As a serious pianist there is nothing more rewarding than passing a music audition. Music auditions are important for a number of reasons too. They can open doors to performance careers, help pianists secure scholarships, and of course get into school for more study.
In fact I can remember my first college audition and just how nervous I was. I was all dressed up in my black suit and had a fresh haircut. My fingers were trembling as the doors to the recital hall opened. As I walked up to the Steinway grand I remember seeing the faculty sitting in the dark. Long story short, I passed the audition; but it wasn’t easy!
I’ve had my fair share of piano auditions over the years and surely the toughest element is dealing with performance anxiety. Choosing the right repertoire is also another thing musicians have to consider too. After having plenty of success with auditions (and some failures) I’ve kind of developed a system that I go to anytime I have one coming up.
Below is a helpful list of piano auditions tips that have worked for me over the years:
- Prepare Early
- Choose Solid Repertoire
- Record Yourself Performing
- Have A Mock Audition
- Ask Your Teacher For Advice
- Don’t Over-Practice
- Be Flexible
- Dress For Success
- Have A Positive Attitude
- Don’t Try To Please The Jury
- Ask Plenty Of Questions
- Bring A Hankerchief
- Eat A Good Meal
- Practice Random Measures
- Make Notes In Your Music
- Practice Interview Questions
- Ignore Performance Mistakes
That’s quite a list, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll help you perform much better at your upcoming auditions. Whether it’s a live engagement or pre-screening materials, I think these piano audition tips will put you in just the right spot for good results. Let’s dig in to the list!
Growing up I was a diligent pianist. I worked hard and really enjoyed the whole idea of practice. The problem was that I was never consistent with it. Some days I would do 1 hour, and other days I would maybe do 20 minutes.
The day before each weekly lesson I would find myself scrambling though. Then I would walk into the lesson kind of nervous because I didn’t know how things would unfold.
Auditions have a similar aura of uncertainty when you prepare too late too. It’s advisable to prepare weeks, months and even up to a year out depending on the difficulty of the audition. If it’s for a music school obviously you want to know your piano repertoire inside out. If it’s for a competition then there’s no excuses for having memory slips because of poor preparation.
Because of this I recommend choosing your auditions and various competitions a year in advance. This gives you enough time to chart out what repertoire you want to perform and put together a solid game plan to learn it and master it. The amount of performance anxiety you’ll get by default is one thing, so to combine that with frantic last-minute preparation is a bad recipe.
Choose Solid Repertoire
I’ve seen many pianists enter various competitions and auditions trying to play the most difficult thing they can. Those pianists usually crash and burn from music overload and never getting a full artistic (or technical) grip on the works. Contrary to popular belief, most juries are not concerned with someone who plays the most flamboyant showpiece. Instead juries are interested in how well you’ve mastered your repertoire.
Choose solid repertoire that you’re 100% comfortable with and grow from there. If there’s a really difficult piece in your program then make sure to surround it with pieces that you can really own. I would select high level works that can stand their own competitively, but that you also feel good about performing.
The other issue with repertoire selection is picking pieces that you connect with. Don’t play Mozart if you hate it; that Haydn Sonata would fit the bill nicely. Also when it comes to looking at the repertoire lists of past competitors and audition lists choose wisely. There is no one size fits all when it comes to repertoire selections.
In the past competitions were pretty strict on what you could and could not play from a program balance standpoint, but these days free repertoire selection is becoming increasingly common.
Record Yourself Performing
This might sound weird, but audiences don’t make me nervous at all. Recording myself however is a much different story. I’ve found that when the camera is on I’m over-analyzing every note, every dynamic and articulation. This might sound like torture on the surface, but it’s actually a great way to prepare yourself.
Listening back to your recordings will give you some insight into some of the things others around you actually hear. I know on my recordings I’m able to hear fluctuations in tempo, memory slips and anything that I wouldn’t be able to focus on live. This helps me create a solid practice plan that I then can use to address those areas specifically.
Recording yourself is one of the best ways you can possibly prepare yourself for a piano audition. You can do it on your smartphone or tablet, but I recommend using high quality microphones so you get accurate tape to analyze.
I use the Behringer C-3 condensor mics when I record. They are really high quality and can record in figure eight patterns, cardoid and omni-directional. If you are on a large stage or in a small room having those microphone options are perfect.
Have A Mock Audition
Grab a group of your friends, family, or even a couple of local music teachers and host a mock audition. This is really crucial and one of the only ways you can truly replicate what the experience will be like. Take note of the competition settings or music school audition schedule and try to map out your entire day just like it.
If your audition is at 3:00PM then go through the process of waking up, eating a good meal, getting dressed, driving over to the recital hall (or in your home), warming up, and then presenting your program. If there’s an interview in the schedule, go ahead and do that too.
Also consider adding in the portion where you get a letter in the mail that gives you your results too. You could have your audience do real-time jury notes as well just as the real audition would. This might seem like a lot of work, but I recommend doing this 2 or 3 times to get comfortable. It just might surprise you how the nerves and performance anxiety find a way to creep in even though the experience isn’t “real”.
Even as a professional pianist I still go through this process to an extent. I’ll reach out to people in the community or even run down to my local Steinway Society and perform mini-concerts for them. Then I’ll travel to another state to perform the show and feel really confident because I’m that prepared.
Ask Your Teacher For Advice
Thinking you know it all is not that uncommon among some pianists. I’ve talked about this before, but piano is a life-long commitment. You’re always going to be be in a position of learning; even after you’ve achieved high levels of mastery. The one person you should be able to trust the most is your teacher.
Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice as you dig through your repertoire. Ask them to listen to you, give you constructive feedback, correct your mistakes, and to help you formulate a plan for success.
I get that when it comes to auditions it’s second nature to not want to make any changes to how you play, your fingering or your approach. A good teacher will make those changes if needed though and help you feel confident about them. If you feel your teacher is not approachable then maybe it’s time to get a new teacher.
I’ve suffered hand injuries before from practicing too much. I had collaborative recitals coming up, end of semester juries, and of course post secondary piano auditions. In my mind it was a good idea to practice 7 hours per day so that I would be great at everything. What I ended up doing was hurting myself trying to do too much.
As you prepare for your auditions make sure to take plenty of breaks. It’s even an okay idea to take a day or two off here and there so you can regroup physically and mentally. There’s such thing as musical overload. Overloading yourself can hinder your creativity as an artist as well as weaken your chances to succeed.
Classical musicians are widely known for trying to do way too much in order to be the best; perfect really. No amount of practice will achieve perfection, however you can get close to it. Make your practices efficient rather than drawn out sessions.
My best audition results tend to come when I break things down. Chip away at your musical goals one bit at a time. If you’ve given yourself plenty of time to tackle the repertoire than this should be a piece of cake.
Picture this next scenario. You’ve done your mock auditions and today is the big day! Everything is set, you’ve had your meal, gotten dressed and have arrived and warmed up. The clock strikes 3:00PM and you’re ready to walk in for the audition.
Then it happens.
“Sorry, we’re about 15 minutes behind”. Now you have to wait and all of that balled up adrenaline is there with nowhere to go. Your fingers tremble and you start to freak out! This is really common, but if you’ve got an open mind to being flexible then it should not deter you.
Auditions often run behind (or even ahead) no matter where you go. There might be a situation where you arrive early and have to end up waiting a really long time. I suggest bringing some reading material with you other than your music.
Be polite, and worry less about starting on time. It’s also a good idea not to have any meals or gatherings scheduled too close to your audition time either just in case. Auditions should be looked at as a day long event. Besides, you never know what will happen such as you getting sick, or a flat tire or anything that could throw things off. Be ready for anything and always have a back up plan.
Dress For Success
Surely you know that wearing a suit or dress is great for piano auditions. I’m willing to allow a little bit of wiggle room here. What you wear can have a big impact on how you play. I suggest wearing something that’s easy to move around in, especially if you’re doing a lot of octave passages.
If it’s a dress maybe don’t make it too long so that you can easily touch the pedals. Shoe selection is also important too so that the pedaling is accurate. I’ve purchased many suits over the years right before an audition, put it on and immediately realized I was uncomfortable once the audition started.
At that point it was too late, and I know many pianists have been in a similar situation. Whatever you wear, make sure that it’s appropriate but not something that’s going to hinder the performance.
Have A Positive Attitude
Listen, auditions are kind of scary right? I mean, you’ve got a group of people scribbling on their notepads at every note you play; critiquing every little thing. Rather than fearing this, embrace it! This is what auditions are all about, separating one pianist from another.
A positive attitude will go a long way towards a solid performance. People can actually hear that in your playing whether you miss notes or not. It’s hard to have a genuine performance when all you’re worried about is trying to sound perfect.
As a musician the goal should be to convey a message. We are at our best as musicians when we play with a free and open mind. I wish this part of the process was easy, but it isn’t. It’ll take plenty of mock recitals to get this just right.
Performance anxiety is a real issue for some of us, and it starts weeks and even months before the real event. I recommend checking out The Piano and the Couch: Music and Psyche; it’s a wonderfully written book that breaks down how artistry is impeded and ways to free yourself to play your best.
Don’t Try To Please The Jury
Before you disregard this suggestion just hear me out.
Trying to please the jury might seem logical, and to some extent it is. You want to make sure that you’re programming competitive repertoire and that it will appeal to many tastes. Trying to rub shoulders is another.
Often times you can see who your jury is well before any competition or school audition.Don’t try to work your repertoire around them though, especially if it doesn’t define you as an artist.
Juries are going to be subjective anyway, that’s just how it is. One professor might love your Mozart, and the other might hate the way you perform the trills. Instead focus your time on being the best artist you can be and don’t hold your head down if some of the jury doesn’t like it.
There’s plenty of competitions, schools, and festivals in this world that someone is bound to love your playing. Give whoever hears you your best as an artist and the rest will handle itself.
Ask The Jury Questions
This tip is really helpful after the audition. If possible try to ask the jury some questions about your performance; especially if you have comment sheets to read over. Usually they’ll be glad to expand on their notes and give you a little coaching session as well. The more you know the better off you’ll be for the next round of auditions.
Be mindful of the audition rules, especially if it’s a competition. Some of them want full transparency and discourage interacting with the jury.
Bring A Handkerchief
Cold joints are a already tough to manage when trying to play anything on the piano. Sweaty hands are another issue too. It’s not ideal to dry them off on your pants or jacket because the material really won’t capture all of the moisture.
I like to bring a handkerchief with me to concerts and auditions to keep my hands from slipping all over the place. It works like a charm!
Eat A Good Meal
Energy is everything when it comes to performance. A good meal will provide you the kind of energy needed to power through all of your music. Food also helps you keep your focus during performance. Don’t eat any sort of sweets though and try to avoid coffee if you can. Plenty of carbs like pasta, bread and bananas are perfect.
Practice Random Measures
This gets back to the basics of piano practice, but this technique is worth trying out. Once you’ve mastered some of your music, try playing random measures. Start in different points of your piece rather than always in the middle, beginning, and ending sections.
Perhaps come in on the middle part of a measure instead of the beginning of it too! This tip also works well when you are practicing one piece and then you randomly drop in a measure from a completely different composer! Try it out, it’ll play with you a little bit, but it proves your knowledge of the work.
Make Notes In Your Music
My old college professor would always tell me “If your music has no marks in it then you’re doing something wrong”. I kind of brushed it off initially, but they certainly were right. Your music should be full of fingerings, ideas, arrows and other bubbly scribbles too. This means you’re really thinking about what you’re playing!
These notes are not just beneficial for when you’re actively studying the piece, but they are really helpful for when you revisit the music later on.
There’s plenty of music I’ve learned over the years and have had to relearn for recitals and auditions. The pieces that always take me the longest to get back are those where I barely wrote anything; especially those without fingerings!
Practice Interview Questions
If you’re auditioning for a Masters or Doctorate degree, then chances are the panel will want to interview you. Now, this part is a little tricky because it has almost nothing to do with playing. For that reason musicians often neglect preparing for the interview portion, and that’s where they get burned. These interviews are part of the audition!
Interviews are where colleges can decided who is worth of the scholarship money and who isn’t. I mean let’s face it, at that level there isn’t too much of a difference between one pianist and another (except for that pesky sightreading portion). As long as you give solid and honest answers that should satisfy you enough.
Practicing the interview questions with a friend is a great idea. This gives you a chance to get out all of the stuttering and of course polish those answers. Make sure that whatever you do during an interview that you keep the focus on the music and try not to sound snobby. If anything don’t come across as someone who is a pompous pianist.
There’s other ways to be a confident pianist without gloating. Show them your worth during the performance and think of the interview as a crucial supplemental part of the audition process.
Ignore Performance Mistakes
Lastly I want to leave you with something that I’ve never had a problem with understanding, but that’s because I had great teachers instill this into me at an early age. Don’t stress about performance mistakes. They are going to happen and it’s unfair to look down on your playing because of that; even in practice.
When you travel to perform somewhere for an audition you have to understand that all fo the elements around you have changed. Odds are you didn’t sleep in your normal bed the night before, and the piano you’re playing is a 9 foot Steinway D rather than your old beat up upright piano.
My friend, that’s a drastic change! As beautiful and amazing as that instrument is in that recital hall, there’s no way you can really prepare for that moment. Sure there’s mock auditions, but the real thing is always going to be different.
When mistakes happen in your playing you have to learn to push through them. Whatever you do, don’t stop! As someone who performs the piece over and over again it’s only us who will know every little mistake that’s made in the piece. The jury won’t however. And think, they have to listen to tons of musicians every day trying to judge them.
Mistakes are a drag I know. They stink when they happen, but even the greatest of pianists have made them. It’s part of the process, so embrace it! Who knows, if you put your mind to it and stay really focused you may not have any mistakes!
So there you have it, my 17 piano audition tips that I think every pianist should try out. I’m sure there’s more that I can add to the list to try and help you out, but I think you get the picture.
Having a successful piano audition comes down to a couple of key things. It’s really important that you are prepared well in advanced. Without that it’s hard to come up with a plan for success. Once you’ve gotten a plan together it’s time to go execute it. Play for as many people as you can and make an effort to get as much feedback as possible.
If you’re not getting the feedback from real people, then it’s important to record as much as possible. Passing auditions isn’t an exact science, but there’s some reasonable steps you can take to really improve your chances.
The other thing to remember is that the jury is looking forward to hearing you, so don’t be afraid! An audition is an opportunity to share in a wonderful musical experience with others. Sure the stakes are a little higher, but that’s what pianists signed up for. I believe if you spend a little bit of time each day working on these tips then you’ll be ready for the performance in no time!
As always, invest in yourself. Grab quality recording equipment like some of the microphones I mentioned, and read books on performance anxiety. Whatever issue you’re currently having with auditions can likely be fixed. There’s plenty of resources out there for musicians who are in need.
If you’re having an issue make sure to ask questions. There’s a wealth of information that your teacher can share with you, and if you get the chance reach out to the jury and start a conversation.