States Army Band. Tom has a great interest in vintage and classic motorcycles. Presently he rides a 1984 BMW, soon to be equipped with sidecar!!!

Articles by Tom Gibson Other Performance Articles