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Composition interviews

maxunit22maxunit22 Registered User Posts: 5 New Member
edited January 2011 in Music Major
Hello. This is my first time posting, but I've long taken to this forum as if it were my security blanket. I'm a senior in high school, and a prospective composer. I've passed the prescreening and been invited to interview at the four schools that I've applied to so far (still haven't applied to my safety school *head-desk*)

In the next 4-5 weeks I'll be going to CCM, NEC, Peabody, and Boston Conservatory for interviews. NEC says their interview will last approximately 15 minutes, after which I am free to leave, no further examination whatsoever. Should I take this to mean that they have already assessed my talent/aptitude as a composer, and wouldn't have invited me to interview had they not been confident of my compositional ability with regards to their standards? How many composition applicants typically pass the prescreening and are invited to interview? I know this is a difficult question to answer, but the only ballpark statistics I've found have pertained to Violinists and Sopranos.

If they have already formed opinions about me as a composer, will my acceptance be contingent on the impression I make in the 15-minute interview? I'm really not a people-person. In such anxious situations I'm apt to stare at my feet, and mumble in response to any personal questions they ask me. I wouldn't mind if they fired questions at me about pieces in my portfolio, assuming the questions were about musical/compositional concepts. In truth, I'd rather be given a theory exam or a creative assignment without ever having to confront them.

I guess I just don't know what to expect. This is roughly what I am imagining:

I'm shoved into a dark room, and as I turn around in naive hopes of receiving some sort of consoling gesture—perhaps a reassuring nod—the door is slammed in my face. There is a lamp swinging like a pendulum over a sadistic chair located precisely in the center of the room, which I discover is not so much a room as it is a pit. A voice bellows out over the foreboding sound of the faucet drip, "sit," and so I do. I can see the outlines of several looming figures staring down at me from tall desks that make up the walls of the pit. Over the next 15 minutes they unrelentingly fire questions at me, and then boot me out in as tender a manner as they eased me in. (Curtain)

Any sort of advice or hint of what's to come would be appreciated.
Post edited by maxunit22 on

Replies to: Composition interviews

  • violadadvioladad Registered User Posts: 6,645 Senior Member
    Over the next 15 minutes they unrelentingly fire questions at me, and then boot me out in as tender a manner as they eased me in.

    max, thankfully you're applying as a comp major, and not a screen writer or script editor. It's not that easy. The boot on the way out is by no means tender. I'd rather not detail the torture and abuse (verbal, mental and physical) known to have been afflicted by interviewers. Hopefullly, you won't get a panel. That makes the Spanish Inqusition seem a holiday in Bali.

    All kidding aside, they will want to get a feel for your thoughts, influences, style. Think of the interview as part of the process. Yes, it is a "next step", but not the be all/end all.

    Some prior thoughts here: Expect some link duplication within.

    Best of luck to you.
  • imagepimagep Registered User Posts: 628 Member
    The worst actual JOB interview that I ever had was in front of a panel. I walked in, they didn't say a word. I just started talking about myself, basically I presented a summary of my high school and college experiance.

    Then they asked me one question (in broken English - all but one of them were were Japaneese): "Did you work while you were in collge?".

    A week later I get this phone call from the agency that sent me on the interview. The lady was so excided, she told me that she had sent dozens of people there and never before had anyone to get a job offer from that company. I turned down the job. I just couldn't see going to work in that type of atmosphere and I had already been offered another job which I had accepted. The company went out of business a few years later.

    Anyhow, I don't know anything about college interviews. I just wanted to have an excuse to share my job interview story. Sorry about being off topic.

    I wouldn't worry too much about not being a people person. You are a wonderful writer and can obviously communicate well. Somehow I get the feeling that you will be able to include that gift into your music compositions and I am sure that the interviewers will pick up on your tallent, even if you are staring at their shoes.
  • SpiritManagerSpiritManager Registered User Posts: 2,679 Senior Member
    No direct experience with those particular interviews but the ones my son did - the idea was to get a feel for what he'd be like as a student - how he would be to work with. If you stare at your toes and mumble, just be sure your music speaks really loud.
  • kmccrindlekmccrindle Registered User Posts: 1,650 Senior Member
    Max, you are entering a field where it will ultimately benefit you to feel more confident and comfortable communicating your ideas to peers, and it is entirely possible that while the balance of your work may be independent, you will still need to hone your interpersonal and business skills to win commissions/freelance/scoring/referral work etc.
    In addition to being prepared to speak eloquently about your influences, goals, and relationship to music, (plus being prepared to address some analytical points about your own opus) you may wish to ask family members or close friends to help you by "practicing" your interpersonal skills, such as making eye contact, sitting with "open" but confident body language, distributing your attention equally to members of a panel (it's super easy to accidentally ignore the interviewer with the most influence) etc.

    Visualizing the interview session, writing down practice questions and building your responses so that they're natural but do not exclude key point, meditating a little, and outright practice will help you master the interview. Just a little practice every day will make you feel so much better when you go to the interviews! Also, try to listen to the music you submitted with a fresh ear -- what questions will a panel ask you about your choices in composing it? Also be as observant as possible and make sure you have some questions on hand to ask about the nuances of the programs.

    My son thought I was nuts a few years ago when I made him do the above. However, he was extremely grateful of the coaching AFTER the interview at his top choice, which went well, resulted in acceptance, but more importantly, set the tone for some very great relationships with the members of the panel. The side benefit was that he is now much better as an employee in dealing with clients (during summers) and works very well collaboratively on projects he scores -- those skills never go out of style ;)

    Congrats on your interviews and good luck! Remember, breathing deeply really will relax you; envisioning successful outcomes will ensure the same; a teensy bit of practice will help you relate more confidently and authentically!
  • SnowflakeVTSnowflakeVT Registered User Posts: 2,475 Senior Member
    Max, I think it is wonderful that you recognize this interpersonal skills gap in your skill set. You may even point out that you recognize this and that you hope to improve on your 1on1 communications as part of the college experience. You sound like a very introverted person that has an amazing ability in composition. You would be wise to heed kmcrindle's advice above, as the world's extroverts need the advice of the introverts, so you need to practice getting your message verbalized and communicated (i.e. eye contact from person to person, not just words talking to your toes).

    Good luck and keep us posted on how the interview goes.
  • compmomcompmom Registered User Posts: 8,238 Senior Member
    I guess my view on this is a little different.

    First, congratulations on passing all those prescreenings. Just to clarify, my understanding is that you already passed the prescreening at NEC, based on the compositions submitted, right?

    NEC didn't even have interviews 3 years ago. A 15 minute interview should be no big deal. NEC likes to present itself as valuing each composer's "individual voice" so thinking about that might be worthwhile, but really, I wouldn't worry about it at all. I would think the interview would focus mostly on music. Maybe they might ask who your favorite composers are, for instance. They already have your resume. I even think it is possible that the interview is not to screen you, but to figure out which studio to place you in should you be accepted. I don't think it is necessary to practice too much (just my opinion, so listen to all).

    Our daughter went through auditions/interviews for composition at a bunch of schools. One required 4 scores, a theory exam, and an interview, which was lengthy actually but perfectly friendly; one had an overnight composition exercise, a long theory exam, and an interview combined with presentation of the overnight composition to a panel; one had a long theory exam, and 5 individual interviews with teachers, very long and grueling (Juilliard: they come closest to your image but the program is wonderful).

    I actually liked NEC's minimalist approach, and a 15 minute interview is still pretty minimalist. Many of the exams and interviews were geared to placement for the fall, either placement in the theory classes or in studios. People got unnecessarily nervous about it all.

    College music programs or conservatories that are not free-standing may have different criteria.

    Honest, just relax and be yourself. Composing is such an "exposing" form of art to begin with. Just go ready to talk a little about your music. Fifteen minutes is going to be very short, and, as I said, is probably for some specific purpose. (In fact, to set your mind at ease, why not call and ask them what it is for and what to expect?).

    I understand where everyone is coming from with the people's skills and so on, but once in a conservatory, they will teach you entrepreneurship and outreach skills. But gee, some of the finest composers were introverts and a conservatory is not business school. They are really mainly interested in your compositions, which have already passed muster at NEC and your other schools.

    Also, make sure to think of the interview as a way for you to screen them. If you have a tour and meet with a composition teacher, you will get a good idea of how NEC will fit you. Ask your own questions (such as, does NEC allow students to compose in their own style, and follow their own vision, much of the time?).

    Focus on being happy about having the opportunity to learn more about doing what you love. It sounds like your progress in the admissions process so far is well-deserved! Go see a movie or something the night before! Good luck...
  • violindadviolindad Registered User Posts: 933 Member
    I may be wrong, but my impression is that the interview for a composition student is not nearly as crucial as the audition is for a performance student. Instead, your submitted work (portfolio) is your crucial piece. The interview helps flesh you out for the school and, as has been mentioned, gives you a chance to get a feel for the school and profs. The interview helps weed out those young composers who believe they have nothing to learn because they are God's gift to music; clearly, you are not one of those whose egos make them impermeable to education and difficult to work with.

    Your degree of self-awareness suggests that you will do fine in the interview. Most composition profs are not looking for someone with the facile conversational skills that are appropriate for a used car salesman, but rather for someone that is thoughtful and articulate which you appear to be. You may find yourself really enjoying the interviews-- high school composition students rarely get opportunities to talk with people that understand their discipline and their passion.

    My take on interviews: If I bomb an interview because the interviewer wants the sort of person with whom they can easily discuss the weather or last night's game, then I don't want to work for or with that person. I would prefer to work with people that value the skills that the job requires; in your job as a composition student, two basic skills are required: a) compositional skills and b) learning skills; a good composition prof will use the interview to determine if you have them. If they are looking for someone that bares their soul with ease to a perfect stranger inside of 15 minutes, then you probably don't want to be at that school!
  • WindCloudUltraWindCloudUltra Registered User Posts: 1,761 Senior Member
    Well...unlike instrumental/vocal auditions, composition admissions processes vary widely across institutions, even if you limit yourself to the top and most famous programs. Simply stated, composition is the most fragmented field in classical music. Being able to express yourself in words/on stage etc is becoming more and more important for composers these days, and frankly, it's something you really shouldn't shy away from. You're going to have to give lots of pre-concert talks...but the challege there isn't to impress the audience with your arcane knowledge of Elliott Carter...but rather to try to keep the bored audience from falling asleep during your world premiere. But that's a digression.

    I've heard certain comp faculty members absolutely GRILL applicants at interviews at Juilliard and YSM...they'll ask questions like "What was revolutionary about Beethoven's approach to Sonata form in the Allegro con brio of Eroica?" and you sometimes have to do score IDs--i.e. a page from a Crumb score, or Ligeti score etc. Idiosyncratic Chord IDing and other more advanced aural tests...depending on the level you're applying at, are also not unheard of.

    OTOH, there are a number of other equally prestigious institutions that are considerably more low key. Frankly, it depends on who's on your panel, and if they want to mess with you. My RCM interview was a piece of cake in comparison, where I was asked to talk about favorite composers.
  • violindadviolindad Registered User Posts: 933 Member
    WindCloudUltra: When you refer to the grilling at YSM during an interview, is it for admission to a graduate program in composition? The questions seem appropriate for the grilling of a grad applicant. Does Yale have an undergrad composition major that one can interview for?
  • violindadviolindad Registered User Posts: 933 Member
    WindCloudUltra wrote:
    Well...unlike instrumental/vocal auditions, composition admissions processes vary widely across institutions,

    I should add that many people feel that the audition processes for performance do vary widely across institutions. Some performance auditions are formal and held in large halls with panels of 8 professors who are as cold as ice (and text away or read the newpaper) while others are for a single warm interested prof in their office and feel more like a lesson than a performance. Some require piano accompaniment, others permit it, and others disallow it. Some supply accompanists, some insist on using the staff accompanist, and some are no help in finding a required accompanist. Some hear works in their entirety and others only excerpts from some selected works. Some involve no questions, some a friendly conversation, and others a grilling (whereas I suspect that all composition interviews involve a question or two!). Some run like clockwork on schedule and others are incredibly chaotic, careening along seemingly at the whim of people that can't tell time. Some performance admission processes involve aural testing, some involve the playing of scales, some involve testing of theory, some require resumes, some require essays, some require a separate interview . . .. Yes, instrumental/vocal auditions are all the same.

    Perhaps your tongue was in your cheek, but I didn't notice anything portrusion. I hope you noticed mine in the final sentence of the preceding paragraph:)
  • compmomcompmom Registered User Posts: 8,238 Senior Member
    Since the original poster was asking specifically about NEC's 15 minute interview (and, again, even this is a recent addition to their admissions process) I would repeat that this is likely very low-key, and that max can probably relax and be himself, assuming he can already talk about his music a little, about favorite composers, and so on. I'm not sure what function this very short interview serves (the portfolio is most important) but a quick call to admissions could answer that. It may have to do with studio assignments, or maybe they are having a higher rate of accepted students saying no, pr maybe they have more applicants, and want to make sure of fit. In any case, NEC has a history of relying on the music itself. Outreach efforts are part of a student's curriculum these days, but I can't see a talented composer being rejected because of poor public speaking skills (not that the poster would be one of those people) and these skills are taught in the doing.

    As a side note, Juilliard actually tries to "break you down, even as an undergraduate. In the long run, this may be helpful, because it tests applicants for the endurance needed, but for the moment, it is tough. If you do well, they congratulate you on your "strong will." It isn't just questions on musical knowledge, but also questions probing personality, such as the (very famous composer) interviewer saying, "I think such and such might work better here, on your score. What do you think, would you change it?" I am still pondering whether a "good answer" to this would be yes or no, or perhaps it would depend on the rest of the answer and how articulated.

    I don't think NEC is like that at all, but it is an incredible place to study music regardless. Good luck!
  • kmccrindlekmccrindle Registered User Posts: 1,650 Senior Member
    ^What about the other 3 schools Max is interviewing at? Does anyone know?
    I know at my son's school that while making the portfolio cut was indeed a coup (as many did not) they certainly interviewed many more candidates than the number of spots they had available, so the interview must have in some way contributed to rank of offers (as I know others rejected from the program). Then again, their interview process was more formal (panel of 3) and they actually played & discussed segments of his portfolio during the interview.
    So, the short answer, Max, is your mileage may vary ;)
  • maxunit22maxunit22 Registered User Posts: 5 New Member
    Wow! First, let me just say that I was exhilarated to find so many insightful replies to this thread. Thank you all so much for your advice and your concern.

    Violadad: Thank you for the links you posted. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one nervous about these interviews. I had this notion that every other composition applicant was a precocious musical entrepreneur, and that I’d show up at the interview and be crushed by weight of the professor’s pitiless glare.

    Imagep: I think your experience sums up my worst fears, and it sounds like you handled it with tact (certainly more tact than the many applicants that were turned down) and an exemplary attitude. I guess the manner in which they conduct the interview really reflects on the atmosphere and the mentality of colleagues towards one another. Thanks! Unfortunately, as soon as I’m deprived of my computer keyboard, and set in front of an authority figure my thoughts become jumbled.

    SpiritManager: Your son goes to Bard, correct? If the interviews at these schools are meant to show what kind of a student I’d make, then dedication, self-motivation, and passion for the trade are the sort of traits I want to demonstrate? I can only hope they think that of my music. If I were to bring additional scores to my interview, do you think they would be looked at?

    Kmccrindle: Idealism vs. Pragmatism/practicality seems the story of my life, and I lament the fact that I’ll sooner or later have to compromise. I read this “a day in the life of a student article” on one college’s website, and it had a page about a girl that was currently enrolled as a composition major. She was involved in countless extracurricular musical groups and activities, her blog seemed to be updated every 15 minutes, and she had numerous performances of her work outside of school. I’m hoping the college experience will instill in me a similar temperament. Thank you so much for your advice on how to prepare.

    SnowflakeVT: Yes, I do tend towards introversion. Most of my time is spent in front of one form of keyboard or another. I think that it’d be a great idea to mention that to them. My body language and communication in such situations unfortunately do give the impression of frailty, and that’s something I’ll make sure to work on. Thank you for your concern! I will let you know how it goes.

    Compmom: Yes, I submitted three pieces, and was invited to the interview based on their review by the faculty. That certainly would indicate that more freight is placed on the portfolio than the interview. I can’t begin to tell you how much of a relief that is to hear. I can’t help but get excited at the thought that they’d be determining which studio to place me in.
    That overnight composition assignment sounds frightful. And then to present it to a panel! I’ve heard of Juilliard’s contempt for their applicants. A friend of mine who is a 1st Violin in an acclaimed youth orchestra applied to some program they offered, and received the most apathetic rejection letter she’s ever seen. Thank you. I definitely feel a lot better now about this interview. It makes sense that they’d let the portfolio be the primary factor in their decision. Thanks a bunch. Your reply has been very informative and has lain to rest a lot of my apprehensions. I contacted the admissions counselor at NEC, and he told me that the interview is to learn more about my writing style, which I take to mean ‘individual voice,’ and my creative process. He encouraged me to bring additional scores, and to come prepared with questions about the program.

    Violindad: If the review of my portfolio is equatable to the audition of a performance major, then I have a newfound sympathy for them and their plight! It sounds like the best thing for me to do is simply to show them that I’m eager to learn, and I can certainly do that. Haha, similar to the Grinch, who was born with a heart two sizes too small, I was born with an ego of similar proportions. Thank you. You’ve really changed my outlook on these interviews. If they don’t value my music above all other factors in their decisions, I shouldn’t expect any different of them as a student there.

    WindCloudUltra: Yeah, I’ve heard quite a bit of Juilliard’s notoriety for their mentality towards their students. I might be able to identify one of Ligeti’s piano etudes, but the question about Beethoven would elicit nothing more from me than a vacant stare. I can’t imagine they’d have me do such things inside of 15 minutes, though. I wouldn’t mind if they asked me to talk about my favorite composers. I’ll make sure to come prepared with answers on that topic.
  • compmomcompmom Registered User Posts: 8,238 Senior Member
    I am so glad you called admissions.

    Good luck, and enjoy your composing wherever you land!
  • powayparentpowayparent Registered User Posts: 62 Junior Member
    It's wonderful that you have four chances. Each time you audition you'll gain confidence for the next interview. It's amazing how far a little practice goes. I recommend having a couple questions ready to ask (I think someone else suggested that earlier) since it will give the impression of you being engaged in the interview. Good luck!
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