Sunday, February 07, 2010

[Ask the Readers] Best Practices for Collaborative Piano Program Auditions

A reader sent the following story about a recent audition for a graduate degree in collaborative piano:
I recently auditioned for a MM. in Collaborative Piano at a well-known American conservatory and had a somewhat surprising experience. For the audition, I was to prepare a solo work, a set of 4 songs or arias, and an instrumental sonata of my choosing. I brought my own violinist since I knew a grad student studying at the school, but requested that the school provide a singer for my audition (which they offer to do). When the singer showed up to my warm-up room 20 minutes before my audition, it became clear that she had just been asked by the collaborative piano professor to sing for my audition 15 minutes prior. This meant that she would only perform one song with me Not only had she never been coached on the music, but she didn't use the score in the audition and ended up forgetting half her words, missing pick-ups, etc.
I realize that this is a real-life situation and I deal with it everyday as a voice studio accompanist, but I assumed that the point of a collaborative piano audition was not to see if we can play "catch-up" when our partners do something unexpected. In my opinion, this is one of the simpler skills of the trade. My real surprise came when I was asked to play another song while the collaborative piano professor plunked out the vocal line next to me on the piano (our hands crossing and all). I was quite frustrated after having very conscientiously prepared for my auditions to find that it seemed like the professor did not take collaboration very seriously. I learned from other students that this was not unique to my audition, and that this professor always finds soloists at the last minute and sometimes doesn't find them at all. So, my question to you is...Is this really considered acceptable? Am I crazy to think that if the point of the audition is just to see if we can play the notes, then i shouldn't be a collaborative piano audition? Should I be prepared for this at the rest of my auditions? 
If you're a faculty member or administrator at a school of music, setting up a day of collaborative piano auditions can be an extremely complex affair, with singers and instrumentalists that need to be coordinated (and paid!) to meet a pianist and perform in the audition with little or no rehearsal time.

I certainly hope that this pianist's experience is the exception rather than the norm. It's also important to remember that the student is auditioning the school as much as the school is auditioning the applicant.

Teachers and students: what are some best practices that need to be put in place in order that a graduate-level collaborative piano audition go smoothly?


  1. This would never happen at LSU. We carefully choose students who KNOW the rep of each auditionee. Sometimes they even volunteer to LEARN new rep just to help out! The experience the writer above describes would not adequately portray his/her skills and musicianship. We don't only want a "Bullwinkle" who can "catch the flying squirrel" singer, but a fine pianist first and foremost. (For those of you who don't remember the cartoon I cited, it was "Rocky, the Flying Squirrel.")

  2. Anonymous11:06 AM

    I did the collaborative piano audition process last year at this time. At most of my auditions, I was asked to either play and sing simultaneously, or the professor auditioning me just sang himself (usually a mixture). Obviously, it's not quite the same to have someone sing with you in their "coaching voice," but I thought it was good enough for the purposes of the audition. They certainly knew the songs well enough to do all the inflections and things a seasoned singer would do, and I certainly didn't have to worry about memory slips on their part. I auditioned mostly to vocal collaboration programs, and I know the problem of auditioning instrumental rep is probably harder to solve. I did have one prof play the violin part of a sonata in the very upper register of the piano (taking care not to cross hands with me).

    The only place that actually gave me a real singer for my audition required us to arrive the day before to rehearse with her. Though I appreciated how well-organized they were (especially compared to the experience of the auditionee described in the post), it was more annoying for me, as I had conscientiously tried to avoid flying to auditions or having to spend time overnight in places. I was still a full-time student at a non-music school at the time (where professors are not at all understanding about audition season), and while I did spend lots of time preparing for my auditions, I thought an extra full day to devote (on their terms) was rather a lot to ask. The audition rep is already different at every single school (with little overlap), such that auditioning for collaborative piano programs could be a full-time job. Not everyone can afford to view it as such. No point in starting a new degree if I couldn't finish my old one...

    It all turned out OK in the end for me, but I still wonder if there isn't a way to run collaborative piano auditions so that the auditionees don't go insane with playing different rep lists every week of February. I know it's like this in the real world, having to perform different stuff all the time, but it takes quite a good experienced pianist doing this full time to play all that rep at a high level. Do they want us to already be at that level when we're auditioning? Or do they want us to just audition for one or two schools and hope those go well? Or are we actually expected to drop everything else for a few months and treat this as a full-time job? It's an icky process all around, and kind of unfair, considering that every type of soloist gets to bring more or less the same rep to all their auditions.

  3. When I auditioned for the MM Collab. Piano program at my University in 2006, the provided collaborators were well prepared. But I was nervous beforehand because I know that the art of collaboration is best achieved when you have worked thoroughly with each other before a performance. I think the only true solution to this problem is for the collaborative pianist to bring their own partner to the audition. I realize it's an expense and a hassle, but how else could you ensure that you have the best audition possible?

    Another suggestion would be to clarify with the chair of the department (or organizer of the audition), via phone or email a week or two in advance, that the collaborative partner has been chosen and given the music. That way there is a smaller chance for surprise and awkwardness at the audition.

  4. Auditioning is the best way to find out what goes on at the school. Your experience at this audition should have provided plenty of evidence that you don't want to go there!

    At my audition for an M.M. in Accompanying and Coaching @ Westminster Choir College, a faculty soprano was the singer. She knew the music, and tried to trick me once. I was expecting that ~ and it didn't work! :)

  5. Interesting graduate award during grad school was to sing all the MM and DMA collaborative piano auditions. We were required to have the music in our repertoire and it had to have been coached. There were always about 5 or 6 of us outside the audition room waiting to go in...we could be singing music the pianist had prepared or something they were sight reading (ah the joys of taking off on a pianist that didn't know Faure's Notre Amour...BTW, the ones that could keep up got into the program). Any program that doesn't give you a real singer isn't worth their salt in my opinion...the rehearsal voice is just not good enough to see if you really do know how to listen!

  6. I had a very simiiliar experience to the one posted on the blog. Except, I was told that it was my responsibility to provide my own collaborators and that they would be unable to furnish me a list of potential musicians in the area (I was travelling out of state for the audition). I found a singer in that area through a mutual friend, paid her to learn the music and then she got snowed in and couldn't attend my audition. The end result was that the professor played the vocal lines 2 octaves higher on the piano.

  7. I remember in one of my audition in Austin few years ago, they offered the page turner, that's the sweetest thing ever.

  8. Anonymous11:42 PM

    It's interesting to hear about these experiences. I auditioned at two Canadian universities, both with different outcomes:
    One provided me with a singer and violinist, both of which I was asked to schedule rehearsals with independently. The violinist was flexible with her time, and completely knew the music (as it had been in her repertoire for years); the singer, however, couldn't make it to rehearse with me until the day of, and also failed to show for our scheduled meeting. I had to go into a part of my audition without having rehearsed at all, and thus tried everything to follow the singer, whose tempi were a complete contrast to what I'm used to. It was a scary experience. I didn't know any better, but had I known, I would have told the panel, and perhaps suggest to them to seek out a better option.
    Another Canadian university provided a singer who thoroughly knew the music, and a violinist who DIDN'T know the music well enough (both sets of rep at the respective schools were similar). Again, it was a scary endeavour, and not ideal in an audition situation.

    It was upsetting to see that the Collaborative Piano degree was taken lightly at these institutions. The experience was bad enough for me to eventually choose a different path of study in graduate school.

  9. What an unfortunate situation, Anonymous. Thanks for the comment.