Auditioning for graduate school: "Your mind is like a laser beam"

by Emma Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
February 13, 2014

Clayton Tillotson has been imagining auditions — the rooms they're in, the pieces he'll play, the people who'll be watching.

He recently Googled teachers from the universities where he would like to get a Master's degree in violin performance, and taped their photos up in his practice room.

"I just wanted to see what their faces look like," he said. "I'm really glad that I did, because some of them are pretty scary-looking people. There's this one guy who, he does this thing with his eyebrows, he kind of furrows his brow and he just looks like, 'You are totally worthless.' But that's just kind of the way he looks."

Tillotson, like thousands of other young musicians, will spend the coming weeks crisscrossing the country to audition for music schools. After months of preparation (and many years of lessons and practice before that), it comes down to about 10 minutes of playing at each prospective school.

It's not the first time Tillotson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, has gone through this process. He started playing violin relatively late — he began lessons in his school program as a fourth-grader — but quickly moved ahead of his peers. As a high-school student in his hometown of Burlington, Iowa, he realized that violin was becoming increasingly important to him and started thinking about majoring in music. He even struck a deal with his high school so he could count practice time as an independent study. Despite that focus, he said, "I still had no idea what I was up against."

When he walked into his first audition, he felt ready. Soon after he started playing, though, he suddenly couldn't remember where he was in the piece.

"It's weird how you can be so prepared with all your music, but sometimes when you're not used to doing auditions and stuff like that, the thing that really can get in the sort-of the mental side: being able to be really, really focused and also really confident," he said.

That mental component has become a big part of how Tillotson practices, and it's played heavily into preparation for his master's auditions. It's why he's asked friends at the schools he's interested in to describe what the audition spaces look like, and it's why he has teachers' faces displayed in his practice room. It's also why he'll sometimes practice without playing a single note.

It can be easy to get into a rhythm of "playing by feel," Tillotson said — relying on muscle memory to get through a piece without thinking much about it. So he'll put his violin down and mime the piece instead, simulating every fingering and bowing with just his mind to rely on.

"When you do get in front of real people," he said, "your mind is just like a laser beam."

When he practices with the instrument in hand, it's still about engaging the brain. As part of that, he's constantly experimenting with how he divides his time. These days, it's an hour-long warm-up in the morning followed by the "meat-and-potatoes" (the Sibelius violin concerto, Bach, Paganini) broken into 50-minute chunks with 10-minute breaks. Toward the end of the day, as he's starting to get tired, he'll work on material that's less strenuous to play and less important to the audition.

Though Tillotson knows there's always something to improve, he also knows he's as ready as he can be. When he thinks about life after a master's program, it's varied and nuanced — some combination of playing in ensembles and teaching, which could require another set of auditions for a doctorate program. For now, though, he has just one goal.

"Right now, I'm focusing on getting as good at the violin as I possibly can," he said. "That's kind of like my number-one fear, to reach some point where I think, 'Oh, this is good enough.'"

Last in a four-part series. Read previous stories:
* Young musicians face fears on the classical job market
* Life as a freelance musician: "Scary, but a lot of fun"
* What do you do with a music degree — when what you do isn't music?

Emma Nelson is a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota.

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