How To Get Into Music School As a Pianist

As a pianist and piano teacher in West Chester, PA who earned both undergraduate and graduate music degrees, I know the college audition process is tough on high schoolers. Not only do you have to take the SAT, get decent grades, fill out never-ending applications, and apply for FAFSA money, but you have to prepare for an audition too.

Hopefully the material below will help you – if you need help preparing your music or technique for your college or grad school auditions, please get in touch!

Remember: It Starts With a Traditional, Non-Music Application

You have to apply to the university of your choosing as a general applicant first – not necessarily as a prospective music student. Your SAT or ACT scores and high school transcript will have to be up to par, so don’t ignore history or math class just because you want to pursue the piano in college. 

As a hypothetical situation, let’s say that your high school GPA was pretty bad, but you’re a tremendous pianist. If you really impress the music faculty in your audition for the school of music, they may speak up on your behalf and suggest that the school admit you and simply require some remedial coursework. It’s best to avoid this situation though!

So stay on top of all of your college application deadlines, work hard in your high school classes so you have a decent GPA, prepare your SAT, and make sure that your academics don’t stop a university from seeing your talent at the piano.

Should You Send a Pre-Recorded Audition Or Audition In Person?

This is a great question. Disregarding our current pandemic status in which all auditions are virtual, many music schools give applicants the choice between a recorded or live audition. Especially if you are applying from out of state, schools are generally understanding.

That said, you should definitely audition in person if you are serious about the school. Impressing a panel of faculty members in a live setting has infinitely more weight than impressing someone with a recording, and music professors are aware of the fact that recordings and videos can be edited. Also, some auditions include a Q&A time or interview – you can really make an impression here by coming across as mature and confident.

Recorded auditions can work though, especially at less-competitive schools. Under normal circumstances, you won’t get into Curtis or Julliard without a live audition, but if you’re applying to schools that don’t necessarily attract international talent, you can still get accepted with a recording.

What Kind Of Repertoire Do You Need To Learn?

Most schools list their audition requirements (along with suggested repertoire lists) online, so make sure you research your school before preparing for an audition. For instance, here are the suggested repertoire lists for the University of Washington and Indiana State University:

Your teacher probably won’t be surprised to see a pretty standard and unimaginative list of Beethoven, Back, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, Liszt, and so on – college music auditions aren’t often the time to explore experimental or unknown literature. This may be because professors like to know whether you can interpret standards that they know well at a high level.

Another rule of thumb is that schools always look for varied playing. They will probably ask for three pieces in three different time periods (usually baroque, classical, and romantic), and they will probably ask that you demonstrate both lyrical and virtuosic playing to the best of your ability.

You may also need to pay a technique check – you should make sure your scales and arpeggios are in good shape before you audition.

Lastly – piano performance auditions are always memorized.

How Important is Music Theory Knowledge?

If you’ve been taking piano lessons long enough to audition for an undergrad degree, you probably have a decent grasp of music theory already. You should know the basics, like identifying tonic, dominants, and subdominants, and you should be able to identify chords and sections when analyzing a piece of music. But you don’t have to be able to analyze Bartok or identify modes and fifths of fifths. That’s what college theory courses are for.

If you don’t understand the basics of theory, you’ll have to take some remedial coursework to be brought up to speed (this really isn’t a huge deal). And if you score too high on your entrance exams, you may get placed in a higher level class – this isn’t always a good thing. You could possibly score quite well on your entrance exam, place into a class that’s over your head, and then realize that you could have used the fundamentals discussed in Music Theory 101.

In short, you should focus more on mastering your repertoire, and just make sure you know basic music theory.

Just How Important Is Your Piano Audition For Your Admittance?

In a performance undergraduate or graduate degree, your performance in the audition probably accounts for 70%+ of your admittance. Fundamentally, professors need students who can play. Allowances can be made for mediocre grades or a borderline SAT, but if you can’t play at a high level, you probably won’t be admitted.

In a music education degree, you really just need to demonstrate proficiency at your instrument. You will probably be allowed to use music in your audition, and you don’t need to play virtuosic literature to be admitted.

How Many Music Schools Should You Apply To?

Realistically, you should apply to as many schools as you have time for and can afford the application fees for. There are several reasons for this:

  1. You can never guarantee a perfect performance in an audition, so doing more auditions will give you a greater chance of landing a few really exceptional ones.
  2. If you can schedule your auditions this way, you may want to hold your lower-priority auditions first, as practice for your higher-priority auditions.
  3. Having multiple offers is a great thing! In fact, each offer you receive is leverage – you can play different schools against each other to try and get more scholarship money.
  4. You never know who else will be applying. You may play a fantastic audition, but perhaps five other incredibly gifted pianists happened to audition for your school of choice that year. These things are out of your control, so hedge your bets with multiple auditions.
  5. Faculty members are unpredictable. Maybe a couple of faculty members at your favorite school just really hate the Saint-Saens piece you auditioned with, and therefore perceived your performance to be sub-par. It’s not great, but you have to alot for the human element in a piano audition.

In the scope of life, paying $1,000 in application fees to audition at a bunch of schools is a pretty small amount of money if it results in multiple offers that you can leverage into scholarship money.

Good luck on your college piano auditions, and remember, if you need piano lessons in Downingtown, PA or the surrounding area, I’d love to have you in my studio.