Head of Berklee Admissions: This Is How We Pick Top Music Students

by Steven Lipman

For 25 years, I saw and heard every kind of musician come through the doors of the admissions office at Berklee, looking to become the next guitar god, go-to record producer, or Hollywood soundtrack impresario.  Some students were quiet but determined, eyes on their feet, hands clutching trumpet cases, ready to bust out a dazzling Dizzy Gillespie tune at count-off just as their high school jazz band teacher had drilled.  Others waltzed in with bravado, all swagger and excitement to lay down an original song, but without the chops to back up the rock star attitude. They all had one thing in common: hunger to make their mark on the music world.  But ambition and passion won’t be enough to get you into the top music programs – schools like Berklee, USC, NYU, and Juilliard have a highly competitive and careful application and audition process that separates contenders from pretenders.  The best music programs, schools, colleges, and conservatories are competing for the same thing: demonstrated top musical talent, supported by a range of other factors that show a well-rounded student and person with the strength to succeed in one of the toughest businesses on earth.  Some of the students we admitted at Berklee you will know – Melissa Etheredge, Esperanza Spalding, Steve Vai, John Mayer  – because they had what it takes on these top factors music admissions counselors consider when deciding who is ready to take their musical training to the next level:

How do you sound?

It may seem a little corny, but music truly is the universal language.  No matter where we live, what language we speak, or what instrument we play, music gives each of us a voice that rings out across those differences.  Music college admissions pros always keep their ears open to the unique quality of each musician’s own sound.  It is so important to put yourself in a position to sound your best and to get your voice across, both as captured in a pre-screening recording and also live at an in-person audition.  It begins with choice of repertoire and arrangement, and it takes lots of thoughtful preparation, to translate raw talent and hours of practice into a sound that leaves an impression.

How do you think?

Making music is an art.  (And also a business…but we’ll save that for another post!)  To take your art to the next level, you want to get the best training possible at a top music college or conservatory, and that means learning across many different areas of study.  The gatekeepers want to know not only what you know, but how you think.  Are you an adaptive thinker, who can take in and integrate new information with ease?  The type of high school classes you’ve taken and your academic record is one important way to evaluate how you think, and how you’d perform within a rigorous program for higher musical education.

How do you collaborate?

When you stream a track on Spotify, hear a score in the latest action movie, or see a performance of musical theater on stage, know that many artists and music professionals had to work together as a team to bring their musical vision to life.  Music-making is almost always a collaborative endeavor.  Music college admissions pros want to see examples of how you collaborate as a member of a team, a band, a club, a volunteer organization, a family unit, and in every other way people put their heads and hearts together to do great things.  Don’t be afraid to admit that you didn’t make it on your own, and to tell the stories of the people and places that elevate your music and make it possible.

How do you train?

Mozarts and Monks come along once a generation.  For the rest of us mere mortals, proper training and technique form the necessary foundation to build advanced musical skills and a career in music.  Admissions counselors at the country’s best music schools will drill down on your musical training and background, looking to evaluate your level of music theory knowledge, music reading ability, command of repertoire, history of private music lessons, and the practice habits that even the most famous and accomplished musicians must maintain every day to keep up their chops and grow as artists.

How do you “do you”?

This is the “X” factor, the personality and personal history that you bring to the rehearsal space, the classroom, the studio, the stage, and to the communities of musicians you’re aiming to be a part of.  Getting this across in a personal essay, interview, and in every other choice you make throughout the application and audition process is key to standing out from the crowd.

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Founder & President at Inside Music Schools | Insidemusicschools.com

Head of admissions and faculty member at Berklee College of Music for 40 years, Steve Lipman and our team at Inside Music Schools speak music as their primary language. We approach each client contact with open eyes, ears, and minds. As the country’s premier music school consultant, he has advised students from the United States, Canada, the U.K., India, Singapore, Dubai, China, Australia, Turkey, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Israel, Italy, Russia and elsewhere.