Printer-friendly version

A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 2: Strategies

Karen Rile

Written by
Published: September 20, 2013 at 2:54 AM [UTC]

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


In the college application world, the catch phrase is “Love Your Safety.” An academic safety is a school where you comfortably exceed the median admissions standards. A financial safety is an academic safety you can afford to pay for even if you receive no merit aid (often a state school or community college.) College applicants are encouraged to build a list of reaches, matches, and safeties so that, come April 1, they will be able to make a comfortable choice.

But, alas, in the conservatory world there are no safety schools. Conservatory admissions are decided by audition, rather than essays, scores, and GPAs. And auditions are notoriously unpredictable. Every year, many talented, hard-working applicants are rejected by programs that they considered to be matches or safeties. All it takes is an ill-timed case of flu, a blizzard, a migraine, or an hidden personality conflict on the admissions panel. And even if you are admitted your dream conservatory, you may not receive the financial that you need to attend. You need a Plan B. Here are some ideas:

Non-auditioned programs. Most colleges and universities offer an academic-based, non-auditioned music major that focuses on musicology and theory with an option to take applied music classes for credit. At these universities, private lessons may be included with your tuition or partially subsidized by the institution. If not, you can still seek a private teacher outside of the college. In colleges that have both a conservatory program and an academic music major (such as Oberlin or Bard), there may be the possibility of re-auditioning for an internal transfer after a semester or two. Academically inclined students sometimes actually prefer programs with non-auditioned music major over conservatories with limited opportunity for academic coursework. Attending a conservatory or auditioned music program that is part of a larger university isn't such a bad idea, either. A liberal arts education will inform your future life as a musician and will be crucial in the event that you decide on a different career path.

Early or rolling admissions. To feel more comfortable going into audition season, consider adding an early or rolling admission school to your list. A few conservatories offer early auditions, and many BA programs will give a non-binding early decision. (However, financial aid decisions are rarely announced until later in the year.)

The Gap Year (or two). High school schedules are frantic and overloaded, leaving scarce time to prepare a bullet-proof audition. If April rolls around and you aren’t satisfied with your admissions results, consider taking time off between high school and college. A gap year will give you time to focus and prepare under the guidance of your private teacher. You’ll have the flexibility to travel to prospective conservatories for trial lessons with potential teachers, or even study privately with a conservatory teacher in preparation for auditions. You can also enroll in academic courses at local colleges (to knock off some of those “gen-eds”), earn money, volunteer, and read a lot of Shakespeare or David Sedaris. After your gap year, you’ll be older and more mature than the rest of the applicant crowd. And imagine how much better your audition will sound after a year of calm, focused study.

Post-Graduate Year. Some students do a post graduate year at an arts-focused boarding school, such as Interlochen. If you can afford it, this is a great way to stay in a structured environment for the year between high school and conservatory.

Auditions are expensive, time-consuming, and stressful, so it’s tempting to keep your number of applications to a minimum. If you already have a guaranteed spot in a program (that is, if a teacher has promised to accept you into her studio, and you know for certain that the institution's admissions are determined entirely by teacher acceptance, not by a panel vote), and if finances are no concern, then it makes sense to limit your auditions to only your tippy-top dream schools. Everyone else should cast a wide net, to compensate for the many unpredictable variables in the process.

Don't assume you'll get a gigantic scholarship. (And don't assume you won't.) Merit scholarships (as well as need-based financial aid) can be wildly unpredictable.

Don’t let sticker price limit where you apply. The Cost of Attendance (COA), as published on the college website, is a valuable number to keep in mind. But consider that number with proverbial grain of salt, as there are many hidden factors that can change the cost for individuals.

Don't overlook opportunities to make or save money.
Research which institutions provide support for students who engage in professional work while still in school. If you get a sub position with a professional orchestra, will your school excuse your absences?

Save on housing. Off-campus housing and other expenses can be much lower than in the college estimates. If you live within commuting distance, consider living at home. Sure, it's not as much fun as living in a cramped, noisy dorm. But if you can save $40,000 in student loans over four years, it might be worth the sacrifice of eating home-cooked meals, using Mom's laundromat, and cuddling with your Bichon Frise on a regular basis.

Work like a dog. Many conservatories offer opportunities for students to earn substantial income while enrolled. Juilliard, for example, offers unlimited self-funded (as well as federally-funded) work study to all students, as well as an opportunity to apply for high-paying teaching and performance fellowships.

Be Frankenstein's Violinist. Conservatories with conducting programs pay students to play in “lab orchestras”.

Hire yourself out. Many conservatory students make extra cash by subbing in local orchestras, or gigging at weddings and events.

The fat lady ain't sung
. So much physical, intellectual, and emotional energy goes into preparation for the audition itself. And then it’s over in ten minutes. And then you wait. And wait. And while you wait, you second-guess everything that happened during the audition, playing it back over and over in slow-mo. The wait will be excruciating, and it will be made more painful via social media when friends begin to post of their acceptances. It will be worse when others are accepted to your dream school while you twist in the wind, rechecking your email every ten minutes. Or maybe you’ll be the one who hears back first. Have a heart: don’t trumpet your good fortune all over Facebook if you know others are still waiting to hear. And remember:

Financial aid information may not arrive for several more weeks, at which time you’ll finally have a clearer idea of your situation. If you have acceptances from comparable institutions who offer very different financial aid packages, it may be possible to negotiate your aid package with the lower-package school.

You might not get the financial aid you were hoping for. “Never go into debt for a conservatory education.” This old chestnut makes sense superficially, but not so much if you peek behind the curtain. That well-known school with the influential teacher might open doors and will bring your career forward. Or not. Think twice before you mortgage your future to attend a pricy conservatory.

What about a teacher?  Conventional wisdom has it that the teacher is the number one consideration when choosing a conservatory. But in real life, teachers come and go. They get hired away by other conservatories. The retire. And, like all of us, they die. If you choose a school solely for the teacher, you may find yourself stranded miserably midway through your conservatory career. Before you commit, look deeply into the rest of the faculty, the curriculum, and the environment of the school. Some acceptances come with a studio assignment; some don’t. You may need to spend the month of April scrambling to secure your teacher. As May approaches, if you haven’t figured out this piece of the puzzle, you’ll need to decide if you can accept a spot at the school without knowing who your teacher will be.

Waitlisted? You might be lucky enough to be waitlisted. You might be even luckier enough to be accepted off a waitlist during April, before the May 1 commitment date. Otherwise, you’ll need to move forward. Pick a school, take a deep breath, and send in your nonrefundable deposit check. Or go to your Plan B. Worse/best case scenario: you get into the dream conservatory off the waitlist and lose that deposit. If your waitlist spot comes through, you will be back at Square 2, looking for a teacher and negotiating your financial aid, and later in the game.

Next week: Trial lessons

* * *

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

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 3:28 PM
This should be a very helpful post for parents trying to figure out what to look for with talented musician kids. I would add one additional recommendation which is also sort of a "Plan B." You should also be looking at colleges with good music programs that are also good generally. Your talented kid may decide that s/he does not want to be a professional musician or/and has other interests. You want your kid to have a viable fall-back plan for that contingency.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 4:07 PM
Thanks for another great blog, Karen! Indeed, looking ahead at college, even for my non-music-major daughter, advice like "Love your Plan B" is very helpful!

Tom, I loved Northwestern for the reason you mention. I knew that I wanted to be in a wonderful music program, but I also knew I wanted to take at least one Shakespeare class and be around people with varying interests. Not the path for everyone! But it fit for me.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 5:56 PM
Laurie - our son chose Northwestern for very similar reasons. He wanted to go into tv production, and Northwestern was the best place he could go in terms of both tv production and liberal arts. While there, he double majored in Radio/TV/Film and Political Science (in case he wanted to go to business or law school later on). He had a great time and has been in tv production in LA for the eight years since graduation.
From Karen Rile
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 6:41 PM
Tom, that is a great point, and I will add it to my post. (Note to anyone who reads Tom's comments: I've edited as per his suggestion.) :)
From Emily Grossman
Posted on September 20, 2013 at 9:49 PM
I'm really enjoying reading your blogs!
From Thessa Tang
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 2:44 PM
Hi Karen,

The gap year sounds great for someone like my daughter who absolutely loves Shakespeare's plays and reading in general but how would you explain that to a bunch of old [fashioned] panellists on conservatory admission panels without sounding somewhat defensive? I once heard it said that if you are "serious about being a performer, you should go straight to [conservatory] preparing for competitions ..." Some professors seem particularly traditional in a narrow-minded sort of way in the way they perceive commitment and the route to success so you probably cannot convince them that you are totally committed to your music but if you are, "it" should shine through in the auditions, no matter that you spent a year listening to opera abroad.

One or two more years of travelling, playing experience or even technique building may be perceived as a certain lack of preparation from the outset a year ago by some traditional panellists, even when those experiences did in fact, make one wiser and more rounded as a musician.

Thanks, Karen.

From Karen Rile
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 4:03 PM
Hi Tess,
Gap years are very common here in the US. I know literally dozens of young musicians (and students in other disciplines) who've taken them and then gone onto their first choice post-secondary program.

For US conservatory admissions, the single most important element is the audition itself. The panelists are unlikely to be aware of or care about the gap year (or the essay, or the SAT scores--which may not even be required, or GPA, or class rank.) Conservatory hopefuls are routinely encouraged to take a year of intense study, if they need it, before applying.

My own daughter did not apply to any kind of safety school. Her teacher (she was at Juilliard Pre-College) encouraged her to go for her first-choice schools and to take a gap year if she did not get in on the first pass.

As far as demonstrating commitment, a year of extra preparation and a second audition goes a long way to demonstrate that you care about your music studies.

I hope this makes sense!


From Thessa Tang
Posted on September 21, 2013 at 4:17 PM
That's really helpful to understand. Thanks, Karen. My daughter is studying with a conservatory professor on a means-tested scholarship and is not planning to take a gap year although for financial reasons, I hope she will consider.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

The Wallis Presents

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine