College Talk: What to Expect on Audition Day

It's audition season again... I totally had a heart attack when trying to plan something for January 22nd because my audition schedule from last year is apparently so engrained in my memory that I freak out every time I'm reminded of an audition date.

It's a miracle that I survived Audition Season 2016, what with 22 flights, 9 interviews, and 8 auditions. But somehow I did, and here's what I learned in the process:

  1. Every school is different. Sorry, there's no standard "day in the life" when it comes to auditions. That being said, though, there is usually some kind of a Welcome meeting where all of the auditioning students and their parents gather to learn more about the school. Then, you do your audition. Sometimes there's a theory test... More on that later.
  2. If there's a tour, take it. This is where you'll be potentially spending the next four years of your life, you should know what it looks like. Although the dining hall should not be a make-or-break aspect that weighs heavily in your decision-making process (if it is, you should probably re-evaluate some things), taking a tour and seeing the facilities can help you get a better sense of the quality of life you would be offered at this school
  3. If there is a student who doesn't look busy, talk to them! I honestly learned the most about schools from the students I spoke to; they're honest, up front, and can give you a real perspective on student life. Most schools have some sort of student panel or meeting with current students, so take advantage of that and ask questions. At Eastman, we have a whole committee of students dedicated to showing you where to go and answering your questions (I'm on it this year, hit me up). However, a random student who looks like they're already late for class might not be your best bet.
  4. Take notes. I had a teacher joke that I was just like Hermione Granger when it came to college auditions, but when it came time to make a decision, I really appreciated how detailed I was in taking notes. Especially if you have as many auditions as I did, they all start to run together, and you'll be really grateful to be able to look back and have all your thoughts collected in one place. Don't just write down the stuff they tell you, also write down how you felt in the school, how you felt around the teachers, etc.; anything that you think might be helpful to you in a few months.
  5. Business casual. This might sound like a no-brainer, but I definitely saw some pretty interesting outfits on my audition tour last year. Wear whatever makes you feel comfortable and confident, provided you look nice. I saw many many vocalists wearing full on recital formalwear, which I think is a little unnecessary, but for instrumentalists, MAKE SURE YOU ARE COMFORTABLE ENOUGH TO PLAY IN YOUR CLOTHES.
  6. Theory tests. Usually, these do not factor into your admission, so do not stress at all. They honestly just want to see what you know, and if you don't know much, it's not going to jeopardize your admission or your career or your future. However, if you do want to study a little bit, here's what I would recommend: If you have little to no theory background, just familiarize yourself with treble and bass clefs, basic rhythmic patterns, and chord quality recognition. If you have somewhat of a theory background, brush up on what you know; don't try to learn anything new for these tests. If you have a stronger theory background, then relax, you'll be fine.
  7. Don't get intimidated. You are going to hear people practicing crazy concerti in the practice rooms. You are going to see kids with mountainous piles of large ensemble scores they wrote. It is not your place to decide who is better than whom; if it was, you would be running the auditions. Especially when it comes to composition, teachers are looking for individuality, and it's probably a good thing that nobody's music is the same. For performers, I know it's so hard in that practice hall to ignore everyone else around you. Just remember why you're there, and put blinders on so you can't see (or hear) the other people. (Also, the crazy concerti people might be grad students... just keep that in mind).
  8. Say hi! Get to know the other auditioning students if you have time, you will keep seeing them throughout the coming months, and they might be your colleagues in the coming years. I have a friend who I met at my Cincinnati audition, re-met at my Manhattan Audition, and now we go to Eastman together. Go figure!
  9. Listen to the students AND the teachers (for composers, listen to their music!). Listening to the teachers' music should be self-explanatory. If you're going to study with them, you should probably like their music. But in my opinion, listening to the students' music is equally as important. These will be your colleagues, and their music can also give you a good sense of what the teachers encourage and don't encourage. In terms of composition, if a school's students all sound like their teachers, you can infer that the teachers are good at teaching, but maybe not so good at stretching. If a school's students all sound different, but you don't like any of their music, that might also be a red flag. Lots of schools tend to "shoe-horn" their students into one particular style or sound, and if that sound isn't what you're going for, you might want to think twice.

So far, I've just talked about what to expect outside the audition room. Now I have a few tips and tricks for once you're inside. For performers:

  1. Ask if you can play a note in the hall/room. Your reed is probably dry, your chops are probably cold, and you're in a new environment. Trust me, it's much better to break the ice with a quick, "Do you mind if I play a few notes?" instead of cracking your way through the first phrase of your solo piece.
  2. Be prepared to take direction. A few of my auditions turned into mini-lessons, and I knew they were testing how well I could listen and adjust. Often, this took place during sightreading... I would play the excerpt down, and then they'd say, "Can you try it again with  more dynamic contrast?" Don't be caught off guard.
  3. Take a breath. Do not. Under any circumstances. Launch into something before you're mentally prepared. 
  4. If they ask you any questions, answer politely, not robotically. It should go without saying that calling a professor "Dude", "Man", or any variation thereof is completely unacceptable. Be polite, but show them your personality. Even though you probably have a great memorized answer to "How did you start playing your instrument?", make sure you show these teachers that you would be enjoyable to work with. Just be yourself!
  5. Come with a few questions prepared. At the end, they might ask you if you have any questions for them. It's kind of awkward if you don't have any, but this also might not be the best time to bombard them with 2849571749 questions. Come with a few, and if you have more, send them an email a little later to thank them for their time and ask your remaining questions. My go-to questions were, "How big is the studio?", "What is the undergrad-grad student ratio?", and "What are the performance opportunities like for composers?" Also keep in mind that you could probably learn anything regarding financial aid from the financial aid office, anything regarding admissions statistics from the admissions office, etc.. Make sure your questions are appropriate for studio teachers to answer.

For composers:

  1. They'll ask about you. Composition interviews are really interesting since the teachers have actually already seen your work (usually). They already know your music, so you're not really trying to sell them on your abilities anymore. You're trying to sell them on you, which is in some ways infinitely more stressful. When they ask about you, tell them about your interests, your background, your life: in and out of music. Many interviewers thought it was great when I shared that I love musical theatre and jazz, and I was on the golf team in high school. They already know your music, let them get to know you!
  2. If you give an answer, be prepared to expand. If they ask about your musical influences, and you say Steve Reich, you'd better be able to sing some of his music. If they ask you your favorite jazz tune to play, and you say Joyspring, you'd better be prepared to sit down at the piano and play it. If they ask about what form your solo piano piece is in and you say Sonata form, you'd better be able to point out the exposition. Be prepared, and don't give an answer you're not confident in.
  3. If you don't know something, don't lie or try to make it up. Just say, "Wow, I hadn't thought about that, I'm not really sure." It's NOT a weakness not to know something... It looks way worse if you guess the correct answer, they ask you to expand, and you don't know the rest.
  4. Score Identification. I studied nonstop for my score identification, which I only had to do at one school. And guess what? I only got one composer right: Debussy, which I only guessed because I saw harp arpeggios and French performance directions. Tragic, I know. My point with this is that if a school (cough cough CCM) asks you to do score identification, they're considerably more interested in your thought process than your knowledge of individual pieces. It's not like trivia. They want to know why you think it's Debussy. And a texture you recognize as well as a specific language are completely valid ways to draw your conclusion. I was actually on the right track for my other two score identifications ("Looks like a culture outside of America with those non-Western solo instruments at the top of the score... extended techniques look contemporary" for a Takemitsu piece, and I can't remember the other one), but I had just never heard of the pieces before. They were still impressed by my thought process, though, and that's what matters.
  5. Take compliments. If a teacher compliments your music or a particular moment, say "Thank you!" Also be prepared to justify what you did, because they want to know that you didn't do something great on accident. If they ask why you resolved something a particular way, tell them! And "I just thought it sounded nice" is a totally valid answer, it shows intuition and good aural abilities.

I joke, but overall my audition experiences were so much fun, and I got to see so many parts of the country that I had never seen before. Take advantage of your time away from home or school, and explore! My dad and I went on a spontaneous excursion to DC during my Shenandoah audition trip, we learned about Insomnia Cookies during my CCM audition trip, we scoped out the best coffee shops during my Eastman audition trip, and we got to see Hamilton (and eat some really good Ramen, thanks dad) during my MSM audition trip. I hope this was somewhat helpful, and if anyone has any questions about audition season, particular auditions, or Eastman, please don't hesitate to reach out! You can email me through my website by clicking on the little mail button at the bottom of this page, or you can reach out to me on Facebook or Instagram. Good luck during audition season, and have a wonderful day :)

College TalkReagan Casteel