Whether you’re trying to land a spot in a popular local wedding band or an internationally-touring pop act, during an audition, your challenge as a musician is the same: how do you impress your audience so thoroughly that they have no choice but to choose you?
Even though music auditions can last just a matter of minutes (or even seconds, in some cases), the road to representing yourself in the best possible light begins long before you ever learned that Band X was looking for a guitarist, drummer, or singer.
Kern Brantley is a Detroit-based musician and music director currently playing bass with Lady Gaga on her “Born This Way Ball World Tour.” He’s also held down the low end in bands for Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Boys II Men, Grover Washington Jr., New Kids On The Block, and many others. He’s participated in auditions of all sizes, shapes, and flavors – and even organized and run a few himself – and was kind enough to share his thoughts on how to prep for, and dominate, any music audition.
Build your musical network
You can’t ace an audition if you don’t know that it exists in the first place. While many auditions can be found posted on bulletin boards or Craigslist, some of the best opportunities are the ones you hear about from a friend, a student, teacher, or that guitarist you jammed with at a bar gig a few weeks back. Brantley affirms that word of mouth is the best way to discover audition opportunities; therefore, the wider and more active your musical network, the better your chances of hearing about that killer act that’s looking for someone just like you.
Part two of this tip is remembering to play your best everywhere, even if you’re stuck on the worst gig you can remember. You never know who will be watching and listening, and what opportunities that person may know about and float your way.
Learn the music
There are no rules about what you’ll be expected to play in an audition, so make sure to find out ahead of time, in as much detail as you can, so you can prepare accordingly. “When I was auditioning for Janet Jackson’s band, the music director sent me three songs and told me to learn them,” says Brantley. “That was straightforward – I knew exactly what was expected. They also just asked me to play something that I felt comfortable with.”
If you’re being asked to play material that’s already been recorded and released, Brantley recommends that you lay your foundation by learning it exactly like the album. “When I was preparing to audition for Janet, and for Cher, I learned the material note-for-note, but I also prepared myself to solo on the songs, if they asked me to. With Cher, I went farther, too – I got a greatest hits CD and learned everything on there, all the singles.”
Brantley affirms that the more of a band’s or artist’s material you have prepared, the better you’ll fare inside the audition room. Even if you only end up playing 30 seconds of one tune, your familiarity with the overall vibe and style will no doubt elevate your playing – and your confidence.
Once you enter the audition room, you never really know what’s going to happen, so remember to stay cool, collected, and low-maintenance at all times. “Sometimes when you’re auditioning for a touring band, the artist will be in the room, and sometimes he or she won’t,” says Brantley. “Grover Washington, Jr. wanted to jam and vibe to see if there was a good personality match, and with the New Kids On The Block, the audition was part playing, part interviewing with them. You have to play and act your best regardless of who’s there and what they want you to do.”
Brantley recalls that his audition for Cher’s band took an unexpected turn when he ended up jamming with the band on stage during a pre-concert sound check, with her former bass player standing nearby and giving him pointers. Another interesting audition twist came during the Janet audition; though the superstar was not in the room herself, it turned out that she was surreptitiously watching the proceedings from another room.
Part of being flexible is knowing that the band or artist might throw something unexpected at you musically – especially if you’re auditioning for a group where improvisation or sight-reading is an important component of their music. Even if such a challenge comes along and pushes your comfort boundaries, just do your best to jam with that new groove or play down that never-seen-before chord chart with as much musicality and confidence as you’re able to muster.
Know who you are auditioning for
It doesn’t matter whether the audition is for a slot with a hip-hop crew or live dubstep band – take some time to thoroughly research the music before you step foot into the audition room. “I go online and check out interviews and articles relevant to the artist and get the artist’s personality, what their personal background is, and what their musical background is,” says Brantley. “Check out their website, watch some videos, and try to get as much information as possible.”
Also, be sure to ask amongst your musical network to see if anyone has worked with the act before and has any inside knowledge, particularly if the band or artist doesn’t have much of a presence online that you can tap into. Take what you hear with a grain of salt, of course, but if five independent sources agree that Artist X loves the sound of a distorted Hammond B-3, gravitates towards players who don’t play a lot of notes, or is an all-around pain to work with, there’s likely to be some truth to it.
Be professional – always
In many key ways, an audition is a job interview in different clothing – and a miniature performance as well – so treat it with the professionalism it deserves. “First off, never be high!” says Brantley. “Also, after you audition, even if it’s a room of your peers and musicians that you know, don’t hang out to see what happens or catch up. Be professional, leave your information, and disappear until they call you back. If they need you, they’ll tell you.”
Regardless of whether you’re auditioning for the biggest pop act in the world or the smallest band that nobody outside of a five-block radius has heard of, treat all auditions with the same level of rigor. “If you can’t be professional on a small scale, then you can’t be professional on large scale,” says Brantley. “If you come into a wedding band audition wearing the wrong clothes and hitting wrong notes, you’re going to do the same thing when you get the chance to audition for a super star. Use smaller gigs as dress rehearsals for bigger auditions that may come up.”
And finally, “Never come late,” asserts Brantley. “In fact, come early. My audition for Grover Washington, Jr.’s band was at 10:30am in Philadelphia. I came in the night before, stayed in a hotel, and showed up 30 minutes early. Take the time to tune up your axe if you need to, relax, listen to the artist’s music, or warm up. Just never be late.”
Auditioners may not specifically request this, but Brantley recommends that you always bring a business card and resume to an audition, and a good photo doesn’t hurt, either. “Sometimes auditioners have so many people that they’re looking at that they can lose track of who’s who,” he says. “Make sure you have something prepared to leave them with. If you can give them a website link so they can find out more about you, that’s good, too.”
“One of the most important things about an audition is to make sure that you’re easily reachable after the fact,” continues Brantley. This means making sure that the phone numbers and email addresses you have listed are valid and, equally important, that you check email regularly and answer the call when it (hopefully) comes.
Another sort of documentation Brantley highly recommends that you have in order is your passport. “Make sure it’s up to date and accurate,” he says. “With major touring acts, nine times out of ten, they’ll start overseas before going back to the states.” Obtaining or renewing a passport can take weeks or months, so make sure that your dream gig doesn’t get held up on a technicality – and again, regardless of the size or scale of your audition, the same advice applies. You never know when the local Dixieland jazz band will be invited to play at a festival in Sweden, or your dance-pop band will get a hotel resort gig in Mexico. Be ready to follow wherever the music (physically) takes you.
Ask about gear, and consider bringing your own
A big part of your sound in the audition room will depend on the instrument(s) you’re playing, so do your best to be prepared. “For drummers, I always advise that they bring at least their own kick pedal and snare drum,” says Brantley. “If you’re a keyboardist, either find out what kind of keyboards they’ll have or try to bring your own keyboard with you. If they have a rig with Yamaha Motifs and you’re not familiar with those, you’ll waste time fishing for the right sounds and end up looking unprofessional.”
If the auditioners are providing high-level keyboards like the Motif or the Roland V-Synth, Brantley recommends programming your own sounds ahead of time and bringing them, ready to go, on a USB Flash drive or external sound card. “A lot of times, people are good players, but their sounds are wrong,” says Brantley. “Put in the time to find the right sounds and be ready to come in, load them up quickly, and play.”
For bassists and guitarists, Brantley recommends going into the audition with a well-tuned instrument that you know inside and out. “I had an audition in Los Angeles once where I rented a bass,” he recalls. “When I got there, it had a buzz in it. I just plugged it into the amp and right away, I had issues with the tone. That was bad.”
“Make sure your axe is slamming,” he continues. “Everything from fresh strings to appearance of your guitar or bass is important.”
Dress the part
Your instrument isn’t the only thing that should look good when you audition. For better or worse, your overall vibe and appearance can make as much of a difference as how well you play. “I came up in the Detroit gospel scene, so I used to come to auditions dressed like I was going to church,” says Brantley. “At some of those auditions, other guys had eyeliner and earnings. Look is such a big thing these days. Try to get a sense for the temperament of the artist or band and think about what they’re looking for. If I’m auditioning for Jay-Z, I’m going to come dressed differently than if I’m auditioning for Cher or Janet Jackson.”
Be willing to invest
To ace any audition, you need to show up on time, know the music, look the part, and deliver a memorable performance – and checking off each of those steps can cost you time and money. It’s worth it though.
“When I auditioned for Janet, I flew out to Los Angeles from Detroit and had to stay a couple of days after the audition while they made their decision,” says Brantley. “Make sure you have a credit card,” he adds, laughing.
“Since I live in Michigan, I have to fly to almost all of my auditions,” he continues. “Most of them are in New York or Los Angeles. Sometimes the artist flies you in, but if you’re from out of state, be prepared to spend your own money. When I was auditioning for Mary J. Blige, for example, they only really wanted to hire New Yorkers and weren’t willing to cover any travel expenses for people like me who lived out of state. Find a friend’s couch to sleep on or get a cheap hotel.”
Again, Brantley’s advice is scalable – regardless of whether the gig you’re auditioning for is on a local, state, national, or international level, great audition opportunities don’t come along every day. Such opportunities are the ones that will elevate you to the next level, though, both when it comes to your career and your musical skills, so don’t hesitate to invest the hours and funds necessary to make the most of them.
There are tons of talented musicians out there who need jobs and want to play in bands – so what’s going to set you apart? Brantley puts it bluntly: “When you walk into an audition, remember that there may be 100 musicians trying out and only one job, so it’s kill or be killed at that point. You have to be hungry and want the gig. You’re auditioning for your livelihood. Somebody’s got to get the gig, and the person who’s playing around isn’t going to be the one. I’m from Detroit. I’m hungry!” he continues, laughing.
Brantley’s tenacious approach has paid off in several audition settings. “When I got to Philly to audition with Grover Washington, Jr., the whole band was there, but the drummer hadn’t shown up,” he describes. “Grover asked, ‘what do you want to do?’ I told him, ‘Look, I came in all the way from Detroit, so let’s do this. I don’t need no drummer.‘ We played the whole set and after it was done, I gave him my resume and card and left. When I got to the train station, I got a call saying that a car was coming to pick me up. The guy on the phone said that Grover had liked my attitude. I’m sure my playing impressed him, too, but it was my attitude that really made the difference.”
Ask A Pro Musician: Career and audition mentoring by Kern & Valdez Brantley
Tips on Nailing an Audition (Mike Radcliffe, Drummer Cafe)
How To Audition For a Rock Band (The Musician Life)
Audition Tips for Musicians (The Boston Conservatory)
How To Get Through an Audition (Adam Nierenberg, Helium)
Michael Gallant plays eclectic indie rock with Aurical and progressive jazz with the Michael Gallant Trio. He is also the founder and CEO of Gallant Music, a content and music creation firm based out of New York City. For more, visit auricalmusic.com and gallantmusic.com. Follow Michael on Twitter @michael_gallant.
Photos by Frieda Vuur