One of the first articles posted on this blog back in 2012 was a list of Fifteen Steps to Playing a Better All-State Audition. That piece was so popular and, I believe, so important that I have reposted it yearly in the early fall. Because auditions for college and university music programs typically occur in the spring, it is appropriate for a comparable article on that subject to appear at this time of year. All of the items listed in that previous article apply equally to college and university auditions, so I have repeated only a few of them here in cases where some targeting to a different audition context is necessary. The ten suggestions here mainly address items specific to the college and university audition.
The type of student that I have in mind as I write is the typical aspiring undergraduate music education student auditioning for admission and scholarships in a moderately selective music department at a state college or university (in other words, the type of student I usually hear and the type of program in which I teach). Those auditioning for conservatory programs or other highly selective environments will apply these words of advice somewhat differently.
1. Practice Daily…and Not Just When the Audition is Near.
This should not even need to be said, particularly for aspiring (and current) music majors, but it does. Perhaps I’m becoming less patient as I get older, but it seems to me that students practice less and less as the years go by. This is definitely true among the high school students I hear (an observation confirmed by their band directors), and is even true among college music majors (performance majors excluded…mostly). Students will attempt to “cram” for big auditions, juries, or sometimes even lessons, but we all know this doesn’t work. The ability to play an instrument well has to develop over time, with deliberate and repetitive practice serving to increase physical strength and facility, eliminate errors, and reinforce good habits. The music faculty members that hear your audition will know the difference between a student who has crammed and a student who has been practicing diligently over the long haul. They want the latter type of student, and will make every effort to get that student to come to their school. (In other words, they will offer you more money!) Practice diligently and daily, even when there isn’t a big audition coming.
2. Take Private Lessons.
Even the best band director lacks the time and expertise to work individually and on a high level with students on every instrument. As with the decreased practice time I just mentioned, it seems that fewer high school students are taking regular private lessons than did a generation or two ago. And yet this is the best way to ensure that you will play at the highest possible level (provided that you are practicing, of course). Ask your band director for the names of capable teachers in your area. Local professional players, band directors that are specialists on your instrument, and college and university faculty and students are possible sources of such lessons. If the cost is prohibitive or you have to drive a great distance to reach the nearest teacher, biweekly or even monthly lessons are better than none at all, and many teachers are willing to set up such schedules. Remember that these lessons really will pay off, not only in improved musicianship, but also in higher scholarship offers. They might literally pay for themselves!
3. Develop Playing Fundamentals.
One of my trombone teachers was a student of Emory Remington (1891-1971) at the Eastman School of Music, a name that is virtually synonymous with the phrase “daily routine.” Remington advocated the daily practice of fundamental exercises in order to develop his students’ playing to the highest possible level, and if anything I have only expanded upon that, recommending that high school students complete a 20-minute routine each day before moving on to practicing scales and repertoire. The temptation to forego repetitive exercises in order to spend additional time on repertoire is tremendous, and many students give in to it. Resist that temptation, and invest the time to seriously develop your fundamental playing skills on a daily basis. You’ll soon find yourself able to tackle more and better repertoire in less time as a result. Diligent fundamentals practice isn’t a time waster—it’s a time saver! Remember, too, that unlike an audition for all-state bands or similar groups, those evaluating your playing in a college or university audition are not listening for your present playing ability only, but are also gauging your potential for further development. If you already have at least most of your “ducks in a row” fundamentally speaking, you will be a much more desirable recruit for college-level programs.
4. Master Your Scales and Arpeggios.
I discussed scale and arpeggio practice at length in my earlier article, so I will not repeat that discussion here. For college and university auditions scale and arpeggio requirements will vary from school to school; if you are unsure what the expectations are at a particular school, check the music department website for instructions. If you are still unsure, call or email either the band director or the professor who teaches your instrument. In most cases all of the major scales are required along with a chromatic scale. Major arpeggios are not always requested, and requiring minor scales and arpeggios is unusual. However, an incoming freshman that can demonstrate even limited facility and understanding in this area beyond the twelve major scales will be very well received.
5. Learn Clefs and Transposition.
I started learning to read in tenor clef during my junior year of high school, and added alto clef during my senior year. While learning clefs is certainly approachable for high school trombonists (at least for those that aspire to becoming music majors), few do so, and I end up introducing them during the initial semesters of college level study. Likewise with euphonium players reading both treble clef and bass clef parts—I occasionally get an aspiring freshman that can already read both, but only occasionally. Still, if you come to the audition having already begun to develop these skills, you will show yourself to be an ambitious student that will be a desirable addition to a college or university program. If you play an instrument for which transposing at sight is commonly required (such as trumpet or horn), beginning to develop these skills before beginning college is similarly advisable.
7. Choose Good Repertoire.
College and university auditions typically require scales, possibly arpeggios, a prepared piece or two (contrasting styles if two), and sight reading. While some schools have a list from which prospective students are required to choose audition pieces, others simply want to hear any piece or pieces which give an accurate representation of your abilities. At the latter type of school, many students choose to play their all-state band audition etudes, which is usually acceptable but uninteresting. If you want to impress the faculty members on the audition panel (and particularly the teacher for your primary instrument), perform selections from the standard solo repertoire for your instrument. Playing a piece from this repertoire sends a message to the audition panel that you are developing a basic familiarity with your instrument’s solo literature. This indicates curiosity, usually a desirable trait among college students. If you are not familiar with your instrument’s solo repertoire or are otherwise not sure where to start, see if the applied teacher at the school for which you are auditioning has a solo list for freshmen published online, perhaps in a course syllabus for applied lessons. If you can’t find such information at that particular school, a Google search will yield listings of appropriate pieces from comparable institutions. You can also call or email the applied professor; trust me, he or she will appreciate the initiative taken to ask for help in choosing a great audition piece. Of course, if you are taking private lessons your teacher will be able to help you make a good choice. Listening to recordings of great professional players on your instrument is also a good way to develop awareness of your instrument’s repertoire. Real, commercially produced recordings, that is. Not YouTube.
8. Choose Good Repertoire for You.
Don’t just choose any standard solo work, though. Choose something which makes you sound good, something that exploits your strengths while drawing less attention to weaknesses. This will require purchasing and reading through several pieces in order to choose the best one for you. Great players will make even the hardest pieces sound great on their recordings, and sometimes your first reading of a piece that sounded interesting and approachable on the recording will reveal that it is presently beyond your reach. Every player—at every level—has “chinks in his armor,” and the audition panel will be at least somewhat aware of yours regardless of the piece you play. Still, there is no need to give undue exposure to weak areas of your playing. Choose a piece that challenges and excites you, and that ultimately allows you to sound your very best.
8. Prize Beauty, Expression, and Taste More than Technical Displays.
Perhaps the biggest difference between all-state type auditions and college and university auditions is that in the former context playing “high, fast, and loud” is often rewarded, while in the latter beauty of tone and maturity of expression are most prized. Although at the college level we want to hear a prospective student demonstrate technical mastery, in many respects this is easier to teach and develop than “musical” skill. Playing with a great sound and demonstrating even the most nascent sense of musical direction will impress college faculty members more than showing us how many notes you can play in two minutes. (Of course, if you can deliver the whole package of technique, tone, and expression that will be even better!)
9. Practice Sight Reading.
Sight reading is a big part of just about every audition, yet many students neglect to practice it. While some perhaps think of sight reading as a “you’ve either got it or you don’t” type of skill, in reality it can be developed and improved with regular practice. While there are method books published with the express purpose of being used for sight reading development, practically any piece of music can be used for this purpose. Read anything and everything you can find, spending at least a few minutes each day on this kind of practice. If you aren’t sure you’re getting it right, ask your band director or some other knowledgeable person to listen and evaluate your reading. Recording yourself and listening to the playback can also be helpful (for this and every other part of the audition!). Sight reading practice can also be a good forum for developing basic familiarity with the standard repertoire for your instrument. Purchase as many solos and method books as you can afford and get to reading!
10. Remember the Purpose of Your Audition.
Finally, remember that while you are auditioning for admission and scholarships, the initial audition for a college or university program is usually not competitive in the sense that you are auditioning for chair placement or otherwise determining your place in the “pecking order” at that school. Your goal should be to give a favorable but accurate demonstration of your playing and knowledge, showing yourself to be a capable, curious, and ambitious student with the desire and ability to grow as a musician and contribute to great performances during the course of your time in the music department. Do that, and both admission and scholarships will follow.