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The college-bound percussionist will face some exciting challenges in preparation for a professional career. Percussion crosses all musical boundaries and percussion students have the widest possible vocabulary of instruments and musical genres to master – more than any other instrumentalist. Although some students don’t decide to declare a major until after they have started college, this is not a wise move if music is on your list of options. Music is a serious profession and a “fast-track” major because you start required coursework in your first semester of college. Focus on maintaining good grades during your senior year of high school (and even earlier) as you prepare your audition for college. With a little planning and preparation during your high school career, you can help to make a smooth transition into your new life as a college-level percussion major.

Take Your Academic Classes Seriously 

Get good grades now. Being academically organized and successful will give you more time to practice. Many times, university instructors hear that, “I practice a lot, so my grades aren’t that good.” This attitude simply doesn’t cut it any more. If you catch a bad case of “senior-itis” in high school, you may have to take preparatory and review courses at another institution to bring your grades up to an acceptable level before you can transfer to a music school. Schools are more selective these days; therefore you must be academically sound. College Admission Offices look at your grades as an indicator of your work ethic and potential for success. Who knows, if your high school offers advanced placement courses or you do well on your college entrance exams, you may even place out of several required classes – even more time to practice!

Get Experience Outside of Your School Program 

Take private lessons from an experienced teacher and tell them that you want to be ready for college auditions. A good teacher will move you in the right direction and help find study materials that will capitalize on your strengths and work on your deficiencies as well. If there is a college in your area in which you are interested, take private lessons with the professor or a graduate student. This will prepare you for life in the “trenches”.

Attend a summer music symposium to increase your knowledge of the percussion profession and to network with other students and professionals. There are many camps and workshops that give students the opportunity to study and interact with nationally recognized professional artists and educators. Also, develop a relationship with the percussion specialist at your local music dealer. They can keep you informed of new products, services, and in-store clinics.

Go to the public library or bookstores and look for books, journals, and magazines that are related to music and percussion. Search for web sites, blogs, podcasts, and other information sharing technologies that offer resources for drums, drumming, and percussion. Develop a passion for information related to your new profession.

Make a commitment to attend more live music concerts and recitals. While listening to recordings and watching live streaming concerts or online music video provides a good source of content, nothing compares to the experience of attending a live concert by musicians on stage.

Look for performance opportunities outside of school such as coffee houses, church bands, garage bands, honor bands, community bands and orchestras, indoor drum lines and drum corps, or recitals for service clubs and organizations. Don’t just limit these opportunities to percussion. Consider singing in a community/church choir or even taking piano lessons to increase your musical activity. This experience will help build your resume.

Join the Percussive Arts Society. PAS is a worldwide network of performers, teachers, students, enthusiasts and music industry professionals. They service their membership through award winning publications, web site at pas.org, and through the sponsorship of state and international chapters. Look for a PAS chapter in your region. Chances are, there is a PAS Chapter “Day of Percussion” in your area.

Research Your College List 

Apply to as many schools as you can afford to. Don’t limit your application to one school – you might not get accepted. Get all the facts from the colleges you are interested in. Start early to look for music programs that can help you prepare for a professional career. All schools have some specific audition requirements. Visit their website or email them to get their particular requirements before you choose and prepare your music. Check out their website and become familiar with the faculty, ensembles, and program offerings. Ask to be put on their mailing list for notice of concerts and recitals. This is handy to know when planning a campus visit.

Ask about the availability of both academic and music scholarships. Do some research and check around your community for additional scholarship opportunities. Some service organizations and clubs have scholarships available to talented students.

Plan Your Campus Visits 

Take a campus tour before you audition. When you have narrowed your college choices, plan to take an audition at each school rather than just your first choice. Schools can be very selective in today’s academic climate and the best schools will likely have only a few spots open each year.

Plan your visit when there are concerts going on to see the students and faculty in action. Ask to observe rehearsals, if they’re open to the public. Listen to all the music groups you can and sit-in on an academic class, if possible. Make note of the social and aesthetic environment as you visit the campus. As music major, you will learn from other students and the entire faculty – not just the percussion teacher.

Many out-of-state schools may accept audition videos, have regional auditions, or have you audition for an alumnus in your area. Most schools prefer for you to audition “live” on their campus, especially if you are auditioning for a scholarship.

Preparing for the Audition 

Select music that is both technically appropriate and musically expressive. You want to demonstrate both technique and musicality. Many students think they will be impressive if they play the hardest stuff – wrong! Choose music you can master; that makes you sound good on your instrument. The most challenging aspect of performance is doing something well – at any level. You make a better impression when you have command over your instrument and the music, more so than when you just try to hack through something like the infamous “Black Page”.

Ask what instruments are available to you before you travel to the audition site. Although larger instruments are usually provided, you may have to bring smaller items such as cymbals, foot pedals, and other accessories.

Most college percussion programs suggest that you prepare audition material and be prepared to sight read in the following core areas:

Mallet Keyboard (both 4-mallet and 2-mallet repertoire). Know your major and minor scales and chord arpeggios. Snare Drum (both concert and rudimental).
Timpani. Tuning and touch are the important areas in selecting a solo or etude.
Multiple Percussion and/or Drum Set.

If the audition format allows it, consider preparing a short display of your experience in supplementary areas such as hand percussion, orchestral excerpts, or World percussion. Also remember three important things: sight-reading, sight-reading, and sight-reading! You will probably be asked to sight read in your audition. Develop a strategy for reading new music and practice it everyday. Play for yourself and others before you go to an audition. Audio/video record yourself in a mock-audition and evaluate it. Play for your parents, teacher, church group, classmates, relatives, friends, anyone who will listen.

Bring your own mallets as well as the original scores of all the music you play for your audition. It will be helpful for the audition panel to have duplicated copies of your music, provided you show them the original. The copies can be discarded after the audition. Duplicating copyrighted music is unethical and illegal, but is allowed for a one-time use, provided you own the original.

Prepare a resume for your audition. List your school work, activities, honors and awards, and be sure to note any musical activities or accomplishments you have had outside of school. List your music teachers and include at least three references. Although you should dress like you’re on a job interview, you will want to wear something comfortable for your audition.

Arrive at the audition early to fill out any paper work, warm-up, and set-up any instruments that you have brought with you. Because many music schools have busy audition dates, you may only get to play excerpts from your prepared music. Don’t be upset if this happens, prepare for this situation in front of others so you won’t get flustered.

Develop a list of questions to ask your audition panel or during another campus visit. Talk with your parents, music teachers, siblings, and friends who have been to college to develop a set of questions and issues that are important in making your decision to attend the college that is right for you. Remember, you are interviewing the college as well! Specific issues relating to percussion may include questions such as:

  • Will I study with the percussion professor or a graduate assistant?
  • How is the curriculum designed and what instruments will I study?
  • How long are the practice rooms open?
  • How do I get selected for percussion ensemble, concert bands and orchestras, marching band, jazz band, and when do I audition for these groups?
  • What instruments, mallets, and music do I need my first year and beyond?

Bring along a parent, guardian, or teacher to your audition. They should meet the college instructors and be familiar with the environment where you will be spending countless hours. Their impressions of the college may provide you with valuable perspective.

After You Have Been Accepted 

Start to gather your own instruments, mallets, music, recordings and other required materials for your first semester. Music study can be an expensive endeavor, so plan your finances to include regular purchases for percussion music, equipment and accessories. Remember to ask if your new college has any summer music programs or can recommend any summer symposiums or festivals for you to attend. If you haven’t yet joined the Percussive Arts Society, do it now.

The best schools can afford to be selective, so be prepared both academically & musically. With some planning and patience, you can make an informed decision about which institution to attend and get yourself organized and prepared for an exciting life as a college percussionist. If you have a passion for what you are doing, working hard will be fun and help lead to a rewarding career.

By James B. Campbell, Professor of Percussion, University of Kentucky