By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2022 issue of Strings magazine
College application season is coming up, and for college-bound high school string players, that means drastically upping practice time as audition day approaches. The journey to music school actually begins long before the audition—first with researching teachers and schools, then initiating contact, then figuring out how to navigate the bewildering number of choices available to aspiring musicians. With hundreds of college music departments across the United States, there’s a lot to consider.
Are you looking for a conservatory-style degree course, or a well-rounded liberal-arts curriculum to balance out your music studies? Is a fast-paced, competitive studio with dozens of students a good match for your learning style and personality, or do you prefer a smaller, more nurturing environment? What are your specific career goals, and which teacher and school will best help you achieve them? If you’re feeling a little apprehensive about the process, here’s a little advice from my own experience as a college professor.
Here are some tips to ace your college music school audition:
- Ask Around
- Contact, Contact, Contact
- Choosing Your Audition Repertoire
- Audition Preparation
- Arriving at the Audition
- What to Expect in the Audition
- What Faculty Listen For
- After the Audition
1. Ask Around
Your starting point should be your current instrumental teacher, your orchestra director, and other trusted musical mentors. Ask them and their colleagues for music school and studio professor recommendations. Also ask friends who have already headed to college for music, since they have an insider’s perspective about what it’s like to be a student at their school. Don’t be automatically put off by the “sticker price” of the tuition, since what students end up paying is often a lot less. A good audition can win you generous scholarships and out-of-state tuition waivers, so your first consideration should be whether the studio professor and school can help you on your path to the profession.
2. Contact, Contact, Contact
Once you’ve researched the schools you want to apply to, pluck up your courage and contact studio faculty. Don’t be shy—high school students contact professors all the time, and we’re delighted to hear from you. To keep your options open, you should contact professors at four or five schools. This step is essential for success, because the better the professor knows you prior to the audition, the more they’ll consider you as a serious contender for a space in the studio. Ask lots of questions about the program, their current students, and the career paths of their graduates. Let them know about your goals and ask how their program can help you with them. In most cases, the professor will be happy to give you a trial lesson before the audition day. Your interactions with them will tell you a lot about what they’d be like as your mentor for the next four years.
3. Choosing Your Audition Repertoire
Check program requirements for the audition well in advance. Some schools ask for specific repertoire, scales, and études, while others simply ask for three or four contrasting pieces or movements. In every case, it’s better to play an easy piece well than a difficult one poorly: for example, most cello professors would far rather hear a fluent performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata than a hashed-through rendition of the much harder First Cello Concerto. To avoid nasty surprises, ask ahead of time whether the school requires auditionees to hire a collaborative pianist, perform from memory, and/or sightread during the audition.
4. Audition Preparation
As your auditions approach, you’ll need to increase your daily practice. Your preparation should include learning how your body responds to the pressure of performance. To calm your nerves, practice performing under low-stakes conditions such as living-room performances for friends and family. Make daily videos of your playing to figure out what needs improvement, and don’t forget to acknowledge the progress you’ve made since yesterday or last week. Choose an audition outfit that is comfortable to play in and practice while wearing it. (If you don’t normally wear high heels or tuxes, the audition is not the place to do so for the first time!)
5. Arriving at the Audition
Many schools accept video or Zoom auditions, but you should attend in person if you can. Not only does this increase your chances of acceptance and scholarships, but it gives you a feel for the atmosphere of the school. During your visit, ask faculty and current students as many questions as you can. What ensemble opportunities do they offer? Does the degree course include classes in specialized skills that interest you, such as recording technology or period instrument performance? Do the students seem enthusiastic about the program and the studio? Don’t be reticent about asking hard questions, because the answers will help you decide whether you’d be happy there.
6. What to Expect in the Audition
You may be alone in the audition room with your professor or in front of the entire string faculty. Almost all auditionees are nervous, and faculty understand that. We’ve all been there too! Keep breathing and be gentle with yourself as you begin to play. Even if it feels like you just jumped into a shark tank, it’s not supposed to be a horrible ordeal. The great majority of faculty are kind and rooting for you to succeed.
7. What Faculty Listen For
Believe it or not, a note-perfect performance is seldom the top consideration for faculty auditioning students. Of course, we want to hear a performance that’s faithful to the printed page—pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulations, and so on—but the most important thing is a performance that makes us sit up and listen. The top problems we hear in young string players are poor intonation and a weak sound. If the tone has beauty, projection, and resonance, and the intonation is generally sensitive, we’ll forgive a missed shift or two. We also love to hear a student who understands the full score of a piece and interacts thoughtfully with the collaborative pianist. This shows that the auditionee cares about the complete package of musicianship and interpretation.
8. After the Audition
Faculty may tell you right away whether you got in, but it’s not unusual to have to wait a few weeks for an answer. If you’re accepted, congratulations! If you don’t get in, try not to take it personally. Faculty are fallible humans making decisions quickly and for a variety of reasons. Maybe there are more candidates than spaces available in the studio; maybe the professor’s interests aren’t a good match for yours. Rejection hurts, but it’s not an objective assessment of your talent and potential.
After you’re accepted at a school, an administrator will get in touch with information about scholarships, financial aid, and student loans. All colleges have financial advisors whose job it is to talk you through the math and determine what’s affordable. For music majors, it can be better to attend a second-choice school with a competitive financial package than a first-choice school that offers nothing. Student loan repayments may be a long way off, but it’s worth asking now about how much you’ll be expected to pay every month and how that will fit in with your career plans.
In all cases, take your time making the decision. Talk it over with family, teachers, friends, and faculty at the schools you’re considering. And don’t forget to enjoy the process—this is an exciting time full of opportunities and opening doors as you begin your career in music.