I was accepted as a postgraduate student at the University of Music and Theater in Leipzig on Robert Schumann’s 200th birthday. The audition consisted of two rounds.
Round 1A - With Piano
There were two grand pianos in the middle of the audition room and two collaborative piano students waiting off to the side. The conducting faculty were gathered around a table trying not to laugh. Apparently the applicant before me had butchered the Speaker Scene. Once they settled down, I started off with a play-and-sing from The Marriage of Figaro. I knew I couldn’t impress them with virtuosic piano skills or a gorgeous voice, so I used amazing breath control and played from the full score instead. I heard the panelists whispering amongst themselves while I sang.
Round 1B - With Piano
Ulrich Windfuhr is head of the conducting department in Leipzig. He is a tall man, and he seems even taller when he is talking to you. He stands with statuesque posture and holds his head of wild gray hair imperially high. It seems like he never wears the same pair of expensive Italian leather shoes twice, and sometimes he shows up eating a big hunk of plain bread with his bare hand. From behind thick, rimless glasses he cuts into you with his eyes. In a word, he is intense.
Windfuhr stopped me at some point and called the two pianists over. It was time for me to conduct the first movement of Shostakovich 9. The pianists played faster than I was conducting, probably because The Magic Flute 'Butcher' had taken a more frantic tempo. After a couple measures, Windfuhr shouted, “STOP!” There was a dramatic pause. My heart froze. Those were the last measures I would ever conduct.
“Was that your tempo?” he slowly questioned. “No, actually it was a little faster than I wanted.” Then Windfuhr emphatically said, “Well then, start again. If it’s too fast, say so!”
We took it from the top, but the pianists were still rushing. “STOP!” Winduhr hollered again. “I said take HIS tempo!” By the third time, we managed to make it to the end of the movement. Windfuhr announced, “The pianists are done,” and commanded me to come sit at the table where he quizzed me about the structure and meaning of the symphony. He listened with scrunched eyebrows and pulled my score over the table at one point to see what I was talking about. “Ah, yes, of course. You are done, Herr Ingram. Please wait outside.”
The faculty conferred for ten minutes, and then Windfuhr called all of the applicants back into the audition room for the announcement: “There will be a second round next week with orchestra, and this will be given to Herr Ingram.” Yikes! I wasn’t expecting to receive such good news right there in front of everybody. Who knew what 'The Butcher' might do? “I want to have a few more words with you, Michael,” Windfuhr said, pulling me aside and switching to very British English. “What I want to see more from you in the future is roughness. With you, everything has a certain polished refinement, almost a delicateness, a French perfumy-ness. But I want to see you really dig in. Just get in there and move stones and break bread and draw water. And even eat some raw meat. Yes, that’s it: eat a couple of raw steaks before Round 2, ok?” He scrunched his eyebrows and looked me up and down. “And for God’s sake, get new shoes!”
Round 2 - With Orchestra
One week later I was standing in front of the orchestra of the Musikalische Komödie (MuKo for short), which is one of several professional orchestras that collaborate regularly with the conservatory in Leipzig. The MuKo was modest in size (22.214.171.124.2 etc.), but the players had a brilliant, clean, powerful sound, and excellent sighting-reading chops. The first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was on tap. I got along with the student soloist just fine but I wasn’t used to the orchestra playing so far behind my beat. (That piece never did anything for me, except when my old roommate used to practice it in slow motion.) I came into my own in the second piece, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which I know very well. (Thank you, Jim Ross.) It was a thrill to conduct. In a few spots, the violinists looked up at me with big smiles on their faces. That felt good.
After my audition, I stuck around to watch Windfuhr’s other students rehearsing the Tchaikovsky and after the break, Windfuhr called the Debussy players back in. “Who’s next?” he asked. No one answered. He had made a mistake; only I was assigned the piece. “Oh, no!” he said. “Quickly, Michael—you’ll have to conduct some more!” I got twenty more minutes in front of the orchestra with Windfuhr coaching me just like he coached his students. Because the piece isn’t part of the MuKo’s standard repertoire, the parts were sprinkled with misprints. Near the end, one of the horns played a G-natural instead of a G-sharp. When I corrected the wrong note, Windfuhr ran back to inspect the part. “You are right, Herr Ingram!” he laughed. “You passed!”
My audition experience was more or less a typical audition — except for the bit about raw steak — but, let me offer some additional details to help you prepare for your own audition.
Typical Audition Repertoire
Here are the standard opera scenes expected for pianist-conductors to play and sing at conservatory auditions:
Marriage of Figaro Act II Finale
Magic Flute Quintet or Speaker Scene -Carmen Quintet -Strauss scenes:
Rosenkavalier Prelude and “Wie du warst“
Salome Quintet -Elektra opening (Mägdeszene)
If you are not a pianist, you may bring repertoire appropriate for your own instrument or voice type instead. However, you are not completely off the hook. You too will have to demonstrate your proficiency at playing and singing simultaneously. During my audition, because I was not yet very good at this myself, I brought “E Susanna non vien...Dove sono” instead of the massive Act II Finale from The Marriage of Figaro. Choose something manageable and simplify the piano accompaniment to suit your ability. It is not about being virtuosic. It’s about efficient multitasking and embodying the music with whatever skills you have.
Here is the kind of repertoire to expect in Round 1B with piano duo (Symphony#.Movement#):
Any Mozart symphony/overture with a slow introduction
Beethoven 2.1, 5.1
Brahms 1.4, 2.1, 3.1, Tragic Overture
Schumann 1.1, 1.3, 3.1
Tchaikovsky 5.2, 6.4
Dubussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Stravinksy: L’histoire du soldat
Shostakovich 9.1 (This movement is ubiquitous at German auditions.)
Although some conservatories select their students based on Round 1 alone, Round 2 with orchestra may include any of the repertoire listed above, plus a concerto movement or recitative:
A violin concerto by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, or Sibelius
A piano concerto by Schumann or Grieg
A cello concerto by Dvořák or Elgar
Marriage of Figaro: “Hai già vinta la causa” -
Magic Flute: Speaker Scene
Haydn’s Creation: “Gleich öffnet sich der Erde Schoß“ (the animal recit)
Typically, you are not allowed to confer with the student soloists beforehand. In both rounds, be ready for the professors to interrupt you, offer critique, and ask you to repeat certain passages. They are not only interested in your skills but in how flexibly you respond to feedback. Sometimes they will tell you on the spot whether or not you have been accepted. Other times, there will be weeks of waiting while they audition other candidates. In any case, prepare well, do your best, and then squeeze your thumbs for good luck!