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What Are Music School Auditions Really Like?

Here's everything you need to know about the most important part of your music school application: the audition.

You never thought being a musician would be easy: the countless hours of practice and the constant rehearsals and performances are not for the timid or lazy. As a high school senior applying to music school, though, you’ll have a different challenge to face. When written applications are submitted and the rest of the second-semester seniors luxuriate in their newfound liberty, music school applicants will still have to complete the most important part of their college application: the audition.

Before the audition: how to prepare

You’ve thought about who you want to study with, decided between a university music school or a stand-alone conservatory, and compiled your list of schools. Now you can crank up the audition preparation.

But wait! Before you commence woodshedding:

  • Find out whether the school requires a prescreen recording for your instrument or voice part. A prescreen recording is an unedited video recording of your playing that some schools require in order to pare down the applicant pool before live auditions.
  • Read each school’s repertoire requirements carefully, and pay attention to all the nitty-gritty details. Are the live audition requirements different from the prescreen requirements? Is memorization required? If they ask for a movement of a concerto, do they want a cadenza?
  • Economize and figure out what you can double up for more than one school. The repertoire requirements for one music school are often similar to those for others.

Now, finally, everyone’s favorite part: practice!          

When you prepare for a prescreen recording or audition, make sure, of course, to practice in order to sound your best: work toward proper setup, accurate rhythm, spot-on intonation, logical interpretation, etc. You want to show the audition committee your best self. But you should also work on skills you may never have needed to practice before. Practice performing (for someone other than your music teacher!). You’ll benefit from getting used to playing your repertoire in a stressful environment and to playing it all the way through without stopping. Consider recording yourself during these “performances” so you can objectively evaluate your playing to find your weak spots. You may also want to practice mastering your mental focus; you never know what disruptions could happen in the audition room. Try meditation, or practice your repertoire with distractions in the background and refuse to lose concentration.

During the audition: what to expect

  • Read each school’s audition day expectations carefully. Some schools require accompaniment for certain majors, while some don’t. Some require you to bring a résumé or a repertoire list, while some don’t. Often this information will be emailed to you after you register for an audition, but if not, it will be on the school’s website.
  • Be ready for anything. There may be one faculty member in the audition room or an entire department. Some teachers will say hello or ask how you are; others won’t say anything. Maybe the room will be too cold, or too echoey, or too dry. Don’t be fazed by any of this.
  • Be prepared to be asked what you’d like to play first. The audition committee won’t always ask, but if they do, answer strategically: you might not have time to play everything you’ve prepared, especially if you play an instrument with a lot of required repertoire. What do you most want the audition committee to hear?
  • Keep going if you make a mistake. Small technical errors or memory slips matter a lot less than you think they do; the audition committee hears applicants mess up in auditions all the time! What’s much more important is how you recover from a mistake: so don’t get flustered. Refocus, figure out where you are, and keep playing.
  • Don’t freak out if they stop a piece after 30 seconds or only let you play one movement; conducting an audition isn’t a scientific process. Maybe the audition committee knows enough about your playing to make their decision after hearing one page of Bach. Or maybe they’re just running out of time.
  • The audition will rarely last less than 10 minutes or more than 20. After you play, be prepared to answer a question or two about why you want to go to the school or your plans for the future. You’ll be super prepared for this: you probably already wrote an essay about it for your application!
  • As always, remember to put your best foot forward: smile, make eye contact, and dress business casual. A good impression never goes to waste.

After the audition: relax!

No matter what happens in the audition, remember that you’re not auditioning for music school so you can stamp Juilliard on your résumé (at least I hope you’re not!). You’re auditioning because you love music and because being a musician is your dream. Always remember that your music has value, no matter what an audition committee at one school decides based on 15 minutes of your life. Never let a school’s decision get in the way of your doing what you love!

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