Pursuing an Education in Vocal Music? Some Advice For The Journey

by Keri Cleverly

The great news for all young people interested in a career in vocal music is that the educational journey is exciting and filled with opportunity. However, attaining your future goal will take focus, determination, and a lot of preparation. In order to reach this goal, you want to start preparing as soon as possible.

As early in high school as possible, begin to concentrate on improving your technique and voice control. Learn proper breath support, diction and posture and practice scales, ear training, and sight reading.  Be part of your school choir and look for opportunities to become involved in solo and ensemble performances at festivals, recitals and local public performances. These events will help you become more comfortable with singing in front of people and will vary your experience so that you are at ease in any situation.

As you begin planning and pursuing your vocal music education, make preliminary decisions about what you want as far as a future place to study and what factors will be critical to your feeling comfortable there.  Then start looking, keeping in mind that the object is to match your personality and goals with the right college. The size of the campus and individual classes are going to matter to you, as well as the proximity or distance from your home. How modern are the music facilities and how cutting-edge is the available technology? Remember, music, as a career field, is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Your school, computer, and the library will enable you to take the first steps in narrowing down your list of preferences.

Once you have a list of possible schools, write off for as much information as possible. Make phone contact at the college and talk with anyone who can give you additional insight into their music program. Often a phone call to a music faculty member will be your best source of information. Be efficient and prepare a list of pertinent questions ahead of time. They will not appreciate you wasting their time with rambling conversation. Once your list is more certain, send off for applications. Don’t overlook the possibility of a scholarship. Apply early because scholarships are coveted, but be aware that schools will sometimes use scholarships as a recruitment tool.

As you dive into the application process, remember that admission into the school of your choice does not guarantee you a place in their music program. That will require a separate process which is highlighted by an audition. Review the information you have gathered and try to formulate an impression of what your Audition Committee will be most interested in.  Audition Committees will be looking for qualities of particular interest to their particular music programs, yet there are many common characteristics and qualities of interest to all.

Initially, Audition Committees will be interested in your first impression.  Were you on time and are you prepared with all the materials requested for your audition?  Is your grooming indicative of your seriousness towards the audition?  Is your attitude one of approachability or are you overconfident and cocky? Remember to smile and pay attention to the tone in the room. If it’s no nonsense, greet the Committee politely, then move to your audition position quickly and forget about small talk.

During your actual performance, there will be some solid qualities that your Audition Committee will most likely be interested in.  They will look for a sense of musicality, tone and performance ability. Candidates should be able to demonstrate basic learned music skills; recognition of key signatures, major and minor scales, and an understanding of music vocabulary. They may test you on sight reading and ear training.  The ability to apply intuition and intelligence when encountering different styles of music may be examined as well.  Committees aren’t expecting a polished performer just an assurance that there is something to work with. They want to see a professional and organized attitude, and of course an indication that you have talent!!

The meat of the audition will be accomplished by your performance of selected repertoire. The choice of pieces should be made months in advance of the actual audition. In selecting repertoires for auditions, candidates should look for music that showcases their unique strengths. Some schools will provide a standard selection of repertoire for you to choose from, but sometimes the choice is left up to you. Some auditions will require that you have memorized your selections, but others may not. Be sure you know what they expect. Auditioners will be interested in hearing your individuality in musical interpretation and expression, as well as your understanding of more technical sections. Select pieces that will emphasize your ability to work through the details of notes and tempos.  Open the audition with the piece you know you can nail. Committees can often determine the Candidate’s talent within the first 30 seconds. Sometimes, in fact, the Committee will only want to hear parts of your piece. Be able to start your piece from various points, not just the beginning. A few wrong notes will not blow the audition if the Committee sees that you have a command of the piece and that you have potential.

Effective practicing for your audition is going to be critical. The advice is that if you hope to perform 100% in your audition, then you better prepare at 150%. There are several really great websites where professionals give advice about how to practice effectively. Practicing for auditions is a study in itself and so it is strongly advised that candidate go online well in advance and see what they can learn. One recommended website is http://music.cua.edu/faculty/gatwood. Although this site is directed at instrumental candidates, the advice seems universal and very sound.  Another real source of help is an instructor who is familiar with the audition process. Perhaps your high school voice instructor has that ability and will make time to assist you, or perhaps you will have to pay a private instructor for their time and insight.

Candidates should come to their scheduled college auditions completely familiar with the program and faculty, and prepared to ask more details if necessary. It will testify to your interest in the college and your determination to fit into their program. You may even want to prepare a resume of your musical achievements to present to the Committee if they express interest. Your listed abilities will further their understanding of your past training and dedication.

Finally, on the more personal side, after your audition is over, don’t forget to thank the Committee for their time.  Ensure that you can do this succinctly by preparing your statement ahead of time. Emphasize that you mean it by smiling and making eye contact. Follow-up later by sending a hand-written note of thanks. Address it to the person who headed the Committee, but be sure to extend your thanks to all the members. Again be brief, but express that you took the opportunity seriously and were impressed with their program. You might even mention specific things that you look forward to being part of.

Auditioning for music colleges will probably never be your favorite thing to do, but the process can be less harrowing if you informed and prepare well. Know all that you can about what each of your selected colleges expects. Make a timeline of individual colleges deadlines and stay on top of it.  Anxiety is reduced when everything is planned out and you’re not side-lined by unexpected obstacles.