This project was supposed to be undertaken last April or May, when we were having Bass Trombone auditions in my orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic. In addition, I was preparing an audition of my own at the time. It would be a fairy tale ending if I had won my audition, and could then say that this is what works, but the reality is that like everyone else, I'm still working at this part of playing. My observations will have to be taken more as the observations of one player, rather than as the pronouncements of a master teacher.
Most people in "the know" will tell you that the things that eliminate most players at an orchestral audition are "sound, pitch and time." I would wholeheartedly agree with this. These elements are the foundation of good playing in any style of music, and no one on an audition committee wants to vote for anyone who doesn't live up to their standards in these three areas of playing.
Taking them one at a time, sound is the most difficult to give specific advice on. There will often be disagreement within an audition committee as to what is the best sound of the day, but there is seldom any conflict over what sounds are unacceptable. Unfocused and airy tones, as well as overly strident sounds will leave the committee unimpressed. Two areas tend to bring out the worst sounds of applicants – loud excerpts, and lyrical passages.
At our recent auditions in Calgary, several times there were applicants who were making a good overall impression only to overplay in a couple of the louder passages. It's a difficult balancing act, but you must always try to play fortissimo excerpts with some bravura, but without losing control. Remember that the volume that might work in the back of the orchestra with everybody "sawing away" might just not impress anyone when you're by yourself. Try to get a feel for the room as well. I had a personal experience of playing Ein Heldenleben in a first round once in a dead room, where an aggressive fortissimo seemed to work, but in the next round when it came up again in another room, I realized halfway through that I should have changed my approach. The other general advice that I would give to anyone for loud excerpts comes from Joe Alessi. Remember that good loud playing comes from good lyrical playing. Try to make sure that whatever volume you're playing at, that you're still playing music and not just notes.
Lyrical playing offers it's own challenges. A player without a good command of legato will not get far in auditions. No one wants to hire someone who doesn't show musicality at the audition, and the best place to catch the ear of the committee is with a legato tune.
On our auditions, I put the opening of the Vaughan-Williams Tuba Concerto second movement up first. I thought of it as a combination of a warm-up, and a chance to hear the applicants play a melody. I was surprised that many people were uncomfortable playing lyrically. One other surprise on this front was that several players sounded beautiful warming up on stage, but brought none of that artistry to the solo. Everyone needs to play lyrical tunes daily, and find as many opportunities as possible in your audition to present that skill. I would also say, that again, the dynamic that you might have to play in the orchestra might not be appropriate in the audition. Everyone wants to hear good contrast, but be careful to not play soft passages with airy, unfocused tones. In this balancing act, if you have captured their attention with a beautiful sound, they may even forgive you if your pianissimo isn't the softest of the day. Also, if they like what they hear overall, but are worried about the dynamic level, often the committee will ask you to play it again softer.
Pitch presents many problems for auditionees. The reality is that this is an area where all of us have to continually keep working. Many people have given advice in other articles about how to work at your intonation, and I will just echo their statements. Lots of playing with piano, with a tuner, in trombone quartets, trios, and duets will help a great deal. So will the practice of slow scales, particularly in "live" rooms. There are computer programs, and CD's that are also very valuable. Finally, on top of all of this, tape yourself regularly, especially while you are preparing for the audition.
One other area of intonation that often gets bypassed, is to listen to your tapes when you are preparing your audition for melodic vs. harmonic intonation. Most people will be familiar with the concept of lowering major thirds in triads when you're playing in a trombone section. This practice can make a chord "ring." It can, however, just sound flat when playing on your own. This needs to be studied on a "case by case" basis. For instance, in the Brahms First Symphony 4th movement, the high G that the first trombone plays in bar two of the chorale sounds better a little low as the third of the chord with the rest of the section, but not if you're playing that note alone as a melody. On the other hand, the Ride of the Valkyries outlines enough of a chord structure, particularly in a "live" room where even a single player may need to pay attention to where they place the major and minor thirds. As I said, this will be a "case by case" basis, so taping becomes invaluable as a way of really studying your own playing. Be aware that what works on your own may need to be adjusted in the finals if you play with the section. They will be looking for someone who fits in right away with how they play.
Rhythm is the last of these areas to tackle. Most of my comments about rhythm would echo what I've said about intonation. Taping yourself is one of the best ways to determine what's happening in this area. Work with a metronome is crucial. I would also suggest playing along with recordings, since this can make you comfortable with the individual pieces and tempos. Study the scores (a good practice in general for many other reasons too!) to have a good understanding of what's going on while you play those whole notes. I've found that at the best auditions I've played, I've had a sense of the orchestra playing along with me, in my head. The audition became almost a "Music Minus One" in reverse, where I could "hear" the orchestra, and the committee could only hear me. This approach helps to keep your time steady, and your tempos in the right "ballpark." As an alternative to tapping your foot, you might try lightly tapping the index finger of your left hand against your instrument while holding long notes, such as the whole notes in the William Tell Overture (another idea courtesy of Joe Alessi). Another other idea on this subject – often my time suffers when I'm running out of air. I would suggest carefully planning out breaths, and marking them in all of your excerpts. This practice alone could eliminate a lot of the occasions where rhythm becomes an issue. Lastly, try to find out if you are expected to count all rests or not. Usually, you will be expected to count the short rests (a bar or two) but not any longer ones, but a question to the backstage people at an audition about this might be in order. If there's some doubt (ie: three or four bars of rest) I would suggest counting it as carefully as you can.
None of my advice in this article is going to get you a job on its own. There is much more to being the successful candidate at an orchestral audition, and much of it is subjective from one occasion to another. Perhaps the best advice that I can give anyone, is to be the best musician that you can be. This includes, of course, having a good command of your instrument and all of the techniques that you need to play the required pieces. It also includes the good rhythm and intonation that I've talked about, as well as a good sound. With all of that, however, you will need a good understanding of the music that you are playing, including at least a basic understanding of the score. You will need to have knowledge of styles that are appropriate to different eras and geographical areas (ie: Classical vs. Romantic, and French vs. Germanic). But more than that, a great performance, whether at an audition, or in some other venue, will connect on an emotional level with what the composer is "saying", and will communicate that to the audience. People that accomplish this regularly are successful musicians in whatever endeavors they undertake. Good luck!
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Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra
James Scott can be heard on many recordings featuring the CPO
James Scott joined the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra as Principal Trombone in 1981. That same year, he joined the Faculty of Music at the University of Calgary. As an orchestral musician, he has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony, l'Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, and the National Ballet Orchestra. Jim has appeared as a soloist on several occasions with the CPO, and has also been a guest soloist with musical organizations around Calgary, and throughout North America. He also enjoys performing commercial music, and has been involved in musicals at the Grand and Theatre Calgary, and is a member of Prime Time Big Band.