Winning a music scholarship with everyone's sanity intact - a guide
Aaaaaaaaand relax. The end of the February half term break annually marks the end of one of the busiest periods in my teaching calendar: music scholarship audition season!
Whenever I mention being busy preparing students for music scholarship auditions to my non-UK colleagues, they look at me quizzically, not entirely sure what I am on about. So I have to explain that every January thousands of 10 and 11-year old children in London and around the country sit highly competitive entrance exams to eye-wateringly expensive independent schools. An army of tutors is being despatched to cover everything from non-verbal reasoning to interview technique, WhatsApp groups are running red hot with mums close to nervous breakdown comparing notes, and those really committed to the cause of getting their child to the front of the queue at their first choice school are scheming and plotting in ways that would make Frank Underwood blush. Did I mention this is only the academic part? If a child is musically talented, they can apply to audition for a coveted music scholarship that can, depending on the school, mean anything from an honorary title to a significant reduction in fees. This is where I come in.
Whilst I never fail to thank my lucky stars that I spent my childhood in a country where at this age children’s afternoons are filled with roller-blading and play dates rather than tutoring, I accept that it is what it is, especially in London, and that, to an extent, you have to play the game. And indeed it is a game my students have done exceptionally well at: between them they have won scholarships at top schools including St Paul’s Boys, Alleyn’s, Trinity, Whitgift, JAGS, Putney High School, Latymer, Francis Holland, Channing and Sevenoaks. Over the course of my nearly 17 years of teaching experience I have come to the conclusion that there IS a healthy way to guide a child through what is a tough process in a way that is beneficial to their overall development, keeps stress to a minimum and allows all those involved to come out with their sanity intact - plus ideally that coveted offer letter or two in their hands!
“HOW?”, I hear you ask. Before we get into the finer details of the approach that has consistently led my students to success over the years, let’s start with the basics and bust a few myths.
Holding a music scholarship is a major commitment that will take up a significant amount of time throughout secondary school. Scholars are expected to attend and/or lead ensemble rehearsals, sing in choirs and regularly perform as soloists in recitals. In other words: you’re expected to sing for your supper - literally! So, before rushing to print out that application form, both parents and children have to be absolutely clear that their commitment to music is sufficient to meet the ongoing expectations.
The admission pages of most schools will tell you that the expected minimum standard for an applicant’s principal study instrument is equivalent to ABRSM Grade 5. Well, there’s a lot more to it than that, and it all depends on WHICH instrument you play. The reality is that as a first study pianist, violinist - or for that matter cellist - Grade 5 standard won’t buy you very much at all, certainly not at the top London schools. Apply as a violist, double bassist, oboist, bassoonist or horn player and it’s a totally different ballgame. Why? Because schools are interested in keeping their orchestras staffed and that means having to provide quite generous incentives to players of so-called shortage instruments - a practice that even extends to top conservatoires! Hence, if you play a popular instrument, you will have to produce playing at a far higher standard to be in with a shot. Any well-experienced teacher will have a strong idea where the benchmark lies at individual schools and I would always advise taking the opportunity to attend music department open days where the Head of Music will be happy to advise you on the standard their school would realistically look for. Many will even offer to listen to the child and advise accordingly.
Which brings me to my first rule when it comes to scholarship auditions: I never support an application that I don’t believe has a realistic chance of success. Let me be clear here that even the most talented student can end up walking away empty-handed because auditions, by their very nature, are highly unpredictable and judging a musical performance is entirely subjective. Many of the world’s greatest players have experienced being knocked out in the first round of an audition process only to go on and win a major job or competition days later. But taking a Grade 5 exam multiple times until, on paper, you just about meet the minimum requirement to be invited to audition and then cram in lots of extra lessons one month before auditions is no basis on which to enter the process. It will add entirely unnecessary pressure to what is already a stressful time for any child, with very little prospect of success. As a teacher, this is one of my strict red lines I will not cross because ultimately my first responsibility is to the child, not parental ambition.
In my class, the first conversations with parents about a prospective application usually take place in Year 4 - provided that the student is already with me at that point, which is the case more often than not. We talk about which schools are being considered, what their required scholarship standard is and assess whether, given where the student is currently at, we are on track to be in with a good chance. All being well, we then draw up a work plan for the coming year and I will make a short-list of possible audition repertoire, which should showcase both the student’s technical and expressive abilities, but should technically be well within their comfort zone. Since a significant amount of work will go into this piece or pieces, I will also want the repertoire to be beneficial to their overall progress.
The goal is for there to be no need for any panic, cramming or lots of extra lessons at the end because this a) isn’t how you want to go into an audition (trust me on this one - we’ve all tried that once!) and b) isn’t compatible with the huge demand of the academic exams. Thus I ensure that we work solidly and consistently, with the focus being entirely on the quality of the process, NOT the result. For all the reasons outlined above, there are no guarantees of audition success, so the real prize here is first and foremost becoming an ever-better player as a result of the high-quality, extremely detailed work we put in day in day out. This is where it is vital that parents and teacher sing from the same hymn-sheet. In my class, the overwhelming majority of parents attend all of their children’s lesson with me, so everything we do is a team effort and I’m in awe of their dedication and not least their ability to grasp every last technical detail. They are my eyes and ears in between lessons and the lines of communication are always open, from the quick practice-related question that’s just cropped up, to in-depth conversation about which schools might be best suited to the child. Without exception, the best results are achieved when parents and teacher work in tandem and all relevant decisions are made together. I probably don’t have to explain that, conversely, either party pursuing their own agenda doesn’t usually end well and the loser is always the child.
Latest about one month before the first audition we will start to prepare for the event itself and that means full simulations of the entire process, so that, when the day comes, it’s almost second nature. I will have the student wait outside the room, call them in and run through their entire programme (including any second instrument) with them in order with piano accompaniment. This will feel extremely uncomfortable at first, but is indispensable preparation for any important performance. This is indeed how I prepare myself for concerts and auditions. The point is that you get used to playing whilst feeling nervous and practise how to remain totally focussed.
Most children will do multiple auditions and it is normal that some will go better than others. In my vast experience as both performer and teacher, I can, however, assure you that there isn’t always a reliable link between perception and outcome. You can play amazingly and still get the dreaded Dear John letter, just as easily as feeling that this particular audition really wasn’t your finest hour, only to be rewarded with an offer. These are really important conversations to have with students! I need them to know that what matters to me is the progress they have made over the entire preparation process, not whether they get an offer from school X or school Y. Focus on what you can control, ie best possible preparation, because everything else is a waste of valuable energy. Your child isn’t a bad musician just because your first choice school happened to have a talented bassoonist, a harpist and a tuba player apply this year and chose to award the scholarships to them.
So the recipe for success is really quite simple in the end: do your research early, trust your child’s teacher and support your son or daughter’s daily practice in the most positive and constructive way you can, long before auditions are even a topic. The rest is down to that little bit of luck. But in my experience the scholarship fairies tend to be kindest to those who follow those steps. Here’s to next year and, fingers crossed, hopefully no more recorded auditions and Zoom interviews! (Because I’m not sure I can take that again…)