Getting ready for a performance or audition can be a daunting process. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by everything you need to prepare, and end up procrastinating instead of being productive.
Here are some tips I have created and collected over the years. While I still struggle with performing in some ways, this process has helped me feel confident even when I'm nervous.
1. Know the requirements.
Make sure you do your research. Know the audience/organization for which you are auditioning. What do you need to play, how long does it need to be, will you play alone or with an accompanist, where will the audition/performance take place?
2. Allow plenty of time.
When possible, give yourself months to prepare. Auditioning and performing at your highest level takes preparation, time to get to know the material, and mental practice. If you don't have a lot of time to prepare then, if possible, choose music with which you're already comfortable.
3. Plan your practice.
Approach your practice with a plan – don't just sit down and play every day (though daily playing is great!). Go into each practice session with a goal – it can be small or large, but be sure you know exactly what you want to accomplish. Make every practice session count.
4. Divide and conquer.
It's not enough to sit down each day and play through everything – that can often feel overwhelming and stressful. As you're planning your practice, be sure to take things in chunks. Tackle one scale or two measure of a solo or the exact articulation of a phrase.
5. Slow and steady.
I think this one might be the hardest! Slowing down when you practice takes great concentration and restraint. But a little slow work on a particular passage can turn 30 minutes of practice turn into 3 minutes of practice. Slowing down and setting a metronome tells you a lot about which parts needs more focus. Slow work means more efficient work – and that means you get more done with each practice.
6. Tackle the tough spots.
It's easy for everyone (yes, including me) to only want to play what we like, what is easy for us, and what is most enjoyable. But practice is different than playing. Practice means working on the things that aren't easy, that aren't going well, and that are challenging. That means that we might not always sound our best during practice – and that's the point! If you sound great while you're practicing every day then you're probably not practicing the right things. Tackle the things that are difficult for you, that don't come easily, and that cause you discomfort. Because practice will make them easier – and then what first intimidated you will become your friend!
7. Play it for people.
It's important to practice being nervous as well as practicing your music. So, before your audition or performance, plan to play for friends, family, peers, etc. Ask them to give you feedback. Take regular lessons so your teacher can help you achieve your goals.
8. Record yourself.
Sometimes the best feedback is the completely objective recording – it allows you to hear exactly what you sound like and then make a plan for working on what still needs work.
9. Play everything twice.
As you're nearing the time of the actual performance/audition, practice playing your whole audition/performance twice straight through -- if you can, then you probably have the endurance and stamina to make it through your audition/performance even with nerves. When we get nervous, our muscles and mind don't work the same way as when we're relaxed – so if you can play everything twice through and not be tired, then you're well on our way to being prepared enough to play while being nervous.
Imagine what it will be like to walk in to the performing space, sit down, put your music on the stand, feel nervous, and then take a deep breath and play. Practicing that mentally makes a big difference! If you mentally practice as much as you physically practice, you'll be ready to face your audition/performance with confidence. Always breathe deeply and with a relaxed belly as you visualize (and as you walk into a performance situation) – this keeps your heart rate down and lets you feel more relaxed. Believe in the reality of positive thinking!
Now for the actual DOING of it! Moving from the preparation stage to the performance/audition stage is an important mental practice.
1. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
Nothing gives you more confidence going into an audition or performance than being as prepared as possible. Listen to recordings of the music, plan your practice, play for others, and know your music backwards and forwards – then you'll feel completely ready!
2. Know that everyone listening wants you to do well.
Sometimes we imagine that the people listening want us to fail. But have you ever hoped that the people you've heard performing will fail? I doubt it! When you listen to music, you want to hear the best; you want to love it. It's the same when you audition or perform – everyone listening to you wants you to do your best, sound great, and be confident. So use their positive thoughts and energy to your advantage!
3. Positive thinking.
It may seem cheesy or New Age-y, but going into a performance situation with positive thoughts can make a real difference. Say to yourself things like, “I am prepared. I will do well. I love this music. I want to share what I've learned with those who are listening. I know I can play with my best sound. I'm excited to meet this opportunity!”
4. Never feel rushed.
Usually, during auditions and even during performance, things are behind schedule and everyone around you is rushing around, pushing you to hurry up. But you ALWAYS have time to breathe, close your eyes, visualize your performance, and walk slowly. Don't let other people's stress affect your attitude – take your time, take deep breaths, empty the water from your horn, and go into your playing with a calm mind.
5. Smile, stand tall, and acknowledge your audience, judges, and accompanist.
The smile isn't as much for other people as it is for you – putting a smile on your face allows you to feel confident, strong, and positive. The muscles in your face can actually trigger all those "happy" chemicals in your brain to start pumping (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins). Standing tall allows you to breathe deeply and calmly. Acknowledging your audience/judges with eye contact and/or a bow allows you to bring them into your circle, into your support system – they're on your team! Acknowledging your accompanist allows you to feel a partnership with them – you're not alone; you have a support system in your accompanist.
Take a tuning note, even if you know you're already in tune. It allows you to play a note (and find your first pitch) before you start your audition/performance, get a feel for you breath, and hear the acoustic space you're in for your performance. Take your time! Use good air! Love your tone!
7. Think through your piece.
Even if you only have a short amount of time, think through the details of your audition/performance materials so that you carry your preparation into your performance. Mental preparation is as important as physical preparation.
8. Do your best.
No one's audition/performance is perfect. You will never do everything as well as you want to. But you CAN do your best and then let it go. Focus your energy and attention on as many of the details as you can, keeping in mind your preparation – and then be content with a job well done. You will make mistakes -- but if you can let them go and focus on what comes next, you will still show your best playing.
No matter what happens during your audition/performance, you deserve congratulations for going through the preparation and process. Whether or not you did your best, you did good work! That's always worth recognizing. You learned from your experience – how it feels to prepare, how it feels to be nervous, how it feels to play for complete strangers. That's important!
10. Learn from your experience.
Now that you've auditioned/performed, you have more information about how to prepare for next time. What made you feel the most nervous? What excited you the most? What caused you the most stress? All of that information allows you to prepare even more for the next time around. Every experience is a LEARNING experience. Perfection is NOT possible – but progress is ALWAYS possible.
All horn players miss notes. All horn players worry about being good enough; we worry about being perfect. You are not alone. You have a whole community of horn players who have struggled the way you have struggled, worried about what worries you, and strived for what you want to achieve. You are NOT alone.
Take a deep breath and GO FOR IT!
What have you got to lose? Nothing.
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