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Preparing for an Orchestra Audition is a Lot Like Training for a Marathon

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Preparing for an Orchestra Audition is a Lot Like Training for a Marathon

If you only had eight weeks to prepare, what would you rather do––run a complete, 26.2-mile regulation-length marathon, or take an orchestra audition?

I think I know which one most rational people would choose, right? I mean, one of these events is a super intense, completely unnatural, soul-crushing ordeal, and the other involves a pair of running shoes.

I’ve taken a lot of auditions and I’ve finished a few marathons. I can tell you, planning for an audition the way you prepare for a marathon is a clever hack that will help anyone interested in winning an orchestra spot.

Here is my Top Five list of things audition preparation and marathon training have in common:

  1. Training without a plan is just jogging

You need a plan. By this, I mean an actual, written down plan. You can’t roll out of bed up one morning and decide to run a marathon, even if you’re an experienced jogger. You might be able to cross the finish line, but it is not going to be pretty.  

Here’s the steps musicians usually follow:

  • Wish they were in an orchestra
  • Send resume because there’s an opening
  • Hope it all works out

This is not a plan. It’s a pipe dream.

A plan is more than wanting something to work out. It’s a thoughtful approach to preparation. It’s a machine you build carefully, part by part. A plan is solid and reliable and can take a lot of pressure, even if something goes wrong or stage fright kicks in.

  1. A smart plan is a series of small goals that lead you to your big goal

Before you put your shoes on and run out the door, refer to your plan. Is today a speed workout? A long, slow run? Cross-training? These small goals keep you from darting aimlessly around the neighborhood.

Same goes for the practice room. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish in the next thirty minutes, or the next hour, or this week. What are your priorities? Is today a mock audition or a recording day? Map out your practice sessions like you’d map your run.

Not only is this way of practicing deeply satisfying, but having a defined goal for the session means you’ll get more done in less time. You’ll avoid the musical “meandering” that most people do at the beginning of a practice. Win, win.

  1. You’ll do a lot better with a coach

If expert-level athletes rely on coaches, then so should you. In reality, you’re going to need three coaches:

An Experienced Mentor

You need to know someone who has already done the things you’re trying to do. First, they know ALL of the typical mistakes. (Heck, they’ve made all of the typical mistakes!) More importantly, they can clearly see when you’re about to fall into traps and steer you around them. A good mentor is like one of those sherpa dudes who guides you up the side of a mountain in Nepal, keeping you from dying of hypothermia or exhaustion.

A Practice Buddy

In this very moment, there are other musicians in practice rooms preparing for the same audition as you. How you deal with that is your decision. You can either dread the fact that you have competition, or you can see if one of them would be a good practice buddy. Sometimes two heads are better than one, and having a teammate makes training more consistent and effective. Find someone who has similar goals and can give (and take!) constructive feedback. Find someone who will be honest with you. Ideally, they will be better at some skills than you, and vice-versa. They don’t even have to live in the same city. You can email recordings back and forth for comments. (It’s wrongheaded to worry that this is helping the competition. We’ll get into why another day.)

An Accountability Sponsor

Despite all of their helpfulness, your mentor and your practice buddy are not responsible for your success. You are responsible. However, having someone in your life who can regularly check in on your progress and keep you accountable to your plan is awesome. This is not critical, but it is very helpful. Your sponsor does not need to be a musician, or even understand the intricacies of the audition process. They just need to call several times a week to ask,

  • “I’m looking at a copy of your ‘to do’ list––how’s it going?”
  • “Hey, did you finish putting together that recording thing?”
  • “I was thinking about how hard you are working…how are you holding up?”

Knowing that someone cares about you and your goals can be magic.

  1. You can make your brain work for you

Here’s my marathon pre-game ritual: I lay out my running clothes, shoes, pin my bib number to my shirt, and charge my iPod. I try to imagine the sound of the starting gun, the steady surge of the excited crowd, and the feeling of my feet on the pavement as I settle into a comfortable pace. I try to envision as many moments as I can, especially the exhilaration of crossing the finish line.

Creating a clear picture of what your audition day will look like, down to the very last detail, will help bring the whole process into focus. If you can imagine it, you are much more likely to be able to accomplish it.

What makes this hard is that most musicians don’t know what a successful audition day looks like. What if this is your first audition? How do you know what to expect?

Start with mock auditions, and make them as realistic as you know how. Also, talk to your coach. Also, chat with others who have been through auditions and won. Remember that each of these people once won their first audition, which means you can do it, too. But imaginations are powerful, so use yours as much as possible and imagine yourself getting through each step successfully.

Do NOT imagine how scary it all is, our how badly you might play, or getting cut after two excerpts. Your mind is an expert at creating all sorts of negative scenarios and outcomes, but you can learn to control it if you try.

This is a mental muscle you need to build. With time, you will be able to see yourself in your mind’s eye being successful at your audition (or anything else you put your mind to).

  1. You can learn a lot by studying what happened last time

My running watch tracks all sorts of workout analytics. How fast, how far, my heart rate, when I lost pace, and when I pushed too hard. It’s fascinating to look back after a run and compare what I thought I was doing to what was actually happening in my body. Wouldn’t it be great if getting accurate feedback at an audition was so easy?

I have lost many more auditions than I’ve won, but after each one, I walked away with another piece of the puzzle. After enough auditions, (and a little luck), the last piece finally clicked into place. But I had to look for the pieces and actively work towards solving the puzzle. Doing it over and over without looking for the missing piece wouldn’t have worked.

If things didn’t go well at your last audition, sit down and write down as much as you can remember. What mistakes did you make? What did you learn? What can you do differently? How can you shift your focus for next time? What surprised you?

Unfortunately, most musicians don’t do this. They leave the audition grumbling, spouting excuses, never actually getting down to the business of reviewing the experience. The ones who learn from their experience are the ones you see making the finals over and over and eventually winning.

Treat your hard-earned mistakes as precious gifts. Don’t ignore them.

  1. Crossing the finish line should be fun

The best similarity between marathons and auditions is the reward!

It’s enormously satisfying to hold the finisher’s medal they hand you after completing a marathon. (It’s made of real metal!) But that’s nothing compared to hearing the personnel manager say your name as the winner of an audition. The years of hard work finally pay off!

As I talked about in #4, let yourself imagine this ahead of time. Enjoy it. Savor it. It’s fun, and it makes it more likely to come true!


Please feel free to comment below if you want to chime in. Or even better, let’s continue the conversation over in the Honesty Pill Facebook Group:



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2 thoughts on “Preparing for an Orchestra Audition is a Lot Like Training for a Marathon”

  1. I’m painfully addicted to reading these well thought out and extremely logical and straight forward blogs. Before, we just had excerpt recordings to emulate- this strengthens the inner core of our minds and approaches and help with the human responses we all encounter in the prep and execution on these concert halls far away from our comfort zones- love it.

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