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How to nail an audition every time

Here’s a word that surely strikes fear into the heart of every musician – audition!

I hate auditioning. I know musicians who refuse to audition – I was almost one of them. Although I’m really glad I didn’t adopt that mindset, I totally get why some people would just not want to put themselves through the most unnatural musical environment imaginable. If you’re anything like me, during an audition you’ll experience every emotion from, “I’m awesome on my instrument, totally got this” through to, “I shouldn’t even be allowed to touch a bass”.

I have auditioned around 10 times over the past 5 or 6 years, and I’ve only ever got 1…and that was the last one I did! Although a 10% success rate isn’t great, I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy and I like to think of it as 9 auditions where I learnt how to become better. So this post is my way of sharing those things I learnt from my ‘failures’ in a hope that it will help people prepare better for auditioning.

It’s not about playing all your licks

I struggled with this one for ages. I like a good lick (lol), I love being expressive when I play and being responsive to vibe and atmosphere. I love music to sound “live” and for a band to be energetic, and I LOVE a good arrangement! On top of that, you want to go into and audition and stand out, right? So if you whip out some badass licks, or some crazy chords or chops, then you will be remembered and will get hired.

Not true. At least not for the auditions I’ve done. One of my first auditions I thought to myself, “I’m going to go in a shred all over this”. The artist was auditioning for a whole band, so we were placed in bands at random and told to play the track. I remember the guys in my band that day, they were sick! It was an amazing group of musicians, but things got out of hand! The drummer did a chop, I felt like I had to match it so I did a chop, the guitarist turned up, the keys player started putting in passing chords. To me, it sounded amazing and was incredibly fun (a rare feeling in an audition), I remember coming away from that audition thinking to myself, “If we don’t all get that gig I don’t know who will”. Plot twist (or not), none of us got the gig! So why not? Aside from being incredibly arrogant, the reason I didn’t get the gig was because, in that room, I thought that the audition was all about me and my superb ability.

Auditioning is not about you – it’s about the artist and their music! Here’s a fact for you, there will always be someone better than you. Cold, right! But seriously, if you want the best bassist in the world, why not get in Anthony Jackson, or Victor Wooten or *insert famous musician name here*. Obviously, I’m talking in extremes to make a point, but the thing is, an audition isn’t a competition to show that you are the best technical musician in the room, it’s about getting the artist excited about hearing their song, and their arrangements and their finely crafted sounds, that they have spent weeks and months and thousands of pounds recording, live. If you want to show off your licks, film it in your bedroom and stick it on youtube – don’t bring them into an audition.

Prepare musically

I’m sure this one goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. If you are not fully prepared musically for your audition, then you may as well not show up. Just so we’re clear, when I go into and audition (or rehearsals, or gigs, or studio sessions, or whatever), I know the tracks inside out and backwards, I know when the drum pattern changes or when the guitar part comes in, I know my part on bass and on synth, I could play with a plectrum on a 4 string or 5 string. I know where I could fill if I was asked to open up a bit in the song – I’ll even have arrangement ideas, in case I’m asked. Don’t just learn your part, learn the song!

Make sure your gear is right for the gig too. If the song calls for a 4 string p-bass, don’t rock up with your 6-string ken smith. Get you patches and sounds right, and if you’re going to be using a keyboard that has been brought in, make sure you know your way around it (I go down to a music shop and have a play down there if it’s a board I’ve never used before).

really think it goes without saying, but you can’t over prepare for an audition, and I don’t understand why anyone would just rock up and wing it – it shows that you don’t really care, and it’s cool to care…right!?

Prepare physically

An audition isn’t just about your ability. An artist (and moreover, a label and management) wants to see how you look on stage, how you fit in with the look of a band and how you perform. So think about your appearance. What are you going to wear? Get yourself a haircut. Practice standing up and performing the song. I really like the saying, “dress for the job you want”, it stops me getting into the habit of thinking that my ability alone is what will carry me – it’s the way you present yourself both physically and socially that also carries you.

Prepare mentally

I feel like this point is massively overlooked on so many levels. When you go to an audition, do you know what it’s actually going to be like? If you’ve done a lot, then probably yes – although saying that, almost all of my auditions have been very different.

This story will haunt me forever. I remember auditioning a couple of years ago for a very well known artist. I got the audition date and couldn’t make it, so I phoned the MD and told him. The MD was adamant that he wanted me to audition so they moved the whole thing so that I could make it. At that point, I felt like a pretty big deal! Cutting a long story short, I got to the audition room and it was utterly vibeless – if there is such a thing as anti-vibe, or some sort of vibe-vacuum, it was present in that room!

The set up was a (really awful) bass amp in the middle of the stage and a laptop. In the room was the MD, management, the artist, some next-guy filming and a seriously awkward silence. I got up on stage, plugged in and the MD hit play on the laptop, at which point I became super aware of how exposed I was and played like my hands had been stuck on backwards. Some people would probably argue that I should be able to play along to a laptop on my own – and that is true, I do it all the time at home. But there was something about standing there, with a whole room watching, trying to catch a vibe with a CD that got in my head and made me totally unable to play.

Something got in my head. My thoughts would sabotage me, I would think that I was no good, or not able to prove my ability or that I would tarnish my reputation that had got me the audition in the first place. Whatever it was, it stayed with me for months afterwards too – I really struggled to believe in my ability and for the longest time I hated playing music. All because I hadn’t mentally considered what the audition scenario could be like.

So what can you do? Well, this is where things might get a bit freaky-deaky for some people, but I believe that for as much as you can prepare musically for something, and prepare physically, you can also prepare mentally. About a week before my last audition I made a list of negative, sabotaging thoughts that have a tendency to creep into my thinking. Things like, “You’re not good enough”, or, “You’re going to ruin your reputation”, or, “You’re going to mess it up” (I actually went into more detail than this when I wrote it down). Then, on the other side of the page I would write down what I know to be true as a counter to these thoughts; “I’ve worked for x, y, z and been playing professionally for x years”, or, “I got called for this because someone had heard about my great reputation”, or, “I have the ability, experience and expertise to demonstrate that I’m a great bassist”. Again, I would write in a bit more detail, but it was based on facts rather than irrational thoughts. Every day I would focus on this positive affirmation so that when I enter a room where I would normally think negative thoughts, I have trained myself to think positively about myself.

Like I say, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in terms of walking into a room and being able to lay it down under pressure – this kind of preparation has become invaluable for me. Try it!

Be you

This is my last point, and for me, this is what means that I will forever nail every audition I do. When I got called for my last audition, I was asked to prepare the tracks on synth, using Ableton to create the sounds. My Ableton knowledge (at the time) was pretty limited, but I started looking through tutorials and working away at building the right sounds. After a couple of days of struggling through, I had an epiphany, if I got the gig I would be forever struggling to figure out how to use Ableton to make the sounds and patches for each song. So I decided to change my approach to be something more true to myself – 2 bass synths, a bass and a big ass amp!

This change in mindset, I think, is the key to auditioning well. I walked into the room and demonstrated what I could bring to the gig. I had programmed up my 2 synths, hired an Ampeg 8×10 and decided to bring in live bass at the end of the track (with a tiny fill) to give it a boost. I’ll be honest, the playing wasn’t perfect, my gear failed a bit and the amp didn’t sound that great…which goes against my other point, but, when I left the room I knew that I had shown them exactly what I do and what I could bring to the gig. I knew that if I didn’t get the gig it was because I wasn’t the right fit, not because I didn’t have the ability.

Coincidentally, this is the only audition I have ever got!

I genuinely think that when it comes to auditioning, it’s important to be level-headed and not hold it tightly – the goal isn’t to get the gig, it’s to do your best and show what you can bring to a gig. If you have this mindset, then whether you get the gig or not, you have nailed the audition.

Hope this was helpful. It’s taken me a lot of trial and error (mainly error) to get to this conclusion, so hopefully, it saves people having to go through the same number of knockbacks! I think there should be more discussion and emphasis on the mental strain musicians (and self-employed people in general) put themselves under, it’s something I’m really passionate about talking about so you’ll probably hear more from me on that over the next few months!

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Here’s a word that surely strikes fear into the heart of every musician – audition! I hate auditioning. I know musicians who refuse to audition – I was almost one of them. Although I’m really glad I didn’t adopt that mindset, I totally get why some people would just not want to […]

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