‘Tis the Season…Audition Season, That Is!

January means college auditions, so this post features a great article written by From the Top alum and Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Ren Martin-Doike. Ren shares tips and hints for preparing for those college auditions, as well as interesting links and ideas for practicing. We hope you enjoy, and good luck if you’re auditioning this year!

‘Tis the Season…Audition Season that is!
Here are a few things that helped me prepare.
By Ren Martin-Doike

You’ve been practicing for what seems like your whole life, and in a few months, you will give one of the most crucial performances of your career so far… your college audition. How is preparing for college auditions any different from, say, getting ready for a competition?

Ren Performs on From the Top in Indianapolis, Indiana in 2008

Auditions are actually the same thing as competitions. The only difference is that when you “win,” instead of getting a medal, money or concert opportunities, you get the chance to snag the best prize of all – a good education.

Since you’re planning to study music beyond high school, I have a feeling that you are already an experienced player, not looking for another article telling you to practice 8 hours a day or how you shouldn’t wear blue jeans for your audition. Of course, the standard rules do always apply – listen to your teacher, plan ahead and practice mindfully. But you already know these things, so I’m going to give you my experience-tested tips, from the wise to the wacky.

First and foremost – it’s all in your head. No matter how well you prepare, if you psych yourself out at the last minute, you may not play your best. Conversely, if you don’t believe in yourself from the start, you will limit yourself from playing as well as you can. I’ve always been fascinated with psychology and neurology, so as you read this article you will also find “mind-hacks” you can use to more deeply tap into your potential.

Set concrete goals and hold yourself accountable for them. I write my goals on Post-it notes and stick them in a place that I look at while I practice. These goals range from short term (practice 6-7 days this week) to long term (get into Curtis.) However, a goal is just a wish if you don’t put any action behind it. Like you, I absolutely hate practicing, but to hold myself accountable, I log my daily practice time on my calendar. This way, I can easily track my progress and see where I need to improve. See Mind-Hack #1 at the bottom of this post for more tips.

Ren Performs at an Airport

Listening to recordings is not just for Suzuki students! Though it is also important to study your part, or even a score, there are hundreds of things you could only learn from listening to a variety of different recordings. Allow me to emphasize the word different in that sentence – your musical flexibility is crucial in the audition room. In some auditions, like the one I did at Curtis, you may have to perform with a pianist you have never played with before; this is why it is extremely important that you be comfortable playing your repertoire at different tempos and even in differing styles. Playing along with recordings is extremely helpful. I learned pieces inside and out by putting on my headphones and playing along with some my favorite recordings. See Mind-Hack #2 at the bottom of this post for more tips.

There is absolutely no substitute for performance practice. I view practicing and performing as opposite skills. In the practice room, we try to find our mistakes and work on them; while on the stage, we should ignore mistakes and just flow with the music. When you perform, your mind and body behave in an entirely different way. You will only become comfortable with this unfamiliar feeling if you experience it regularly. Performing can also help you to isolate which parts to practice. I have found that most of the things I mess up in performance never go wrong in the practice room, and vice versa.

A friend of mine who went to Juilliard with International Violin Competition of Indianapolis Gold Medalist, Augustin Hadelich, told me how Augustin would play for “anything that stayed still long enough” in preparation for the competition he eventually won. That was a revelation to me. If it got Augustin to the IVCI gold medal, where could it take you?

Getting practice in performance is easier said than played, however. Cultures in Harmony founder William Harvey said when he reappeared on From the Top in 2009 “…at some point you need to make your own [performance] opportunities.” This made a huge impact on me. I increased my performance practice from once or twice a month to once or twice a week by performing in some pretty unconventional situations.

Ren Performs Over Skype

Instead of waiting for my teacher to set up a performance for me, I began playing for kids at a local elementary school in the cafeteria…during their lunch! I also harnessed the power of the Internet and played, over Skype or iChat, for any friends willing to let to me “perform” for them. Even if I was in my pajamas playing with headphones on, I still got the same adrenalin rush as I did in front of the audition committee. See Mind-Hack #3 at the bottom of this post for more tips.

In the end, our aim is to feel secure and confident while playing in our audition, so we can forget everything and just make beautiful music. I hope that these ideas will help and encourage you in your personal audition journey. Remember: think positively, practice mindfully, perform often and most importantly, have a blast in the process. Good luck!

Mind-Hack #1: Write and display your very specific goals in past tense. In other words, instead of writing, “practice three hours a day”, try writing “I practiced three hours a day the week of February 21 – 27.” Doesn’t writing such a statement in past tense seem like lying? Well, yes, it sort of is. But, experience has taught me that Psychologist Claude Steele’s Theory of Affirmation is one of the most powerful mind techniques you can use. When we say or think certain things about ourselves, positive or negative, we actually program our brains to make sure that what we say comes true.

Mind-Hack #2: Recent Northwestern University Neurological research has finally proven that we actually CAN learn by listening in our sleep! This means that either listening to your audition repertoire before you sleep, or like I did, as an iPod alarm an hour before I woke up, can actually be a key to consciously, unconsciously and even subconsciously knowing your music. (Plus, it’s as a great way to “practice” while you sleep.)

Mind-Hack #3: Harness your power of positive thinking! I know this is totally clichéd, but hear me out. I missed my flight to Philadelphia for my Curtis audition. Naturally the first thing anyone would do is panic. But I chose not to. Instead of freaking out that I was leaving more than six hours later than I had planned to, I made my long wait at the airport into a great performance opportunity. I was not trapped at an airport; I suddenly had a gate full of potential audience members! By the time I boarded the plane, I had developed many good relationships with my fellow passengers and I also discovered a new community of support. Because of my perspective, I turned my missed flight into an audition edge, and I arrived at Curtis ready to have a great audition. Similarly, you too can turn your own adverse situations into audition advantages.
Ren Martin-Doike attends the Curtis Institute of Music and studies the viola with Misha Amory and Michael Tree. Ren is the Alma and Edward Lakin Annual fellow and, like all Curtis students, is a recipient of a full merit-based tuition scholarship.  Prior to entering Curtis, Ren studied with Mimi Zweig in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Pre-College String Academy.