We’re now a little ways into July, which is when I suggest that Mississippi high school band students begin preparing in earnest for this year’s auditions for the Mississippi Lions All-State Band, which are held in November. Unlike many states, in which the all-state groups are chosen after a series of regional auditions, Mississippi holds a “cattle call” audition in which every student who wishes to audition can travel to the audition site and audition to the band, followed by a second round a week or two later in which the top students (usually double the number who will ultimately be accepted in each section) audition again to determine final placement. I like this system because it prevents the situation experienced in some other states where a deserving student in one region with a large concentration of good players on his instrument is denied a seat that ultimately goes to a lesser player from a different region. The all-state group in Mississippi is also different from most states because instead of culminating in a three or four-day “honor band” with a guest clinician and a short concert, the group meets in the summer and prepares a large concert for performance in Mississippi before traveling to the annual Lions Clubs International convention and marching a parade/competition show and performing an entertaining “lobby show.” This arrangement, made possible by the Mississippi Lions’ partial sponsorship of the group, means that our state’s top band students travel to a different major city each summer. This year’s event was in Chicago, but the destinations are not always domestic; during my three years in the band during the mid-1990s we traveled to Seoul, Montreal, and Philadelphia. Thus, the all-state band is a tremendously musically satisfying experience in Mississippi, and auditioning is entirely worthwhile.
As you might imagine, I receive a number of requests for lessons from students who are preparing to audition for the band here in Mississippi, just as I did when teaching previously in Louisiana and Iowa. By one measure, my record of success in preparing students for all-state auditions has been rather mixed, maybe even as low as 50-60%. However, when you consider only the students who actually did the following four things, the success rate surges to 100% or very nearly so. Students who proceed without “taking care of business” in these areas have a much lower chance of audition success, no matter how good their private teachers are.
1. Take lessons year-round, not just for “audition cramming.”
During August or September of most years I begin receiving calls and emails from students or parents wanting to “take a few lessons” in order to prepare for Lions Band auditions. Most are honest about their intention to make applied lessons only a temporary thing, and as long as I have time available I am happy to work with them. (Money is money, after all, and I’m not keen on turning down opportunities to have even some positive influence on area musicians.) However, many of these students come with poor practice habits, unlearned scales, and assorted fundamental playing issues that cannot be adequately addressed in just a couple of months of lessons, especially when that time must be devoted primarily to preparing required audition materials. While I do everything I can to at least begin to address these issues and make the audition music presentable, the more successful students continue to study privately between December and July, where we are able to address important playing basics before turning our attention in earnest to the audition materials around midsummer. Even in situations where distance or finances allow only sporadic applied study, periodic guidance (and diligent following of that guidance between lessons) is superior to nothing at all.
2. Diligently complete a daily fundamentals routine.
This item follows directly from the previous one. I assign each of my students a daily fundamentals routine (usually the “Level 2” materials off of this page) and though I normally make some modifications for younger students, my instruction is always that the routine be completed in its entirety each day. While nearly all of my students (both high school and college) can be counted upon to work through portions of the routine on most days, a much smaller percentage diligently performs the entire routine each and every day. That smaller group is the one that consistently makes the band. The “power” is not in my particular routine, of course (there are many good daily fundamentals routines out there), but rather in the daily and systematic review and extension of fundamental playing skills. Foregoing fundamentals work in favor of more time working on music is tempting, and sometimes even seems wise, but ultimately it is a losing proposition. The basic skills must be there and growing before successful audition preparation can occur.
3. Practice scales year-round.
Scales (and arpeggios in states that require them) are the first thing played in most auditions, but they are often the most poorly played materials. Even students who thoroughly prepare the assigned études often play scales out of tune, with a poor tone quality, and with inconsistencies in timing and articulation. While I do not favor year-round practice of the assigned études, scales should be part of every player’s daily practice. Make the scales a demonstration of solid fundamental playing ability, with the most beautiful sound, best pitch, even timing, and consistent articulation possible. Students who do so reap benefits beyond simply “high scores on scales,” as these skills positively impact every area of performance.
4. Use a metronome regularly.
For better or for worse, the preparation of most young musicians in this country emphasizes playing correct pitches over correct rhythms, with the result being that the majority of students not only read rhythms poorly but also internalize time very badly. Use a metronome (or even a drum machine app) even when playing fundamental exercises and scales, not to develop rhythm reading per se, but to better coordinate the actions of breathing, tonguing, blowing, buzzing, and releasing each note. This will help you to internalize a sense of pulse and coordinate all of your playing by it, leading to a remarkable decrease in what had been wrongly thought to be “chop problems.” Use this improving sense of time and coordination to improve your rhythmic execution in the études and in sight reading. Frequent “stops and starts” not only lead to missed rhythms, but also to a decline in overall playing because of lost coordination.
There are, of course, other elements that contribute to success in all-state auditions, many of which I discuss in my annually-reposted article on the topic. My purpose today is highlighting often-neglected steps that must be undertaken in the long term to best ensure success. The students I have had the most success in helping over the years have been those who “buy in” to my program of year-round practice and study, diligent and daily fundamentals work, mastery of scales, and the development of rhythm and time by using the metronome. Those skeptically wanting to “pick and choose” from my instructions or seeking only a “shot in the arm” or a shortcut to audition success have rarely reaped the desired rewards. Those willing to walk with me through the “long game” of developing comprehensive musicianship have fared much, much better.