Choosing a Life in Music
Planning on going to music school, huh? Congratuations. Despite the many roadblocks, twists, and turns facing a prospective musician, a life in music is really a wonderful thing. Every time I have my doubts about this fact, all I have to do is listen back through all the archived Contrabass Conversations episodes with bass players from all walks of life sharing why they chose to be a musician. This reinvigorates me and makes me realize how fortunate I am to do something that I love.
Where Should You Go?
One important thing differentiates music school applicants from other prospective college students: your success as a performer is much more strongly influenced by specifically whom you end up studying with. While a liberal arts student can floursh in a wide variety of academic settings (big schools, small schools, “Great Books” liberal arts schools, and everything in between), options for serious music students are more limited.
I’ve blogged about making this decision in the past before in a post about seven considerations for prospective music majors, so I won’t rehash what was in that previous post, but check this post out for more specifics about prioritizing and winnowing down your list of potential schools.
Can’t students be successful no matter where they attend college? Sure, but there’s certainly a statistical relationship between where you decide to go to music school and your likely procpects, so school choice can help to stack the odds at least a little more in your favor.
After boiling down your school options to between five and seven possibilities, you have a task that nearly every prospective music student faces:
How do you balance the requirements of a half-dozen schools in such a way that you’re well-prepared for each and every auditon? This dilemma faces most prospective music students, and finding a way to intelligently and efficiently chart a long-term practice strategy is a major concern.
The following steps may help to organize your practicing in preparation for those impending auditions:
1. Get repertoire lists from potential schools – The first step to getting your audition repertoire ready for music school auditions is to figure out what each school requires. One of my former bass students did a great job putting together a list of required repertoire for many of the major music schools for double bass, but most people will have to a little phone, email, and internet research to get a solid list of requirements.
2. Winnow down the list to the least number of pieces – You’ve done your research, finding that every school wants a concerto, some want sonatas, solo Bach, and others want an etude from a certain composer. Your task is now to figure out the smallest number of pieces that satisfy these requirements. What you don’t want to be doing is playing one concerto for school A and another one for school B. This might not seem like a big deal six months before your auditions start, but you’ll discover that there’s an “audition season” of about 4-8 weeks in January and February, and you’ll likely be doing one or more auditions each week for a period of time. Travel, fatigue and keeping up with high school homework is going to be sucking up a lot of your available time, and the last thing you want to be thinking about is having to switch gears from one concerto to another.
3. Prioritize your practicing – So much to practice, and so little time! How, you may wonder, should you approach organizing your practice time? The answer is both extremely simple and frustratingly elusive: practice what needs the most work. The challenge, of course, is recognizing exactly what needs the most work! The objective perspective of a teacher can be invaluable for this kind of decision-making. Sit down with your teacher and try to come up with a general plan for practicing. Do you need to be spending an hour a day on that etude that is only required at one school (which isn’t your first pick of schools anyway)? Maybe…but maybe not. Are there some fundamental skills–intonation, rhythm, spiccato, vibrato–that need to be solidified prior to your auditions? Fundamental skills take months and years to improve (most bassists are still working on all of the aforementioned skills every day!), and the time to identify what you really need to work on is not days or weeks before your auditions, but months or even years before.
4. Generate a “recital” mentality – I’ve found that looking at our audition repertoire as a kind of mini-recital rather than as a disassociated glob of etudes, excerpts, and solo movements is a very healthy way to approach this repertoire. If you feel like you’re putting together a recital that just happens to be made up of short little bits from different sources, you may be in a better place mentally–you’re not doing an audition (well, you are, but you see what I mean), but rather doing a performance, and your goal is to assemble this list into a unified whole that you can play at a moment’s notice. This is a tough distinction to draw in a text blog post (as I’m discovering right now!), but there’s a bit of a different mentality between recital preparation and audition preparation, and if you can harness the healthy things about the former for the latter, your preparation may be more peaceful and confident.
5. Start preparing early! – No matter how hard you try, if you’re auditioning for five or six (or more!) schools you’ll probably have a lot of repertoire t get under your fingers. Should you completely ditch technique and any other repertoire to focus on your college audition music, or should you keep a more balanced approach? I’d recommend keeping up a balance until 6-8 weeks before “audition season,” at which point I’d transition into an audition preparation mentality. Starting early and devoting a healthy percentage of practice time (perhaps 50% of your time) to this repertoire about a year before your college auditions should put you in a good spot by the time those stressful couple of months roll around your senior year.
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