Playing Yourself

At the end of the day, we all are going to do our best to bring out the music, from the page to the ears of the audience, but it does not guarantee a win. My personality might not be a fit for a certain orchestra, but the only way the panel will know that is if I put my personality on the table. My friends know when I'm practicing xylophone because they hear "ME," not just the exercises. That includes my sound concept, my character, my phrase tendencies, etc. All of that should be brought out in our excerpts. What's our concept of a Shostakovich sound and a Stravinsky sound? How do we make that distinction?

As auditioning musicians, there's a lot that we all have in common going into any audition. We get the same music, listen to the same pieces, hear the traditional and trending phrasings, play the same rounds, etc. But what sets us all apart? Maybe it's the tempos we choose, or the phrasings that we make. Maybe it's the instrument's color or overall sound, warmer or brighter than others in the round. But what wins over a judge? Maybe it's a person's impeccable time or intonation, or the fact that they missed less notes than everyone else. I would like to believe that it's something else.

We have to perform as well as we can, playing in tune, and in time, and this will do well for us in the first round. But in the semis, in my opinion, just doing those things might not be enough, and certainly the finals will demand that special "something." The first instinct is to play the music. Well, if we're playing the page, and the phrasings (what's not on the page), isn't that the music? Well, yes, but no. I've spoken to my mentors and colleagues about this a lot. It's very frustrating to know that you can play everything perfect and still be cut. It's even more frustrating to know that you can basically play the music, and still get cut as well. So what is that "it" factor?

Welp, two things. One, of course, musicality and playing the music is definitely the key to advancing and even winning in any audition, but (two) the musicianship of the candidate (Their Personality) is what entices the panel. Every orchestra has a different feel, atmosphere, etc., and the panel is looking for not only someone who has the capacity to fit into that sound, but someone who will enhance it. Musicality and phrasing is a good determinant of that, which is why it's so important to play as musically as possible while staying true to the character and the page as possible. But, if two people play the exact same phrasing with the exact same tempos and on the exact same instruments, it's the personality that separates the two. In a nut shell, allowing yourself to come out within the piece will let the panel hear you, not just the piece.

My thoughts on auditioning are a little more philosophical and "transcendental," but it all comes from a desire to play the music and allow the listener to hear the orchestra. That's the goal, and if you achieve that, then you've succeeded, win or lose. I wanted to go a step further. I love feeling the music inside of myself while I play. It enhances my awareness and focuses my energies as I perform. I feel different when I play a Scheherazade pianissimo than a Kije one. It's not just the tempos that are different or the rhythmic integrity, but the energy of the music itself. I can make Kije sound like Scheherazade and vice versa. So, my sense of the energy in the music could be different from yours, even though we are basically going for the same "sound concept" or character. This is the difference in my opinion. The personalities and musicianship of the candidates. 

Displaying our personality is scary. Many of us already feel vulnerable playing just the page, and we might feel it even more so if we play "ourselves" for people. This is sometimes referred to as the fear of being seen. Why is a solo asked in the final round? The panel wants to hear your interpretation of a piece that, while it has many traditional aspects (like the excerpts), allows for many subjective and special musical moments. A person can automatically tell when a candidate is just playing the YouTube version, or the Spotify version, but when the panel hears a true musician, that makes them want to hear more. Even if you are playing a certain interpretation from a recording you like, if you try to play it exactly the same, you may end up sounding like your trying to play it exactly the same. So make it yours, play the way you want to play it and it will sound better, even if it's not exactly what a judge or teacher would do. If the character is right, and the traditions respected, it's good to go.

In this way, you are literally putting yourself out there if you decide to play from your personality, not just from the music or the page. It certainly makes things a lot more exciting, even if it's scary, and for me, allows for a lot more leeway and sense of freedom during an audition. Yes, I have specific ideas about each piece and specific phrasings or techniques, etc., but I let all of that go and just play the energy of the moment. If I feel the energy of Shostakovich, I have no choice but to play that character. This is one reason for the prescribed "find a word or phrase that describes the piece." It focuses your mind, not on the music but the character. If you've done the work, your body can already play the page. All there is to do now is just, "being." Let go, the work is done. Just let it rip. Get into character and play. Allow yourself to be seen and they will hear that. How can someone make mistakes in a round and still win? They told me that they just played the way they felt, and they won. They went for it and they made mistakes (one or two), but they advanced anyway.

We don't really know what a person wants, so let's stop trying to figure it out. What we do know is what needs to be present in our performances. The page has to be played as well as possible. The traditional or trending phrasing has to be heard. Dynamic contrast has to be obvious. Above all, the music has to come out. Beyond that, the panel's "desires" are unknown, as far as the specifics go, but generally, I'll bet that they want to hear a human being, not just a musician. Why does it sound better when you just "have fun" or "let go?" Because you re heard! It enhances everything you want to do without doing more of anything. Be you and be heard!