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Applying for composition - some advice

EDIT (October 2023)
1. I'm always happy to send my application portfolio to anyone who'd like to see it. Please DM me your email, and I'll send things over.
2. Shameless self-promotion, but: I offer online composition lessons for very competitive prices! I can help with your folio, with personal statements, interview prep, whatever would be useful. I'm now in my final year at Guildhall, and have a decent understanding of the admission process. Again, send me a DM if you'd like to know more! I wrote the advice below a while ago, and there are some things I'd put differently now.

Hello!

I'm entering second year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying classical composition. In 2019, I applied to GSMD, RCM, RAM, RCS, RNCM, and Trinity. I got offers from GSMD, RAM, and Trinity, and reserves from RNCM and RCS. I was rejected from RCM.

Over the last year or so, several people have contacted me asking for advice about the composition application process at UK conservatoires. It can be super hard to find information about it, so I thought I'd share some experiences and advice here.

This advice is based on both my direct experiences, the experiences of others in my class, and conversations I've had later with staff at Guildhall and other conservatoires.

This is just one person's view - please don't take my word as gospel! And I warn you, it may be a bit of a ramble…

Portfolio
Your portfolio is, of course, vital. Variety is important. For mine, I included an experimental vocal piece that I wrote at a summer school, a piece using a lot of electronics with a fairly simple string quintet part, and a romantic-ish piece for two horns and piano. I'm happy to send these to anyone looking for an idea of what level's required.

Panels want to see both creativity and technique - but the former is probably more important than the latter. Technique is easy to teach; creativity less so.

They want to know you'll try exciting, radical, innovative, experimental things. This doesn't mean you need to submit spectral string quartets stuffed full of extended techniques - but you do want to surprise them, if possible. Avoid pastiche string quartets/orchestral action movie cues/Ludovico Einaudi-esque piano minimalism. Show them that you can bring some creative flair to their department. You don't need to be revolutionary, but you do need to demonstrate a bit of originality.

Showing technique is also important, but some weaknesses probably aren’t the end of the world. You might struggle with some parts of the course if your theory isn’t roughly grade 7/8 standard, but you can pick up harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration fairly quickly. And departments are keen to find people doing their own unique thing, so a strong portfolio doesn't have to show a confident grasp of conventional western theory.

Presentation of your scores is important, too! The RNCM panel spotted several errors in my notation ('that dynamic marking should be one semiquaver to the right!'), so show your attention to detail here. Programme notes go down well - Guildhall in particular liked this.

Have a look at some contemporary scores. Faber's perusal scores are fantastic: here's a Tansy Davies one, a David Fennesy one, and a Thomas Ades one, for examples. Note how they're presented, and the kind of performance notes they include. The more professional your scores, the better.

See if you can get a copy of Behind Bars, by Elaine Gould. Most uni libraries will have a copy. It’s the music notation bible.

Handwritten scores (and unconventional notation) go down great both my experimental vocal piece and my short RAM exercise were handwritten, and the panels noticed that. I think it shows that you take care with your work, think about exactly how to notate your intentions, and crucially, that you can work without notation software.

Personal statement
First, if you're applying to both universities and conservatoires, you need two statements. Some of what you say may be the same, but in your university one, you'd focus on your academic skills and interest in musicology, while in your conservatoire one, you'd focus on your practical experience and career ambitions.

I’ve added my (slightly anonymised) statement below. Here are a few suggestions.

Firstly, if you can, show a wide variety of experiences. Ensemble playing, theatre pit bands, small composition projects, competitions, teaching, conducting, recording skills it’s all relevant and useful. They want to know you’ve got what it takes to work as a musician, and that means being flexible, and ideally being able to do a bit of everything.

Try to avoid just listing things you’ve done like a history or English essay, use each experience as evidence for the points you’re making. Talk about what you’ve learned from the experiences. It’s no good just saying you’ve done a lot of stuff tell them you’ve developed as a result.

If you don’t have much experience at the moment, try and find some between now and October! Everything counts. The panels will appreciate that everything is more difficult at the moment, but you’d definitely get extra points for pulling something together virtually!

Generally, showing you are proactive is good news. For example, about a year before I applied, I sent out emails to just about every theatre and dance company I could find near where I lived, asking to collaborate with them. I sent about 50 emails, and got 2 (?) positive replies. But that led to a great project with a dance company, which gave me proper composition work experience: project development, creative teamwork, workshops, composition, sound design, production, etc. Show you will actively seek out opportunities, and not just wait for them to come to you.

(Flipside to this advice: sometimes it's better to be targeted, rather than just firing millions of emails off into the void. Seen a show you really liked? Write to that company specifically, tell them why you love their work, and ask if there's any way you could get involved.)

Secondly, be reflective about your work. Guildhall and RAM both liked that I talked about my weaknesses in my statement. It tells them that you’re honest about your abilities, and that you’re open to being taught.

Lastly, make sure to tell them why you want to go! Let your excitement for composition shine through, and tell them what you expect to gain from going to conservatoire.

Wider reading is still good to include if you have space, as are non-musical activities that demonstrate good personal qualities.

Interview
Next, you will hopefully be called for interviews! Different places vary on their interview rates. In 2019 at least, RCS and Trinity Laban interviewed lots of people, whereas at RAM (anecdotally) if you got an interview, you had a strong chance of getting an offer.

The interview panels are very friendly, but all the preparation you can do counts.

I think the key thing is to show that you are open minded. They want to know that you are teachable; they don’t want people who’ll only ever do one thing and won’t take feedback. I went to my RCS and RNCM interviews, and told them just how much I didn’t like Brahms and Schoenberg. I don’t think this went down well….

I later got some (I think) excellent advice from a uni head of music. In essence, his advice was never to say you don’t like something. Pretty much any music has its respective merits, and if you show that you’re closed off to something, the panel is going to doubt your willingness to be adventurous in your own music. It’s not good to come across (as I am sure I did in the first interviews!) as a music snob.

So, if you dislike Schoenberg, then don’t say: ‘Well, I honestly don’t think that serialism is expressive enough to be considered art.’ Say: ‘I’ve been listening to more Schoenberg lately. I find it challenging to listen to because it’s pretty unfamiliar to me, but I’m starting to learn new ways of approaching it and appreciating it.’ While something may be unfamiliar to you now, show willingness to get to know it and appreciate that you might grow to love it with time.

They’ll all ask you about the music you love and that influences you. I’d say the key thing is to be honest. Don’t talk about something you don’t like just to appear sophisticated and knowledgeable they’ll catch you out quickly! Talk about what you really love and what really excites you.

You don’t need to limit yourself to classical music, either. Feel free to talk about heavy metal, Jacob Collier, some unusual alternative pop, some traditional folk music, an unusual film soundtrack. Just so long as you can offer some thoughtful comments about them!

But probably stay away from the obvious answers. In general, avoid Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, and stay clear of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. I remember even being warned off Stravinsky and Britten: "everyone will talk about them and they’re just not cool anymore." As far as I can tell, the particular problem with film music is that it suggests you think of music as supporting other mediums, rather than thinking of music as standalone art.

I’d recommend listening to as much new music as you possibly can. Probably prioritise living contemporary classical composers. You can find lots by looking at the faculty of various conservatoires, looking for who gives masterclasses, who wins competitions, whose work is played by contemporary ensembles, etc. If you need inspiration, I’ve added a long list below!

Listen to as much as you can bear, and then tell the panels what you’ve found: what you’ve liked, what’s inspired you, what you’ve struggled with, what reminds you of what, etc…

Look also at the staff members at each department, and try and find some of their work. Get an idea what the staff are doing themselves.

Some places were definitely keen to hear about post-war 20th century composers, so try and learn a bit about people like Stockhausen, Messian, Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis, Lutoslawski, Feldman, Cage, Part, Reich, Adams, etc. Even if you don’t love them, you might well need to talk about them a bit.

When listening to all these composers, you may find some of it very strange! If possible, try not to let it put you off :smile: Conservatoires want you to know as much other music as possible because it’s a very useful tool for your musical imagination. But this doesn’t mean that if you get in you’ll be stuck writing all atonal or spectral or serial music. Everywhere will be keen to nurture your individual style.

Have a good answer for the question ‘why do you want to come here in particular?’ They want to know that you’ll be a good fit for their particular department, and that your four years there will be well spent. Sometimes a panel will decide you’re just not quite the right fit that’s not a reflection on your abilities, just a matter of aesthetic differences.

When it comes to your own work, again, showing that you are reflective and thoughtful about your work is important. Talk about parts of your pieces that aren’t quite as you’d like. Talk very carefully through your composition process and give detailed reasoning for your artistic decisions. Talk about your original compositional intentions, and how you might attempt the piece differently a second time. Tell them about the sections in your pieces that you really like, and the sections that you think haven’t worked out well.

Talking about a weakness in your piece won’t make them look at your portfolio in a bad light (hopefully!) it’ll show them you’ve got what it takes to develop and become the best composer you possibly can be. They want people who can look at their work with a critical eye.

All additional reading - about any area of music you like - is good too. The more interesting things you have to talk about, the better.

Aural and theory tests
All of the conservatoires I auditioned at (except for RCS) had additional aural and theory tests. The below is my experience in 2019 many departments will have adapted their tests since so that they can be done online.

RNCM had a long online multiple choice test that all the music applicants had to complete. We had to recognise classical works, identify chords, identify intervals, spot errors in four part harmony, analyse unconventional notation, and so on.

Just prior to the composition interview, there were two additional tasks: harmonise a four bar melody in a completely free style (with a piano), and analyse a score extract from an unidentified classical work. I ended up with something from the Rite of Spring: they wanted me to work out what it was, find where the dissonances were in an orchestral chord, and tell them when the Rite of Spring was first performed (I was off by an embarrassingly large margin).

RAM did the composition interview first, then asked me to wait to hear if I’d got through to the academic interview. The academic interview involved identifying intervals and cadences, sight singing, clapping a rhythm, singing and clapping together, and some questions on what I identified as a Beethoven piano sonata. They wanted me to name chords and cadences, talk about era-specific features, give a date for the piece, etc.

RCM’s aural tests were similar to RAM.

Trinity Laban asked me to perform something on my instrument, then listen to some extracts of modern classical pieces. This is where the preparatory listening came in handy there was Stockhausen, Xenakis, Glass, etc.

Guildhall was hard (I thought!). There was a 90 minute (?) written test, involving transcription, harmonisation ‘in a characteristic style,’ and composition (setting a short poem to music, with one voice and one monophonic instrument). We had no piano, except for 15 minutes at a piano at the end to check our work.

They went over the test in the interview, and although I missed out a chunk of the transcription and got some weird chords for the harmonisation, they seemed satisfied that I lived up to approximate A-level music standards.

Other notes
I think there’s a consensus that both unis and conservatoires prefer you to apply to one or the other, not both. I was asked at many of my interviews whether or not I was applying to uni (I wasn’t) I think they want to see that you’re fully committed to practical study. I'd encourage you to decide in advance what you really want to do if you apply for both, you risk disadvantaging yourself in both applications.

I decided not to apply to uni when I realised that even if I got an offer, I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t have any conservatoire offers, I’d just wait a year and re-apply.

On competitiveness: there aren’t many places, but there also aren’t *that* many applicants. In the UK, composition departments seem to admit between 3 and 8 people each year, out of anywhere from 50-100 applicants. It’s a total guess, but I’d say an admission rate of around 10-20% is about average.

Personal statement
I want to make music that excites listeners, and stays with them. Sometimes, I have achieved this. When [a recent piece] was performed at a composition course, I was delighted to see the audience react with surprise, amusement, unease and intrigue. I want to study composition to better understand how this works, and how to evoke emotion with sound.

I started learning the horn aged seven. My teacher uses improvisation from day one, and encourages her pupils to compose for the class as soon as possible. From this background, I have now written and performed concert pieces, and music for theatre, dance, radio drama, art installations and film.

To develop as a composer, I have sought a wide variety of opportunities. I have taken part in courses run by Sound and Music, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. After two unsuccessful entries, I won the Royal Opera House's Fanfare competition and had my piece recorded by the Orchestra. Four times, I have written music for the 'Play in a Day' project at [a university’s] Creative Writing Summer School. In one day, four groups of students write a short radio drama, while I devise music for each.

Currently, I am writing and producing the soundtrack to [show name], a contemporary dance project by [a young professional company]. The music is inspired by swing-era jazz, pop and musical theatre. I have also begun writing for my school's production of [play].

Looking to the future, I am working to establish an experimental ensemble at my school. We will explore graphic scores, electronics, chance, theatre and other elements.

However, I have found gaps in my knowledge. I tend to overcomplicate, when simplicity and sparseness would be more powerful. I struggle with maintaining energy in slower, more reflective pieces. I need to develop my ability in classical harmony and counterpoint.

In addition to these core skills, I believe a conservatoire will offer me chances to collaborate with ensembles and productions, and will expose me to a wider musical world. I will develop my musicianship: skills including performing, conducting, and rehearsing.

I have extensive practical musical experience. In addition to composition, I play horn and keyboard, and sing. I have played with [semi-pro orchestra] and [a national youth orchestra] and took part in the world premiere of [piece] by [famous American composer]. I have also played for school productions of [musical] and [musical], and have a good understanding of jazz performance. I have participated in conducting workshops with [conductor] and [conductor], have organised school concerts, and stage managed musical theatre.

As a result, I have discovered the value of collaboration. I have learnt to pay close attention to the needs of the team and the production. I see the importance of meticulous organisation and preparation, of being able to explain each of my musical decisions, working proactively, and writing quickly when needed.

I have gained other valuable skills for academic and professional life. I was the winner of the UK Supreme Court’s student writing competition, with an essay about the disproportionate use of secret evidence in court. I was a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, and argued for [----] in front of a Scottish Parliament committee. I have an analytical mind, and an ability to find the root of a problem quickly.

I will involve myself in the life of a conservatoire with enthusiasm and curiosity.


Contemporary composers to listen to!
Some personal (mainly 21st century) recommendations!
Andrew Norman
Cassandra Miller
Catherine Lamb
Dai Fujikura
David Fennessy
David T Little
Dobrinka Tabakova
Du Yun
Eliane Radigue
Ellen Reid
Errollyn Wallen
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Eve Beglarian
Gavin Bryars
Jennifer Higdon
Jennifer Walshe
Jessie Montgomery
Joanna Bailie
John Luther Adams
Judd Greenstein
Julia Wolfe
Julian Anderson
Kate Soper
Laurence Crane
Laurie Anderson
Meredith Monk
Michael Finnissy
Missy Mazzoli
Neil Luck
Nico Muhly
Paul Newland
R Murray Schafer
Robin Haigh
Sarah Kirkland Snyder
Stuart Macrae
Tansy Davies
Thomas Ades
Toby Young
Unsuk Chin

These composers are also very very cool
Alexander Goehr
Berio
Birtwhistle
Boulez
Cage
Claude Vivier
David Lang
Einojuhani Rautavaara
Elliott Carter
Feldman
Ferneyhough
Georg Friederich Haas
George Benjamin
George Crumb
Glass
Grisey
Hans Abrahamsen
Harry Partch
Henry Cowell
Howard Skempton
Ives
James MacMillan
James Saunders
John Adams
Jonathan Harvey
Kaija Saariaho
Knussen
Kurtag
Lachenmann
LaMonte Young
Ligeti
Linda Catlin Smith
Louis Andriessen
Luigi Nono
Lutoslawski
Marc Sabat
Mark-Anthony Turnage
Maxwell Davies
Messiaen
Milhaud
Milton Babbitt
Nancarrow
Part
Pauline Oliveros
Peteris Vasks
Philip Cashian
Pierre Schaeffer
Radulescu
Reich
Scelsi
Simon Bainbridge
Sofia Gubaidulina
Stockhausen
Terry Riley
Tippett
Varese
Xenakis


Some extra scores to look at
Catherine Lamb - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAN3yCtlkf0
Joanna Bailie - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWrsqDSL_eU
Kate Soper - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVWHGx-LRL4
Tansy Davies - https://www.fabermusic.com/music/neon-4806/score

Also, anything on the ScoreFollower YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/ScoreFollower/videos
(edited 4 months ago)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. Infomation about this is impossible to find and i was going crazy trying to prepare for the audition. Firstly, I'm curious on your compostions you sent in your portfolio do you mind sending it somehow? Also do you know how important the aural and theory part of the audition is compared to the interveiw and portfolio. I can't say im the most confident in the area lol
Reply 2
Original post by Mdomnikov
Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. Infomation about this is impossible to find and i was going crazy trying to prepare for the audition. Firstly, I'm curious on your compostions you sent in your portfolio do you mind sending it somehow? Also do you know how important the aural and theory part of the audition is compared to the interveiw and portfolio. I can't say im the most confident in the area lol

Sure thing! Send me a DM and I can email you recordings and scores.

Aural skills and Western classical theory does matter, but it's not the main thing you're being assessed on. At least at Guildhall, it seems to be primarily diagnostic. If you're accepted, you'll have classes in aural skills, species counterpoint, sonata form, classical trio sonatas, serialism - and they need to know you won't be hopelessly out of your depth.

But ultimately, these skills are fairly easy to teach once you arrive. It's much harder to teach people to be creative. A dodgy aural test won't matter hugely if your portfolio and interview are great, I don't think (though it does depend a bit on where you're applying...).

Panels also know that applicants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and their admissions process has to account for that. Some applicants have been going to junior conservatoire since they were six; some haven't even done music at school. Applicants come from all over the world and are familiar with different musical traditions. Composition departments don't want eight students who all know the same stuff and are all interested in the same things - they want to be open to a wide range of people. So, if you've never harmonised a Bach chorale before but do know about jazz voicings or Arabic maqams or granular synthesis, you're (probably) not going to be rejected because of the Bach.
Original post by KitM
Sure thing! Send me a DM and I can email you recordings and scores.

Aural skills and Western classical theory does matter, but it's not the main thing you're being assessed on. At least at Guildhall, it seems to be primarily diagnostic. If you're accepted, you'll have classes in aural skills, species counterpoint, sonata form, classical trio sonatas, serialism - and they need to know you won't be hopelessly out of your depth.

But ultimately, these skills are fairly easy to teach once you arrive. It's much harder to teach people to be creative. A dodgy aural test won't matter hugely if your portfolio and interview are great, I don't think (though it does depend a bit on where you're applying...).

Panels also know that applicants come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and their admissions process has to account for that. Some applicants have been going to junior conservatoire since they were six; some haven't even done music at school. Applicants come from all over the world and are familiar with different musical traditions. Composition departments don't want eight students who all know the same stuff and are all interested in the same things - they want to be open to a wide range of people. So, if you've never harmonised a Bach chorale before but do know about jazz voicings or Arabic maqams or granular synthesis, you're (probably) not going to be rejected because of the Bach.

Thanks for the reply, I'll just have to revise the areas you mentioned as much as possible and if I do poorly then perhaps there's still hope my talent will be enough:/ Also apparently my account isn't able to send PM's yet so perhaps you could send it via twitter? My @ is max_domnikov (honestly it'd be nice to be able to conveniently speak to you again if I need help again)
Reply 4
Original post by Mdomnikov
Thanks for the reply, I'll just have to revise the areas you mentioned as much as possible and if I do poorly then perhaps there's still hope my talent will be enough:/ Also apparently my account isn't able to send PM's yet so perhaps you could send it via twitter? My @ is max_domnikov (honestly it'd be nice to be able to conveniently speak to you again if I need help again)

Sure. I've followed you - if you follow me back, I'll be able to DM you.
Original post by KitM
Sure. I've followed you - if you follow me back, I'll be able to DM you.

Done
Hi! Thanks for the post. It's extremely helpful.
I'm thinking about applying to study Composition at the same conservatoires you mentioned.
I'm not a UK citizen so it's a bit hard finding information. Would it be okay to consult you? If so, I'd really appreciate it if you could send me a message - I can't do it myself since I'm a new user.

Thanks in advance!
Hey Kit,
Thanks for the quick answer :smile:
Unfortunately, it turns out that since my account is new, I can't respond to messages either.
Hi, this is really useful - are you happy to correspond some more as I want to apply to those same music schools to study composition. Might you be able to send me your portfolio pieces? Thanks, Frank
Reply 9
Original post by gretastoddart
Hi, this is really useful - are you happy to correspond some more as I want to apply to those same music schools to study composition. Might you be able to send me your portfolio pieces? Thanks, Frank

Hi! Sorry for the slow reply. Yes, absolutely. Can you DM me your email?
Original post by KitM
Hi! Sorry for the slow reply. Yes, absolutely. Can you DM me your email?

Hi , Apparently my account isn't able to send PM's yet so perhaps you could send it via my mums twitter and then after that we can email if thats ok with you??? her twitter is @GretaStoddart Thank you very much!
Reply 11
Original post by gretastoddart
Hi , Apparently my account isn't able to send PM's yet so perhaps you could send it via my mums twitter and then after that we can email if thats ok with you??? her twitter is @GretaStoddart Thank you very much!

Sure! I've followed her - she'll need to follow me back.
@KitM Thank you for the advice and information - as mentioned it's really difficult to find! Would you be happy to send the scores offered as an idea of level?
Reply 13
Original post by Musicperson345
@KitM Thank you for the advice and information - as mentioned it's really difficult to find! Would you be happy to send the scores offered as an idea of level?

Sure thing! Can you DM me your email?
Thank you a ton! I'll be applying this year and have been anxious. I would love to hear your porfolio and see your scores. I'd really appreciate getting an idea of what my portfolio should look like.
Hiya, would you be able to send me the scores as well? ive sent you a message with my email - really interested in what standard they are looking for. thanks so much!
Thank you, this is an excellent read!
Reply 17
this is so useful! thank you for this, i’ll definitely use this post as guidance when i apply this october. would it be okay to ask for the scores and recordings? i will PM u my email!
Hey, I was wondering what sort of academic stuff you cover year 1-4 at conservatoire - essentially anything academic from aural, theory, analysis, exams etc.? Do you think this is mostly the same across other conservatoires?
I was also wondering sort of tests they do to stream you into classes?
Thanks!
Reply 19
Original post by KitM
Hello!

I'm entering second year at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, studying classical composition. In 2019, I applied to GSMD, RCM, RAM, RCS, RNCM, and Trinity. I got offers from GSMD, RAM, and Trinity, and reserves from RNCM and RCS.

Over the last year or so, several people have contacted me asking for advice about the composition application process at UK conservatoires. It can be super hard to find information about it, so I thought I'd share some experiences and advice here.

This advice is based on both my direct experiences, the experiences of others in my class, and conversations I've had later with staff at Guildhall and other conservatoires.

This is just one person's view - please don't take my word as gospel! And I warn you, it may be a bit of a ramble…

Portfolio
Your portfolio is, of course, vital. Variety is important. For mine, I included an experimental vocal piece that I wrote at a summer school, a piece using a lot of electronics with a fairly simple string quintet part, and a romantic-ish piece for two horns and piano. I'm happy to send these to anyone looking for an idea of what level's required.

Panels want to see both creativity and technique - but the former is probably more important than the latter. Technique is easy to teach; creativity less so.

They want to know you'll try exciting, radical, innovative, experimental things. This doesn't mean you need to submit spectral string quartets stuffed full of extended techniques - but you do want to surprise them, if possible. Avoid pastiche string quartets/orchestral action movie cues/Ludovico Einaudi-esque piano minimalism. Show them that you can bring some creative flair to their department. You don't need to be revolutionary, but you do need to demonstrate a bit of originality.

Showing technique is also important, but some weaknesses probably aren’t the end of the world. You might struggle with some parts of the course if your theory isn’t roughly grade 7/8 standard, but you can pick up harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration fairly quickly. And departments are keen to find people doing their own unique thing, so a strong portfolio doesn't have to show a confident grasp of conventional western theory.

Presentation of your scores is important, too! The RNCM panel spotted several errors in my notation ('that dynamic marking should be one semiquaver to the right!'), so show your attention to detail here. Programme notes go down well - Guildhall in particular liked this.

Have a look at some contemporary scores. Faber's perusal scores are fantastic: here's a Tansy Davies one, a David Fennesy one, and a Thomas Ades one, for examples. Note how they're presented, and the kind of performance notes they include. The more professional your scores, the better.

See if you can get a copy of Behind Bars, by Elaine Gould. Most uni libraries will have a copy. It’s the music notation bible.

Handwritten scores (and unconventional notation) go down great both my experimental vocal piece and my short RAM exercise were handwritten, and the panels noticed that. I think it shows that you take care with your work, think about exactly how to notate your intentions, and crucially, that you can work without notation software.

Personal statement
First, if you're applying to both universities and conservatoires, you need two statements. Some of what you say may be the same, but in your university one, you'd focus on your academic skills and interest in musicology, while in your conservatoire one, you'd focus on your practical experience and career ambitions.

I’ve added my (slightly anonymised) statement below. Here are a few suggestions.

Firstly, if you can, show a wide variety of experiences. Ensemble playing, theatre pit bands, small composition projects, competitions, teaching, conducting, recording skills it’s all relevant and useful. They want to know you’ve got what it takes to work as a musician, and that means being flexible, and ideally being able to do a bit of everything.

Try to avoid just listing things you’ve done like a history or English essay, use each experience as evidence for the points you’re making. Talk about what you’ve learned from the experiences. It’s no good just saying you’ve done a lot of stuff tell them you’ve developed as a result.

If you don’t have much experience at the moment, try and find some between now and October! Everything counts. The panels will appreciate that everything is more difficult at the moment, but you’d definitely get extra points for pulling something together virtually!

Generally, showing you are proactive is good news. For example, about a year before I applied, I sent out emails to just about every theatre and dance company I could find near where I lived, asking to collaborate with them. I sent about 50 emails, and got 2 (?) positive replies. But that led to a great project with a dance company, which gave me proper composition work experience: project development, creative teamwork, workshops, composition, sound design, production, etc. Show you will actively seek out opportunities, and not just wait for them to come to you.

Secondly, be reflective about your work. Guildhall and RAM both liked that I talked about my weaknesses in my statement. It tells them that you’re honest about your abilities, and that you’re open to being taught.

Lastly, make sure to tell them why you want to go! Let your excitement for composition shine through, and tell them what you expect to gain from going to conservatoire.

Wider reading is still good to include if you have space, as are non-musical activities that demonstrate good personal qualities.


Interview
Next, you will hopefully be called for interviews! Different places vary on their interview rates. In 2019 at least, RCS and Trinity Laban interviewed lots of people, whereas at RAM (anecdotally) if you got an interview, you had a strong chance of getting an offer.

The interview panels are very friendly, but all the preparation you can do counts.

I think the key thing is to show that you are open minded. They want to know that you are teachable; they don’t want people who’ll only ever do one thing and won’t take feedback. I went to my RCS and RNCM interviews, and told them just how much I didn’t like Brahms and Schoenberg. I don’t think this went down well….

I later got some (I think) excellent advice from a uni head of music. In essence, his advice was never to say you don’t like something. Pretty much any music has its respective merits, and if you show that you’re closed off to something, the panel is going to doubt your willingness to be adventurous in your own music. It’s not good to come across (as I am sure I did in the first interviews!) as a music snob.

So, if you dislike Schoenberg, then don’t say: ‘Well, I honestly don’t think that serialism is expressive enough to be considered art.’ Say: ‘I’ve been listening to more Schoenberg lately. I find it challenging to listen to because it’s pretty unfamiliar to me, but I’m starting to learn new ways of approaching it and appreciating it.’ While something may be unfamiliar to you now, show willingness to get to know it and appreciate that you might grow to love it with time.

They’ll all ask you about the music you love and that influences you. I’d say the key thing is to be honest. Don’t talk about something you don’t like just to appear sophisticated and knowledgeable they’ll catch you out quickly! Talk about what you really love and what really excites you.

You don’t need to limit yourself to classical music, either. Feel free to talk about heavy metal, Jacob Collier, some unusual alternative pop, some traditional folk music, an unusual film soundtrack. Just so long as you can offer some thoughtful comments about them!

But probably stay away from the obvious answers. In general, avoid Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, and stay clear of John Williams and Hans Zimmer. I remember even being warned off Stravinsky and Britten: "everyone will talk about them and they’re just not cool anymore." As far as I can tell, the particular problem with film music is that it suggests you think of music as supporting other mediums, rather than thinking of music as standalone art.

I’d recommend listening to as much new music as you possibly can. Probably prioritise living contemporary classical composers. You can find lots by looking at the faculty of various conservatoires, looking for who gives masterclasses, who wins competitions, whose work is played by contemporary ensembles, etc. If you need inspiration, I’ve added a long list below!

Listen to as much as you can bear, and then tell the panels what you’ve found: what you’ve liked, what’s inspired you, what you’ve struggled with, what reminds you of what, etc…

Look also at the staff members at each department, and try and find some of their work. Get an idea what the staff are doing themselves.

Some places were definitely keen to hear about post-war 20th century composers, so try and learn a bit about people like Stockhausen, Messian, Boulez, Ligeti, Xenakis, Lutoslawski, Feldman, Cage, Part, Reich, Adams, etc. Even if you don’t love them, you might well need to talk about them a bit.

When listening to all these composers, you may find some of it very strange! If possible, try not to let it put you off :smile: Conservatoires want you to know as much other music as possible because it’s a very useful tool for your musical imagination. But this doesn’t mean that if you get in you’ll be stuck writing all atonal or spectral or serial music. Everywhere will be keen to nurture your individual style.

Have a good answer for the question ‘why do you want to come here in particular?’ They want to know that you’ll be a good fit for their particular department, and that your four years there will be well spent. Sometimes a panel will decide you’re just not quite the right fit that’s not a reflection on your abilities, just a matter of aesthetic differences.

When it comes to your own work, again, showing that you are reflective and thoughtful about your work is important. Talk about parts of your pieces that aren’t quite as you’d like. Talk very carefully through your composition process and give detailed reasoning for your artistic decisions. Talk about your original compositional intentions, and how you might attempt the piece differently a second time. Tell them about the sections in your pieces that you really like, and the sections that you think haven’t worked out well.

Talking about a weakness in your piece won’t make them look at your portfolio in a bad light (hopefully!) it’ll show them you’ve got what it takes to develop and become the best composer you possibly can be. They want people who can look at their work with a critical eye.

All additional reading - about any area of music you like - is good too. The more interesting things you have to talk about, the better.

Aural and theory tests
All of the conservatoires I auditioned at (except for RCS) had additional aural and theory tests. The below is my experience in 2019 many departments will have adapted their tests since so that they can be done online.

RNCM had a long online multiple choice test that all the music applicants had to complete. We had to recognise classical works, identify chords, identify intervals, spot errors in four part harmony, analyse unconventional notation, and so on.

Just prior to the composition interview, there were two additional tasks: harmonise a four bar melody in a completely free style (with a piano), and analyse a score extract from an unidentified classical work. I ended up with something from the Rite of Spring: they wanted me to work out what it was, find where the dissonances were in an orchestral chord, and tell them when the Rite of Spring was first performed (I was off by an embarrassingly large margin).

RAM did the composition interview first, then asked me to wait to hear if I’d got through to the academic interview. The academic interview involved identifying intervals and cadences, sight singing, clapping a rhythm, singing and clapping together, and some questions on what I identified as a Beethoven piano sonata. They wanted me to name chords and cadences, talk about era-specific features, give a date for the piece, etc.

RCM’s aural tests were similar to RAM.

Trinity Laban asked me to perform something on my instrument, then listen to some extracts of modern classical pieces. This is where the preparatory listening came in handy there was Stockhausen, Xenakis, Glass, etc.

Guildhall was hard (I thought!). There was a 90 minute (?) written test, involving transcription, harmonisation ‘in a characteristic style,’ and composition (setting a short poem to music, with one voice and one monophonic instrument). We had no piano, except for 15 minutes at a piano at the end to check our work.

They went over the test in the interview, and although I missed out a chunk of the transcription and got some weird chords for the harmonisation, they seemed satisfied that I lived up to approximate A-level music standards.

Other notes
I think there’s a consensus that both unis and conservatoires prefer you to apply to one or the other, not both. I was asked at many of my interviews whether or not I was applying to uni (I wasn’t) I think they want to see that you’re fully committed to practical study. I'd encourage you to decide in advance what you really want to do if you apply for both, you risk disadvantaging yourself in both applications.

I decided not to apply to uni when I realised that even if I got an offer, I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t have any conservatoire offers, I’d just wait a year and re-apply.

On competitiveness: there aren’t many places, but there also aren’t *that* many applicants. In the UK, composition departments seem to admit between 3 and 8 people each year, out of anywhere from 50-100 applicants. It’s a total guess, but I’d say an admission rate of around 10-20% is about average.

Personal statement
I want to make music that excites listeners, and stays with them. Sometimes, I have achieved this. When [a recent piece] was performed at a composition course, I was delighted to see the audience react with surprise, amusement, unease and intrigue. I want to study composition to better understand how this works, and how to evoke emotion with sound.

I started learning the horn aged seven. My teacher uses improvisation from day one, and encourages her pupils to compose for the class as soon as possible. From this background, I have now written and performed concert pieces, and music for theatre, dance, radio drama, art installations and film.

To develop as a composer, I have sought a wide variety of opportunities. I have taken part in courses run by Sound and Music, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. After two unsuccessful entries, I won the Royal Opera House's Fanfare competition and had my piece recorded by the Orchestra. Four times, I have written music for the 'Play in a Day' project at [a university’s] Creative Writing Summer School. In one day, four groups of students write a short radio drama, while I devise music for each.

Currently, I am writing and producing the soundtrack to [show name], a contemporary dance project by [a young professional company]. The music is inspired by swing-era jazz, pop and musical theatre. I have also begun writing for my school's production of [play].

Looking to the future, I am working to establish an experimental ensemble at my school. We will explore graphic scores, electronics, chance, theatre and other elements.

However, I have found gaps in my knowledge. I tend to overcomplicate, when simplicity and sparseness would be more powerful. I struggle with maintaining energy in slower, more reflective pieces. I need to develop my ability in classical harmony and counterpoint.

In addition to these core skills, I believe a conservatoire will offer me chances to collaborate with ensembles and productions, and will expose me to a wider musical world. I will develop my musicianship: skills including performing, conducting, and rehearsing.

I have extensive practical musical experience. In addition to composition, I play horn and keyboard, and sing. I have played with [semi-pro orchestra] and [a national youth orchestra] and took part in the world premiere of [piece] by [famous American composer]. I have also played for school productions of [musical] and [musical], and have a good understanding of jazz performance. I have participated in conducting workshops with [conductor] and [conductor], have organised school concerts, and stage managed musical theatre.

As a result, I have discovered the value of collaboration. I have learnt to pay close attention to the needs of the team and the production. I see the importance of meticulous organisation and preparation, of being able to explain each of my musical decisions, working proactively, and writing quickly when needed.

I have gained other valuable skills for academic and professional life. I was the winner of the UK Supreme Court’s student writing competition, with an essay about the disproportionate use of secret evidence in court. I was a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, and argued for [----] in front of a Scottish Parliament committee. I have an analytical mind, and an ability to find the root of a problem quickly.

I will involve myself in the life of a conservatoire with enthusiasm and curiosity.


Contemporary composers to listen to!
Some personal (mainly 21st century) recommendations!
Andrew Norman
Cassandra Miller
Catherine Lamb
Dai Fujikura
David Fennessy
David T Little
Dobrinka Tabakova
Du Yun
Eliane Radigue
Ellen Reid
Errollyn Wallen
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Eve Beglarian
Gavin Bryars
Jennifer Higdon
Jennifer Walshe
Jessie Montgomery
Joanna Bailie
John Luther Adams
Judd Greenstein
Julia Wolfe
Julian Anderson
Kate Soper
Laurence Crane
Laurie Anderson
Meredith Monk
Michael Finnissy
Missy Mazzoli
Neil Luck
Nico Muhly
Paul Newland
R Murray Schafer
Sarah Kirkland Snyder
Stuart Macrae
Tansy Davies
Thomas Ades
Toby Young
Unsuk Chin

These composers are also very very cool
Alexander Goehr
Berio
Birtwhistle
Boulez
Cage
Claude Vivier
David Lang
Einojuhani Rautavaara
Elliott Carter
Feldman
Ferneyhough
Georg Friederich Haas
George Benjamin
George Crumb
Glass
Grisey
Hans Abrahamsen
Harry Partch
Henry Cowell
Howard Skempton
Ives
James MacMillan
James Saunders
John Adams
Jonathan Harvey
Kaija Saariaho
Knussen
Kurtag
Lachenmann
LaMonte Young
Ligeti
Linda Catlin Smith
Louis Andriessen
Luigi Nono
Lutoslawski
Marc Sabat
Mark-Anthony Turnage
Maxwell Davies
Messiaen
Milhaud
Milton Babbitt
Nancarrow
Part
Pauline Oliveros
Peteris Vasks
Philip Cashian
Pierre Schaeffer
Radulescu
Reich
Scelsi
Simon Bainbridge
Sofia Gubaidulina
Stockhausen
Terry Riley
Tippett
Varese
Xenakis


Some extra scores to look at
Catherine Lamb - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAN3yCtlkf0
Joanna Bailie - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWrsqDSL_eU
Kate Soper - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVWHGx-LRL4
Tansy Davies - https://www.fabermusic.com/music/neon-4806/score

Also, anything on the ScoreFollower YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/ScoreFollower/videos

Hi KitM,
Im really grateful for the post, would you mind if you could send me your pieces that you used for your application.
Thank you very much

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