Step-by-step guide to making All-State Band/Orchestra with Tips on winning Auditions
There is fierce competition at the high school level to surpass other musicians in the state. Some states are more or less competitive, depending on the size and skill level of the music programs. I will focus on my own experiences in Texas, both as a student who made it to All-State twice, and as a teacher whose students regularly make it to Area, Region, and All-State.
Step One: Be prepared and make a plan
Early preparation is key
It may be tempting to think of audition prep as beginning when you receive your audition music, but in reality, winners know that audition prep never really begins or ends; it is simply a shift in the intensity and direction of your practice.
Make sure you are practicing scales, arpeggios, long tones, and other etudes and solos daily, and practice performing them for someone every week or so. Your practice performances could be for your teacher in your weekly lessons or, for extra practice, for a friend.
Two things are certain: 1. You will need to know all of your scales for the audition, and 2. Your etudes will consist of tonal elements that will challenge your technique.
You can get an edge on the competition if you practice fundamentals years in advance, with careful attention to ease and efficiency. It is never too late to start working on good technique, which can be a slow and arduous process. Don’t let the audition catch you off-guard.
Furthermore, you can prepare by practicing etudes from the same books that the All-State etudes are drawn from. It is no secret what the source of the etudes will be, and while you may not know the actual selection until the summer, you will have an advantage if the etudes are totally in your wheelhouse, because you have seen them and worked them up before.
Make sure you have access to a good instrument/reeds/teacher.
If you want to make All-State, find out what resources others have used to get there. If you are playing on a 20-year-old Bundy that is missing keys, things will not go well for you. You may also want to find out who teaches the other All-Staters in your area and take lessons from them as well.
You will need a private teacher!
Do not attempt to take the auditions alone! It is hard enough with guidance. While finding a good teacher may take few trial lessons and my cost a significant amount, finding the right match is imperative. I have a few suggestions for finding a good teacher which you can read about by clicking here.
A well-organized practice plan
As soon as school is out for the summer, you need a plan! How much can you practice per day in the summer, and how much will that change when school starts again in August? How much can you practice per week? These are questions that you want to know well in advance – don’t just see what happens to your schedule as the days pass on.
I recommend setting aside 2-4 hours daily for practice, and separating these into one-hour chunks. For example, in the summer, have a morning practice session from 10-11am for scales and long tones, then another from 1-2pm for a weekly etude, and another from 8-10pm for etudes, solos, or scales as needed.
Set reasonable goals for tempo and material, and work incrementally but daily. You may be amazed at how fast you progress if you maintain a steady schedule.
When school starts, things may get more complicated. I remember my sophomore year, getting to school an hour earlier and staying there two hours after the bell rang to make sure I focused while I practiced because I couldn’t focus as well at home. You may try the same if, like me, your best practicing happens in the band hall when no one else is around.
Set some weekly goals for tempo and put them in a calendar, and use your practice time to drive toward your goals.
Step 2: Practice, Practice, Pratice!!!
My favorite oboe teacher in high school once told me, “The person who wins the audition is the person who practiced and recorded themselves the most! It is no secret how to win auditions, but people just don’t want to do it and then complain when they lose.”
This has proven to be true time and time again. If you want to be successful, work slowly and thoughtfully and don’t take days off.
I remember working on only two bars of an etude per hour, starting well below half tempo and only allowing myself to raise the metronome speed by one click every time I played it correctly three times. Sometimes I would punish myself and only go faster when I had played it correctly seven times. Obviously this takes forever, but the goal is to never play it wrong, and this is easier at a slow tempo until you can play it effortlessly at a slightly faster one.
Use a metronome and tuner
There are two tools that separate competent musicians from the incompetent: the metronome and the tuner. If you want to make Region Band, you don’t have to be the best; you just have to play in time and in tune. It is amazing to me, now that I judge the competition, how many students obviously played their etude through five million times incorrectly and cannot keep time or pitch. The few who do keep time and pitch, even at slower tempos, will pass to the next round.
Use a tuner and a metronome, and use tricks to help you become independent of them. For example, play with a drone on the tonic pitch to check your intonation, then try on the fifth. Can you tell when the harmonic changes occur and how to tune them?
For the metronome, try setting it to keep time with the 16th note, then the eighth note, then the half note, then the whole note, then one click every two bars, etc. You may have to do some math, but that is the price of victory.
For example, if you are playing a piece in 4/4 time at quarter note = 70, set the metronome to 35 to see if you can still play in time. This is the metronome keeping track of the half note. Try with the click on 17 and see if you can still play in time. If your metronome doesn’t go that low, buy a better one. I use the Tonal Energy app ($4) and the Pro Metronome app (free), but there are physical ones as well.
Memorize your audition etudes
You should not have to actively memorize your etudes, but if they are not inevitably memorized after 12 weeks of work, you are not practicing with enough focus. This means that by the time October ends, when most regions hold auditions, your etudes should be memorized.
If they are not, don’t sweat. Just adjust your practice techniques to help you get more out of your practice sessions. Your teacher can help!
Gauge your competition at different levels
The interesting thing about Texas All-State is that everyone in the state and their grandmother will be working on the same material. You and your friends in your section should play for one another. If you are not inspired to practice after this, get on Facebook and ask some students at another school if you can play your etudes for each other. Maybe your teacher can connect you with other students who you may make fast friends with.
Keep in mind that malicious competition is not helpful, and if you are trying to beat someone specifically, you are focusing your energy in the wrong place. Your competition is not your studio mate or friend. Your competition is EVERYONE ELSE across the state, whom you have never even heard of. You should help your studio mates and friends, and they will help you both emotionally and musically.
Step Three: The audition
Auditioning is a unique skill that is hard to pick up. Luckily, Texas All-State is so needlessly high-pressure that students develop nerves of steel.
How can you expect to be good at juggling chainsaws if you have never done it before? The same holds true for auditioning in front of 20 of your peers and a blind panel of sleepy judges. Organize mock auditions with your friends as many times as you can. Take turns being the judges and the auditioners. If you do this at least 4 times in the fall, your audition in December will feel like a breeze.
You may also ask your private lesson teacher to help you hold a mock audition for the studio. This may be daunting to organize, but it will give you a chance to meet students from lots of different schools and get a better feel for your competition.
Imagine your performance nightly a week before the audition
Countless audition advice books talk about the power of visualization, and for good reason. Imagine the day of your audition and focus on how you feel, what you see, and what you hear. Imagine yourself playing through the etudes, or sing them if that is more fun. The mind is a powerful thing, and the more times it can practice an experience, the less of an event it will be when it comes.
If you have the drive and discipline to make All-State, especially in a state like Texas, you are clearly a cut above the rest. Just be sure not to take yourself too seriously, and make lots of friends, not enemies. Be nice to everyone who holds an instrument, and have a good time – you are all more similar than you are different. Have fun and play beautifully!
Good Luck with your auditions!! If you are preparing for an audition let me know in the comments below!