One of the most challenging pieces of a college application can be the sports, music, art or film portfolio. The best advice often comes from those who've been there and become successful in the process. I recently had the opportunity to ask five musical success stories their suggestions for creating a great performance portfolio. Desirae, Greg, Deondra, Ryan and Melody Brown also happen to be siblings who were simultaneously accepted into Juilliard in 2001. The 5 Browns have since become a popular classical piano quintet, landing on Oprah and 60 Minutes. Poised for the release of their new album The Rite of Spring and a Carnegie Hall debut this October, the classical siblings shared their secrets for college admission success.
Desirae - Aside from the importance of building a portfolio, the experience of performing, in and of itself, is great for any musician. I would say to play for people as much as you can. Enter competitions, play in recitals, play for friends and family. No amount of studying can replace building the skill of performing. In the end, sharing music is what it's all about.
Greg - I'd say that students should be absolutely sure that they're passionate about each piece they're playing. You have to like the music you're playing, or A: you won't want to practice it, and B: it won't feel authentic on stage. Each school has audition requirements, so within those boundaries, choose stuff you'll enjoy playing. Also, and this is important, do not audition with music you've just learned. Play stuff you've had time to sit with for a while.
Deondra - The best advice I could give would be to just get yourself out there and perform as much as you can. The more you put yourself in stressful performing environments, the stronger you get and the more you are able to focus through the nerves and be able to do your best. I was speaking with our friend, Dominique Moceanu (Olympic Gold Medalist) just this week, and we were discussing how similar the mental strength and stamina is for athletes and musicians. It's all about being able to do your best in the big moments. The only way you can practice that is to put yourself in that position over and over again. There will be moments you are physically and emotionally tired and drained, or the nerves just seem so overwhelming. There will be nights when you wonder if you have enough in you to get on that stage and perform your best. Whatever is going on in your personal life or within your own head (which can be your worst enemy!), you have to train yourself to block it all out and focus on the task at hand. The more you can successfully do this and perform to the level you'd hope, the more competitions and performances will go your way.
Ryan - It's important to practice performing any chance you get. Listen to other artists play from every genre; this will help you get inspired to better yourself as a performer and even want to perform more yourself.
Melody - Start young in entering competitions and in giving recitals. These are the things that push you. Thank goodness for great youth music programs in many of our states, because I can tell you right now that the Utah Symphony and Utah Valley Symphony, their organizations and their youth competitions alone prepared many of us for our life in music. Thanks to them we were able to start playing concertos with orchestra at the age of 8 or 9. Playing with orchestras at a young age is the best way to build a résumé. The second most important thing to do is to push yourself to learn the music that will get you there. I remember my favorite CD as a kid was the Beethoven piano concertos played by Arthur Rubinstein. Why? Because I was learning one of the concertos, and I was so excited that I would be able to one day play the same piece as this great pianist. It inspired me to work harder. Between that recording and the Utah Valley Symphony, I was able to fulfill this dream of playing Beethoven with an orchestra at age 10. A good experience there then led to the will and drive to accomplish other seemingly impossible feats.
Nancy Berk, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, comic and author. Her book College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind can be seen in the feature film Admission starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.