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By Staff Sgt. Sam Ross
Today I would like to give you a detailed look into the process of auditioning for the West Point Band. As someone who has recently gone through the audition process and joined the band, hopefully my experience will provide a realistic glimpse for both the non-musician and someone who is interested pursuing a career in a military band. While auditioning can be a somewhat dizzying and even harrowing experience for some (including myself at times!), we try to make sure it’s a positive experience whether you leave with or without a new job. Like with any audition, musicians search various sources to learn of new vacancies and auditions with various ensembles. Most of these are published on websites like Musical Chairs, trade journals like the International Musician, on the ensemble’s own website and social media, through flyers distributed by the organization, or by word of mouth. As most who are in the audition circuit are in school or recent graduates, information about audition vacancies can be pretty easily obtained through their teachers, job bulletin boards, and of course, the internet. As other musicians can probably relate, there is an ever-continuing hunt for audition announcements, so we make sure ours are disseminated through all the standard means.
The West Point Band handles its auditions somewhat differently than most bands or orchestras. Many organizations hold open-call auditions that simply require résumé submission and a deposit to hold your spot for an audition time. In addition to résumé submission, our band asks the interested person to also submit an audition recording. This essentially serves as the preliminary round of the audition that would typically take place live at the audition site. The applicant is required to record a couple of pieces or excerpts that the Band designates, and then he or she has the creative freedom to put other works on the recording that showcase specific strengths for that particular vacancy. I remember being pretty excited about being able to choose what else I put on my recording. My audition was for an E-flat clarinet position (think high, possibly squeaky notes), which just happened to be the instrument I loved playing most. So making my recording was at least somewhat enjoyable! A few times recently the band has used an open call audition (often in nearby New York City) to fill a vacancy, but more often than not we stick with the recording round process.
Making an audition recording is a process in and of itself—practicing the music, buying/using a personally-owned recorder or hiring someone to record you, and having a good space in which to make the recording. Luckily for me, the time I made my recording coincided with the same time of year when many musicians make application recordings for summer music festivals and graduate schools. Still freelancing at the time, I was doing those very things to further my musical development. And since I was already knee-deep in the process for other pursuits, what was one more thing to add to the list? Once the CD was finished and submitted, there was time to breathe a bit and think about other things until hearing back from the committee. The couple weeks of wait time between the “prelims” (recordings) and the second (live) round was longer than the usual half hour at an open-call audition. Instead of waiting nervously in a holding room between rounds, I was able to chill on the couch and go on with normal life for a few weeks (all the while continuing to practice diligently, of course). After being selected from the recording round, I was invited along with a handful of others to the live audition round on site at West Point. Travel to the live audition at West Point was covered by the Army (ah, there’s some more incentive to make a recording!).
Preparing for the live audition is much like that of preparing to record, but much, if not all, of the required music for us was different. In the midst of preparing for the musical challenges the audition will provide, the invited candidate then gets in touch with a local Army recruiter to start the process of qualifying for enlistment. This ensures that the band selects an audition winner that has no obstacles between them and enlistment. Having gone through the process, it is a bit unnerving to dive into the military world without any previous experience with it. This is one main distinction of taking a military band audition versus a symphony orchestra audition—you are not potentially joining just the musical organization but the respective Armed Service as well.
The West Point Band has another tradition of holding an auditionee dinner the night before audition day. This is an informal dinner where the candidates have the chance to interact with a couple members of the band, just to socialize, and even to have questions answered about the job and what life is like in the band. I remember being strangely anxious about this, but it proved to be an enjoyable time and I learned that the members of the band were normal people. The morning of the audition, we were picked up by one of the band’s clarinetists and driven from nearby Newburgh to West Point to warm-up for the day. At this point I was already shell-shocked by the stunning beauty of the Hudson Valley as well as the brutal cold of a February morning in the northeast, but that didn’t get in the way of my ritual intake of morning coffee. (Caffeine was something I wasn’t quite willing to give up as part of my audition preparation.)
Once we made it to the band building, we drew our audition numbers and were given warm-up rooms, along with the excerpt list for the first round. I went through my usual warm-up, but didn’t overexert myself so I had plenty of energy left to play a strong audition. I would need it, as I ended up playing the entire first round list from top to bottom. In many auditions, there is simply not enough time for the committee to hear every candidate play all the prepared material, but having only a select few auditioning, the committee here was able to hear more from each individual. The first round was played to a black screen set up between the player and the committee to ensure anonymity. The screen came down for our second round, which we played following lunch with some members of the band. We again played the full list of required music, answered some questions asked by the panel, and then a one-on-one chat with the band’s senior enlisted leader. (Another portion of the audition the West Point Band has since added is a marching demonstration for the panel. Marching with instruments is a huge part of the job here, after all.)
After all of that, the nervous waiting period I described earlier took place as I pondered whether or not my life was about to change in a pretty drastic way. It was a mixed emotion winning the audition. On one hand I was suddenly met with the reality of enlisting and going through the process of basic training, but on the other hand so very relieved and excited to have secured a playing job with such a great organization.