Students applying to colleges and universities this fall share the tasks of filling out forms, writing essays and getting letters of recommendation. But performing arts students have one extra responsibility, perhaps the most daunting of them all.
It feels like so much rides on those few minutes, during which you may be tired, ill, or just plain nervous. As part of Playbill's Back to School week, PlaybillEDU.com spoke to officials at several top colleges and conservatories who have sat in on dozens, if not hundreds, of auditions. Here are their insider tips for acing yours, customized for music students and theatre students.
For Theatre Students:
Not all theatre schools require an audition, but among the ones that do, many require that students not only apply to the school in general, but also to the individual theatre department. You need to make sure you have completed your audition successfully before you act on the school’s acceptance.
Catherine Weidner, chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at Ithaca College, described the process at her school. Students in Musical Theatre and Acting are required to upload pre-screening materials (two short monologues, and, for MT’s, two song cuts and a dance audition) at the same time they complete their application to Ithaca College. Once a student’s application is complete, faculty members review the pre-screen material, and students who pass are notified to schedule an audition in either Ithaca, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. At those auditions, students take part in a warm-up with two or more faculty, a vocal warm-up and then a 30-minute master class/workshop with faculty, usually consisting of movement work, games and partnering exercises.
To help ensure a successful audition, Weidner urges applicants to “find material that is age-appropriate and is a role you could play right now. Choose material that you love. One of your pieces should be with an imaginary partner so we can see your ability to create an ‘other’ and remain focused on what’s happening between you. Choose contrasting material that shows some range—and a different relationship than your other monologue. Rehearse until it feels like it’s a part of you, and you enjoy telling the story.”
Avoid the common mistakes Weidner has seen:
1. Pay attention to your volume. Weidner has heard a lot of screaming—not a good thing.
2. Trust yourself. Many applicants have trouble trusting they are “enough.”
3. Choose wisely. Too many auditioners pick material using lots of profanity or sexually-charged language.
4. Tell a story.
5. Dress appropriately. Don’t wear six-inch heels to play Emily in Our Town.
Do kids with the benefit of formal training always have an edge? “It’s an audition for a training program, so we’re looking for potential, not finished products,” Weidner says. “We accept people who have little experience and a lot, and everything in between. The secret is to bring who you really are into the room, not the person your coach, teacher or parents want you to be. This is your time, and you will be the one doing the work, wherever you go to school, so relax, take your time, and bring your best work.”
Chris Andersson, director of admissions in the Drama Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, said Tisch welcomes applicants in four areas: acting, music theatre, directing, and production and design. The requirements differ for each. Acting candidates are asked to prepare two contemporary monologues that are contrasting in some way. Music Theatre candidates participate in the same acting evaluation but are also asked to sing two 32-bar cuts (one must be from musical theatre and the other can also be from musical theatre or from another type of music) and dance a little—either live or on video.
Directing candidates do one monologue and then present a directing portfolio for review, which contains a director's notebook (preparation for directing a production—either actual or fantasy) and an understanding of additional directing experience they've had. Production & Design candidates present a design portfolio or a stage manager’s prompt book for an actual or fantasy production. All candidates are invited into a conversation with their evaluators immediately following the review of their artistic work.
Andersson’s tips for a successful audition:
1. Be yourself. Don't try to guess who we might be looking for. We are looking for you. We want to get to know you the artist and you the person through the audition process.
2. Have a series of relaxation and centering exercises that work for you. These will help ground you and allow you to concentrate and present your best self.
3. Be happy to be there. A smile and some positive energy go a long way.
How to avoid the biggest mistakes he sees:
2. Know your audition material well.
3. Research. It’s important to be knowledgeable about the program to which you are applying.
4. Respect. Demonstrate respect for others at the audition.
As for any other special suggestions, Andersson said, “Have fun! We want you to succeed! We're rooting for you! Knock ’em dead!”
For Music Students:
Alex Powell, assistant dean for admissions at the New England Conservatory of Music, said prospective students get the best results if they “push the nerves aside and communicate something through your music. Don’t aim for unattainable perfection—aim for a performance that shows the faculty panel who you are and what you want to share with the world through music. Perform frequently in front of teachers, friends, family, etc. You cannot learn to perform while alone in a practice room.”
Powell advises young musicians not to consider auditioning for a conservatory or conservatory-style program unless you’ve taken private lessons for a few years (or for many years, depending on the instrument) and have some experience performing in high-level ensembles.
Powell says there are several mistakes he commonly sees among auditioners. Here are some tips to avoid those missteps:
1. Communicate. Don’t try to be perfect, try to convey meaning through your performance.
2. Relax. Mentally prepare yourself so that nerves don’t take over.
3. Choose wisely. Students often choose inappropriate repertoire. Playing a piece simply because it is difficult will not fool the judges. Work closely with a private teacher (preferably one who has studied at a program similar to the ones on your audition list) to choose repertoire that shows your strengths.
Melissa Cocco-Mitten, director of admission at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, says audition requirements vary by instrument, but generally last 15-20 minutes. She said that applicants should “remember that your audition begins before you enter the room. Dress appropriately and arrive well-rested. Often, you will meet with an accompanist before the audition. Prepare your music in a binder so that the accompanist has an organized and clean score to play from. If there is an opportunity to rehearse before the audition, seize that opportunity! If not, you will likely have a few moments to run through your music. Use that time wisely, and decide which piece you would like to start the audition with—often, the faculty will let you choose the first piece.”
Then comes the big moment. “When you enter the audition space,” Cocco-Mitten says, “do so with confidence and a smile. It is appropriate to play a few notes in the space, to tune and to breathe before you begin. It will lead to a stronger audition. Don’t allow the audition to become a blur. Participate fully in the experience, and take that moment to breathe, to settle into the audition space and to get in the right frame of mind before starting your audition. While taking ten seconds to become grounded may seem like an eternity, the faculty will not think so. They will want to hear you communicate with confidence and musicality. Choosing repertoire that you are not comfortable with is never a good choice. We would rather hear good intonation, tone and musicianship than chops that are beyond your abilities.”
As an added tip, she suggests, “When possible, arrange consultative lessons with the faculty in your instrument area. This could occur before or after the audition (usually not on the same day as the audition). This will give you the opportunity to demonstrate how you process information, learn and develop musically over the course of a lesson.”
Travis J. Cross, wind ensemble conductor and music department vice chair at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, says, “My biggest tip for auditioners is both obvious and difficult—relax and make music. Everyone listening to your audition wants you to succeed and sound your best. Good preparation is often key—if you feel unprepared, your level of nervousness increases significantly.”
UCLA gives points not just for proficiency, but for personality. “We want to hear a musical point of view. Technical accuracy and fluency are important, and they are largely prerequisites to expression, but they are not enough alone. A strong audition will reveal command of the instrument, musical understanding of the style and performance practice of the work or excerpt, and committed interpretive decisions.”
David F. Stull, president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and former dean of the Oberlin Conservatory, said students should not become obsessed with one or two brand-name schools. “They should follow their instincts and attend an institution that is right for them. Look at Leonard Bernstein. He applied to Juilliard but didn’t get to go because he got his application in late. He wound up at Curtis, and look at the career he had. Yo-Yo Ma went to Harvard—a great school but not perhaps most people’s first choice for a high-profile arts program. And yet, he became a world-class cellist.”
Nearly all music schools maintain a helpful list of requirements for each instrument and voice on their website. These have been chosen by the faculty in each area and vary widely for program and instrument. In general, most studios require one or more major works from the Classical-Romantic repertoire and some music written after 1950; Bach solo works often appear on lists for strings and piano. Vocal students are usually asked for art songs or arias in more than one language.
Many schools also require that applicants send a pre-screening recording that gets evaluated by faculty before live audition invitations are made. Check your preferred schools for the requirements in your area, and start rehearsing.
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