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Enter Here—Auditions in a Changing Arts World

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A few weeks ago, I had the fascinating experience of chairing a panel for the League of American Orchestras on the subject of the changing expectations for musicians. A particularly stimulating and varied group of musicians took part, ranging from a veteran member of one of the most admired American orchestras to young musicians who had devised their own niches in self-created ensembles or in arts outreach. 

Ara Guzelimian

Ara Guzelimian

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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Everyone agreed that the newest generation of musicians emerges from their education with a much broader skill set—they play their instruments superbly well, with great virtuosity and impeccable polish, they are adept at an astonishing range of repertoire in a wide variety of styles, and they are well-prepared to take on a broad spectrum of advocacy, educational, and outreach activities.

At which point somebody took the leap and asked The Question. Since what we expect of musicians in the 21st century has changed so much, should we change how we audition musicians? There was a palpable electricity in a room full of musicians and orchestra administrators—someone had dared ask: Is it enough to play very well or should we look for that and then more?

And, if we extend the question to Juilliard’s multiple disciplines, is it enough to dance well, act well, sing well—or are we looking for more?

For much of the 20th century, conservatories practiced what I call a “monastic approach.” A gifted young artist came to a school, apprenticed with master teachers, and spent years in the splendid isolation of a practice room or rehearsal studio. After years of single-minded practicing and rehearsing, the young artist would then emerge full-grown to a presumably grateful world ready to shower him or her with rose petals. End of story.

It was never really that simple but that does capture the basic arc. As the whole environment of the arts world evolves in a changing society, that model has grown increasingly outmoded. A successful artist must be, first and foremost, a superb practitioner of their art—that hasn’t changed. But a successful artist in the 21st century also needs to be an effective communicator, advocate, entrepreneur, administrator, and wholly engaged participant in a broader community. In sum, the successful artist must meet the expectations of being, in Joseph Polisi’s enduring phrase, an artist as citizen.

How do we gauge that? How does an audition and admissions process take that into account?

There have been numerous shifts in recent years. James Houghton has effectively reimagined the drama audition process at Juilliard for the 40 or so finalists who pass through a demanding set of preliminary auditions. These finalists spend an extraordinarily intensive weekend going through a compressed version of the Juilliard drama curriculum—monologues, voice, movement, improvisation, singing, text analysis, and a challenging cultural encounter culminating in group discussions. All this takes place under the watchful eyes and ears of the entire Juilliard drama faculty. By the end of two days, there is a very rich, multidimensional picture of what each prospective student can bring to the program. It is the whole artist that is being considered. There is a very strong understanding of what each young artist can bring, not only as an individual actor, but as a critical thinker and as a member of a larger ensemble.

Similarly, the dance auditions put the applicants through a demanding cycle of ballet, modern dance, solos (always a work chosen by the auditioning dancer), group class with choreographic elements, and, finally, a detailed interview with a faculty member.

Most, but not all, music auditions still faithfully follow a traditional model of required audition repertoire, with an opportunity to interview or explore a student’s interests at the faculty panel’s discretion. It may be valuable to ponder carefully how this process can evolve further. 

The playing’s the thing here but that’s not all that is considered. All Juilliard applicants have their transcripts and admission portfolios carefully scrutinized by varying combinations of faculty and administration. Transcripts and previous educational experience matter more than prospective students may realize. The transcripts are read carefully, not so much from the classic Ivy League grade-point-average perspective, but to determine the degree of curiosity, engagement, and motivation that they may reveal. And, yes, a truly problematic transcript may indicate a student who likely will not flourish in the college setting of Juilliard.

It comes as a surprise to some new Juilliard students that there is a writing assessment test for entering undergraduates. (I can play the trombone really well, why does it matter whether I can write?) This not only helps measure a student’s skills in this area for placement in the appropriate classes but it also signals that a successful Juilliard student is expected to be an effective communicator as artist and citizen.

So, here’s a warm welcome and much encouragement to the young hopefuls who animate Juilliard’s hallways in that eventful first week of March. Dance, play, sing, act to the fullest of your abilities—that remains the unshakable core of what is needed to enter Juilliard. But use this opportunity to show us the whole artist and the whole individual as well. 

May this lovely rite of spring be a valuable step in a great artistic and human journey for you.

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