Except That They Do. (But Aren’t a Reflection of Your Self-Worth.)
It’s audition season for many young students. A handful of students in my Pennsylvania and Georgia private studios have been auditioning for all-state ensembles, some quite successfully, some less so. With each audition report, each set of scores, each audition comment sheet that these students have received, I’ve had to take a different approach to present the same overall message, one that was not (EVER!) offered to me: Auditions. Do. Not. Matter.
The problem with my message is that it’s crap; of course auditions matter! Auditions are a target, and a missile (practicing) without a target is pointless. Winning an audition is the reward for practicing well and getting better. The problem with denying my message is that it can (and will) be damaging if not paired with students’ musical growth; students live and die with their audition results. As a teacher, I believe it is my duty to prepare my students to perform as well as possible in auditions, but my philosophy isn’t entirely about the end game, the audition. Instead, I try to focus on the journey, to learn “why.” Unfortunately, learning a great deal during the journey is sometimes not enough to win the audition. The Curtis Institute, after all, only accepts 3% of its applicants.
When I was in high school, my teachers were very (perhaps excessively) interested in the results of all-state (PMEA district/regional/state) auditions, so much so that little else was important, and as a consequence, I was practiced and was taught nothing but that which would be expected of me in the audition. In lessons and in my practice room, I worked exclusively on audition materials, be they solo works or orchestral excerpts. (I hadn't even played a minor scale before I arrived in my first college lesson!) When it came time to audition for college, I worked on those audition pieces (mind you, I hadn’t learned HOW to practice at this point, save rote repetition.), with special attention paid to what we - my teachers and I - thought audition panels would be interested in hearing. (“Do you think they’ll want me to play the development? No? Ok, I won’t worry about that…”) If I did poorly, I felt like a loser, like crap, and like I had failed. And that shoudln't happen. If you learned something - ANYTHING! - on the path to the audition, if you can say, “You know what, I got better!” then you’ve been successful, and the audition was worth it. That is what I try to convey to my students.
Two of the exceptional cellists in my Pennsylvania studio recently auditioned for the PMEA District 7 orchestra. This is the first of a three-stage audition for the Pennsylvania All-State Orchestra, which is, itself, a biannual audition for larger NAfME orchestras. Neither fared particularly well. Both have tremendous potential but took a different course of action on the journey to the audition. With one student, I - admittedly - didn’t put a huge amount of time into working on the audition material in lessons, instead choosing to talk about style and fingering selection in the myriad of pieces we had been working on. With the other student, the journey was more about learning how to learn music and how to practice that music, and less about the audition outcome. One student in my Georgia teaching studio eventually paid more attention to - I think - organizing practice and paying attention to technical aspects of cello playing, with special attention paid to the right arm, than to the results of the audition. (Spoiler: it went well!) It is my hope that all of my students learned quite a bit about their cello playing, what their own strengths and weaknesses are, and that they aren’t worried about what the results say about them as musicians and individuals.
And, for young students, this is why auditions don’t matter. While pressure and high expectations are generally good, a student’s self worth should not be (BETTER not be) tied directly to their audition results. In my pre-college education, my worth as a cellist was absolutely dependent upon my audition rank: “Place third in the first round? You better move to first or second in the next round. Place fifth in the second round? You’ve failed; those four cellists are better than you. Place first in the second round? Congratulations! You are the best (…at this time and place, based on the opinions of these two or three judges). Start practicing for the third round.”
Audition “success” and “failure” isn’t black and white. There is a vast gray area. My two PA students are, as I mentioned previously, exceptional players. They have different strengths and weaknesses that I make every effort to address in their lessons. One student has difficulty organizing and executing in the lesson/audition/performance what has been accomplished in the practice room, while the other must pay more attention to detail, making an effort to slow down and dive into the depths of the music rather than learning “only” the notes. Other students of mine, in Georgia and Pennsylvania both, are going to - eventually - rock all of their auditions and carry entire cello sections of their youth orchestras. In the meantime, I’m worried more about their musical and educational growth than the outcome of a few auditions.
In the process of preparing for their audition, each of my students made improvements and fought through some roadblocks that I - as a student their age, preparing for the exact same auditions, with the (silly) single-minded attention paid to my results - never would have encountered, mostly because they were never brought to my attention. As a teacher, I feel good knowing that the next time these students are faced with prepping etudes/audition/recital material they will be better prepared to accomplish the task. Because for these young students, the auditions themselves don’t matter.