Performance Suggestions from Jeanne Baxtresser
By Jessica Schmitz
Flute Talk—November 1996
“I always have butterflies, but I try to get them to fly in formation.”
Professional and amateur flutists gathered at Northwestern University for a workshop on a cold, damp Saturday morning in October. The flutists wanted to learn more about playing an audition with ease and freedom. Jeanne Baxtresser, former principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic, was an expert guide. All auditions create a degree of anxiety, and the antidote Baxtresser prescribed was thorough – including musical, mental, and physical preparation. “Every professional and amateur musician is concerned with playing well on stage. The audition, however, is a different situation. All success is based on preparation. An audition can be a pleasure if you feel free.” The balance of this article is based on the suggestions Baxtresser gave at the workshop.
Musical preparation begins with a schedule of things to accomplish and goals that are reasonable within an allotted time frame. A senior recital will entail much planning and preparation.
An early choice is what music to play, followed by an analysis of the technically difficult passages that should be practiced every day, those that are stylistically different, and those that are comfortable to play. It helps to play in front of an audience before the event, but be careful not to over practice. It is better to practice with full concentration for a limited time than for hours of unfocused practice.
Find the balance of time to prepare all aspects of the music without overdoing it. Be sure to take a break every 20 minutes to get a glass of water, stretch, and just pause from the concentration. Begin by practicing what you play well to build confidence. Once you feel comfortable with your playing, gradually tackle the more difficult passages. Learn and listen to an entire piece; once you’re fully prepared, practice with an accompanist.
One of the most important steps in musical preparation is to tape record portions of each practice session. Just 10 minutes every other day will help tremendously. It may be painful to hear the tape, but it is better to know what you played than to be blissfully ignorant. A small tape recorder may produce only a poor flute sound, but listen for rhythm, intonation, and vibrato. Don’t listen for tone because even good, clear, supported tone does not come across on a small tape recorder. After analyzing the tape, go back and correct your mistakes.
If you hear that the vibrato is weak or uneven, practice vibrato exercises separately from the repertoire. Vibrato is a combination of pitch fluctuation, volume, and timbre, and it is also an expression of feeling; it is the heart of the music. With a tuner set at A = 442 practice tone exercises with crescendos and diminuendos. Then add vibrato, and try to keep the pitch a little flat so that the vibrato does not cause the pitch to be sharp. Listen to examples of the vibrato of other great musicians on all instruments and learn from them. Pay careful attention to the style of a piece; for example, the staccato markings in the Baroque period should be interpreted stylistically correctly, not too short but with separation. Choose a vibrato that fits the piece instead of using the same vibrato for Ravel that is more appropriate for Bach.
Think creatively and listen carefully when practicing. Many students plug into a performance mode when practicing and do not correct mistakes. It will help to practice in both bright and dead rooms to experience various acoustics and ways to project your sound. This will help you hear different qualities and adjust your sound or articulation accordingly. If possible before playing an audition, practice in a concert hall to understand how to adapt your sound. In the early stages of preparation, work toward building stamina. Play through lengthy sections of a piece several times until they can be played comfortably.
For physical preparation, aerobic exercise such as jogging or swimming about 20 minutes four times a week helps the body to use oxygen properly. Eating and sleeping well and drinking plenty of fluids should not be overlooked. If it is necessary to travel by air to an audition, keep in mind that flying dehydrates the body. Replenish the fluids but stay away from alcohol or coffee. Everything needed to play, from music to clothing, should be prepared a day or two in advance so that nothing is forgotten. Bring a water bottle because a water fountain may be far away, and pack some healthy snacks to keep energy levels high.
When auditioning, dress conservatively in layers for temperature variations: wear a lighter skirt with a sweater that can be taken off if the temperature is too warm. Choose appropriate clothing that does not draw attention: remember that skirt lengths look shorter on an elevated stage and make sure that jackets allow adequate arm movement. Test out wardrobe choices by making sure you can breathe and move comfortably.
While waiting to play, many musicians find it helpful to bring earphones and a cassette player to listen to music that calms the nerves and blocks out noise while waiting to play, but for heavens sake, don’t listen to excerpts.
When preparing for an orchestral audition, play solo repertoire besides the requirements for the fun of it. It helps to keep a diary of audition experiences because it may come in handy years down the road. After each audition write down what went well and what areas need improvement.
There are many different ways to prepare mentally for an audition. Because everyone is different, certain techniques may work for some and not others. Each individual should discover what works best. Every performance is a dress rehearsal for the next performance; it isn’t a culmination of everything done up to that point. Take it in stride and keep a good sense of humor because it releases stress.
One relaxation that works for some is meditation, which could be a short nap. Visualization is also a powerful skill. Go over the performance mentally, thinking about every aspect to experience it before it actually happens. It is normal for every performer to feel tension and nervousness, but remember that nervousness is energy.
Once that energy is recognized it can be controlled. If nervousness causes trembling fingers or a dry mouth, accept the condition and deal with it and do not panic. If you worry too much, an anxiety about the anxiety will develop, and many layers of fear will accumulate. By accepting the condition, fears will dissipate.
Let go of the idea of perfection! When performing, just think about playing with heart and soul. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s only human, but they have to be forgotten. Because performance is unpredictable, strive for a balanced combination of confidence and humility. Humility is in front of the music; musicians are servants, the most important middlemen.
The difference between auditions and concerts is that in an audition the listeners are critical; in both cases, make the listeners fall in love with the piece. Everything should have meaning and musical direction. The emphasis in performing should not be focused on the performer; there is no room for self-conscious thought. Think only about the music. Learn from each experience and perform for the joy of playing music.
Jessica Schmitz is a sophomore at Carmel High School in Mundelein, Illinois and principal flute of the Midwest Young Artists Orchestra. She toured Europe with the Blue Lake Orchestra and has performed in masterclasses with Michel Debost and Kathleen Chastain. She plans on attending Interlochen in 1999. She studies with Kathleen Goll-Wilson.