Is a music major in your academic future? Guitar teacher Brett M. shares 10 things you need to know to have a great guitar audition at the music college of your choice…
If you’re a guitarist who’s planning to continue your music education at the college level, then this may be one of the most important articles you could ever read.
In fact, it’s something that I wish I could have read, before auditioning and (luckily) getting accepted into Berklee College of Music over a dozen years ago.
Let’s meet someone…
His name is Dwayne, and like you (and me, back in the day) he is interested in majoring in music. Dwayne loves to play guitar, and he’s passionate about learning more.
He’s a sophomore in high school, and has played in a couple of bands off and on. Dwayne’s not a huge jazz guy, but he’s thinking about trying out for the school jazz band, just to get the playing experience — but he’s not too sure he’d know what to play.
Dwayne’s got above-average technique on the guitar and he knows he wants to get faster, but that’s about as specific as he could say.
He’s also got a feeling that there’s a lot more to learn about scales, chords, etc. In fact, his overall knowledge of how everything fits together is a bit sketchy. But he’s hungry to learn all there is to know, and is planning on attending music college for guitar after graduation.
Problem is, he’s not too sure what he’ll need to know to get in, and he’s a little worried about it. Actually, he’s a lot worried.
Sound familiar? If so, then read on – you’re about to find out the 10 Guitar Strategies For a Successful College Audition!
1. Have The Right Reasons
If you’re really serious about wanting to attend college for guitar (and then making a go at a career in music) you’d better be doing it for the right reasons. Here are two of the wrong reasons:
- I want to be famous.
- I want to make a lot of money.
Those two things may in fact happen to you, and if they do, GREAT! But to have a sustainable, lifelong relationship with music — one that continues even when the going gets tough — there’d better be more behind your desire.
For me, I simply couldn’t (and still can’t) not do music. The desire to create, to challenge yourself, to deepen your character, and to share music with others is what will fuel a successful and sustainable music career in college and after.
Do it for the right reasons for long enough, and getting rich and famous (while more importantly, being fulfilled) could actually happen.
Here’s a wakeup call for you: Even if you go to music college and decide to major in performance (in other words, in playing guitar) the majority of work that you do, especially for the first two years, will not be on playing guitar. You must be willing and excited to spend a lot of time away from the guitar, learning about all aspects of music. If you don’t enjoy this part, you won’t last.
Examples of all the fun stuff that comes with learning about music include: ear training, text book music theory, music analysis, conducting, music history, arranging, and solfeggio (sight singing).
You need to crave knowledge about all of these things, or don’t even bother. Sound harsh? Not if you’ve got what it takes! If hearing this actually gets you excited to be in an environment like that, then music college is probably a good fit for you. It definitely was for me.
2. Know Your Audience
For a contemporary music college, the application process usually involves sending an audition tape of music “from the standard repertoire”.
In my case, not really knowing what this meant at the time (and being a metal guy!) I chose to play an intro to a Testament song by Alex Skolnick, who’s a pretty rippin’ player. I figured that if a song was from a CD I had, then it must be “from the standard repertoire”. I pulled it off alright, but in hindsight it was kind of a dumb idea to choose a song like that.
You see, while Berklee and many other music schools certainly embrace many kinds of music, they are historically jazz institutions. So, what they’re often really looking for are pieces that demonstrate your ability to improvise a bit, play chord solos, interpret melodies, etc. In other words, start learning to play jazz music from “the standard repertoire” (out of a big book of songs called “The Real Book”).
Even though my audition turned out okay, if I had to do it again, I would have been smarter to choose some performance pieces designed to achieve a specific goal — in this case, impressing the instructors at a “jazz school” — and not just choosing music that I thought was impressive.
Start to immerse yourself in music daily, and not just the styles that are your current favorites (I’m still a metal guy!).
Listen especially to classical music from all time periods, as well as jazz. You will absolutely pick up and absorb some important musical concepts simply through osmosis.
Check out Jamey Aebersold’s extensive library of CDs for jazz students, great learning tools even if you don’t understand what he’s talking about yet. They’re mostly for putting on and listening to while you’re doing other stuff, and getting used to the sounds of jazz harmony and soloing.
And, if you listen to Bach or Beethoven every day, you will reap rewards a’plenty!
I don’t just mean to watch random videos on YouTube! I’m talking about getting your hands on some good guitar instructional videos, preferably some no-nonsense ones from the late 80s or early 90s, put out by the companies REH or Alfred.
Be sure to check some out some killer guitarists who are way over your head, like Scott Henderson, Al DiMeola, Allan Holdsworth, Greg Howe, and Frank Gambale. Don’t fret if you can’t understand anything they’re talking about (a lot of these guys play great, but couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag)!
What’s important is to start getting an idea about what skills are out there that you don’t know about yet. These types of videos will help you figure out where your weak points are and the areas of knowledge or technical ability that you need the most work on. They can be equally inspirational and frustrating!
5. Know Your Notes
Knowing notes is more than simply reading them on the page. It’s about actually finding and understanding them with the guitar. One of the biggest problems that plagues most guitar players is not having all of the notes on the neck memorized.
Everything that you do, especially at the college level, has to do with notes. So does it make sense to not know where they are on the guitar? Of course not. It’s absolutely essential knowledge for a serious player.
6. Scale Knowledge
Memorizing scales on the guitar is of immense importance. There are six “families” of scales (including all of their modes) that you must know to play contemporary music:
- Melodic Minor
- Harmonic Minor
- Whole Tone
Knowing the fingerings and shapes on the neck is an important first step. But the actual ability to build them in your head in any key, to know the sound, and to start them from anywhere on the neck is vital for reading, improvisation, and writing.
It’s a big task, but one that every aspiring college guitar student needs to tackle.
7. Chord Knowledge
Understanding how to build chords, from triads to extended harmony chords like E7susb9 and other weird ones, is an absolutely essential skill to master before attending college for guitar.
Analysis of chord progressions is a necessary skill for really understanding how songs work and how they’re structured.
Chord and scale relationships also help you understand how to play or improvise over daunting chord progressions (like Dm7b5 –G7alt –CmMaj7) and actually sound like you know what you’re doing!
This will give you an edge over your competition when applying or auditioning for music school — not to mention an increase in confidence.
Arpeggios are the same as chords, but played one note at a time. They help you unlock the potential of chords as a resource for soloing, and it’s important to be able to build and play them all over the neck, including everything from the standard major and minors, to the 7th arpeggios and all of the extended harmony arpeggios (9ths, 11ths, etc.).
9. Sight Reading and Rhythm Reading
What’s the best way to get a guitar player to turn down? Put sheet music in front of him! It’s a joke, but completely true.
Reading music (and especially rhythm) is one of the biggest blind spots for most guitar players, and it will be a major handicap for you if you’re thinking about continuing your education at the college level.
So why hide from your fear? Tackle it head on! I find that rhythm really intimidates many of my guitar students. It can look like a foreign language with all those beams and squiggles and dots.
But it’s really not that bad when you have the proper guidance. After that, reading the pitches on the music staff isn’t that hard at all, it just takes some practice.
Being a strong reader is very impressive to the people you’ll be auditioning for, so it pays to spend the time getting good at it.
10. Technical Ability and Speed
Believe it or not, when it comes to getting into a music college for guitar, your raw technical ability and speed aren’t as important as some of the other areas that we’ve mentioned.
You don’t have to be a shred master — but why not go for it anyway! It can’t hurt. Playing fast is a goal for many guitarists, and increasing your technical skill will add to your confidence and ability to impress at the college level.
So, is your guitar teacher preparing you for all this stuff? If not, show them the door! For many students, finding a top-quality guitar teacher is one of the first steps on the road to majoring in music.
Remember, there’s a lot of competition to fill those limited spaces in the school that you want to get into.
Here’s the good news though: If you’ve got a good work ethic, a passion for learning about all aspects of music and the guitar, and a great teacher with experience in all of this, then getting into the music college of your dreams is a thoroughly achievable goal.
Good luck – and keep practicing!