Preparing for collegiate ensemble auditions

My first collegiate ensemble was in no conceivable way the best showing of my talents…

That summer I had been studying with an alumni of the flute studio I was joining. Unbeknownst to the both of us, the audition requirements had changed since her time out of school (which had only been 3 years at that time)…

The audition list for the semester called for Beethoven Leonore No. 3 overture, Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphosis, Brahms Symphony 4, Bizet Carmen Entr’acte, and the exposition to the Mozart Concerto in G.

The audition packet just included the PDFs of the excerpts, and no clear directions… at the time I decided to give the list directly to my teacher and work through it with her. During her time at the school, students could choose which excerpts to prepare – specific ones were not required (can you guess where things went horribly wrong?). I prepared Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet and Mozart.

When the day of the audition came, to my shock and dismay, I learned that the process had changed and that I was expected to play Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis…. which I did… poorly. And don’t even get me started on the sight-reading (I’ve repressed the memory). Here’s what I’ve learned since that scarring day…


I am going to separate this article into two sections: one for incoming college students and one for seasoned veterans looking to just do better in auditions. After looking at both demographics, I’ll give some suggestions for sending out virtual recordings since covid-19 has already began to change how auditions are being held. Let’s get started with the incoming students:

Tips for Incoming Students

  1. COMMUNICATE with the faculty and current students.
    • Ask for clarification – unsure about articulation? Markings? Tempos?
    • Learn more about auditions – how does the scoring work? Is there sight reading? How many rounds are there? Is there separate Fall and Spring semester auditions?
    • Nail down exactly what you need to prepare – and DOUBLE CHECK.
  2. Find recordings – be selective!
    • Just because it’s available on YouTube doesn’t automatically make it good or bad. Be an active listener and compare recordings. If you are completely unsure, you can always ask someone which one they prefer and use that as a starting point!
  3. Be aware of the audition day protocol.
    • Is it a blind audition? Should you dress up?
    • Who will be on the panel? (Area teachers? Ensemble directors? Mixed?)
    • Should the excerpts be memorized? Will there be sight reading?
    • Sign up for time slots? How early should you be prepared to go in?
  4. 2020 Video Auditions???
    • Determine if there will be a moderator and how the panel will be judging.
    • Dress up.
    • Don’t leave recording the audition to the last minute – you may not get a good take that reflects for playing.
    • Don’t worry about getting all excerpts in one take.
    • Be honest with yourself and listen back – if the judges can hit replay so can you.
  5. Record yourself.
    • Listen multiple times each for different qualities (rhythm, intonation, expression).
    • Be active, and write down or mark any mistakes.
    • Positive mindset, you can start to spiral if you get to critical – there are ways to correct yourself that aren’t negative. For example, instead of staying DON’T RUSH, you can say maintain a steady pulse or slow down. Both these alternatives are giving purposeful action and directing you to change.
  6. At the end of the day… a bad audition does not reflect your playing. Have a plan for the day following your audition. Treat yourself for all the work you put into preparing!

Tips for Returning Students

  1. DON’T WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE. The more you progress in your program you may start to shift towards a more comfortable bubble where auditions feel less stressful – that’s great – but that doesn’t mean that you will achieve your personal best if you skimp on preparing in advance.
    • As soon as the list is out, the LEAST you can do is compile a list of recordings to start sifting through. Listen to them and begin to separate quality recordings to study and listen to more intensely.
  2. Record yourself! The first day you get the audition list, record the excerpts (it will be nice when the audition is close to see how much progress you’ve really made).
    • And keep recording yourself throughout the preparation process. You don’t need to record every practice session, but you will benefit greatly by listening to yourself and breaking down the same criteria as the judges.
  3. Know what to listen for… Rhythm is FIRST. Intonation and tone is second. And musicality/expression is last.
  4. Find scores whether you buy them or find them on IMSLP or elsewhere.
    • woodwindexcerpts.com was a LIFE-SAVER during my undergraduate ensemble auditions!
    • Knowing the context of what your role is and what the rest of the ensemble is doing is ESSENTIAL to properly preparing.
  5. Practice slowly – you don’t need to have the goal tempo down a week after the audition repertoire is posted. Moderate-tempo, clean technique is better than fast, muddy technique.
    • Take half the tempo on the first read and see how comfortable it feels. Gradually bump it up until you reach a tempo range that it becomes challenging. Don’t be a champion, stay objective to see the best results!
  6. Have a consistent warm up and mental preparation for the audition day. You want to be focused and centered so that you can project that energy in the audition room.
    • There’s no ‘right’ warm up or preparation, figure out what will make you feel the most confident. And don’t forget to treat yourself after the audition.
  7. Prepare for sight reading… you don’t have to jump in blindly.
    • Know what the judges are looking for, most often, they are listening for: rhythm, pitch/tone, intonation, style/articulation, and musicality/dynamics/phrasing.
    • Practice sight reading – use other instrument’s (ie violin or oboe) repertoire and focus on the elements they judges will be listening for.
      • Rhythm: If they notes happen at the wrong time, they pitches have no chance at being correct. Get comfortable with as many rhythm variations as possible.
        • Once surefire way to do this is by practicing “rhythm-cells” which is just taking a single rhythm and repeating it over an over until you are comfortable.
        • Also, practice different meters – practice in duple, triplet, quadruple! Practice simple and compound meters! Even practice odd meters!!
      • Pitch/tone: Practice. Your. Scales. (and arpeggios and 7th chords) You won’t know what key or pattern the sight reading will be in, but if you are proficient in all your scales then you will be able to put more energy into rhythm, dynamics, etc rather than working about getting all the right fingers down in a key signature that has 5 flats.
      • Intonation: Know your tendencies. This should be an ongoing process, be aware what pitches tend sharp or flat and figure out how you should be adjusting (the answer is not always to pull out the head joint).

Tips for Recording

If you were a music student during the beginning of the pandemic, you may have already began to troubleshoot issues that arose last Spring. Issues like peaking audio, recording equipment, placement, framing, etc.

If you have a virtual audition coming up, FIRST figure out what type of audition you will be taking. Will it be asynchronous or will you actually be in a video conference? If it is asynchronous will the audition be blind (aka will there be a moderator to keep the auditions anonymous) or will the panel be watching the videos?

  1. Take a lesson with your primary teacher. And/or do a mock audition with your peers. This is a MUST, first it will provide you with an objective perspective – both with your actual playing as well as how well your playing translates through technology.
  2. Figure out if there are any technology issues in the case of blind auditions mainly audio issues. If your current equipment isn’t cutting it… your laptop or phone is just not getting good results. RESEARCH affordable and quality options. (As of writing this, the Zoom or Snowball microphones are the most accessible – the Zoom one can be plugged into a phone and the Snowball connects to a laptop with a USB).
  3. Experiment, how does moving the camera/microphone effect the sound quality? Move around the room and figure out where you get the best results.
  4. If the audition is going to be a conference or the panel will see you – practice getting comfortable in the space you will be recording/streaming.
    • Make sure the part of you the camera can see if presentable – dress to impress!
    • And make sure you feel free and just as capable in your playing as if you were on stage or in an actual audition room.
  5. If the audition is going to be asynchronous…
    • Figure out if the audition needs to be entirely one take or if you can do individual takes for each excerpt.
    • Communicate with a faculty member or moderator how the recording should be formatted…
      • Should it be in a specific order? Can you send multiple clips or one long clip? When and where should be clip be submitted?
    • If you need to make a long clip (compiling all the excerpts into one video) look into free, accessible movie editing software. For iOS devices, iMovie on either a phone/tablet/laptop can take less than 5 minutes to just put individual excerpts together and save to your camera roll.

What are you best audition preparation tips? Do you have any audition horror stories that you learned from? Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: