by John Tafoya

Published in the April 2001 issue of Percussive Notes magazine.

"How do you prepare for a timpani audition?" This is a question that has been asked of me many times by both students and fellow colleagues. Currently there are approximately 65 timpanists who are actively taking timpani auditions. Competition for openings that occur every few years is fierce. What can you do to improve your chances? Is there a magic formula for success at auditions? Many players believe that it's a "roll of the dice" affair in most cases. Obviously, no one can tap into the individual thoughts of the audition committee at any given audition. However, there are several things that you can do to prepare yourself for the audition experience. Here are a few suggestions:

Do your homework
Are you familiar with all of the excerpts when you receive the audition repertoire list? Even the most experienced players may come across a couple of surprises when looking over a repertoire list. Certainly, any composition that is unknown to you should receive your immediate attention. Is there a decent recording and score to the work available? An average repertoire list may contain 20 or more excerpts. Every excerpt must be studied thoroughly. If you find yourself saying "I hope they don't ask to hear the Mozart", you should certainly think twice about spending the time and money to take the audition.

Be sure to study the entire piece - not just the excerpt. Try your best to obtain a full timpani part if possible. A knowledgeable audition committee will want to determine if a candidate knows only the excerpt or if he or she is an experienced player completely familiar with the works on the repertoire list. Use well-known recordings (top 10 orchestra) in your study. Gather tempo markings from the recordings, check them against the marking listed in the music and find a middle ground. Mark any unusual phrasing, dynamics, or style in the excerpt that is NOT marked in the part. Be sure to catalog the specific style of the excerpt: Mozart=lighter, Wagner=heavier, etc.. Of course, previous orchestral experience with an excerpt is a plus. In general, each excerpt should be played as if you are playing it with an orchestra.

I generally prepare 6 weeks before the scheduled audition. After determining what the tempo will be for each specific excerpt, I spend the first several weeks practicing the repertoire list with a metronome. My goal at this point is to make sure that each excerpt is rhythmically solid and at the appropriate tempo. After practicing through the list for several weeks, use a tape recorder (without a metronome) for your practice sessions. Listen to your practice tapes to verify the tempo, style, mallet choice and intonation.

Rests are IMPORTANT - but try not to count rests! I find that if I'm nervous, I will rush through the rests. I will almost always substitute a "phantom rhythm" instead of counting "1, 2, 3, 4." For example, after the downbeat of the second measure of Mozart's Symphony No. 39 I play the first measure again (internally) and then play the third measure "in time."

"Cross-reference" your metronome markings if you have trouble remembering specific tempos. For example, the sixteenth-note pulse for the opening of Mozart Symphony No. 39 is very close to the half-note pulse in the "Troyte" from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Develop your own personal strategy for each excerpt. This should include: mallet choice, style, tunings, general feeling, tempo, etc. Learn to play the excerpts "cold" - with no warm up. If you're lucky youll have about 10 minutes to "warm up" in a room with instruments that resemble timpani before you go out on stage.

Write down your desired mallet preference for each excerpt. This can save you and the audition committee a lot of time. If you know in advance which excerpts are going to be asked, have your selected mallets situated in your briefcase or mallet bag in such a way that you can access them quickly. Keep in mind that you may also need to adjust your mallet usage appropriately. This is an on-the-spot decision that you will have to make based on the acoustics of the hall and comments, if any, made by audition committee members.

Mock Auditions
If you get nervous at auditions be sure to practice performing in front of people. This should be done 2-3 weeks before the audition. In addition to playing for fellow percussionists and timpanists, try to find other musicians (non-percussionists) to listen to you. You may find that you get the most interesting feedback from them. After all, the audition committee will probably be made up of percussion, string, wind and brass players. Accept all of the comments you receive and do not "defend yourself."

Audition, Audition, Audition
Take as many auditions as possible. Make a note of which excerpts are asked for at each round of the audition and save this information. List positive and negative aspects of your playing and of the general audition experience - what would you do differently the next time? You will learn at least ONE new thing from each audition - sometimes it's what NOT to do the next time! Whenever possible, get a copy of the written comments from the audition committee.

Investigate and then stick to your "game plan"
Gather as much information as possible regarding the specific opening that has occurred; sound and style of previous timpanist, the music director's sound and style preference and any other important information gathered before the audition takes place. After your "game plan" has been established don't switch tactics at the last moment. Play the way you are accustomed to playing and be sure to take your time during the audition. Let the audition committee wait until you are ready. You shouldnt feel rushed during the audition. In many cases, you have spent a lot of time and money to take this audition. Make it count!

Backstage Antics
Don't get distracted by your fellow candidates at the audition. There are players who literally captivate a group of other auditionees with stories, jokes etc. to "pump themselves up" at your expense. If it is possible to leave and come back during the audition process DO THAT. Don't get caught up in the frenzy. Tuck yourself into a corner if necessary and keep a concentrated and focused mind during the audition. There will be plenty of time to relax AFTERWARDS!

The "X" Factor
In addition to playing all excerpts cleanly and perfectly, the "X" factor is the "fire" or "spark" that moves committee members into voting for you. This can be translated in many ways; excitement in your playing, etc. The "X" factor is usually a combination of your individual personality, talent, preparation, experience and overall musicianship.

Committee Contact - Be Flexible
Most importantly, if the audition committee asks you to play something differently can you adjust? Can you play it faster, softer, slower or louder? Can you play it "darker" or "fluffy?" Specific or even vague comments from the committee will test your ability to quickly change the style of an excerpt. This is probably one of the most important attributes of a qualified candidate: flexibility. If the committee asks for something to be played in a different way make sure that it is noticeably different. To this end, you may want to practice with slight tempo or style changes with each excerpt.

Make Music
All of the above is the foundation for your audition "chops." Developing this strong foundation should enable you to play confidently and, above all, musically. At this point you need to ask yourself; are you going to be a "robot" or a musician? Also keep in mind that musicians serving on an audition committee desperately WANT auditionees to play well and to "go for it!" And, as unusual as this may sound, try to have fun!

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