Music Mondays: Applying for Music School

Life, Music | September 14, 2015 | By

If our high school experiences were at all similar, you were definitely THAT nerd. You know, the one whose favorite subject was orchestra, the one who was always in rehearsal, and the one who brought his/her instrument to school and practiced during lunch. As you sat one day alternating arpeggios with bites of your brown bag sandwich, I bet you dreamt of a place filled with nerds just like you, where not only would it be socially acceptable to practice during school hours, but expected of you. I bet that’s also when you considered becoming a music major.

And then, we have September, the official beginning of application (and premature pumpkin spice latte) season. I went through the audition process twice – once for college, and once for graduate school – and the processes were almost identical. At the end of each process, I ended up happy with my choice and studying with fantastic teachers. Some would say that’s lucky, but I don’t really agree. While your admission is not technically “up to you,” your success as an applicant is 100% yours to take. I hope these tips I learned along the way make the music school admission process seem not only manageable for you, but exciting! 🙂

Rock Hall Auditorium at my alma mater, Temple University!

In NO particular order of importance:

1) Know What Type(s) of School Interests You

Start by asking yourself:

“Do I want to audition for conservatories, music schools within colleges/universities, or both?”

If you’re not sure, ask yourself:

“Do I want a performance degree, or a degree in a different specialty of music (i.e. Music Education, Music Therapy, etc.)?”

Basically all music schools offer degrees in performance, but if your goal is to go into a specialty like music education or therapy, you’ll find a wider range of choices in universities. Still, some conservatories do offer programs for students interested in these fields, so if a conservatory interests you, be sure to research your options.

“Do I want to take classes in subjects unrelated to music?”

If you want to have a music-based curriculum that also requires non-music classes (writing, humanities, science, etc.), a university may also be a good fit. On the other hand, you might want a curriculum that is almost purely musical, in which case a conservatory may be preferable. However, some conservatories do offer or require select non-music classes, so be sure to check their most recent academic catalogs if you’re curious.

“What size environment works best for me? Do I want a small school, or more of a campus feel?”

This one usually takes a visit to get a feel for, since conservatories and university music schools come in all shapes and sizes. Visiting schools will help you develop a preference on school environment.

2) Know/Contact The Faculty

As music students, who we study with is incredibly important. The private teacher/student relationship needs to be a happy one on both sides for the best teaching and learning to take place. 

Once you’ve picked a list of schools to audition for, go through their faculty lists and see which faculty members you might like to work with. Maybe you’ll recognize some names that you know, or that you or people you know have worked with before. It also doesn’t hurt to ask around for recommendations. Or, maybe you already have a specific teacher(s) in mind!

When you’ve found a teacher or two from a school that you’re interested in studying with, don’t be shy to reach out and express an interest in playing for them. Most professors are more than willing to offer an hour of their time to hear you outside of your audition, since it technically benefits them too. Also, while not every teacher requests compensation for a trial lesson, it’s always good etiquette to offer. Many just ask their typical hourly rate.

And finally, when you go in for an audition, you are one of many applicants. But by playing for a faculty member who may even be at your audition, you are given a chance to demonstrate your abilities and personality as a student beyond your audition. Always a good thing!

3) Know Their Prescreening/Repertoire Requirements

Do your schools require prescreening tapes? If they do, the tapes will be due around Thanksgiving, so knowing your schools’ requirements AS EARLY as possible will give you ample time to prepare. If you do have to send in a prescreening, make sure you’ve had enough sleep and eaten a good breakfast on recording day, and relax – remember that these tapes are meant to show off what you can do! Also remember that unless otherwise specified, prescreening pieces can be used again at the audition.

SO, that said, I recommend lining up ALL of the prescreening and audition requirements for the schools you’re going for and trying to find common ground between them. This will keep your repertoire list as concise as possible, making it easier to learn and manage. FOR EXAMPLE, say you’re auditioning for three schools (I totally made these lists up, but this is a general idea of what you might find on a conservatory audition for violin):

School A:

Two contrasting movements of solo Bach
Two contrasting movements of a standard concerto
A piece written after 1960
A piece of your choice

School B:

A complete solo Bach sonata or partita
A complete standard concerto
A virtuosic showpiece
A piece of your choice

School C:

A slow movement and fugue from any solo Bach sonata, or the Chaconne from Partita No. 2
Two contrasting movements of a standard romantic concerto
A Paganini Caprice
First movement of a Mozart concerto with cadenza


OK, so all these schools need Bach and a standard concerto. But, School C gets pretty specific about Bach and concerto requirements and Schools A and B don’t, so you may choose your Bach and standard concerto based on School C. School C is also the only one that asks for a Paganini Caprice, but that also falls under the same category as School A’s “virtuosic showpiece.”  So at this point, all you have left are the “pieces of your choice,” which you can pull from the other lists – maybe repurpose Paganini for School A, and the contemporary piece for School B.

In this process, we’ve now narrowed down these twelve seemingly different requirements to FIVE pieces – a complete romantic concerto, a complete Bach sonata (or the D Minor partita), a Paganini caprice, a piece written after 1960, and the first movement of a Mozart concerto. 

It seems like a simple concept, but it can take a whole lot of stress out of choosing your repertoire! 

(ALSO, this should go without saying, but be sure you’re aware of academic requirements, especially when considering universities!)

4) Ask Questions You Care About

Whenever I visited a school, I always took a tour. If it was a university, I also toured the music school itself if it was available. This way, I could see the facilities and ask questions to a music student who could answer from experience. If you are unable to take a tour, an admissions representative from the school may be able to answer general questions or put you in contact with a student who can.

Such questions might include:

“What are the practice policies in the music building? Is practicing typically permitted in school housing?”
“What kind of ensembles does the school have?”
“How many recitals are required, and can I also give recitals that aren’t?”
“What other performance opportunities may be available to me?”
“What are the library facilities like?”
“What kind of student-run clubs would I have access to at the music school?”


This can be a scary and uncertain time for sure, but if you’re confident that you are practicing your best and doing everything you can to educate yourself about the schools you’re applying to, you will do just fine. Also remember, only apply to a number of schools that feels manageable to you. Some students prefer to audition at a select few, and others have a longer list, but don’t feel pressure either way. It’s always good to go by the “reach, target, safety” rule of college applications, still keeping in mind that you have auditions to play. And whatever schools you do choose, remember that a healthy and confident mindset going into auditions is your best asset.


PART 2 TO COME: Making the Most Out of Your Years in Music School


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