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A Student’s Life: The College Audition Survival Guide

0 Zachary Preucil

Each Thursday in February, I will be publishing posts that focus on various aspects of the college music student experience. This week, I begin with a topic that is currently foremost in the minds of many prospective students: college auditions. 


It’s the beginning of February, and for aspiring young musicians across the country, that can only mean one thing: college audition season has arrived at last. Now, after long months of practicing, waiting anxiously for prescreening results, and taking countless practice auditions, ambitious applicants are flooding the practice rooms of music schools everywhere, preparing themselves mentally for the long-awaited “moment of truth.” But regardless of whether you’re a prospective student, a nervous parent, or that unfortunate gentleman on the plane who was bumped from first class to economy because a “nice young man auditioning at Juilliard tomorrow” had to put his cello in the bulkhead, it’s undeniable that the extra-musical aspects of going through the audition process can actually be more stressful than playing the audition itself. As a two-time veteran of the college audition scene, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the potential pitfalls one might encounter, and so I’ve included the following advice with the hopes that several of these obstacles to success might be avoided by all of those who are courageously throwing their cap into the ring this year.


1. Avoid that 11 p.m. red-eye

Although it may seem obvious, allowing an adequate amount of travel time is a must when traveling the audition circuit. I know some people who’ve booked a six a.m. flight to get to an noon audition halfway across the country, but I could never have done that myself; for one thing, you’re in trouble if the flight’s cancelled, but for another, how well do you really think you’re going to do in the audition if you’ve been up since the crack of dawn in another time zone? I was luckily spared any “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”-like snafus during my auditions, but I did once spend five hours delayed in Chicago O’Hare while attempting to get out to Eastman for a trial lesson, and I can only imagine how my stress would have been exacerbated if I’d had to take an audition the following morning. Therefore, my rule of thumb for booking audition flights is to not depart any later than 5 P.M. on the day prior to the audition. That way, even if you’re delayed a couple hours, you won’t be arriving in the destination city at 3 A.M. with the prospect of a 9 A.M. check-in time, and if the flight’s cancelled, you might even have a fighting chance of making it there on the bus instead-as long as you’re not coming from Boston to audition at Colburn, anyways. (Note to cellists: NEVER check your instrument when flying to an audition. Even if you pack it in a flight case to prevent damages, there’s still the possibility that the airline could lose it, which will put you up rosin creek without a bow. I bring this up because it actually happened one year at NEC when I was proctoring auditions, and the school had to find an instrument for the unfortunate cellist whose instrument had been sent to New York instead of Boston.)


2. Don’t go for the cheap hotel 

It’s not worth it. Uncomfortable beds, cold rooms, and dusty furniture will only impose further stress upon your already travel-weary body, and a subpar breakfast won’t do you any good, either. I vividly remember the night I spent in a motel in Boston on the eve of my undergrad audition at NEC; the room itself had to have been at least sixty degrees, and the mattresses were so hard I might as well have slept on the stone steps of the conservatory itself. Somewhat miraculously, I survived the night, and ended up getting in and going there for undergrad, but I would in no way credit my success to the “hospitality” of this particular motel (which I will decline to name publicly, although I can tell you that it is featured somewhat prominently in the recent Seth MacFarlane film, “Ted”). Similarly, exercise good judgement when contemplating the option of staying with a friend or acquaintance. Your old buddy from summer camp might be as hospitable as the staff at the Hilton, but his roommate might spontaneously decide to have some friends over for drinks and a very loud game of poker, which will little do help you in the sleeping department.


3. Don’t worry about the other applicants

They might be playing the Tchaikovsky concerto faster than Heifetz, but that doesn’t mean that they’re going to ace it in the audition-or that the jury will be as impressed with them as your mother is (“my goodness, Jimmy, that boy next door will get in for sure!”). Don’t worry either if you get into conversation with someone at the drinking fountain and learn that they’ve been studying with Hotshot Teacher A in New York since they were five. There are plenty of people who can drop names, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re as good as the other students who’ve had the same teacher. Additionally, try not to pay attention to what you can hear of the person auditioning before you. If they’re having the best audition of your lives, you’ll start worrying about being in the dreaded position of having to go after who in your mind is the next Yo-Yo or Itzhak, and if they’re failing epically, you’ll start worrying that all those memory slips might happen in your Bach, too. Just remember that you play how you play, and nothing anyone else is doing is going to affect that. This too may seem obvious, but the year I proctored cello auditions at NEC, I lost count of the number of people who literally freaked out because the person going before them was also auditioning on the Dvorak concerto, although one would think it would be common knowledge by now that everyone and their mother auditions on that piece (often times quite literally, when the mother is the accompanist, too.) Actually, I would advise cellists not to audition on Dvorak for that very reason, but that is a topic for another post.


4. Expect the unexpected

Perhaps the best key to success is to be prepared for anything to happen, whether it be in the course of your performance or the anxiety-ridden minutes preceding it. Your part might fall off the stand, a professor might ask you to start at an odd place in your sonata, or your A-string might slip in the middle of your cadenza. While you can take measures to guard against any unsolvable surprises (such as not realizing that an entire concerto is required for grad auditions…yes, I have seen this happen to people), it’s impossible to anticipate every potential mishap, and so the best solution is to keep a positive attitude and go with the flow. During the course of my college auditions, I encountered a number of unexpected distractions, and having a (relatively) calm mindset throughout was certainly advantageous in helping me cope with them. At one audition, the judge asked me if I had perfect pitch, which culminated in me tentatively singing an A and him checking it on the piano; at another, my music stand was placed too close to a rotating fan, which caused the pages of my sonata to repeatedly flip over; and at yet another, I only realized right beforehand that I had forgotten to fill out my repertoire form, an oversight that resulted in my poor father practically bolting down three flights of stairs to retrieve it from the check-in table and hurriedly scribbling down the titles of my pieces in about thirty seconds’ time (despite some initial frowning, the judges were able to decipher it in the end). So while things will probably go smoothly, don’t freak out if they don’t, and most importantly, don’t let minor mishaps distract you from your playing in a major way.


5. The faculty want you to do well

The professors on the other side of the room might seem intimidating, but if anyone understands the anxiety you’re experiencing, it’s these guys. They’ve all been in your position before, and they genuinely want to see you succeed. After all, they’d much rather hear a confident iteration of the Dvorak concerto than one in which your bow arm is shaking so bad that the entire second theme sounds as though it was marked “pianissimo tremolando.” They’ll be scribbling away on their notes, but don’t let that bother you; for all you know, they could be noting how much promise you have and how they’d love to teach you. They’re not going to reject you outright if you miss a couple little things, either-this isn’t a professional orchestra audition. I remember having a misconception of this standard during my undergrad auditions, and one time after I epically fell off the fingerboard during my concerto, I almost half-expected for the head of the panel to stop me with a curt, “Thank you” and end the whole thing right there. But they went on to hear my Bach, and I actually ended up getting accepted at the school. It’s of course important to demonstrate preparedness, but one or two flubs won’t make as much of a difference if your overall presentation is solid. The faculty know you’re nervous, and can differentiate between the effects of nerves and the effects of an incompetent technique. However, your playing is not the only thing up for evaluation; if a teacher is going to commit to working with you for four years, he or she will want to have an idea of your personality as well. So don’t go in with your shirt untucked and your hair spiked up in a vibrant orange mohawk; chances are, the committee will be thinking more about your fashion sense than your bow arm, and that certainly won’t do you any good.


6. After it’s over, forget about it (or try to, anyways)

No matter how much you replay your audition in your head, talk about it with your teacher, or anxiously ask your friends how much the panel heard from their concertos (“they heard your development section?! I’m doomed for sure!”), it’s not going to change whether you receive a letter that begins with the words “Congratulations!” or “We regret to inform you….”  So, like all things in life that are beyond your ability to control, try not to stress too much about the results. This is one piece of advice that falls under the “do as I say, not as I do” category, because I was absolutely terrible at this for both undergrad and grad. During the spring break of my senior year of high school, the ominous rumbling of the mail truck soon became synonymous with a sense of impending doom, and my mind would go into ultra-worry mode-what if a rejection from my top choice school was sitting somewhere within its depths, inching closer with every stop? For grad, it was even worse, because everything went out by email, leaving no time of the day free from stress (at least when letters went out via snail mail, I could relax in the afternoon). Looking back on those waiting periods, I certainly wish that I hadn’t let myself become so preoccupied with the results, although I recognize that assuming such a mindset is easier said than done. What did give me some degree of consolation throughout the whole process, however, was reminding myself that I was quite fortunate to be in the position of waiting in the first place. Not many people have the opportunity to study an instrument at all, let alone to study it at a level on par with the admission standards at a reputable music school, and so recognizing how privileged you are and putting your anxieties in context is perhaps the best way to minimize them. After all, if you get a rejection, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll still be the same musician you always were, and if you continue to work hard and remain optimistic, you will ultimately achieve success.

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