Audition Tips, Part IIIb: Solo Festival Scales and Sight-Reading
Last week, I addressed the subject of learning a piece for a NYSSMA Solo Festival or similar audition situation. In addition to the prepared piece, these adjudicated performances require sight-reading and a certain number of scales. Many a student will have a perfect score until the moment the scales and sight-reading begin. At that point, all sorts of unfortunate mishaps might creep into the audition. I have some recommendations for improving performance so that students may rightly feel confident and do well in both of these areas. The first step is recognizing that scales and sight-reading are valuable and necessary tools that must be worked on regularly without regard to NYSSMA events, etc. To be able to play comfortably in every key, master scales in every key. To be able to rapidly learn new music and play down charts for the first time on the bandstand with a high degree of accuracy and musicality, master sight-reading. If you take action to improve your mastery of scales and sight-reading on a daily or near-daily basis, you will not only be prepared for your audition, but for making music in general with greater ease.
This may seem either obvious or controversial, but do not attempt to learn scales by reading them from a written page. I have seen no more pernicious enemy to students actually learning their scales than the “scale sheet.” Think of scales as transposable melodies. Major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, all their modes, and ever other scale all contain specific intervallic patterns that define their shapes and “flavors,” if you will. While it is valuable to know these patterns analytically, it is far more valuable to know and be able to sing the melodies of the scales and to internalize them just as we internalized Mary Had A Little Lamb and any number of other simple songs, as young children. At that point, it is a matter of pairing the imagination (or audiation of the scale/melody) with the technical execution of it on the instrument. As various scales become more familiar and comfortable, consider the following ideas and approaches.
Work on scales not only in increments of one or two octaves, but encompassing your full comfortable range on your instrument. For example, on the trumpet, I might work on a B major scale beginning on my low F# and ascending to my high E or F#, before playing back down to the the starting note through the same B major scale. This is beneficial not only because real music is not made up of scales beginning and ending on tonic all the time, but because it combines work on range and evenness of sound with scale practice, and because the slight added complication of starting and finishing somewhere unusual will, if done successfully, further reinforce your internalization of the scale in its most basic form. Other added complications I like include:
Playing up one scale and down another. For example, I will play up an F major scale and down an E major scale. I might go back and forth between these two, or continue the pattern with “do” descending again by half step. You can also mix together major and minor scales within this framework.
No. 2 of Clarke’s Technical Studies as written in major, but also in three forms of minor and cycled up through the modes. Ascending melodic minor and harmonic minor will sound the same when begun on “do” but as you cycle through the modes, this will not always be the case. I’ll add in single and double-tonguing or a combination of tonguing and slurring to boost my efficiency in addressing fundamentals.
Freely improvising melodies using only a particular scale.
Inventing or borrowing a rhythmic pattern and applying it to scales. If the pattern is easy to execute, try it at different tempos. If you find a tempo at which it is difficult to execute, work for a while at that tempo.
Cycle through different keys instead of trying to get through every scale every day. You will always be most comfortable in the keys in which you spend the most time. To be versatile among keys, distribute your time more equally. As a long-term student of two trumpet professors who had both studied with John J. Haynie at North Texas, I was subjected to…I mean I had the great pleasure of participating in Haynie-style scales exams. These involved a box full of small sheets of paper, each with the name of a different scale on it, 48 in total. Depending on who was administering the exam, I would select some or all of these sheets, one at a time, at random, and play the indicated scale. The slightest error, imperfection, or hesitation during the scale would result in it being counted as a failure. This procedure is less about scales and more about confidence, relaxation, and presence of mind. Perhaps at the low end of scores there might be some students who hadn’t really taken the time to learn their scales properly, but on the whole I think that lost points were the result of stress and negative thought patterns that distracted and sabotaged some of us. Make yourself a box full of paper slips with all the scales you are working on represented. Split it up so that over the course of a week, all the scales are selected as you pick some at random each day. At the end of the week, put the slips back in the box and begin again. Once in a while, test yourself by selecting some from the full box and trying to play the scales immediately, and perfectly.
The most important factors that go into sight-reading successfully are experience and strategy. There is no substitute for experience, in life, and in sight-reading. Get some materials to read, and read them. Do this a lot. I recommend the approach Roger Ingram outlines in Clinical Notes on Trumpet Playing , a book that should probably be on the shelf of every serious trumpet student. Materials that might directly resemble what you find before you in a solo festival sight-reading portion can be found in 248 Studies for Trumpet (Perényi). As you gain experience by attempting to sight-read more and more music, and also by playing more music, sight-read or not, you will become familiar with patterns and divergences from patterns that regularly occur. To think of it another way, you will gain an appreciation not merely for the musical alphabet (pitches) and words (rhythms and melodic shapes), but for syntax (higher level construction). In my opinion, this is necessary to sight-read at an advanced level as it allows you not really to “look ahead” but to perceive and process what is directly in front of you in larger chunks, that are more meaningful.
With regard to strategy, the most important thing is to know yourself well enough to be aware of your tendencies. What do you tend to play well the first time? What do you tend to struggle with? Can you glance over a four or five-system excerpt of music and within ten seconds identify everything that is “easy?” If so, that’s great. Spend whatever time you have left examining the other stuff. Note whether there is substantial exact repetition. If there is, you have narrowed down what your are looking at. If you can mentally work through how to play it once, you should be able to play it every other time, unless there is a change of context such as metrical placement. If there is, you should notice that, as well, and plan for it. Of course, basic information such as time signature, key signature, the presence or absence of accidentals, and any articulation and dynamic markings must be observed.
Here are a few recommendations regarding strategy in the moment, as you are being called on to sight-read in your audition:
It is better to play something well at your tempo than to play it poorly at their tempo. If the adjudicator is counting you in and it feels a little fast for you to be confident, just adjust the count-off down by a reasonable amount in your head, and start to play.
It is better to start in a few seconds and play well, then to start RIGHT NOW and play poorly. Take a few extra seconds if you need it. Control your environment as much as you can to enhance your performance.
Be a musician, not a robot. Interpret the sight-reading material with style, and make a musical statement that you believe is appropriate and interesting. Having a compelling musical point of view as you play can serve to make you less nervous, and to make your adjudicators more inclined to ignore a minor error or technical glitch.
As always, I welcome your comments and questions below. Thank you for reading!