Saturday, November 15, 2008

The SAT's of Music continued: Test Prep

Last year, I did some posts about auditioning and how to approach it. You can read them here and here, but to recap the main points:

- Auditions are standardized tests like the SAT.
- Like any standardized test, they don't just test your skills and musicianship, but they also test your skills at taking that particular type of test; just as a very smart person can do poorly at the SAT because it isn't a type of test they excel at, so a good musician can audition poorly because it isn't a type of performance they excel at.
- When we audition, we need to be good at both the material of the test (the music itself) and at the skills that this particular test requires.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm always happy to beat a dead horse a few times, so I'm going to keep working this SAT analogy a bit farther in this post and see if it yields any helpful ideas for auditioners.

How do we prepare for the SAT? Well, the first way is by being good students in the first place. The SAT tests our general knowledge levels and comprehension abilities, and we all acquire those abilities over many years of schooling and life experience. No matter how many test prep courses you might take, you can't get a good SAT score unless you can read, write, and do math.

The other way we prepare is by prepping for the test itself. We learn what sorts of questions get asked. We take sample tests to get a sense of how to approach answering the questions. We work on the questions with a timer to improve our response times. We drill ourselves over and over on the test questions so that our responses to them become more smooth and automatic. If needed, we can take all sorts of organized test-prep courses in which we can get expert assistance at doing all of these things. This side of test prep can often seem annoying and even a waste of time, especially if you know that you have already taken care of the first part of prep (being a good student with good skills). But it's still needed, since the SAT is a required test for most colleges and there is no real alternative offered.

Hmmm, I think this may have been a good dead horse to beat at - these test prep techniques are pretty analogous to what we need to do for auditions!

The first part of SAT prep is about acquiring and internalizing the basic skills that the SAT is testing for. In our work as musicians, we need to have mastered the basics of good playing to be competitive in auditions. We have to be able to play in tune, in time, and with a good basic sound. We need to have mastered all the core technical elements of our instrument. In the case of strings, this would mean bowstrokes, bow distribution and placement, and various systems of fingering and left hand technique. I would say it also means having an understanding of phrasing concepts, music theory and history, and harmony. In other words, it isn't something you can cram for. It takes years of study and work to acquire these skills for all but the most talented few. And unlike the skills we need for the SAT, we aren't all required to learn them to become successful members of society. We have to decide to put in the work to acquire them on our own at some point.

The second part of SAT prep is about learning the structure of the questions, developing a system to answer them, and drilling ourselves so that we will be efficient test-takers and not be hobbled by anxiety or inefficiency. This matches up with most of the "audition prep" techniques that people use to prepare for auditions. We practice the audition material over and over so that it becomes more automatic. We play for people to reproduce the stress levels of an actual audition and to get comments on how to improve. We record ourselves to evaluate the details of our playing. We do mock auditions to practice the exact type of surroundings and situations that the real audition might offer us. And we consult teachers and coaches for expert advice on how to better do all these things.

If we aren't doing as well as we like in auditions, just as in the SATs, we need to ask ourselves whether our problems lie more in the first part of test prep or in the second part. Do we have our core technical skills in order? Are we using our instruments and bodies efficiently and naturally? If not, we may need to spend some time correcting technical problems before we tackle professional auditions. Or do we feel our playing is solid, but nerves or preparation errors are getting in our way? If so, then we need to focus on part two of our prep - making sure that the format and structure of the audition process isn't getting in our way and keeping us from presenting our best work when we audition.

I have encountered students struggling with this issue many times, and have often found that much of their frustration is that they are focused on the wrong half of their audition prep work. They may have done lots and lots of mock (and real!) auditions without addressing a problem with their underlying technique that is holding them back. Or, they may feel like they aren't good musicians when in fact they are - they just need to look at how to keep the audition process from overwhelming them. Making sure that we are not beating our own dead horses when it comes to audition prep can bring better results, and better musicianship overall.

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