alison’s Tip o’ the Month for December 2003

Lessons to be learned from All-State try-outs

As a flute teacher in Houston, I sometimes had students studying with me who played nothing all fall semester but the three All-State try-outs etudes. Of course, if they made the region cut and were hoping to get into All-State, they sometimes continued their work well into the Christmas season, sometimes not giving my ears a break until after we crossed into the new year.

All-State is so important to the band students in Texas that I found it difficult to dissuade them from spending every moment of their flute-face time on these pieces, often times the most difficult music they would ever encounter.

What I must mention, however, is that although I had chosen the études one year myself, given classes and clinics, found numerous tricks and tips to give my young students to improve their playing, I had not served on a judging committee until just a few years ago.

What a shock that was! The sheer numbers of players is astonishing. The only way to be sure each and every student is given a fair hearing is to line them up five at a time and have them essentially play back-to-back. A twenty-second warm-up and one starting note is all offered to help the struggling flutist keep his composure and shore up for the task at hand.

Here are a couple things I have learned from being a judge in this contest-of-wills.

It is nearly impossible for the judges to make a truly accurate ranking of each and every flutist. We operate on instinct – what grabs us – to award higher or lower points. So this means that you must distinguish yourself as much as possible.

1. Exaggerate dynamics and show the musical phrase. This shows the judge that you have some concept of what the piece is saying. Surprisingly, there are very few competitors who make any colorings and shadings at all.

2. Play slightly under tempo. You will be nervous, you will be shaky – even the judges feel the intensity in the room. Playing fast is risky at best, but can also become the sole focus of your energy as opposed to making beautiful music.

3. Take your time. The atmosphere of all-state tryouts might make you feel rushed and anxious. You have a moment to collect yourself right before you play, so take this time – it is yours to take! The judges are writing, scribbling, and adding up points and won’t mind a slight pause.

4. Practice before the auditions in the driest room you can find – maybe a carpeted classroom. I have never heard an All-State audition held in a nice, live, concert hall. They always seem to be held in cramped rooms with maps or similar sound-soaking materials on the walls. You may be thrown off the first time you hear your sound and become distracted. Remember, everyone is playing under the same circumstances.

5. Pay no attention to those who play better or worse than you. The judges are desperate to hear someone play beautifully and accurately. Focus on what you have to offer and present it to us. It is a wonderful gift to receive.

6. By-all-means try to keep your perspective. The Texas Music Educators Association provides five judges to listen to you play. These are five judges with totally different backgrounds and prejudices. What is important to one – say, accurate technique – may far outweigh a lovely sound or phrasing. The judges’ tallies are averaged with the highest and lowest thrown out. I have seen my firsts moved down to third and my fifths moved up to second, etc. Making the top ten might be an accurate measure of your success, but the difference between up and down a few chairs is usually negligible.

Your all-state audition is a great lesson for life. Public speaking, presentations, and applying for jobs will all feel like a breeze compared with these few moments to “show what you’re made of” at all-state. Bring a good book, stay calm, eat some bananas (for the calming nutrients) and try to have a good time!

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