In 2011, I took an audition for a local orchestra. This audition was being held at a church that I had never played in, and I couldn’t test it out before the audition either. When it was my turn to play, I walked into the small chapel and tuned quietly after the proctor announced my number. I looked around and noticed the walls were made of stone, the floor was cement, and had all hardwood pews. I thought, “hmm, this room probably has a good bit of reverb.” And then launched into my concerto.
A “good bit of reverb” was the understatement of the year! This place slapped my first note back at me from three different walls and then made chromatic soup for the next 3.5 sec. I was so surprised by the sound that was coming back at me, that I almost didn’t make it through the first line of my concerto.
I was immediately flooded with all kinds of thoughts trying to cope with the situation:
“Should I play shorter?” I can’t play shorter-it’s all legato..
“Should I play softer?” No, it’s suppose to be forte..
“Why would they hold an audition in this medieval dungeon?!?!” stop thinking about that, focus on Tchaikovsky…
“What have you been playing for the last 10sec?!?!” Pull yourself together man!
“I’m for sure getting a beer after this mess”
As you can see, it clearly sparked some serious and unproductive “self-1 and self-2” inner dialogue (from The Inner Game of Tennis). Strangely enough, despite all that I still advanced to the next round, but ultimately I didn’t win a contract.
How to prepare for strange acoustics:
Since then, I’ve been trying to find a way to prepare for all the strange things that happen at auditions, so that nothing will be a surprise.
However, practicing in different concert halls is not always permissible, practical, or even possible.
Those fancy practice room pods that can change acoustics are like $10,000. I can’t afford that, I can barely afford the dollar menu at taco bell (don’t judge me or my taco bell problem).
And then I found it..
The solution: Garageband!
So there it was, hiding in plain sight on my Macbook.
Here’s what you need:
1) Your Mac with Garageband and a built-in mic, or an external mic (like a USB mic)
2) Headphones. Your earbuds will work, but a longer cord is better.
Here’s what you Do:
1) Click on Garageband to open it.
(obviously you must own a mac for this part to be successful. Sorry to all you PC owners out there)
2) Select, “Create a New Project” choose “Acoustic Instrument”
and then pick a filename for the project. Just name your file whatever, “Delete Me” is what I usually write, cause if I’m not saving it, it will remind me to delete it later.
3) Make sure you headphones are plugged in,
otherwise you will get some nasty feedback at the next step.
4) In the menu bar, go to: Track->”Show monitoring for Real Instrument Tracks”
5) Select that third icon that just appeared so that it turns yellow.
6) Design your concert hall of choice by adding reverb.
-Open the “Track info panel” by clicking on the “i” in the bottom right corner, if it’s not already open.
-Select the “Edit” pane (instead of “Browse”)
-Slide on some Reverb and Echo to your liking. (I like Echo at 10%, Reverb at 40-50%)
-Make sure the metronome is off (unless you want it on)
7) Put your headphones on, and practice!
Try changing up the settings to be prepared for any situation.
-Reduce the track volume if you are hitting the red, (or try stepping farther away from the mic if you can)
-If you are using earbuds, I’ve found that using just the right side also works nicely and the cord stays out of the way of your bow.
Why I like this:
When I’m practicing or playing my instrument, I’m used to hearing everything from directly above the instrument. When I record myself and listen back, I’m usually a little surprised that I don’t sound like what I thought I did, whether it’s out in the hall, from the other side of the room, or even a few feet away.
If you can get a long headphone cord, you can essentially hear yourself from the prospective of your teacher, a panel member, or the audience.
Of course I don’t recommend practicing like this all the time. But it will definitely change things up for you if you are stuck in a practice rut, and I actually think it’s pretty fun too.
Be well and Practice Well
Also, I use the Blue: Yeti USB Microphonefor a little better audio quality, and highly recommend it. You can certainly just use your built-in mic on your Macbook, but if you ever need to make a recording, this is a great and relatively inexpensive mic to get. And you don’t need any other equipment like interfaces or preamps etc-it’s ready to go.
Doing this without headphones:
After I wrote this, I tried taking it a step further, and figured out how to get the same effect without wearing headphones.
What I did was connect my external USB microphone to an external speaker. Positioning the microphone and speaker was a little tricky to avoid getting feedback. Once I figured it out, it was like being on stage in any concert hall I could design.
You could probably do this without a USB mic, just using your laptop mic. But you then need to use some sort of external speaker (connecting a cable out of the computer headphone jack to the speaker’s input). Using a bluetooth speaker might work, but it might have too much delay.
Explore different setups, and try to make sure the speaker isn’t aiming directly at the mic to avoid feedback.
If I could go back in time and tell myself to do one thing differently, it would be to “start learning excerpts sooner.”
I did my undergrad at a great college, and had an amazing teacher, but there was this culture that excerpts were something you worried about later in life….like when you went to grad school, or wanted to get a job and stop eating ramen noodles.
The thing is, orchestral excerpts need time to grow with you, to become your friends that you revisit and get to know more intimately everytime an audition comes up. Sure, anything is possible and you could learn 20 excerpts cold and win the New York Philharmonic’s audition, but it’s just not that realistic (even if you are some kind of wunderkinder ).
So what if you learned just five excerpts each year or summer of your undergrad. By the time you graduated, you would have a 4-year relationship with some excerpts (your new b.f.f.’s) and be really comfortable with 15 other excerpts.
Playing them with an orchestra
One huge advantage to performing excerpts well is if you have played them with an orchestra.
When you play them with an orchestra, you start to really understand why they’re excerpts. Sure, most times, they’re just really stinkin’ hard, but you also hear that other instruments are trying to tune to you, or that you have to play it as a duet with the flute (who has a different interpretation of where the beat is), or that if you rush through that passage it will actually cause a train-wreck.
When you’re in school, you might play two or three concerts a semester, and I bet one of them is either a holiday concert, accompanying the choir, accompanying the concerto competition winners (and $5 says it’s the Nielsen flute concerto…blegh), or the most dreaded of all…Student Composer Premieres (I really love the ones where you have to whisper your home address while playing sul pont tremelo).
Chances are you only get to two, maybe three actual masterworks all year.
Now let me tell you about a festival that has changed my life:
I first attended the Masterworks Festival when I was 16. I had only played in youth orchestras, and wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a musician professionally. I was super intimidated by the high level of playing, and a little overwhelmed by all the music we were playing in orchestra. I thought everyone would be super competitive and not want to even talk to me. However, I was blown away by how warm, inviting and sincere everyone was.
There’s something different about the MasterWorks festival. It’s a Christian music festival (you don’t have to be a Christian, or any denomination to attend), however the focus of the 4-week experience is on integrating faith and the arts.
This year I am proud to be serving on the violin faculty, and will be working with the other amazing faculty to focus on orchestra studies and audition excerpts.
The festival has two orchestras which perform four concerts each, and this year will be performing some amazing works including:
Bach: Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3
Bruch: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9
Mahler: Ruckert Lieder
Mahler: Symphony No. 1
Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4
Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet
Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Overture
Rossini: La gazza ladra Overture
Weber: Concertino in Eb Major, Op. 26
Schubert: Symphony No. 8
Smetana: Bartered Bride Overture
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 2
In addition to this great orchestral experience, students will have the opportunity to perform in mock-auditions, and get feedback from world class faculty that will include:
Alana Pritchard Carithers, violin-Richmond Symphony Orchestra
Terry Langdon, viola-Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
Alan Harrel, cello-Cleveland Orchestra
Thomas Sperl, double bass-Cleveland Orchestra, and many others.
If improving your excerpts, and getting the opportunity to play these masterworks with a great orchestra is something you’re serious about, I would urge you to check out The MasterWorks Festival, which is taking place June 15 – July 13, 2014 in Winona Lake, IN. Also there are a number of scholarships and work-study options to help reduce the cost, so inquire about those if needed.
Don’t wait for future-you to show up in a Delorean to tell you that you should have started learning excerpts sooner.
The friends I made at the MasterWorks Festival my first year have literally become my friends for life (and I’m not talking about excerpts). It’s a festival unlike any other, where you can grow musically and spiritually, and be inspired to take your performances to the next level.
I hope to see you there this summer.
Be well and practice well.
The MasterWorks Festival
Here is a brief overview of the festival: