Applying to a conservatory or college as a composition major? As a core composition faculty member at the New England Conservatory, I help host over sixty in-person interviews with prospective students in Boston every year. More and more composers apply each year. Here are my top ten bits of advice for aspiring composers who are thinking of auditioning.
Talk passionately about the music of your own time at your audition. Be able to name and to discuss living composers who have an influence on you.
Composition faculty prefer not to listen to Midi recordings. Arrange to get your works recorded with real instruments, or wait until you have recordings before you apply.
Get to know the school before you meet the faculty by going to visit and talking to other students. When the time of your audition arrives, be able to articulate something personal about what is attractive to you about the school.
Meet the faculty with whom you are interested in studying prior to your audition. The best way to do this is to go to concerts where faculty’s work is being performed, go up and introduce yourself afterwards, and say something intelligent about the piece. This is far preferable to emailing with a few days’ notice asking for a free lesson. Many faculty do not give “trial” lessons - -but that does not mean that we are not interested in your work.
Studying composition involves close mentorship, akin to an apprenticeship. Get to know the music of the faculty where you are applying - - especially of those teachers with whom you are particularly interested in studying - -and take the initiative to bring up one or two specific works of theirs with them when you meet them.
Be thoughtful about your teacher choices when you apply. Conservatories use the studio system, whereby if you list a certain teacher and they have a positive impression of you from the music that you submit and from your audition, they can unilaterally ask that you be admitted into the school.
Make sure your English is good enough to understand and discuss basic musical concepts before applying to college or conservatory. If your TOEFL score is not high enough, take time off to work on your English. Faculty don’t mind if you are a year older when you are applying - -we need to be able to communicate with you, and it defeats the purpose of study abroad if you are struggling with basic communication for the first year (or more) of your studies.
When you are in town for the interview, go to concerts. It sends faculty the message that, if we admit you, you would be an active participant in our community.
It is perfectly acceptable to take time off and write music before applying to study composition. For any given composer active today, no one knows how old he or she was when they finished school. If we like the music, composition faculty do not care if an applicant is a few years older than their cohort.
Develop yourself as a person and thinker before specializing. I often encourage composers who have a keen intellect to get a liberal arts degree, or a broader undergraduate degree, and then to specialize in composition at the Masters level. (Of course, this is what I did, so that influences my perspective!) The undergraduate years are a time of great intellectual growth, and if you are already specializing in composition at that point, you might be limiting yourself. Developing the whole person makes you a more interesting composer, and intellectually vibrant young composers may have little to lose by learning their craft slightly later.