Want in at a Conservatory or College Music Program? Take A Lesson

TakeALessonTopperThere is a mission-critical thing that students and parents considering a music track at either colleges or conservatories MUST do if you want to gain admission: Take a lesson with a professor at the school(s) of choice a year or more BEFORE you apply and audition when you are ready to do that. Read on for when that will be.

Music is a mentoring process. Your private teacher helps you become appreciably better than if you were just taking band at a community high school.  When you get ready to go to conservatory or a college music program, the professors are mentoring you to the next level, which is a professional career in music.

Auditions are short and stressful. They really do not let the faculty get much more than a glimpse of you, and they’re not particularly good bellwethers as to your teachability.  Students can be brilliant performers but have issues with sight reading, or follow-through with instructions in lessons.

Taking a lesson with a college professor is also a good way for you to shop them.  How do they teach? Do you mesh well with them? Is their personality agreeable with the way that you like to learn music?

Start when your teachers tell you that you’re ready.  Not when your parents tell you. Not when your self-doubt says that you’re not good enough, even though your teacher is telling you that you are. Not when you think you’re ready but your teachers do not.

For the professor, they get from you:

  • Teachability – How well does the student take instruction? Do you listen and can you execute on what they are telling you?  This is something that they cannot get from an audition, which is why auditions are really just verifications against lessons for a lot of students who pass pre-auditions and get to the audition.  In fact, teachability can get your pre-audition moved upward in the process. (See separate article on this).
  • Stressers – Music performance can be a high-stress business. If they toss you a challenging situation, do you rise to it, or fold up?
  • General Ability –  Professors look for students who perform at a high level, but even if there are people whom YOU perceive to be better than you are, they may see elements in your technical performance which they can bring out that they may not be able to correct in someone who has innate ability but isn’t able to channel it well.
  • Snapshot (MOST IMPORTANT) – If the professors see you in the 10th and 11th grades, if they like you, they may ask you to come back and see them in your junior and senior years prior to auditioning. Your visit is a snapshot of how you are as a musician at this age.  They will give you things to do, and tell you places you need to go with your private instructor at DSOA. IF YOU DO THESE THINGS, and show marked improvement, then they will see that either at a subsequent lesson or at the audition.  The audition is a CONFIRMATION that the promise that they saw a year or two earlier is growing and moving to a level that they can work with you.

When are you ready to take a lesson with a college professor?  It is something that your private teacher can best advise on.  For some students it can be as early as the beginning of 10th grade. For others it may be in your Junior year.  The bottom line is HOW MUCH DO YOU PREPARE AND PRACTICE?  The harder you work at school, and in your personal development as a musician, generally the earlier you can involve yourself in that process.

Freshmen and Sophomores can prepare for the lesson process. When you go to summer programs like Tanglewood, Interlochen, Brevard, etc, if you are taking private lessons, which are extra at Interlochen, then you are already in the mentoring process with a college-level faculty member. These are great ways to get yourself geared up as a freshman or sophomore to understand the process involved when you are working with a college-level faculty person.

When to start looking for lessons:  When your private instructor agrees that it is good for you to be seen, you should send an email to a faculty member on their instrument(s) in their area of music asking them if they would be willing to have a lesson with you.  In the winter of the your sophomore year, begin to contact faculty. You need to do this MONTHS IN ADVANCE for the bigger national conservatory and university programs because faculty are still performers and travel quite a bit, so they have to work you into their schedules.  Students, not parents, should email the faculty to request a lesson.

How to get a lesson:   Since you’ll want to see the schools,  this can be added to a time/date where you and your parents would go to tour and see the school.  To figure this out:

  • Pick a professor –  Show the lists of faculty to your private teacher and Mr. Rogovin.  See whom they suggest. Often times, they know a number of the people on faculty at many of these schools and can make the right recommendation for you.  If they don’t, then you can look at the ratemyprofessor websites and see who gets good feedback from their students. Likewise, one of the benefits of attending a quality summer program like Interlochen, Brevard, or Tanglewood is that their teachers and private instructors may also have connections to faculty around the country.  Reach out to them, and ask their advice as well.
  • Pick ONE professor. Do not try to hit all of them.  Look for available dates on LTMs that hit near or on a weekend, or over the summer. Remember that many professors travel in the summer, so don’t assume that they will all be there. Better to see them while the school is in session anyway, because it gives you a better feel of the place and how they are when they are busily teaching their students.  Give them the different dates SEVERAL WEEKS OR MONTHS IN ADVANCE, so they can look at their schedule and see when your schedule and theirs fit. They can work you into both their performance and their educational schedules.
  • Email the professor –  Be clear. BREIFLY,  them that you are:
    • A student from your school
    • What instrumentation you play
    • How long you have played
    • With whom you study.
    • Ask them if they would be willing to offer you a lesson.
    • Give them the range of dates that you have available
    • THANK THEM for a moment of their time.  Short and sweet.
  • If the professor does not get back to you –  Wait a couple of weeks.  Re-send the letter with a polite: “I’m not sure if you got this, but I was hoping to arrange a private lesson with you.”  If they still do not get back to you, send the same email to another professor. If that is the only professor on the faculty for your instrument, and they don’t communicate with you, then you can factor that this is not a place that you want to be.  No matter how great the label of the school is, if the faculty member teaching you does not take any interest in you at this stage, it is not generally a good sign that they communicate well and that they can teach you.

If you need more help with this, there is a template that we’ve put together for you, but you need to customize it quite a bit so it doesn’t look like a form letter. You aren’t the only one reading this.


ARRIVE EARLY. Allow for traffic, a missed train or bus, and arrive at least 20 minutes early. The Waze app can be helpful if mom or dad is driving in an unfamiliar city.

COME PREPARED. Some professors will give you some structure, like bring a piece that you’re working on, or something that you think you play well. Some won’t.  You should be well versed in sight reading on the fly, and you should absolutely have at least (2) two pieces that you know like the back of your hand, and one that you are currently working on and can play reasonably well, to bring to your lesson.

PARENTS:  You need to be budgeting and scheduling time for these lessons, seeing the schools, and travel.  You can also help in a much more significant way at the lesson:

  • Prepare your travel and budget for lesson cost – Some professors at our state schools do not charge, but most do.  Be prepared for the lesson to run somewhere between $90-$200, with a few of the “top” professors charging as much as $275, we’ve heard.  Professors make a living too, and this is well worth it for both their artistic advice and for the ability to put your student on their radar. Would you rather that your student be one of the 12,000 high school players who may want to audition that they don’t know, or the 50 or so that they do know?
    • It is fair and appropriate to ask up front about the cost in an email, if they didn’t volunteer the information when they confirmed the appointment with your student.
    • If getting your student to meet with a professor is out of your ability to do because of the travel cost, ask if the professor will do a SKYPE lesson with your student.  These are never quite as good as being in the room with them, but it can be a useful alternative.
    • Another option for those whose budgets are tight and SKYPE is not available, is for the parent to email the professor, explain the circumstances and need, and ask if there is another solution.  Some will waive part or all of the fee for a student with great promise.
    • Prioritize – If you can’t budget to meet with all 6-8 key faculty that your student will need to see, work with your private instructor to determine which ones would be best use of your resources.
  • DO NOT EXPECT TO BE IN THE LESSON – Most parents at Dreyfoos already know the drill: Lessons are mentoring time, and crucial for the student and the professor to interact. This is their ‘audition’ for the lesson process for four years.
  • DO NOT SPEAK FOR/PROMOTE YOUR STUDENT – We have a lot of parents who are very enthusiastic about their kids. Many of you, and you probably know who you are, have a habit of speaking about them proudly because you want them seen in the best light. DO NOT DO THIS at a lesson. If the professor talks to you before or after, keep it to a minimum. They don’t need to be “sold” by you.  They play well and they’re teachable or they’re not.  It’s much more important to LISTEN here than talk. Let the professor do the talking.
  • YOU ARE BEING EVALUATED TOO – Professors were students, once upon a time. They know that supportive parents are what make the difference for students who have got to their lessons, been given opportunities, etc.  Aggressive parents who manage their children are usually a liability, not an asset, to most college faculty. Students are expected to function under their own steam.  Have a conversation. Be a cool human, and be proud of your kid, but if you start elaborating on how you’ve brilliantly managed to steer them through their middle and high school years, that may cause the professor to wonder how your student operates on their own without all of that management.
  • DO WATCH FOR HOW THE LESSON WENT – Instead, you need to be watching the situation and listening intently to the professor. If they liked your student,  they will generally spend time talking to you about what needs to be done. THIS IS HUGE. Please make sure that you listen carefully, and write it down afterwards. This is what they want to see out of your child. If they collect their money and give you short shrift, this is probably not a fit for your student.

Lessons are a MUST for anyone who is seriously trying to get into the process, particularly at the better conservatories, which are highly competitive.  Anything that gives you a reasonable advantage helps. Being from DSOA give you a calling card that says you are more serious about your music. The lesson is the opportunity to show what you’ve got.  Even if your audition wasn’t stellar, if they’ve seen you a time or two, that may still get you in, where your audition-only would not.

6 thoughts on “Want in at a Conservatory or College Music Program? Take A Lesson

  1. dbest32

    We are now in prime audition season for colleges. Please realize that and try and schedule your lesson after auditions are over which will be in March.

    Also be flexible, especially for professors who teach at multiple schools and / or play in a professional orchestra. Friday – Sunday probably are not free time for them to schedule a lesson with you. Have multiple dates available. Provide them options and note that you will be driving or flying for the lesson.

    Note they will most likely charge you for the lesson, and depending on the market and the fame of the teacher, it can cost up to $250.

    Fit is critically important as you will have about 120 lessons with that professor over 4 years. Do you fit in with their school of teaching? How well has that professor done placing students to the next level?

    If your private instructor has a relationship with the professor have them introduce you and make the professor aware you will reach out to request and schedule a lesson.

    Personally, I recommend parents should not be in the lesson. They won’t be in the audition and won’t be at the college for four years either. Let your student shine.

    • Brian Ross

      It depends upon the professor, but I’ve never found Fridays or weekends to be a problem WITH ADVANCE NOTICE as they often reserve the time, at least on the Jazz side, knowing that many students have to travel on those days. The fame of the professor can amp the rate up, but generally, as a rule, we’ve found professors in the range I mentioned earlier, with some higher, of course, and some lower. You should inquire as to the cost if they don’t put it out there, but they usually inform you of the price prior to booking the lesson with you.

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