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A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 8: I Flunked My Pre-Screens: Now What?!

Karen Rile

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Published: December 5, 2013 at 2:27 PM [UTC]

Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


A few years ago, a young violinist contacted me in a panic. According to Facebook his friends had been notified of their Juilliard audition dates. But he’d heard nothing. Could it be an email snafu? An administrative mix-up?

“I’m as good a player as Fauntleroy and Punchinella*,” he said. “If they got auditions, I should, too. My recording was excellent—unless it was lost. Do you think they lost my recording?”

I told him it was possible—but I had a sinking feeling about where this was going. Even without having heard his recording or knowing much about his level of playing, it was pretty clear to me that he had failed his prescreen. In a few days he would receive a paper letter in the mail explaining that his application had not progressed to the next level.

“Should I call admissions to see if they lost my application?” he fretted, concerned that they might be irritated, and somehow punish him, if he pestered them. I told him that it could not hurt to call the admissions office—part of their job was to deal with panicking applicants. There was nothing shameful or shocking about his predicament, I reassured him. It happens many times, to many people, year after year.

Then I tried to redirect his thoughts: where else had he applied? Had he heard back from any of them yet? He had not. But over the next few days he was denied auditions at several conservatories. He had spent much of his young life looking forward to these auditions, and now one by one his dreams were dissolving before his eyes.

What do you do?

  • Take a deep breath and scream (preferably into a pillow.) This is a big upset and you deserve a tantrum. Throw dishes (I recommend plastic); yell at your mom for not tethering you to your instrument five hours a day from age three (go ahead, we moms can take it.) You have ten minutes: do your worst.

  • After you catch your breath, you will probably wail, “If I couldn’t even pass my prescreens, I should just give up now. And become a— a dentist!” Feel reassured that everyone says that. But remember: the life of a dentist is much more secure than that of a musician. Dentists make a good, steady income, and there’s nothing stopping them from playing a little violin music on the side. If you can imagine yourself as a dentist (or accountant, or baker) now’s your chance. What appears to be adversity may well be opportunity. Flunking your prescreens may have been a “nice save.”

  • On the other hand, if you cannot fathom any profession except music, then consider this situation a character-building test. You’ll be dealing with plenty of setbacks in this life; learning to cope with adversity now will only make you stronger. Congratulations, by the way: now you are an adult. Your classmates who just waltzed into the audition room without any apparent resistance or stress—they’re still kids living in a land of lollipops and dreams. Their time will come later.

  • Dust yourself off and figure out the next steps. Did you pass any of your prescreens? If so, focus on your upcoming auditions. But, at the same time, not passing all your prescreens is an early warning sign. Use it. Make sure you have a solid Plan B in your back pocket (this goes for everyone, even applicants who pass every prescreen. They have no guarantee of actual admission.)

  • If you flunked them all (or most of them), it’s time to regroup. The handwriting is on the wall, underlined and extra-bold. Plan B is now Plan A for you. (And get real: if you could not snag auditions at CIM, NEC, and MSM, you are probably not going to get into Curtis, even if they don’t require a prescreen. You just might want to cancel that audition, since it requires a lot of extra repertoire, and keep your eyes on a more realistic prize.) Push up your sleeves and get to work on a new Plan B. Consider applying to some non-auditioned programs with rolling deadlines. Consider a gap year.

  • Let it go. Don’t make yourself crazy second-guessing what might have gone wrong with your prescreening recordings. What’s done is done; you can’t change it. It’s tempting to blame your equipment (“If only I'd hired a professional recording studio like Punchinella!…” or “If only I had a Guadagnini like Fauntleroy!”) These rationalizations might make you feel better in the short run, but you know at their core they are hollow. Admissions committees can hear past impediments like a home-made recording or a student-grade instrument. The point of the prescreening is to spare you the expense and trouble of traveling to an audition you are almost certain to lose. If you think it’s painful to face rejection at this stage, imagine how you would have felt getting this news on April 1st, after flying to an on-site audition, playing your heart out before the panel. Finding out now is kinder, and it puts time on your side.
  • As for my young friend, he did end up passing one of his pre-screens. And one is really all you need. Over the next few months, he practiced his butt off and won admission to a selective studio in an excellent conservatory. All of his problems, solved! Then, a year or two later, he dropped out and moved to Europe to continue studies there.

    Which brings me to my most important point: when you’re young, the path you think you want is the path you can imagine. It’s impossible to see around corners or to guess at the unpredictable, serendipitous things that will happen in your life. But ask any adult you know if they are doing exactly what they hoped and dreamed to do when they were seventeen. Most will tell you that what they’re doing now was not even imaginable to them at seventeen. Most will tell you that, given the choice, they’d pick the life they’re living over the ideal-imagined life they conjured up at seventeen.

    It’s a leap of faith, but, then again, you don’t have a choice, anyway. You flunked those pre-screens, but your world isn’t ending. It’s just beginning. It’s yours for the conquering. Go now.

    *names have been changed (in case that isn't obvious).

    * * *

    Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions


    Posted on December 5, 2013 at 9:27 PM
    SUCH wise advice, Karen, and not just for conservatory hopefuls. It's (more or less) what I tell my grad student wannabes. "Plan B" is crucial to every enterprise all life long.

    Thank you for this series.

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