The Audition Begins With Your First Email (And Four Other Tips for the Aspiring College Music Student)

It was a little over twelve years ago that I decided I wanted to study music in college. With my ascent to Cooperstown stalled by shoulder troubles sustained playing American Legion baseball, and my basketball career cut short by being 6-foot-1, chubby, and a terrible defender devoid of a vertical jump, I set my sights on doing one of the other two things that I liked* – playing saxophone! 

*Housing 400-calorie iced mochas at Java Jive with reckless abandon was unfortunately not a degree plan.

While my mom studied music in college and I did have very good and supportive band directors, I went to high school in a fairly isolated small town of about 17,000 and didn’t have the luxury of a regular private teacher. If people were giving me really good advice on auditioning for schools (and they really might have been), I was mostly ignoring it. Things worked out for me primarily because of dumb luck; I applied, visited, and auditioned at exactly one school, it happened to be an in-state school with nationally-acclaimed saxophone faculty, they happened to have a need for saxophone players that year, they happened to have scholarship money available, and I happened to play well that day. In retrospect, I did almost everything wrong out of sheer ignorance, but I got lucky. I was pretty good, mind you – but very very fortunate.

Now I find myself on the other side of the equation, sifting through dozens of applicants annually, and many are making the same silly mistakes I made. So – here are a few things that I wish I had known in retrospect that might be of service to any 16-18 year olds looking at schools.

Your Applied Teacher Matters A Whole Lot

At UW-Eau Claire I am extremely fortunate in that our terrific large ensembles and all of the outreach they do in Wisconsin and Minnesota does a lot of the recruiting for my studio for me. UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I was selected as the country’s premier undergraduate jazz ensemble this year by Downbeat Magazine for the seventh time, the UWEC Wind Symphony was selected to perform at the College Band Director’s National Association regional conference last year, and both groups do extensive tours to play and clinic at high schools far and wide. It’s an incredibly powerful and magnetic experience for an aspiring collegiate music student to hear these groups up close and personal, and many of the students who audition for UWEC do so with the primarily appeal being eventual participation in them. And that’s a really good and compelling reason to come to UWEC! But the professor who you will have the most intensive and prolonged experience with while in school will be the applied teacher on your instrument. You’ll work with them one-on-one weekly for four years, they’ll likely decide your placement in those ensembles, and they’ll be writing your recommendations and serving as a primary professional reference when it comes time to apply for jobs. If the vibe is not good with your applied teacher, it’s going to be really difficult for any ensemble experience to outweigh that.

Do research on the applied professors at your target schools. Google them, try and find recordings, and find out who they in turn studied with, where they’re from, and what their expertise is. Reach out and ask for a lesson to see if you identify with their teaching style (and don’t assume it’s free  – ask their hourly rate and offer to pay! They may not charge for prospectives, but don’t make any assumptions). Which brings us to my next point…

The Audition Begins With Your First Email

If you reach out to a professor at a school you are looking into, you should know that the professor is evaluating you from the moment your name appears in their inbox – assuming that the first contact is via email and not in-person. In three years of auditions and communicating with prospectives, I’ve noticed that there is almost always a correlation between a student’s maturity and ability level and their decorum in emails.

How do you make a strong impression via email? Begin with a greeting, and address the professor with “Dr.” or “Professor” and their last name. “Hi Dr. Shults,” or even just “Dr. Shults,” followed by a new paragraph is plenty formal for an email. Use complete sentences, avoid emojis and colloquialisms, and sign off with “Sincerely” or “Thank you!” or “Best,” followed by your full name. Including a default signature with your high school and graduation year can be a nice touch, too. In general, just make a distinction between an informal and casual text to a friend and an email to someone who might ultimately decide your collegiate fate! As you develop a rapport with your professors it’s likely things will get progressively more comfortable and less formal – but in the early stages, err on the side of formality. If this sounds obvious, you might be stunned by some of the messages that appear in my University inbox…

Apply and Audition at a Minimum of Three Schools

One thing that I didn’t realize as a high school student is that acceptance into a college studio is contingent on a litany of different factors that have nothing to do with how well you play. A professor only has a certain amount of available space for students in their faculty load. If a professor has a full studio, and only one senior graduates, that likely means that only one student will be accepted that particular year to fill that space. And the reverse may be true, as well: if there’s a big graduating class, it’s going to be significantly easier to get in as more spots will be available to backfill. That means an exceptionally talented student might not be accepted in a year with few spots and a big pool of candidates. On the bright side, it also means that that “dream” school that you think might be out of reach might actually be more of a realistic option than you would guess, if the need for students is bigger that particular year. Scholarship money can fluctuate year-to-year, as well.

It’s also worth considering that studio professors may recruit or accept students based on a particular need. If my lead tenor player in Jazz I is a junior I may be looking for someone who can be ready to fill that spot in two years when he or she graduates. The same applies for the wind symphony – I’ve got to prioritize classical sound concepts if there's a talented principal player leaving. I might accept a student who is a slightly lesser player overall because he or she fills a need in the studio that the applicants just ahead of him or her would not.

All too often I’ll be contacted by an exasperated student (or a parent) who wasn’t accepted who think that being denied admittance means I’m suggesting they don’t meet a base level of aptitude needed to study music in college. Far from it, in many cases! If that student had auditioned in a different year I may have had space for them. This is why it’s imperative to consider multiple options. By putting all of your eggs in one basket you are leaving yourself open to being left out due to circumstances you had no control over.

Understand the Differences Between Schools And Be Aware Of The Specific Degree Programs They Offer

 This is important information both for you and your selection of schools, and for making an impression on faculty at your prospective school. You’ll find that, if you consider a wide spectrum of factors, the differences between programs can be quite striking! Is it in a small town, a medium-sized college town, or is it an urban school? Does it offer a unique degree that might allow you to specialize in something you’re particularly interested in? Is your applied instructor full-time tenure-track faculty, or an adjunct? What’s the ratio of graduate-to-undergraduate students? If you are an undergrad going to a school with many grad students, will your growth be stunted by those students winning most of the auditions and concerto competitions, or will you be motivated by the higher standard of excellence and greater competition? How much does it cost, and are the available scholarships significant enough to offset costs if the tuition is high (we’ll come back to this in a second)? What are the specific audition requirements? UW-Eau Claire is unique in that we don’t offer a jazz studies degree despite our excellent reputation for jazz ensembles, so applied instruction is primarily centered around classical studies, and we pride ourselves on the well-rounded and multi-faceted instruction that our students receive. But this might be frustrating for the student who wants to be myopic about one particular strain of playing. It’s important to know these things going in. I’m continually amused by how many students show up to their audition at UW-Eau Claire and tell me they are applying to the jazz performance degree that doesn’t exist, or ask me if it’s ok to play a Charlie Parker transcription at their audition. I have also had students ask “Are you the sax professor? What’s your name?” at their audition. I don’t need the ego stroke, but that tells me you haven’t taken the 30 seconds to google “UWEC saxophone” and do some basic reconnaissance. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s not a good look, either.

Do The Cost-Benefit Analysis

So, here’s an ugly truth: jobs in music are rarely lucrative! They are amazing and totally redeemed in other ways, and I couldn’t be more in love with or fulfilled by mine. But there are probably no jobs in our field worth paying $60k a year for four years for. I’m blown away by how many people say “Well, I got into (Name Brand School ™), and that’s such an honor, and I can’t turn it down even though it’s so expensive.” This kind of thinking is so destructive in so many ways. It’s such a hustle to make a living as a musician, anywhere, but a hefty student loan payment makes it almost impossible if you’re trying to freelance. Further, the current music economy means that many of the best and most qualified musicians are choosing academia as their first-choice career path, rather than in past generations where it might have been a “fallback”, or something to “settle into” when years of being in the road took their toll and a desire for stable family life crept in. A few decades ago it might have been an absolute necessity to go to one of a dozen top conservatories in order to receive world-class instruction. Now, there are increasingly virtuosic and highly qualified artists and teachers located all over the country. Yes, there’s still a significant competitive advantage in going to Juilliard or Eastman or Indiana, but in many cases it’s not enough to justify the cost disparity. Sometimes it’s much better to get 93% of the education at a state school at half the price. Don’t get swindled by the allure of the Name Brand School ™if it’s out of your price range – your friends from high school aren’t going to be that impressed, anyway.

OK – there’s more to be discussed here, but for brevity’s sake I’ll leave it at these five big points. Other educators – anything to add? Leave a comment!