A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 1

September 12, 2013, 9:37 AM · Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions

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Here’s a tip: if you or anyone close to you decides to apply to music conservatories, be sure to take your vitamins. Because what you’ll need most of all is stamina. Most college applicants finish their paperwork by New Year’s Day, then spend the rest of the winter by a fireplace sipping cocoa and dreaming of the luscious fat envelopes that will stuff their mailboxes on April 1. By contrast, conservatory applicants hit the ground running because everything, including pre-screening recordings, is due a full month earlier, a few days after Thanksgiving. After that, things really heat up: audition season runs from January through March, necessitating closely-spaced junkets to audition sites all over the country.

From the time she was small, our daughter had known that she wanted to a violinist, so in theory I’d had plenty of time to train for this marathon. My personal gymnasium was the hallway of her precollege music program where for years I’d gathered intelligence by chatting with other parents and through careful observation (aka “eavesdropping”). But my little sprints up and down the corridors of Settlement Music School were nothing like the real event.

In September of her senior year, while she was busy figuring out her repertoire and practicing, I took to the internet, scouring the websites of the schools she was interested in and seeking out counsel and camaraderie on the Music Majors Forum of College Confidential. Following the advice of experienced music-parents, I created a series of spreadsheets for keeping track of deadlines, audition dates, and repertoire requirements (Which schools require accompanists? How many Bach movements? Which school wants a sonata? What about showpieces? Paganini? Post-1939?) My spreadsheets had a lot of columns. There was a particularly complicated chart for recommendation letters. (Digital or paper? One recommendation, or two, or three?  To be mailed directly by the teacher? Don’t forget the SASE! Or included with the application? Sealed and signed across the back!) My daughter was fairly organized and self-disciplined as teenagers go, but these administrative details were so daunting, I doubt she could handled them on her own.

I printed everything out and, after a trip to Staples, presented it all to her in a fat three-ring binder, alphabetically organized by institution and separated by cheery, color-coded folders whose pockets were stuffed with brochures and notes about the various institutions that we’d collected in our travels.

This binder was a thoroughly baffling and useless artifact that sat on her desk untouched for the rest of the season while we scurried about doing tasks. The spreadsheets, however, came in handy in the form of digital documents, which we both referred to frequently while instant messaging each other from our computers in our respective corners of the house. The process was so unwieldy, with so many moving parts, that it would have been impossible to hold it all in our heads without continually referencing those handy electronic cheat sheets.

We prepared as best we could but, inevitably, there would be little disasters: for example, the helicopter that started circling above the roof near the final measures of a perfect pre-screening take.  How could we have anticipated that? Every time she began to re-record the movement, the helicopter came back, spoiling the recording. (And let’s not mention the other time, with a paid accompanist, in a borrowed studio, that I simply forgot to press “record.”)  And who could have foreseen that her private teacher would fall ill and need to take an extended leave of absence from Thanksgiving to February, leaving her without lessons or a mentor? Or that so many auditions dates would conflict with my own calendar. Would the audition circuit cause me to lose my job? I became a part-time travel agent and master of scheduling…and rescheduling.

And, worse-case scenario: some audition assignments turned out to be physically impossible. Maybe, by some stretch of ingenuity, you can manage to be in Boston in the morning and Georgia in the afternoon, but you certainly cannot play two simultaneous auditions in Manhattan, one uptown and one downtown, at the exact same moment in time.

And there would be blizzards—three feet of snow—on the days before three of her auditions, making for treacherous, anxious travel. And she would leave her accompanist’s score in the hotel room. And I would leave my cell phone in a cab. And she would come down with a sore throat and fever. And I would, too. And we would forget to pack boots. And she would pack mismatched black audition shoes. There would be no place to practice in the hotel. Or: there would be no hotel at all, because of a miscommunication between an online and telephone reservation system.

So, forget about binders: buy, instead, a heavy-duty practice mute. The violin will sound like a mosquito, but your kid will be able to warm up before the audition without incurring the wrath of your next-door neighbors at the hotel. Invest in a portable travel humidifier. Bring hand-warmers and gloves. Bring along an extra set of strings (your own kid’s strings may not break, but you will have a lifelong friend when you offer a fresh E string to the kid whose does.) If have an extra bow, bring that, too.

If you have a choice to fly or drive, drive, and bring boots, and keep a blanket, energy bars, and bottled water in the car. Audition season is blizzard season, but conservatories rarely reschedule auditions due to weather. If you miss the audition your kid may not get a second chance. Even after the blizzard clears, flights can be backed up and cancelled for days. We drove seven hours over freshly-plowed highways to my daughter’s Cleveland audition (the hardest part was getting out of our snowed-in Philadelphia neighborhood.) We arrived in time for a restful night in the hotel, but friends from our city who’d flown arrived barely in time for the audition, stressed and exhausted from a night in the airport.

The process is fraught with little anxieties, but there are also delights: the genuine thrill of shared adventure. My daughter and I had more time together that winter than we’d enjoyed in years, or perhaps would ever be able to again because she won’t need this kind of help for her graduate school auditions.

The audition circuit is a bit of a moving festival, an opportunity to reconnect with far-flung friends. Kids my daughter knew from camps, summer institutes, and her various precollege programs popped up in city after city. They went out for pizza together in Indiana, played table tennis in LA. In what other profession does this sense of collegiality begin so young and run so deep? Sure, they were all competing for the same few coveted spots in these programs. But at seventeen the world is wide with possibilities; there’s room for all. City after city, kids greeted one another with hugs, back slaps and squeals of delight. And we parents found comfort comparing notes with other parents who really understood (unlike our friends and relatives back home) what we were going through.

Next week: Part II, Strategies

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



September 12, 2013 at 05:50 PM · You brought it all rushing back! So complicated—and then you definitely had some hair-raising snafus to grapple with along the way. Wow. (Our snafus came with the applications – feverish answers to essay questions no one had noticed until the day they were due.) You’re right – that spreadsheet was a constant lifesaver. As you said, there was so much to keep track of (pre-screen/live audition requirements, rec letters mailed/submitted electronically, transcripts mailed/submitted electronically, prescreens to upload (that took literally hours or timed out), prescreens to mail, accompanied/unaccompanied recordings, supplemental essay questions – with little to no overlap institution to institution --resumes, repertoire lists, sample lessons to arrange, conflicting audition dates, etc.). My daughter is on the other side of this now, but I’m very much looking forward to your blog on strategies next week! I’m sure it will be very helpful to those just beginning the process.

(p.s. It was your advice to someone else on this site that turned me onto the music major forum at college confidential over a year ago – so thanks for that!)

September 12, 2013 at 09:58 PM · I'm glad that the CC Music Forum tip was helpful, Sean. And congrats to your daughter (and to you!)

September 13, 2013 at 03:02 AM · This was a fascinating insight to the whole process. I had no idea at all !

There seem to be so few spots for so many contenders. Do we not have enough conservatories/schools or is the balance about right, ensuring that only the best get in ?

September 13, 2013 at 03:25 AM · Hi Brian,

That's a good (but loaded) question. I guess, first of all, in this essay I was describing kids were contenders for spots in an elite level of conservatory, but there are many other conservatories and music programs, so I don't think there is a dearth of places to learn to play the violin at a college level. It's also true that a BM in Violin Performance isn't like a BS in a STEM major: there just aren't a lot of ready-made job opportunities awaiting grads. A large percentage of conservatory grads end up working in fields other than music. Is this a bad thing? I don't think so. A bachelor's degree in music (or English, or Philosophy, or Near East Studies, etc.) can be a precursor to a grad degree in a health profession, or law. One might have to go back and take a few courses, but here's to professionals who are also beautifully trained musicians.

September 13, 2013 at 06:07 AM · Great article covering all the bases. I will save this for my students.

God bless, D.

September 13, 2013 at 09:24 AM · woaw the mother of the famous Caeli Smith blogging about the past experiences in life, many thanks for this!

September 13, 2013 at 02:11 PM · Wow! We have no idea. Perhaps it is complicated only in the States.

Our family & church friends from Trinity & RAM [both music conservatories in London] recently gave us the impression that it was "pretty straightforward": You apply in the autumn of the upper sixth year by October 1 and then soon after, you attend the auditions and interviews [presumably playing more or less the same repertoire] at 6 music institutions.

Last year one upper sixth former said to my daughter that he was heading for Germany for conservatoire and it was "straightforward" he added, and he has had already lessons with the German professor who guides him in his preparations and is expected to continue to be his conservatoire tutor in due course. He further advised her that with Germany there is more time and flexibility.

That is why we assume no parental involvement will be needed, no different to pre-college auditions or normal UK academic pre-university exams like GCSEs or A Levels. Let's hope we're right, and Karen, your post makes me feel thankful we're Brits. The UK has a centralised system for its music colleges and its universities.

All good wishes to the rest of you at pre-college level in the States. Work wise things are maybe different for us here, too. According to Karen, a large percentage of [States] conservatory grads end up working in fields other than music. However, all those we know locally with central London music conservatories' degrees have music work - they are mainly music teachers. Some are music therapists whilst others are teachers who also accompany regularly or conduct choirs...

... and certainly no blizzards.

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