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  • Ilan Morgenstern, Bass Trombone

Auditioners Got Skillz! On Memes, Courses, and Sushi.

Updated: May 21


Here’s something I have never done: talk openly about my audition experiences.


I haven’t really shared much about this for two reasons. First, those who need to know my playing know my playing. And second, I don’t really enjoy the public aspect of what auditions can become, with websites, emails, social media posts, well-wishers popping up just in time to ask who advanced etc.


But a few weeks ago I was sent an advertisement for a course promising musicians a method for winning auditions. This came on the heels of a well-meaning, but without appropriate context, perhaps somewhat misguided social media post, about one candidate discussing their audition preparation in contrast to other candidates.


So, I would like to preface what I’m about to say next with the following: there is absolutely nothing wrong with making money, there is absolutely nothing wrong with charging for one’s time and expertise, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering products for sale.


You can hear the “but” coming a mile away.


Here’s the thing. Two things actually.


First, every time I go to an audition and spend time around these men and women, who are all at the peak of their abilities, making great sounds and thoughtful music, I can honestly say I am in complete awe of what I hear. This is not hyperbole, and there is just no other way to say it. The level of playing and musicianship I experience in those settings is both intimidating and inspiring. It wouldn't only be presumptuous of me to assume I somehow prepared more or better than the colleagues I see in that arena, it would just be plain wrong of me to make such a statement. What is more? What is better? I feel I can always practice more, and I certainly can always practice better: there has literally been no audition I’ve ever taken where I didn’t miss notes, play out of tune, or lose concentration for a moment, including the ones I won. I’m literally never proud of every sound I make, and I often want a do-over. I doubt I’m alone at that.


Second, if there is a system for winning auditions, I don’t know what it is (with apologies to my students!). Overall truths? Sure! But a "system"?


I’ve been at this for a while and I can be a little bored with audition prep. Sue me: Those two-dozen excerpts have a way of getting old with enough repetition no matter how good the music is. One of the ways I combat the boredom is that I play the excerpts differently for different auditions just to keep them at least somewhat fresh. I’ve used different horns, different mouthpieces, different warm-up exercises, different etude books, etc. I’ve also spent time on several audition committees at this point, experiencing the process from the other side. I can honestly say I’ve heard some great playing and learned a lot in that process, but I’m not sure I heard something that I would call systemically successful.


Still don’t believe me? Below is my track record. Each of those entries represent hundreds of hours of careful practice. I learned from each, and I’m a better player for each experience. And when I lost, no matter what round I lost in, no matter the budget size of the orchestra, or how prominent their metropolitan area is, how famous their music director, or how frustrated I was, I lost to some of the very best brass musicians I have ever heard, people I have deep respect for and appreciation of, people I very much admire. I’ll also add that I totally accept that I might never advance again, perhaps because I don’t know the secret sauce sold in online courses, but more likely simply because the level in the field is absolutely astounding, and every time I go to an audition I meet another absolutely fantastic player I didn't know before.


I’m not saying it’s impossible that there is some sort of secret system for winning auditions. I guess it’s possible that such a thing exists. I'm also not saying it's impossible to practice better or more than everybody else. Presumably somebody is. I am saying that after a decade of doing this, I just don’t know what either of those might look like.


So please take lessons. Please pay for them what you are able. Try to find people who do what you want to do and learn from their experience. Please continue to listen, read, learn, grow, and expand your horizons. I would only add that when a person dangles a promise in front of you of guaranteed audition success, treat it like sushi: Trust your nose.

Ok, here we go:


Didn’t advance: San Diego (2020: auto), Lyric, Indianapolis, Boston, Utah, Milwaukee, Rochester (private audition with a dozen or so invites), Buffalo.


Semis: Santa Fe Opera, Charlotte, San Diego (2010: They called it finals but it was the second round).


Finals: Pittsburgh, New York (section), Atlanta, Minnesota, Kansas City (twice), Los Angeles, Houston, Honolulu


Winner: San Antonio, Jacksonville, Houston Grand Opera, Vancouver.


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