Friday, April 27, 2012

Viewer Mail:How to Audition For A Teaching Job

Viewer Mail!
This came in recently from a music teacher:

Hi George, great blog. I was just wondering if you had any advice on how to audition for a college teaching job? I have an audition coming up and I'm a little nervous about it. I have to work with the small jazz groups and big band, and also give a lecture. How should I approach it? Also, should I bring my own music for the ensembles to play? Or is that too egotistical? Any advice would be appreciated.

First of all, try not to be nervous! I realize that this is natural, but keep in mind that many search committees already have an idea of who they want before you even arrive to audition. Truthfully, and I speak from experience, you may have the best audition of your life, but the job might already be slated for the person with the inside track. The committee will never admit this, but it's an annoying truth about faculty searches. I've been on both sides. I think it's important to be fair and objective, but unfortunately, human nature doesn't always account for this. All of that being said, try not to think about how much you want that particular job, but just focus on your presentation and the act of teaching and lecturing. if the job is meant to be yours, it will be. It's best to realize that once you begin, it's out of your hands.

The search committee might already know who they want....
I was a finalist in about 10 searches before I landed my first full time teaching job. I think it's safe to say that the act of auditioning 10 times really made a difference in my comfort level with every successive audition. It's just like performing; the more you do it, the more comfortable you will be. Go into it with the idea that win or lose, it's a tremendous learning experience. See if they will video the audition, and ask for a copy. Win or lose, ask the committee for feedback. You might even disagree with their comments, but it's interesting to see what they say. (One of the times I auditioned, I asked for feedback. One of the comments was that my playing was great, but I just didn't connect with the students. I thought that was odd because one of the students I worked with contacted me after the audition and said he wanted to come to New York for a lesson! Like I said, whether you win or lose might have more to do with a predetermined agenda than anything that you do during the audition.)

I like to thinking of teaching as part preparation and part improvisation. By that, I mean you should bring materials and do some preparation. Have something in mind for the ensembles to play. You might even consider over-preparing. This will insure that there is no dead space during the audition. You don't want to give the impression that you lack information. The committee wants to believe that you have enough information for 4 years or more of a student's tenure, not just enough to pass an audition. So you want to give the impression of depth of knowledge.

However, I find that teaching and working with ensembles is a lot like being a doctor; you have to assess the true state of things, not something preconceived. So even if you bring nothing and just have the ensemble play something they know, you will most likely have something to talk about. Even a great student ensemble will hopefully be able to play better with some of your guidance. Maybe have them try the material a different way. You can talk about improvisational concepts. I find myself talking about the same issues, because they are issues that seem to occur so often with student groups; lack of energy/direction of solos, poor understanding of chord/scale relationships, lack of jazz vocabulary, time/rhythm problems, poor stage presence/lack of good presentation, intonation, poor technique/bad technical habits, etc... I'm always amazed when my audition involves none of my prepared materials, because I spend most of the time dealing with correcting problems.

I believe that one of the main factors in my landing of the Portland State University job was my lecture. The PSU search committee was looking for someone to teach jazz history. One, I had been teaching jazz history for two years at University of Manitoba. So I had some experience under my belt. Also, I used Powerpoint for the lecture; this seemed to make all the difference in the world, because it shows your ideas in a very organized way. (I got the idea from my students in Winnipeg, who seemed to be very adept with powerpoint.) You can embed audio files or links to youtube; everything is easily self-contained.

Don't be afraid to over-prepare for your lecture
I have seen great performers and teachers totally bomb on the lecture. I myself have bombed on the lecture portion a number of times! I think that's the one area which separates the men and women from the boys and girls. (One of my lectures was actually a very specific request; talk about, as well as demonstrate, jazz piano styles from 1940 to the present. In 40 minutes. I prepared for 3-4 months transcribing solos and preparing ideas and didn't win the job. It was hard to swallow that loss, but I learned a boatload of stuff, which I used for the lecture for my University of Manitoba job.) I think this is one area where, again, you should over prepare. Practice giving the lecture many times, alone, or in front of friends. Nothing makes perfect like practice.

I think it's cool to bring your own music for the ensembles. This might also distinguish you from someone who just brings stock arrangements. It really depends on the level of the students and whether they stand a chance of playing your music. Try to get a sense of the level of the ensemble from the faculty contact. Maybe even send material in advance, if allowed. Maybe bring a mixture of your tunes and then some standard material. You'll be surprised; oftentimes the ensemble which is considered the most advanced might not be able to play a blues! or they might be playing at a pro level. Be prepared for a contingency such as this.

Good luck! It took me almost 10 years to land a job. If it's meant to happen, it will. Don't be discouraged if you don't get it. These jobs are very competitive, especially now that most jazz musicians, who years ago wouldn't be caught dead teaching, are now throwing their hat in the ring due to the incredibly shrinking music industry. I've competed with seriously high profile candidates. I couldn't help but feel like I didn't stand a chance, but you have to put on your game face regardless. It's a lot like performing. Just go in there and believe that you are the best music teacher in the world. You'd be surprised at what that kind of positive thinking can do.

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