All State band is the big leagues for young musicians. It’s an incredible opportunity to meet talented musicians from around the state, work with guest conductors, and perform challenging music. Since musical talent cannot be measured through statistics (as in sports), All State allows young musicians to strive for and achieve tangible goals in an otherwise subjective field.
But you probably already know all of this.
When I ask my students what their musical goals are each year, the number one goal is always to make All State band. I was first chair clarinet in the Alabama All State band all four years in high school, so I understand the rigorous and mentally draining preparation process required to make All State. Over the years, I’ve successfully coached several of my private students to 1st chair in All State bands throughout the southeast. Successful All State auditions require an absolute familiarity with the audition music and a strong mental constitution to avoid audition mind games.
Here’s the complete guide to making All State, based on personal experience and pedagogical techniques I’ve learned over the years:
- If you read nothing else in this article, here’s my best advice for making All State: “Practice and hope, but never hope more than you practice.” (poignantly said by the late clarinetist and renowned pedagogue Kalmen Opperman). I can’t stress this enough – making All State takes months of hard work and consistent practice. This is not something you can decide to do a week before the audition. (This is also not something you can ask a private teacher to teach you in a week – true story). Making All State is not like cramming for your history test tomorrow or staying up all night to write that English paper. All State musicians are generally well-rounded musicians with a strong fundamental, musical, and technical foundation.
- Start early. Each state has different audition dates and requirements. If you can’t find information online, ask your band director. I stalked my All State website every summer (when the requirements were released) until the music was posted, then I immediately started practicing.
- Know the requirements. As soon as you receive the audition requirements, read through them very carefully. Double check the scales, scale order, repertoire, tempo markings, memorization requirements, instructions for repeats, and any other information for the audition. If you have any questions, ask your private teacher or band director for clarification.
- Look for recordings online. Many states have started hiring professional musicians to record and upload videos of All State audition requirements for each musician. If your state does this, take advantage of this resource!
- Do some research. Learn as much as you can about your required etudes or repertoire. Study the composer, other pieces the composer wrote, and anything else that will help you shape your interpretation of the music.
- Make a gameplan. Grab your music and a planner (iCal works too). Divide your larger goal (making All State) into smaller and manageable goals along the way. Example mini-goals: learn one new scale each week. Spend one hour perfecting the technical passage in measure 25. Perform Etude #1 at MM=70.
- Take private lessons. Having a private teacher is a great way to improve as a musician, and they can help you create a detailed plan and mini goals to help you prepare for your All State audition. If you don’t have a private teacher, ask your band director or friends in band to listen to you and give constructive criticism. (Here’s my advice on finding a great private music teacher.)
- KNOW YOUR SCALES! Most states require you to play at least all major scales in a particular order from memory. Some states have time requirements for scales, and some specify articulations as well. In Alabama, you had to “pass” the scale room by successfully playing a certain number of scales. If you didn’t pass, your audition was over – you didn’t even have the chance to play your etudes. I spent many hours learning my scales, and I did run-throughs of them EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. in the required All State pattern. It’s not enough to just play isolated scales – you must be able to play all the required scales in the proper order with as few mistakes as possible. (Side note: here’s how All State scale requirements might stunt your musical development.)
- Learn your music slowly. I get it – you want to learn your music, like, yesterday. Maybe you started preparing for All State later than you intended. Whatever the reason, avoid the temptation to cram-learn music. Treat woodshedding (aka focusing on micro-details in your music) like you would if you decided to begin weightlifting at the gym. You wouldn’t go straight for the 100-pounders, would you? You’d start with 10-lb weights, then gradually work your way from 10lbs to 25lbs, etc etc. Learning music is the same way. Learn music slowly to finesse all the details (and also to avoid injury).
- Practice sight-reading. I know, I know – sight-reading is scary. I wrote an entire article how to become a better sight-reader, which you can read here.
- Practice consistently. I’m not saying you have to practice every single day from now until your audition, but create and maintain a regular practice schedule. Breaks are healthy to recharge your mind and body, so don’t feel guilty about taking breaks every so often.
- Record yourself. I don’t know anybody that likes listening to recordings of themselves play, but it’s a vital part of improving. You are your own worst critic, so be brutally honest (but not self-deprecating). Be specific about what you don’t like and improve it into your next practice session.
- Practice performance run-throughs. I think this tip was one of the biggest contributions to my All State success. Every time I practiced, I would devote the majority of my time to woodshedding and improving specific musical details. After a quick break, I would do an entire run-through of the All State audition in the order expected on the actual audition day (for Alabama, that was scales first, then etudes, and finally sight-reading). No matter how many mistakes I made, I never stopped until my performance run-through was finished. This helped me build endurance and mental fortitude to overcome mistakes and not let them derail me. (If you want to be as extra as I was in high school, you can take this a step further by doing these performance run-throughs at different times every day. I used to do run-throughs at 6am before I left for school.)
The Art of Audition-Taking
The greatest musician can be humbled by a bad audition.
- Nerves are normal. Know this, accept this, and expect this. Nerves are annoying, but they mean that you care about something enough to get nervous about it.
- Practice under pressure. Refer to above. Tailor some performance run-throughs so that you play them under pressure. Get your friends to listen to you. Record yourself. Psyche yourself out before you play. Practice when you’re upset. Practice when you’re stressed. Practice when you’re hungry. Practice when you’re regretting your decision to eat Taco Bell. Practice in a variety of circumstances to increase audition-taking flexibility and resilience under pressure. Just remember that no matter how many performance run-throughs you do, know that the All State audition will feel entirely different – be prepared.
- Do mock auditions. Play your audition for as many people as possible – band director, band section, friends, family, church group, etc.
- Get the 411 on the audition. Knowledge is power – find out as much information as possible about the audition. What’s the order of the audition? Are scales before etudes? Where is the audition? What’s the warm-up room situation? When will they post results? Are the judges behind a screen? Am I allowed to talk to the judges? How long will you have to look at sight reading? What room will I audition in? Be prepared for the auditions to run early, to run late, for it to be hot, for it to be cold, or any number of unexpected variables. Prepare yourself with as much knowledge as possible before the audition so that nothing throws you for a loop on the big day.
- Extra credit: Take other local or regional auditions. The hardest part of All State auditions isn’t the music – it’s the audition itself. The more auditions you take (whether All State or not) will prepare you for audition regulations and etiquette. If All State will be your first music audition, try to schedule or take other auditions before. These can be for anything – a local youth orchestra, a church music group, a concerto competition, etc. Taking auditions is an art, and the more experience you have, the better your chances of making All State.
The night before the audition
- Prepare your stuff. Lay out your instrument, music, reeds, clothes, and anything else you plan on bringing to the audition. (Here’s my audition packing list.)
- Decide on your audition outfit. If the judges are behind a screen, anything goes! (I’ve taken some blind auditions sans shoes….sssshhhh!) If the judges can see you, wear something professional but comfortable. Don’t forget to wear comfortable shoes – it’s not fun waiting for your turn in high heels!
- Relax! I don’t like to practice much the night before an audition, so I’ll spend this time relaxing by watching Netflix, reading books or magazines, or anything else to take my mind off of the audition. Make sure you’re recharged and ready to go on the big day.
The day of the audition
- Warm up at home. Avoid warming up at the venue if at all possible. It will inevitably be a chaotic zoo of other musicians crammed into a small area. Not only is it noisy and stressful, but this is where the mind games really start to kick in. You will psyche yourself out if you hear others playing your instrument and playing the audition music higher, faster, and louder than you are.
- Embrace your superstitious. Story time: The first year that I made All District Honor Band, I called my mom to meet me at school (the audition venue). My brother came too, and he quickly grabbed a bag of Cheez-Its to eat en route. When he tried to open the bag in the car, it exploded and Cheez-Its flew everywhere! Every year after that, me, my mom, or my brother would offer a sacrificial bag of Cheez-Its to the All State powers that be – and it worked! Obviously, I know that my success was the result of my hard work and preparation, but it was fun to have a superstition that I believe helped me out.
- Eat (or don’t). Know how your body reacts to food and stress on the audition day.
After the audition
- Plan something fun. Have something to look forward to with your friends or family the night after your audition. Win, lose, or draw, you will be able to surround yourself by loved ones. This is a great reminder that there are more important things in life than making All State.
- Don’t get discouraged if you don’t make it this year. Use this audition as a learning experience for next year. Self-reflect on what went well and what you can improve. If this is your first time auditioning for All State, know that it will be the most difficult. It gets a easier once you know what to expect and how to prepare.
I hope my advice is helpful for you during your All State journey! Good luck!