5 expert tips to survive an audition

From our diarist Anthea Kreston:


What does it take? What are the necessary ingredients a human must have (develop?) in order to stand in front of a panel, and be judged under a microscope? To have them pick you apart – from technique to style, intellect and emotional depth? And to have those thousands of hours of preparation (the 10,000 hours is a myth – it takes far and away more than that before a person can stand before an international competition jury, or high-powered audition) purified into a 10 minute crystalline musical cocktail. To be (sometimes it feels like on a whim) digested or spat out by the recipients. Nerves of steel only happens after every avenue of weakness has been hunted and eradicated. If that can even happen. That moment when the back stage man nods to you – the desire to just run away is real – your feet feel melded to the ground beneath, and yet, you do it. You take that breath, and that step, and you go out there, and you do it.

Our young Macedonian violinist Aleksandar Ivanov is in the final two weeks of preparation for his audition at the Curtis Institute of Music. He is lean, mean, organized, and determined. His cocktail is being mixed.

What are the elements needed to achieve a successful audition (and the definition of a successful audition is completely subjective – I would argue that it is simply personal goals achieved). These elements are: a long history of hard work, a dedicated home support crew, excellent guidance, endless desire/optimism, and the ability to set and achieve short- and long-term goals.

Let’s see how Aleksandar is doing. I think he is doing quite well……

1 A long history of hard work: this is clearly the case, as his list of repertoire performed with orchestra attests to. Starting from 2012, when he played the Beriot Concerto #9, his repertoire has steadily become more advanced, and the frequency has increased. This can only happen with solid, consistent, and successful personal work. He has all the major concerti under his belt and is currently working on Tchaikovsky for the audition.

2 A dedicated home support crew: I asked Aleksandar this week where he is right now. Instead of in Geneva, where he is currently studying, he is at home in Skopje for the month. He still works with his primary teacher (Svetlin Roussev), but he has the network he needs at home. I asked who is cooking and cleaning his clothes – mom is. This is exactly what needs to happen. Wipe away everything that is not fundamental to survival – all must go towards this goal, no energy spent on auxiliary tasks.

3 Excellent guidance: in addition to his primary teacher (who is a top-flight soloist), Aleksandar has his childhood teacher (who clearly believes in him and is willing to make sacrifices together – we find joy in each other’s successes). This teacher is spending 4-5 hours with him every day – he told him that 4 hours together is the same as 8 hours alone, which, if you are the parent of a young musician, is the under-exaggeration of the century. Also – he is no shrinking violet. He boldly contacted me for advice and help, even sending me clips of his progress for comment. This is what we must do – search out our network and reach to the ends of it. I feel as if I am part of the pit-stop crew at the Indy 500.

4 Endless desire/optimism: playing a classical instrument has major ups and downs – small triumphs are excruciatingly slowly achieved, failures sometimes can never be eradicated. If a musician can get to perfection in a difficult spot at 1/10 the tempo, this can sometimes send us into hours of joy. I was messengering with Aleksandar yesterday – here is a snapshot of part of our conversation (we were both practicing – I was trying to do 6 hours, and he the same, and so our texts came in spurts about every hour during our mutual breaks). Me: Make a video at the end of every day and try to watch it….. Alek: I do that Past 4 months Me: You are doing great!!!! Alek: When I feel very bad about my playing somehow it motivates me to do it better When I hear I play not so well from a video Me:

Yes I often feel like total 🤪🥊 about myself Alek: I do not know a musicians who doesnt doubt themselves At least at some point Me: it’s depressing but I always bounce back up, ready to fight again Alek: Exactly, that is what makes an artist’s life intererinf Me: 👍🏾 Alek: Everyday a new challenge Me: It’s exhausting, but also energizing. It flies up, and crashes down, all the time Alek: Of course If there is nothing wrong the good things cannot be noticed Me: hahahahahaha

5 The ability to set and achieve short- and long-term goals: Alek has a combination of repertoire he has played for years, for one year, and his large concerto he has played since August. He performs his pieces in public, has lessons and plays for many different musicians, and does a combination of very slow practice and play-throughs. In addition to his audition at Curtis, I asked him what his other applications are. He has a nice list of schools, competitions, and summer programs he is applying for. I often thing of an audition as just practice for the next audition.

So – let’s check in with Aleksander in a week. So far, so good! It’s an inspiration to me to speak with him, and a reminder to myself to support the dreams and goals of my children, husband, and friends. We are all on this continuum together – classical music is a life-style, not a career. Go Alek!!!


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  • According to this ramble, here is how you pass an audition:
    – Be lean. Average or even slightly overweight musicians can’t play.

    – Make sure you mention that you played Beriot’s #9, somehow that’s just relevant and will impress the jury.

    – Don’t live where you’re going to audition, that’s tacky.

    – Don’t do your own laundry, leave that for a relative. Your hands shouldn’t do any menial tasks, musicians should only do music and absolutely nothing else.

    – cozy up to people who might write an uninteresting article about you.

    • Myrtar-
      I think he is from Macedonia, studies in Geneva, and is auditioning in Philadelphia? At least that is how I read it. I checked him out on YouTube – he has a nice tone!

    • You’re certainly sour about something. This is a chance to see unfold a situation and a world of which few see or know much about. A world in which so much depends on so little. I will follow the story with interest.

      Beriot 9 – sure most of us have slogged through it at some point, in the “comfort” of our teacher’s studio perhaps, and with a decent pianist if we’re lucky. With orchestra? As a child? That’s the impressive part. Well, I’m impressed. And actually it is not a shabby piece. Interesting that the great Maud Powell, the first instrumentalist to be signed by Victor Red Seal, chose de Beriot #7 as the only concerto she recorded more or less complete (with piano, acoustically). She admitted the piece was dated but she felt the recording would be useful for the many students who would otherwise never hear it as a virtuoso would play it. A first rate performance of de Beriot is still a rarity.

    • Myrtar you miss the point. This is not about music
      it is about ambition. The Kreston five points cover
      this fully though she does love to dress it up as a
      life style opposed to a career.Curtis and Juillard have always been career moves ..It is not that
      the mediocre wax poetic about the art it is that
      they pretend to serve the art at all costs.

  • I remember these days well! Hours after hours of practice, and having my boyfriend send out for pizza. Such hard work, and it is frustrating and also fulfilling. Thanks for bringing back those memories, and good luck to the young violinist.

  • Observing the music world from afar I can only infer one thing: time, money, and guidance are pre-requisites for this kind of audition. Does such kind preparation not weaken the value? I doubt Perlman, Zukerman, Yo-Yo Ma, Argerich—well, I must name someone from Curtis, right?—Hilary Hahn would have needed to prepare in such a way. It only demonstrates something—needing 4 hours of guidance a day—what will happen upon arrival and it’s down to one hour a week come September?
    And are the ones who end up at —gasp!—Juilliard simply missing these luxurious resources (time, guidance, …money)? It seems very competitive, yes. But is it also no surprise that young musicians today have nicely polished technique but are exceedingly lacking in musical personality? We can name a few (curiously from many different institutions!), and that is the elusive rarity of their existence. Anyone can work hard, and improve—given the resources to do so the rest can come.

    Should this applicant have success, bravo to him and his teachers, but really makes one wonder—is it fair to say someone on the waitlist who didn’t have such help but obviously played well enough…………….

    • And your point? Don’t think for a minute that Perlman, Zukerman, Argerich, Hahn, etc. didn’t have daily instruction, hours of practice and guidance before entering Curtis and Juilliard.

    • Gerry –
      Yes, all of us, including Hilary and Perlman, have and do work this hard. The young man in question isn’t normally at home. His old teacher doesn’t usually donate this time. He normally practices more than an hour a day by himself. He is auditioning at other places. He has a musical personality. He has the help because he asked for it. And people wanted to give it to him. He isn’t paying for it. Genie taking time off school to prepare. What article did you read, because clearly you didn’t read the one above.

  • Very insightful. It also explains why so very few succeed in the serious music business which, when you think about it, is how it should be. The cream rises to the top. And we, the public, benefit from all of that many times over.

  • I think it is unwise for anyone to be so public about such a high-stakes and competitive audition. I wish the young man all the best, but what if he doesn’t get in, after all of this? There is no question of the excellence of his playing, but Curtis does not have room for all the excellent students who would like to go there. And secondly, what if he does get in? He will be the student whose journey was documented worldwide in advance; whether fairly or unfairly, there will be those who wonder if the publicity tipped the scale.

    • Mary – he is fully aware that he has a very slim shot. I asked if we should use a pseudonym but he is confident, and is able to cope with both failure and success. Thanks for the concern – it was also my question to him. He’s going to be just fine!

      • He’s a teenager, yes? Self-confident teens are not known for having the best judgment; their frontal lobes are still developing and their life experience is limited. With all due respect, I don’t think he fully understands the potential pitfalls of being so public. If he were my student, or my son, I would have advised him very strongly against allowing his journey to be documented and published.

        • Your point is well taken …but it is too late.
          One comes away thinking he is being used
          in the worst way .That the institute seems to
          allow itself to be part of this nonsense is
          deplorable.Whatever the outcome it will
          be for many suspect.It seems ambition has
          overridden reason……….

  • It’s exhausting, but also energizing. It flies up, and crashes down, all the time

    I know you’re trying to be encouraging but I feel I should point out that, while exciting and exhilarating and everything that appeals to people in their teens and 20s, this describes a not necessarily healthy way of life. Too many people I know in the long run end up coping with this roller coaster and the self-doubts that come with this biz with various sorts of poor life choices. Just don’t ever let “it’s depressing but I always bounce back up, ready to fight again” turn into “it’s depressing and at age 40 my body won’t bounce back up and my self-esteem is exhausted but it’s too late to learn how to do something else and I have a mortgage to pay so I’ll drink instead”. Important to learn healthy coping and de-stressing mechanisms from an early age, because this can be a rough biz.

    A teacher early on told us that all of us, from the lowliest amateur to the best soloists are all climbing up the same mountain, never to get to the top. It sounded appealing in its own way but was Sysiphus really setting an example for a healthy long-term emotional life?

  • I would perhaps want to suggest a 6th factor – something akin to resilience and the psychological wellbeing that enables you to pick ourself up and carry on with life when after all this you do not succeed at one or more auditions, perhaps even being told (as opera diva Joyce DiDonato famously was) that you really ought to think about another career.

  • I know Curtis doesn’t take many each year but what would be the ratio of people who make it to the audition stage to actual acceptees? (for violin)

    And how long after the audition does one find out a result?

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