Dear Alma, My mind goes blank in auditions. Help!

Dear Alma, My mind goes blank in auditions. Help!

Daily Comfort Zone

norman lebrecht

September 01, 2023

From our agony aunt’s mailbag:

Dear Alma,

I swear I have the memory of a goldfish, probably much worse. I am a 21 year old performance major in a good music conservatory, and am applying for graduate school. I have a lot of auditions that require memorization coming up and about an hour of repertoire. I keep playing the pieces and the notes/rhythms just won’t stick in my memory. Also, I have a horrible intuitive sense of rhythm that no metronome has ever fixed. Please help!



Dear Goldfish,

It sure sounds like a lot is going on. Let’s try to unpack this as best we can, and tackle each situation individually. You seem to be in a bit of a pickle, with a healthy dash of panic. Let’s step back and see if we can get some perspective.

First are the auditions themselves. We need to snap you out of your anxiety so you can tackle this head-on. You are probably pretty good but you need to find a solid head space in order to get to the next step. And your teacher hasn’t been able to help you, so you need to take control of your future and figure this out. It’s not uncommon to have a period of self-doubt while in school, but you can get out of it. You got into music school, so you can get into graduate school.

You should be aiming for 1-2 top choices (that are basically unrealistic dream schools), 2 difficult but attainable schools, and 1 safety school that is a sho-in. Don’t do too many auditions (5 tops) and make sure you have these three tiers.

Next, take a close look at the repertoire and narrow it down. You should be able to find a set of repertoire that works for all auditions – make sure you aren’t preparing more music than you have to.

What is your final goal? It sounds like you are playing repertoire that is either new or very difficult for you. As musicians, we are often pushing ourselves to jump to the next level, stretching our technique and putting ourselves in a situation where the demands are almost unattainable. There are times when this is a good idea (lessons, summer school, studio class) and times when taking a step back to old, reliable repertoire is a better choice (concerto competition, school audition, playing for a public masterclass). You want to win these auditions, so I would advise stepping back and finding the repertoire that you can play with utmost confidence, with technical swagger. Better to warm up old solid rep that is a level below your current level than go in and have a major flop-fest.

Next: memorization. Whatever rep you decide to do, you need to be in a calm, organized place before you expect to play for memory. Make sure you know where the phrases are, and what the larger structure is. How the recap is different from the exposition. Make a graph, marking down the large sections and the days of the week, so you have specific, small goals. Not “Oh my God I can’t remember anything” but rather “Oh, it’s Wednesday, I am going to work on the coda today for memory”. You can memorize anything you want, if you are organized. Memorization has three components: emotional plan, physical security, and the ability to replicate under pressure. Know how you feel, drill sections (even if it’s just two beats, 25 times in a row), and put yourself in pressure situations to see if your preparation holds up.

Then, make a large calendar, writing down the audition dates. I don’t know how much time you have, but I like to be performance ready 6 months before an event. In any case, mark a definitive day where you are completely prepared (at least 6 weeks before), and start to perform the whole audition in public on that date (friends, family?), recording it for personal review. You want to have played the audition repertoire at least 10 times.

And finally: rhythm. It’s good that you can tell you have a fundamental problem. It means you can tackle it. It’s separate from everything else you have mentioned. Get a good rhythm book – I like the Robert Starer Rhythmic Training, but there are lots of options. Go through it, working with a metronome and clapping or playing your instrument. Also drill anything that doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s time for you to help yourself if no one has been able to find the answer for you. You can fix your insecurities if you build up a library of solid rhythmic cells.

And actually, did you know that goldfish have good memories? You can teach them to navigate mazes and even play soccer (if you don’t believe me, a quick search on YouTube will send you down a goldfish-hole of everything from soccer to basketball, and the fact that I knew this even before reading your question is a whole ‘nother banana). So go out there and get organized. You can do it!

Let us know how it goes in the comments section!


  • Goldfish says:

    Wow, Alma, I am so excited that you actually answered my question! I will work on these things and let you know how it’s going.

  • Wannaplayguitar says:

    If you only learn pieces by memory for up coming auditions then you aren’t ever really getting under the skin of the music. You need enough time to learn then put aside your intended audition pieces, (into the metaphoric wine cellar to mature).Meanwhile learn other works, but frequently listen to your intended audition works with the score and visualise yourself playing and performing so that the work becomes mentally re-embedded (fingerings, bowings, breathing etc.) Practice short tricky passages as daily exercises that you know frequently trip you up when you are anxious, but don’t keep playing through and through hoping it will gel..honestly it can take months (even years) and I don’t know why people think it can take any less time than that. There aren’t any shortcuts in the end. Do the groundwork (as we say in the horse world)

  • Fenway says:

    If you have trouble with grad school auditions, and you have bad rhythm, I would suggest you move into another field asap. The labor market is hot right now, according to Biden, so I am sure you will get a job. I have a tip: learn as much as possible about your potential employer and practice your interviews ahead of time. Like this: “Would you like fries with that?” “Welcome to Walmart”
    “Would you like sugar or Splenda in your latte?”

  • SVM says:

    Another useful strategy is to try playing difficult passages with eyes closed (start by taking a bar or so, or even just a difficult interval/ornament/anacrusis, play it eyes open, then repeat almost immediately with eyes closed). Playing blind forces one to reflect very carefully on the technical and intellectual demands of the passage in question, and understand how to go about mastering them. Another means of refining one’s understanding of a passage can be to transpose it, especially if it involves an unusual or counterintuitive harmony or interval — by practising the same passage in different transpositions (rotate between a few, ensuring that no single transposition becomes so comfortable as to displace the actual pitch from the memory), one is forced to attain a greater insight into the melodic and harmonic development, as well as focus on the things that do not change, such as the rhythm.

  • J says:

    I’d recommend singing the music – start with putting on a recording while you are in the shower and singing along, and then singing phrase by phrase properly with the score(aka sing with the dynamics, phrasing, articulations etc.)

    And then try singing larger chunks (including what happens in the rests – then you don’t have the horrible moment when you are unsure of your entry in the audition!)