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!!
Elizabeth Borowsky is a pianist, teacher, and composer. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano (Music Teachers National Association).