passing out


Calvin’s take on testing, by the inimitable Bill Watterson

Note: This post was edited on August 28, 2019 to fix/replace broken links.

Alternate title: acing those placement exams.

Congratulations! You made it past auditions, and now you get to be a fancy masters or doctoral student and live out all your fantasies of striding down the halls of the music building while wee undergrads swivel their heads in awe! Not so fast, though: there’s just one more hurdle to leap over. (As if those applications, pre-screenings, and auditions weren’t enough. But come on, if you wanted life to be easy, you wouldn’t be a musician.)


The theory and history placement exams nearly all incoming graduate students will have to take are just preliminary assessments to see where your theory/history level is at. So theoretically, you don’t have to study at all, particularly if (a) you’re a theory/history BAMF and could practically teach a class yourself, or (b) you’re happy to wither away, wasting hours of your life in remedial classes while your peers are practicing, performing, etc.

Neither of those options are for me! So, let’s study together! Yay! Here are some resources for your summer reviewing pleasure.

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the piano teacher’s guide to student misbehavior

Most musicians teach young students at some point in their lives, if not throughout their careers, and it’s certainly one of the best ways to make a positive and direct impact on a child’s life. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy money! Teaching children requires you to navigate an endless array of emotions and learning styles, and requires the patience to understand where a student (particularly a misbehaving one) is coming from, so that you can guide them to the place where they are ready and able to learn. That’s why I was so happy to stumble across this list of ideas for dealing with misbehaving students, and hopefully they will help some of you too.

Read “The Piano Teacher’s Guide to Student Misbehavior” here.

How do you deal with difficult students?

edition addiction

With manuscripts like these, no wonder there are so many different editions out there. (Manuscript for Beethoven's string quartet Op. 131.)

With manuscripts like these, no wonder there are so many different editions out there. (Manuscript for Beethoven’s string quartet Op. 131.)

One of my top expenses as a music student is, well, music. Buying scores can get so costly, and there are so many different editions out there to choose from! That’s why I asked my good friend Andrew (who is much more knowledgeable than I about these kinds of things) if he would write up an edition guide, to save the rest of us pianists from decision fatigue and undue worry about whether that one note in the third measure should be an A or a G. While he writes from a pianist’s perspective, I have no doubt that these guidelines will help other instrumentalists as well. Without further ado…

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on pre-screenings

Photo by Will Fisher.

It’s that wonderful time of year again: the air chills into a November crisp, bakeries and cafés are flooded with the scent of pumpkin everything, students with book-laden bags shuffle across campus through flurries of gold and crimson leaves–and graduating music students hole themselves up in dank practice rooms till ungodly hours, start losing copious amounts of hair, and consume indecent amounts of caffeine.


One of the most important parts of your application as a music student is your pre-screening recording, which is a requirement for most reputable music schools across the United States. Now, recording is a very different creature from live performance. The good thing about recording is that you can start over if you mess up during a piece. The bad thing about it? You can start over if you mess up during a piece. “Maybe I should just re-do it” can be a hideously distracting thought that nags you for the whole piece after even the tiniest slip, and giving in to that thought too often will lead to frustration and a dozen unusable takes. So, here are some of the things I like to keep in mind when recording:

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5 things to take out of your bio right now

You wish you looked as good as Shostakovich while writing your bio.

Let’s continue the business theme started by last week’s post (“artist or entrepreneur? why not both?“). There are several things that are important for a musician to have whenever they apply for a school, competition, festival, or music-related job, and those are: the résumé, the repertoire list, the bio, and the headshot. Chances are, you’ve already written a bio (if not, look up some of your favorite musicians and see what their bios look like! They often list schools attended, primary teachers, any honors/awards accrued, distinctions in competitions and festivals, and ensembles played in). But many people (myself included) often neglect to update and streamline their bios–and there are always ways to do that! Check out Dale Trumbore’s very helpful guide 5 Things to Take Out of Your Bio Right Now.

Additional reading:

artist or entrepreneur? (why not both?)

You wish you looked as good as Scriabin while writing your grant proposals.

One thing I love about young musicians today is how creative and bold they are. It can be easy to settle into the conventional groove of teaching (which–don’t get me wrong–is an art in itself and one of the most worthwhile careers out there!), which is why it’s inspiring to see my peers also find ways to perform and bring music to life in innovative ways, mostly through starting their own groups and creating opportunities for themselves, instead of waiting for opportunity to come knocking.

Being in charge of your own musical group sounds like an ideal situation–you get to work with people you like; you have control over what repertoire you play; you can experiment with tradition and innovation. But the one thing that gets in the way? Money (or rather, lack thereof)–and how you report that money when tax season rolls around. With great power comes great responsibility, and there’s a lot of paperwork involved in being in charge of your own career/your group’s career. Thankfully, there are some resources out there to help shed some light on a subject that is murky and unfamiliar for many musicians.

Are there any resources you would add to the list?

“how do you say that again?”

While the most famous composers are spared from the indignities of name-butchering (most people know that it’s not “John Sebastian Batch” or “Frederic Choppin'”), there are still some composers whose exotic names easily lead to some pretty confusing, tongue-tangling, stutter-inducing renditions. Hopefully this post will clear some of the confusion out of the air!

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the practice of practicing

Baby Stephen Hough! Awww.

Published a little while ago, but it’s still a worthwhile article to read and re-read: the brilliant Stephen Hough talks about how to approach practicing, and doles out tips that are sage, practical, and concise–a rare and praiseworthy combination. “The purpose of practising is so that we (offstage as engineers) make sure that we (onstage as pilots) are completely free to fly to the destination of our choice. That destination is one involving imagination and creativity and spirituality and danger and ecstasy of course, not merely the A to B of playing the notes, but without the nuts and bolts in place we will never be airborne. The greatest interpretative vision of the final pages of the final sonata of Beethoven will nosedive to oblivion if we can’t play an even trill.” Read the full article here.

What has been one of your biggest practice breakthroughs?

31 days to better practicing

Looking for a way to refresh your practice routine for the new year? A friend sent me a link to this free ebook ages ago, and I just realized recently how great a resource it would be to share on this blog. The author, pianist Chris Foley, takes you through 31 mini-chapters discussing various aspects of practice, such as working backwards, memorizing, and structuring practice time. He’s clear, concise, and practical, and a review of the basic and not-so-basic concepts he discusses is great inspiration for anyone looking to structure their practice time more efficiently!

Get the book here.

how to fit in with the orchestra kids

If you’re a pianist, it’s likely that there’s one genre of classical music that’s still a little foreign to your fingers: orchestral works. In this completely thorough (and entertaining!) guide, pianist/composer Lo explains what pianists should know when playing in an orchestra, so that you don’t have to learn those lessons the hard way. Click the image below to view the guide!