The college admissions process is emotionally taxing for the average teen and their family. Juggling the FAFSA/CSS Profile, essays, standardized tests, demonstrating interest, soliciting recommendations, AP exams, and extracurricular involvement, all while maintaining stellar grades in a rigorous academic program is not an easy task. Yet, for applicants wishing to study music at a university or conservatory, additional nerve-racking moments await, as these unfortunate souls must also navigate a harrowing multi-step audition gauntlet.

Those with dreams of one day joining the world’s most prestigious orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or the Philadelphia Orchestra must start by gaining admissions into one the hyper-competitive training grounds where musicians of that exceptional caliber typically hone their craft. Schools like Julliard or the Curtis Institute of Music sport acceptance rates that rival (or beat) Harvard or Stanford’s in terms of selectivity. Schools such as the New England Conservatory of Music, Berklee College of Music, the Boston Conservatory, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music accept a higher percentage of applicants than Julliard or Curtis, but are still uber-competitive in their own right.

In order to assist future music students as they move through a uniquely challenging admissions process, the College Transitions team will explain:

  • How to pick the right college for a musical education
  • How the prescreening process works for music applicants
  • The audition process for music applicants
  • The interview process for applicants

To start, let’s talk about what type of postsecondary institution is the best place for you to study music.

Picking the Right School: Conservatory or University?

It’s important to have a grasp on the nomenclature as you begin your postsecondary search. Applicants should understand that  a “conservatory” is a place where a student’s primary focus is music—piano, violin, or flute is beyond a mere “major.” Rather, a conservatory is a place for you eat, breathe, and sleep instrumental music; think of it like a trade school in this regard. You aren’t going to a conservatory to figure out what you want to do or to receive a broad and balanced undergraduate education—you are attending a conservatory because you want to refine one singular skill to the point that you can become one of the best oboists/organists/harpists in the world.

Not all “conservatories” are labeled as such in the name of the institution. Julliard, Curtis, the Manhattan School of Music, and the Cleveland Institute of Music are all classified as conservatories because they have no other primary academic area of focus. However, that is not to say that there are not traditional academic requirements at these schools. Julliard BFA and BM students complete a minimum of 24 credits worth of liberal arts offerings; Berklee requires 39 liberal arts credits including specific mandates in the areas of English, history, humanities, social sciences, and science/math.

Other conservatories are a part of a college or university such as the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, or the Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana. Here, it is much easier to double major or enter a dual degree program. If you are applying to study at Eastman, for example, and also wish to pursue a dual degree at the University of Rochester, you have to apply to both schools. Similar to Julliard, however, those enrolled solely in Eastman need only conquer 24 credits in the liberal arts with one required introductory writing course.

What is Prescreening?

Before you are invited to audition in person, some colleges require the submission of a video recording; there are typically very specific instructions for this performance. For example, the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance has different requirements for each instrument. Bassoon players must submit “one fast and one slow etude taken from the Concert Studies, opus 26 by Ludwig Milde” while percussionists have to upload six unedited recordings that check boxes along the lines of: “Rudimental Snare Drum Solo or Etude (Pratt, Tompkins, Wilcoxon, Markovitch, or equivalent).” Meanwhile, Michigan does not prescreen at all for French horn, oboe, and harp applicants. Prescreening deadlines vary by school but December 1st is the most commonly encountered date.

How to Record a Winning PreScreening Audition?

You’ll want to begin practicing and recording your prescreening video well before the actual deadline approaches. First and foremost, you will need to arrange for a setting where you can count on quality acoustics and sound. It’s important for this video to be as polished as possible. The expectation is not that you hire a professional videographer and/or rent time at fancy studio for the recording. Some applicants do, but your prospective conservatories are not going to judge you on this basis, as it would be an assessment of your parents’ resources rather than your musical gifts. That being said, you’ll want to avoid shaky camerawork, poor lighting, and of course—poor audio, but you do not want your video to be professionally altered in any way. Schools want to see an authentic performance without artificial enhancements or over-editing.

Do all Music Schools Prescreen?

No. There are some schools that do not prescreen such as the James Madison University School of Music which instead holds in-person auditions for all applicants. Applicants to the USC Thornton School of Music have the option of auditioning live or submitting video through SlideRoom.

The Live Audition

If you’ve made it to the live audition phase of the application process, the committee already thinks you’re talented. Now, it is just a matter of being able to control your nerves, seize the moment, and do what you do best.

The Curtis Institute of Music requires live auditions which all take place on scheduled dates in February and March. Of course, only those who make it through the prescreening process are invited to this round. Applications must be submitted via the Acceptd platform with videos (specified by instrument/program) by December 16th. For many programs, the live audition is a non-negotiable, even if you live thousands of miles away. New England Conservatory (NEC) requires live auditions for “Cello, Collaborative Piano, Conducting, Flute, Piano, Viola, and Violin regardless of country of residence.” At NEC, as is the case at many institutions,  live repertoire selections not need to match those from the prescreening round.

Tips for Surviving the Audition

Those who have been through the audition process recommend strategies such as:

  • Auditioning at one of the schools toward the bottom of your list first.
  • If possible, visit campus beforehand to get a sense of the audition room and gain comfort with your surroundings.
  • On audition day, arrive very early to avoid stressful delays like traffic, flight issues, or even just navigating around campus.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Research your audience ahead of time. See if the committee has any stated preferences and play to them.

Interviewing

For most applicants, this is the easiest part of the three-stage process. The best advice is also the simplest: make eye contact, be humble but confident, don’t be afraid to share aspects of your personality, and convey your dedication and passion for the craft. At Berklee, the interview accounts for roughly 15 minutes of the full hour-long evaluation. Fifteen minutes is also the amount of interview time at the Manhattan School of Music. While short in length, this facetime presents a critical opportunity to show faculty that you would be a great person to spend the next four years with. If two candidates present as equally gifted musically, having a winning personality can absolutely serve as a tiebreaker.

Final Thoughts

Landing a spot at a prestigious music conservatory takes an unbelievable amount of determination and follow-through. It is a marathon without much time to go on cruise control and there are hard deadlines to meet. The thing to remember is that, by dint of thousands of hours of hard work, you have sculpted yourself into an ultra-talented musician. All you need to do during this process is be yourself, let your natural ability flow, and the wait for the doors to open at one of your top-choice colleges or conservatories. You have earned this moment!