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Freshman Fear: Acing the Transition

Emily Theobald | September 2013

    Looking forward to the dawn of my senior year in college, I find myself reflecting on the past three years wondering, “What if?” What would I have done differently in high school if I could go back and do it all over again? How would this have changed my college experience? I share my experiences about the expectations of college and how to best begin preparations in high school. 

Math Might Matter
    One of the most common misconception of high school students going on to study music performance at a university is that music is the only thing that matters and that academic performance is secondary. Music students are often shocked to find that many colleges do place a heavy value on a student’s overall academic performance in high school and on standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT.
    Many music majors come to regret putting academic performance on the back burner in high school. A number of colleges will not even offer a student an audition until he or she has passed rigorous academic screening. In addition to the admission process, solid high school performance often allows university students earlier class enrollment times, as well as options to study in other fields. A strong high school academic record will pay off in both admissions decisions and scholarship offers. 

Learn from Youth Orchestra
    Many aspiring professionals understand the importance of youth orchestra to their musical development, as well as to their resumes. However, many youth orchestra members do not realize that they are unlikely to get as much orchestral experience in college as they did in high school. While youth orchestras are a nurturing environment, aimed more toward the goal of learning rather than the goal of a concert in two weeks, college orchestras are a much more business-oriented environment. Most youth orchestras rehearse weekly for a few months before each concert with two to four concerts each year, and every member plays on every concert. In most collegiate settings, students are rotated through the ensemble, so you may only get one or two opportunities to play in orchestra each semester. My advice is to savor every moment of youth orchestra.

Make Piano Painless
    From my own personal experience, the number one thing I would change about my preparation for college would be my lack of piano skills. At my university, freshman start piano study in the second year of piano because it is assumed that they have had some exposure to piano. While reading notes and rhythms was not an issue, mastering the use of two independent hands, memorizing various chord progressions, and improvising and sightreading requirements left many of us struggling. My weekends often were spent practicing piano eight hours a day leaving little time for flute and other assignments. Had I known beforehand how strenuous the piano requirements were for freshmen, I would have certainly prepared over the summer. I recommend taking private lessons in high school to ease the transition into a group piano class, where the necessary amount of individual attention is nearly impossible. Had I been more prepared for my freshman piano class and truly gleaned an understanding of the instrument and its capabilities earlier, I am certain that theory and aural skills would have certainly been easier and more enjoyable.  

Musical Preparations
    After completing college auditions in the late winter, I found that my audition music was tired and overplayed. I took a few days off practicing and then decided to reward myself by starting fresh with new repertoire. I picked a piece to learn and began working on several new excerpts. Once I was accepted at a university and sent in my deposit, I contacted my future teacher for repertoire advice. His suggestions included the requirements for seating auditions in the fall and music he wanted me to learn in the interim. 
    To help the teacher plan your repertoire for the first year, make a detailed repertoire list of what you have studied in the past. Indicate on the list if you performed the piece in public or with an orchestra. Also make a list of repertoire that you would like to learn.
    Upon arrival at school, I quickly learned that orchestral excerpts are of the utmost importance because how well you understand and perform these excerpts will determine your seating in orchestra. Since most university orchestras play the masterworks, you do not want to miss an opportunity to perform these works because you were not well-prepared for the audition.
    The best advice I received regarding the study of excerpts is to truly understand the excerpt’s place in the complete work. For example, in order to comprehend the Brahms 4 solo, one must understand that the orchestra does a complete downshift from 34 into  32 time right at the opening of the solo. Without score study and listening to the movement in its entirety, a student would never realize the importance of this shift to the movement overall, and thus the meaning of the flute solo.

Make Friends
    My most valuable knowledge and tips came from other students who already knew the ropes of the studio. For example, lessons at the University of Southern California are scheduled through a community Google calendar, which is a challenge to learn. If someone shows you how the scheduling program works, it can save hours of time and grief. Studio members are also open to giving the inside scoop on the workings of the school plus it is nice to have some friends when you arrive at school. Each year, the USC flute studio holds a gathering at the beginning of the year so everyone has a chance to meet and become acquainted. So if your new studio holds a meet-and-greet, definitely attend. 

Keep an Open Mind
    The most important part of both looking at colleges, choosing one, and ultimately attending one, is to keep an open mind. When I entered my freshman year of college, I never entertained the possibility of changing my major or focus in my college years. Halfway through my undergraduate studies, I discovered musicology. During high school, I certainly did not think I would ever study anything other than just flute performance. However, after taking classes in music history, foreign language, and general European history, I found musicology to be my secondary calling. After discussions with my applied music and music history professor, I decided it is entirely possible to both play flute seriously and study musicology. Had I not kept an open mind, I would have never discovered or developed my love for the academic side of music. 
    The college years are some of the best of your life, and you will get the most out of them if you start your preparation early in your academic career.