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Helping Students Prepare for Music School

Natalie Steele Royston | November 2013

    One of the greatest rewards of being a music teacher comes when a student declares a desire to study music in college and possibly follow in our footsteps. After much time spent working with these talented students, we are proud to see them ready to head out to the next phase of education and life. Ideally, students will make this decision during their junior year of high school so as to allow adequate time to research schools and prepare for auditions. During this process there are many ways teachers can assist students in making as smooth and successful a transition into higher education as possible.

Many Career Paths

    The first task with which music teachers can assist students expressing interest in becoming music majors is to talk with them about the opportunities available and requirements to succeed.  Most students know about careers in performance and education, but they may not realize there are also opportunities in music therapy, music business, music technology, and instrument repair. To help, there are several resources available. An informative brochure entitled “Careers in Music” is available on the National Association for Music Education website (http:// In addition, there are a couple of good resource books available including Opportunities in Music Careers, by Robert Gerardi (VGM Career Books) and Great Jobs for Music Majors by Jan Goldberg (McGraw-Hill Company).

Understanding the Requirements
    Many first-year music majors become discouraged because requirements of the degree are not what they expected. Students entering the university as music majors are usually unaware of the multi-year course requirements for at least music theory, history, and piano. In addition, those pursuing an education degree will likely find many additional courses and clinical experiences needed to fulfill the state teaching licensure requirements. To assist the students and families to better understand the requirements of being music major, encourage them to examine degree requirements in university catalogs and on music department webpages. Also, when visiting universities, be sure to speak with academic advisors as well as the applied faculty, conductors, and other teaching faculty in the department.

School Choice
    A student’s musical ability, interests, academic success, location, and family finances will all factor into the difficult but exciting decision of which school to attend. This is an area in which the music teacher’s expertise is extremely valuable, and advice should be offered, even if students do not think to ask. However, music teachers should be cautious of only recommending their alma mater; it may not be the best fit for every student.
     One of the easiest and fastest ways for students to research a college or university is by visiting the school websites. Most of which will be well-developed and informative. After a short list of possible good choices has been developed, students should try to visit the campus prior to applying. Many college applications have lengthy forms to fill out, essays to write, and application fees that must be paid, so students should not apply to a school in which they are not genuinely interested.
    While visiting the campus, students should set up a brief private lesson with the potential studio teacher to gauge rapport and teaching style. If a lesson cannot be scheduled, it is important to at least meet with the studio teacher; when audition day occurs, it is beneficial if the studio teacher already knows the potential student. Only a certain number of auditionees can be accepted each year and this can help your student be one of them. It is also a good idea to try to set up a meeting with someone from the admissions office and an academic advisor if possible. Let students know that is also beneficial and informative to visit ensemble rehearsals and sit in on music classes as available.
    Remind the students and families that no school is perfect and full scholarships are rare. Encourage them to find the school, teacher, and environment that feels like the best fit, make a commitment, work out the finances (keep in mind that college is an investment in your future), and most importantly, have fun and get the most from the opportunity.

The Audition
    Good colleges are competitive and have limited openings each year. Encourage students to audition at a minimum of three schools. Students should schedule auditions early; some schools have limited audition slots available. Find audition requirements online or contact each school ahead of time to ask if there is a prescribed set of materials required for the audition. If there are not specific guidelines, here are some practical suggestions for preparing auditions.
    Prepare at least two contrasting pieces. One should demonstrate technique and the other lyrical, musical performance. This can usually be accomplished with a technical study or etude combined with a solo work. Many students select music that is too difficult and perform poorly; help them choose music that shows off their strengths and can be played well consistently. It is generally more impressive to play an easier piece well than a harder piece poorly. Then the audition committee can rate musicality, rhythm, intonation, and breath support or bow control rather than listening to a piece in which the player is struggling just to get the notes. In addition, students should be prepared to play major and minor scales and arpeggios, and they should also practice sightreading prior to the audition.
    Audition preparation can be a great opportunity for mentoring and collaboration with an advanced high school student. If possible, set up a mock audition committee for students in which you can simulate the experience and offer feedback.
    In addition to preparing the musical part of the audition, also talk to the student about the non-musical aspects. Preparing a set of questions to ask at an audition can show the committee a sincere interest in pursuing this field and can also help in making a final school choice. Here are some possible questions:

   Could you describe the goals of your program?
   What opportunities for performing, conducting, or teaching will I have?
   What are the graduates of your program doing now?

It is okay to ask about scholarship money, but students should understand that they will learn few satisfactory answers at the audition.
    Let students know that the audition begins the moment they walk into the room, so they should be well dressed, friendly, respectful, and confident. Auditioning students could also benefit from a reminder to relax and smile. Remind students that mistakes will happen and that they not stop playing. It is also extremely common for the committee to cut someone off before the end of the piece, but this is not a signal of a bad audition. At the end of the audition, students should be gracious and thank the committee.

Being Prepared
    While they are still in high school, encourage students to begin expanding their musical skills and knowledge. The suggestions were offered by current freshman and sophomore music majors when asked what they wish they would have known.
    Taking private lessons as early as possible is important to developing strong skills on the instrument. Participating in school ensembles will not provide the same level of preparation as individual attention and study, and experience in ensembles is insufficient to prepare a student for a college entrance audition.
    In addition to taking private lessons, students should learn to use practice time efficiently and productively. Practice is not playing the same passage repeatedly and mindlessly, but includes goal setting, time management, problem identification and solving, and detail work on technique and repertoire.
    Practice time should not just be spent on solo works and etudes. The fundamentals of playing are extremely important. It is often difficult for a student to understand the level of technical proficiency that is needed to be a successful musician. They must learn to practice long tones, scales, articulation, intervals, lip slurs, and all the other applicable technical exercises. They need to understand that these skills will enable the performance of great music in the future. Two other important components of practice are sightreading and listening to great performers and the important repertoire for their instrument.
   Encourage any potential music majors to take piano lessons as early and as long as possible. Keyboard skills will be useful regardless of which musical path is pursued and can be helpful in studying scores, visualizing music theory, learning music, and playing basic accompaniments. All university music majors should be able to play medium-level piano literature, sight-read basic accompaniments and open scores, and harmonize simple songs in various styles. Students often do not realize until after they leave the university how valuable these skills are, and by then there is rarely time to develop the needed skills.
    All students, including instrumentalists, will have to sing in college. Some colleges require choir participation or voice class for instrumental majors, and the schools without these requirements will still expect students to sing in aural skills classes, applied study, music education courses, conducting class, and rehearsal skill development. If possible, a prospective music major should join a school choir or take voice lessons. It is also beneficial to learn to use solfege fluently. Some skills that students are often required to demonstrate are pitch matching, singing major and minor scales, triads, and arpeggios and sightsinging simple melodies.
    Learning basic music theory is another good way to get a head start. Students should take a high school theory class if possible, or find a music teacher willing to provide some individual tutoring. Ideally, students should be able to read treble and bass clefs, know rhythmic values of notes and rests, identify simple and compound meter signatures and major and minor key signatures. In addition, the ability to both identify and write intervals, triads, and major and minor scales is important.
    Some students are blessed with natural abilities in aural skills, but for everyone else, this can be a long and difficult path to skill development. In college, students will need to be able to identify scale degrees, interval size and quality, types of triads, and chord progressions by ear. Students will also need to be able to write dictated rhythms, melodies, and harmonies.
    While in high school, students should be encouraged to participate in as many large and chamber ensembles as possible, both instrumental and vocal. If there are community organizations such as youth orchestras, bands, or choirs or community ensembles or theater organizations. Performing at local churches is another good option for both instrumentalists and vocalists. Another way to find performance opportunities and get a strong head start on college is to become familiar some of the music technology and software that is available, especially music writing and sound mixing software and equipment.
    One of the most common complaints heard from freshman music majors at any school is that they feel overwhelmed with all that is expected of them. Most college students, but especially music majors, struggle with time management and study skills when first arriving on campus. In addition to the newfound freedom and responsibility that comes with living on their own, music majors also have heavy course loads, requirements for individual practice, and many hours of ensemble rehearsals and performance. Time management skills are imperative. Encourage students to start organizing their lives while still in high school, make sure they know how to use a calendar to track short- and long-term obligations, and work with them on developing daily schedules to include sufficient homework and practice time.
    Study skills take time to develop, but few students learn these skills well, and then they struggle in college. One of the keys to developing good study skills is to be organized. Students must learn to keep track of assignments, due dates, and exams; it is also essential to take notes during lectures, read with comprehension, meet deadlines, and effectively study for exams, especially comprehensive semester exams. Often the best way to teach this is by setting a good example and modeling these traits.

Course Credit
     Once a college has been chosen, one of the most helpful things to do is check the general education requirements of the university to determine if any credits can be transferred in or courses waived due to completed credits in high school. For example, many universities have a foreign language requirement, commonly for two semesters, unless a student took three years of a single foreign language in high school, in which case the requirement is waived. Discuss general education requirements in depth with an advisor as early as possible. Any credits waived or transferred into the university will save time and money on the path toward graduation.

A First Taste
    If a student is thinking of majoring in music education, provide opportunities for them to spend some time examining the profession from your perspective. Students often choose to become music teachers because they enjoy playing or singing in school music ensembles, and they do not fully realize that life as a teacher is quite different. One way teachers can assist students in deciding whether to pursue a career in education is by letting them shadow you in your job. Seeing a band or orchestra director’s daily routine and schedule can be extremely eye opening. It would also benefit the student to shadow other teachers in the district. Also, encourage students to become more involved in the behind-the-scenes work such as organizing the music library, making concert programs, choosing literature, or moving and setting up equipment. Set up opportunities for prospective teachers to work with younger students in the district. This will allow a potential music major opportunities to consider whether teaching is enjoyable and can also be beneficial to younger students receiving additional help on their instrument.
    The decision to become a music educator is an exciting one, however, it is not the profession for everyone and the decision should be an informed one. Overall, the best advice music educators can offer to a student interested in majoring in music is to set goals, work hard, and remember that the love of music is why we do what we do.   

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