by Audrey Steiner
I’ll begin by being blunt: auditioning for college/conservatory is WAY harder than what all your classmates will be going through, complain as they might. You, as a musician, will need to write essays upon essays, obtain recommendation letters, and keep up your grades— just like everyone else applying to college. But on top of that, you will have to prepare one hour of difficult repertoire as well as travel to your auditions. And, once you’ve gotten your acceptance letters, you will not only have to revisit the institutions but also correspond with faculty members to set up trial lessons. You will have to miss quite a bit of school for all of these commitments!
If I could change one thing about my application/audition process, I would have began my audition repertoire much earlier. My circumstance was unique in that I had no clue I wanted to pursue music until shortly before my senior year began. So, I needed to learn and memorize a number of brand-new pieces during the fall and winter in order to satisfy audition requirements. This was incredibly stressful, so I would suggest you begin thinking about your college repertoire as early as you can to avoid this stress. That way, you’re performing pieces you feel confident about at your audition without having to worry about learning new pieces.
Auditions are generally similar: show up early, get a practice room, freak out more than you should, march out on stage and go for it. I did, however, have a particularly memorable audition experience at the Boston Conservatory that I would like to share.
I had been particularly nervous about my Boston Conservatory audition. According to the brochures, the piano professors there were very distinguished performers.
I headed to the audition location five minutes before my time slot. A grad student with glasses and brown curly hair stood at a podium outside the double-doors into the audition space. I walked up to him to tell him my name, and he checked me off the list. He looked uncannily like Josh Groban. He tried to help me relax by making small talk and joking around until I was called in.
The first thing that happened once I had entered the audition room was that the head piano professor ran through my list of repertoire aloud, double-checking to make sure it was correct. It was. I had double, triple-checked my repertoire list before sending it in, of course: Chopin Scherzo, Bach Prelude and Fugue, Chopin Étude, Ginastera Danzas Argentinas and a Beethoven Sonata, in that order. I had written the Beethoven at the bottom of the list strategically; although I was confident about the first movement, I had barely finished memorizing the second third movements two weeks earlier.
“You are performing the Waldstein Sonata, first movement?” The distinguished piano professor asked me with a tilt of his distinguished head.
“All movements,” I corrected him. The audition requirement was a “Complete Classical Sonata,” so I don’t know why he assumed that I was playing the first movement only. Unless… did he somehow know that I wasn’t confident about the third movement? But how did he find that out? What if...
“Oh, oh. Yes. Of course. My mistake. Please,” he said, interrupting my paranoid thoughts. He gestured grandiosely to the stage and took a seat at the long panel table. He clasped his hands together properly.
I ascended the three steps and walked towards center stage. Eight distinguished heads followed my careful approach to the piano. I wondered if they could tell that I had to focus on not tripping on the fabric of the too-long dress pants I was wearing.
I sat down in front of the concert grand, the bench squeaking quietly. Natural light shone in through a large window and cradled me in a supportive warmth, telling me, “Hey. This is where you belong: In front of a piano.” Surprisingly enough, the nausea subsided. And I did indeed feel like I belonged right there, in front of that piano.
I began with Chopin’s second Scherzo. I lost myself in the piece more than I ever had before. But after a while, I heard a bothersome little noise.
Click, click, click.
I wasn’t even sure if I was actually hearing a click. What could it have been?
Click, click, click.
But then, I realized; It was the click of a pen. Just great. One of the judges was a pen clicker. Focus, I told myself. I couldn’t let a small background noise ruin my audition.
The clicking intensified. Was the panel testing me? What was going on?
CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK!!!!!!!!!
Okay, this was starting to get out of hand. Hesitantly, as I continued playing, I turned towards the audition panel. The distinguished piano faculty was standing up, each professor desperately clicking his pen high up in the air in a frenzied manner.
“STOP! STOP!” one of them exclaimed. I retracted my hands from the piano and anxiously rubbed them together to keep them warm, hoping I didn’t ruin my chances at being accepted for being so stupid as to not understand the stop signal. Meanwhile, the professors regained their composure. They sat back down, sitting straight-backed, finishing up their notes on my Scherzo performance.
“Thank you Audrey,” said the head piano professor as if nothing had happened. “Can we please hear the Bach Fugue?”
“Sure,” I chirped, feigning confidence. I sat up in my best, Bach-iest posture and began my Fugue with energy and vigor. I did not hear one pen click from the moment I started through the final chord. My spirits soared as my pinky strummed the final C-sharp; I had played the Bach as close to perfect as I ever had.
“Thank you, Audrey,” the professor said after the Bach, his distinguished face stolid. “May we please hear the Waldstein?”
“The first movement?” I asked nonchalantly, though every fiber of my being was pleading that they would indeed listen to only the first movement.
“Yes, the first movement, I’d say,” the professor confirmed, looking to his colleagues, who all nodded their distinguished heads in agreement.
The rest of the audition went smoothly. I stopped at every pen click, and I performed every piece with passion and security. When I emerged from the audition room, Groban Grad congratulated me on such a great audition. “You sounded amazing!” he told me enthusiastically. This made me smile big.
“Thanks!” I said. But there wasn’t much time for celebration; I had to go to a swim meet!
As you can see, my audition experience at BoCo was the most memorable, mostly due to the whole pen-clicking ordeal. And yes, although I missed the stop signal, I did get accepted! I honestly wish I could thank Groban Grad for being so kind to me before the auditions; it really helped. At other schools, the volunteer grad students didn’t do much but take down my name.
Once I heard from all of my colleges and conservatories, choosing my next “home” was harder than preparing the auditions! I quickly narrowed my choices down to three schools (Boston Conservatory, Lawrence University and Conservatory, Notre Dame). They are all wonderful places, but they all had their pros and cons. Despite all of the hard work I put into live auditions, I decided to attend the University of Notre Dame (not a conservatory— I simply sent in a number of videos to their music department. No live audition necessary). But that does not mean I’m giving up on a musical career. I believe I can get a great musical education in their small, intimate piano department as I study in their performance-based B.A. program. I’m also looking forward to double-majoring in music and another area I’m interested in!
To finish up, I’m giving you two big things that help me when I’m nervous:
1. Chill! I should be the last person telling you that, as I certainly am not the chill-est person. But do your best to have a “whatever” attitude about the prospect of messing up. Even if you go out on stage and fail miserably (you trip as you walk across the stage; as you sit down, your pants rip; you forget all your pieces; you cry visibly and audibly, everyone laughs at you backstage), you’ll be all right. You may never have to see those people again! And no one can take away your love of music. It’s yours and it will always be part of you, no matter how one audition goes.
2. Remember your passion, always! Why do you do what you do? Our love of piano trumps all our insecurities: What will they think of me? Will I mess up? Will I forget? Who cares!
Next time you’re scared to play the piano tell yourself that you LOVE piano. You hate NOT playing it. It’s miserable to be near a piano while NOT playing it! Remember that at your auditions!!
Many of my students are preparing for competitions and festivals occurring later this spring. I wanted to share my recent experience as judge, and some of the actual feedback I gave to participants in the junior and senior divisions of the Barnes-Ferencz Piano Competition.
Although there is a certain challenge in communicating suggestions on a live performance in writing (as opposed to demonstrating the suggestions in a lesson/masterclass setting), I aim to provide encouragement and constructive criticism through my comments in hopes that will inspire students to dig deeper into their musicianship and technique. I was honored to have the esteemed pianist (and my mentor) Dr. Arno Drucker as my co-judge. Each student was required to perform a ragtime selection and a classical selection (memorized).
Some of my comments on the ragtime selections:
“One of the most important elements (maybe the most?) is the rhythmical integrity — a steady pulse and the hierarchy of the beats — followed by a sense of style and fun communicated by ease, humor, and contrast.”
“Explore using your entire arm (wrist, elbow, upper arm, back) for power. Develop a sense of ease in this piece. It’s a hallmark of the style!”
“Congrats on a wonderful mastery of this piece. You play it with ease and have a fantastic sense of the style. Great expression (dynamic contrast), left-right hand balance, pace, and pulse, and good musical direction throughout.”
“Great understanding of the style (especially syncopation, voicing, clarity, and ease). Secure performance - very enjoyable!”
Some of my comments on the classical selections:
“Work on developing a sense of play (joy and elegance!). Work on your physical awareness while practicing/performing. You present a lot of intensity in your performance, but it’s currently coupled with excess tension. This affects your sound and control.”
“The LH accompaniment is tricky here (Haydn Sonata). I am sure you have been working on it — don’t give up yet! It’s essential to a fluid performance and will allow you to really focus on making the right hand brilliant, joyous, and a real soloist.”
“Be assertive in your dynamic changes. Don’t hint at them… convince us!”
“Continue to work on mastering your technical work (e.g. scales, 4 octaves, hands together). You might be surprised how much you can gain from this and how it will directly improve your . “
“You looked very put-together, but I would encourage you to revisit your shoe choice for performances. High, stiff heels not only inhibit your pedaling but also your physical ease and thus your sound and overall technique.”
“I can see that you have put much time and energy into your preparation. I’d like to see you focus on your tone and rhythm. It will take your performance up to the next level!”
“Your interpretation of the Schubert Impromptu will benefit from a little more time (it feels a little fresh!). I can tell that you love the music. The A section should be faster, crisper, and more “classical” in approach. For the B section, keep the pulse steady within the expressive framework. Great job on voicing.”
“Chopin: Strive for a long, singing line in the RH and peaceful LH accompaniment that demonstrates your understanding of the harmonic progression. Listen to good recordings (and live performances!) for inspiration.”
“There is so much passion in your performing commitment to the music and to the audience. I enjoyed your playing and wish you all the best for continued growth and success in music.”
Overall, we were much more critical of the classical selections, which often required a more advanced level of musicianship and technical mastery. We were forgiving of some slips (it happens, especially amongst young musical students) — the quicker the recovery, the better. Those who displayed strong technique demonstrated their disciplined practicing under the guidance of an experienced teacher (it truly is a team effort!). Successful performers were able to convey a sense of confidence in their personal interpretation, a wide range of dynamics (in accord with the composer’s markings!), an understanding the of musical style (including voicing, articulation, rubato, pedaling), and rhythmical integrity.
Additional comment: Students were given a few moments to try the piano before beginning their selections. Although this was not judged, their technical warm-up often provided much insight into their preparations (and regular practice of technical exercises) and foreshadowed their performance.
It's Spring - the season of music competitions. I've already judged three within the last month (one piano-only, and two concerto competitions for all instruments) and they've been excellent reminders as to what the judges are looking for in the performances .
In each competition the overall level was very high. I wasn't surprised... after all, everyone prepared well and genuinely wanted to give the performance their best effort. But, unfortunately, not everyone can win.
So, in a field of "very good" performances, who stands out?
Here are three of my top criteria for a winning performance:
1. Clean Playing. Mistakes are forgivable, BUT if someone else has a clean performance they will edge you out. The competitive circuit in music is very competitive, so don't kid yourself that your musicality and expression is enough. The easiest way to narrow down the field is to eliminate those who make mistakes. Strive for consistent clean playing in your practicing. And when mistakes happen, recover quickly. I will take a musically engaging performance over a technically perfect but soul-less performance any day, but if two performers are neck-and-neck, judges tend to go with the cleaner and more convincing one.
2. Conviction. Play it like you mean it! This is not the time to be humble or shy or second-guess your interpretation. Decide what you are going to say and then convince us that this is the way it should be.
3. Dynamic range. Lackluster fortes and moderately soft pianissimos won't draw us into a magical musical world. Most performances have a range between mp-ff. If you want to truly get our attention, follow the dynamics in the music, and use a broad range from ppp to fff. And, within these, explore a variety of sounds, colors, and articulations.
Great article, featuring my sister's beloved professor at Peabody, cellist Amit Peled.
“So, how did it go?” Peled queries a student about a recent performance in New York. The student hesitates for a moment and responds, “Well, it was good. My biggest problem is that I get nervous.” Peled waves his hand dismissively. “Look,” he says, “everyone has that fear. You must overcome it. Everyone must. It’s not like practicing at home. The stage is totally different. You must prepare for it. You don’t just go out there. It’s very personal what people do before a concert. But right before you go onstage, you should just play and play and play. Be completely warmed up. That’s what athletes do. They pump up the muscles before a game.”
At the end of their hour together, the student places his cello and bow back into a case and informs Peled that he plans to enter a prestigious competition and will try to win. Peled shakes his head. “You don’t want to try. You want to win,” he says. “That’s the right attitude. Don’t do competitions as an exercise or experiment or just to play. That’s a waste of time. You want to win!”
Elizabeth Borowsky is a pianist, teacher, and composer. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano (Music Teachers National Association).