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Preparing for College Auditions

Victoria Jicha | December 2020

photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan University

   The process of selecting a college and prepar­ing for the auditions is surrounded by mysti­cal misconceptions, yet six college professors share remarkably similar standards. Mary Karen Clardy, University of North Texas, 
Patricia George, Brigham Young University-Idaho (retired), Editor, Flute Talk, Katherine Borst Jones, The Ohio State University, Walfrid Kujala, Northwestern University, Professor Emeritus,  Brooks de Wetter-Smith, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Professor Emeritus, explain the qualities they look for in prospective students.

Advice To High School Flute Teachers
Patricia George: I look for the most beautiful pos­sible tone, the elements of phrasing, liquid inter­vals, good sightreading, a sense of musical style, and a basic knowledge of music history and theory. Some of the best high school band programs spend a portion of each rehearsal playing the White Unisonal Scales (Fischer), which teaches scales, arpeggios, rhythmic exercises, and phrasing. Stu­dents who come out of band programs that prac­ticed daily on the Unisonal Scales often get admit­ted to the best colleges and receive healthy schol­arships.

Mark Karen Clardy: I recommend taking time in every lesson to work on scales, arpeggios, ear train­ing, and basic phrasing.

Common Audition Weaknesses
Mary Karen Clardy: Consistent weaknesses are a lack of confidence and accurate articulations. Daily articulation practice on scales and arpeggios pays off in auditions. Students should be able to perform both slurred and articulated passages with the same tone quality. Trial auditions for friends and family build self-confidence for the big day.

Thomas Robertello: During lessons too many teachers stop students in every measure to address details or playing prob­lems. Students often do not have experience play­ing through the entire audition repertoire to establish a flow in the per­formance. In the weeks preceding auditions teach­ers should put musical agendas aside and organize extra performances in front of strangers for those playing auditions. It is intimidating to be evaluated by an unfamiliar per­son, and playing trial performances on the audition literature can build confidence.

Patricia George: I can assess tone, rhythm, and phrasing within the first three or four seconds. Tone exercises, practice with a metronome, and melody studies are valuable activities for develop­ing flutists.

Walfrid Kujala: R-H-Y-T-H-M is the most common weakness. Accurate rhythm is a good indicator of musical talent; if I point out an incorrect rhythm, I want to hear the correction to be sure that the stu­dent is properly sensitive to the underlying pulse.

Brooks de Wetter-Smith:
The most common weaknesses I hear are poor rhythm and audition pieces that are beyond what students can play well. Students are usually unaware of the accompa­niment part, but knowing how the flute line fits into the tapestry of the work is essential, regardless of the difficulty of the music.

Patricia George:
The process of preparing an audition tape should begin months in advance of the deadline to do it right. Hire a recording engi­neer to tape and edit the session. Perhaps a local college music department has a recording studio that might be available and affordable. Make it easy for the audition committee by labeling the tape with the applicant’s name, address, instrument, telephone number, email address, and a list of the compositions with track numbers or timings. Send a copy of the original, not the original in case the tape gets lost in the mail.

Recommended Repertoire
   The panel suggested the following compositions as suitable for college auditions: A sonata by J.S. Bach, a Mozart concerto, plus a French contest piece or a standard work, such as a concerto by lbert or Nielsen, Acht Stucke by Paul Hindemith, or Sonata Appassionata by Karg-Elert. Among contem­porary works the panel cited are Four Lyric Pieces by John Heiss, Flying Lessons by Robert Dick, Soliloquy by Lowell Lieberman, Trois Pieces by Thomas Ferroud, and Density 21.5 by Edgar Varese. 

Thomas Robertello: I require two complete pieces of contrasting styles. One must be a Mozart con­certo or Bach sonata, and the second should be a standard piece, such as the Ibert or Nielsen con­certo or a French contest piece. It is important to prepare the whole piece, not just one movement or the exposition. Frequently students spend six to twelve months learning audition repertoire but per­fect only one section of the piece. Leaming new repertoire should be a basic activity throughout every music career. Many high school flute teachers fail to realize that high school students who aspire to a career in music should be able to absorb repertoire at a faster rate than two pieces per year. In an audition it is clear if students have not played vari­ous styles of music or are not motivated to meet new challenges.

Brooks de Wetter-Smith: I look for a solid founda­tion in the basics: tone, stylistic understanding, con­trolled finger technique, good breathing, and a firm sense of rhythm. lt is not so important that a player execute a thousand notes, and too many flutists believe the more notes in a piece the better. How­ever, the results of this is often a sloppy and shallow performance. Too many teachers select music that is beyond the player’s technical ability in the hope that the committee will be impressed by the difficulty of the composition, but difficult pieces should be cho­sen only for a student who is technically gifted, but they should be balanced with subtle music.

Patricia George: I suggest not playing the Chaminade Concertino, which is a wonderful piece if played well, but too many flute professors have endured endless days judging poor performances of it. It is better to choose something less well known and to play it well.

Mary Karen Clardy: I recommend works by Bach, Mozart, sonatas by Hindemith, Muczynski, and Burton.

The Technical Virtuoso Versus the Raw Musical Talent
Brooks de Wetter-Smith: To discover musicality I ask flutists to play slow lyrical passages because the technical threat is removed and breath control, intonation, tone quality, and phrasing are clear. Technical virtuosity often is nothing beyond a bliz­zard of notes.

Mary Karen Clardy: I am more interested in the flutist’s personality, energy level, and attitude than with technical virtuosity. The ideal artistic approach blends virtuosity with musical phrasing, direction, and energy.

Patricia George: A music performance is commu­nication, which is not possible without a blend of technical and expressive aspects. Technique can be learned by motivated, hard-working students, but the expressive element is a product of genetics; it can only be enhanced by a teacher. Like most flute teachers, 1 prefer a hard working, motivated student to an egocentric virtuoso with an inflated self­-image.

Katherine Borst Jones: I look for passion, potential, initiative, and a strong desire to be a musician and whether these are accom­panied by an openness and willingness to learn. Along with basic musical talent, inner confidence and self-motivation are important.

Thomas Robertello: My entrance decisions are based on a combination of both the technical and musical elements of flute playing, but I also look for intelligence and emotional maturity. Students with vision and imagination for the future have musical goals. I look at the goals and their potential and decide if I can or should help them.

Walfrid Kujala:
With each applicant I try to mea­sure the scope of musicianship, technical facility, repertoire and the overall approach to flute play­ing. Students can pay more attention to playing musically after they have control of the technical elements.

On Taped Auditions
Walfrid Kujala: One year an applicant submitted two cassette tapes. The first tape sounded like a berserk piccolo until the tape deck was switched to half speed. The second tape looked exactly the same but sounded like a bass flute because it was recorded at normal speed. That one person submitted two tapes recorded at dif­ferent speeds should prove the necessity of finding professional guidance when preparing an audition tape.

Thomas Robertello:
Students often submit tapes when they apply to many schools and do not have the time or money to audition at each. I believe it is preferable to narrow the choice to a few schools and audition in person.

Mary Karen Clardy:
Without the expense of going to a college campus to audition students should make a professional recording in a studio. This would assure a high quality of tape and improve the applicants chances of admittance.

Brooks de Wetter-Smith:
On most tapes submitted the acoustics of the room are poor or the micro­phone placement is incorrect, and the result is a poor tape that does not help the applicant’s chances. A tape should not be edited, and each selection should be a complete performance along with a written statement of the student’s musical background, interests outside of music, and goals for the future.

Entrance Requirements for Graduate Degree Auditions
Thomas Robertello: Indiana University requires applicants to play three complete pieces in contrast­ing style: a Mozart concerto or a Bach sonata, a sub­stantial 20th- or 21st-century work, and several orchestral excerpts. I often make performance sug­gestions during a graduate audition to explore the musical flexibility and openness to new approaches in an applicant. Changing teachers at age 22 can be difficult for students who are still attached to under­graduate teachers, but it is also a great time to inte­grate undergraduate school ideas and look to the future with an optimistic, clean slate.

Patricia George:
I look for applicants who pos­sess maturity and have studied and performed a broad base of literature. A strong background in chamber music performance, participation in masterclasses, private teaching experience, and attendance at summer orchestral performance programs are valuable assets for prospective grad­uate students.

A Few Final Thoughts
Thomas Robertello: I recall as a high school stu­dent the good experiences I had with the auditions I took at Eastman, the Manhattan School, and Juilliard, where I studied with the two J.B.s, Baker and Baxtresser. Carol Wincenc asked questions about my goals, musical desires, and teachers. I remember Bonita Boyd’s calm welcoming that was comforting when I felt chaotic inside. At the Juilliard audition for Julius Baker, Sam Baron, and Paula Robison, I was asked for my birth date because the application read 3/2/84 and the audi­tion was during the same month of the same year, but I assured them that I was 18 years old.
   I think students should buy more music than they have time to learn because they will learn it even­tually. It is good motivation to have a library of new pieces to learn. In high school I spent all my money on flute music and still remember looking at all the black notes in the Schubert Variations and think­ing that some day I would be able to perform it.

Patricia George:
Choosing to major in music is a complicated decision. If students really want to be a music major, they should commit to the program whole-heartedly. Teachers never know which stu­dents will blossom or when it will occur. Sometimes the sheer desire for a career in music will work mir­acles, but just because a flutist played in a high school band and performed the Faure Fantasie, the Block Suite Modale, and the Chaminade Concertino well at a solo contest is not sufficient to become a music major. Some stu­dents choose music as a major because they en­joyed the social aspects of the high school music pro­gram. Music majors should have a sense of communi­cation and expression, the work ethic to make a commitment, boundless energy, love practicing, love to attend concerts, and intellectual curiosity.
   Many years ago an article by a Curtis Institute faculty member explained that many public school teachers become so excited if a student can read, count, and has some technical mastery that they jump to the conclusion that this person has talent and should audition for admission to Curtis. The writer stated that technical ability and basic music reading skills are a given component of the craft but not the art. What Curtis seeks is the student who has the ability to tell a story, create a moment, and play expressively.

Mary Karen Clardy: The most memorable audi­tion was for my first professional position, for which I was told to bring excerpts of my choice. I brought The Modern Flutist because it contained several of my best prepared excerpts, but to my surprise, the conductor stood beside me while I played the audition. After I played he asked to hear more and randomly chose excerpts from the book. Fortunately, I knew the book well and won the audition, but that was the last time I ever brought a book to an audition.

* * *

iting students from other teachers can be both frustrating as well as informative. Parents of high school seniors have called me more times than I care to remember to set up a few lessons before their college-bound flutist takes an entrance audition. Invariably such calls come out of the blue, for a student I have never seen before. Somewhere they have learned that a few lessons with an established teacher will greatly increase the odds of being accepted by the college of their choice.
   The quality of previous instruction is evident soon after a new student walks in the door because I ask new students to bring the music they have been studying. Many arrive carrying only solo repertoire; when I probe a bit it comes out that they do not own a scale book and some are unsure what an etude is. When I hear that they just worked on songs – their word – not mine – with the previous teacher, I know a great deal about the quality of past lessons and that this student has not had a bal­anced regimen of scales, etudes, and solo literature.
   In my book the building blocks of good musi­cianship are scales, arpeggios, and etudes. Perhaps some teachers do not spend time on these basics because they believe students will enjoy lessons more without the drudgery of scale practice. However without a background in scales, when students reach a moderate level of technical devel­opment their progress will slow and become frus­trating if the basic components are missing.
   If flutists have established good practice habits over several years and learned fundamental scales and arpeggios, the solo literature is relatively easy to learn. Most students who lack a foundation in scales and arpeggios will sightread poorly, and they learn new repertoire slowly because their basic fin­ger dexterity and coordination exists only in the keys that correspond to solo repertoire they have learned. When the music ventures outside of those keys, they fumble, especially when playing keys with more than four sharps or flats. These tonal centers feel foreign, and seldom-used accidentals have to be translated. For example E# becomes F natural and C flat becomes B natural. If these accidentals are rewrit­ten, this only contributes further to their poor sightreading. It takes more time to translate the notes than to read and understand them as written.
   Good college entrance auditions are the result of many years of proper practicing, and cumulative work on the standard technique building books such as Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises or Moyse’s Daily Exercises, and etudes by Andersen, Garibaldi, Berbiguier, and Altes. A sequential jour­ney through the solo literature should begin with the Baroque masters and progress to the present. None of this can be accomplished in a few months.
    My plea to any teachers who allow students to work on the solo repertoire without requiring fun­damental etudes and exercises is to return to the basics and assign the unpopular exercises that will make later progress possible. Introduce students to simple music theory, history, and basic musical ter­minology, and please explain the difference between a solo and a song.

– Victoria Jicha