Blog

Let’s talk about percussion, drums and teaching!

How to prepare for a percussion audition

Timpani and percussion audition

A guide on how to pass an orchestral audition.

I’d like to write one, but unfortunately I’m not able to. The truth is that auditions have always been a nightmare for me and those that didn’t work out are far more than those where I’ve been selected. At most, I could write a guide on how not-to-pass an audition.

I’ve never considered myself a natural talent for this kind of exams and I just ended up not trying any longer. Look, I’d have carried on if I didn’t find my job at school or I didn’t decide to study other things. I’ve always liked playing in orchestras and I could any moment challenge myself again with other auditions.

Anyway, today I’ll tell you about my unlucky experiences during the auditions I sat, analyzing the main factors that influence the success of an orchestral audition. I think there are three factors, ordered by relevance as follows:

  1. the preparation process;
  2. luck – or bad luck, according to whether you want to see the glass half full or half empty;
  3. your own predisposition.

 

THE PREPARATION PROCESS

To pass an audition you need to study the pieces of the program well. And I can tell you more, you shouldn’t only study them well, but very well! Here we go, I think I’ve just given you a tip that you wouldn’t expect. But I’m a teacher. My job is giving suggestions.

Now, I’d like to tell you something sensible: prepare for an audition doesn’t only mean learning how to play perfectly all the “right notes at the right time”, which, however, would already make a big difference…

There are lots of other elements that are part of the preparation:

  • Being aware of the instruments you’ll use. If this isn’t written on the audition announcement, my suggestion is: pick the telephone and call. Get information about the brand and model of the instruments you’ll be playing with and ask whether it’s possible to use your own instruments (obviously, timpani and mallet percussion excluded). Percussion instruments models are so different between each other that knowing upfront which instrument you’ll be playing with, can be extremely helpful.

Real experience. 2011, audition for the Teatro Regio of Turin. Guilty passage: “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dukas on glockenspiel. I go there prepared, extremely prepared. I’m ready to play those damn bars after number 22. I have two – three pairs of sticks, which I can try according to the instrument and the acoustic that I’ll find.

I get to the room where the exam will take place and I can finally see it: a great glockenspiel….with a pedal! Here we go, I didn’t think about this. A pedal. I’m doomed.

What to do? Playing everything keeping the pedal down, as if that was a “normal” glockenspiel, like the one I used for my training in the Conservatory? Or trying to use the pedal, which would highlight every music phrase as if I was playing a piece for vibraphone?

These are the questions that I ask myself also when I’m playing the piece during my audition. And I mess up everything. Not selected.

But how could I think that I would have find a glockenspiel with a pedal? How many of you guys have ever had the chance of studying on a glockenspiel with a pedal? My mistake, I should have got more information. If I had known this before, I’d have done my best to get trained at least mentally on how to play on that kind of instrument. For example, I could have studied the same excerpt on a vibraphone. I could, I could, I could. Instead, I didn’t do it. C’est la vie.

 

  • Another element to get properly trained: knowing the piece. I explain it better. If the orchestra where you have your audition provides you with their excerpts in pdf, use those excerpts. Otherwise, you could face some sad unexpected moments. Here is another funny event that happened to me.

Year 2012, Verbier Festival Orchestra, Switzerland. Audition at the percussion department of the University of Geneve, which is a very cold city in winter, but really nice. The percussion department is great, somewhere in the basement, with lots of nice soundproof rooms full of instruments to study on. Anyway, a dream to someone like me, who has studied in the corridor of his Conservatory´s loo for years.

But let’s get back to us. Once again, I arrive to the audition extremely prepared, or else, this is what I thought. I try the snare drum, timpani, cymbals, xylophone. The xylophone…

The accused excerpt this time is the Stravinsky Firebird. I play it over and over again, I don’t make any single error during the rehearsal, or at least, this is what I believe. While I’m playing a French guy gets close to me and starts observing me.

As usual, when you start trying the instruments there are always lots of people and they are all there, queuing to try the instruments too. But this guy starts looking at me in a weird way. I start thinking that he may wants to distract me but I keep concentrated. I go over every single bar: all right. Ah! But at this point, the guy stops me and tells me two words in English, enough to freeze me: “no, wrong”.

…”Say what!?” I’ve spent three months studying this passage on the book where I’ve always studied it, the Probespiel. Mistake… the orchestra gave the excerpts in a pdf format, attached to the audition announcement, and I didn’t go over these excerpts paying enough attention to them. I thought that, beside the different layout, the actual notes and all the rest were exactly the same. Instead, it’s a shame that there are different versions of the Firebird and that the one asked at the audition was not identical to that in the Probespiel.

Not selected. Anyway, Geneve is a beautiful city, a bit cold in winter…

 

luck

GOOD LUCK – OR BAD LUCK

Luck is blind but bad luck can see very well.

Here is what happened to me. This time, it was 2011, Milan. Audition for the European Union Youth Orchestra. It’s the second time I try to get in, the first time I was selected “only” for the Italian Youth Orchestra.

I study for 3 months without playing basically anything else, just for the sake of focusing almost only on that audition program. This time there is no instrument or excerpt that I don’t perfectly know. Everything is under control.

The audition day comes, I really feel prepared, I studied everything and I feel able to win that audition against any other percussionist I’ll meet there. I get to the Rai (Italian Public Radio and TV broadcaster) palace where the exams will be held. I’ve the advantage that I already know this place and I think the instruments won’t be different from the previous year.

I get in, I know the other percussionists, I try the instruments, my moment arrives and… while I play the first bar for timpani I hear the snare of the snare drum which the percussionist before me had left up, I lose my concentration and I make some mistakes.

Result: not selected for the EUYO and again, selected for the Italian Youth Orchestra. Another half defeat for me.

Two take-home messages from this story:

  1. Always check before you start playing that every damn snare of every damn snare drum are down! (This in a 2-3 km distance from where the audition will take place!);
  2. shit happens.

Yeah, there’s nothing to do, shit happens. Damn… Unfortunately you can’t have everything under control and there’s always something that can go wrong. I couldn’t do anything with it, it was the snare’s fault, not my fault! You can’t think about everything.

It’s with these thoughts that I go to the station and take the return train to Padua, where I live. And I think: I am not suited to sit auditions.

 

YOUR PREDISPOSITION

I can’t make it. I really can’t make it. Or, I could even make it, if I try over and over again. But do I really want this?

These are the questions that obsess me while I go back home from the audition in Milan. Only just remembering the sound of that snare vibrating at every hit of my timpani still gives me a headache.

I’ve spent the last 3 months studying the pieces for that audition, I’ve stopped playing many things I liked, I’ve made exercises to keep concentrated and not shaking once playing that Bolero excerpt on the snare drum. I’ve played over and over the same few lines of every single excerpt going through the expression and the sound of every damn note.

And in the end a snare tricked me.

I’m not suited for these things. I want to play, I don’t want to spend any other single day studying an orchestra excerpt. I enjoy playing in an orchestra but I can’t lose any more time and money this way.

This is why I stopped. And I’ve never regretted it.

Now, I think that there are percussionists who are gifted with some sort of good predisposition to sit auditions. They are real war machines, able to get prepared in the best way, able to control their own emotions in the right time, able to carry on despite they keep losing. And above all, able to concentrate their study time only to the orchestral excerpts.

But I’m not at all like this. I can’t play relaxed when I’m asked to play only two lines at the time, my hands shake when I play the Bolero, I get discouraged when I keep not being selected, audition after audition.

Your predisposition counts, unfortunately.

 

PERSEVERE

I repeat this in case you’ve got a strange idea of the take-home message I wanted to give you with this post: if I didn’t find my current job, which I like and allows me to study and play what I prefer, I’d still be around the world, sitting auditions.

I’d even keep failing them probably, but I’m sure that, after trying again and again, at some point I’d manage to make it and find a stable job in an orchestra. My philosophy is: where there is a will, there is a way.

So if you think that an orchestral job is right for you, then you have to study, prepare and sit auditions. Again, again and again. Years will pass but eventually you’ll be employed in an orchestra. Lots of friends of mine, mentors, colleagues have chosen this path and they all made the grade or they’re doing their best to succeed.

As I wrote in the free report “9 Essential Tips for Percussionists” citing Coehlo “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” So you have to persevere, bite the bullet and fight. I tell you again: where there is a will, there is a way.

As regards the other percussionists who have chosen another path (like me), good luck to you too. In either case, keep on rockin’ in the free world, bye!

Question: what do you think are the main factors that influence the success of an orchestral audition? Do you have any stories to share with us about the auditions you tried? Leave a comment!

Did you enjoy this article?
Download this FREE Report
Enter your email to join my newsletter and dowload the FREE report "9 Essential Tips for Percussionists", a short collection of advices for your career as professional percussionist