February 2014

A Parent's Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 17: How Do You Pay For It?

February 27, 2014 17:26

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

How do you pay for it?

That’s the $64,000 question.* 

In an economy characterized by stagnant wages, and pay cuts, and layoffs, most of us find it challenging just to keep up with monthly bills, let alone to save significantly for our kids' college education. Meanwhile, as family resources shrivel, tuitions soar—500%, since 1985. Unlike our parents' generation, we will end up shouldering a considerable burden on behalf of our children's higher education. Gone are the days when it was possible for college students to "work their way through" with a couple of jobs and a low-interest loan they could pay off before the dust settled on their diplomas.

Welcome to the new Fellowship of the Eternally Worried. It's a big club; you have a lot of company. Excluded are: one-percenters; parents of bona fide prodigies who will garner full rides wherever they land; and full professors at the few remaining universities that offer tuition remission at outside institutions. Everyone else, as they say, pays cash. Or 6.41%.**

If you've got a high school senior in the house, you are by now familiar with the alphabet soup that is EFC, COAFAFSA, CSS, and IDOC. And even if you suspect your income level places you above the threshold for receiving need-based financial aid, you are probably still required to complete these forms and other institutional surveys in order for your child to be considered for merit aid. (For those with younger kids, or who need a refresher, here's a concise, up-to-date, general discussion by Troy Onink in Forbes.)

First-time parents with students applying to multiple schools are often shocked by the volume and complexity of the invasive documentation demanded of them during this process. All this paperwork might be a practical, if not pleasant, distraction during the anxious wait-period between auditions and results. But unfortunately most of the deadlines are painfully early, coinciding with the heat of audition season, a frantic time when you are already trying to shoehorn multiple trips into your schedule. So you burn the midnight oil. And, if you weren't ready to file your tax return in early February (who is?), you'll need to revisit the process when you file your corrected forms in March.

When your kid's financial packages arrive, typically a week or so after admission offers, you may be startled to discover wide discrepancies in the amount and types of aid your student receives from various schools, despite the uniformity of the information you plugged into all the required forms. This is because each school has its own formula for calculating aid. And even within a school, aid offers for families of similar income may vary considerably from one student to the next, both in amount and in proportion of grant to loan.

Elite academic schools, such as the Ivies so-called Potted Ivies generally do not give merit or talent grants. Their aid, they say, is totally need-based. Elite schools with hefty endowments offer grant-only packages (i.e., no student loans to repay) and guarantee to meet 100% of  "demonstrated financial need", as determined by the FAFSA and CSS. Many parents are aghast to learn that their EFC (Expected Family Contribution) is tens of thousands of dollars higher than what they believe they can afford. FAFSA bases its EFC mainly on parent income and the number of students currently in college. If you have an older student in college, and have taken out Plus loans, you are already aware that these loan payments are due within 60 days of dispersal. You may be paying thousands a month for years against your older children's tuition, but FAFSA will not factor any of this debt into your "need". When that older child graduates, your EFC will double.

By contrast, conservatories tend not to have enormous endowments, so, for starters, you will not find very many of them pledging to meet 100% of demonstrated need—Oberlin and Rice are among the few who do.  But, unlike elite academic schools, most conservatories offer talent-based scholarships, ranging from 100% tuition, room, and board for all accepted students (Colburn), to full-tuition for all students (Curtis, the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings), to a combination package based on the institution's own formula. This is good news for parents who might not qualify for financial aid, but still need help with tuition.

Another sometimes-overlooked source of financial aid for conservatory students is the merit-based academic aid. If your student has excellent high school grades and standardized test scores, she will receive an automatic tuition discount at state-supported schools such as Temple or Indiana University, both of which happen to have high level conservatories. (The same grades and scores will buy you nothing at independent conservatories like Juilliard or NEC.)

It's important to realize that talent and academic merit grants from a university are generally applied  against the "need" portion of your financial aid award. In other words, if a school decides that your student's financial need is $25,000 and your student wins a $5,000 audition-based talent grant, the overall award will remain at $25,000, not $30,000. On the other hand, if your need is determined to be 0, and your student wins the same $5000 talent grant, his award will be $5000. Talent and merit awards are, essentially, tuition discounts that help pull in students who would not be eligible for need-based financial aid under the school's formula.

Here are a few tips to help you sort through your mail:

  • Figure out whether the award is need-based or talent-based, and, if both, in what proportion. Not every financial aid package makes it clear which is which, and it's worth a call to the financial aid office to ask if the grant portion of the award is guaranteed for four years. A need-based award could drop dramatically if your family's financial situation improves or if a sibling graduates from college. A merit-based grant will not increase, even when tuition inevitably increases, or if your financial situation suddenly worsens.

  • Most schools will calculate loans into your package. These can include Stafford Loans, both subsidized (3.86%, $23,000 max over 4 years) and unsubsidized (now 3.86%, % 31,000 over 4 years), Perkins Loans (up to $5500/year at 5%), and Parent Plus loans (6.41% up to the cost of attendance.) When my daughter auditioned for colleges a few years ago, I was surprised to read one statement that listed a $10,000 merit award, $3000 of work-study, and $40,000 of (yearly) loans for her and for us, and ended with the statement "Full need met."

  • Your student may also receive an offer for Federal Work Study or institutional-funded work study. This figure represents money that your student can, potentially, earn, but that is not guaranteed. Depending on the situation at the college, it can be difficult to secure a work-study job, and the relatively low wages can eat up a significant amount of your student's schedule. Work-study grants are nice, but they are not money "in your pocket" that can be used to pay upcoming bills.

*The estimated COA (Cost of Attendance) for the Cleveland Institute of Music was $61,399 for 2013-2014.
** The current interest rate on a Parent Plus loan. A bargain compared to 7.9% when my middle daughters started college.

Next week: More on money.


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

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A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 16: On Cockeyed Optimism

February 20, 2014 18:20

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

Abington Arts Center

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for? --Robert Browning

When I was a kid, I came home from school one day and found a new book on the coffee table. It seemed pretty dull, except for the mod-looking lower-case red-and-orange typeface on the title:


That sounded to me more like an instruction manual for dealing with deranged robots than something that would belong to either of my parents, a couple of former art history majors whose shelves were otherwise packed with beautiful art and design books.

Psycho-cybernetics, turns out, was on loan from my grandfather, who'd recently returned from stint overseas as a civilian engineer in the air force. That was his second career, which he embarked on after early retirement from the telephone company because he wanted to travel the world. Now he was working on his third career: living to age 100. Living to age 100 was practically a full-time job for a retired man in his late sixties. A meticulous researcher, he'd designed for himself a strange-seeming low-triglyceride, low-impact diet-and-exercise program predictive of nutrition and exercise fads that would become fashionable thirty years in the future, as he grew close his goal.

The third prong of my grandfather's live-to-100 plan was psychological. He believed in positive thinking, hence the Psycho-Cybernetics, which my mom excitedly explained to me, was all about improving performance by visualizing positive outcomes. She brought up the example of a basketball player who practiced by vividly recreating a game in his head. According to the book, this technique helped improve the outcome of his real-life game. "Positive thinking, it's important!" said my mom, herself a natural optimist. "Your brain is your most powerful organ."

While my grandfather was busy visualizing longevity and excellent health, I tested out the theory in math class. Turns out, actually doing the homework problems is a better predictor for a good grade than merely daydreaming about one's triumph over algebra. I had similar luck when it came to the imaginary practicing of Czerny etudes for my mercurial Viennese piano teacher. Visualizing didn't help—well, nothing did. No matter how much I practiced or slacked; no matter how much I visualized or suppressed, I was never going to play well enough to please my teacher. I was her studio dunce. Later, against better judgement and the advice of friends and family, I tried out for the 7th grade basketball team. By night, I lay in bed imagining myself nailing jump shots in front of cheering crowds. By day, I froze in terror on the rare occasion anyone even passed me the ball. For good reason I was cut from the team before the first game.

When I got to college, I took a psych class with Martin Seligman, a popular professor. At the time, he was busy promoting his theory of Learned Helplessness, which struck a deep chord for me. Those wretched caged lab dogs, shocked and rewarded randomly, grew depressed because they quickly learned that nothing they could do would predict or affect their fate. I could feel their pain: it was like Czerny all over again.

Years later, Seligman wrote a series of best-selling books and achieved national prominence as the father of the Positive Psychology movement, which looks at the idea of Learned Helplessness from the other side of the glass. Learned Optimism suggests that, through the practice of cognitive behavioral techniques, you can teach yourself to reinterpret and reframe experience in an optimistic way, leading to a more positive future.

The implications of these sorts of theories for performing artists—or for that matter for anyone engaged in pursuit of a goal that depends on self-reliance and risk-taking—are tremendous, which explains the popularity of these theories and their many spinoffs. You can do it! Shake a tree and it will rain down pop psychologists and motivational speakers hawking books about positive thinking. No, you can't!  Shake another, and dodge the deluge of naysayers against the bright-siding of our culture.

A few days ago, the New Yorker blog ran an opinion piece by NYU marketing professor Adam Alter, "The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking", which got me to thinking back to the days of


In his essay, Alter shoots a few fish in a barrel—fluffy self-help "manifestos" that are unsupported by scientific evidence. "Like religion, they offer an appealing, non-technical solution to life’s biggest problems while demanding nothing more of their adherents than faith." Then he cites the work of his NYU colleague, social psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, whose controlled experiments suggests that positive fantasies are an impediment success...and maybe even lead to economic downturns.

Alter quotes London School of Economics management professor Heather Barry Kappes, who bluntly charges, “Imagining a positive outcome conveys the sense that you’re approaching your goals, which takes the edge off the need to achieve,” and journalist Oliver Burkeman, whose recent book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, posits, “Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

So which is correct? Does optimism truly narcotize one's drive to achieve? Does it really put you off the Triple Package path? For one thing, I would like to point out that there's a difference between passive, complacent fantasizing and active optimism. When my grandfather was in his mid-sixties he hoped to live to 100 and—spoiler alert!—he did, and a bit beyond. But he got there through a combination of optimism, yes, and planning, self-discipline, and good luck (great genes, no airplane accidents.) My mom, whose theme song when I was little was "Cockeyed Optimist" from the musical South Pacific, overcame an economically deprived childhood and physical challenges to become the first college graduate in her family (an Ivy League, at that), and then went on to a long entrepreneurial career in a field so difficult that few of her colleagues managed to swim along beside her through the years. Oh, and somewhere in the mix she found the time to raise four kids. Knowing what I do now about life, I look back at what she accomplished in amazement. She did it because, despite what other people told her about her limitations, she didn't believe that she could not.

I'd probably describe myself as a hopeful pessimist—or, perhaps, a realist—at heart. But, growing up, my mom always pushed me outside of my comfy shell. I learned early that when I release my imagination and take a calculated risk, I am occasionally rewarded splendidly enough for my courage that it mitigates the disappointments of my ventures that fail. That's why I encouraged my own four daughters to cultivate some calculated cockeyed optimism, to take the occasional risk that requires them to step outside their "place".

When my violinist-daughter was a high school senior, her violin teacher advised her to aim for the stars. She applied only to "reach" conservatories, no safety schools. When I heard about this advice, it made me nervous—well, what if she didn't make it? But her teacher had also prepared my daughter with excellent instruction, and this my daughter had responded to, in turn, with tenaciously hard work. The gamble paid off, or it has so far, at least. If I live to be a hundred (not one of my personal goals, by the way) surely, I'll witness some ups and downs. Every life has them. But the ability to look beyond your circumstance and imagine the better thing, and the courage to put your plan into action, that is what will get you there.

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

Archive link

A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions, Part 15: After the Audition, or, Thinking About Polar Bears

February 13, 2014 15:04

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


A high school senior was trying out for a competitive acting program. When she finished reciting her monologues the program director smiled at her and said, “Sometimes we want to jump across the table and offer a position on the spot, but we are required to wait.” She took his words as a tacit acceptance and looked forward to her official confirmation.

Come April, she was rejected.

And then there’s the kid who played her flute audition for a irritated-looking panel who barely glanced up from their paperwork and donuts except to cut her off her a few minutes into her concerto. She went home miserable, certain that she had bombed.

She was accepted.

Everybody’s heard these stories, or similar. Everybody knows you can’t glean squat from the reaction (or perceived reaction) of the panel. Yet it’s almost impossible not to rerun the audition in your mind. Was that a facial tic or a twitch of disapproval over my interpretation of the Bach? Was that a sigh of appreciation or disgust? Were they furiously taking notes—or writing out their sandwich choices? Every micro-second, combed-over and analyzed for clues.

But here's the thing about your memory: it isn’t reliable. What were you doing at 11:17 last Thursday morning? (I thought so; I can't say, either.) Your memory isn't a video recording that you can play back at will to analyze for clues. Immediately after we experience an event, that moment evaporates forever. We forget most of what we experience, although, if an event is significant enough, we may recall chronological markers such as the day, or even the exact hour and minute. (Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?)

When my daughter auditioned for the music conservatory she now attends, there was a giant digital clock in the room. She glanced at it on the way in and the way out; this is how she knew for certain that the audition lasted all of seven minutes. She left with an impression that the panel leader (who would later become her teacher) did not remember her from her trial lesson with him a few weeks earlier—because he called her by a different name and then asked for a Bach movement not on her program. She left with an impression that she nailed the Prokofiev, but that the opening of the Bach was out of tune. But the only thing she knew for certain was the length of the audition, which seemed short. Beyond the most rudimentary outline of the experience, her memory of what occurred was but an emotionally charged re-imagining—a creative nonfiction, if you will.

In my college writing class I assign an exercise, borrowed from the great John Gardner, to describe a landscape three times: from the point of view of a bird, a child, and a someone who has just committed a murder. The purpose is to practice controlling the tone of a neutral scene by filtering it through three distinct emotional states. It's a great technical workout for writers, but here, too, is a life lesson for all of us. Our emotional state, both during an event and during the subsequent remembering, adds color and pulls in subjective detail that may or may not have existed in the actual moment. How did you feel walking out of the audition room? Relieved? Shaken? Elated? Ashamed? These emotions influence the features that come together in your mind to create the "remembered" experience.

Our initial memory of an incident is not identical to the experience itself; it is already one level removed in the direction of fiction; its colors are more saturated. And as we translate the memory into a cohesive narrative, we further embroider this re-imagination of our experience. With each iteration, the varnish on our story hardens. If we go as far as to write the memory down, as I'm doing here, the tale is further enhanced and altered—regardless of the pains we take to be transparent and truthful. This is because, unlike life itself, a written-down story acquires narrative purpose. The story has its own life now, and has now completely replaced the event. It is has become a work of creative nonfiction.


I repeat a story in my own head often enough that I feel as if I were with her in the room, and not stuck out in the waiting room with three dozen other anxious, knitting-and-solitaire-playing parents. In my mind's eye, I see my youngest daughter walking confidently into her NYU acting audition. Her hair is henna-tinted, freshly cut, and the bangs are pulled back. She’s wearing that eggplant-colored dress she got from ModCloth, her flat black shoes, and the good-luck necklace her acting coach gave her at their last session. The auditor is wearing a black turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses, and he’s not looking up because he’s struggling with the iPad the admissions committee gave him to record his thoughts. The iPad won’t connect to the building's WiFi. He can’t log in. She wonders if she is supposed to offer to help, but instead waits politely.

Finally he gives up on the iPad and she performs her monologues for him. He chuckles in the right places in the comic monologue, always a good sign, and then interviews her about her other-than-acting passions. She speaks of her interest in social justice, playwriting, and aerial acrobatics. He seems to relate to what she's saying; he writes nothing down.

After she leaves the audition we google him. So I now know what he looks like—or, at least, I've seen his headshot online. With this added visual information (glasses, turtleneck), the scene blossoms more vivid to me than my memory of many events I actually lived through. Months later, when she receives her acceptance and her strangely inappropriate, in our opinion, studio assignment, I conjure up the scene again and use it to further hone my narrative of what happened. My story now goes like this: unable to make notes on the iPad, he remembered her audition monologues favorably but could not recall the interview well enough to recommend the best studio fit. So he chose at random. If she'd been placed into the studio that she felt would have been appropriate for a trapeze-flying, politically active playwright, my story would have gone a different way. Creative nonfiction.


The conventional advice is, the instant you walk out of that audition, you should put it out of your head. Don't dwell or second-guess. Go on with your compartmentalized life. Do your calculus homework. Practice those arpeggios. Binge-watch all nine seasons of Scrubs. And whatever you do, don't think about polar bears. In my daughters' cases, their teachers held up to them for admiration examples of students who walked out their auditions and never looked back, because nothing more could be done.

Maybe I rationalize my need for looking back because I lack the self-discipline and psychic energy to suppress my imagination. I'm no good at playing whack-a-mole with polar bears. Our lives are little stories, stitched together from bright scraps that we save and augment throughout the years. A memory can be bent towards the comic or tragic, sometimes both, depending on context. If we willfully forget these artifacts of experience, what is left? 



1 reply

The Birth-Order Theory

February 6, 2014 17:32

The Theory of Birth Order

The other day my youngest daughter sent me a Facebook message—which is an event in itself because when she’s away at college she doesn’t call or text much. She’s always been that way: independent and self-reliant, ever since she was a little girl. So when the notification lit up on my phone screen, my heart jumped. I clicked right away to see what was up.

In your next blog, can you debunk this stupid theory?

She’d attached a link to a recent Huffington Post article, “The Achiever, the Peacemaker and the Life of the Party: How Birth Order Affects Personality”, a pop psychology piece ending with some breezy advice about adjusting one’s parenting style to compensate for personality differences driven by birth order.

“…understanding that a first-born child feels highly responsible allows you to lighten their load and recognizing that the baby of the family is experiencing a more lenient environment can help you be more diligent in your discipline.”

Naturally, my youngest would be irritated by the tone of this essay, which advocates preemptive, “diligent” discipline for youngest children, who are, supposedly, charming, irresponsible, and spoiled—“the life of the party.” Well, that’s not her. She is serious-minded, self-motivated, a bit of an introvert, and she almost never asks for help or favors. Except this time: please debunk the theory. I could see her point. I promised to get on it.

Then I got to thinking. The birth-order theory, brainchild of early 20th century psychotherapist Alfred Adler, is yet another reflection of our deep human urge to catalogue everyone and everything. Of course, it's just a hypothetical construct with very little research to back it up. But life, including family life, seems more manageable broken down into discrete units. It’s why we invented kingdom, phylum, Köchel numbers, and the Dewey Decimal System. It’s why we love our Myers-Briggs tests and Cosmo quizzes. (Which Downton Abbey Character Are You?) We jump at the opportunity to sort and tag ourselves, even when the categories don’t make sense (I mean, really? I got Thomas.)

The birth-order theory is so ingrained in our collective imagination that even a second-grader might reference it as if it were a fact of nature. Around the time my youngest girl was born, I remember her oldest sister, who was seven, pronouncing the four-year-old to be a “typical middle child”. The imperious sound of Number One's voice (typical oldest child!) made the adults in earshot burst out laughing.

But when I look closer at my own four kids, I find them too slippery to pin to familiar archetypes. One middle child is not so conciliatory; the other’s a natural leader. The youngest isn't “the life of the party”; the oldest is off in her own world hardly interested in dominating her sibs. Same with other families I know—friends, the family I grew up in. The personality stereotypes are fun to play with, but they’re reductive, over-simplified, and often quite wrong. In other words, nothing to base your parenting philosophy on.

And yet, the accident of birth order has had a profound effect on my children's lives, if only by happenstance of the very different sets of opportunities and advantages they received. When our oldest was little, her whims naturally dictated our family's interests. It was her idea to study violin, at age five. Her little sisters were swept along for the ride, but it's not clear to us that music would have become a central part of our family's life if not for her initial, almost capricious, request.

What if her initial impulse had been to study dance, or horseback riding? This spring, her little sister, our third daughter will graduate with a conservatory degree in violin performance. If Number Three had been born first, likely she would not have been introduced to music so naturally, and at such a young age. Would she even be a musician? As a small girl, my my violinist-daughter demonstrated considerable talent for physical coordination and excelled in gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and capoeira. If she'd been born first, our family's energies would probably have been channeled differently. Now my oldest (who abandoned violin at sixteen) is deeply and professionally involved in aerial theater, a discipline she came to relatively late. Imagine the career advantages she'd have today, had she been born third in family whose extracurricular energies were devoted primarily to gymnastics, rather than music.

Personality differences aside, my older girls enjoyed a childhood during which they were able to investigate new interests as they occurred to them. They had the advantage of being in a position to explore. They set the agenda that the little ones inherited. By turn, my younger daughters' birthright was a vast home library of well-thumbed children's books; a cabinet already stocked with every artist material they could want.

Even better, the younger girls received the rich benefits of age-inappropriate exposure to art, music, and sports as they were dragged along to their older sisters' activities. I would never have thought to expose three- and four-year-olds to classical violin recitals, or Japanese language class, or ice skating lessons. I wouldn't have taken toddlers to a natural science museum, or a six-year-old to see Othello. But that toddler grew up to be a glass artist, who continually experiments with the physics and chemistry of her medium. And the six-year-old, swept along with her sisters to so many Shakespearean plays, grew up to be a playwright.

So, did I debunk the theory? Or did I just replace it with my own (more-obvious, less fanciful theory?)  The latter, I guess, but what else would you expect? I'm an oldest child, after all.



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