This blog is authored by Deanna, clarinetist. Here she shares her videos and impressions on her journey to Washington, D.C. Follow this blog to enjoy random mumblings about all things clarinet-related.
Has anyone out there seen Blue Crush? I’m pretty sure there’s a scene where Anne Marie counts down the days to Pipeline. So I’m using a really bad lipstick color that I shouldn’t have bought to count down to my auditions.
So last I left you, I had flown out to LA for two lessons, one with Burt Hara and one with Yehuda Gilad.
I assume inquiring minds want to know.
I had to be flexible, so I booked myself a hotel room in Pasadena for 3 1/2 days. Contrary to my last post, I actually had plenty of time to practice – one day to prepare for my first lesson with Burt, and then a day off between lessons to prepare for the second with Yehuda.
In both cases, instead of focusing on my pile of excerpts, they gave me large sweeping concepts I could apply to literally all music and were kind enough to make sure that my time and travel was well worth it. Out of respect for their teaching, I’m not going to detail everything I learned. Here are a few important points:
I spent a lot of time working on tongue position, again. Mostly, my tongue needs to be so high it’s almost painful, but it made such a nice difference that I can’t un-hear how awesome it is, so it becomes a self-rewarding skill.
There’s coming up with words that describe an excerpt’s mood, and then there’s actually making sure that your playing tells a story. “Happy” isn’t enough to convey the range of emotions in the exposition of Mozart’s clarinet concerto. Heck, I would throw in words like “Bubbly,” “effervescent,” “poignant,” and yet none of that tells a story.
If you haven’t read a book about note groupings or note leading or anything like that, just do it. I expressed concern that it was too pedantic, but it’s actually pretty fascinating, especially when you try it and it works. I don’t feel like I’m stepping outside my boundaries by saying you should read David McGill’s Sound in Motion – that was my not-clarinet-playing assignment.
If you’ve ever seen those videos out there of Yehuda Gilad’s teaching that are for sale on Play With a Pro, and you haven’t bought it, you’re missing out. No, my lesson was not just a Play With a Pro video but longer and more expensive. But you can get a lot of his teaching concepts from that. Basically: there are things you can do away from the clarinet to help build good habits. He gave me about a year’s worth.
When it’s all working, playing the clarinet is easy. If it’s not easy, there’s something wrong. I can step away from the clarinet to check my mechanics with a straw or a pinwheel or whatever, and I can listen to the sound coming from my horn. But I have to do both – it can’t be one or the other.
When my family was in town, we flew out to Kaua’i and spent a solid week there just exploring, snorkeling, and overall having a really good time. Seriously, it was one of the best family vacations I can remember. I did not completely forget about the clarinet: I focused on some of the away-from-clarinet exercises Yehuda gave me, and I also spent time mentally practicing. I probably got in about 30-45 minutes of mental practice every few days (so, not a lot).
I came back yesterday to a rude awakening of vacation chops – exercises away from the clarinet are not the same as true practicing. But it only took a day to feel like I was actually close to in shape again. Tomorrow, I start my mock auditions.
I have 21 days from today until my Air Force audition and 33 days until the President’s Own audition. I can make a LOT of progress in that time.
At this point, I’ll be recording mock auditions and taking notes of what needs to be fixed each day. The one biggest thing I learned from the process this time around is that I need to clearly define a plan of attack for each day before I sit down with the clarinet. If I had to do it over again, that’s the big change I would make, but at least with mock auditions, I can listen back to where I screwed up, fix it, and try again the next day.
I got this phrase from a book I’ve been slowly working my way through, called Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. I came to it because I’ve been really stressed out recently – January was a rough month, to say the least, and I followed it up in February with an audition for the Unit Leader Course and the Navy advancement exam the following week.
It resulted in an astoundingly horrendous performance for my audition. Sure, people will say it was fine, they got what they needed to put together my application for the course, blah blah blah, but for me it amounted to a giant step backward in the mental work I’ve done.
First of all, I did no mental preparation for this in-house audition. I now know that was a big mistake. It’s actually probably been about a year that I’ve consistently done mental work, so I’m refocusing on the the thing that I had the hardest time with: focus.
But I also realized that I had to start getting control over the thoughts inside my head as I get busy with collaterals in my ongoing pursuit of ninja status on my clarinet. This book I linked above is free for Amazon Prime readers, and I’m kinda surprised – it’s a real gem.
Can you stretch without striving?
This came from the body movement meditation. Can you stretch without striving?
Can you push your limits without straining? Can you find the soft edge of your abilities and nudge them gently, stopping just short of causing unnecessary tension and strain?
I’ve been playing around, literally, with these concepts the last week or so, and I find I enjoy my practicing and I’m making better strides. The best athletes know which muscles to contract to execute their movements while keeping everything else relaxed. In order for one muscle to contract and create movement, the opposite muscle needs to relax; if they both try to contract, movement is impossible. Breathing is impossible. Technique is impossible.
The first one I’ve come to tackle is my throat. When I get nervous, or when I get desperate to get better NOW, I tighten my throat. I did this for years – still do – and for the longest time didn’t even know what a relaxed throat felt like. I figured it out by learning how to swim freestyle, of all things, but when you have years and years of a bad habit, it’s hard to undo. There’s all kinds of emotional baggage attached to your bad habits, but here’s the thing: you are not your habits. So let them go. Honestly, it was a little scary. A tight throat is all I know. But what happens if I don’t tighten my throat? Oh wait, I use my diaphragm, and wow what a difference!
So how do I now stretch without striving?
I apply it to my daily scales. I’m slowly trying to make my technique faster (it’s not that fast, on the grand scale of clarinetists), but I do it by picking a tempo that is slow enough that I can concentrate on keeping my throat relaxed and my fingers relaxed but snappy. And then I’ll do another round bumped up 20 beats. And then maybe, in a few weeks, I’ll feel so comfortable and it’ll be so automatic that I’ll bump the baseline up another 10 beats, and then do another round 20 beats faster, always focusing on making my faster round as relaxed and even as my slower round. That’s just a suggestion.
My other one is mastering the flutter tongue and the clarinet glissando, two things that I should have mastered a long time ago but didn’t.
I was one of those people who couldn’t roll their rrrrrs. Was. I actually taught myself how to do it, after a week of walking around like a dufus and asking a lot of bewildered people how they roll their rrrrrrs. So I at least take pride in being evidence that it’s not genetic.
But put the clarinet in my mouth and flutter? That one took me another two weeks, and I’m only now at the point where I can succeed in making it happen 10 times in a row. That’s not with a metronome, that’s not on any note other than open G. But I went from zero to 10, and now that I can do it 10 times, my knee-jerk reaction is to try all the things I can find with a flutter, only to be disappointed that I can’t even remotely do it in context. And so I take a step back and know that if I relax, take a deep breath, and focus on how it feels to do it correctly, I will do it correctly, and soon it’ll become second nature, just like rolling my rrrrrs did after a lifetime of being unable.
The key in all of this is to take my challenge and make sure I only go as fast as I can execute with relaxation. Any faster, anything that puts unnecessary tension in my playing, means it’s time to take a step back.
I’m turning my practice time into my own little meditation, and I have to say I like it.
Wow things are starting to get serious! I have a lot that I want to talk about, so I’m going to focus on three points:
Taking care of oneself
The value of not feeling “great” when performing
My love-hate relationship with V21 reeds
First and foremost, I wan to talk about taking care of oneself. This has been on the forefront of my mind recently, since I went golfing with some friends last weekend. The motion is so foreign to me that the muscles in my right forearm were stiff and unresponsive all week. It made practicing very frustrating because pieces like Pineapple Poll were just herky-jerky, and no amount of concentration could will my right fingers to play in tempo.
I’ve been to the doctor twice now about my right hand, and basically what they tell me every time is that it’s a precursor to carpal tunnel, but there’s really nothing they can do about it until it gets so bad that I need cortisone injections. I’m really aiming to avoid that, so I guess I’m trying to focus a bit on wearing my wrist brace every night, getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, getting arm massages, and focusing on more anti-inflammatory foods. I’m not going to go all Tom Brady and Gisele over here, but I had a stressful month, so I primarily fueled it with ice cream and coffee, and that’s not going to do me any good!
I also had the world’s most obnoxious muscle twitch in my back, and after a bit of researching, the only thing I could conclude was that I, once again, was consuming too much caffeine. So later this week, I switched all my coffee consumption to ample amounts of green tea, and lo and behold, no muscle twitches.
I made the mistake of forgetting to drink enough tea on Saturday, though, so while I was trying to lay down some takes for the West Point application, I found myself developing a raging headache. I ended up going back in on Sunday to do some more recording.
Here’s the funny thing about all that: I felt like crap on Saturday, I was completely unmotivated to do the recording, and yet half the excerpts I submitted came from that day. That brings me to point number 2: I sound better when I’m a little on edge. Actually, this is even consistent with my mock auditions. When I do a mock audition and am nervous, that’s when I get the best feedback – energetic, sparkling, things like that. When I’m comfortable, that’s when I notice that things like rhythm suddenly get wonky – I’m trying to be musical, but really I’m just wallowing in my sound and not focusing on the product I’m creating.
I even had the same experience when I got to do my little opera tour. With only 11 instrumentalists, there was no hiding. I was so freaking nervous that first night. But I managed to play well, even though every entrance had me going, oh shit. On the second night, not only was I tired from a parade earlier that day, I also thought, hey, I didn’t screw up on opening night, so I got this!
That was my worst night.
Now I actively try to embrace the nerves and aim for playing at 80-90% of the energy my nerves give me. I am also working on techniques discussed in the Bulletproof Musician course, and they are slowly but surely helping.
So now unrelated, my third point is about those darn V21 reeds. I was so happy with last week’s reed progress until I went back to use all my nice, ready-to-go reeds and came to the sad sad realization that I had ruined all of them. Every single one was mushy-sounding and collapsed when I tried to articulate. There was no work-around, so my West Point recording got played on blue box Vandorens that are probably a solid two weeks past their prime. Today I found myself practicing (and doing this following recording) on V12s that are older than I can remember (apologies for the intonation on the high Gs).
I got out of my rotation habit when I went to Australia, and I haven’t managed to get back in because I’ve now gone through two boxes of V21s and not come away with a reed I thought was safe for public consumption. I thought every reed was a little tubby, a little unresponsive, but had potential. But then I pull out either the blue box or the V12s and I’m like, oh yeah, this is what a reed is supposed to sound like. I still can’t decide which I like better because it’s really more about color, but it’s definitely always between those two cuts for me.
The takeaway: do what works for you. Why work hard to make okay reeds sound good, when you can find reeds that sound better and require less work? Forget peer pressure and marketing.
So now, in case you skipped ahead, here’s my recording (finally):
Audition Challenge 3.0 Week 9 - YouTube
What’s in store for this week? My clarinets are getting some love this week while I’m gone to the wedding, so listening and visualization are my primary goals. For next week’s recording, which will probably go up a little late, it’s time to pull out the big heavies: Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Berlioz… My Group C excerpts that didn’t get much love up to this point. Those are the excerpts I’ll probably embarrass myself most with when I fly out to LA for some lessons. And otherwise, keep the focus on getting the Group A and B excerpts up to tempo – that’s the goal by the end of this week.
It took a little longer than normal for them to strike, and it’s something I think people don’t really talk about. My colleagues have always been great about asking me, “Hey, how are you doing?” shortly after an audition. Each of us has our own timeline for hitting the “Wow, I suck, no wonder they didn’t hire me” phase of auditioning.
For me, that timeline is about two weeks.
Immediately after an audition, I’m like, “YEAH! I GOT THIS! WOOOOOOO!” and I’m chomping at the bit for the next one. This year, I went straight from the auditions into hard-core end-of-year hoops in the band’s fiscal department, followed by the E-6 nightmare exam.
Having those other majors stressors to keep my mind occupied kept me focused and motivated (if you could call it motivated… maybe more like just stressed), but as each of them drops away one by one, I find myself with just a little bit of free time to think about things, and that’s when it hits.
I did finally get my comments back from the Air Force Band. They liked my Mozart, straight up – probably the first time I actually got a compliment on an audition sheet. They thought my tone was a little stuffy (fair, the room is dead and my reeds didn’t love D.C., and I still have serious tone issues to work out) but loved my phrasing. And as for the excerpts? Beethoven 4 had good counting and rhythm, but I let the tone get a little harsh and spready on the high Ds and Cs, and then from there the Gounod and the Dahl were rhythmically inconsistent. No mention of my squeak.
When I listen back to my Marine Band audition recording, I can hear the same things, inconsistencies that don’t happen in my mock auditions either because of nerves or jet lag or lack of preparation, or all of the above (I lean toward all of the above). I fortunately have a backlog of recordings that I can listen to and realize that those problems are not inherent to my playing, but they sure show themselves in auditions.
And that squeak that I focused so much on? It was a symptom of greater problems. A train doesn’t just fall off its tracks randomly, there’s usually some underlying issue. In my case, still playing too fast for control. My usual rule is to aim for 10 beats under. Maybe I need to aim for 20 in audition situations.
So anyway, yeah about last Thursday the slump finally hit. I have chamber music to play with colleagues, and some of it is even on the Bb soprano clarinet (oh the joy!) I had that to hang on to, going with friends to see Composed, a new documentary about performance anxiety (so appropriately timed for me), and getting back to really enjoying my last year in Hawaii, but sometimes all I really wanted was a cold, rainy day so I had a good excuse to face plant in a Ted’s chocolate haupia pie and sleep for 12 hours.
I suspect I’m not the only one who goes through this. In a few weeks, I’ll probably be back in fighting shape again, but until then, it’s time to treat myself to extra sleep, sunshine, and good music and remind myself why I bothered to put myself through that… again.
If you’re reading, feel free to share your favorite post-auditon pick-me-up! We could all use a few more tools in the box!
Yeah I got my countdown wrong! Time to discuss this past week, which was really Week 0 – the President’s Own audition.
As far as travel goes, a lot of the “silliness” I do turned out in my favor. I tried to book as cheap as possible, so for my flight to D.C., I chose American Airlines and had a three-leg flight: Honolulu to LA, LA to Dallas, and Dallas to D.C., leaving Friday night at 10:30 HST and arriving Saturday at 10:50 EDT. Coming back, I was flying Frontier from D.C. to Las Vegas with a layover in Denver, then switching to Hawaiian for another red-eye flight that would get me home at 5am the day after the audition – and planning on rescheduling those flights if I advanced in the audition.
Considering the multiple-carriers on the return day, I decided to go carry-ons only and managed to pack my entire life into a single tote bag – I wore my audition pants and shoes and packed pajamas, socks, changes of underwear, and two extra shirts, plus toiletries, in said tote bag. I carried my clarinets and a lunch box with every single meal already frozen or portioned out. That’s psycho, people.
But when my 4 hour layover in LA turned into 8 1/2 hours because my departing plane broke, I had food. And when I ended up staying in a Days Inn in Dallas because, due to the delay, I missed the last flight from Dallas to D.C., I had toiletries, pajamas, and a fresh change of underwear and shirt. And even breakfast for the next morning.
These are the things that reduce stress, and I consider that vitally important. Shit’s going to go wrong. It just doesn’t have to ALL go wrong!
Needless to say, I got there in one piece, but I can’t even begin with the level of exhaustion that comes from “sleeping” on a red-eye on Friday, getting 4 hours of sleep in a Days Inn on Saturday, and then having Sunday be the only day to try and de-jet lag and catch up on all of it before the audition.
Fortunately, a lot of the work I did with the Bulletproof Musician course helped keep my brain in “game mode” when it mattered. For anybody who has significant performance anxiety, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m only beginning to scratch the surface, but it did some incredible things for me.
So about the President’s Own audition:
Unlike the other military band auditions (or most other professional auditions, for that matter), you don’t get assigned a time block before you arrive. You arrive sometime between 7:15 and noon, preferably before 8am, and you get assigned your number in the order you show up.
I showed up at 8am, and was assigned number 53… out of 65. OMG. I knew I wouldn’t be playing until after lunch, so I got to meet up with one of the drum majors, who oddly enough was the drum major instructor when I was at the Armed Forces School of Music. She got me green tea and we chatted.
Then, no joke, I took a nap on the couch in the lounge. Girl’s gotta nap. I napped with this app that was recommended for me. It works. It was also like $13, but I figure if I spent as much as I did on sports psychology for musicians, what’s another $13?
Unlike past auditions, they didn’t post the list anywhere. You got the list in the final 3-5 minutes before you went in to the audition. That’s brutal!
And, in complete WTF fashion, I sat in a practice room for an hour, since they have a lot of practice rooms to go around, and near the end of the hour, it was time for the solar eclipse so, surprise, they took a solar eclipse break. At that point, I was just twiddling my thumbs. I might have been the only person there who warmed up, ran through my excerpts once under tempo, and then just let it sit. I was definitely not psyched out or psyched up or anything – I just spent the rest of it visualizing, and it worked.
The neat thing was that when I walked into the audition room, I was able to take stock of where I was and what it looked like. Usually from the stress, I remember just a big black void and me being scared (in discussions with others, this seems to be pretty common). This time around, I was able to notice the cream-colored curtain between the panel and me, the bright red curtains on the walls, and how BRIGHT the room was! And who knew, when I played the first note, the sound came out sounded… like me. No nervous vibrato, no “WHAT IS COMING OUT OF MY HORN?!?!?!?!?!” none of that.
That’s how I gauged my progress, because sure enough, my fingers froze in the fourth excerpt and I was dismissed from the room. So if you monitor your progress by advancing versus not advancing, I’m still a honking failure. Except that I’m not.
For those who want to know, the list was: Mozart first page (more or less), Ballet Music from Faust, Carmen Intermezzo, Polovetsian Dances, and the first excerpt from the Mozart Serenade. It was halfway into Polovetsian that I had my unfortunate finger blunder, and it’s again just a lapse in focus.
Only 5 people advanced anyway. That’s just this audition for ya.
Okay, so I scrambled home, made it to the airport 20 minutes before boarding (thank goodness I still had frozen dinner on me), made it in to Honolulu at 5am, showed up for command PT at 7:30, and my command said, “You’re here. Go home and take a nap.”
Best. Sentence. Ever.
And that’s that. The real question is where do I go from here?
I’m taking stock of what I learned, what went well, and what could go better. Here’s what I gleaned:
The sports psychology stuff really works. I need to apply it to all my performances so it becomes a regular habit.
A lot of the stuff I learned in my two lessons went really well, so I need to spend a lot of conscious time reinforcing those good habits until they become as much habit as the bad habits.
I found the holes in my audition prep. Mostly, I found out what was wrong, but I did a lot of “I’ll get it tomorrow” and before I knew it, the audition was a week away and people were still telling me that somehow Polovetsian Dances didn’t sound rhythmic. I have another app that has terrible recording quality, but I can slow down the recording and heard that I was condensing the triplets in the second half of the measures. One week before the audition is not the time to find this out. But now I have a tool.
The biggest thing I learned is the true difference between working on something so you can play it and learning something so you can never miss it. The Williams was a good example. Again using that app, a week before the audition (sigh), I found out that it wasn’t the 16ths that were the problem, it was that I condensed the triplet leading into the 16ths, and once that rhythm was fixed, the 16ths just fell into place and I never missed them. And now I just learned that apparently I just condense triplets.
I’m still a little haphazard and hack-n-play with my practice routine, but since trying to get a little more organized and a little more “work on the things that suck most first,” I don’t think I can ever go back to my old practicing.
On Tuesday, I’m re-enlisting for two more years with the Navy, which guarantees me about one more year in Hawaii and one year where, unless they change the conditional release policy, I won’t be able to take auditions. I’m a little like, “But I have so much momentum!” but I’m also looking forward to working on chamber music and studying some real clarinet literature just for fun, and that will be how I choose to continue working on my lesson material. Also, I look forward to redoubling these efforts with my fleet band. You are what you do repeatedly, so if I’m always working on my air support, my voicing, my technique, my rhythm, with every piece that I play, then it should be no different when I get to my next audition.
I probably won’t have much to say for a while, so if you made it this far, thanks for reading!
I debated whether or not to even write a post as opposed to saving it, because the emotional rollercoaster has been pretty rough. I figured I might as well put it out there because hey, those of us who have done this before have been there.
I had a moment of frustration when I realized that I can count on one hand how many people I work with who actually have been through what I’m going through. It was even less in my last command. Maybe that’s why I write this blog – to connect with my friends out there who are fighting the fight and pick themselves up to try another day, many of whom stay the course and eventually succeed.
So I didn’t get past the first round – kinda par for the course for me, and frustrating to no end because I feel like I’m doing better, but the end result doesn’t show improvement.
How do I measure my improvement and keep myself positive for the next attempt? Instead of beating myself up, as soon as the audition was over, I sat down with a notebook and reflected on what I thought went well and what needed improvement.
Things that went well:
I think I portrayed confidence in the Mozart. I had no shaky vibrato for the first time since I started auditioning from Hawaii.
I think I had a great, controlled range of dynamics in Beethoven 4.
I think my staccato in the Gounod was clean and that I showed dynamics and phrasing that weren’t written on the page.
I fought the fight in the Dahl and know where my mental game needs to improve.
Things that didn’t go well:
I squeaked in the Dahl. In the end, that’s pretty much it, but a squeak is game over for a clarinetist.
From the squeak to the end, it was a mental battle to not throw in the towel. I didn’t, but it was a battle the whole way.
In a moment of big cajones, I actually e-mailed the committee asking for comments before they were even done auditioning. And yes, they hired someone. I think it was “so-and-so from U Mich and FSU.”
Someday, it’s going to be “Deanna Brizgys, from ‘Did it herself, bitches.'”
Anyway, I still await commentary to see if my impression of my playing matched their impression.
After reflecting a bit on my audition, I got a recommendation for the best ice cream in either D.C. or Alexandria and totally hit it up. It’s pretty much the perfect thing for either a broken heart or a celebration. You win? Ice cream. You lose? Ice cream. It’s a win-win.
What’s up next? Well, on Saturday, aside from the horrible jet lag because, thanks to a 2-hour delayed flight in LA, my travel back took a full 24 hours, I did not touch my clarinet. Some friends were having a get-together, and cake and whiskey with friends seemed like a better use of my time. Everyone needs a little soul-soothing.
On Sunday, it was back to the grind, and what a grind. I have only a week before the President’s Own, and I was in full “F… you” mode. Dahl? F you. Williams? F you. Beethoven 8? F you. I came home from a long practice session with a lot of frustration and also a lot of recognizing that when I’m most frustrated is when I find the inner drive to dig deep and work a little harder. So today might feel sucky, but tomorrow will be better.
I’m definitely a bit emotional and a bit on edge. The stress has made me scatter-brained, hence losing my car key and leaving my wallet at home. And I’m practicing so much now that my face hurts. At times I feel like this is the work I should have been doing two months ago, but it is what it is, and at least now I have some clearly defined fundamental goals for afterward, regardless of how this audition goes.
So for anyone who is curious, here is Sunday’s mock audition. I created my own list in two rounds: round 1 – Mozart, Brahms 3, Mendelssohn scherzo, Dahl Sinfonietta, and both Hammersmith excerpts. Round 2 – Faust, Mozart Serenade first excerpt, Williams, Beethoven 8, Bach duet. Since then, I’ve been putting some serious nose-to-grindstone work trying to get out the last of the kinks. After all, after Monday, it’s on to something new!
That’s how many auditions I will have taken when I finish the Air Force audition on Thursday. For a lot of people, that’s nothing.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the mental game this week, waffling between two extremes: the mental game, where I focus on visualizing my best performance and do simulation training to help me better deal with the unique pressure of audition day, and the preparation game, where I try to know my excerpts so well that no matte what happens in my head, my body is just going to do what it needs.
As my friend Sandy said today, “Everybody gets nervous. The question is what you do with it.”
I’ll be honest: I’m really nervous. To some extent, I’m as prepared as ever, probably more prepared than ever, and with that comes the burden of expectation. I’ve prepared so much, so shouldn’t I do better? This is a question I get frequently from musicians who haven’t dealt with the crucible of classical auditions. What does better mean?
I’m sure if I listen to my most recent mock auditions compared to my earliest mock auditions, I’ll see marked improvement, so from that perspective, yes. From the perspective of how far I’ve advanced in auditions, no. Am I close to winning a job? I have no idea. Will I win one someday? Again, I have no idea.
Let me take a minute and talk about a few things that aren’t just grinding: confidence, focus, and trust.
I spent a week or so working on confidence, borrowing tricks from the Bulletproof Musician and from friends. I have that “happy place” – that memory that made me really truly love playing the clarinet, and it’s so strong that no matter how nervous I am, when I think about it, I get this huge grin on my face. It can be a lot of different things for a lot of different people. I did find that no matter how poorly I think an audition is going, I can lock onto that and think, “This is what I’m fighting for.”
Focus is something else I have trouble with. I tried a few things: thinking about the scene I was trying to create with my music, trying to tell a story, things of that sort, but I found that for the most part, when I try those things, I find myself talking to myself about whatever and not focusing on the music.
One thing that really helped me is David McGill’s book Sound in Motion. He has this premise that if you’re thinking about where every note goes and how it relates to the notes before and after it, you’re too focused on the line to even notice that you’re nervous. This holds true for me unless I’m THAT nervous about an excerpt, and then I tend to go into “oh shit” mode. I’m pretty sure we can all relate.
For the love of expletives, I have an “oh s…t” mode and I apparently also have a “f…k you” mode. The one thing I’ve had in common in any of my mock auditions is that when someone on the panel asks me to play something again, something in my brain clicks and I freaking nail the excerpt. Mendelssohn, Dahl, that damn Oquin cadenza… all of them come out with a certain level of “f…k you.”
So when you care so much about an outcome, how do you let go, channel that inner “f…k you” and actually do the thing? Gosh I wish I had an answer for you. That’s that third level: trust.
Bear with me while I get to my point.
Over the weekend, I did the mockiest mock of all – I got up, did breathing exercises, put on my full makeup, put on my audition clothes, drove to the band room, set up an audition room, found myself a separate room as a large warm-up space, and warmed up with the most obnoxious app playing sounds of people chewing to practice focusing when things are distracting me. Around my designated “audition time,” I went to a small practice room, set my timer for 10 minutes, and then spent 10 minutes messing around with what I think the best use of my last 10 minutes is. Then I did my mock audition. I even randomly pre-selected my round 1: Mozart, Beethoven 6, Mendelssohn Scherzo, Brahms 3, Barber, and Dahl. It was as good a mock round as I could have figured out on my own.
And holy cow I was nervous. I was so nervous that I re-did the 10 minute prep time on Sunday because I realized just how big of a hole in my audition prep those last few minutes were. They were the most crucial and the most overlooked.
But okay, all that psycho-analysis aside, where does trust come in? How does one get from caring so much about an outcome to walking in there with a complete “f…k you” attitude and just laying it down because you’re a badass and you have no shits to give?
I think there’s a lot of rejection fear involved in auditions, and I don’t mean simply fear of being rejected. Most musicians are tied to their craft as an integral part of their identity, and so a rejection from an audition feels like a rejection of you as a person, especially if you didn’t even get to play Mozart and the three stupid excerpts in the first round.
I’ve heard enough times things like, “The audition I won was the first time I didn’t screw up that excerpt,” or “The audition I won was the one day I didn’t screw up AND they liked me, so the stars must have aligned,” or things of that nature. Preparation is half the battle, and trust in yourself is really the other half. Yes, I would say it’s that big, and an often-neglected part of the preparation process. A teacher once told me, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I like to think, “If you can’t stand the heat, stick around and eventually you’ll get used to it.” A friend referred me to former BSO trombonist Norman Bolter, who in only the ten minutes that I watched of a video on authenticity, made me start thinking about how much we try to fit ourselves into a box for the sake of making a committee happy or simply not missing a note. And you know, there are parameters, but there are liberties within those parameters. I think where we get lost is where we try so hard to stick within those parameters that we lose trust in ourselves as capable, expressive, artistic individuals and start seeing ourselves and incompetent robots incapable of recreating each excerpt identically every time. We need to remember that the beauty of music is that it only exists in the moment it’s created, and then it’s gone, which means it can be different every time and that’s okay. That’s what makes it exciting. Out of 100 different Mozarts, what makes yours so special? There are parameters, but there is room for individuality.
I’m in the military – I may not be able to wear purple nail polish in uniform, but I can wear some hella sassy underwear under that uniform, and to hell with what the girls in the locker room think.
It’s kinda like that.
So… happy auditioning, and see you on the other side!
Things are starting to come together! This week was a week full of mock auditions, and wow I learned a lot! On Monday I played for an oboe player, Tuesday for a trombone player, and then on Wednesday I did a “real” mock audition with a panel that a friend selected who was anonymous to me. She gave me my audition time when I came to work at 8am, called me in from my practice room, the whole thing.
It completely re-created all the feelings of nerves. It felt like the real deal, only worse because I knew that behind that screen were people who I already work with on a daily basis, judging me.
Unfortunately of all auditions, that’s the one that didn’t end up recorded. I still got a lot of good comments, but I was so mentally spent that as soon as I read one comment, something like “Mozart wasn’t very exciting” I almost cried and went home and took a lonnnnnnnnnnnng nap.
Once the long nap was over, I was able to look at the comments more objectively and realize that I had a new problem: as I got more confident in playing the sheer number of excerpts, I kept “trying” to make them better. So I would do things like play them faster, or a little wilder, and the bulk of my comments were along the lines of holy smokes, Batman, chill out! I realized that the more I played them, listened to them, wrote down my weaknesses, and tried to iron them out, the more I became insecure in my ability to execute, even though I was getting better.
I started spending more time focusing on my mental game. I pulled out my Bulletproof Musician course, which I had kinda let lapse as I worked more on the technical execution of the music, but I’m finding it invaluable to helping my mental game, which right now is probably my weakest link.
So before I give you my results, I do want to say that after my mock on Wednesday, I brought my stuff home for community band and somehow lost my box of reeds and my “stupid straw.” I spent the rest of the week on V21s and blue box 3 1/2s, both of which are too light, before I begged Sandy (who is currently on vacation) for an unused box of hers.
And now on to the results:
What does this week entail? This week I plan to work on mental focus. As this past week progressed, I became more and more comfortable with the sheer endurance of playing all these excerpts. I was no longer daunted by the mountain of music. However, I am still having a hard time keeping my focus on every single excerpt, and it gets worse in auditions.
I’ve done enough auditions that I know the big indicators for me: I get cold, my breathing gets more shallow, my fingers feel stiff, and I stop putting air through the clarinet. And I start focusing on the problems. I actually chose to take today off from mock auditions partly due to time constraints and partly because I felt like the time would be better used honing my fundamentals (now that I have a new straw) and honing the musical image I’m trying to portray. I have a week. I’m not going to move a mountain. But maybe I can move a soul or two.
I will continue doing mock auditions for people and recording, but it’s time to focus on the big picture and make sure that my playing is as compelling as possible.
After this week, it’s off to D.C. for the first of my auditions!
Week 5! Phew! Time sure flies, but after one day of community band and one day to put my face back in order, I am in full mock-audition mode.
I’m doing my recordings now with a microphone on GarageBand to get a real sense for how I sound. I did my first mock audition for Sandy on Friday, and then on Saturday I took over the Wind Ensemble room and set myself up a screen and everything. Actually, just playing for Sandy made me more nervous than setting up the whole thing.
So here’s a link to my SoundCloud.
So that’s a lot of freaking excerpts. My first and foremost difficulty was the mental fortitude to get through all of them and try to be on my A game. I did not succeed. I know my playing well enough to know that when I got to Berlioz and Mendelssohn, I was done, but I still had a lot of excerpts left. Brain has left the building.
I left the two duets out. I did play them in my mock audition, but they were really not worth making anyone suffer through, myself included.
Fortunately, that’s something I have plenty of time to work on.
So here’s the thing I have had on my mind for a few weeks now and haven’t managed to find a way to work into my posts. That’s the idea of having a plan of attack for each day before you get into the practice room.
I can’t listen to this recording, take notes on every single thing that went wrong, and manage to woodshed it all in one day. So, what I’ve done is I picked the five biggest problems that will give me the most bang for my buck. I wrote them down in my handy-dandy notebook. I even, on the fly, came up with some criteria for “What’s going to give me the most bang for my buck?”
Mozart clarinet concerto. If something goes wrong, that’s top priority. It’s the first thing the committee is going to hear. It HAS to be amazing.
Any serious technical blunders. If I totally jack up an excerpt, that gets sent to the woodshed immediately, hopefully with some notes about where I jacked it up and why.
Any unconvincing starts. Maybe it sounds like it took me a measure to get into it, but then I nailed it. Maybe it sounds like it took me two notes to get into it. Nope. Confidence has to be there right from the very first note.
Honestly, between those three things, I can find five excerpts to work on. Ideally, I’ll be able to rotate through excerpts so I’m not just woodshedding a few and then simply running down the rest, and that’s because I’ll be honing in on finer and finer details. But that’s ideally. We’ll see how reality decides to work things.
The other thing I just want to say real quick is that for my first mock audition, I played the Mozart and then had Sandy just grab-bag it, and then this second one I played straight down. From here on out, I will use notecards for my other mock audition victims since there’s a lot of overlap between the two lists. Plus it’ll give me the opportunity to see how the excerpts go as I get more exhausted plowing through the list. At this point, it’s literally a test of endurance and focus.
Only eight weeks left! Not even that much until my Air Force audition – assuming they accepted my CD. I’m going to be honest, I used my application recording from the last one because, well, it had the same requirements, and it’s a recent recording. That allowed me time to be more concerned with getting the motherlode of excerpts up to tempo.
I spent the last week pretty unable to practice at all, since I left on Tuesday night for my brother-in-law’s wedding! That’s the thing with auditions, in a perfect world I could hole myself up and practice endlessly until everything was flawless, but let’s be honest, life happens, and in all seriousness, if I didn’t have these kinds of things to break up the monotony of practicing and give me perspective on what life is really all about, I’d probably go crazy. As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, resting is as crucial as practicing.
My mission was listening and visualization, and in that aspect, I actually kind of failed. Who was I kidding? I took a red-eye flight, so I spent all of it sleeping, and then after a 3 1/2 hour layover in Denver, spent my next flight to Louisville, you guessed it, sleeping. When I got there, the girls were just arriving for the bachelorette party, so I ended up partaking in that (alcohol-free because after a flight, just no) and dinner. With red-eyes, the jet-lag isn’t so bad, but for this I was just all sorts of messed up. My schedule has been out-of-whack for about two months now, and I was in Louisville for literally a day, so it wasn’t worth trying to pre-jet lag myself. So on Thursday, the wedding day, I spent the morning helping the bride decorate the reception hall, then slept for two hours, then got ready for the big event. And then my flight home left at 8am the next morning.
I finally did some listening and visualization on the flight home. Here are the two points I focused on:
What else is going on in the ensemble beside the clarinet?
What does the clarinet part feel like when I’m playing it?
I did the recording after three days of practicing these excerpts, and it’s pretty obvious to me which are the ones that I listened to and visualized and which are the ones I didn’t. Take a listen at this link because Apple is stupid and won’t let me cut and paste my videos into this blog the way Stephen’s desktop can.
I was actually so astounded by how much my rhythm improved just by knowing what else is going on around me. Hint: the rest of the ensemble usually has something rhythmic, like pizzicato eighth notes or something, and the chord progressions help dictate the direction of the line.
This is not stuff I ever did in my listening before – I usually just focused on the clarinet line.
Now I’m on a plane to L.A. to take some much-needed clarinet lessons, and again practice time will be minimal. I’m banking on a few lessons being worth more than a week of practicing. So, my assignment for myself is to expand my listening/visualization activities and come up with a short “routine” for each excerpt. Here’s a picture of my notebook and music on the plane. Exciting, huh?
This is my night-time, everyone-turned-down-the-lights-and-all-I-have-is-this-stupid-spotlight picture. Yep.
Here are my 5 bullet points for each excerpt:
Adjectives describing mood of piece
Description of accompanying lines
Listening and visualizing myself playing the part, feeling in fingers, breathing, and embouchure
Second listening to secure and fix any “mistakes” I made in my head or review spots that were less comfortable
My biggest focus really is on the accompanying lines. I don’t need to get everything in one listening session. Some, like Dahl or Pineapple Poll, have a lot going on aside from the clarinet line. Each time I listen, I can hone in on something a little more specific and maintain my sanity.
So after I have tempo, mood, and accompaniment, I listen two more times while watching the music and focus on how it feels in my fingers, what my embouchure and tongue position feels like, and how I’m going to breathe. Odds are, there’s a point where my focus fades or I can’t feel a specific measure in my fingers or I actually make a mistake in my brain, and the second listen is to hone my focus and stay in it the whole time.
I got this idea from my friend Sara, who is fighting the good fight in L.A., kicking butt, and taking names with her mad clarinet skillz. She was the one who told me that her best excerpts were the ones where she knows literally everything, tactile and aural, in her mind before it ever comes out her clarinet. That’s next level, guys.
With all the travel I have coming up, I actually have some built in airplane time to spend focusing on my “brain game,” and that excites me, because when I get back, I hit the mock auditions hard.
Next week’s recording is hopefully a) going to happen and b) be the first baseline mock audition, just not in front of people.
Things are getting real!
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