The Audition is Only the Beginning

By Sherri Damon • December 01, 1996 • 11 min read

For many high school students, including myself when I was seventeen, the college or conservatory is their first introduction to formal music education. As such, it is also their introduction to the challenges of pursuing a music career. Unless you live in a major city and have taken lessons privately (which I did not), for even more of us, outside of high school band contests and concerts, the university audition was the very first time we had played an audition in an intimate setting - a small concert hall or studio - before a panel of adults. Even after winning the audition, the period of transition which follows - the process of completing the degree - is one for which few students are prepared or have the motivation to complete.

Within three months of graduation, you, as a college freshman will suddenly be thrown into an environment where your parents or guardians no longer will remind you to get up, eat breakfast, get to class and rehearsals on time, do homework, and practice his or her instrument. These things you will have to do yourself. And if you don't do them yourself, no one else will do them for you - and you will soon find yourself, like thousands of other college freshmen, no longer enrolled at your school due to poor attendance - and thousands of dollars in debt for scholarships which you had won, but for which you failed to meet the academic requirements. For whether you are a performance major or a music major with a non-performance concentration, college scholarships and federal loans of all types require that you maintain a minimum academic grade point average (GPA) to continue as a student. So even in the conservatory, where the emphasis is on performance, grades matter.

Do You Really Need a College and/or Conservatory Education?

With these things in mind, as a prospective college or conservatory student who desires to major in music, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do you really NEED a degree? Are you getting top orchestra/jazz gigs already without the "endorsement" of an academic setting? In other words, are you already gigging full time with Joe Alessi, Douglas Yeo or Bill Watrous? Are you getting calls record with Wynton Marsellis, or touring with Whitney Houston's back-up band year-round? If so, it may not profit you to worry about college now. Besides, you're getting what Ross Perot referred to as the "Roads" Scholarship: the Road-Of-Hard-Knocks; and in music performance (studio or orchestra setting), all that matters to that booking agent is "Can you play?" - not necessarily, "Can you tell me why you play it this way?" So if you're already "hanging out with the cats," just bide your time and save that money for college if you choose to attend later!
  2. If you aren't in that position yet, or are on your way there, and even though you enjoy playing, are there things that you don't YET know that interest you, things you cannot learn solely from gigging? Would you still would like to know a better way to play the trombone, and believe that someone in a college could possibly teach you that way? Would you like to learn more about music from the Medieval, Classical, or Jazz eras? Want to find out why certain chords put together in one harmonic setting do or don't work in other settings? And are you planning ahead for a future time in your life when you just might want to do in addition to or other than playing? In that case, studying at a college or a conservatory may be just the thing for you.

Choosing a College or Conservatory

It is not enough merely to decide to attend college or a conservatory. There are literally thousands upon thousands in North America and around the globe. Their emphases and philosophies on music vary according to the needs of their surrounding communities, their respective histories, and the nature of the resources endowed to them by their donors. For example, if you desire to pursue strictly orchestral music, it would be silly for you to audition at the Berkley College of Jazz! Nor would you audition for the Cleveland Institute of Music, an orchestral performance-oriented conservatory, and expect your time to be strictly devoted to music education with no strict emphasis on performance excellence.

So with these things in mind, ask yourself the following questions while you review the long list of colleges and conservatories available to you:

The Conservatory

  1. Do you still see yourself in a performance career AND NOTHING ELSE BUT A PERFORMANCE CAREER?
  2. Do you play very well already and don't need any essential or even major help - such as an embouchure change?

If the answers to the above are "yes," then choose a conservatory. The goal of the conservatory is to prepare performers, conductors and composers to perform, conduct and compose. Period. And at most conservatories, they assume that you know how to play very well already. The people who will teach you your instrument at a conservatory are not really teachers in the strict sense of the word. They are called "artist-teachers," "lecturers," or even "professors." But in reality, they are coaches. Coaches don't teach you how to play: they provide guidance, make suggestions on how your playing can improve, provide you literature suitable to your level, and steer you towards opportunities to perform when appropriate. In essence, while there are a few exceptions, the job of a coach is to prepare you to GIG. So if you only need a coach, apply to a conservatory - and one in a major city or with a major gig contact as the instructor/coach, so that you can not only enroll in a school where you may concentrate solely on performance, but also get your name circulated with as many people in the music performance industry as soon as possible.

The College or University: Some Questions

  1. Do you see yourself someday wanting to teach someone about trombone - or would you like to someday teach someone how to play ANY musical instrument, or how to sing? Would you like perhaps to teach children about music - or teach yourself as an instrumental (or vocal) coach or teacher (music education)?
  2. Do you also wish to write music and/or teach other not only how to write it, but the ins and outs of its construction (music composition and music theory)?
  3. Would you be interested in not only the modern tenor trombone, but playing in a sackbut consort (early music performance), or with a dijeridu (world music/ethnomusicology)?
  4. Do you also have a call to enter the medical profession, but would also like to investigate how to use music as a tool to help people recover physically and mentally from illnesses (music therapy)?
  5. Does the history of music fascinate you - and could you see yourself involved in researching and collecting facts about music's past, and sharing your discoveries with others (music history/musicology)?
  6. Would you like a career in performance someday, but also have other academic interests than music - such as maybe wanting to take a calculus or physics or religion class as part of your core studies?
  7. Does your performance technique require essential or even major renovation before you can even DREAM about playing - and that means you need a TEACHER of trombone?

If so, apply to attend a college or university where there is a reputable school of music with (1) a WELL-ROUNDED music program, (2) a well rounded academic program, and (3) a TEACHER of trombone - someone who not only plays well and has contacts within the performance world, but who also has the time (and it is part of his/her job description) to help you solve those problems which may negatively affect your performance goals. A university or college environment usually provides opportunities to explore alternative career outlets in music beyond performance, as described above.

Even within these areas there are specialties. For example, if you're interest is music education, do you want to specialize in instrumental education or general (vocal/elementary) music education? In instrumental or general education, do you prefer elementary, middle or high school? Would you like to go for a DOCTORATE and teach at the college level someday? Even if you desire to perform, as already mentioned above, you may want to concentrate on jazz, early music, avant-garde, or other areas. Your professor/teacher can provide you with invaluable contacts in all of these areas, as well as the standard "gig" situations; because their area of specialty and their contacts are usually broader than those of their colleagues in the conservatory. This broader knowledge is necessary, because university positions require more in order that the professor can maintain his/her teaching position. In our field, you can learn about what will be expected of you while you watch your professors teach you!


For those of you who have yet to subscribe to the Trombone List, already I have received a wealth of information about the music field from the professionals who contribute responses to inquiries and comments from fellow subscribers. Many of these performers, teachers and researchers started out pursuing one field in music and ended up combining their first choice with other pursuits - or changing their course altogether. Boston Symphony bass trombonist Douglas Yeo, for example, taught high school band and worked as a secretary at one point. My trombone professor, Randy Kohlenberg, at one time paid his way through school by doing studio gigs and as a teaching assistant at his graduate school! I gig in the Salisbury Symphony Brass Quintet with men and women who teach public school band and still sound great on their instruments! Contrary to what negative teaching I used to receive from past "artist-teachers," that wasn't supposed to be possible!

That's another matter which is even more important than the career choice you make or what school you choose to attend: strive to keep perspective. It helps if you have positively yet honestly motivating professors, be they coaches or teachers. You don't need a performance artist-teacher who puts down music educators; nor do you need to attend a school where they tell you that if you're entering music education, you don't need to concern yourself with performing well. In the past fifteen years, both government and public support for live fine arts performance and education has sharply declined, due to not only the advances of modern technology (such as the synthesizer), but also the misrepresentation of artists to the public by "artists" with little concern for their actions or how those actions might tarnish us all. So we all need each other in a new and more crucial way, now. The negative vibes and attitudes taught in the past have not only divided us, but have damaged our appearance to the "non musician" public.

So, if you can, find a positively motivating yet honest professor to teach or coach you. Don't settle for a teacher who tears you up all the time, OR a person who tells you how great you're doing when you're not. If that is the person with whom you have to study due to scholarship or logistical reasons (as long as they do not challenge your personal integrity) and therefore you cannot transfer, grin and bear it. But find other perspectives outside of the school, if necessary: such as in community groups or pay gigs; or non-musical activities, such as sports, civic or religious organizations. Whatever the situation you enter, negative or positive (and there will be ups and downs in them all), be respectful and attentive to your professor. Because even if that person is not the most pleasant or kind, or doesn't agree with your personality, he or she has the contacts you need in your field. There are many music education majors in our trombone studio, for example, who don't realize until too late that Dr. Kohlenberg is also the music education CHAIRMAN!...and by then, they've slacked off once too may times, both academically and performance-wise.

In closing, to paraphrase that Scripture verse, "The race belongs not to the swift nor to the strong, but he (she) who endures to the end..." No matter what kind of superchops some young students at UNCG have, I've learned to tell myself, "Let's see if they're here by their senior years!" Over 80% of them aren't. The ones who, like myself at seventeen years old (I'm 32 now) who didn't have any chops to begin with, but who worked our tails off and practiced daily...we're still playing. So be proud of your accomplishments. Apply to the school which you believe would suit your LONG TERM goals...and understand that winning the audition is JUST the beginning of your race.