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Preparing For College

compiled by editors | October 2016

photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan University

    Seven college flute professors from a variety of schools around the country offer advice for high school flutists and their teachers to help students prepare for auditions and select the best school for them. 

How and when should students start preparing for a college audtion?

Heidi Álvarez (Western Kentucky University): Start researching differences between programs and learn about various flute professors during junior year. All schools have great flute teachers, so it really comes down to which school is the best fit for you. Some considerations might include location and what the music program is like, including difficulty, graduation rate, job placement, and cost. A campus visit is important because it allows you to take a flute lesson with the professor, tour the campus, and meet students at the school. Be aware that the application process includes some financial costs to consider saving for, including application fees, upgrading your instrument, purchasing audition repertoire, audition application fees, recording engineers for a preliminary taped round, travel expenses, and lessons with flute teachers. 
    Make a list of the audition repertoire for each school and keep all of the audition music in one place. Then learn the music early – at least a year in advance. Be picky and use this as an opportunity to improve your playing. Play mock auditions in front of as many people as you can prior to the audition and seek feedback from them. Record your practice sessions.
    During the year prior to college, I meticulously analyzed every note and every phrase as I practiced. I spent countless hours working on the technical areas of each piece and experimented continuously with note lengths, dynamics, color shadings, breath control, and phrase nuances. I took copious notes during lessons, listened to recordings of each piece, studied the full scores, and practiced with an accompanist. In practice sessions, I rarely played through an entire piece from start to finish.
    A few months before the actual audition, I practiced run-throughs for endurance and for visualizing myself standing in front of the audition committee and playing well. Consistent daily victories are what yield successful audition experiences. Students begin preparation for a college audition whenever they pick up the flute. My advice for aspiring musicians is to live in the moment, put the full spirit into every second of every practice session, and treat every practice session like it is the audition itself.
    Schedule auditions with the flute professor or undergraduate music auditions coordinator early fall of senior year as many institutions have December 1 application deadlines. Make travel plans well in advance and plan ahead and make a list of things to pack so that you are not scrambling and feeling stressed out right before the audition. Plane tickets, money, maps, professional-looking attire (dress in layers to adjust for temperature variances), flute, and flute music as the most important things on this list.

Naomi Seidman (Pennsylvania State University): I find that the summer before junior year in high school, when students often have fewer commitments, is a great time to get serious about college auditions. If you do not have a private flute teacher, now is the time to get started with private weekly lessons. Repertoire requirements for auditions at each school usually do not change from year to year, so you can easily figure out what to work on.
    Make contact with flute professors at the schools you are interested in. Start with an email to introduce yourself, ask some questions about the program (if there are pre-screening requirements you can clarify any questions at this time), and inquire about a sample lesson. If possible, attend concerts (live or online via streaming). Look up degree options and double major opportunities, and check the tuition costs. To prepare for performing under pressure at the live audition, take any opportunity to perform, solo or in an ensemble. If you have scheduled a sample lesson with a teacher, it is a good idea to schedule the lesson well in advance of your audition so that you can show great improvement between the lesson and audition.

Leonard Garrison (University of Idaho): Priority admission and scholarship deadlines are sooner than many realize. Most schools require applications, including auditions, to be completed by the end of February or even earlier. Applicants should choose repertoire in the summer before the audition year. Flutists wishing to major in music should take private lessons. In addition to repertoire required for auditions, lessons should cover basic tone and technique, including memorized scales and arpeggios in the full range of the flute. Learn how to play with piano accompaniment, balancing with and cueing the pianist.

Hideko Amano (Carthage College, Harper College): Start as early as junior year. It is important to go on college visits and attend summer camps. Students interested in a performance major should meet the professors and have lessons with them. Check the school’s required repertoire lists and start learning the repertoire junior year. Try to narrow down the schools and teachers you want to study with. Being realistic about your playing level will lead to a shorter path to finding a college and a teacher appropriate for you.

Elizabeth Buck (Arizona State University): I think preparing for a college audition should go hand-in-hand with applying to colleges. Many people advise looking into colleges by the junior year of high school so that once senior year is upon them, they have a pretty good idea of where they might like to apply. This is true for college music auditions. While one could theoretically start preparing for a college audition freshman year, it is better to explore your interests and passions and have fun in high school. At age 17 students often work more productively in six months than they would have at 15, due to mature focus, concentration, and passion. I believe that auditioning for colleges and preparing for that eventuality should occur when students are absolutely sure that they want to study music.

Tara Helen O’Connor (Purchase College, Bard College, Manhattan School of Music): An athlete preparing for the Olympics would not begin training a few months prior to the event. The same is true for musicians. Learning the demanding repertoire takes concentrated slow practice over a number of years. For example, if you have to play the Mozart concerto, start learning it at least a year in advance. While you are learning the flute part, study the score to understand the harmony. Perform the piece before the audition as it will increase your confidence. When taking auditions or planning repertoire for competitions, select seasoned repertoire that shows your strengths. When I listen to auditions, I focus on beauty of sound, pitch, intonation, rhythm, vibrato and technical facility, but I also listen for what the player has to say musically. I can hear if a student understands the style, harmony, and score. It is simply not enough to just play what is on the page correctly. Convey an emotional support of the music, with good musical taste.

Kim McCormick (University of South Florida, Tampa): Students should begin looking into programs that interest them by at least sophomore year and really think about their career goals. Different schools are a better fit depending on whether students want to become professional players, teachers, or just want music as an important extracurricular activity. Some students may not know what they want yet and should consider other careers in and outside of music.
    Begin by visiting the websites of several colleges. Ask advice from professionals such as a school music teacher, private teacher, or other musicians you know. By junior year, try to narrow the search to about five or six schools. Take advantage of opportunities such as a summer band camp or masterclass at a school or with a flute professor you are interested in. These provide a great opportunity to find out about institutions, teachers and to meet other students. Sign up for a campus tour, and if possible sit in on classes and rehearsals. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you do not understand the audition requirements, email the professor to ask. Students should try if at all possible to take regular private lessons on their instrument. Most admissions are determined by the audition process with the applied music faculty. Because of this, lessons are a worthwhile investment. Competition is fierce, tuition is high, and money spent on lessons will pay off in the long run.

What is the biggest playing problem you see with incoming students?

Buck: One of the biggest concerns that I have when working with incoming freshman flutists is the need to be correct and to be right. For them playing the flute is all about getting the right notes and the correct rhythm. Sound is often a byproduct of this mentality, suffering from negligence and inattention, as the student is primarily concerned with hitting all the right notes in the fastest time possible. Many states, in fact, assess players on their technical ability, which is easiest to distinguish by speed and accuracy of notes. Those students who decide to major in music should think about music and not just the notes. Music is sound, creativity, and expression.

Garrison: Students from rural areas often have not had flute lessons – their only experience is playing in band. Many have a marching band stance with feet together and flute held stiffly parallel to the torso. They benefit from adopting a more open and natural posture. A tight, inflexible embouchure is common, and improper fingerings, especially in the high register, are legion. Good intonation has not yet been addressed, and high notes are especially sharp. I am amazed that some students with so little background can become excellent flutists during their college years. 

Amano: The incoming freshmen I teach usually come from a high-level teachers’ studio, but occasionally I feel that their repertoire list is quite short and not as advanced as it should be. I would like students to have learned more pieces from Flute Music by French Composers during their high school years. I often find that they need to improve their tone development and use books by Trevor Wye, Marcel Moyse and Phillipe Bernold for this.

Seidman: The most common problems I see are bad habits that directly affect flute fundamentals, thereby limiting students’ ability to play to their potential. In the first semester, I address tone, vibrato, intonation, technique, articulation and posture. I often use Trevor Wye’s Practice Books for the Flute: Omnibus Edition Books 1-5 (published by Novello) as well as Paul Edmund-Davies’ The 28 Day Warm Up Book (published by Carolyn Nussbaum Music), to help students tune into the fundamentals to create a well-rounded flutist and performer.  

Álvarez: As a university flute professor at a public regional university, I find that many incoming music education majors lack sufficient pre-college guidance. Many freshman flutists have an interest in teaching music, but they have not had regular private instruction prior to college. Because of this, the majority of my students begin their undergraduate studies without a balanced practice regimen, without a developed or disciplined grounding in fundamental concepts of musicianship, and without basic materials such as a sheet music library and a college-level instrument.  

McCormick: The biggest issue with regard to the physical aspects of playing has to do with tone and good intonation. Coordination of the body and embouchure in tone production are usually underdeveloped. Even though many have an appropriate embouchure which produces a basic nice tone quality, it lacks flexibility. Breath support is uneven, so there are significant intonation problems. Many lack the ability to control the sound and pitch at every dynamic level. Students should be taught how to listen, the importance of correcting this problem, and how to do it.

O’Connor: Incoming freshmen often have problems in the basic fundamentals of their playing: most notably breathing, support and posture. These basic intertwined fundamentals affect every aspect of playing. Often, students will do whatever they can to get enough air in to produce a desired sound. This includes raising the shoulders and arching the back when taking in air to play the flute. This, of course, is a disaster as it stretches and tightens the very muscles that in a relaxed state would normally allow proper inhalation. The gasping student is then left with a significantly reduced amount of air and a greatly reduced ability to play long well supported phrases. Students also are confused about what supporting the tone actually entails. Support is a word that is often discussed, but when I ask what it means, students are usually not able to describe it. The muscles used during inhalation oppose the muscles used in exhalation and that resistance is the definition of support. There is a wonderful article in The Flutist’s Handbook: A Pedagogy Anthology (published by the National Flute Association) by flutist Ransom Wilson called “Breathing: The Central Issue Of Flute Playing.” I ask my students to read it as it clearly and succinctly describes what needs to happen when breathing. Wilson describes what a relaxed breath feels like, the concept of support, what the muscles are doing in this process, and how to practice this.

What are the most common gaps in their training?

McCormick: Incoming students are used to being closely supervised by their parents and educators. Their entire daily schedule was mostly mapped out for them. For the first time they suddenly have quite a bit of independence and must make choices and learn to organize their time carefully. Time management is often a struggle. As a high school student, music may have been a high priority but now it takes on a more significant role as their major. A common problem is putting it all together. This means setting goals and a practice routine that will help them to accomplish those goals.
     Some high schools cover theory as part of their curriculum but most do not. Students come in with very uneven backgrounds in this area. Many know major scales much better than minor scales. Band music is mostly in flat keys so sharp keys are less familiar. I find that sightreading and rhythmic accuracy are one of the biggest gaps in their backgrounds. Even many students from strong high school band programs have not learned to read well. They rely on playing by ear. Mixed meter and complicated rhythmic patterns are tasks for which they are not well-prepared. They have to be taught how to work out these solutions on their own. The concept of really studying the score while listening to it and knowing it as well as their own part is a skill that must be developed.

O’Connor: I find that most students learn the flute part in isolation without understanding how it fits into the bigger musical picture of the whole score. One favorite example is in the Mozart G major concerto just before the closing phrase in the exposition, in measure 77. There is a scale-wise motion from E on the staff to the D above the staff in eighth notes. Often flutists will make a diminuendo to the top because they think it sounds nice, and it feels like an ending cadence. In fact, those eighth notes lead to the violins who finish the phrase five beats later. Without studying the score, it is easy to make the wrong choice. By playing the flute part and then the violin part, you get the right perspective on the dynamic shape. Students also do not recognize phrase structure. They do not see logical patterns and breathe in random places that obscure the musical idea, such as right before a cadence. This is like breathing before the last syllable of the last word of a sentence. Students laugh when I demonstrate this. I then remind them that music is a sensible language constructed of musical ideas that should have proper punctuation.

Garrison: Few eighteen-year-olds have learned that music is a language that has its own expressive meaning. They seem oblivious of harmony and the need for dissonance to resolve. They breathe capriciously without regard for phrasing. Few are curious about expressive indications in Italian, French, or German and have not been taught to look them up. They are unaware of the stylistic differences between Bach, Mozart, Debussy, and Muczynski. A troublesome trend is that many people value originality of interpretation over respect for a composer’s intentions, resulting in sometimes inappropriate interpretive choices.

Amano: My students usually come from excellent teachers, so I do not see major gaps, but sometimes I feel we need to spend too much time working on scales and arpeggios. Students should learn the Taffanel et Gaubert Grand Daily Exercises No. 4 and 10 in high school. These exercises are essential in learning the flute, and by conquering  them at young age, it will help them play new repertoire more easily.

Buck: Much depends on whether students have had private lessons, where their teacher studied, and whether they listen to classical music. There are enormously talented students who simply cannot afford private lessons, yet they listen to music and observe YouTube and online instruction, while others work very hard with established teachers. No matter what the background, a love for music, broader than just a love for flute, is often what distinguishes the most promising students.

Seidman: Musical expression is often a problem. Students often major in music because of inspirational experiences in high school band or orchestra. They are used to being led by wonderful music educators and have rarely performed solo or chamber works. Because of this they tend to lack musical autonomy. I try to build this by working on phrasing, inflection, and musical exposure. I also make sure they have many opportunities to perform solo works in recitals and masterclasses.
    Students also often struggle with time management. While in high school, they divided their time between many extra-curricular activities and could only dedicate an hour per day at most to practicing. In college they have much more time to practice. Deciding what to practice and for how long can be a completely new concept. With some scheduling advice and practice logs this issue is quickly resolved.

Álvarez: Most of my students have never had private instruction, so they have an abundance of untapped, undiscovered, unrefined potential. I often start by helping them develop a work ethic through a regular and consistent practice regimen that can be quite difficult for some. Weekly assignments of scales, etudes, and repertoire are specific prescriptions, and often students are expected to prepare more music than we have time to cover in a single lesson.
    Many college freshmen lack the ability to look ahead to what comes next and figure out what actions are necessary to fulfill various goals. In week one, I assist new students with organization and planning. We discuss basic things such as where to order music, how to use electronic discography databases, how to fill out electronic forms for performing on student recitals, how to fill out jury forms, how to develop and design a resume, bio, and repertoire list, and how to secure an accompanist. I ask them to write flute event dates in their calendars and to write down in their calendar which three hours each day will be used for practicing flute.     

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More Tips for Success
Garrison: Perform in as many situations and as often as possible including solos, band, orchestra, chamber music, and competitions. Listen to a great variety of music – and not just through ear buds while doing other things. Go to as many live performances as possible and observe how professionals act on stage and relate to audiences. Find a friend to sightread duets with regularly. Learn to play piano. You will develop a better understanding of harmony, learn to read bass clef, and perhaps be waived from some piano class requirements in college. Sing in a choir and learn solfege. Take a music theory class. If your high school offers it, take the AP Theory curriculum and test. This could allow you to skip the first year of college theory. Take AP courses in other subjects to open up time in your college schedule to focus on practicing and performing. 

O’Connor: The repertoire you are learning now includes pieces that will stay with you for life. Your practice is not just for the upcoming auditions; it is for you and your aspirations in your art. Learn each piece with the best habits and concentrated attention. Unlearning something is much harder than learning it properly the first time. Inspiration can come from the most unexpected discoveries. Learn about works created at the same time as your repertoire. Listen to great singers like Jessye Norman and Dawn Upshaw to develop your ear and aesthetic. Draw inspiration from other sources. It could be an article on posture that suddenly clicks in your mind when you pick up the flute. It could be releasing a volleyball serve that gives you the feeling of releasing a phrase into the air. Life is music. 

Amano: Make sure you have the passion and dedication to make music your life’s work. Musicians do not have time off as often as other occupations. They work nights, weekends, and holidays. Teaching can last until late at night. This career is for those who are willing to sacrifice a normal lifestyle and be happy and passionate about it. 

Buck: Study hard and don’t let your academics slide. Successful flute students who go on in the profession are often the ones who excel in other subjects. Students who have good time management and study skills do better. The more knowledge you gain, the more you can reflect that in your music. Plato said, “The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life.” So be open, be broad-minded and be creative when playing the flute. Study hard and work hard and then see where the future lies.

Seidman: Try it out. Summer music programs are a great way to get an idea of what it would be like to be a music major. Many schools offer a summer study program where students live in the dorms and work with the school’s faculty. Also, don’t be afraid to major in music. Collaboration, performing under pressure, listening, communication and time management are just a few of the skills you will learn as a music major, and they are attractive to employers in many fields. There are no guarantees of a job in any career, so if playing the flute feeds your soul, give yourself the chance to pursue it.

Álvarez: First and foremost, make a commitment to being a disciplined individual who religiously practices long tones, scales, etudes, solo repertoire, and duets three or four hours every day. In addition to rigorous practicing, seek venues that foster a love of teaching and performing. In high school I practiced four hours a day, taught twenty private students a week and performed at local churches, parties, and retirement homes. What I did then shaped and defined who I am now. Surround yourself with great instruction. Seek every opportunity to improve and deepen your understanding of music. In addition to private lessons, participate in chamber music, competitions, local youth ensembles, and summer music camps. Finally, continue to engage in daily activities outside of music that nurture the soul. The best musicians I know are happy, well-rounded people who have a variety of creative and academic interests outside of music.

McCormick: Audition at several schools. It is best not to limit yourself to just one or two choices. Many schools have quotas on enrollment. The year you audition, your first choice may have few openings, or you may discover that they have limited scholarship funds. You should also maintain a high grade point average throughout high school because no matter how brilliantly you play, you may not be accepted at certain universities if your grades are not good enough. (High grades also will help with scholarship offers.) Be flexible and keep as many doors open as possible. At age 18 it is nearly impossible to determine exactly where your career will take you.

Heidi Álvarez is professor of music at Western Kentucky University, the treasurer and a board member for the Flute Society of Kentucky, and second flute in the Orchestra Kentucky Bowling Green. Álvarez holds degrees in flute performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music (BM) and from the Florida State University (MM and DM).

Hideko Amano is an adjunct professor at Carthage College and Harper College. She was on the faculty at DePaul University from 2003-2007. She maintains a successful studio for high school students and teaches at the Midwest Young Artist Conservatory. 

Elizabeth Buck is the professor of flute at Arizona State University. Previously she was a visiting associate professor of flute at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and principal flute of the Phoenix Symphony. Buck is a graduate of The Juilliard School (BM, MM) and earned a DMA from Rice University.

Leonard Garrison is associate director of and associate professor of flute in the Lionel Hampton School of Music at the University of Idaho. He is Program Chair for the 2017 NFA Convention in Minneapolis.

Kim McCormick is professor of flute at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She maintains an active career as soloist and chamber musician and holds a DMA from the University of North Texas.

Tara Helen O’Connor is a two-time Grammy nominee, a season artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a member of the woodwind quintet Windscape, and a Wm. S. Haynes flute artist. She is an associate professor of flute, head of the woodwinds department, and the coordinator of Classical Music Studies at Purchase College School of the Arts Conservatory of Music and is on the faculty of Bard College Conservatory of Music, the Contemporary Performance Program at Manhattan School of Music and is a visiting artist, teacher and coach at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto

Naomi Seidman is assistant professor of flute at the Pennsylvania State University and a member of the Pennsylvania Quintet. She has won numerous solo competitions, founded the Penn State Flute Day, and is a Powell Flutes Master Teacher.