Trial Lessons for Prospective Music Majors

Receiving trial lessons is an important part of the process of applying to music school for prospective music majors, especially those who intend to make performance a key part of their college training.

by Kate Kayaian

Trial lessons are those you set up with potential college music teachers who you think you may want to work with as your private or “studio” teachers if you attend their schools. The lessons typically take place in your junior or senior year, or during the summer between the two.

Your studio teacher at a college-level music school will help you move forward from student to professional and will be an important mentor as you begin your career. Figuring out who you can work well with is crucial. Your goal in getting trial lessons as part of the application process is to get a sense of how well you communicate with, learn from, and generally get along with the teachers you get your lessons from.

These teachers, in turn, get the chance to get to know more about you and your current levels of proficiency and artistry. By the end of these lessons, they’ll have a better sense of how you would fit into their studios – and schools.

When you show up to your actual audition, they’ll also be able to see how much improvement you’ve made since they last heard you perform – a good indicator of your future growth in music.

Finding teachers for trial lessons

1. Talk with your current private teacher or school director. They may already have a few ideas of teachers who would be a good fit for you.

2. Search the website of each school you’re serious about applying to, and make note of who teaches what you want to study.

3. Contact the Admissions Office at each of those schools for suggestions.

4. Do an internet search for each teacher you’re considering, to see what else they do professionally. Do their interests and experiences match what you think you want to do?

5. Try searching the internet to find out what former students of these teachers are up to now. What kinds of jobs are they getting? You might try googling the following: “student of (teacher’s name)” or “studied with (teacher’s name)” to learn more.

6. Do you know anyone at the schools you’re considering who can provide feedback about teachers you’re thinking about asking for trial lessons from?

7. Choose only one teacher from each school to ask for a trial lesson. You don’t want to be seen as “teacher shopping” or “hedging your bets.” However, “Should you decide you want to take lessons with 2 or more teachers from that school,” says Lynn Helding, Coordinator of Vocology and Voice Pedagogy at USC Thornton School of Music, “it is best to be honest from the beginning and tell each teacher that you have arranged a lesson with the other. Otherwise, your name could be the centerpiece of an awkward interaction when your application comes up for discussion.”

Note that some teachers don’t give trial lessons for a variety of reasons. Instead, they may invite you to observe them teach other students or to attend one of their studio classes. You are not expected to pay to observe.

Setting up trial lessons

Start by emailing the Admissions Office. They may tell you to email the teacher directly. Each school handles this differently.

If your current teacher knows the professor you hope to get a lesson from, see if they can introduce you in an email.

If you know one of the current or former students of the teacher you’d like a lesson from, mention them in the subject line (“Referred by John Smith”) and in the beginning of your email.

What to include in your email

– State that you are interested in applying to their school, and that you would love to have the opportunity to meet them and play for them.

Some teachers are touchy about the phrase “trial lessons” because they don’t like the idea that you are putting them on trial.” Use whatever language they use regarding the lesson.

– Provide a very short amount of information about yourself – your year in school, where you’re from, your area of music, who you take lessons from. You can mention anything that’s particularly outstanding (awards, ensembles you play with, etc.) but again, you want to keep all of this brief.

– Include dates you are able to visit the school.

– Ask about the fee for a trial lesson and the preferred method of payment.

Paying for trial lessons

Teachers have varying policies regarding payment for trial lessons. Their time is extremely limited, so assume they will charge their normal lesson fee. Figure between $100 – $300/hour. Some will offer half-hour lessons at half this rate.

Some faculty see trial lessons as part of the recruitment process and will offer them free of charge. Others are not allowed to charge based on school policy.

Timing your lesson

It’s a good idea to wait until you know you will be applying to a school before requesting a lesson.

Summer may work well for students but can be tricky for finding available teachers. Many musicians work at summer music festivals, programs and camps. If you’re especially interested in receiving a lesson from a particular faculty member, consider the possibility of attending a summer program where they’ll be teaching.

Some teachers are willing to teach a lesson via Skype. You can always ask them about this option if necessary.

What to play?

• Think of a trial lesson as a performance rather than a regular lesson. Don’t bring in a new piece that you’ve just started working on. Having to point out a wrong note or incorrect rhythm is a waste of the teacher’s time and your money.

• Bring in something that you could perform in a concert that day and see what feedback is offered to make it sound even better.

• Have a choice of two selections ready and be prepared with scales as well. Some teachers will want to dig into your repertoire. Others will want to start with some basics and see how quickly you respond to their suggestions.

• Have a notebook and a pencil to record any suggestions you receive. If you want to record the lesson, ask permission first.

Trial lesson etiquette

The teacher will be forming a strong opinion of you, not only as a musician, but as a person. So keep in mind the following:

• Always address teachers with their proper title. When in doubt, use Professor_____ . Whatever they ask you to call them after that is what you should use.

• Dress in a professional and respectful way. You’ll want to be comfortable, but avoid anything that draws unnecessary attention: low-cut, too tight, torn, sloppy. Think along the lines of long pants/skirt/dress and a collared shirt. A black sequined cocktail dress might look killer from the stage, but it will appear embarrassingly out of place in a college professor’s studio.

• Take the teacher’s feedback in the most positive way you can. This isn’t a time to argue or plead your case. They don’t need to hear that your current teacher told you to “do it that other way.” Keep an open mind, try their suggestions, and be sure to write them down.

• Arrive prepared with a few questions about their studios such as:

– How many students might they may be adding next year?
– How often do their students get to perform?
– Are they available to meet with students during office hours?

Trial lessons vs. auditions

Trial lessons are the perfect time to get important feedback from the teacher regarding your audition repertoire, aspects of your playing or singing that you should work on, etc.

When you show up to an audition in your senior year, the atmosphere will be much more formal and austere. You’ll enter the room, you’ll play or sing, the committee will say “thank you very much,” and you’ll leave. Conversation is rare, and it certainly is not the time to be getting or asking for feedback.

After the lesson

Within a day of your trial lesson, send an email to thank the teacher for their time and for working with you.

As audition time approaches, if you’ve experienced a relevant musical success, it’s appropriate to send a follow up email. Something quick like: “I wanted to let you know that I just won my school’s concerto competition with the Haydn. Thank you so much for helping me to take it up a level. I have been working on your suggestions and they are already paying off! I’m looking forward to playing for you again at my audition.”

Kate Kayaian, B.M., New England Conservatory, is a cellist and teacher based in Hamilton, Bermuda. She also writes Tales From the Lane: A Lifestyle Blog for Classical Musicians.

Photo Credit: Eva Mtalii

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