I think it is safe to say it: winter is over. Okay, so in Rochester we do still have some blackened snowdrifts lingering in parking lot corners, and yes, I did see a weather report that we’re supposed to get into the 20s again next week (!) but for the most part, the formidable season we’ve just endured is in the past. For the average person, this might be a cause to finally emerge from the mundane of the indoors and galavant in primaveral sunlight, but for conservatory students (who tend to fear sunlight anyhow) it is exactly the opposite. The school year might be drawing to a close, but its biggest challenge looms menacingly on the horizon: juries.
This year, I am exempt from juries since I recently gave my degree recital (and accordingly went MIA from this blog for the past month). Over the course of my studies at NEC and Eastman, however, I have obviously had several jury experiences, and am well aware of the stress they incite amongst students in the weeks preceding them. This anxiety is not without precedent, for the act of taking a jury is certainly rather intimidating. When else do you have to walk onstage and present your work for an esteemed group of musicians who probably know your repertoire better than you do? And then there’s the whole pass/fail thing. Sure, you’ll generally be fine as long as you’re prepared, but what if you have a bad day? It’s always possible.
These were definitely some of the thoughts I had prior to my first juries, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that they weren’t entirely irrational. However, after experiencing juries and other similar situations throughout my collegiate career, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are not worth griping over-or at least, as much as a lot of people tend to gripe over them. Here are five reasons why you should put down that stress ball and pick up your instrument with confidence:
1. If you’re well prepared, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
I think a lot of people tend to confuse the standards of juries with those of orchestra auditions, where if you miss a couple shifts and botch a run you’re automatically out. But if this were the case for juries, conservatory graduation rates would be about 5%. While you are obviously expected to play at a high level, a few accidents aren’t going to do you in, and believe me, the faculty can tell the difference between one-time performance mishaps and mistakes caused by lack of preparation. That said, being well prepared for a jury is different than being well prepared for a lesson, where maybe a few things are still in progress, but most of it’s good. You want to be able to play everything well consistently, both in the practice room and in performance. The latter situation is perhaps your best acid test for readiness, so I would highly recommend scheduling a mini-recital of your jury repertoire. Even if it’s just for a few friends sitting in a classroom, going through the motions of warming up and focusing will be extraordinarily beneficial.
2. The faculty want you to do well.
It might seem as though the row of adjudicating professors bears an uncanny likeness to the firing squad, but don’t be fooled; they want you to play well as much as you do. Although I’d always generally acknowledged this sentiment since the start of my conservatory career, I did not fully understand the faculty’s perspective in juries until I had to sit on a jury panel myself last spring for University of Rochester students who take secondary cello lessons with me and other TAs. To my surprise, I was more nervous during my students’ juries than I was for my own! When you are working with a student for a prolonged period of time, rejoicing with them in their successes and commiserating with them in their failures, you really want nothing more than to see them nail their presentation to the faculty, and you certainly don’t want to see them fall on their face. So, don’t get the wrong idea: far from being your worst enemies, the faculty you face on jury day are really your biggest fans.
3. No matter what happens, the sun will still rise the next morning.
It might sound silly, but you’d be surprised how many students psychologically equate the prospect of a failed jury with Armageddon. But many conservatory students have failed juries over the years, and the world’s still rolling. The reality is, a jury is no different than any other test you take for theory, history, or solfege: it’s simply a means for the faculty to collectively acknowledge your progress. In fact, at NEC they don’t even refer to the exam as a “jury,” but as a “promotional,” ostensibly to dispel the perception of the student being on trial or something. Additionally, at most schools having a bad day in a jury does not mean you’re suddenly expelled; generally, there will be an opportunity for a student to repeat a jury later, and if that doesn’t go well, steps will be taken to address the issues at hand. Even then, however, I’m pretty sure the sun would continue its tried and true rising-and-setting routine, and if it didn’t, well, at least nobody would be all that concerned about the jury anymore.
4. You actually don’t have to play very much.
Most juries are only about fifteen minutes, whereas a solo recital generally lasts at least an hour. In this context, juries are actually incredibly easy. Yes, you might not be as “in the zone” as you are in a recital situation, but you also don’t have to worry about the endurance factor (so long as you don’t spend the three hours beforehand frantically warming up). Most of the time, the faculty will let you choose what to start with and then skip around from there, and you’re out the door before you know it. Of course, the leaping between sections of a piece can cause stress for students who only practiced the exposition, but again, if you’ve got your act together, there’s no cause for alarm.
5. Contrary to popular belief, worrying actually doesn’t help.
Even if your Bach is only sort of memorized and your twentieth-century piece sounds a bit more atonal than it’s supposed to, sitting and ruminating about it is not going to do you any good. The only thing that will increase your chances of success in a jury is practicing, so be productive in the practice room and then turn your attention to other matters. This might sound like trying not to think of pink elephants, and of course the prospect of taking the jury is always going to be simmering on your figurative back burner, but focusing on other activities will definitely help alleviate some of the stress you might be experiencing. Go for a walk, watch a movie, or read a book (or a blog about not stressing about juries). You’re already thinking about your jury repertoire four hours a day in the practice room; don’t spend the other twenty doing the same!
So, to recap, a jury is basically just a test where you spend fifteen minutes or so playing repertoire you know like the back of your hand for a supportive group of teachers. Worrying about it will literally not help, and even if things do go awry, it’s not the be-all and end-all of your musical aspirations. Plus, the sun will keep rising! Clearly, a win-win situation.