Trend Trap

Having a guarantee of anything creates a certain confidence within us, whether it be a positive or negative prediction. However, there are certain guarantees that are created through less concrete means of justification and corroboration, and can be proven wrong either through the test of time, further research, etc. In short, not every guarantee is an absolute truth, and testing them does well for coming up with our own decisions on what is, and is not, a certainty. Making a decision on what to believe, and also how to act on that belief, is directly related to the confidence and faith we have in that belief. 

I often tell students, "there are traditions, there are trends, and then there's you," and I thought of this saying for a couple of reasons. In music there are many "established traditions," and knowing what they are, and when they occur, shows maturity and a sense of experience in your overall performance. "Performance practice" versus "playing what's on the page", "solo" versus "with a group", "piano accompaniment" versus "orchestral", etc. These types of interpretations and playing styles may not be "absolute," but constant observance of those traditions validates them over time. In a sense, these occurrences of traditional practices in music are our version of an "absolute." If you don't observe the traditions, it will sound like you don't know the piece well enough, you're not playing the piece at all, or you're not doing what the composer intended, etc. 

There's a distinct feeling of stability when you have a firm belief in something. However, in a career where nothing is guaranteed, searching for stability can be a tough and seemingly impossible task, especially on the road to achieving our dreams and goals. As far as auditioning goes, we all may know what the most standard, obscure and rare excerpts are for our instrument, as well as how they are traditionally performed. However, one thing that can change with those pieces over time are the trends. From a percussionist's view, I remember when bringing two drums was "the big deal" in school, and after a couple months, every audition I went to had people following that trend. There were also performance trends, where people would mute certain notes on a glockenspiel for a chordal outlining, or change tuning on drums based on sections in the piece (Bartok Concerto for Orchestra for instance). Needless to say, there are a lot of trendy things to do in any audition, but should we really copy and paste them in our preparation?

It depends. Many of you probably do this already, but research and test every trend. If it serves the piece, great! If it's logical, triple check to see if it makes musical sense, and vice versa. If it's too out there and niche, you probably shouldn't do it. If it's too unnoticeable, you probably could still do it, as long as it doesn't negatively effect anything else (there may be a way to safely emphasize it more). Is it gimmicky? Then it might sound that way. Is it flexible or rigid? Better to be flexible, just in case the panel asks for something specific. Questions like these are always on my mind as I decide what to put into my interpretations and performances, and I try my best to avoid trends, if I can help it, for one big reason. 

In the few auditions I've done I've come to a couple of conclusions, one of them being, "finding a way to stand out, without trying to." I always assume that everyone going to the audition will know the pieces, know the traditions, know the trends of the day, and can execute them, as well as I do. That is my "guarantee" and that influences my preparation. How? I allow my intuition to guide my final decisions on the performance practice, instead of relying solely on personal knowledge and study. This led to my second conclusion: even if two people decide to play the same phrasing, dynamics, instrument choice, or any and every variable exactly being the same, both performers will sound different. Why? I think it's because their personalities are also being showcased in the audition, so why not use that to your advantage? Why not sell what makes you unique? Looking for trends may in fact be the thing that overshadows your own character, as well as keep you stagnant and stunt your own personal growth. But searching for your own ideas inspires creativity, ingenuity, exploration and courage to go into the unknown, forcing you to invent your own ideas rather than primarily looking to the trends of the day for the answers.

To this day, I have not brought a second drum to an audition, but that has neither been a hindrance nor a progressive variable in my opinion. People have won jobs with four drums, one drum, two drums, one and a quarter, but these separate occasions don't guarantee success if they are mimicked. Having "go to" methods for playing in an audition is a good and reassuring commodity, especially when the prep time is short, but total dependence on an established method could also be the one thing that holds you back from success. Adaptation, evolution, discovery, constantly working and growing, even in small steps, those are what brings you from advancing in one round, to two to three (and occasionally super finals), to winning, to tenure, to endless progression. Why stop your progress at what worked in the past? Continue to improve past your best.  

I say all of this because of my own personal fear of stagnation. I hated playing the same excerpts the same way over and over and over and over and over and over again. Yes, repetition is required when preparing for auditions, but I firmly believe that you can afford to change things up a bit during the prep time. Perhaps nothing too drastic, but maybe the phrasing can be a little more exaggerated the next time. Maybe you can play more clear, or bring out the articulations more. Maybe play the excerpt at 121 instead of 120. What remains stable are the traditions, the appropriate phrasing, musical content, etc, but within all of that information lies gray areas that can be explored to no end. How we interact with those areas is what makes us individual musicians. Step into the unknowns and don't be trapped by the trends. They may be enticing, accurate and valid, but they could be a Venus fly trap, eating away and killing our own musicianship and individuality. Do the research, trust your instincts and put your musical fingerprint on that sheet music.