Despite a world of uncertainty in virtually every career field and sector of the economy, many high school students are still likely to decide to major in music this year. And as the initial shock of quarantine life has passed us, this is the perfect time to get organized and prepared for the upcoming process of applications and the spring audition season. Of course, the majority of the work is in the practice room, but much of the rest of it will be done with a web browser, a Word document, and a videocall.
This 12-step process for college percussion auditions begins with the decision to prepare and culminates with the auditions themselves. When I was 17, I had a teacher gracious enough to explain the landscape at the time; it is my hope that this article can provide similar clarity and inspiration for students today. In order to successfully navigate application, audition, acceptance, and eventual attendance in music school, each student needs a wealth of information. Luckily, it has never been easier to acquire this information; it merely requires time, curiosity, and knowing what to look for.
BEFORE WE BEGIN
This journey begins from a place of introspection: it is critical that you interrogate your own motivation level and reason for wanting to go to music school before embarking on the quest. It has to be for you, and as cliché as it is, it has to be for love of your art. The reason is not for some element of purity of the music or the idea that no one wants a music teacher who isn’t in love with music, though those are certainly true. The reason is that if your purpose for joining the profession is anything other than your personal obsession with it, you won’t work hard enough and you will fail. Music school can be incredibly stressful, yet that pales in comparison to the stresses often seen in the actual career.
The timeline of this process has a lot of variability, but is clearly broken down into two distinct phases: information gathering and preparation. The first phase can be done in as little as a week and is covered by the first six steps in this article. The second phase is where the bulk of your time will be spent, and the length of time is really up to you, but the further out you begin the more time you will have to prepare your musical product.
The level of work and the amount of time that you put into audition preparation is indicative of whether you actually want a career in music or you just think you do. A life as a performing musician or music educator bears little resemblance to the band class you have likely experienced thus far; instead of large ensemble rehearsals being the bulk of your musical time, it will become one of the rarest things you do. Your thoughts on the self-imposed solitude of repetitive practice hours over months of preparing your audition repertoire are a good barometer of your willingness to do the kind of work necessary to succeed not only in college auditions, but in music school and the career itself. The antipathy many high school students feel toward homework and studying in non-music classes will most likely become some level of antipathy toward part writing assignments and music history memorization. Music school is not an escape from work, and while those who say “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” mean well, let’s be very clear: musicians work. We study. And sometimes, we work on skills we don’t enjoy or study music we don’t care about, be it for the grade or for the gig. Of course, we are artists, but we are also craftspeople.
For more considerations in planning for college, read Aaron T. Smith’s “Planning for College and Grad School.”
Determine if there's any chance at all that you will want to audition as a percussion major. If you realize in February that you want to go to music school, but you haven't been practicing, it's often too late.
Many students have multiple possible paths that appeal to them, and that’s okay! Music may be one of several options you’re considering. However, I would offer this: in the more competitive areas of the percussion field, particularly orchestral and commercial performing, if you don’t have a singular drive to improve for love of the craft itself, the amount of work required is unsustainable. Be very aware of the landscape and think critically about whether the lifestyle of a performer is right for you before entering college for a music performance degree. Entering music school knowing that you wish to be a career musician, but not necessarily knowing what kind or what path to take, is viable; your professors and mentors will be there to guide you. Don’t be scared of uncertainty; just try to minimize it as much as you can.
Tell your band director and percussion teacher that you want to take college percussion auditions. Their support will be invaluable, as will their feedback on your realistic expectations and their guidance through your transition from high school student to professional, and you should think of yourself as a pro starting from the moment you decide to enter the field.
As a musician, you need to be aware that as soon as other people in the profession meet you, even at the age of 17 or 18, your career has already begun. You are a professional from the second they start freshman orientation, and this is especially true if you are fortunate enough to be accepted and decide to attend a prestige school. It’s not uncommon to hear the stories of the top professional freelancers landing significant opportunities while they were in college. I’ve met several musicians who got their start playing Broadway shows or subbing with major orchestras when someone heard them in their college or conservatory orchestra. There’s certainly a bit of luck involved in this, but being ready for the opportunity as both player and person is integral to taking advantage of the shot when it comes.
Make a list of every music school in your state that has a percussion program. If you're interested in schools out of state, add them to the list, too. This is a simple process using your favorite search engine for a few hours. Include basic facts like cost of attendance, location, distance and cost to travel to and from home, names of the percussion faculty, etc. Pay attention to the details: What degree types does each school offer? How big is their music school community? Is it an orchestral-focused conservatory environment or a marching band and wind band oriented big state school with a major campus focus on NCAA sports? Is there a chamber music and entrepreneurship focus? Try to get a sense of the identity of each program at this stage and get the clearest picture you can of your available options. You may already have a dream school in mind, and that’s great! But take the time to research multiple options to either understand why it seems that program is right for you or realize that there may be others that interest you as well.
Begin eliminating schools from the list that you aren’t interested in for whatever reason. Cost of attendance and location are obvious variables to consider that may eliminate programs from your list, but additional ones might include hearing negative impressions from trusted sources, type of campus environment, or size of student body. At this stage don’t worry too much about percussion or music-specific factors; there will be plenty of time to scrutinize those later as you take tours and meet faculty and students. Keep as open a mind as possible, but if you’re sure that a particular school isn’t right for you, don’t hesitate to cut it from the list.
With your new smaller list of schools (somewhere around five is a good benchmark, but there’s nothing wrong with a larger or smaller list), go to each school’s website and look at their percussion audition requirements. Copy and paste each of them into a Word document. The expected requirements generally include prepared music on snare drum, marimba, and timpani, along with some skills demonstrations (buzz roll, sight-reading, etc.). Drum set styles, multiple percussion, and orchestral excerpts are possible as well.
Cross reference your lists and look for the most specific audition requirements. For example, on marimba the requirements of five hypothetical schools might look something like this:
School A: two marimba works of contrasting style
School B: a marimba solo
School C: one two-mallet solo and one four-mallet solo, each under 3 minutes
School D: one two-mallet marimba solo (Bach Sonatas and Partitas, Koshinski) and one four-mallet marimba solo (Burritt, Ford, Stout)
School E: Bach Violin Concerto in A minor from Goldenberg’s Modern School for Xylophone, beginning to letter F and any movement from Sammut’s Four Rotations, Burritt’s Caritas, or Stout’s Two Mexican Dances.
The reason you group them all is that if you simply pick audition repertoire for School A, it may not fit School D and E. On the other hand, since School E is the most specific, those selections will still work for the others. Figure out the most specific list in each category and choose music accordingly, then make that repertoire fit everywhere else as best as possible. The idea is to avoid learning more repertoire than needed, allowing you to simplify the demands on your time and make your practice significantly more efficient.
It’s possible that two or more schools will have extremely specific requirements that don’t allow you use the same repertoire for each audition. In this case, one option is to contact the professors involved and see if what you’re preparing for another school is acceptable in lieu of their posted requirement. In the event that neither school involved is willing to accept something not on their list, you simply make a choice between learning additional repertoire or removing one of those schools from your list. Only you can know which is correct, with help from your family and musical advisors of course.
For more considerations on choosing college audition repertoire, read Emily Tannert Patterson’s “Selecting Material for College Auditions”
Steps 1 through 6 should be completed within a week or so. Now we move from the information gathering phase into the preparation phase.
With the information you’ve gathered in hand, consult with your teachers to come up with what you should play. Then buy original copies of the music; don’t start your career with piracy! A note about repertoire selection: simply playing the hardest possible music is likely not the best path, as technical proficiency is only a part of what a college program wants to know about your musicianship. A DCI individual and ensemble competition this is not. If you have significant technical and musical proficiency on one or more instruments, don’t hesitate to choose repertoire that showcases that, just don’t fly too close to the sun. The panel wants to hear you sound great; they do not want to hear you struggle.
Once your repertoire is decided, take the time to do some initial research on these pieces of music away from the instrument. Learn who the composers are and get a sense of the styles in which they operate. You are likely to have multiple pieces of music that are standard audition repertoire that the panel will know very well, so in addition to getting up to speed on the basics, see if you can learn something about the music that they don’t already know. You probably won’t get to use that information, but if you get asked a question and can demonstrate that you’ve done your homework, that goes a long way toward demonstrating your professionalism. Listen to as many recordings as you can, and use your metronome’s tap feature to determine what tempo each recording takes. Make notes of this information so you get an average and a range for what is expected, allowing you to make an informed decision about your own interpretation. Listen for sound choices, mallet types, dynamic inflections, etc. This is an opportunity to see the range of options available to you.
Practice harder, longer, and smarter than you ever have in your life. While doing this, take care of yourself; burnout is neither healthy nor helpful. Two hours every day is better 14 hours in one day with the rest of the week off. But if you want this, recognize that the quality of audition that you put together is a significant factor in determining the course of your career, and thus your entire life. No pressure.
If you haven’t been taking private lessons, this is a great time to start. Even if you feel you have the knowledge needed to learn and prepare your repertoire on your own—and you might—a second set of ears that is experienced in this process is extremely valuable. A good teacher also can help you structure your practice and identify priorities in your playing that you may miss while focused on learning notes and improving technique. There are financial issues involved here, but no musician is an island, and feedback is essential to an effective preparation routine.
Record yourself often and at every point in the preparation process. No special equipment is required for this; a smartphone is enough detail for most of the information you will need, although higher-end recording setups can be beneficial if available. In addition to the benefit of being able to constantly evaluate your own playing and diagnose issues for yourself, this also gives you the experience of performing. There’s just a different feeling while playing when the proverbial red light is on, and this can have a huge impact on mitigating nerves and performance anxiety simply through amassing more and more experience doing it. A practice run without recording just feels like practice, but press “record” and all of a sudden it’s a performance, even if you know the only audience is yourself, ten minutes in the future.
There is a wealth of resources available on how to practice most effectively and efficiently, including in Percussive Notes. The internet has an endless supply of practice advice, some useful and some counterproductive; trust your teachers and do a little research. If you find five people with successful careers all saying the same thing, that’s probably valuable information.
Email the percussion director at every school where you will audition. Tell them who you are and that you are interested in their program. Ask them what the program is like and any questions you have. Depending on your family's financial ability to do this, think about taking a lesson with each of them. It is very common for players to really want to go to a school, take one lesson with the program head, and within 10 minutes realize it was a bad fit. The start of the fall semester is a good target for when to reach out, but there’s nothing wrong with a little sooner or later. Just make sure it’s far enough ahead of audition day that you have space on the calendar for a lesson, and time after that lesson for you to reflect on the experience and interaction with that teacher and make changes to your playing based on their feedback.
Lessons also give you a chance to see what each school wants you to change in your musical presentation. For example, school X wants a certain selection faster but school Y wants it slower. If you are auditioning at school Y this week and school X next week, practice the slow tempo this week and burn it again next week.
Repeat Step 8 until audition season. Continue to take care of yourself, in both body and mind. Drink water, eat well, get enough sleep, etc. Continue to find time to do things that make you smile, around the people who make you smile, but don't let anything get in the way of practicing. Remember, you’re now a professional musician, and thus you may have to make sacrifices in your social life in order to allow you to focus on your career effectively. The audition preparation period is a pivotal one in the trajectory of your musical life, so a healthy and consistent practice regimen needs to be a top priority in both your mind and your calendar app.
As you approach the audition season, starting roughly six weeks out, begin crafting your plan for the final stretch of this process, focusing more on performing to your potential than increasing that potential itself. Consult with your family, band director, percussion teacher, and any other trusted advisors for their input into this process.
At this point, practice sessions should start to move from intense, focused, slow practice of details to more big-picture section work, crafting musical lines and ideas and your overall presentation. Make travel plans and attire decisions, and begin playing mock auditions as often as possible, both for the feedback and the experience of performing. These mocks should include both percussionists and non-percussionists. Often people who play our instruments will focus on hand technique or our percussion controversies while other musicians will simply focus on your sound and presentation and won’t even notice which grips you use.
This is also the time to prepare a handout packet for the audition committees. Whether you use a binder, create a spiral-bound book, or find an elegant folder is up to you, but this packet needs to include clean, unmarked copies of the sheet music you will perform, so scan your music as soon as you get it in the mail instead of waiting until you’ve marked everything up. It also needs to include a current resume; you can consult the countless online guides on resume creation for this, just make sure you have your trusted advisors look over it. The audition is primarily about your performance, but details like this go a long way toward showing that you view yourself as a professional and are taking this process seriously.
You should expect there to be an interview component to your audition day. It may be in the audition room with the percussion faculty or with a separate faculty member at a different time. As with the resume, there are plenty of online articles listing questions to prepare for and ways to think about this interview. In addition to consulting the internet for this information, crowdsource your preparation for this element the same way you play mock auditions. Have mock interviews with your friends, music teachers, non-music teachers, or anyone you can think of who will help you. You may find it helpful to have a grab-bag of expected questions for your mock interviewers to choose from or you may also find value in asking them to come up with their own. You can expect to be surprised in any interview, so getting used to thinking on your feet is as valuable as having prepared responses.
For more audition suggestions, read Brad Meyer’s “Audition Quick Tips.”
Walk into the audition rooms more confident than you have ever been in your life, because you have earned that confidence through months of meticulous and informed preparation. Play how you play and let the chips fall. Don’t try to change your sound at the last minute based on what you hear from another applicant in the warmup room or from outside the audition room. Present your musical product and let them decide based on that. You would much rather be denied an offer because you sounded like yourself, than because you were trying to sound like someone else and abandoned all your hard work in the last five minutes.
Audition results are out of your hands; you only control how you prepare. You do not control who else shows up to the audition, how they play, or what goes through the panel's head. You don’t even fully control how you perform in the moment. College auditions are likely the highest-impact performances you’ve given in your musical life thus far, so don’t be surprised if you hear new things out of your hands or make new mistakes in the room. Just stay levelheaded and trust in your preparation. Your role in this process is simply to create the most compelling musical and professional product that you can, present it to each university program in which you are interested, and see how they respond.
After the audition season, take a well-deserved break, and take the opportunity to do some of the things you were sacrificing to make time for preparation. Celebrate the milestone of completing the audition process; that itself is an accomplishment! Then wait for the results and, in consultation with your family and teachers, make the most informed decision you can. And should you be offered and decide to join this strange and beautiful profession of percussion, welcome to our ranks. It only gets harder and more rewarding from here!
Sean Millman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Percussion Performance, ABD at NYU Steinhardt and freelance drummer/percussionist in New York City. Learn more at millmanpercussion.com. Millman would like to credit Metropolitan Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim for inspiration of many of the ideas in this article.