Friday, March 17, 2017

Auditioning Students: Play What You Can Play

I realized yesterday that I have been listening to University admissions auditions for over 20 years (both graduate and undergraduate), not to mention judging hundreds of other auditions for music festivals, regional and national scholarships, competitions—you name it. 

That’s a lot.  And I still find it one of the most exciting parts of my job.

Several years ago I started having my graduate students sit in on auditions with me, something I learned from my friend Jim Campbell, and recently we started a conversation concerning a trend in undergraduate auditions. 

Basically, I see two levels of prospective undergraduate student at FSU.

One, really well-prepared students playing appropriate literature for their ability level.  They come in playing solid solos on all instruments, and are typically very well-mannered, pleasant and hungry, and have often had a fabulous teacher for a long period of time.

Usually these students come from very strong HS band programs like Lassiter, Broken Arrow, etc.  And they’ve played appropriate literature for where they are developmentally.  These special students tend to make incredible progress while at FSU, and I can count most of our graduates in this category.

Many are between FSU and conservatories/peer conservatory-level university music schools.  Because of the State of Florida Bright Futures initiative (a lottery-funded trust for Florida students with high GPAs), we end up with a good number of them, which is really exciting.  A great experience all around, for us and for them. 

And then, the subject of this article. 

Two, students who come in playing music that is far beyond them technically, musically—almost everything-y.  We will concentrate on this for the rest of the article.

These poor students show up playing music they have no business considering, much less trying to play.  Imagine you’re a senior, but truth is you play at an 8th grade level (you’re not aware of this).  One of these scenarios probably morphs into focus during the Fall semester before your auditions. 

One, you ask your percussion/FB friends what they are playing for their auditions, or note what your friends from all-state or all-county post on their Twitter feed or Instagram pages.  They tell you Tompkins, Pratt, whatever, so you think you need to play that stuff to compete.  Even though you don’t have the hands for it.   I recently heard an auditioning undergrad student play Pine Cone Forest.  I know this only because I read it on his rep list—from listening alone I could not tell what it was. 

Two, your teacher (if you have one, band director if not) remembers what s/he played as an undergraduate and gives you that repertoire.   Had an auditioning student years ago who tried to play the second movement of Variations on Lost Love.  I couldn’t recognize it.  What's worse in this category?  Your teacher doesn't know what "play" means either.

Three, you Google “Marimba Solos” and see people playing Viñao (or something similar), and think “Wow, that’s pretty cool, and it doesn’t look that hard,” only to realize later the absolute depths of your error.

This is where potentially talented “fixable” students obscure their abilities by attempting to play the wrong repertoire, and it’s a deadly mistake.  Here’s why. 

Fixable students are often good players; they just have technical or musical issues to overcome, and I can tell what those are in a very short time—even if the playing isn’t the best they can do.

Programs that prescreen undergraduates can ferret these out, making sure none of these students are invited to play live—but we are not one of those programs.  I’ll hear anyone play, even these students, although I’d like to propose a way to fix this particular issue.

My standard reply to “What should I play for my audition?” is:  Whatever you feel you can play the best.

Do I care what you play?  Not nearly as much as HOW you play it.  How do I compare a student playing less-than-capable Delécluse vs. well-prepared and rendered Intermediate Peters?  Easy.  I take who plays the best. 

These are also the students whose parents tend to be the most involved in the process.  Sometimes that’s OK, but often these parents are the angriest after their son or daughter has not been accepted.  I’ve received a lot of these emails and phone calls over the years, and it seems to be getting worse.  Some colleagues I know don’t even answer them.  One auditioning student who didn't get in even came to a recital and told me to go you-know-what myself in front of the other students.  That was nice.

I usually do, but often trying to explain that your son or daughter was the victim of bad advice doesn’t go over well, no matter how true. 

So for the upcoming season(s), here are a few items for thought.

If possible, try and locate a professional teacher at least a year before your auditions.  If you can’t find one, email me—I probably know someone close to you. 

Be sure to visit studio or admissions pages for suggested repertoire.  Most only suggest, so you and your teacher can find what will be best for you.  If your repertoire is going to be radically different from what’s suggested, be sure to clear it with the professor before the audition. 

Do not be intimidated by what your friends might be playing.  Play what fits you best. 

I’ll be posting a video late summer/early fall about graduate prescreening strategies, including the technical elements and repertoire selection, so until then happy practicing!