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Preparing an Audition Program

As the conservatory audition season cycles in once again

—as predictable as the ice and snow that always accompanies it in my neck of the woods—it has occurred to me that a simple checklist for teachers might be useful in preparing guileless students for what lies in store. Thus the following brief suggestions for "less pain, more gain":

1) A year before auditions—in the winter of their junior year—students should consult the websites of schools that interest them to check audition requirements. Every year I get numerous inquiries from students asking if we really care whether they play a Bach invention or a Bach prelude and fugue. We do. Does it really matter if their repertoire is memorized? It does. 

2) As soon as students choose their repertoire, they should be able to tell anyone who asks what it is. That means they should know the key and opus number. If they're playing a Bach prelude and fugue, they should know which book it's from. If they're playing a Mozart sonata, they should know the Köchel number. If they're playing a piece by Debussy, they should know its approximate pronunciation—now easy as pie with computer pronunciation aids. The word trois, for instance, should not sound like a city mentioned by Homer!

3) If asked to prepare a contemporary selection, students should consider that repertoire by composers such as Bartók and Prokofiev, while wonderful, is now close to 100 years old. They may want to investigate more recent literature, knowing that by doing so, they will appear curious and adventurous to the faculty hearing them and will also have engaged them-selves in music of their own time.

4) By Thanksgiving of their senior year, if not before, students should be doing run-throughs of their entire program. These should include complete performances before an audience and mock auditions where they are rudely interrupted and asked to proceed to the next piece. Ideally, at least some of these run-throughs should take place on a stage, on a concert grand if possible, and always with the music rack removed. (This latter detail is both so easy to do and so easily overlooked—the sound a pianist hears changes markedly when the rack is removed; why not anticipate that change?)

5) Students should make both audio and video recordings of their repertoire, preferably multiple times before performing. This will have the dual advantage of making them listen critically to themselves and also preparing them for the eventuality that their audition will be recorded. Auditions are, in fact, recorded frequently if students are auditioning off campus or if a faculty member cannot be present at the live audition. Recent technology has made such recording remarkably easy: most computers and smartphones come equipped with built-in microphones and recording capabilities, and iPods can easily and inexpensively have microphones added. Teachers can record performances at lessons and then listen together with students, providing and highlight-ing incontrovertible evidence of any misguided ways!

6) Students should be prepared to play major and minor scales and arpeggios in all keys, if asked, and most particularly know the scales and arpeggios of all pieces they are performing.

7) Many auditions include a sight-reading component. Students should practice sight-reading daily, preferably from a very early age, but it's never too late to start! They should be taught that continuity is paramount and that one NEVER begins playing without consulting both tempo marking and key signature. 

8) And, of course, to successfully consult a tempo marking, students must know musical terminology. It should not be possible for a student to arrive at an audition not knowing what andante or allegro means. Perhaps scorrevole or ruvido might draw a blank, but not basic tempo markings.

9) Once students have decided where to audition and have prepared their repertoire, they should consider not only a school visit, but also a sample lesson from teachers who interest them. Depending upon geographical proximity, this can entail a separate trip or can be arranged in conjunction with audition days. Most teachers are happy to meet with serious prospective students; it's to everyone's benefit to know if a good match can be made, and the sooner that's established—before a teacher's studio fills up—the better.

10) Lastly, students should know that if they're well-prepared for an audition—with their repertoire well-memorized, their tempos correct, their sense of style appropriate, their knowledge of the score thorough—a few small mistakes (slight memory slips, a missed run or two) will NOT be the determining factor in their admission to most institutions. Like any other audience, the faculty members listening want to be moved. They want to hear students who have something to say with their music and the equipment to say it. They are not in the business of seeking out perfect robots to fill out their rosters. 

At Lawrence, where I teach, we go out of our way to spend time with students and their families during audition days, to get to know who they are—both as musicians and human beings—and, likewise, to let them know us. Ideally, music is about communicating, and we try to make our audition days the first of many occasions when we listen hard to one another. Teachers of high-school students can help make sure that what we hear is the very best of what a student has to offer, and we, in turn, as part of that most-unfortunately named "jury," can do our best to convey to everyone involved that we are not engaged in trial and prosecution! We much prefer to say "welcome!"

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