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The College Process for Music Students

Mary Stolper | October 2017

    The whole process of researching schools, having a trial lesson, selecting audition compositions, filling out application materials, securing letters of recommendation, writing an essay, taking the audition, and, once accepted, making the final selection, takes time. Music students should start early in the summer before junior year. Here are some suggestions to help you navigate the process.

Narrowing the Choices
    Most students select a school based on who the flute teacher is and how much scholarship money is offered. However, there are other things to consider. If you love quiet, then a large city environment might not be for you and vice versa. The size of the school, from large to very small, is another thing to consider. If you need a job, then select a school and city where there will be employment opportunities.
    The summer before junior year or early in the fall of junior year, schedule campus visits and arrange for a trial lesson with the flute professor. This offers the chance to see if you work well with a teacher. I always loved trial lessons as it helped me see if I was interested in teaching the flutist. Be aware that when you come for the real audition in your senior year, teachers likely will notice if you have made the improvements they asked for in the trial lesson.
    Most students apply to several schools – perhaps as many as five. You may have a couple of favorites. While one or two of them may be a bit out of reach, at least one should be more of a sure bet. If you have not thought about this, take the time to look at your wish list of schools and rate them one to five before sending in your applications. All of them should be places that you want to attend, even if you do not get into your dream school. You do not want to be in a position where you do not get into any of your harder schools and are left with only the option of going to a school you do not really like. Don’t let your ego get caught up in the idea that you can only go to particular schools. There are many wonderful colleges and teachers, and the important things is to find those that are a good fit for your skills, personality, and goals.

Audition Preparation

    Selecting the right audition repertoire is an important consideration. Ask your private teacher, band, or orchestra director for advice. Carefully read the guidelines offered by the schools and make your selections to show your strengths. Usually lists will require a concerto, sonata, etudes, and solo pieces. Many schools do not provide a pianist for the audition, so be prepared to perform both with and without accompaniment. If the required list is just a general guideline, pick a Baroque sonata and another piece from the standard repertoire. If you are auditioning many places, try to select pieces that will meet several schools’ requirements.
    In selecting specific works think about your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a beautiful tone, select a piece to show it off. If you have good speed and accuracy, then pick something that shows this area of technique. Each of the pieces does not need to be the most difficult one from that genre. Consider several works that you have performed before as you may not have as much practice time as you would like. Once the repertoire has been decided and learned, practice performing this music by presenting a recital or perhaps performing at an assisted living facility.
    Some schools require a pre-screening video or recording. Use high-quality equipment, and the recording should be made with accompaniment, so plan well in advance to hire and rehearse with the accompanist.

The Audition
    Be sure to arrive early to allow time for a good warmup. Get plenty of rest, dress sensibly and appropriately, and have something to eat before the audition. Each professor has different criteria for what he or she is listening for in an audition, but most want a flutist who will be a good fit for the studio and is teachable. I look for students who have strong basics, including rhythm, technique and musicianship. Rhythm is number one on my list as it overwhelmingly pertains to a student’s ability to work with others. I want students who are even and steady and clearly show they can subdivide (rubatos, ritards, holding together technical passages). Rhythm should be exact, and students should show that they can execute what is on the printed page. This shows the professor a lot about your practice habits and discipline. The music you select should allow you to demonstrate a basic ability to subdivide and play evenly, or you will not move forward in the admission process. Expressing a musical line along with rhythm is more subjective when you are performing a solo piece, or a piece with great variation, but if you cannot perform a section of technical beats correctly in an etude, I assume you do not understand basic rhythm. Be aware you are competing against other flutists who have the discipline and skill to play accurately.
    Another area of concern is where and how you take a breath. Most college teachers know that this is an area that many students need further work to improve. During an audition, I may ask students to take a breath in different places just to see if they can do it and make the changes quickly. I may also ask them to increase the speed of the air or slow it down while keeping the pitch to see how aware they are of breathing skills.
    During the audition, I look at students’ embouchures. There are many embouchure styles that work just fine, and there are some that just keep students from playing their best. This may be a huge factor in the decision of teachers who know they will have to spend several quarters or semesters fixing this problem. Look at your embouchure now and talk to your teacher about it.
    I also assess posture – both total body and hand position. If you have not worked on this, talk with your teacher. Developing good body awareness will improve your performance. Be aware that auditioners could ask you to play standing up or sitting down, so be prepared to do both.
    Everyone is nervous, and that is taken into consideration. However, for the most part, the people listening can tell who is not prepared and who is just nervous.

    This is one of the most difficult parts of the process. Every school has a given number of students they can accept. Generally, there are many more flutists auditioning than other instrumentalists. Schools want to offer each student the best ensemble experience possible, so this limits the number of flutists that they can accept.
    If you are accepted, you were given a vote of confidence by the attending faculty to be invited into the studio. The faculty feels that you will change, grow and progress in accordance with the flute studio format.
    If you were denied, it was because they felt you did not fit the school or teacher well and most likely judged that you could not keep up with the level of the studio and school ensembles. Teachers do not want to accept students who will constantly be struggling to catch up. Try not to take this personally, but rather as a signal that this school or teacher was just not a good fit for you, and another college is more likely to help you grow and develop.
    The dreaded wait list often has more to do with money than it does with you. Try not to panic and do not be upset. Know you played well enough to be considered by that school’s program and the teacher thought that you were a good fit. Sometimes a person is wait-listed because the school is waiting for someone who placed higher than you in the audition to make a decision. 

Transfer Students
    For flute students who want to change schools, this is a tough road. Many schools will not take transfers. Adding another sophomore or junior to a studio and getting their class work up to the right level requires many issues to be resolved. It is often less about your playing, but more about whether they need a fourth junior, have the money, and feel this new student fits well into the studio mix. If you truly want out of your present school, then be persistent and know that is difficult but possible. 

    College is a time of tremendous learning, practicing, and understanding who you are and where you wish to be in the future. Finding the right school can be tough. After looking at all of the information and talking to your parents and teachers, it sometimes boils down to a gut feeling about where you want to attend, especially if you are accepted into multiple schools.  Good luck as you set forth on this exciting journey.