Getting Ready for College Auditions

By Tom Ervin • December 01, 1996 • 7 min read

A trombone student requested advice on college auditions, and this was my advice. (Much of this could also apply to other auditions and tape producing, such as for regional competitions, all-state tryouts, graduate schools and summer camps.)

Practice more than you eat. Do this everyday or you will not be a real competitor.

The Audition Tape

Make a tape of your best playing. Do not cheat with many splices; the tape should be a true representation of your best work. It does not have to be done in a recital; a studio or living room would be fine. I recommend the tape over a live audition because you can fix a tape and make a better first impression. Leave nothing substandard on the tape, of course, and position your best material first.

There have been some good posts on the trombone listserv about making nearly professional tapes. Unless your equipment is very expensive this tape will not sound as good as you do live. It will, however, tell the listeners what they need to know about your rhythm, pitch and preparation. You need not spend the money on a studio tape unless you are sending it to be screened for the next New York Philharmonic audition.

What literature should you offer? This depends on the professor you hope to impress. For incoming freshmen I usually hear Voxman and other all-state etudes: Bordogni-Rochut, Blazhevich, etc. Accompanied solo literature is not required, but we auditioners are favorably impressed if the ensemble is excellent, both players play well, and the intonation between instruments is good.

Include orchestral excerpts only if you know "how they go." These are standard fare for orchestral auditions, of course, but I would advise students not to volunteer these parts if they are still unsure of them. Select the best material you can really play well, do not over-reach and crash. Show a variety of styles on a tape, being careful to keep it a reasonable length. Some years we might get thirty tapes to listen to! Twenty minutes should be sufficient.

In the works on this tape, utilize vibrato cautiously, and only if it is clean, tidy and gets compliments from your teacher. Some teachers, only a few, have very strong thoughts about vibrato (when to do it, how to do it). No teacher wants to hear vibrato that is irregular, uncontrolled and out of tune. Just be aware that ways exist to offend someone here.

Do not include duets, quartets, or other ensemble playing on your tape. You should be the only brass player on it. Even with a brass quintet, it's just too hard for the listener to make a fair judgment about your abilities.

This author does not mind jazz on an audition tape, if it is played well! Only a few high school aged trombonists play technically well enough to play jazz at an audition level. There are some professors that would look unfavorably upon jazz playing on an audition tape; know whom you're sending it to.

For most students it is not easy to make this tape. Give yourself time, start early, plan on many sessions to get selections "in the can." Then assemble the cassette master and make duplicates of it. Send the tape to the appropriate schools in plenty of time. November-January for a fall matriculation works best in my part of the USA (Arizona) We do most of our recruiting work and make scholarship awards in the spring. Those applicants who "have their act together" can get an early offer. Those who show up in April will most likely wait for leftovers on a list. That calendar may vary in other states so you must find out. It is appropriate to phone the professor two weeks after sending a tape to make sure that it was received safely.

It is wise to apply for admission to that school at that same time: early. Some schools will not consider tapes or at least will not offer scholarships to students who have not yet applied for admission. We have few awards to give. If, for instance, the high school grades are abysmal, much time is wasted by offering that student a scholarship that h/she are unable to accept.

How will your tape be judged? The same way you would judge it. On a good voice to the instrument, clear articulations, solid rhythm and nearly spotless intonation. Also control. No (unintended) smears or holes in the legato and accurate execution. Although dynamics and nuances maybe hard to record well, go for them.

The Live Audition

Obviously, be in shape, fit and ready to play the best that you have ever played. Deep breathing and self-talk will help your confidence. It is helpful to learn this, it is a valuable tool ignored by many.

Clean your instrument and mouthpiece beforehand. Wear clean, comfortable clothes. Males should wear a coat and tie only if they are comfortable in them. The same goes for ladies, be comfortable and look nice.

Be polite. Ask where you should empty your spit valve. If you prefer to stand, then stand. If you prefer to sit, then ask to sit. If you wish to adjust the stand, do so. Practice introducing yourself, make a good impression with your speech. Be careful to not talk to much at first. Simply get on with the playing and play well because the longer you delay, the harder it might become.

Bring in the music you would like to play and "knock their socks off", politely. (If you do not bring prepared music then the audition will begin with sight-reading.) The music should have been prepared for weeks or months. You should have recorded it often and played in "pretend auditions" repeatedly for your teacher, family and peers. Most likely, this first run-through will not be your "best take" of the music. Expect a stumble or two, and when they happen don't say "damn" or anything else, just keep playing.

Even if you do have prepared materials, you will probably be asked to sight-read. This entails honest sight-reading of music that you have never seen before. Practice doing this everyday between now and your audition (reading duets is good practice.)

After playing, be ready to answer questions. What would you ask a student? Where are they from, what school, what teacher(s) have they studied with, what methods and literature have they worked on, what plans do they have for a major field, what do their parents do, have they applied for admission, have they been admitted, why are they interested in this school, and more.

Then, do you have questions to ask? How often and long will my lessons be, what opportunities are there for financial aid, what are some the books you would suggest for me, how do I decide what classes to enroll in, and more. Ask the professor for a card with his/her phone number and email address so that you can follow up if needed. Be sure they have your name, phone number and e-mail address neatly printed on a card. This applied teacher is one of only a few teachers with whom you meet alone, weekly or so, for your entire college career at that school. Start immediately to build a good relationship with them.

A few thoughts on taking lessons

We have a deal, you and I. My job as your teacher is to show you everything I can about the instrument, the literature, the business, exercises, your own playing, etc... Your job is to prepare the assigned materials and then much more. Preparing the assigned material is less than half of your responsibility. You must practice a great number of things regularly, many of which you won't play in your lesson, if you wish to really develop into a fine player. Scales, arpeggios, sight-reading, power, flexibility, speed, long tones, high range, endurance, special exercises, plain technical work are all part or your ongoing development. Add focused listening, reading books, articles and journals. If or when the student does not practice diligently, the teacher may resent it and give less.

These auditions and good tapes are important, and the results may save you and your family many thousands of dollars. Give it your very best shot, be well prepared and then be optimistic. We also know that some days are better than others. If your audition does not go well, if you can really play much better than that, then you can certainly ask for another opportunity a few weeks later at the teacher's convenience. Good luck and best wishes.