Don’t blow your audition – follow these simple steps

If you’re playing bluegrass music professionally, or even semi-professionally, at some point you’re going to have to endure that dreaded pre-hiring ritual called the audition. 

Mind you I don’t mean to assume that everyone will go through the process of being a side musician first before becoming a band leader. Some go straight to the owner/manager position, without pausing to apprentice for Leroy Crank and His Underpaid Mountain Boys. Some start their careers playing with the brother they can’t stand before becoming a band leader (there are so many examples of this in bluegrass music, I don’t have the time or space to list them here). In this case, too, the process of auditioning for someone else is avoided.

In these cases, you will spend a lot of time on the judging and hiring (or not) end of the audition, so I plan to discuss both sides of this often nerve-wracking process, since I’ve experienced plenty of both.

When it comes to auditioning for someone else’s band, there are times when you’re simply in over your head and can’t “cut the gig,” but if you have some natural ability and musical chops at least close to those of the person you’re replacing, the rest is relatively simple, and yet people so often go wrong. My opinion is that if you arrive at your audition having followed these two simple guidelines, I think you’ll be in pretty good shape:

1.  Learn the material
2.  Don’t act crazy

Is that so hard? History tells us that apparently it is.

Note that for some band leaders who are more lenient and pride themselves on being able to work with a range of personality types, you might get by modifying number 2 by inserting the word “too” in front of “crazy.” Still I think it’s good to aim high.

Beyond these two major principles, there are some more subtle ones that may improve your cause, like not looking like a slob or an ex-con or both, not showing up drunk or under the influence of hallucinogens, not hitting on the band leader’s spouse, not announcing plans to take over the band once you’re hired, etc. I consider these fine points that can be worked on after you’ve covered the essentials.

First, to the matter of learning the material, this would seem to obviously be Assignment One, and yet the number of people who show up to an audition first announcing that they “didn’t have time” to learn everything they were supposed to is way larger than you might think. Jimmy Martin used to complain that musicians would come to him not having learned the songs, and he felt, rightly I think, that it showed him a lack of respect. “They would learn George Jones’s material, wouldn’t they?” he used to say, and he had a point.

Why would a musician do this? I think the answer lies perhaps not so much in disrespect for any particular band leader, but more in disrespect for, and a lack of understanding of bluegrass music itself. There are a certain number of musicians who believe in their own ability to just fake their way through the material, because it has a limited number of chords and “how hard could it be?”

I’ve had musicians show up to a gig fully believing they didn’t need to learn the stuff because they thought it “sounded pretty simple.” At that point I felt like Jimmy Martin, and was never more tempted to own a pair of white boots.

As for not acting crazy, note that I didn’t say, “don’t be crazy.” Those of us playing music for a living are all just a little off, if we’re honest, (not just fiddle players) but we do what we need to to function in society, and this includes not acting overly weird in an audition. Not every band leader is ready for alarmingly loud spontaneous laughter or dramatic crying for no apparent reason. Also, staring intently and saying, “Ole Slewfoot is THE GREATEST song EVER WRITTEN! EVER!!! DID YOU HEAR ME?!” or  “I don’t believe Carl Story is really dead. Ricky Skaggs knows a LOT MORE than he’s letting on about this, believe me!” Just do your best to appear as level-headed as possible.

If you can nail down these two major requirements, you can get to work on some of the subtleties mentioned above. To those I would add that showing up with your own instrument is a plus, unless it was stolen from you en route (as happened to Vassar Clements before auditioning for Bill Monroe). 

I would also discourage brandishing a weapon of any kind at the audition.

Next week we’ll discuss auditions from the band leader’s perspective.