Grad School Auditions: Q & A with Dr. Jamie Hillman

It’s AUDITION season and I know you (students) have questions! 

In helping you prepare for your audition/interview (and answer some common questions), I’ve invited Dr. Jamie Hillman to shares his thoughts.

Dr. Hillman is a Canadian and American musician, active as a conductor, singer, pianist, music educator, and composer. He holds the endowed Elmer Iseler Chair in Conducting at the University of Toronto where he is Director of Choral Studies and an Associate Professor. He conducts the U of T MacMillan Singers and leads the master’s and doctoral degree programs in Choral Conducting, as well as the annual summer Choral Conducting Symposium. He is also cross listed as an adjunct faculty member in Emmanuel College’s Master of Sacred Music program.

QUESTION: In auditioning for a graduate program, the candidate will often have an interview with the conducting faculty/s. What should I (the candidate) expect in the interview? 

Dr. Hillman: Interviews are an opportunity for the conducting faculty to learn more about you, the candidate. Who you are. What you are passionate about. Why you are interested in pursuing advanced study in Choral Conducting. What appeals to you about the school and program. 

It is important to remember that Interviews are a two-way street. The interview will help you discern if the program is a good fit for you. I recommend writing down a few specific questions for the panel. Do you sense that the conducting faculty and the opportunities that the program and school provide will help you achieve your goals?

When I interview prospective graduate students, I often take a few minutes to assess knowledge of choral (or choral-orchestral) literature and do some ear training exercises (identification of intervals, chords, etc.). You can ask in advance if knowledge and skills will be assessed as part of the interview. 

QUESTION: As part of the audition, the candidate will demonstrate their conducting skills with an ensemble. What should I (the candidate) expect? What does the faculty look for? (what do YOU look for in your candidate)

Dr. Hillman: It can be terrifying to walk into a room and conduct a group of peers who are strangers. Remember that if you are invited to campus, the conducting faculty already recognize your skills and potential. Everyone wants you to do well. Your peers – those in the choir – will sing their best for you. 

Don’t try to impress the conducting faculty. I feel that the faculty will be looking for potential over raw talent (especially at the master’s level). Go in with a vision for the piece and a plan to get there. Leave the choir sounding better than when you first walked into the room. 

Be careful of talking too much in an attempt to demonstrate your knowledge of the piece. The conducting professors know that you’ve done your homework on the score. Talk less. Show more. Make music. Enjoy the process. (It’s possible to enjoy an audition!)

QUESTION: How much music history and/or music theory do I need to know/prepare at my audition?

Dr. Hillman: Read every day! Devour books, including music history and theory articles and books. Read about the composers whose pieces you are conducting. Study the compositional trends and perform practice. Be able to analyze and discuss the pieces with which you are auditioning from every angle: form, harmony, melody/themes, texture, dynamics, cultural context, text, diction, text and musical relationships, etc. Leave no stone unturned. 

QUESTION: I’m asked to bring a piece to conduct and teach the choir? What repertoire do you recommend and how do I decide? 

Dr. Hillman: In my experience, most schools assign a piece(s). They are often ones with which their choir has some familiarity. If it is something the choir knows, you won’t be correcting notes and rhythms. You’ll have the opportunity to “bring the music off the page.” What is your vision for the piece’s phrasing, tonal colors, dynamics, text delivery/diction/word painting, character/mood, tempo, expressive elements. The list goes on and on. I recommend being  prepared to show your vision in your hands, arms, and face before mentioning any of the above. 

If you are asked to choose pieces, find pieces that are contrasting in as many ways as possible. Different time periods, tempi, characters/moods, modes, meters, dynamic ranges, styles, etc. Consider a piece that is part of the Western canon and one by a composer whose works are lesser known. 

QUESTION: What questions do you wish you’d asked at your audition? 

Dr. Hillman: It’s ok to talk about money! Ask about assistantship and scholarship opportunities. Ask if there are employment opportunities in the city or town for conductors. 

I am frequently asked by prospective students how much “podium time” they’ll receive. Conducting is an art. You improve by doing. This is a good question to ask. 

After the podium question, I am asked about how many students I plan on accepting into the program. It is ok to ask this question although I feel there are better questions to ask that will help you understand the program better. 

A good question to ask (and to research in advance!) is concerning what the alumni of the program are doing now. Which choirs and institutions do they serve? What is their impact?  

QUESTION: If I don’t get accepted into a program (or my program of choice), is my conducting dream/career over?  

Dr. Hillman: If you are not accepted into a program (or your program of choice), your conducting career isn’t over! Some programs only have one or two graduate students in residence at a time. Statistically speaking, those programs may be difficult to gain admission. If you’ve applied to several schools and are not accepted by any of them, I recommend honestly reflecting on your audition experiences. If you are declined admission by all schools at the prescreening stage, it will be important to speak with your mentor (your undergraduate choral conductor/choral professor) about your areas of weakness. I would start by addressing weaknesses in your conducting video. Devise a plan to strategically address your weaknesses before submitting again.  

QUESTION: Your last thoughts/tips: 

Dr. Hillman: Go into the process with an open mind. Speak with current graduate choral conducting students at an institution about their experience in the program. Enjoy the process. 

Australian conductor, Dr. Katherine Chan, is known for her energy and enthusiasm on the podium. As Director of Choral Activities and Associate Teaching Professor of Music at Northeastern University, Chan conducts the Northeastern University Choral Society (Chorus), Chamber Singers, Mosaic Advance Treble Ensemble, and teaches courses in conducting, music theory, and piano. She may be contacted at