For percussionists, traveling to auditions can be more challenging than playing the audition. We have to get ourselves, as well as a shopping cart full of gear to the audition, that could be halfway around the world. We are not the only ones that have this issue. I have helped tuba players and bass players get to the airport with their over-sized cargo in my truck. We may have it bad but at least our equipment can break down into small pieces.
They have to beg and bribe their way onto airplanes!
To start with let’s ask ourselves what we need to take to the audition. I always start with this because first and foremost I want to sound my best. If that means overcoming some logistical issues, that’s fine, but I can’t sound great if I don’t have the right stuff. I go instrument to instrument and make my decisions based on the rep I must prepare.
What to bring:
Let’s start with snare drum as it is one of the largest instruments we might bring. I own about 10 snare drums and use 5 with the orchestra on a regular basis. So obviously this is not possible at an audition. But is also isn’t necessary. In the audition you aren’t competing with 100 other musicians. So your sound needs are different. I typically bring 2 drums to an audition. Those 2 drums may vary based on the repertoire. I either bring a piccolo drum like my Grover KeeGee drum and a 4″ Symphonic drum or I bring that same 4″ Symphonic drum and a 5″ Symphonic drum. I always bring that 4″ because it is what I use for most of the repertoire at an audition. It covers a wide dynamic range and is great for etudes. If the list has a lot of extremely soft passages, I will also bring the piccolo drum. If the list is really heavy on the loud repertoire, I will bring the 5″. Now for a lot of you, your first drum was a 6.5″. Mine was! Don’t fret, this drum is extremely useful! But it might be a little bit much in the volume department for an audition. When you are by yourself, you can make a 5″ drum sound plenty loud. If I am in the finals and the screen is down I might bring the 6.5″ as a third drum to show a wider palette, but probably not before then. I also bring my own stands for my snare drums. I use very light weight stands so they travel easy and I don’t have to rely on someone else providing them.
The next large instrument we must cover are cymbals. This is a tough one. They are heavy and to play all of the repertoire it’s not unreasonable to think you might have to bring 4 pairs with you. My recommendation on cymbals is to only bring cymbals if you are uncomfortable with what you think they are providing. This is for various reasons. If the group you are auditioning for has a long history then they are used to the sound of the cymbals they have used for 20 + years. Even if your cymbals are awesome and you play awesome, they will still sound different from what the committee is used to and might be judged as not as good. In that one instant you have to impress them, you will be doing yourself a favor if you use the instruments they are used to hearing. If you are auditioning for a school, chances are their cymbals are great and once again they are used to hearing them. Do yourself a favor and use the cymbals provided. The only scenario I would bring cymbals to now is if cymbals aren’t provided (duh…) or I am really uncomfortable with what they are providing. If you do bring cymbals I recommend a bag with wheels so you aren’t carrying so much weight. Zildjian make a great one.
I absolutely would bring your own tambourines. I think tambourines are the most personalized instruments especially when it comes to thumb rolls. I have tried to pick up someone else’s tambourines and I can’t play a thumb roll to save my life, yet they have no problem! You know how you like your instrument so just bring all of them you need. They don’t take up that much room anyway.
Triangles are similar to cymbals in that a group can be used to a certain sound. If an orchestra is providing triangles, I might use their recommendation because again, it is what they are used to hearing. They know their hall much better than you do. I would bring my own clip and beaters so the implements I am holding at least feel the same. If the group is not providing triangles or you really love what you are using, then of course, bring your own.
Sticks and Mallets
For sticks and mallets it goes without saying, but bring them all! These give us our sound and are vital. They don’t take up a lot of room and you really can’t play the audition without them!
There are a lot of little accessories that you need to bring depending on the repertoire and how much you really need them. For bass drum, make sure you have whatever mutes you need. If you need towels for tambourine bring those. If you like putting a towel over the lower end of a marimba (below the A), bring that. If you are incredibly tall and find it difficult to play marimba solos on a low instrument, bring some blocks. I would try not to use them for time reasons but if you are 6’6”, then you probably need some blocks. You know yourself and you know your playing so make a list of these little toys and make sure you bring them.
How to get all this stuff there?
This can become an annoying game of Tetris when it comes time to pack for the audition so do a trial run a week before the audition. Make sure you have a plan and it works. Here are a few rules I would follow that I have learned from trial and error:
- Every bag is on wheels or can be put on wheels.
- You can work out before and after the audition, but the days surrounding the audition is not the time to be sore. All suitcases and gear bags need to be on wheels. Don’t plan to carry anything heavier than a backpack.
- Make sure sticks and mallets and anything you literally can no live without is in the carry-on.
- Sure you want your favorite snare drum there, but if you don’t have any xylophone, glock, or vibes sticks, it’s going to be pretty hard to play the audition. Prioritize and make sure the stuff you literally can’t live without goes in carry-on.
- This is not the time to penny pinch.
If all the stuff you need means you need 4 bags, then bring 4 bags! Yes it will cost you extra to check bags. Yes you will have to pay for a luggage cart at baggage claim. Yes it means you will need a cab instead of the subway. However, we are talking about maybe $200 in extra expenses. Seriously? Don’t waste the thousands of hours in the practice room because you are trying to save at the most $200.
Label all bags multiple times.
Do I need to explain this one? Use hard shell luggage.
Let’s be honest, clothes are about 5% of what we are bringing to the audition. The rest if gear! Make sure the outside is hard so nothing can poke and damage an instrument. Most hard case suitcases can fit 1 snare drum in a soft bag as well as some toys, a stand, and some clothes. I have even seen people rip out the lining of a hard suitcase and glue their own foam lining in to make sure it protects the instruments.
How to move around?
Only in the percussion world do we ask ourselves questions like this. How do I even get from one place to the next with all this stuff? Because I have never taken exactly the same stuff to multiple auditions I don’t have a tried and true method. I have to replan and repack for every audition. There are some similarities though. I typically have a hard-shell suitcase with a drum in it, a rolling duffle bag with hardware and odds and ends, a backpack or stick bag, with most of my sticks, and a hardcase snare drum. The snare drum can strap on to the duffle bag and boom, I’ve got a suitcase rolling in each hand and a backpack. I look like I’m packed for a month, when I’m only gone for 2 days, but I can manage to navigate the airport.
Once I arrive at the audition I repack. I get everything ready to walk onstage or in the teacher’s studio. I ALWAYS ask the proctor to carry my drums and anything else I can get them to take. Again, I want to be as relaxed as possible. Carrying 40 pounds of equipment onstage will not help that. I have a cart that I roll onto the stage that has everything I need other than snare drums and cymbals. Before there were “P-bags” I would take a Stevens bag and fold it backwards so there were mallets on each side and hang it from the top of the cart. Easy access to all my sticks and mallets. All of my tambourines, triangles and toys were in a small bag on the bottom. I would normally put a picture here of what I use but my cart broke at this past year’s PASIC. Guess it is time to order a new one.
William J. James is the Principal Percussionist of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He won the position at the age of twenty-five while a member of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. He graduated from New England Conservatory in 2006 with a Masters of Music and was a student of Will Hudgins of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Will received his Bachelor of Music Degree from Northwestern University in 2004. While attending Northwestern, he studied with Michael Burritt, an active soloist and clinician throughout the country, and James Ross, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Will has played with many outstanding ensembles including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Chicago Civic Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, and Chautauqua Festival Orchestra. In addition to his experience as an orchestral player, he has performed several solo recitals across the country as well as soloing with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony. Will has continued his career as a chamber musician in Saint Louis. He is a regular artist performing with the Pulitzer Foundation Chamber Music Series and plays in a Percussion and Piano Duo with Peter Henderson.
Will is a very active educator in the percussion community. He is the Guest Lecturer of Percussion at the University of Missouri. His book The Modern Concert Snare Drum Roll has been met with critical acclaim as a much needed resource for both teachers and students. He has a studio of local students in Saint Louis and has given countless masterclasses across the country at numerous colleges, summer festivals, Days of Percussion and universities; teaching the next generation of great percussionists.
Will is very involved in the Percussive Arts Society (PAS). His articles have been published in Percussive Notes, the PAS periodical, he has presented at the 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2015 PAS International Conventions, and is currently serving on the PAS Symphonic Committee. Will proudly uses Zildjian Cymbals, Malletech Sticks and Instruments, Evans Drumheads, Grover Percussion Instruments and Beetle Percussion Products in all of his musical projects and performances.