The Moot Audition

The moot auditions were designed to provide tertiary music students with insights into the complexities of the audition process, from the perspective of performer and assessor. Auditionees were confronted by the challenge of performing behind and before the screen to a panel in a live audition and auditioners became acutely aware of the challenges in music assessment. Students reported prior beliefs that they prioritised sound in their practice and their judgments, but during the project, became cognisant of the influence of the visual in their perceptions of performers.

Key findings

Student perspectives as auditionee and auditioner

Auditionee performers reported that the lack of communication with the audience was both liberating and threatening, as they were unable to interact with the panel or to focus completely on the task at hand. These performers had little experience of projecting their music performance by sound alone, and were suddenly conscious of the social cues at play in the act of performance when they were visible to the audience. Auditionees behind the screen felt strangely disconnected from the performing process, and even knowing how to interpret the timing conventions of the audition proved difficult. Without interaction with the panel, they lacked the usual interpersonal cues to know when to begin.

  • ‘Behind the screen there was always a rummaging of paper, and I was like “Well, if I just wait, we’re going to be waiting forever.” So I just went.’

The prospect of critiquing peers was an unfamiliar challenge, and while students were aware they made instant judgments, they were less confident in articulating their decisions. Auditioners were initially reluctant to discuss their impressions of performances, saying simply ‘we don’t want to get hurt!

Students reflected on the experience and challenges of blind and sighted auditions and the way in which auditioners were acutely aware of their changing evaluation methods. No screen presented a barrier to sound listening, restricting listeners’ ability to process the audio information in detail. Indeed, it seems that:

  • ‘It felt like I could kind of hear lots of differences in the sound quality in people with the screen up, more than the screen down. The visual kind of distracts from like, hearing.’

The visual presented a powerful medium that influenced auditioners’ decision-making processes. Auditioners were influenced, indeed distracted, by the sight of performers, and could articulate the changes in their decision making strategies in blind and sighted auditions. They were immediately conscious of dress (concert or casual) as a factor in their impressions of skill and competence:

  • ‘if there was a difference it would probably be like wearing professional black clothes [versus] like casual stuff’.

Increased sound listening

In this project, students became aware that personal bias had an effect on their listening practices and the blind and sighted live auditions challenged their listening. The blind audition enabled auditioners to focus on the objective listening task at hand without reference to the person performing:

  • ‘You didn’t have to think about your relationship with the person, being nice to them, really, because you didn’t know who it was. So you could just be more analytical.’

Listening without looking enabled students to concentrate on technical precision in the sound production:

  • ‘I tended to notice articulation a lot more with the screen there… But when I was watching them bow, I didn’t quite notice the articulation.’

The visual element of performances provided auditioners with much more information about the musicality and expressivity of the performance. Critically, performers’ body movements persuaded some of the panel about performers’ ability to play expressively. Students pinpointed their impressions of visible performances as key to the musical experience:

  • ‘Well, with musicality, with the non-screen, it’s easier to pick out, because like, if you have more movement, you definitely have a better presence on the stage.’

Isolating sound and sight (Audio-only, Visual-only and AudioVisual)

The videoed performances were translated into three audition presentations (audio-only, visual-only and audiovisual). With visual information, the auditioners started to listen through looking, beyond identifying technical flaws they could hear in audio-only. The student panel, although they were unfamiliar with recent AV research, spontaneously identified key themes in the links between audio and visual reception of performers’ sound. They noted the impact of:

  • ‘Seeing the three versions back to back to make me aware of the manner in which I analyse.’
  • ‘How, having had audio and visual separated, and then thought about their correlation when viewing AV – I think I’m normally less cognisant of that.’

The panels were focused on the sound in all presentations, but independently started to assess and articulate how the visual impacted their impressions. Students regarded sound as the most important factor in their judgments, and when they could not see performers, would imagine the way in which the sound was being created. Adding visual information altered their audio picture of how the sound was produced, its quality, and the way in which the sound might be improved. Students experienced a heightened sensory awareness with this unusual task, and realised first-hand that the visual presentation was impacting the sound they heard:

  • My aural discernment which was surprisingly good in the audio-only scenario was very much tarnished when visual cues were added.’
  • ‘Think more about visuals – everyone downplays it, but all seem to be influenced.’

Influence on future listening, performing and practising

The composition of A, V and AV audition sequences prompted discussion on the way in which a musician’s ‘sound’ is transmitted. The panel became cognisant of making judgments beyond the superficial, in which ‘the people in the black outfits look better’. Isolating sensory presentations allowed students to focus on the visual only, and noted ‘certain little habits when someone was playing, which exaggerates it in the audiovisual’ and ‘with the visual, it started kind of like connecting it together’. Despite new awareness of the importance of both Audio and Visual channels, students remained firmly convinced about the primacy of sound, in the way performers present to their audience. When they could focus on listening to sound, they reported that they were better able to engage with the music, and with the performer.

The auditioner experience was enlightening to this group of students. While some students audio recorded their sessions, few regularly videoed their performances, and none closely reviewed them. Auditioners identified the way in which they engaged with each sensory experience.

  • ‘The Visual allowed me to look at the sound and put it together with the Audio and the elements I picked up on that because I was looking at different things with the AudioVisual, and it kind of allowed me to put them together and decide from there.’

Auditioners became attuned to sound, and sound evaluation in each presentation, and used information from the V and AV presentations to supplement their audio experience.

  • Well, with the AudioVisual, helped me to focus on the things that I didn’t pick up on with just the Visual. So it allowed me to hear the person was playing in more depth.

Thinking about the impact on their performing capabilities, all performers in the study became more attuned to the importance of considering both the sound and sight of their own performances:

  • ‘How I look when I perform and notice more in some. Always play with presence.’
  • ‘Consider how my movement affects the sound/perception of sound.’
  • ‘Need to have a clear and consistent musical interpretation that is reinforced by visual and audio.’

Using and advancing existing knowledge

To date, most empirical research on music performance evaluation has been conducted with musicians (performers and listeners) in isolation and under experimental conditions to demonstrate the importance of visual judgments in assessing music. For musicians, the idea that sight is more important than sound in evaluating music performance defies logic, and recent empirical music studies have caused much controversy within the music profession (e.g. Tsay, 2013). The challenge for music educators is to translate this well-established music knowledge into teaching materials appropriate and accessible to music students. These moot auditions were innovative because they extended these experimental findings to a real-world education setting to discover how auditionees create, and auditioners evaluate, discernible similarities and differences between performers. Auditioners in this study clearly outlined the ways in which visual priming was critical to the way in which they imagined sound, and they became aware of their reliance on visual information to assess sound.

Auditioners had a limited number of words to describe their assessment decisions. While the generic categories given were familiar to this auditioner cohort, they found it difficult to respond to each category for all auditionees. It was particularly challenging to define the reasons for their top ranked candidates. Auditioners were aware of the shortcomings of their word choices, and were uncomfortable with sharing their descriptions with the group. Experts’ judgments in auditions and competitions may have significant impacts on musical careers and even experts are rarely able to articulate their decision-making (Davidson & Coimbra, 2001; Mitchell & Kenny, 2008; Stanley et al., 2002). In this project, auditioners experienced their own fallibility in the assessment process and discovered the challenges of developing and benchmarking their criteria, as well as maintaining attention throughout the audition process.

This project appropriated audiovisual strategies from the empirical literature, to allow the music listeners to experience performer evaluation in a variety of sensory presentations, and to develop their own understanding of how they listen to performers. Crossmodal sensory information has been examined for its role in expressivity and overall evaluation but now must be considered to enrich musicians’ frames of reference to perceive, evaluate and communicate sound and expand music education and pedagogy. Music education studies have confirmed that real-world experiences of professional music performance practices enhance students’ learning experiences (Haddon, 2014). Here, all students reported the value of the moot audition experience and readily engaged with the unfamiliar tasks in an established music practice setting.

It is now essential that music educators translate empirical research findings into teaching materials appropriate and accessible to their music students and embed training as an integral part of their music curriculum. Developing research findings into active learning settings (the music audition) ensured that students could experience the complexities of music assessment as performer and assessor.