Striking The Right Chord: How To Prepare For The Music Audition

While most high school seniors have completed their applications, those who plan to study music in college (or apply for music scholarships) have the additional commitment of preparing for college music auditions.

Try performing in front of friends, family, and other community members to gain performance experience prior to the audition.

To get further insight into the audition process, we spoke with Ellen Donohue-Saltman, a French hornist, and Jamie Saltman, a conductor and jazz pianist, from Brookline, MA who have assisted countless students through the college audition process. Here is their advice:

Don’t Underestimate the Competition. Every student who is planning to study music in a serious way in college should be training with a private teacher.

“Students will be competing for limited slots in music programs with peers who have been studying for years,” said Ellen.  “And most have participated in renowned youth orchestras and ensembles.”

In addition to helping students perfect their music over time, teachers are also invaluable in helping students ascertain the required pieces for each college and select the music that will play to their strengths during the audition. Students are wise to choose a piece they want to play as well as one that presents them in the best light.

Remember to devote yourself to practicing.

“That often isn’t the hardest piece either,” said Jamie. “If you pick an easier piece and play it very well it will make a more positive impression than would a more challenging piece that isn’t well executed.”

Build Endurance through Practice, Practice, Practice.  Students must gain performance experience so they should do mock performances before family and friends—and perhaps even offer to play before an audience at a local nursing home or community group. Live performance experience teaches students how to calm their nerves or handle dry mouth or any other number of snafus—well before the live audition.

Students should practice a minimum of two hours daily, setting up a schedule such as major scales on Mondays, harmonic minor scales on Tuesdays and verbal sub-dividing (counting out the rhythmic components that are part of the melody) on Wednesdays. Practice should start with a warm up. Students should also plan on recording themselves and evaluate the recording to be sure that is how they want to sound.

“If students plan to play a piece that requires an accompaniment* they should practice the piece that way,” said Ellen. “ They also need to listen to recordings of the great players of their instrument and study the score.”

“The only days permissible to skip practice are Christmas, New Year’s Day and in case of extraterrestrial attack,” said Jamie. “Students should practice all the time—even when they are sick. They might be sick on audition day and they’ll need to know how to handle it.”

Sight-reading or the ability to make sense of music a student has never seen before should be an integral component of practice and will be part of the audition.

“Remember that the college is not only looking for achievement-to-date, but also potential,” said Jamie. “Sight-reading will give them insight into how a student might grow.”

*One resource for digital accompaniments is Smartmusic.

The Audition—What to Expect  Be prepared with two contrasting movements which follow the instructions of the college. One should “show off your chops,” said Jamie, meaning it demonstrates technical fluency, and the other should be slow and lyrical.

The evaluators will be looking for the level of the student’s musicianship and potential, and if he or she is someone the faculty could work with as a positive member of the community.

Students should only bring their instrument and a music resume (if requested) into the audition room. Since there will be down time before entering the audition room, plan to bring water, food as needed and, for wind and brass players, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Leave all the extras outside with whoever is accompanying the student to the audition. If traveling alone, place all belongings in a travel bag and leave it just inside the audition room door.

The student should wear something that looks respectful and neutral to the event. “You want your playing or singing to stand out,” said Ellen. “Not your attire.”

As the student enters the room, he should greet the faculty by smiling and saying good morning or good afternoon and respond briefly to any questions. During the course of the audition day, students will also be expected to take a music theory test—so plan accordingly.

There are many elements that go into a successful audition, so what are you waiting for? Start practicing now!

Ellen Donohue-Saltman and Jamie Saltman teach privately and perform in the Boston area. They also run a summer music camp in southern Maine called Camp Encore/Coda.  

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