Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Audition and Military Bands

This post applies equally to both drum set and percussion. Also, it may involve both, depending on the job opening that you are pursuing. What I'm going to talk about today, is being prepared to the best of your ability when you decide that you are going to attempt to gain musical employment.

An audition is an extremely stressful job "interview" for musicians. Most professional auditions are highly structured events. There will be a standard repertoire list, and more than likely, you will have to sight read, and/or play some music on the fly if it's a drum set audition. Make sure you know the required music ice cold! Most candidates that are eliminated after the first round, are eliminated, because they were either not qualified for the position, or had failed to prepare the required music adequately.

A symphony orchestra audition is going to include playing a variety of excerpts from the standard repertoire, as well as very difficult solos on snare drum, timpani, and marimba. These solos will be designated in the audition music list, and they are required. There are no substitutions allowed.  Most major and mid-range symphony auditions also require a movement from one of the Bach Violin Sonatas and Partitas, performed with four mallets on marimba. A premier military band is going to have the same basic requirements as a symphony orchestra. A regional band audition is going to be more rounded in regards to including drum set as well for a percussion position, and requiring percussion skills for a drum set position. The standards for passing a regional military band audition are slightly less stringent than they are for a premier band. However, they are still very demanding. You can't take a military band audition and slouch your way through it. You won't get the job. I'm going to concentrate most of this post on military auditions and requirements, because that is my background. I spent 2 years in a regional band, and 24 years with a premier band,  the United States Air Force Band in Washington, DC.

There was a time when there was a huge difference between the standards for a regional band and a premier band, but that gap has closed over the past 20 years, give or take a few. The reason is that there are far fewer military bands world-wide. Consequently, the military music programs have become much more selective in their hiring.

When I first joined the Air Force's music program and was assigned to a regional band, there were only a few musicians in the band that had college degrees. This was the norm in all of the regional bands, which back then were called field bands. Most of us were high school graduates or college drop outs, like yours truly. On the other side of the coin, the vast majority of the musicians, with few exceptions in the premier bands like the academy bands and the Washington, DC bands, were staffed by musicians that had degrees from the country's top music schools like Julliard, Eastman, and New England Conservatory. Many of them had advanced degrees including Doctorates. While the "lifers" in the regional bands were overwhelmingly proud of regional band members who were able to win an audition with a premier band, there was an inherent cultural reverse snobbery within the culture of the regional bands. Having a college degree was looked down upon. If you had a degree, you kept the fact low keyed and to yourself. If you didn't, the old timer Senior Non-Commissioned Officers that ran the shop, would single you out for extra details doing things like picking up trash and cigarette butts outside in the pouring rain, scrubbing floors on your hands and knees, and cleaning toilets after duty hours on a Friday afternoon, just to put you in your place. Today, many of the musicians staffing the regional bands also have advanced degrees. Most of them, however, are graduates of state university music programs, rather than the top conservatories. Today, however, there are an increasing number of  members of the regional bands that are graduates of Eastman, Julliard, New England Conservatory, and Curtis Institute, and this is becoming more common all the time. This is your competition. There was a time when you could land yourself a regional band job right out of high school, if you were a good enough player and could meet the minimum skill level requirements. Very few musicians with only a high school education will win, or even be invited to, a regional military band audition today.

As a side note, most of those Senior NCOs that ran the regional bands were in fact highly skilled musicians themselves, and they had maintained the necessary standards to keep their jobs and had earned their respective promotions by being good musicians and effective managers. They had won their jobs during the Viet Nam war. Thousands of highly skilled musicians were auditioning for the military bands at that time, in order to avoid the draft. During the Viet Nam war, there was very little difference in the skill level of the musicians in the regional bands and the premier bands. Only the best were hired. With the downsizing of the military band programs over the past 30 years, things have come full circle. Admission standards for the military bands today, are about the same as they were during Viet Nam.

The audition music list for the various service bands are posted on their respective web sites. For the premier bands, the audition committee will provide you with the required music for both a taped and/or video screening audition, and the live audition for those that are invited to compete in person. Most applicants are rejected during the tape or video audition phase. It's the same with the preliminary video audition for a symphony orchestra position.

For some jazz band auditions, there might be a list of songs that are required, but I know from experience that if you are auditioning for a big band, the entire audition is going to be sight reading charts. You need to have great reading chops.

A professional commercial band audition will usually have a required music list. The bigger the gig, the more structured the audition is going to be. At the top of the heap, most auditions are by invitation only. The big gigs don't advertise.

How you conduct yourself and how you look are also part of the audition process. For most orchestra and military band auditions, the first few rounds take place with the committee behind a screen. They will drop the screen for the last round of the finals. My suggestion is to wear a suit and tie, or the female equivalent if you are a woman. Look sharp! That's part of the audition process too. You just might make it to the final round. Remember, it's a job interview. For a jazz band or rock band audition, casual dress is usually acceptable. Don't go overboard with trendy clothing. I've seen folks show up for a blues band audition wearing a bowling shirt, sandals, and dark glasses. That stinks of cliche, and it won't earn you any points from the committee. They will think that you are a jerk. In addition, I would also wear a coat and tie or suit to a college entrance audition. It shows that you take the process seriously.

Be careful what you say when you are in the waiting area with the other auditionees. When I was with the Air Force Band we used to plant some of our personnel in civilian attire in the waiting room to observe the various candidates. People thought the "plants" were auditioning too. That was the idea. When it came time for the finals, those observations would be considered when choosing the finalists. Some of you might think that this is "dirty pool," but keep in mind that you are considering someone for the possibility of a 20 to 30 year career. They have to be able to get along with their co-workers while working long and irregular hours, and spending multiple weeks on the road in very close quarters, when on tour.

Here's another thing to keep in mind too. Yes, you are being hired for the possibility of a 20 or 30 year music career and the military, for the most part, has job security. However,  if you fail to maintain standards you will be let go. You can't become lazy after you are hired.  I knew several folks in a regional band who failed to reach their 5 skill level or 7 skill level, which are necessary benchmarks for promotion, and were forced to either separate from the service at the end of their current enlistment, or cross train to a different career field. They would have minimal chances for promotion too, because the fact that they had failed to reach their 5 or 7 level would be well documented and noted in their annual evaluations. That paperwork would be included in their promotion packages that were sent to the promotion boards.

I knew a few members of the DC band who were determined to be no longer qualified for their positions. They were forced to either separate from the military, or take a demotion and an assignment with a regional band, with of course, the requisite career ending bad paper. Most chose to separate. In addition, there are a lot of politics in any of the bands. If you get on the wrong side of the wrong person, they will find a way to get rid of you. There are ways to fight the accusations, but even if you win, you will have lost. They will make you miserable for the remainder of your career, and their will be enough bad paper in your file at that point, that will preclude you from any chance of another promotion for many years.

Having covered all the negatives of the military band culture, I want to reiterate that winning a job with a military band is a very rewarding experience. Spending a 20 or 30 year career in the service bands is a great way to be a professional musician. It's a great place to make your contacts for when you get out. For some, it's a wonderful stepping stone career. Many members of the military bands go on to bigger and better things after they leave. I know a bass player that I was stationed with at McGuire Air Force Base, that is one of the top, first-call, jazz bassists in New York City. I teach with a drummer/percussionist, who is one of the first call jazz drummers in both Washington, DC, and New York City. He was stationed with an Army band in Brooklyn, New York at one time. I was stationed in the DC band with current members of the San Francisco Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Philharmonic, National Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and some of the top touring commercial acts in this country. There are many former and retired military band members that staff the house bands in the casino show rooms in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Others have gone on to top teaching positions at the university level, while others have become high school band directors or other positions in the music education industry. Others like me, stayed in until retirement, so that we would have the self-earned safety net of a pension and benefits, allowing us to pursue our dreams as free-lance musicians, 20 or 30 years after dreaming of becoming  free-lance musicians. It's called delayed gratification, and I'm sorry, but there is nothing wrong with that. You can't always have everything yesterday. It's called paying your dues. Sometimes you have to work your way up, and earn your position in this industry. Over the years, I've known quite a few military musicians that couldn't wait to get out, and then once out, tried to get back in, but were not rehired. Sometimes the grass is not always greener on the other side of the street.

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