A Student’s Guide: Auditioning for Music School
Flutist Quarterly—Summer 2002
Across this country, indeed, around the world, an extraordinary event takes place each year between January and March. This event is the audition process for entrance into conservatories and the music departments of colleges and universities. Literally thousands of young musicians who have been practicing their instruments since grade school travel many miles for the opportunity to play for the teachers of these institutions of higher education.
We flutists are aware that, because of the extraordinary popularity of our instrument, the competition is daunting. Scores of students apply for schools that may have only a few openings. It is not unusual for me to hear close to a hundred flutists within a two-week period each year. At the end of this year’s auditions I felt, as I do each year—profoundly affected by the extraordinary dedication, love and support that surrounds each student. As I don’t have the opportunity to express my thoughts and feelings at the time of the auditions, I would like to use the opening of this article to address the parents, the teachers and the students who have been involved in auditions in past years. I am also addressing the flutists, families and teachers of future auditions.
To the Parents
I am always so moved by all of you remarkable people who have devoted yourselves so totally to your children. I know there is an enormous sacrifice of time and money that goes into bringing your child to the point of auditioning for the flute faculty of a music school. The results of your commitment and love are shiningly evident to us as we greet each student in the audition room. Your children are young people of poise, dedication, sincerity and intelligence. I can honestly say that every single student that played for me this spring left a very positive impression on my colleagues and me. They are beneficiaries of the many gifts that come to us from studying music. I commend all of you—the parents of these remarkable young people. You are contributing not only to the future of your children, but also to the well-being of our society.
To the Teachers
I must also take this opportunity to thank the scores of teachers all over the country, and the world, for that matter, who give so much of themselves to preparing a student for this important event. You are the ones who literally show the young players how to put the flute together, how to make their first sounds, and nurture their love of music. You then guide them to the point where they are able to perform standard repertoire for professional flutists all across the country.
Those of us who teach at the university level have the very serious responsibility of bringing your students into the professional world and into their own future. We will all do our best to carry on the wonderful work all of you have done in bringing these players to us.
To the Students
I was so delighted to meet each and every one of you who played for me this year, as well as the hundreds who have played for me in the past. My greatest frustration in these auditions is not having the time to get to know each one of you a little better. I am so curious to hear about your lives, your hobbies, your ambitions, and all the things that have brought you to that moment where you are playing for us in a college audition. I congratulate each one of you on your fine presentation and wish you well in your future education.
In closing, I would like to say that with each student who stands in front of me, I am profoundly touched by the dedication of the parents and teachers who stand behind them and have brought them to this point.
I will finish my thank you letter to you all by paying tribute to my own first teacher, Mary Wilson, and to my final teacher and mentor, Julius Baker. They are both in my thoughts every single day. Also, to my parents, Earl and Margaret—they gave so much of themselves to help me pursue my love of music and the flute.
Preparing for Auditions in Spring
Each year many students call me (and certainly other teachers) for advice and counsel on how best to prepare their college entrance auditions. At this point I would like to give an outline of some of the most important areas in which you, the student, can prepare yourself for this event. My comments apply to students who are auditioning at the undergraduate and graduate level.
The Business of Auditioning
The first step towards taking an audition is to do very thorough research on the school and teachers you want to entrust with your future. Fortunately, with today’s Internet, you can obtain a tremendous amount of information about schools—curriculum, teachers, audition requirements, etc. After you have made a school “wish list” with the assistance of your parents and teacher, you should start to look carefully at the advantages and disadvantages of each institution. A “plus and minus” list might be helpful at this point. The school you choose has to fit your specific and unique needs. These will include such areas as performance opportunities, access to university courses, degree programs offered, level of academic courses, access to an urban environment, college campus life, and so on. These are some of the personal decisions that must be addressed. You want to make intelligent choices selecting those schools in which you will invest your time and money.
Choosing a Teacher
One of the most important matters to address is your choice of teacher. A great advantage of playing a popular instrument is that the level of teaching is extraordinarily high in this country. (To obtain a high level teaching position is as competitive as the attainment of high level performing opportunities.)
Every teacher has a philosophy of teaching and a style of playing that is individual and unique. Your challenge is to find a good match between you and your future teacher. In researching this, your current teacher is a useful guide. If you have the opportunity, arranging a personal meeting with a prospective teacher is a very good idea.
Over the years I have developed a policy for students who have requested a personal meeting with me. I meet with these students for a brief time to answer their questions, have them play a little for me, and help to put them at ease about the audition experience. This is NOT a lesson and I do not accept a fee. I consider it a service and encouragement to those young people who are about to spend a great deal of money and time on the upcoming auditions. I know many of my colleagues do the same. It is very important for every student to realize that although these meetings are a helpful source of information, they do not in any way give an advantage to one student over another. In my experience, jurors are fair and unbiased. Flute faculties simply want to select the best future students.
Selecting your Degree or Diploma
Every school offers numerous programs designed to fit various career paths. Before you apply to colleges you must determine if you want to make flute performance your major concentration. Undergraduate students can consider different degree programs (for example Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Music Education). If you feel you want to continue your lessons but don’t want to major in performance, there are very good opportunities at many schools where you can do this by considering a music minor program. In addition, there are schools that can offer a double major, which enables a student to concentrate on two disciplines with equal intensity. For example, I currently have an outstanding student at Carnegie Mellon University who is majoring in flute performance and Mathematics. She was reluctant to make a career decision in her freshman year and opted to give herself maximum exposure to both possibilities.
There are also some very interesting undergraduate and graduate diploma programs offered at various schools, including the New England Conservatory. These programs are designed to give the students more intensive studio instruction and performance opportunity. Academic requirements are minimal, if any. These programs are worthy of consideration for students that need more time on the flute in a structured environment.
Graduate students have a number of choices after completing a Master’s degree. For example, both schools where I teach offer an Artist Diploma program. This is a two-year program with complete tuition scholarship (stipends are also a possibility). In an Artist Diploma program there is a concentration on lessons and performance without academic class-work. It is for the most exceptional students who are regarded as “pre-professional”. The other choice after a Masters degree is for a Doctor of Musical Arts degree (D.M.A.). This is also a rigorous and selective program for the performer-scholar. Students selecting this program should be at the highest performance level and have proven accomplishments in musicology, theory, etc. This is an extraordinarily demanding program.
For international students who need time to learn English language skills, many schools offer programs that can assist in this endeavor.
Preparation of Audition Material
Each school has a very specific list of requirements. Most of these requirements are somewhat similar in terms of repertoire and technical requirements, but there are also differences that make each school’s list unique. After you have selected a list of schools that hold great interest for you, you must start to put together a program of all the material you will have to learn. Pay close attention to specific requirements, e.g. memorization, editions, movements, cadenzas.
Ideally, you should start thinking about your audition repertoire in late spring and through the summer of the academic year before the audition will take place. By the beginning of the fall semester you should be involved in the preparation of all the pieces you are expecting to play at the audition. With this time line you will be able to give yourself a vacation from the audition literature for a few weeks or even months. This prevents a burn-out on these pieces, and keeps them fresh and interesting. I also recommend that you create a few opportunities in which you perform these pieces for a live audience. I have always felt that you don’t really “own” a piece until you have performed it. Give yourself the gift of confidence knowing that you can enjoy playing these pieces in front of an audience, in any setting. Be sure that you practice stopping in the middle of a piece and then starting another. Jurors want to hear you cover a variety of materials and may decide to stop you at any moment, to hear something different. Play as you would if you were going to play the entire piece, but be ready to re-focus immediately if you are stopped.
Traveling to Auditions
When auditioning far from home, you may find it helpful to arrive the day before. This gives you the chance to be well-rested and acclimate yourself to the new environment. Be sure you bring appropriate dress for the climate you are traveling to—winter storms are common occurrences all over the country at audition time. Always bring a sweater to any audition—the audition room may be uncommonly cold. Bring water and maybe some food (a banana or roll) in case you have to wait a long time to play. Be sure you pack all necessary flute and piano music.
Many of you may be more comfortable if you travel with a parent. This is perfectly acceptable and a matter of personal choice.
A Few Words of Advice
The most important thing for you to realize as you audition for schools is that you are playing for a jury of people who are extremely empathetic and supportive of your efforts. If a student faces a momentary difficulty or mental block, I know exactly what it feels like, as there is nothing in the performance experience that I have not also faced personally. As a teacher, I simply want each auditioning student to do his or her best.
Try to remember while you are playing what it was that brought you to the audition—love of music and a love of the flute. Also keep in mind that a jury of professional flutists can hear beyond your momentary lapses or mistakes. We are well schooled in hearing the preparation and talent that has carried you through years of study.
The other piece of advice I will offer you is to empower yourself by remembering that the audition experience is a two-way street. The school is judging you, but you are also judging the institution. Do you like the facilities, were you treated well, is the environment a positive one, do you get a good feeling overall? These questions and many others will help you to keep a perspective of the event, as the assessment you form about the school is every bit as important as the one formed about you by the flute jury.
Keep Your Focus
As you are warming up you will meet and hear many other flute candidates. It is crucial that you not let this experience distract you or take you off your path. How other people play doesn’t change what you do. Remain true to yourself, your plan and your focus.
When a student walks in to audition for me, I assess him or her on many different levels. Teachers can’t help but react to your personal presentation: dress, manner, poise, and confidence. Practice the way you address the jury. Feel free to be friendly and respectful with a self-assured demeanor. To help us form a good opinion of you, however, it is important that you acknowledge the jury, that you appear to be organized in your presentation, and that you be dressed well. This takes practice, thought and planning. I recommend a few “mock” auditions so you will feel comfortable with the scenario.
When you begin to play we are listening for control of sound and vibrato, technical security, solid intonation and rhythm, and a genuine feeling for the music. We like to see that you are comfortable with the flute and that you enjoy performing. If we stop you in the middle of a piece, do not interpret this as an indication that the jury is not happy with what they’ve heard. Quite the contrary: we are probably anxious to hear more variety, which indicates we have an interest in what you are doing. At the most basic level, an audition is simply a performance. In any performance, your goal is to communicate the beauty of the composer’s music, to bring the audience into your world, and to enjoy the experience for its own sake. A jury performance is no different.
Learning About You
Equally important to me is learning about the person before me—your life, ambitions, and interests outside of music. Be prepared to have the jury ask you questions. There is an inexplicable bond that is created between a student and teacher in the years of study. It is based on mutual trust, respect, and shared ideals and goals. If you are interviewed in an audition, you should be thoughtful, sincere and honest. Teachers are most anxious to use their time to get to know you so that they can feel confident the relationship will be a comfortable one. A sincere and dedicated student will communicate these qualities without effort or thought.
Do not expect too much of yourself in terms of perfection in these auditions. You are young, untested performers and the teachers listening to you understand this. You must be forgiving of yourself and trust us to hear what you are truly capable of doing.
Also, do not allow a 10-minute audition for ANYONE to define you. One of the big lessons any performer must learn is that you are not simply a product of your last performance. Your ability to put auditions in perspective will help you to do your best. No single audition will determine your future—it is the overall work and progress that will matter in the end.
Another word of advice: even though there may be many people playing before you and after you, in your audition the jury is thinking only about you. Don’t feel rushed to fill the time, or hurried because you think the jurors have so many people to listen to. Relax into your time and don’t feel pressured to make it pass quickly.
In closing, once again, I wish to communicate my admiration to all of those talented young people who have played for me over the years. I am sure my colleagues at other schools would join me in expressing this sentiment. You are part of an exceptional group of people. I wish I had the time to get to know each one of you not only as a flutist, but also as a person.
Best wishes to you all!