How To Practice For Honor Band Auditions

Andrew Swinney


Over the past decade, I must have judged at least a hundred honor band or all-state auditions at both the high school and middle school levels. Here are some tips to help you practice for your audition.

Master The Scales

Scales are the most boring part of the audition, and often times students think "oh, that's easy" and so they don't practice them. This is a huge mistake.

Judges typically have a sheet in front of them with all the pieces you will play. Next to that sheet is a blank spot for how many points you scored on that selection. The actual scores vary, but scales typically account for 30% - 40% of your total score.

These are easy points.

I can't tell you how often I have heard a student say "I don't know that one" or attempt to play it in a way that says the same thing. That could cost them 10 points right there. Even if they were the best on every other piece in the audition, they could lose to someone who was just okay, but knew their scales.

You know that scales will be asked for. Learn them. You'd be surprised how close the scores are for the people who barely make it and those who don't make it. Mastering your scales can make the difference of winning and losing.

You can practice this by writing down the names of all the scales on the audition onto tiny pieces of paper. Put them into a hat and then draw them one at a time. Play whichever scale you draw. If you play it perfectly, put it to the side, if you mess it up then practice it and put it back in the hat. Repeat this process until you have pulled all the scales from the hat. Do this every day.

Pitch And Rhythm

When it comes to performing the prepared piece, make sure you have the basics down. Musical interpretation is the last layer that an audition judge will consider. Wrong rhythms and missed notes are the easiest thing to hear (especially after you've heard it a hundred times).

Usually, the judge will know a couple of "problem spots" where a majority of students will mess up either the rhythm or notes. If you can perform it perfectly, you'll stand out.

One way to fix this is to develop a strong mental version of the piece. If you can't hear the note, then you probably can't play it. It's like throwing a dart at the target – you want to be able to see the target. Many times a professional musician will put up recordings of the piece to YouTube. Listen to it several times.

Also, make sure to practice with a metronome and tuner.

Practice Sight Reading

I know, you're thinking "How can I practice sight reading, I have no idea what it will be?" That is true, but you can still practice the art of sight reading and develop a strategy of how to approach it. You'll typically have between 30 seconds and a minute to look through the piece before you play. You should know exactly how you are going to make the most of that time before you go into your audition.

To practice sight reading, get an etude book you have never seen (maybe even from another instrument). Look at the first etude. If it is long, then look at just the first three or four lines as that is usually how long the passage will be for sight reading. Scan through it until you find a section that looks hard, finger and count through that mentally a couple times, then go back to scanning. You want to use this time to find the parts that will be hard, don't mentally practice the easy stuff.

Dealing With Nerves

The big difference from playing audition music in the practice room and in the audition is the introduction of being nervous. There are two ways to deal with getting nervous for auditions.

The first is to make sure you know the music really really well - maybe you have even memorized it. When you are that comfortable with a piece, you will naturally be more confident, and much of performing the piece will be muscle memory. Your body will know what to do even if your mind is freaking out.

The second is to practice getting nervous. I know, that sounds really unpleasant, but you have to get used to that feeling. Start with something that makes you just a little nervous, like recording yourself and then listening back to it. Once you feel comfortable with that, gradually increase to something that makes you more nervous: play for a friend, play for your parents, play for your teacher, play for a group of people.

If you can work through these four things, then I promise you that you'll stand a great shot at making honor band or all state.