photo courtesy of Indiana Wesleyan University
Tips for Aspiring College Flutists
by John McMurtery
John McMurtery is a member of the New York City Opera orchestra, principal flutist of the Peoria Symphony, and a substitute flutist with the Chicago and Detroit symphonies. He is Associate Professor of Flute at Western Illinois University.
The College Audition Process
Visit every school to which you are applying, and take a lesson with each prospective teacher for whom you will audition. Listen carefully to any feedback you get during the lesson, and take their suggestions to heart when practicing. You might even have more confidence later at the audition, knowing what that particular teacher will be listening for. Demonstrating improvement in the areas you worked on in the lesson shows you are teachable, open to suggestions, and work hard. These are all ingredients for success at the college level.
One other bit of advice about preparing for the audition: memorize all of your scales. Most serious high school flutists know their major scales very well, but not as many are as proficient in the three types of minor scale. Knowing all of the scales makes you a better musician and prepares you for your college theory classes. Freshman theory can be a major hurdle for some music majors. I have witnessed many talented musicians drop out of college or change majors after their first year because that one class proved too difficult.
It can be quite a shock to go from one band class every day in high school to a college environment where you might be placed in orchestra, wind ensemble, flute choir, and a chamber ensemble. This will be in addition to the solos, etudes, and excerpts to prepare every week for private lessons and flute studio class. You will be playing and performing a lot. You will also be expected to keep up with academic classes. Many performance majors tend to think their academic classes are less important than their flute practice. This is a mistake.
College often means lots of late nights, irregular eating schedules, and other factors that can affect a student’s health. Some miss a lot of lessons and class time due to health issues that in some cases are preventable. Sleep well, eat well, and get enough exercise, even if you think you don’t have time. You will be much more productive as a result.
Develop a support network of friends, professors, and trusted advisors. Remember that your professors are committed to your development and are invested in your success. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
In high school you worked hard to make your city’s youth orchestra, All-State or All-Region ensembles. You may have been a star player. In college you may find quite a few flutists ahead of you in the pecking order. In the beginning it can be a motivator to practice, but I have noticed that the most successful students develop their own work ethic that comes from the desire to be as prepared as they can for every performance, not just getting a higher chair placement.
In high school if you are a standout player, people will tell you how wonderful and talented you are. Believe them, but also realize there are many wonderful and talented players out there. What separates the successful ones is the ability to keep going, often without many external rewards, for a long period of time. There will be days that you feel on top of the world and are convinced you will have a big career, and other times when you will question why you got involved in music in the first place. Take comfort in knowing that all successful people go through this, and that your ability to ride this emotional wave is an important part of your education as a musician.
Don’t live and die by ensemble seating audition results. Learn from every role you play. Playing second flute well requires a completely different (and just as important) skill set as playing principal. Many flutists don’t enjoy playing piccolo, but if you are asked to do it, just do it. It helps many flute skills, including control, flexibility, and the ability to lead a whole orchestral wind section when necessary. Not to mention it can be great fun.
Much more will be required at this level. A college student often has many more hours a week of ensemble playing than a high school student. The expectations from directors will be much greater. Awareness of one’s role in the ensemble becomes a higher priority, and the ability to problem-solve and work with one’s colleagues should develop to an advanced level. Skills such as refinement of intonation and vibrato become more highly prized.
A good flute is an important investment. The better the flute, the better you will sound, and the more confidence you will have as a performer. Get the best instrument you can afford.
Immerse yourself in the culture of music, both on and off campus. You will most likely be required to attend recitals by students and faculty, but don’t stop there. Attend visiting artist recitals as well as concerts off campus. Hang out with friends who are serious about their musical success. Go hear a local orchestra with friends and discuss the concert afterward. You can hear some incredibly inspired music making, no matter where you live. You will also learn that even the world’s best musicians occasionally make mistakes or have an off night. Everyone is human.
Say yes to as many opportunities as you can. Make friends with composers and perform their music. Volunteer to play in your community. That is how you gain experience, share your music with a wider audience, and maybe even meet people who might help you later in your career.
Finally, realize that you are in charge of your own education. Take a keen interest in learning, and opportunities will come your way, no matter which school you ultimately choose.
by Adah Toland Jones
When flute players audition at Texas State University, I look for three factors: passion, potential and a sense of curiosity or inquisitiveness. I encourage prospective students to meet with me prior to the audition so we get a chance to get to know each other and for them to see if they are comfortable with my teaching style. It also provides an opportunity to give them input about any improvements to be made before auditioning, assess their level of commitment, and evaluate their flexibility in trying new concepts.
Many students have had little to no private instruction and have experienced only what their high school band has to offer. Some do take part in Region Band or Orchestra, at times progressing through to Area and All-State. There is also the opportunity in most schools to participate in solo and ensemble contests. These are all opportunities that can broaden their musical experiences.
Success at the high school level, while an important factor, does not always translate to success at the college level. Many of my students excelled in high school and were first chair in their bands. Now at the college level, the bar is much higher. At most high schools in Texas, flute students work on three etudes chosen for region band auditions and then possibly one solo and/or one ensemble piece for the solo and ensemble contest in the spring. The amount of time spent on these, especially the three etudes, is extraordinary. The required etudes are announced at the end of July and the auditions are usually in November or early December. Numerous clinics are given across the state, and there are performance guides available online. These etudes are very difficult, and some students are trying to learn them without any private instruction leaving the door open for learning bad habits. Solos are sometimes chosen quite late, and often students pursue repertoire that may not be appropriate for their level of development. My advice for these students is to contact local teachers in their area who would be willing to help in the preparations.
Lessons on one’s instrument at the college level, usually referred to as Applied Music, will be a main focus for all music majors. The difference in expectations will probably include the following: The amount of preparation involved will increase substantially. Mini-mum practice time will most likely be two hours a day. The expected amount of repertoire to be covered in each lesson and throughout the semester will also increase. For example, a freshman may be required to prepare two to three etudes a week and possibly parts or all of one to two solos. Scale requirements will be rigorous and include memorizing all major and minor scales and arpeggios. Development of technique will include learning various patterns and warm-ups either through the use of various books such as Taffanel and Gaubert, Maquarre Daily Exercises or Reichert Seven Daily Exercises and ones written by the professor.
Besides musical expectations, students should also be prepared to attend numerous concerts, listen to recordings regularly, research composers and styles and read articles online or in flute journals such as Flute Talk and The Flutist Quarterly. Students will be encouraged to venture beyond knowledge of the flute and to listen to other musicians, absorbing their approach to sound, phrasing and overall musicality. Being intellectually inquisitive is a valuable attribute that will lead students to a more in-depth and informed understanding of composers and musical styles.
When teaching flute pedagogy, I start each semester with a discussion of the qualities of a good teacher, which I find are also qualities of a good student. It is a substantial list, and I have revised this into two short lists. The first are all words that start with the letter P. After doing this for several years, I found a similar list in a book by Peter Loel Boonshaft titled Teaching with Passion, Purpose and Promise. To start your thinking about these qualities, start with these P words: Persistent, Proud, Patient, Poised, Positive, Prepared, and Passionate. Some other words that are important include Flexible, Enthusiastic, Committed, Consistent, Organized, Receptive, Open-minded, Diligent, Creative, Reliable, and Eager.
As students prepare for their college experience, keep in mind these ideas. Be prepared. Bring all materials to your lesson. Complete assignments in a timely manner meeting all deadlines. Be prompt and ready to go. Greet your teacher with a smile. Be honest and tell your teacher if you have not practiced something rather than trying to bluff your way through. Be open, curious and willing to try new things. Try to develop your own personality in your playing. Communicate with your teacher and work together to set and reach reasonable goals. Treat your teacher and colleagues with respect, tolerance and kindness. Keep focused and concentrate on the task at hand. Try to maintain a positive attitude. Enjoy your lessons and focus on the effort and process as well as the end result. Trust your teacher and respect their time and commitment. Be your own best friend in your practice sessions, lessons and performances. Relish your successes no matter how small.
It is also important to take care of your physical and mental health in this transition period. Being on a college campus is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people, explore a new area, and enjoy activities that are available. However, the rigors of studying music, or any major, can take their toll through lack of sleep, change of diet, stress, and pressure to meet demands and expectations. Trying to handle this new lifestyle on your own can be overwhelming at times.
Make connections with upperclassmen who have been through similar experiences and seek help through the many resources that are available for students at all universities. Do not be afraid to ask for help and be sure to communicate with someone you trust about your feelings and concerns.
Enjoy this time in your life as it will establish your path forward and help you to grow as a person and a musician.
by Wendy Webb Kumer
The attributes of a good player are well defined. No matter what the level, they will include tone, articulation, intonation, rhythm, phrasing, colors, dynamics, tempo, etc. Striving to perfect these areas at every stage during your formative years will aid in quick progression to high technical proficiency. Sixty years ago, teachers kept students on shorter leashes, and by age 18 many were skilled in scales, etudes, and technique but played only Handel Sonatas as their solo repertoire. Today, Mozart Concerto in G often is introduced in middle school. Bach Sonatas are on contest lists for high school, as well as Burton’s Sonatina and the Taktakishvili Sonata. The times have changed, but the measure for excellence has been consistent. Players are judged on how well and beautifully they play, while factoring in the difficulty levels.
High school students who sit first chair in their band, win a spot in MEA festival bands, and even go to state still will need a private teacher to navigate the college audition process. The typically required two contrasting pieces and excerpts should be chosen carefully and polished to a shine. Most school-aged flutists take a 30 or even 45-minute lesson each week. This bumps up to one hour per week when stepping onto a college campus. Preparing that much music, consistently, every week can be daunting. A responsible private teacher will help ease that transition starting as early as the freshman or sophomore year of high school by assigning more music, requiring more practice time, and striving toward excellence in every area of playing. I like to treat all of my students who exhibit an obvious love for playing and practicing as potential music majors.
Taking them as far as they can go until they reach college is a good plan for every student. There is no need to wait for them to decide to become a flute major – just take them there. They can decide later, even much later, if their skill sets and practicing habits are in place. In my earlier years of teaching, I would wait for the student to ask about majoring in music. By the time they did, it was often too late to get them ready.
For college auditions, choose repertoire that the student learned long ago, junior year or even earlier. It has to sound confident and steady, the way a piece matures only when it has settled into the mind and muscles. A new piece is like a shiny penny – really appealing and not as boring as that old stuff – but the judges will know that it was worked on for only a few lessons. They will hear the insecurity and all of the flaws. If a piece is older and has been performed for competitions, there will be fewer surprises and present a truer picture of how well a student plays. Sloppy newness never impresses. Make sure the technical difficulty level of the chosen repertoire matches the current playing level. Too easy will undervalue a student and too difficult will highlight flaws. When choosing contrasting pieces, choose from different time periods, tempos, textures, keys, and meters.
From a high school band room to a college orchestra is quite a leap. To help bridge this gap I like to expose students to the highest levels of playing as early as possible. I start with group classes for all ages and levels. We all play together and concentrate on a single skill – trills, breathing, vibrato, intonation, tone, colors, etc. Then I take them to recitals of college flute majors, college faculty, and symphony players. If they are interested in competing at any level beyond the school program, I start them as young as possible. Look for elementary, middle, and high school division competitions at local flute festivals, MTNA state, division and national, and NFA. Take students to try flutes at a regional store, at festivals, and at the convention. Do everything to get them to expand their horizons beyond the local school. I also encourage summer music camps and festivals where they will meet students from everywhere. The more they experience live flute music being played by others and themselves, the more mature their own playing will become, and their expectations will evolve toward realistic goals.
Choose an appropriate list of potential colleges. If a student is good, but takes only a 30-minute lesson each week, plays basketball, swims, and is on a robotics team, it is a safe bet that Juilliard is not in his future. Match each student to the school, flute teacher, and department. Start talking about this early on in high school. Find out if they want a large state school with a marching band or a school that will let them minor in journalism. A small, intimate department with picnics in the professor’s backyard or a larger program where they can remain more anonymous until ready to emerge. It is a big world with plenty of choices so it helps to narrow the field. Visiting these schools will help make these decisions clearer. Summer camps at prospective colleges are a good way to get a feel for the campuses.
Make sure your students pay attention. Have them be alert always. At each lesson, introduce them to the student before and after their lesson. At competitions, make time to listen to all of the other competitors in their age category and beyond. Greet them and meet their parents and accompanists. The students they hear and meet at these events will turn up at summer flute classes, future auditions, and competitions. They will become their colleagues in college and will serve with them on committees when they volunteer for NFA. These are their flute friends for life – students with a similar intense interest, commitment, and drive.
Going from top dog at the best high school to a lowly freshman at a far-away music school need not be traumatic if a student is prepared musically, competitively, and socially, and is ready to work hard at a level several notches higher in time and intensity. Have students attend music major for a day programs at local colleges, take a lesson with a potential future teacher, join the Facebook page of a flute department, contact current flute majors at their favorite schools, and stay in touch with other flute majors from their school who are music majors. Prepare them to be last chair in the lowest band and at the same time to be first chair in the wind ensemble. As long as there is a seat, there is a place from which to learn and improve.
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by Julia Bogorad-Kogan
I include a study of Baroque ornamentation, and then we examine how in later periods of music, ornamentation was incorporated into the music by the composers themselves. We study a Mozart concerto in this regard before applying the concept to later works. They go on to explore the French conservatory pieces and then the many other genres of music that incorporate these concepts of phrasing, structure and musical language, albeit in different styles. Even as we forge into twentieth century and contemporary works, I like to continue working with the students to find musical language and gesture. My goal is to help students notice both innovations and the ways in which almost everything we play rests on a musical tradition that came before.
As students work on all of these concepts, mindful practice is important. Twenty minutes spent concentrating on a beautiful new way of playing is much more effective than five hours of mediocre practice. The unique factor in teaching talented high school students is that they need to interrupt this aforementioned education long enough to perfect their college audition pieces for immediate performance.
For college students, in addition to the above curriculum, I put an emphasis on gaining a strong familiarity with orchestral excerpts. When I auditioned at age 22 for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, I passed each round until I was the only candidate standing, but the audition committee was not entirely convinced. They asked me to come back the next day and play something completely different. Luckily, in my two years of excerpt classes with James Pellerite at Indiana University, we had studied and memorized virtually an entire excerpt book, so at my final audition, I played through page after page of the excerpt book, just as I was used to doing in class. This won me my job. I want to give my students the same sense of security as they head into auditions.
This technical security, important as it is, is only one factor in learning a piece. The experience of repeated listening to a new piece, coming to understand and perhaps love it, is a joy similar to reading a great novel. I direct students to the great wealth of performances available online. While many students show great virtuosity in the standard excerpts, they often need a much greater familiarity with the piece as a whole. For example, rarely do I find a student working on the Brahms Symphony No. 4, fourth movement solo who can sing the opening eight measures of that movement and recognize the passacaglia form. Students are also unlikely to correctly identify the instrumental accompaniment to J.S. Bach’s aria Aus Liebe as being only two oboes da caccia, and few students have noted the strategic positioning of that particular aria in the drama played out in the St. Matthew Passion.
Practicing only an excerpt is like learning only your lines in a play without knowing what the other actor is answering back to you or the plot of the play. How can you possibly give a meaningful rendition of your lines?
I also help students find recordings of the great performers of the past. They should know, for example, David Oistrakh, Pablo Casals, and William Kincaid. I feel an urgency to pass on this musical heritage to a new generation, so well-versed technically but seemingly springing out of a test tube rather than from the fertile ground of the past.
I empathize with my students. It can be daunting preparing for auditions in this age of ever greater technical prowess. Yet it is through gaining intimacy with the music itself that we experience why it is that we play.