‘Preparing for UK Conservatoire Auditions: A Teacher’s Perspective’ by Lucy Nolan

Auditioning for conservatoire is a milestone in many young musicians’ lives. It is often the turning point where music ceases to be a teenage hobby and becomes something in which a lifetime is going to be invested. Accordingly, preparation for these auditions is crucial, and if managed appropriately, the process can be exhilarating! Below are a few of the things I like to consider before and during the adventure.

  •  Timeline: Needless to say, preparation time depends on the individual student but, as a tutor, I tend to have a timeline of about eight months in mind. Open days take place in Spring and I aim to have made repertoire decisions by March/April. UCAS Conservatoires (formerly CUKAS) applications are due at the beginning of October and auditions take place from mid-November to mid-December.
  • Where to apply?: This requires a lot of research and consideration. In my view, faculty is a huge deciding factor. Learn as much as you can about each Conservatoire’s teaching staff and who might be the ideal next teacher for your student. Other things to encourage applicants to research include the location of the institution (is it in a culture-rich city inspiring further creativity and excellence?), the course structure and the department (will it provide enough of what interests you most? For instance, orchestral playing, chamber music, period performance, links to professional establishments, supporting academic studies etc…).
  • Practice Routine: While preparing for conservatoire auditions (or indeed any performance) I think it’s important to keep a balanced routine of practice and learning. Becoming obsessed with 15 minutes worth of repertoire is, in my view, unnecessary and unhealthy. Throughout the preparation process, it is important to remain aware of the bigger picture and to stay in a sensible practice routine with a good ratio of scales, studies, caprices and repertoire.
  • Panel wish-list: It’s interesting to question what qualities the conservatoire might be hoping to find in their applicants. In my experience, panels are warm, enabling and are looking for the strengths in each auditionee rather than the weaknesses. A young musician who demonstrates potential, imagination, curiosity and a willingness to work hard may be equally as attractive to a conservatoire as an applicant who plays wonderfully but has little self-awareness or ambition.
  • Repertoire: Repertoire should be very carefully selected – pieces should be contrasting, not beyond the individual’s ability and act as a vehicle for the student to demonstrate their best qualities. It is worth noting that the audition criteria are not the same in every institution – this should be carefully researched and guidelines strictly adhered to.
  • Entry requirements: As well as the playing portion of the audition, there may be an interview, aural tests and a written examination. Although the written and aural tests may be prepared in school or by a theory or musicianship teacher, the interview is undoubtably something that should be discussed in instrumental lessons. By the time audition day has arrived, my students should feel focussed, prepared for and excited about every aspect of the audition. Applicants will also need to achieve certain grades in school examinations and (where applicable) an appropriate IELTS score.
  • Nerves: This can be a huge issue for musicians (violists are, unfortunately, not exempt!) and many find conservatoire auditions a daunting experience. Performing under pressure requires a special kind of preparation that may not come into everyday practice. Visualising the scenario in advance is important – imagine it happening and imagine it going brilliantly. Once there, think in slow motion, set up comfortably,  tune calmly and accurately, and breathe deeply to slow the heart rate. Believe that the preparation is enough and that you will give a true representation of your ability. As teachers, it is our job to prepare students fully for the experience and give them coping mechanisms for the physical effects of adrenaline should they occur. It is imperative that programmes are played through in their entirety multiple times in advance of the event, preferably with some kind of audience. Rehearsal with piano and knowledge of the piano part is obviously a must but so often goes neglected. Be aware that rehearsal time with piano on the day is minimal.
  • After the audition: Once auditions have been survived and offers have rolled in (hopefully!) it is essential to have consultation lessons with as many different potential tutors as possible. This is a two-way process; for students to decide with whom they would love to learn and for tutors to consider whom they wish to teach. Leaving this to chance is risky as every teacher-student relationship is unique and different students thrive in different learning environments. As for the 9-month stretch between auditions and the commencement of conservatoire life, this is a favourite time of mine – an especially productive period where the looming reality of a career in music provides perfect motivation.

I have had the joy and responsibility of helping many young violists prepare for conservatoire auditions and my musings in the above paragraphs are just that – a tiny proportion of my thoughts on a very broad and lengthy process which is different for everyone. If any BVS member wishes to discuss any of the points in finer details, or indeed anything about conservatoire auditions, please feel free to direct any correspondence to me through Sue Douglas, BVS Secretary.

All that’s left to do is wish good luck to young violists preparing for auditions for 2016 conservatoire entry – the hard work will be worth it.

Lucy Nolan BMus(Hons), MMus RNCM

8 May 2015