In previous articles, I’ve written about preparing for important events, and now that school is back in session, we are met by one of the most common: chair tests. Not only are you playing for a grade, but also for placement. While I’m typically more concerned with the former, I totally get why students fret over the latter. When I was a student, I always wanted to be at the top of my section, too. So aside from my staple advice of “be prepared,” what are some things you can to do land in one of those sought-after seats.
1. Accuracy first, speed second. For technical pieces, faster is better, but only if it’s correct. Once you can play it correctly, start increasing the tempo a little bit each time you play. If it comes down to you and another student and both of you played accurately, that extra bit of speed might give you the upper hand.
2. Overdo dynamics a bit. Let your band director hear that you can play quietly, loudly, and everywhere in between. If it says, “forte,” make it clear that you are intentionally playing loud.
3. Play the way you practiced. Unless you are correcting an error in your playing, (wrong note, miscounted rhythm, etc.) don’t make changes at the last minute. This is especially important with tempo - just because you hear a classmate attempt to sprint through their test doesn’t mean you should, too. Accuracy first.
4. Think, then play. Take a moment to mentally sing a measure or two of the piece before you start to play. This will offer you a chance to set tempo, remember rhythms, and hear expression in your head before playing them out loud. This is especially helpful if your playing test has taken place in class - you've heard several other people play, perhaps differently than you. Take a moment to remember what you did at home.
5. Count off. Once you’ve found your tempo, give yourself a “one, two, ready, go” in your head. It will make the first few measures (and probably the whole piece) feel and sound much more secure.
6. Breathe! Take deep breaths through the corners of the mouth at places that make good musical sense.
Don’t try to adjust your playing based on what other students are doing. Pay attention to what you are doing and play your best. I hope you all land the grade and the chair you want.