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In Conversation
Steven Palincsar on Violin Training

QUESTION: At the 2008 American String Teachers Association National Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you and a colleague, Margaret Pressley from Seattle, presented a program on "College/University/Conservatory Audition Preparation." Could you say a few words about auditions?

STEVEN PALINCSAR: I’d be glad to. Well, the first thing that might shock some students is that if they have waited until now to begin their preparation for this year’s music school auditions, they have minimal chances for success. Audition preparation is more of a science than an art. Students need to do everything they can to maximize their chances of acceptance, and beginning their preparation as early as possible is the best thing they can do.

QUESTION: When do you begin to prepare your students to audition for schools such as Juilliard, Curtis, Eastman, or Northwestern?

SP: From the very first lesson they have with me.

QUESTION: Are you serious?

SP: Absolutely. My job as a violin teacher is to bring my students to as near a professional level as possible by the time they walk into the audition, and to nurture and develop their love for music and the violin.

I begin by assessing their strengths and weaknesses, and work to nurture their strengths and to eliminate their weaknesses. In effect, I help them to convert their weaknesses into strengths. You know, in my opinion, there is no excuse for a student to play out of tune or out of rhythm at an audition. None. The tonal quality should be absolutely gorgeous, and the musicianship impeccable.
Furthermore, the student should be completely comfortable at the audition. No matter what unexpected events may occur, they must perform at their absolute peak.

Over the years that a student studies with me, I keep an eye out for pieces that the student has mastered that may later be performed at an audition. So, assuming the student goes to high school for four years, we will already have the entire audition repertoire selected and mastered by the beginning of the junior year. Then we work for the next year and a half to perfect the performance, and to master audition technique.

You see, at the audition, the student has an incredibly short time to demonstrate that she/he has what it takes to succeed at a school like Juilliard. At most thirty seconds. Probably nearer to five or ten seconds! The decision has already been made in that first impression. The rest of the audition is merely a confirmation of the audition committee’s first impression. So if a student needs a few minutes to get it together, they’re out of luck. And that’s that.

QUESTION: So you prepare all your students for a career in music?

SP: Well, no, not really. The impetus for a life in music must come from the student. If they choose to go to the University of Illinois as a pre-med, that’s up to them, but they will have the necessary preparation if they want to put it to use.

QUESTION: What happens once a student decides they want to pursue a career in music?

SP: I sit down with the student and his/her parents, and we talk about what they will need to do.

QUESTION: Do you ever try to talk a student out of a career in music?

SP: Absolutely not. Not under any circumstances. Nor do I ever try to encourage a student to go into music as a profession. The decision must always be entirely theirs. Most students know pretty much by about middle school or early high school what they want to do.

QUESTION: What do you do next?

SP: I give the student a hand-out that I prepared on how to research potential schools, and a research form for them to fill out.

QUESTION: What does it contain?

SP: Questions on repertoire, faculty, facilities, living accommodations, contact information, tuition, scholarship procedures, etc., etc. The student must do the research for each school they’re thinking about, and bring me a completed form with all the information as soon as possible. I need to know about any specific repertoire requirements for example.

QUESTION: Do you encourage your students to apply to specific schools?

SP: Never. I am not an admissions counselor. The student must choose what schools to apply to. Then I assist the student in planning and preparing for the audition.

QUESTION: What if you believe the student has no chance of getting accepted to the school of their choice?

SP: It’s my job to make sure the student is as prepared as he or she can possibly be, and to provide the student with my absolute faith, commitment, and support.

I will say this, however. If a student is set on a specific teacher, and that teacher has faculty positions at more than one school, I might recommend applying to the other schools as well, but that’s as far as I will go.

For example, Dorothy DeLay taught at Juilliard, but also taught at the University of Cincinnati, so many kids could go study with her there. Victor Danchenko teaches at Curtis, which is out of reach for most kids, but he also teaches at Peabody, which for my students is not a stretch at all.

I also try if possible to get a student to study in the summer with a teacher that they may like so that they can connect together. Sometimes, a kid comes back after summer studies and says she doesn’t want to study with that teacher anymore. It’s rare, but it happens.

QUESTION: Once the repertoire is prepared, do you begin work on the audition itself?

SP: No. You see, my students play in a weekly studio class in addition to their private lessons, and I use the class to prepare kids for auditions, competitions, solo and chamber recitals, and concerts with orchestra. So really my kids have already had a number of years working on the audition itself, and have developed contingency plans to deal with almost every possible problem.

QUESTION: Could you talk a little about your studio class as it relates to auditions?

SP: Absolutely. Well, the first thing I try to do is to create an environment where students can be comfortable enough to perform for each other. In the beginning, I allow absolutely no criticism of a student’s performance. Not by me, not by the kids, not by parents, not by guests, not by anyone. I insist that everyone applaud as the student gets up to perform. Sit quietly while they play. Then applaud after each performance. Next, everyone in the room must pay the student a compliment. No criticism is permitted. No suggestions of something the student might work on. Just a compliment. One thing that they liked. I start each year this way, even if the kids all know each other and have studied this way a number of years.

We also work on how to accept a compliment even if completely undeserved in our opinion. Kids are taught to be gracious and polite, and to say something like “Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the performance.”

When I judge that each student is ready for it, I ask for a couple of suggestions from the students for something that the performer might work to improve. I usually choose kids who are more advanced players to make the suggestions. Then we talk about these suggestions as a group to determine whether they are important or just interpretative. I never ask for more than three per class. At the private lesson, I can always add one more if needed.

If a student has a problem in the middle of the performance (for example a memory lapse), I work through it with them, and we develop a contingency plan. Something that the student can fall back on if someone drops a folding chair at the audition. We try to brainstorm everything that can possibly go wrong at the audition or performance. I teach the students never to stop the performance even if they are frustrated, angry, or about to cry. I tell them that it’s quite likely at a performance only the performers know that anything was wrong. I remember that I had a friend who played what we both thought was a disastrous performance of a Mozart Concerto. Afterwards, members of the audience kept coming backstage to praise his playing over and over again. Even if the whole audience is full of musicians, we must never stop, and must never lose our cool.

During the year, we also talk about goal-setting, and how to break down a goal into bite-sized pieces. I normally do most of this for the student, but one of my goals is to teach each student how to become completely independent of me, in effect to become their own teacher.

I frequently invite guests, prominent musicians, to whom I give evaluation forms similar to those used by audition committees. Guests turn the forms into me only, and do not share their comments with the student directly or the class. The comments are filtered through me, the teacher. You see, not every comment is helpful, and some are even destructive.

QUESTION: What happens once a student plays the audition?

SP: I insist that the student write a thank-you note to the jury, and then I help the student to move on to the next audition. If the student receives a rejection letter, I ask them to bring it to the lesson, and we talk about it together.

QUESTION: Do you ever try to contact the jury?

SP: Only if I am close friends with someone on the audition committee. Otherwise, never.

QUESTION: How many of your kids usually get accepted to Juilliard, Eastman, Indiana, or Curtis?

SP: It depends on so many factors. If Curtis for example only has room for two students, it’s highly unlikely that a kid will get accepted there. Also, the character of an audition committee can (and does) change over time. I need to be up on what changes have occurred. Some schools no longer want to hear romantic concerti, but prefer only 20th century works (such as Bartok or Prokofiev). We need to network with faculty. We can’t have an us vs. them attitude. As a violin teacher, I am providing a service not only to my students, but to the schools as well. So how many kids get accepted? They all do. In fact, every student I’ve ever prepared has gotten in at least somewhere. Cream always seems to rise to the top.

Without the interpreter the composition is a voice crying in the wilderness.The interpretative artist is the life-blood of music.

Eugène Ysaÿe