It’s that time of year when the weather starts to get cooler, the leaves begin to change colors, and my students prepare for All-District and All-State. Like every District and State audition I’ve ever experienced, the music is challenging and preparation time is limited. Not to mention, Missouri All-State auditions are extremely well-rounded and require students to audition on each percussion area (Snare, Mallets, Timpani, and Auxiliary Percussion). For those auditioning for the first time, it’s a lot to process. However, it is not impossible. The following are some tips to help prepare:
Organize your time and make a routine.
School has just started. You’re probably in marching band. You probably have lots of homework. You’re probably working a part-time job. Do what you have to do to organize your time. Get a calendar. Mark the audition dates. Figure out a time each day to practice, even if it’s only 30 minutes. If you can, schedule lessons with a private teacher. Ask the band directors when is best to stay after school and practice. Create a plan and execute it.
Understand the scope of the whole piece.
When you first pick up the music, immediately score study. Check key signatures, mark key changes, time changes, odd rhythms, unusual melodic passages, etc. Mark them in a way that reminds you later to evaluate them closer. Most importantly, figure out the form. Your opinion on this may change after a few days learning the piece. But mark sections as fast or slow, “notey” or improvisatory, loud and soft, etc. It’s good to have a tentative plan.
If you can, supplement your score study by playing through all of it. Stop if needed. Take it painfully slow if needed. The goal is to get through the whole piece and size it up. Playing through the whole piece reveals stickings and awkward passages that were unobservable with score study. Also, reading through all the music proves that you can play it. All you have to do is learn the music.
Break the piece down into small chunks of one to two measures. Learn these chunks. Find similar chunks. Put small chunks together and play through those two chunks as a larger chunk, usually four to eight measures. Put these larger chunks together and practice this section. Pretty soon, you’ll put the pieces together and find yourself playing through the whole piece.
Difficult passages? Make it an exercise.
Every piece has difficult passages. Sometimes it’s a weird sticking, sometimes it’s really fast notes, or sometimes it’s a difficult rhythm. Best way to practice this difficult passage is to include it in your warm-up. Take this one small chunk and put it with a metronome. Take it really slow and build it up. Challenge yourself to play it every day so it no longer seems difficult. Don’t forget, play this passage in context. Know how this difficult passage fits in with the music.
Take a look at measure 5 in Figure 3. In context, this one measure is fast and quiet. Alternate between a single stroke exercise and measure 5, gradually working up to performance tempo (which, for this etude, is eighth note at metronome marking 132). Then put this in context by playing measures 4 and 5.
Always refer back to the score!
Memorizing is a good thing. However, memory is not always perfect. Often times, I find students have learned a passage wrong because they memorized it incorrectly. Always refer back to the score, even if you think you know the music. Make sure every note and every rhythm is correct. Do it in every practice session.
Limited practice time on the instruments?
Not everyone has the instruments at home. And time can be limited at school to practice. Best thing to do is learn the music away from the instrument as much as possible. Learn the rhythms and sing the notes. Find four surfaces and play the timpani rhythms. Air play the multi-percussion piece. Play the mallet etude on the floor, imagining how every note sounds. That way, when you finally get the time to practice on the actual instrument, all you have to do is fit the music to the instrument.
Don’t forget rudiments and scales!
Many young percussionists fall into this trap. They get caught up in the most difficult All-District solo and neglect their scales and rudiments. Each state handles these a little differently. For Missouri, assigned rudiments are listed with the corresponding set to the school year:
The most efficient way to handle scales is to provide a scale sheet, indicating a specific scale rhythm, required major and minor scales, etc. Click here for an example of Missouri’s All-State Mallet scale sheet.
Scales and/or rudiments should be one of the first things you play in your daily practice routine. It only takes a few minutes to go through your scales or rudiments and they are excellent warm-ups.
Most of all, relax!
While they are the most effective way to assign students to honor bands, auditions are ultimately designed to challenge you. Manage your time. Push your limits. Learn new and difficult music. Improve your technique. Learn from your mistakes. Put in the effort. Regardless of audition results, becoming a better musician is the most rewarding part of the entire experience.