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7 Tips to Ace a Music Scholarship Audition

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Your audition is scheduled, your video is in progress, your music is polished, and now you’re wondering:

How do I ace this audition?

My scholarship audition was a mistake.

I delayed the audition, because I didn’t think I was ready.  Turns out I was just scared.  When I finally did audition, I was nervous as all get out.  Sure, I had played solos, and had private lessons, and been in a number of ensembles.  But these guys were professionals!  I had read their bios, met their students, and heard their ensembles–it’s why I wanted to go to their school.

Plowing ahead, I performed anyway, and they asked me to do a few things that seemed normal, and a few things that seemed strange.  I was shaking through most of the audition, especially when I blew a measure in the Goldenberg snare drum etude I was playing-it was tough getting over that!

At the end, they told me I’d done well, and wished that I had auditioned earlier.  When I asked why, they said, “Most of the money has been given away already–we’ll have to see what we can do.”  I was flabbergasted–I’d never even thought that they could run out of scholarships!

I did end up with a scholarship, and a nice one, too.  But I can still remember that audition, and the experience leaves me with much sympathy for hopeful young musicians.

You see, now I’m on the other side of the table.

I’m the one asking students to do strange, and yet normal demonstrations of musical knowledge and skill.

So how DO you ace a Scholarship Audition?


Learn what the professors that are sitting on your audition are looking for.  This is most easily accomplished by asking them directly, either face to face, or through email.  Websites are wonderful, and many list requirements…and many are also out of date, or are very vague.  Direct contact is best.  I ask students to perform at least one lyrical, and one technical piece.  As I’m the Department Chair at MSJ, I tend to sit a wide range of auditions, but I do get more specific for percussionists, asking for snare drum, mallets, timpani, and drum set.  I also let students of all instruments know that they should expect to be asked to demonstrate scales, arpeggios, and perhaps some sight reading.

Generally, I tailor these expectations to the students’ ability level, which becomes obvious with the demonstration of any of the above items.  In other words, I want to see what the student believes is their best work.  It honestly doesn’t bother me at all to hear a student make a nerves mistake at an audition.  It DOES bother me to hear a student attempt to play a piece way above their ability level.  In that case, some gentle questioning usually reveals a lack of private lessons, or a private lesson teacher that is…opinionated.


The next item I look for is their base level skill, and how deep it is.  For instance, I’m not impressed by someone who can play the newest, most difficult, modern piece, but can’t play their major scales.  That shows a lack of respect for what the basics can teach, or is a telling commentary on whether this student has a teacher, or can be bothered to watch 5 minutes of YouTube videos.  Seriously, learn your scales, and in all keys, please.  Believe me, scales can teach A LOT.  So I’ll ask for scales, rudiments, etc.  If you think you can hack your way through the latest hybrid rudiment, but can’t play a decent long roll, open AND closed (multiple bounce for those picky people), then I’m not so impressed with your book reports into blue cheese paradiddles.

I’m all for new rudiments, but again, learn the basics first.  That’s why they’re THE BASICS!


Whatever your instrument, learn to sight read.  Just do it everyday, and you’ll get better.  There’s a lot of strategies to improve your sight reading, but long story short, the more you do it, the better you get.  If you’re struggling to read diatonic scale patterns with basic rhythms, don’t try sight reading Flight of the Bumblebee.  That won’t help.  Start by reading things you succeed at, and then increase the difficulty.  Beyond Auditions, the better you read a piece at first sight, the faster you get to a performance ready level.


Almost all college professors will let a prospective take a lesson with them before their actual audition.  Your future lesson teacher is most likely watching the scholarship auditions, and when the time comes to dole out dollars, their opinion will carry a lot of weight.  Making sure you hit the points that professor is looking for could be crucial to your success.  Taking a lesson could also save you from a wasted audition–in other words, your lesson could tell you that you aren’t a good fit for this school, because you can already tell that you and the professor are NOT going to be sharing the same goals for your musical journey.  Best to figure that out before you commit to 4 years at an institution.


Ever heard of Murphy’s Law?  It states that what can go wrong, will.  It’s pretty simple.  Traffic will be terrible on your audition day…but only if you’re running late.  You’ll forget to bring a crucial item, but only because you didn’t get out of bed early enough to leave on time.  Perhaps you’ll arrive, only to find that none of the equipment is in the audition room, whether that’s a piano, a music stand, timpani, etc, and you have to take time out of your warm up, just to make sure that you’re able to play at your assigned time.  I’ve seen it all, and trust me, if you’re even anywhere close to being late, most of them will tend to happen.  Those who arrive early are ready to fend off Murphy, and play their audition free from his insidious influence.


Some of us college people are still old school–I have colleagues that wear a suit and tie everyday.  Some of us are not that formal, but the music world is strange in this regard–whatever you’re playing at your audition, you should have that level of dress.  For instance, if you’re playing Bach, I expect you to look a certain way.  If you’re playing Rush, I expect you to look different than if you’re playing Bach.

Frankly, cognitive dissonance is a thing, and it can negatively affect the perceptions you create in the audition committee.  Don’t wear ratty jeans and a t-shirt if your audition entails high level orchestral excerpts in a recital hall.  On the same note, don’t wear a tux if your audition consists of you performing with your heavy metal garage band at a local club.  Music programs vary widely, and expectations can as well–dress to expectations, and you’ll do better.


Finally, this is good life advice.  If you’re hard to deal with in your audition, or particularly needy, or outright rude, the committee has to get past that.  If you’re polite, prepared, and ready to be challenged by the committee, you’re more likely to do well, and receive a scholarship.

Here’s why–that rude person?  The committee conversation would be like this, “That person was a great player, but I just couldn’t believe they were so rude!  Can we justify giving them a scholarship?  How will they represent our school?”  On the other hand, imagine the conversation around someone that is polite, “That person was a great player, and so polite!  They were prepared, and when we threw them a curve-ball, they rolled with it!  Scholarship for sure!”

If you enjoyed this, have a tip to add, or disagree, please leave me a comment!


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