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Tips for The High School Jazz Audition

May 30 | Posted by: Robert Sabin |


For the last several years I have been asked to assist in the audition process for the Manhattan School of Music Precollege Jazz program.  I’ve seen hundreds of auditions and it’s striking how it’s a similar learning curve for almost all of us, with similar challenges and predictable ways of making it easier.  Here is a (not very) comprehensive list of things to keep in mind for any kind of jazz audition, some of the mistakes perhaps you won’t have to make, and some guaranteed tips for making an impression at your next audition.  In no particular order:


  • Don’t read music.  You will sound better if you have memorized the music; you will look professional; and you will be able to watch the other musicians who are accompanying you.  We can often hear with our eyes!  Choose material that can be memorized.


  • Talk to others and know the level of the program you are auditioning for.  It could be that the level is above you for the moment, or that you are more advanced than most of the students in the program.  It might still be great to audition (for the experience!) but they might ask you for something you aren’t able to give them. 


  • Don’t choose pieces simply because they are difficult.  It is better to play an easier tune really well than a difficult one poorly.


  • Never memorize a solo.  That’s not what anyone wants to hear, they want to hear you improvise!  A poor improvisation is much better than a mediocre memorization.


  • When improvising take your time!  Breathe!  Leave some nice rests and show them that you are listening to the rhythm section.


  • Don’t bring a parent or friend as accompanist.  In almost every case they won’t be as good as the ones provided for you.


  • Make eye contact with the band while playing.  Smile!


  • Be prepared to sight-read.  If they have a big band program they will probably ask you to play something from a big band chart.  This could involve knowing the basics of the Count Basie style (especially Freddie Green style comping on guitar) and a solid, big quarter note pulse from a bassist.


  • Brass players are often asked to play scales.  If you have been working on technique and intonation this will be the fun part :)


  • Make sure to read thoroughly the audition requirements.  Make sure you come in prepared!  Make sure if they ask for two pieces you have them!


  • BE ON TIME! There are two kinds of time, EARLY and LATE.  This means being EARLY!


  • Look sharp.  Are you professional?  Look like it.  Don’t wear t-shirts, sweats, flip-flops, shorts, or anything you wouldn’t wear in a performance. 


  • Have all your gear!  Check to see if they need you to bring an amp (they probably won’t, but confirm this!) Make sure you have a cable, strap, and extra copies of the music for the accompanists.  Five copies of each tune minimum just in case.


  • Be ready to count off your tune.  Practice this!


  • Work with a teacher on your material.  They can make everything much easier and fun for you.


  • Say hello to everybody! You will be amazed how much more fun you will have after a friendly hello to everyone and even throwing in some hand shakes.  If you really want to impress in a big way, learn some people’s names!  You are playing with people, not machines.


  • Thank everyone at the end and smile!


  • Be confident.  Speak loudly and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  This is your audition.


  • Play the dynamics of the room.  If it’s a challenging room you should adjust and either play softer or louder.  Take all the time you need to adjust any amplification you might be using.  Get your sound before you play, and then adjust volume to the room.  Play several notes before you start to get a sense of what you are dealing with.


  • Set up so that you can see everyone in the band.


  • Choose pieces that are contrasting.  Two medium tempo tunes is not the best representation of your ability.  Show them different sides of your musicality.


  • You will be nervous.  This is natural, but don’t let that make you count off a tune too fast or rush once you start playing.  Take a breath and focus before you start.

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