Winning Trumpet Auditions

OK, here we go. Goaded on by a goodly number of requests from trumpet players, I’m going to shoot my mouth off and give you my thoughts on strategies to be competitive, with the aim of winning a trumpet audition for a job with a symphony orchestra. If you want to take my advice from this article you first need to read a previous article entitled “Trompete” that I wrote several months ago, and you need to try the things I suggest in that article, not for a week but for a substantial amount of time.

Now I can’t guarantee that following this advice will win an audition for someone, because auditions are “happenings,” with no logical reasons for conditions and/or outcomes. If you’re good and the stars are right, you may succeed. What I will give you is a better chance to succeed. In other words, raise the odds in your favor. They will still be in the house’s favor, just like a casino, but we can improve them by doing certain things.

Before getting into specific excerpts, I want to talk about strategy. First of all, the strategy of playing all the notes with a good sound, while difficult to achieve, is not nearly enough in this competitive time we live in. There are too many people that can do that today. It takes something special to make an audition committee sit up and take notice. My view as I said last month is; STYLE WINS AUDITIONS. By that I mean, first, a sound that fits an excerpt and a style that also fits. I include sound in the term “style.” MAKE A GREAT SOUND! My concept of a great sound is a sound with more body and resonance than what is popular today. I like a large concentrated center, which produces a strong fundamental, and in turn results in what I call a “Phat” sound, with lots of depth (color), which is the result of overtones caused by the large core of fundamental. The large core is caused by a fast moving air stream, emanating from a good sized source at the beginning of notes, which produces a ringing sound. The tongue must vacate quickly after the attack and retreat to bottom of the mouth, which enlarges the oral cavity and provides a large clear space in which the air can travel freely. If the air starts quickly enough, then the body can stay relaxed and assume its vital function as a resonating chamber. If the air starts too slow, then the body must push air in the middle of the note, AND THE WHOLE THING IS RUINED. I can not stress the importance of this statement enough. Focus is usually not a problem on trumpet when the air is of sufficient speed, however narrowness of sound is. By all means, don’t produce a sound that feels good, get one that sounds good.

Keeping a fast moving, large core of sound flowing is a difficult but necessary feat in producing a great sound. Of course it is much easier to produce a narrower type of sound, with less resonance and weight. A narrower sound is easier to move around and takes less air to produce. Those of you who have read my article, “Trompete” will remember the exercise I gave trumpet players to improve overall sound. If you had the nerve to try it and stick to it, you will now be producing the sound I am describing here. That exercise gave players a foolproof way of developing a rich, dense, resonant sound that will stand out in a crowd, which is what you need to win an audition. The gist of that exercise is as follows; develop the movement of the air stream so that the valves move because of the pervasiveness of the air and not the other way around. In other words there is no difference between on the note and in between the note. There is one continuous stream of sound on which the valves float like lily pads on a pond (air.) The effect this development has on the sound is dramatic. Once the valves move because of the continuity of the air, the increased resonance produces new overtones in abundance. It is as though the air stream has searched out and filled every nook and cranny in the tubing of the instrument, rather than just filling the center of the horn. That’s why the air stream should be a little larger, (and moving just as fast) as what it takes to make an average sized sound. Blowing through slurs rather than relying on the valves to make the slur, get more lip surface vibrating and hits more nodal points in the horn. When I say blowing through slurs, I mean tastefully half-valving them, although at first I would exaggerate the heck out of it, eventually only keeping all of the legato inherent in that action. Take it right up to the line of being overdone, (and go way over that line in your practice room to find out where that line is) and don’t retreat from that line just because everyone else does. You didn’t spend all this time and effort to end up being an “average” player.

Speaking of finding out where the line is, or pushing the envelope as it were, how about applying that concept to the vibrato. Nothing makes a sound appear small like a narrow, fast, quivery vibrato. And yet that is what you normally hear as the average nowadays. Once again expand it, and at various speeds, but always keeping it wide and full. Push it over the line in your practice room, (you should hear mine, it’s ridiculous. Don’t be shy, this is your research lab, not a concert) to find out where that optimum line is, and then keep it right up to that line.

Most trumpet players need to spend more time developing the low register. That’s a matter of spending enough time down there to feel and sound comfortable. This will also help to fill out the resonance in other registers.

Lets talk about the audition itself. I don’t think a player should play every solo or excerpt with the same sound. Say you’re good enough technically to go to an audition: what strategy do you use to lift yourself above the crowd? None? Just play all the notes with a pretty good sound? I think you need more than that to win. The Firebird (Katchei’s Dance) needs a different sound than, say the soft solo from the Song of the Nightingale. The Nightingale solo should have a dusky quality, somewhat tilted toward a flugelhorn timbre. If you develop over time the method I describe in the “trompete” article, you would be able to turn that sound on and off at will. The Nightingale solo gives you a chance to really play legato, and developing that legato, and I mean really developing that legato, will give you the dense, “Phat” sound that will make an audition committee quit twiddling their thumbs. A legato where you can’t tell where a note changes, because the phrase is sung through the horn. There should be no difference between on the note and in between the note, because one note flows to another in a seamless (valveless) flow of sound. I want you to visualize a sound and picture where the valves never stop moving. One valve starts before the other stops in order to give the (sound) impression that there are no valves. You are now singing through the trumpet. Of course it is going to take a more, what I call pervasive air stream to fill in those legato slurs where 1,2 or 3 valves are moving at the same time.

Some other excerpts that would benefit from this approach are, the Pines of Rome solo, where the slurs are so smooth, you’re not aware that valves are involved, only air. Parsifal, where the sound should stay as resonant in the upper notes as the lower ones. Lt. Kije is the prototype excerpt for a luscious sound, legato and vibrato. Also the soft, legato solos in the 1st movement of Mahler 5. He even begs for the legato I describe with the marking “portamento”. If you’ve never heard the legato solos, both Eb and Bb parts, in the battle scene from Heldenleben played in this manner, you cannot imagine the gorgeous stream of sound that is possible.

The Leonore No.3 presents a special challenge. First, to keep the notes C and G in tune at the end. I have heard some pretty strange intervals passing for fourth’s. I’d like to hear a Bb trumpet sound on this excerpt. Some people can do this on a C trumpet, but many can’t. Perhaps people need to practice it first on a Bb and then try to make that sound on the C trumpet. The brain is a marvelous thing, it can copy something without knowing what actually took place to get that copy. This excerpt needs to be performed at a full forte dynamic without a trace of force in the sound. I would have someone practice it mezzo-piano first, and then have them try to play it with exactly the same sound, only forte. All loud excerpts should be prepared this way. The idea is to have the same relaxation in the body when playing forte as when playing piano. The only thing that changes is the amount of air flowing through the horn. The soft version gives you a perfect idea of what your body should feel like when playing loud. It must sound big, rather than loud. The vibrato would help to take the laser quality out of the sound, if the size of the vibrato matches the size and volume of the sound. Above all a singing sound should be the objective in this excerpt.

The opening of Mahler 5 is one of the most frequently asked excerpts on trumpet auditions. It is one of the most exciting moments for the trumpet in all of music. The challenge is to fully execute all the markings that Mahler indicates, such as those sforzando’s in the opening bars. They are not usually performed with enough attention to the sfz’s, because of the difficulty in keeping a good sound with that much accent on those notes. However, if someone were to decide before working up that excerpt, how much sforzando was needed from a purely musical standpoint, and then was determined in their practice routine to achieve enough accent without the sound getting out of control, I think that approach could have an impressive result. The substantial sound that I described earlier is especially appropriate here, particularly in the upper register. This is a difficult thing to achieve and must be a part of a daily thought process, in essence a determination not to let the sound get thinner in the upper register, especially at forte and fortissimo. Don Juan is a good example of an excerpt where the sound needs to stay full throughout different registers.

An excerpt such as the scherzo of Mahler 2, where Mahler brilliantly instructs the player to raise the bell into the air at a piano dynamic, requires a special sound and style, something I always equate to an old style Austrian trumpet player playing one of those Austrian folk-type solos, with its dark sound and generous wide, slow vibrato, somewhat akin to a German style oboe. (And yes the old folk-music type of players did use vibrato.) It’s a special moment which demands a special sound and style. For some reason the hair-pins in this excerpt never seem to come out clearly enough because I suspect most people judge things by the way they feel instead of how they sound out front. That small, narrow fast vibrato doesn’t help either. Additionally, those soft articulated solos in the 5th movement, when played with the sound and air stream that I’ve described in legato playing will yield unbelievable results.

Excerpts have an intrinsic habit of handcuffing a player, keeping them from showing the full range of their musicianship, something a concerto usually doesn’t do. That’s why we have to use every tool at our disposal. If you were going to build a house would you show up with a hammer and nothing else? Of course not. Then don’t play every excerpt with the same sound and style. As I said last month, there are certain excerpts that you need to survive on. Things such as the Petrouchka solo, where the notes need to be there first and foremost is such an example. Ravel’s Piano Concerto is another, although hopefully this would be played in a suitable leggiero style, getting through it unscathed being the main objective. Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra is an excerpt that’s put on an audition to see if you can get through it. My point being, score points where you can score, and avoid losing points when that is the main reason an excerpt is there.

The opening of Pictures is one of those excerpts where you can score points and lose points if not played in the right style. Of course all excerpts would fall into this category, I simply mean that this excerpt is more in the middle of that range of scoring potential than most. I believe this excerpt needs a specific style and articulation. It should have a sound than literally jumps out of the horn without an accent, and then tapers evenly right into the next note without a break in the sound. Think of a continuos air stream where only the start of the next note and the rush of new air to make the sound jump out of the horn, stop the air from being constant. This is a great basic method for getting the best sound you can produce on just about everything you play and is essential for the style of this excerpt. It’s good if you can also play the slurred notes, not with the valves, but with the air, in other words cover up the sound of the valves changing, with legato sound. Lengthen the time the slurs take. Thinking vibrato, if not doing it, will help keep the sound full but not forced. Every articulated note should have lots of energy without being hard, which requires a large fast moving air stream and makes the sound speak instantly at 100% volume.

A few words about the Haydn Trumpet Concerto are in order since it is on many auditions. A mistaken belief I believe, is that it must be played in an even style throughout. I have come to the conclusion that the only aspect of playing that should be even is a great sound. If we followed the concept that every facet of playing should be even, we would play everything mezzo-forte, with the same articulation, the same sound, the same vibrato and the same style. Take about handcuffing yourself! This concerto needs to be a study in contrasts. The legato needs to be what I describe elsewhere and the articulated notes need to sound like champagne bubbles pinging your noise. Get the picture? The more contrast, the more style, the more points you rack up, and it takes a lot of points to win an audition. Those points are usually scored for things other than correct notes with a decent sound. Alright, go get ’em!