Two Key Insights for Nailing That Audition

By NAfME Member Donna Schwartz

Original article on Donna Schwartz: Where Music Matters

Member of the 2015 NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles Jazz Ensemble. Photo: Howard Rockwin.

Having judged Solo Festivals for almost 15 years, I have witnessed some spectacular performances, and some heart-wrenching breakdowns. How can there be such a vast difference between young performers?

It’s All About Your Attitude!

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Winston Churchill

I’ll never forget one audition from a high school trumpeter 5 years ago. He walked into the room with such a feeling of confidence; it was radiating from him so much that it embraced me and filled up the room. He was nicely dressed and very pleasant. I thought to myself, “this is going to be good.”

He played the three scales I requested perfectly, with a beautiful tone. (By the way, I had asked him to play some of the most difficult scales due to tricky key signatures and fingerings, and he just had a confident smile on his face right before he performed each one.)  His posture was terrific; hand position was also excellent. He then proceeded to play, From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert Clarke, a ridiculously difficult solo, with ease, musicality, and most importantly, with enjoyment. This is the kind of audition where the judge just sits back and listens!

Let’s compare that to another audition earlier that night in the same festival location.  A young girl trumpeter enters the room, visibly nervous. She’s beautifully dressed (kudos to her and her parents!) and has all her paperwork and sheet music. I start asking her to play the scales she has prepared, and this is where it fell apart. I quickly noticed she was not prepared for this as she struggled to get through the first scale. Her facial expressions were turning more fearful after each scale. When it came time for her solo, her hands were sweating and I could sense this was not prepared very well either. It turns out my impression was right; she struggled just to get through the solo.  At this point as a judge, I am trying to salvage her experience (and grade) and make this a positive, learning experience. She did have great posture and hand position. The real cause of all her problems was that her technique did not allow for producing a nice, clean tone. When your tone does not sound good, you lose all confidence. I was thinking that if she was just able to fix that one area, there would have been a much different result and a more positive experience for her. In the end, it was best to have her go for “Comments Only”, so that she could get feedback from me on how to improve her performance.

Here’s a third comparison: the next afternoon, a middle school-aged boy walks into the room. His paperwork is slightly crumpled, and it appears that he just came from (or was going to) a soccer game. There was a blank expression on his face, which gave me the impression that he did not want to be there. He didn’t seem confident or scared, so I was interested as to what would transpire. He played one scale correctly out of three. He had only one copy of his solo, which was acceptable since it was not a photocopy. He got through his solo with many mistakes. His posture and hand position were not conducive to a good performance. This, along with some issues with his facial muscle setting (embouchre) affected his range. What amazed me was that he did not appear to care. (Yes, I know middle and high school students can tend to be apathetic!) Needless to say, his score was not very good.

So aside from the high school boy’s terrific attitude, what else made him stand out and give a great performance?

First Impressions

Here’s what that first boy did that set him apart from the others:

  1. Judges are human, so performers need to take first impressions into account. I always tell my students before each concert, “Look good – you sound good. Look bad – don’t go there!” People are initially impressed visually – so give a good first impression!
  2. When a performer enters the room or the stage with confidence and a nice smile, it’s contagious! It shows that they are ready and have prepared as best as they could for this event.
  3. Dressing appropriately is also important because it sets the impression that the performer cares about what they are doing and is taking the event seriously. Attending a Solo Festival with a dirty sports uniform gives the impression that this event is not important.
  4. Greet the judge. Believe it or not, they are another person that is there to help further your love for music and guide your journey.
  5. Finally, he really was prepared with his material. Nothing can replace a solid practice plan with achievable goals. (For further insight into Practice Plans, read this.)


If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will believe in you either. Start building up your confidence by setting achievable goals, planning, and giving the best performance you can at that moment.  Having the right attitude, preparing well and taking each performance seriously will give a great first (and last) impression during a performance.


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band director

About the author:

Donna Schwartz has been teaching band, jazz band, and general music in public schools for over 13 years, and private brass and saxophone lessons for over 26 years. She is known for coming up with solutions to common performance problems, in particular brass embouchure issues. Schwartz has studied with Vince Penzarella, Laurie Frink, Ed Treutel, Mel Broiles, Lou Doboe and Jeff Lange. She has her own radio show, entitled “The Music Teacher’s Resource Guide,” on the BAM Radio Network. Contact her at


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Catherina Hurlburt, Communications Manager, June 16, 2015. © National Association for Music Education (