Honor Group Auditions

Today the district I teach in held auditions for its honor groups, and I helped adjudicate the clarinets and saxophones.

I am always interested in the variety of ability levels of the students who audition. Some are very well-prepared and have obviously spent hours practicing and working with private instructors. Then there are the few who are totally unprepared, and the judges are left wondering, “Why the heck did you bother coming if you can’t even attempt the music?!” My hunch is that those students have parents who saw a handout with info about the auditions and told the kid, “You’re going whether you want to or not!”

Do you have thoughts about the audition process, either as an adjudicator or as a teacher? What is your process for preparing your students? What criteria sets apart two players of comparable ability? (I know one teacher who values intonation above all else; others prioritize tone.) Any interesting stories to share?

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10 thoughts on “Honor Group Auditions

  1. My thoughts on auditions really focus on keeping everything we do as part of a process to improve ourselves as musicians. It is easy to let the audition (to the students) become the endpoint – all their energy and focus for improving is the audition. Once completed, they can feel less likely to continue the journey. I try and keep their focus that the audition is just one stop and they need to refocus and rededicate their time after the audition is completed.

    The toughest thing that I deal with is that when students lose their sense of value as a musician (and sometimes as a person) if they have a bad audition. I try to collect as much pre and post audition data so that we can look at the big picture of their musical growth during this process.

    As far as priority, in my state our District and Region festivals place emphasis on tone quality (as it is the first tie-breaker). My problem is that though we all know how to produce a good tone as musicians – judging it can be subjective. Personally, I have a student teacher (or band student officers) assist with recording auditions so that they are “blind”. I listen to each audition twice (at that point, each student is only a track number on a CD). The first time evaluating only tone quality, pitch accuracy, and intonation. During the second listen I evaluate rhythmic accuracy, articulation, and expression elements. Once completed, the audition assistants provide me with the names of each student and their corresponding track. I score the audition in this manner so that I can gain a better perspective of the strengths and weaknesses of my students.

    I try to communicate the audition process clearly at the beginning of the year in each of the bands. I want them to clearly understand what my expectations are for them, and how they should prepare. It usually goes very well. Auditions should be part of the process our student musicians go through, and never the end all of their existence. Sorry for going on so long, but I have a lot of thoughts on this one!

  2. Sounds like you are able to put a lot of time into the audition process. I’m jealous! Being a traveling teacher with 3 schools and about 150 students, my situation may be different from yours. Sometimes my interactions with individual students is brief and to-the-point. Your reminder to encourage students to “continue the journey” and generally treat everyone with dignity is good advice. Thanks!

  3. I teach at 9 different elementary schools and just completed auditions for a city wide honor band. I had the good fortune of not making into the same city wide honor band when I was growing up in the town I now teach in. This is a great tool for me as I prepare the weaker players for their impending rejection. I tell them that I ended up OK as a musician even though I did not make it into Super Band (the name of the honor band.) I also share with them any recent experiences I have had with failing at an audition.

    This year, I intentionally did not look at my numbers for the honor band when I was considering individuals. I based each kids thumb up or thumb down based entirely on it they were ready for the group. I think that it is OK for a 5th grade honor band to have 30 clarinets, 9 altos and only 15 flutes and 7 trombones. We will never attain a wonderful blend or balance. Even if I got the right #s for the group, we would still be a 5th grade honor band were the clarinets squeaked, and the trumpets played F natural instead of F sharp.

    I think that I will continue to put the individual students results in their audition over my desires to have the right numbers for my 5th grade honor band. If I were creating a group for an older grade level, my position likely would change.

  4. As an adjudicator and one that has many times been on the “adjudicatee” side of things :), it’s easy to know a few things…

    We know the students with the least abilities… and we know the students with the best abilities… that being said separating the best from the best, or those “close” to each other becomes a little bit subjective and personal to one’s musical tastes and their own judging experience and abilities.

    As all performers and educators know, adjudicating somebody is a “snapshot” in time not a “video”. Decisions have to made based on the “now”, the audition. But the “now” can tell us some things not easily discerned otherwise… abilities under pressure… abilities in public… abilities under scrunity… etc.

    Many times I’ve often wondered what would happen if we left the students sort themselves out and would the results be comparable to our judging process? I bet they would be close (providing against bullying and ego trips). Thesis … dissertation … research project … anybody? 🙂

    We’ve all heard and know of instances where “another student is clearly better than a placement that was decided. This is due to many things, but in particular -a distorted “snapshot” of one moment in time.

    In the end, we are left with the same things we always are in deciding the final outcome: Pitch and Rhythm… Who was best at intonation, feel, rhythm reading abilities, instrumental accuracy/fluency, expressing the “musicality” of the piece, tone, etc… Some times a decision has to be made on two or three really close people and the only things left to compare are the nitty-gritty, whether it’s subtle tone difference (subjective to each judge), or barely perceptable intonation problems (should not be as subjective to each judge, but it is depending on their abilities…),the student’s expressiviness, etc…

    It’s not a perfect system, but it has worked well and regardless of the outcome, two students who are truly “close” in abilities (at least the top in abilities) will likely both be challenged and grow from the experience.

    One thing though, that I still do (despite the occasional murmurings from some of the directors) when I am conducting is to audition the solos on stage from the top two-to-three chairs (sometimes more if needed). This insures me and the ensemble that the best player for the solo is selected. More times that not, the solo parts remain with the chosen, adjudicated, section leader and if it’s “close”, I still leave the solo with the section leader… This process has saved me a small number of times from certain solo disaster during a concert. If I make this noted from the onsent of the concert/rehearsal experience then it helps me to “save” some of the students from a little awkwardness that maybe might otherwise make them feel singled-out if I were forced to make a change to only one soloist on one song, etc…

    Some thoughts,

    -J. Pisano

  5. In response to Jason’s comment, I wholeheartedly agree that for elementary groups accepting or rejecting students based on their ability and not instrumentation is a good approach. I have seen too many good woodwinds be excluded from an elementary honor group while incompetent trombonists were accepted simply because “we need more low brass.” Younger players who deserve membership in an honor group should be given that experience. I am very pleased that the district I teach in uses your approach for elementary groups.

    Joseph, thanks for your insight. I must admit that I am a little curious about your approach to leaving soloists undecided until getting on stage. (Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you wrote and the reality of what you do.) I would think it best to avoid the anxiety of re-auditioning soloists and better to reserve the on-stage time for other issues like balance. In that case that a player is simply not playing the solo well enough, that issue could be dealt with as needed.

    Thanks to both of you for contributing!

  6. Sorry for lack of clarity… What I mean is that just because the order of the “chairs” are almost always decided before I get the students in the rehearsal (or shortly thereafter)the solo parts will not automatically remain with the 1st placed chair and I announce this from the onset of the 1st rehearsal. Now, personally, I’ve never guest conducted a regional or state band yet, and I would probably treat that a little different… we’ll see! 🙂 As far as the time factor, it hardly takes anytime at all to listen to another one or two playes on the stage when we are at the section.

    After reading Jason’s commentary, I see you might be talking about an elementary situation… I was not refering to bands at that stage, mainly jr. high and above. I could see how that elementary students could be frightened by the prospect of a “re-audition”.

    I’m never ENTIRELY sure how the county bands, honors bands, etc. adjudciation comittees decide on their seat placement or may not be aware of what songs/sections were tested… usually you can expect that the major solos will be part of the testing, some comittees test more than others, some every piece, some a few bars here and a few bars there from a few of the pieces and you might be really surprised as to what content really was selected for the audition!, it all depends on where you are, how things have been done, and what protocols they have in place for the audition process. It varys from district to district, county to county, region to region and state to state (and I’m sure country to country!).

    For example, when we audition for the PA intercollegiate festival, we typically select two to three pieces from the concert with varying degrees of difficulty and style and listion to only portions from each piece. This has worked for them for over 60 years and was mainly instituted because of time constraints and limitations.

    -J. Pisano

    P.S. congratulations on taking the plunge as ME blogger! I look forward to your continued insights in the future!

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