How to Craft a Perfect Audition: Advice from the Colburn’s Community School of Performing Arts Dean and Faculty

Colburn faculty and staff share insights for auditions. Conductor of Advanced Orchestras Maxim Eshkenazy, pictured here, advises students to start prepping as early as possible.

Founded in 1950 as an open-enrollment school, Colburn’s Community School of Performing Arts has a rich history of building excellent arts education programs and striving to create a welcoming, open environment for our diverse student base.

Auditions are hard. They can feel impersonal, cold, and daunting. Whether you are a musician playing your hundredth audition that year or an elementary school cellist participating in chair placement, being critiqued, evaluated, and judged is no simple task. At the Community School of Performing Arts, auditions play a critical role in individual lesson and ensemble programs. The Community School desires for students to succeed in their auditions and not be intimidated. In this article, Community School staff and faculty give their advice to students about how to handle auditions and be able to play their best in any situation.

Faculty answers have been lightly edited for style, content, and clarity.

What Colburn faculty are looking for in an audition

At the Community School, program directors and faculty use auditions to determine placement for ensemble, recital, and individual lessons. Because the Community School accepts students of all levels and experiences, auditions are crucial in placing students in an ensemble or program where they can flourish.

I look for personality, beautiful sound, and great musical ideas. It is important to show confidence and good technical skill. Henry Gronnier is the String Department Chair at the Community School of Performing Arts. He oversees all new string student placements.
Having solid fundamentals and an ability to play the instrument well is paramount. Next is the importance of knowing, and having a definitive opinion on, how the piece should sound. Mike Zonshine is a trumpet teacher at the Community School. He is also one of the brass chamber coaches as part of the Ed and Mari Edelman Chamber Music Institute.
Preparation, knowing the score, and playing in tune! Tune your instrument properly. Gina Coletti is Chair of the Ed and Mari Edelman Chamber Music Institute and teaches viola at both the Community School and the Music Academy.

As Henry, Mike, and Gina stated, faculty look for a well-rounded musician with a clear idea of musicality and strong fundamentals. This is easy in theory but more difficult in practice. How do students achieve this?

Preparation for the audition

To have a great audition, preparation is key. Students must find out the requirements of the audition and studiously practice every element.

Maxim Eshkenazy, conductor of the Advanced Orchestra programs at the Community School of Performing Arts, is clear about his recommendation about practice and being familiar with the material. He says, “Start prepping as early as possible. Make sure you have up-to-date info on excerpts. Play the entire audition repertoire for as many friends and teachers as you can.”

Along with starting early, students must practice all of the required materials. Henry Gronnier cautions students who only practice lopsidedly or who expect the panel to only listen to the beginning. He says, “Be ready to play your entire repertoire. I have seen too many times students that only knew the first page of their pieces and after that, they fall apart.” Even for more experienced musicians, careful and thorough practice is necessary.

Performance anxiety and nerves

Well-rounded skills for a student’s experience level and dutiful preparation are clear requirements to present a successful audition. However, what if students struggle with stage fright or performance anxiety? Students who battle performance anxiety are not alone, and should not feel embarrassed or ashamed. It’s a major part of many musicians’ experiences. At the Community School, auditions are not meant to scare students. The audition serves as a way of our faculty getting to know the student and their abilities.

However, many students will still encounter stage fright. Faculty were asked how students should deal with nerves and performance anxiety. Voice teacher and baritone Michael Chipman recommends that students “meditate before an audition. Channel nerves into focused energy.” Chamber Department Chair Gina Coletti says simply, “Breathe! We want to hear you play your best!” Brass teacher Michael Zonshine echoes their sentiments. “Breathe. We can work on some techniques to performance anxiety but the breath is the first step.” The simple biological mechanism of breathing helps students to calm themselves and sets the stage for an excellent performance.

As someone with over 30 years of teaching, performance, and arts administrative experience and who adjudicates many Community School auditions including the Honors Recital audition, Dean Susan Cook understands this issue and gives her advice about how students should deal with performance anxiety:

I would recommend being over-prepared. If someone is nervous about memory slips, I would recommend writing down the music by memory—if one can write it by memory one would have it learned very well!”

Mistakes to avoid when auditioning

When auditioning, students must prepare correctly, perform beautifully, and present themselves well. But what mistakes should they avoid?

Most importantly, not auditioning is the biggest mistake. Students who choose not to audition out of fear or nerves will definitely receive a “no.” The Community School encourages students of all experiences to take a leap of faith and audition.

For other errors to avoid, the faculty have clear ideas of mistakes to steer clear of when auditioning. Students must pick appropriate repertoire. For auditions where students select music, String Department Chair Henry Gronnier states, “Students have tendencies to choose repertoire that is far too difficult for them. It is better to present a less difficult piece that you can master.”

Voice teacher Michael Chipman is adamant that students not be apologetic. Students should not be ashamed of what they present. If students are sick or make a mistake, they should act like professionals and not bring notice to their supposed errors.

How can students know if the audition went well?

After a student prepares the excerpts and repertoire, breathes to calm their nerves, and plays their audition, how can they know if it went well? In short, students cannot know. Their responsibility is to prepare and audition with excellence; the rest is out of their hands. Chamber Department Chair Gina Coletti highlights the futility of trying to interpret the outcome of an audition.

For my Juilliard audition, I was very nervous. I had played two of the three required pieces when the head of the jury asked if the others wanted to hear my third piece. A very curmudgeonly faculty member blurted out, ‘I’ve heard enough!’ and I nearly crumpled to the floor. Thankfully, someone said they wanted to hear my final piece. After collecting myself and taking a very deep breath, I figured there was nothing to lose now, so I just played. I got my MM from Juilliard two years later! So, you never know. Just play and don’t worry so much.”

At Colburn’s Community School of Performing Arts, faculty and staff want current and prospective students to audition with confidence. They want students to exhibit their musicality and talent. In order for this to happen, students must be sure of their abilities and their audition. Community School Dean Cook sums this up beautifully: “If one has doubts in their mind, it’s quite likely they will come to fruition during an audition. Be confident and believe in yourself.”

Why auditions are important

Auditions allow faculty to get to know students and their abilities. Students must prepare diligently and early because faculty are looking for polished performances and carefully practiced repertoire.

Understanding how to audition might seem like a skill set with narrow application outside of the performing arts world. Not all students at the Community School will pursue professional careers in the arts. However, auditioning is a proxy for presenting themselves to the world. Understanding how to take criticism, deal with pressure, and step out of their comfort zone will benefit students in academic, personal, and career areas of life.

Colburn’s Community School of Performing Arts seeks to train musicians and artists and provide the highest quality arts education possible. For students tentative about auditioning at Colburn or anywhere else, be fearless and take the first step. Yes, auditions can be difficult, but they also represent a gateway into a bright musical world.

I am interested in auditioning for the Community School. How do I start that process?

Individual Lessons: Submit an inquiry form. The department chair will follow up with you and determine a teacher that will fit you best. For strings and piano, auditions will be held in January.

Band, Chamber, and Orchestra: Submit an inquiry form. Information about the audition dates will be sent to you. Select instruments for orchestra and band will be auditioned in December and January. All other auditions will be held in May and June.

Suzuki Cello and Violin: For students ages 4–6, submit an inquiry form before January 15 to be included in the Fall 2020 process.

Choir: Auditions will be held on January 11. Submit an inquiry form and the choir director will contact you to schedule an audition.