Your job in an audition is to represent yourself and play the best you can. The result will take care of itself. If you play as well as you can, it’s because you gave yourself the best chance to be the best player. If I was going into those auditions when I was younger in Australia and Stefan Dohr showed up, it wasn’t going to matter what my focus was — he would probably have played better. But I would have no control over that. What I can control is only what I am doing. That translates into your preparation. What processes can I put into place to give myself the best opportunity to be as prepared as I can be and to play the best that I can under a high pressure situation? After that, it’s out of my hands. No one on the playing side of the screen gets to determine whether they win or lose the audition. The two major uncontrollable factors in the audition are who else turns up and what the panel is looking for. So if you are focusing on the process of what you can do to sound your best, you give yourself the best chance.
You're a big proponent of "learning the excerpts away from the horn" — spending a lot of your practice time working on developing your technique while strengthening musical pictures mentally — never simply drilling excerpts over and over. That can be a very hard change for many people to make. It definitely was for me! Can you talk about why this is so beneficial?
The thing that I learned reasonably early on in my audition journey was that if my technique was at a high level and the quality of the image of my excerpts was at a high level, then I was going to play the excerpts well. As a horn player, there are only so many hours in a day that you can physically practice. But if I am going to spend the majority of that time shredding through excerpts, trying to learn the notes, then I have to ask myself, “Am I really addressing the technical deficiencies that I have in my playing — or am I engraining through those excerpts the faults?” By practicing an excerpt a thousand times, if it’s not practiced the right way, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. You’re just engraining the deficiencies throughout the practice and, under stress, that will fall apart.
You hear it a lot and I did this many times early in my career... you get into a stressful or high pressure performance and you come away saying, “Wow, I’ve never made that mistake before.” And initially you write that off but normally there is a reason behind it. Maybe there is not a deficiency at that particular moment where you made that mistake, but it might have been set up from somewhere else. It may have been set up because you’ve been building this shaky foundation on a daily basis by going over and over and over the piece. So again, going back to the first audition that I won, the biggest advantage of running into fatigue and chop problems was that I had to practice away from the horn. Creating in your head the crystal clear, uncorrupted version of the program — of the excerpts — gives you the best chance to put that into the horn. If your technique is at that same level or higher, you’ll be able to produce what’s in your head.
If I am practicing the excerpt over and over again with built-in technique flaws that I am not really addressing away from the excerpt, it may work because of the amount of repetition, but it’s already at a limit. What I want to do in my preparation is raise my technical limit as high as I can and then have the purest, most uncorrupted mental picture of the excerpt so that that is what I am putting into the horn — not something that is limited by how I can play the horn. To me, it’s hard because I’ve also always had that belief of “if I don’t have the horn on my face, I’m not practicing.” What I’ve learned now though is that I can do a lot of other practice — mental practice, listening practice, visualization — away from the horn. It’s far more beneficial because then I can spend much more time fixing or expanding my technique so that when I get to playing the excerpt, it’s just like pressing “Go” on the GPS and I then just get in and drive the car — instead of pulling out the map book and charting it all out, which is what most people are doing in auditions.
A lot of people these days worry that panels only want to hire "note-perfect" musicians -- technicians who don't miss anything. Do you think this is an accurate depiction of audition committees today?
I can’t speak for any orchestra committees or my colleagues, but I will say this from my own opinion. In an orchestra like our’s, I’ve never heard anyone who plays like they are trying to be clean and perfect actually win a job. Because at the end of the day, the music director — by nature of the fact that it’s in his title — is looking for a musician. And in my experience, panels will generally gravitate to someone who plays music beautifully and convincingly. It’s a given that you have to play with good technique.
We had an audition in LA where one of the candidates played a very musical and convincing final round. But in the super final round, they ran out of steam. The panel still saw their way to continue the audition to an extra final round with the orchestra and this person ended up winning the job. It was the clearest example I’ve ever seen of someone being given so much credit for their musical and convincing playing that they were forgiven for a multitude of sins later on. So I find that panels will generally forgive a lot of things if there are special elements and the playing has a really musical approach and musical intent — of course on top of obviously technical things. Making mistakes is never really the issue.
I’ve never heard a note-perfect audition in any audition. I’ve heard some incredible ones, but not perfect. Even in world-class performances, you hear mistakes in every concert. The best players in our orchestra make mistakes. But they don’t make two in a row and they don’t make many. You always notice with the LA Phil and other great performers that the focus at the beginning of the concert is always at a very high level. Things will go wrong, but the recovery is always immediate, as though nothing happened — a blip on the radar and then back on track.
You often hear in auditions when someone makes a mistake, they get this mentality of “oh my God, I’m in trouble” and then they don’t recover. But I actually get nervous in auditions when people don’t make a mistake. If they play four or five excerpts in a row and we don’t hear any mistakes, I’m asking, “OK, but how will they react when they do make a mistake?” Because everyone will make mistakes and I am interested to find out what happens when they do — does it throw them? Does it re-focus them? What happens?
The people who are focused on that as a priority — not making mistakes — they’re the ones who will make them anyway and then what do they have? If you make a mistake and you’re not saying anything, all the panel hears is the mistake. If you’re presenting a great musical product with a very clear picture and you’re drawing the members of the panel into that moment in the orchestra and piece and they can hear their part around what you’re playing, they will forgive a multitude of things.
I have won seven auditions and I have never played a perfect audition — not even close.
Can you talk about what it means to "live above the line"?
It again goes to process against result and basing your practice on having asked yourself, “How do I get myself to the point where my worst playing is above the line of what is employable?”
That’s been my goal for a long time — to make my worst possible day one that still can win an audition. When you get there, you’ll never have any problem of getting a job. It’s working out “What are the technical elements that I need to work at on a daily basis so that I can produce something that will be at the level that will win an audition?”
Generally, what happens in auditions is that there are many people who can play several excerpts that can win them a job — but their worst excerpts are way below what’s acceptable. As soon as the panel hears that — especially given the amount of people playing — it instantly makes life more difficult for the player.
Sometimes you hear after an audition, “There were a lot of great players but no one got the job.” But that could be the fault of the audition panel and how they set the audition. There could be one or two excerpts placed in an order on the round that made it really difficult for anyone to stay above the line on those specific excerpts. So my mental approach is that I actually want an audition set up like that because it helps to eliminate a lot of people. I spend a lot of time in my mind preparing the transition between excerpts. It’s something you can really work on in your preparation, setting up orders of excerpts that are extremely difficult and the most uncomfortable, so that even your worst excerpt is still above what is the acceptable line.
We hear it a lot in auditions — someone comes in and plays two or three fantastic excerpts and then two or three that are just like, “what happened?” In the mind of the panel, it’s highly concerning.
So, simply just ask yourself… (for example...) is your low register acceptable of someone getting a job? If it’s not, you need to get that above the line.
You encourage practicing in smaller chunks with more sessions throughout the day. Why is that?
There are two reasons. One is that research tells us it’s very difficult to concentrate at a high level for more than a half an hour at a time. So my practice sessions when I am preparing an audition or something very serious are no more than 30 minutes. Within that, I break it down to very clear segments — normally 5-minute segments, but I can divide it into even smaller.
When I was a student, I’d just take a piece out and I would play it until it got better — it might be 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour — and then I would move on. But as I got older, I realized that there were many elements I wasn’t practicing over the course of the week. I would go weeks without practicing certain techniques, musical elements, or even certain pieces that I should have been practicing. Why was that? It was because if I was spending forty minutes on Mozart 4 and hoping it would just get better, I wasn’t practicing low register, or flexibility, or any number of other things. And 40 minutes is eating a lot into the three hours of my practice time! So what I found was that by breaking my practicing into 5-minute segments, I was much more focused. Because in that 40-minute Mozart session, a good 10 or 15 minutes of that would just be mindless repetition and not really focusing on solving anything. But if I practice things for five minutes at a time, I focus and work much harder and get a lot more done. So if I do need to practice Mozart for 40 minutes, I will break that up into eight 5-minute segments throughout the day so that my brain is always coming back like fenceposts to these things and holds it all together.
I learn things a lot quicker that way, I work things more intensely, and it gives me the opportunity to really sit down and ask myself if my practice plan is balanced. It takes a while to get used to it and organize it so that you’re covering all of the elements you want, but the benefits are much greater. And this is what I did for the Melbourne audition — very strict way of working it out. I assessed that I needed to work on the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony for 30 minutes a day, so in every one of my six practice sessions, I was playing it for 5 minutes. What it does for me too is that after five minutes, I’m like, “Oh, but I still want to do more…” But I’ve planned that I will come back to it six times, so I move on and I know and trust that it will develop. And over the course of a week, or a month, or six months, I know that the development will be far greater than what it would have been with a single twenty or thirty minute segment.
Tony Robbins said something along the lines of this: “People generally overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” And I feel it’s sort of that kind of thinking. You panic because you’ve only got five minutes, but if you put that plan in place and are doing those 5-minute segments all over during the course of a week or a month, there is a huge difference because you’re practicing and focusing at a much higher and more intense level.
Do you get nervous? How do you deal with nerves and negative self-talk?
I get nervous. Along with the Don Greene stuff, I have my own centering routine that I’ve developed for myself over the last 15 years or so that I know works really well for me. The more stressful the performance or audition, the more repetitions of that process I will go through during the day leading up to and during the performance. If it’s just a regular concert, I’ll probably just center once when I’m on stage. If I’m playing a solo concerto, I’ll probably center throughout the day and before I go on stage and maybe even when I am on stage if there is time. It’s something I use in every performance — a centering routine to get me focused and to utilize the nervous energy that everyone has when they’re performing.
Negative self-talk is your left brain being active. For me, I use another tool of Don’s — I characterize the voice as a little dude that I just tell to sit on my shoulder. His name is Bob. When I feel the negative self-talk come in, or even sometimes just the commentary of the brain going, “Hey, this is going really well!” I just tell the voice — Bob — to sit on my shoulder and we’ll talk about it later.
Negative self-talk is normal but it can make you feel unconfident. If I am feeling that way, part of the centering process will be to give myself something positive to think about. So the focus of the centering will be to “go for it” or to tell myself that I’m feeling really good.
And if there are times when I’m really not feeling confident about myself, I actually will make out that I am someone else. I will focus the centering around me almost being an actor. I can act like Stefan Dohr, Sarah Willis, Radovan Vlatkovic — or in our orchestra, any of our wonderful principals — people who seem to me to never be flappable or concerned. Obviously they get nervous, but if I can convince myself that I am them and that they are completely confident, then I will be confident as well.
So sometimes it simply goes back to the old adage of “fake it ’til you make it.” Sometimes I can convince myself that I’m great and other nights I can’t so I have to convince myself I’m someone else who’s great. And that’s fine because the result will end up being the same because I go through that mental process.
You've held jobs in the U.S., Australia, and Europe. Do you find that the audition processes are largely different? What changes did you have to make auditioning in these different places?
I actually didn’t really make a lot of changes. The goal was always the same — to play as well as I could and represent myself as best as I could. There is no real “Australian style” of horn playing, so one of the advantages of growing up and studying there is that we have a lot of influence from the German, American, and English styles. It creates a flexibility so there was no real style for me to have to hang onto. When I was auditioning in Germany, I was studying there, so the style was how I was playing at the time.
Coming to LA for that audition, I didn’t really have any expectation of the style I was coming to. I had never heard the LA Phil live, I had heard a few of the Mehta recordings years ago, but I did not make a conscious decision to play in that style. I was maybe naive but also well-informed — because I knew that if I was going to try to change my style to what I thought they wanted, I would not represent myself the best I could. I had played in the States for many summers at the Colorado Music Festival and I had played with many American horn players, so I understood the elements of the style, but I certainly wasn’t going to make any big changes to what I was doing.
I would say it’s important though — if you’re going to play for a big orchestra with a very strong tradition — to understand and learn as much as you can about that style and to make it a part of your own. But I wouldn’t be changing styles to fit each orchestra for every audition you take because you won’t present yourself as best as you can. However, if you’re auditioning for the Vienna Philharmonic, you’re not going to turn up with a Conn 8D. Likewise, if you’re going to audition for the Cleveland Orchestra, it’d probably be wise to show up with an 8D. If it’s an instrument you don’t have, you just prepare as best as you can.
What are the most vital tools auditioning musicians need to be using to prepare today?
Your phone. You have access to any number of performances, recordings, scores, and metronome and tuners. But really the most important tool you have access to is just a piece of paper and a pen.
Sit down and plan out all of the elements. Ask yourself, “Why is Stefan Dohr great?” or whoever your favorite player is. Why are they great? What do they do better than you and why are you not doing it? What are the elements you need to get a job in your dream orchestra? What do you need to be able to do technically on your instrument that will get you to the level where you can get that job? What are the elements that you need have on a daily basis to be able to do that job? How do you get yourself to the point where you understand the Brahms symphonies as well as the Berlin Philharmonic does? What is your mental approach? What is your physical approach? What is your musical approach? Write it all down and work out a way to put it all into your practice and your listening and studying. Planning is the most important tool.
And, Rachelle, you should be congratulated because your book puts all of these things together. It gives you a framework from which to plan that preparation — not only for auditions but for your development as a musician and as a player. And I think it’s one of the most valuable publications I’ve read in a long time.
Lastly, do you have any pre-audition rituals or superstitions?
My normal pre-audition ritual is that I wake up and feel sick. I have thrown up in the hotel before many auditions. It’s just what happens. But it’s normal and it means that I’m ready.
In terms of what I do once I’m there, my ritual is my centering. I do a lot of centering throughout the day. I also find that just holding the horn makes me a lot more comfortable, so I spend a lot of my time just walking around with the horn like a security blanket. But the centering is really key.
I also spend a lot of time singing through the excerpts and I make sure that I leave myself an extra hour to warm-up because my chops always feel bad on an audition day. It’s just another thing to check off my list of “normal things that will happen on an audition day” and then I go back to my process. My process at the start of my warm-up is focusing on setting up a mechanism that is based on breathing well and blowing well. I just want to give it more time because everything always feels a little unusual on the audition day. And honestly, if it doesn’t feel unusual, I’m concerned. If my chops feel weird, and I feel edgy, uptight, and nauseous, then I can spin it in my mind very positively. I expect it, I want it to happen, and I don’t fight it. Then I know I’m ready to play well.
Andrew Bain is principal horn of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the horn teacher at the Colburn School Conservatory. Prior to moving to LA, Andrew held positions as principal horn of the Melbourne Symphony, Queensland Symphony, Münchner Symphoniker and the Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra, and associate principal horn of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. He can also be heard playing principal horn on many major film soundtracks, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens.