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A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 3: Trial Lessons

Karen Rile

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Published: September 26, 2013 at 7:31 PM [UTC]

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


A trial lesson is like a first date: one of those low-stakes, Wednesday afternoon Starbucks dates. Because the teacher-student bond is intense and personal, it makes sense for a prospective student and teacher to spend a little time together, no strings attached, before making a commitment. Trial lessons happen at many points in a musical education, beginning with the first encounter between a 3-year-old (and his parent) and a Suzuki teacher. But for conservatory applicants, these meetings take on new significance because the stakes are higher.

Are trial lessons necessary? In a word, nope. Many forego this step in the process, yet end up happily ensconced in a studio at the conservatory of their choice. No teacher worth his salt would overlook a terrific audition just because he hadn’t met the student privately prior. No conservatory admissions office will tell you that trial lessons are necessary, and only rarely will they officially facilitate such interactions. There is no research proving that students who had trial lessons received better audition results or had a lower rate of transfer between studios or institutions after admission.

Can a trial lesson help me find a good match? Many think so. Just because Professor X is a renown pedagogue doesn’t mean she’s the right teacher for you. The most efficient way to learn whether you and a teacher are right for each other is to try out a lesson. A little instinct goes a long way. Sometimes when you meet someone for the first time, you just click; sometimes it’s oil and water.

But first impressions can also be misleading. Some people (even teachers!) are natural introverts and take a while to warm up. Don’t dismiss what could be a potentially lasting, beneficial relationship because you weren’t finishing each other’s sentences by the end of the hour.

Trial lessons can help you feel at ease with the audition panel. It’s frankly intimidating to walk in and play for a room full of strangers (or, worse, celebrity-strangers, if these teachers are pedagogues you’ve been hearing about all your life.) If you have met one or more of them already in a trial lesson, the actual audition will feel less scary.

Can a trial lesson give me a leg up on admissions? For the student, the trial lesson is a mini-audition. If the lesson goes well, the teacher may come away with an impression that you’re the kind of student who would do well in her studio She may remember you fondly when you walk into the audition room. It’s also a good way of demonstrating your sincere interest, both to the teacher and the conservatory.

But keep in mind that this teacher has given many trial lessons over past months. You and she may have hit it off in the lesson, but you are one of dozens. In the end, only your audition that has the power to separate you from the others.

Don’t overestimate the power of trial lessons. It’s true that teachers often accept students they know. Professor X may have taught Lulu in a pre-college or summer program, or she may have taught Lulu's teacher (which makes Professor X Lulu's “grand-teacher.”) A trial lesson (just a coffee date, after all) may put you on Professor X’s radar, but she will naturally favor Lulu and other students with whom she has a pre-established rapport.

Can a trial lesson hurt my chances for admission? Obviously, yes, if you play poorly, burst into tears, step on Professor X’s chihuahua, etc. But there’s another issue to consider:

While many teachers will not care one bit if you “date” other faculty at their conservatory, some may be offended. Let’s say Professor Z has an ego. He’s entitled to. He’s a famous performer and sought-after pedagogue. If you set up a trial lesson with him and then he later learns that you have been dating Professor X behind his back, he might not be thrilled.

How to know if your dream professor is the jealous type? The music world is small and word travels fast in every direction. Ask around. If Professor Z is your top choice and you don’t want to wreck your chances for being accepted to his studio, then play it safe and don’t try to “date” other professors at his institution. You could risk losing a shot at his studio and, if he blocks you with his vote on the panel, you could lose your chance to be in Professor X’s studio, too. Better not to have any any trial lessons than one too many.

How do I get a trial lesson? You’ve been honing those stalking skills since your MySpace days. Now they’re going to pay off. Sure, a few lucky students have an in with Professor Z because he's best friends with their pre-college teacher, who will set a lesson up for them. But everyone else, like you, is on her own.

If your current teacher can’t give you Professor’s Z’s contact information, scour the conservatory website (some sites do list faculty email addresses.) But the official college email may not to be the best address for contact. If you don't hear back after a week or so, call the conservatory office and ask if you can leave a message for Professor Z. If you know any of his current or former students, ask them for his real email address.

Some professors, especially older ones, don’t use email, or don’t check it much. Or perhaps they are so inundated with requests that they are slow to respond. Leave a message at the conservatory office, or if you can find the professor’s phone number, try calling him directly. Consider writing him a letter (on actual paper) and sending it to his faculty mailbox. My daughter had a hard time setting up a lesson with one professor who was traveling extensively and communicated only by (of all things) fax. After many trips back and forth to Staples she finally arranged to meet him in a city where he was touring. It was worth the effort. She eventually was accepted to his studio and was startled to receive the news by email (from his wife’s account.)

What if my dream teacher doesn't give trial lessons? Some teachers are so squashed for time, they don't offer lessons outside their studio. Consider not using the term “lesson” when you approach a teacher cold. Simply ask if you can "play for her". “Playing for” the teacher is less of a commitment. Even if you are together for only twenty minutes, you’ll still get to talk and get a sense of each other, and the teacher will feel less pressured. Be flexible. A teacher might invite you to play for her briefly, and then observe another student’s lesson. Or she might invite you to sit in on her studio class.

Some teachers have a policy against trial lessons because they prefer to see students for the first time in auditions. If Professor Y is your dream teacher, but she won’t consent to a trial lesson, see if you can arrange to play for her in a masterclass at your pre-college, or attend a summer program where she teaches. Easier said than done? Don’t worry: take comfort that everyone else applying to her studio is in the same boat. Once you are accepted into her studio (also easier said than done!), you can call her and request a lesson, to help with your final choice.

What about money? Keep in mind that the teacher is a busy professional who deserves compensation for her time. She is under no obligation to give trial lessons and is not compensated by the conservatory for these activities. It's not her problem that you have traveled halfway across the country at considerable expense to "play for" her. Come prepared to pay.

It’s best to ask her fee up front, when arranging the lesson. If this is uncomfortable or impossible, or if you forget, bring a blank check (or a stack of twenties.) My daughters have been given many free trial lessons by gracious teachers, but just as often they have paid, ranging from $40 (from a teacher who admitted, “Oh, I never know what to charge for these things!” to $275 (from a highly sought-after teacher who stated his fee clearly up front.)

Should parents attend trial lessons? Absolutely not. And no lurking in the hallway or listening through the door. When the lesson is over and the two of you are well out of earshot, it can be useful to listen to your kid's impressions of the lesson because reviewing the details will help her cement the memory of the experience for future reference.




From Gene Wie
Posted on September 27, 2013 at 12:54 AM
Students, one extra hint:

If a teacher works with you during your trial lesson on anything specific, especially in your audition repertoire, it had better be much improved when you arrive at your actual audition. Many times, it is a check to see whether you are truly able to make use of the information you are given and apply it in a meaningful way over a short period of time.

From Brian Kelly
Posted on September 27, 2013 at 3:57 AM
All this is so far from my world. Thank you for the posts. I find them a fascinating insight to the world of professional musicians and their students.
From Karen Rile
Posted on September 27, 2013 at 8:47 AM
Thank you for your comment, Gene. This is a great point. The teacher will be interested to see if you have improved (and if you were able to integrate her specific suggestions into your audition.)

Problematically, sometimes the suggestions don't line up with your home teacher's instruction.

Another issue is that if you have lessons with more than one person on the panel, you may have received conflicting advice from them: now, there is a dilemma!

From Gene Wie
Posted on September 27, 2013 at 5:52 PM
Well, that's not too difficult a choice to make. The student should go with the suggestions of the person they want to study with! :)
From Thessa Tang
Posted on September 28, 2013 at 8:43 AM
A trial lesson can be positively enlightening. Our daughter was innocently accepting invites to perform at music societies & arts festivals. Naturally, she felt quite good about herself even though she seemed unhappy with her playing (privately and on the quiet side she felt somewhat concerned about her technique which she suspected was in some ways lacking). Then she discovered from a trial/masterclass lesson that she was much worse than her suspicions. She has no foundation; she has no technique; she needed to be placed on open strings. Imagine hearing that shocking fact at a later age. So for one/some, a trial lesson can have a huge advantage. It can be a timely "saving" experience or "salvage" operation (a confirmation cum assurance) to inspire you to work even harder if you love music.
From Thessa Tang
Posted on September 28, 2013 at 11:50 AM
Can someone correct if I'm wrong but was it Arnold Steinhardt whom Galamian thought could play the violin but had no technique/zero bow technique when he entered Curtis? Steinhardt hadn't a clue until that lesson? Maybe if he has had a trial lesson, Galamian might have refused to teach him!
From Karen Rile
Posted on September 28, 2013 at 6:25 PM
I think I remember that anecdote from his book Violin Dreams. Steinhardt is such a modest and charming writer!

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