applying for grad school: timeline and resources

So you’re thinking about taking the next academic step in pursuing a musical career! Good for you! There are some big factors to keep in mind when deciding to apply for a master’s degree in music:

  • applying during your senior year of undergrad allows you to take advantage of the momentum you have while still in school.
  • taking a gap year allows you to prepare for auditions/work and save some money/explore new things. As my friend Emilie says, “Applying is a long process of both physical and mental preparation. Taking a gap year is okay because it might make your audition way better and you won’t be so pressed for time. But don’t force yourself to apply right now just because you decided you wanted to go to grad school.” 
  • money for grad school–both applying and attending–is a very real and practical concern, and grad school may present some different financial situations. Emilie: “Different for different people, but maybe it’s more expensive (like if you go from public university to conservatory, or move out, or parents stop paying for your tuition). Application process is expensive – $85 app fee + prescreening fee = over $100 per application – choose wisely!

Once you’ve decided to move forward with your decision to apply (exciting!), here is a general timeline, list of documents you will probably need, and resources to make your application process a little easier (i.e., keep you from tearing your hair out and sinking into a puddle of depression and Doritos).

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Audition advice.

Rodgers, Berlin, Hammerstein, and Helen Tamiris, watching auditions at the St. James Theatre (source)

Many student musicians are now feeling that heart-quickening mixture of excitement and dread as they enter the school audition season. They pack their best clothes and travel to strange cities to play in front of strangers for fifteen minutes…and then return home to await the answer, all the while praying fervently for a positive one.

Auditioning for schools isn’t an easy process, but there are some things we can do to feel more at ease and successful throughout the process. I’m by no means an old hand at auditioning, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of valuable audition advice.

  1. Practice the audition, not just the music. You’ve likely been investing hours into the preparation of your pieces, but hold mock auditions–multiple times–by inviting friends, family, and/or colleagues to sit in front of you and watch you play your audition pieces. Have them follow the audition process by stopping you in the middle of a piece, telling you which piece to play next, and selecting movements in random order.
  2. Visualize a successful audition. This ties into the mock audition: by imagining yourself in a strange studio or auditorium, playing in front of judges, your actual audition will seem less like foreign territory. Rather than putting energy into fears and worries about the unknown, program your mind with positive mental images.
  3. Practice calmly. Especially on audition day, resist the urge to rush through your pieces beginning to end. Play through them slowly and mindfully, start at different sections, and review problem spots calmly and carefully for confidence’s sake.
  4. Don’t apologize for mistakes. A friend once made the astute observation that competitions are about a single performance, but auditions are about potential. Teachers and judges understand that the audition process is nerve-racking, and they don’t expect flawless performances. Rather than letting technical slips distract you, accept the mistake and move on as quickly as possible. Music is a living, breathing, emotional art, and you’re not there to show that you can play a Beethoven sonata without missing any notes–you’re there to show that you’ve worked hard and that you’re passionate about and invested in music.
  5. Be memorable. The faculty might see dozens of hopeful students in a day, and hundreds of them in a month. Besides ensuring that your musical interpretation is logical, creative, and nuanced, it might help to put yourself in the shoes of a businessperson. Dress well. Show your personality. Look people in the eye. Walk with confidence and purpose. If you have the opportunity to talk with the faculty, try to ask thoughtful questions.
  6. Be an artist. Finally, remember that passing a single audition is not the final destination. What judges think of you is secondary to your own convictions about, and love for, music. One of the things that helped me the most when auditioning for grad school was hearing a friend advise me to imagine myself as a touring musician, concertizing in new and exciting cities. That image of being an established artist, sharing music in front of fresh audiences, inspired me to care more about my music, to infuse my interpretation with more personal creativity. I once heard a quote similar to: “Practicing is the work. Performing should be the enjoyment.” Imagine your audition as a performance, another chance to express yourself through art, and it will be a more positive process for you (and the judges too!).

Finally, a quote from another field which deals with auditions, on not worrying too much about the audition process and accepting whatever the outcome may be:

“They are dying for you to blow them away. They’re on your side. What do you think—they want to go through hundreds of people and settle? No. Just do what you do. Either you’re right for the part or you’re not—let them decide.” –Ian Tucker, acting coach

Further reading:
The Violin Site – Fearless Audition
Bulletproof Musician – What is the Most Overlooked Step in Audition Preparation?

What’s your best audition tip?

HBR: The Relationship between Anxiety and Performance

Although directed toward people in the business world, this article by Scott Stossel in the Harvard Business Review addresses some points about performance in high-pressure situations that are equally as relevant for us musicians.

For those who choke during presentations to board members or pitches to clients, for example…the best approach may be one akin to what Beilock has athletes do in her experiments: redirecting your mind, in the moment, to something other than how you’re comporting yourself, so you can allow the skills and knowhow you’ve worked so hard to acquire to automatically kick into gear and carry you through. Your focus should not be on worrying about outcomes or consequences or on how you’re being perceived but simply on the task at hand. Prepare thoroughly (but not too obsessively) in advance; then stay in the moment.