Why All State Auditions are Stunting your Musical Growth

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Let me preface this post by saying that I have had nothing besides positive experiences from All State band and orchestra (except for the sporadic bouts of crippling self doubt and heart-palpitating audition anxiety, but that’s for another discussion). It is a great way to fuel competitive spirit among young musicians while fostering friendship and teamwork. I am still close friends with several people I met in All State band and orchestra nearly ten years ago (I even went to prom with a fellow All State clarinetist!). Social aspects aside, All State ensembles are an incredible opportunity for growing musicians.

The key word here is “growing” musician. In middle and high school, musicians are still developing the muscles, embouchures, fingerings, and creative parameters necessary for a (hopefully) successful career. At this age, we are on a musical precipice – what is learned in these formative years can be hard to undo down the road.  Besides proper fundamentals, one of the most important lessons to learn is proper practicing habits, which is where All State comes into play.

There are several aspects of the All State preparation and audition process which can be detrimental to musical growth. Each state has different repertoire requirements, but they are usually variations of the following: scales (with specific patterns and order of performance), etudes, and sight reading. Pretty harmless, but the approach many musicians use to prepare for All State auditions is stunting their creative growth.

Let’s start with scales. Usually, All State auditions require all twelve major scales in a specific order (either tongued or slurred). This is a great incentive for students to practice scales, but many only practice scales in their All State pattern. Don’t get me wrong – I’m usually glad my students practice scales at all, but in order to improve technique, it is crucial to practice scales in a variety of patterns – thirds, arpeggios, fully diminished, octaves (and let’s not forget minor scales in all forms!) – the list goes on and on. Only practicing scales in one specific patterns for All State is like eating only broccoli – you’re on the right track for being healthier by eating vegetables, but you need variety to be reap the benefits.

Étude preparation is similar. Most students only practice the 2-3 etudes assigned (albeit meticulously) and forgo the thousands of other etudes available for their instrument (ok, maybe only hundreds if you play tuba). And no offense to any hopeful composers out there writing All State repertoire, but there are masterpieces of etude literature waiting to be discovered by eager students (for clarinetists, it’s hard to top Rose, Cavallini, Baermann, Klose, etc). Believing only two or three etudes a year are the secret to musical success is greatly stunting your growth as a musician. Études are great for developing a sense of musicality while focusing on specific skills for each instrument. Want another simile? Etudes are like literature: reading and studying The Great Gatsby and Canterbury Tales is a great start, but there are so many other works of great literature to be discovered.

Sight-reading preparation is usually not detrimental…..because most students’ preparation for this consists of pretending it doesn’t exist. A little harsh, right? Raise your hand if you practiced sight reading in middle or high school. That’s what I thought. I’ll be posting an article soon about the best ways to practice sight reading, but in the meantime, pull a Nike: just do it. I know it’s scary to practice sight reading because by the very nature of it, it will not be polished like the rest of the audition. Ask yourself what is the worst thing you’d expect to see, and work on it. Trouble with rhythm? Bust out a metronome. Tricky key signatures? Practice those scales (in a variety of patterns, of course). Afraid of high notes? Practice them! Putting off practicing sight reading is normal. It’s the fear of the unexpected that scares us. Take control and practice as many possible scenarios to prepare as best as possible for the sight reading portion of your audition.

Bottom line – make sure you are not limiting yourself in your All State preparation. Always remember that there is more to music than All State (although it may not seem that way when your audition is looming). To become a truly well-rounded musician and improve your abilities, explore everything. Go beyond the All State audition. Your creativity and musical growth will thank you.

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