What are the music schools looking for in auditions?

Last year, one of my very bright students asked me this:

I was looking at the [a school of music] website and they said they look for talent and not technical proficiency in the audition, but what’s the difference? How can you listen to a voice and say that it’s talented?

Below is my response. How would you respond?

It’s really hard to know exactly what they mean, but I’ll give it my best interpretation.

I think one of the goals is to try to prevent applicants from presenting repertoire that is “hard”. Every judge would rather hear a simpler song sung well than a more advanced one sung with lots of unnecessary problems. I think that for a good pair of ears, the first two pages of an old Italian song probably is enough to separate out the musical babies from the professionals, so don’t go overboard with difficult rep that just gets in the way of a straightforward presentation of how you sing.

Also, they are aware that many voice applicants come in with only a year or two of private voice study, compared to pianists and violinists who typically will have been studying for at least 10 years before the audition and have the great majority of their technique already perfected. Every pianist who is accepted will be able to play a Rachmaninoff piano concerto their first year, but it would be the rare baritone who could sing Scarpia in Tosca even by his senior year. That darn fact that voices take a while to mature. (Not that you can’t sing excellently WHILE it’s maturing!)

So what would a judge be listening for when trying to decide between a baritone with a year of lessons and one with four years of lessons, who also can play piano sonatas and compose a fugue (i.e., has more training)? How do you go past present ability and get to “talent”? What is talent? I’m not going to exactly answer that question, but I’m going to tell you what I would look for if my audition committee chairman told me to look for talent over technical proficiency. I would think they meant that we are to be open to selecting “diamonds in the rough” as well as polished performers.
· Is there a rhythmic sense in this singer? Not just talking about general accuracy of rhythms on the page, but does the singer have a good sense of the pulse of the music and how to lead or sing with the pianist, as appropriate?
· Is the intonation clear in the parts of the voice where there are the fewest technical challenges? Sometimes intonation problems at the extremes of the range are merely due to an unpolished technique, but in their speaking range, things should be accurate.
· Does the singer seem to have a discriminating sense of diction? Even if diction is wrong, if the student does it convincingly, that is much more encouraging than if everything sounds like garbled American mush.
· Does this person present themselves as someone who loves performing? Does his interest and delight in the music show at all? Does he present as a performer?
· Does this person conduct himself in a pleasant and appropriate manner? Would he be nice to have around?
· Is this singer well prepared? If there is a memory slip, can he recover and keep going without missing a beat? There had better not be more than one memory slip, or the singer will not seem prepared.
· Did this singer pick reasonable repertoire for his stage of development?
· Does this singer have a sense of the style of the song he has picked? No excuse for screwing this up, with Youtube, Itunes, etc. The singer may execute the style poorly, but you can get a good idea of whether they are making a fair attempt.
In the big picture, if we define talent as what God gave you, then if you develop your ability to build on whatever that “talent” is, it is virtually impossible for a listener to ever know what part of your performance represents “talent” and what represents “work”. Most listeners will say “you’re talented” as long as the performance is excellent. It doesn’t matter. Just smile and say thanks. It is a simple and unfair fact that there are people who have worked very hard to achieve competitive success, and others had to work less hard. It doesn’t really matter, if you’re doing what you are passionate about. I studied Suzuki violin teaching for several summers. Dr. Suzuki had a saying. “Knowledge plus 10,000 times equals ability”. Once you have the ability, you have the talent, in my opinion. Doesn’t matter if God gives it to you or if you give it to yourself!

One way an auditor might try to gauge a “talent” is to throw something new at you or give you a mini lesson, and see whether/how you grasp a new idea. I would call that a test of learning under pressure, which is a valuable skill, but not exactly a predictor of how excellent your performance can become. However, it is a useful skill for working with directors, teachers, and coaches in learning and performance prep situations.

I hope these thoughts give you some help. It is a general truism that most of those accepted to Curtis, for example, already have a very high ability. They don’t have to take many of those “diamonds in the rough” because a lot of polished people show up there.

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