College Auditions: Green Flags and Red Flags

College Auditions: Green Flags and Red Flags

What are my listeners thinking? Why did they all suddenly start taking notes? Audition panels can be hard to read. Knowing the expectations for your level can ease your mind and help you succeed. Below, we share our college audition thought process.

A bit of context: We teach in a school of music with both performance and education degrees and double majors. The music school operates within a medium-sized private liberal arts university, and is rooted in Western Classical style. So, our expectations differ from a conservatory, a musical theater or commercial music program, or a large state school. 


Vocal and Artistic Potential – It might surprise you, but we don’t expect a finished product! We listen for what you can already do and for how your voice and artistry can grow. So, choose music that shows both your strongest skills and things you are developing. Did you just discover a pocket of resonance in your low voice? Great; choose a piece that dips down but doesn’t sit low. Are you a skilled actor? Include a piece with dramatic text. We are more interested in a singer who shows us moments of brilliance than one who simply gets nothing “wrong.” 

Musicality – We get excited when singers connect musicianship and expression. We want you to take the lead musically and make it easy for our faculty collaborative pianist (who also shares audition feedback). It is not necessary to sing difficult repertoire! Musicality shines through. So, sing pieces that work for your voice in a big hall today. We will notice that those cross rhythms in your Fauré were accurate! 

Curiosity / Growth Mindset – We talk with our singers during auditions. Sometimes, we even hop up out of our seats and vocalize them. We’re not just listening to a voice; we are meeting a human being with whom we are going to work for four or five years. We want to know if you’re willing to experiment, take risks, and get into the messy work of learning.  

Love of Language – Text makes vocal music unique. So, show us you love words as much as music. Show us those double consonants and lengthened vowels in Italian. Embrace sounds that are different from your spoken English. Dive into the meaning of the poem from which the song was created!

Personality – Authenticity is a green flag! When you are open, confident, and willing to let us know who you are during the audition, it really gets us in your corner. 


Musical Errors – Rest assured, one musical error is not going to tank you. If you make a mistake, but quickly recover, we can tell it was nerves. Actually, if you keep going, that’s a green flag, because it shows focus and professionalism! But, if we hear several musical errors, the red flag rises. The red color deepens if we hear more than one type of error (ex. rhythm and language), or if the singer is consistently above/below the pitch center. The audition process doesn’t leave time to explain the “why” behind musical errors.  

Unconnected Singing – If, after three selections, we cannot tell the singer’s voice has the potential to fill a theatrical space, it’s a red flag. So, it’s more important to show us the core ring in your instrument than to sing phrases marked piano “quietly.”  

Fixed Mindset – When a singer tells us that they are already an expert, it gives us pause. We each have decades of study under our belts, and we are all continuing to learn, read, explore new repertoire, and even take voice lessons (!). So, if a singer auditioning for the first level of college training claims mastery, we’re concerned that they won’t be willing to change. 

Vocal Health Concerns – Total voice use (solo singing, practice, ensemble singing, speaking) in a college program is demanding, and our singers need to prioritize health. So, certain sounds, like hoarseness, noise in the voice, and delayed onset of a tone, can give us pause. We all understand having to contend with allergies and illness. We would rather you share that information (after you perform) than leave us to wonder what might be going on.

Lack of Commitment – The final thing that leaves a panel feeling cold is a sense that the singer is not invested. We want students whose love for the craft will motivate them to do the work. 

We hope this has shed some light on college auditions. You don’t have to be perfect, but please do be authentic. Sing what feels good. Sing what you love. Be open. And let us get to know you!

Dana Zenobi and Oliver Worthington

Dr. Dana Zenobi and Dr. Oliver Worthington recently collaborated with Navona Records to release the recording Joys Abiding showcasing soprano and baritone duets by historical women composers. They contemporaneously published an annotated anthology of the same name through Classical Vocal Reprints. They teach at Butler University, a prestigious liberal arts university in Indianapolis, The School of Music in the Jordan College of the Arts at Butler has a long history of excellence in both performance and education training for young singers. We offer competitive scholarships and extensive performance opportunities. For more about the authors, please visit our Voice and Opera faculty listing.