Preparing for College and University Auditions

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 suggestions here mainly address items specific to college and university auditions.

The type of student that I have in mind as I write is the typical aspiring undergraduate music education student auditioning for admission, scholarships, and ensemble placement 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. While these ideas appeared previously in separate posts targeted toward freshmen and transfer students, I have decided that the two scenarios are similar enough to warrant combining the ideas from those previous articles into this current form.

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. Nowadays online lessons are even a possibility, and I have begun teaching several high school students this way. 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!

Community college students will, of course, have lessons included with their curricula. Make sure you are coming to each lesson thoroughly prepared so your teacher can help you position yourself for success at the next level.

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 and most university students complete a 20-minute routine each day before moving on to practicing scales and repertoire. (For performance majors, my recommended routine is more thorough, requiring 45-50 minutes.) 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 university-level programs.

4. Master your scales and arpeggios.

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 for entering freshmen along with a chromatic scale. Community college students wanting to transfer to a university and enter at the junior level will also need to know minor scales (all forms) along with major and minor arpeggios. Students demonstrating familiarity and facility with required scale and arpeggio patterns will be very well received, indeed.

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. As is the case with major and minor scales and arpeggios, students transferring from community colleges should make sure to be proficient in all required clefs and/or transpositions when entering the university. Including repertoire that demonstrates these skills in your audition materials is often wise.

6. Choose good repertoire.

College and university auditions typically require scales, possibly arpeggios, a prepared piece or 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 high school 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 or study 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 standard literature. This indicates curiosity, usually a desirable trait among university students. If you are not familiar with your instrument’s solo and study 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 (whether as a high school student or community college transfer) 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 an awareness of your instrument’s repertoire. Real, commercially produced recordings, that is. Not YouTube.

7. Choose good repertoire for you.

Don’t just choose any standard solo work or etude, though. Choose something that 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 display.

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 university 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, applied teacher, 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.

Additional Advice for Community College Transfers

One peculiar aspect of teaching music at a university in Mississippi is that many of our students transfer here after spending one or two years at a community college. While the presence of community colleges and of transfer students is not unique to Mississippi, not every state has community colleges with large and active music departments, complete with highly qualified faculty, private lessons, ensembles (including marching band), theory courses, etc. While the transition from community college to university is relatively seamless for students in some majors, music students can find themselves repeating many or even all of their sophomore music courses based upon the results of entrance auditions and exams. These remaining thoughts might be of help to transfer students hoping to make the transition as smooth and as free of repeated coursework as possible.

11. In music theory, take great notes, study hard, and find out what the university courses cover.

Music theory is perhaps the area in which the greatest number of music transfer students find themselves repeating material. In some cases, this has to do simply with poor preparation or study habits on the part of the student. If you are “barely getting by” in theory at the community college and studying very little, chances are that you are not truly mastering the material and will find your recall to be severely wanting when you take your theory placement exam at the university. Sometimes, though, even bright, diligent, well-prepared students experience difficulty in some area or another, leading to a recommendation that one or two semesters of theory be repeated. This might be due to some incongruity between the theory curricula at the two schools. Perhaps the courses at the university cover certain concepts that the comparable courses at the community college do not, or perhaps there is simply a difference in terminology used at the two institutions that might cause confusion. Reach out to students that you know at the university and ask them if you can see a syllabus or even some assignments to see what you need to be learning. You could even email the university theory faculty with your questions. Finally, check the music department website; there may be a study guide to help you prepare for the placement exam. I have seen students avoid an entire year of repeated work simply by asking questions, finding information, and diligently reviewing their theory class notes for a few weeks before the placement exam is given.

12. In applied music, practice diligently, learn standard repertoire, and master your scales.

While applied faculty members will gladly admit adequately prepared transfer students at the junior level, my colleagues and I usually find ourselves having transfer students enter at the second-semester sophomore level in the lesson sequence. More rarely, a student is asked to repeat both sophomore semesters. Why is this so? In most cases, the cause is simple: lack of overall practice and preparation. A student who plays with an uncharacteristic sound, poor technique, poor sight-reading ability, etc. is simply not ready to enter at the junior level, likewise, a student who does not know all of the major and minor scales and arpeggios or lacks familiarity with standard instructional and performance repertoire. For trombone players, I would add lack of skill reading tenor and alto clefs and for euphonium players reading both treble and bass clefs. While in some cases a student’s deficiency is due to some physical issue that needs to be addressed, most often the culprit is lack of diligent practice and study. Go to the woodshed and get to work!

13. Remember that faculty members’ primary goal is to see you succeed.

As a teacher, I often say that the truest measure of my success is not my playing ability, my knowledge of advanced pedagogical techniques, or my published writing or recording projects. Rather, the truest measure of my success is the success of my students in the professional world. Most students who pass through my studio are aspiring school band directors, and nothing is more professionally fulfilling for me than seeing students with whom I have worked for two, three, four, or more years go out into the world and use the tools I and my colleagues have provided them to build great music programs of their own. Indeed, not only my professional fulfillment but also my continued good reputation and that of my colleagues and my institution depend on having our students be as successful as possible in the profession. If we think having you make a seamless transition from the community college to the university with no repeated coursework will best contribute to your success, we will do that. If we believe that the review and development of concepts and skills that come from repeating some material will best for you, we will recommend that you do that. And by the way, this policy is not limited to transfer students—we will just as readily demand repeated courses from current university students when we deem it necessary and have often done so. There are no double standards. Whether you choose to start at a community college or go to a university immediately after high school, good, old-fashioned hard work will be required if you want to be successful in the music business. Good luck!

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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