Earlier today, I was surprised to discover that the University of Minnesota School of Music, from which I received my B.M. five years ago, now requires prospective undergraduate performance majors on tuba, trombone and euphonium to perform orchestral excerpts at their audition for admission. For all I know, this could have changed the year after I was admitted or it could have just changed this year; I haven't had occasion to check the guidelines since I applied 10 years ago, but I have a student who is considering applying and was double-checking some information for him when I made the discovery.
In any case, this wasn't something I was required to do when I auditioned, nor had I so much as smelled an orchestral excerpt before I started college, nor do I now as a private teacher use orchestral excerpts with my high school aged students. The study of excerpts is the study of perfection. You're thinking that there are all kinds of things wrong with that, and you're absolutely right, but that doesn't make the statement any less true. There's an incredible amount of groundwork to lay before one can approach even the most technically elementary of excerpts, at least with the intent of perfecting it for audition purposes. Less advanced students certainly could benefit from the process as well, even if it's clear from the outset that they have no chance of getting the excerpt audition-ready, but if that's the case, why not specifically address these more basic deficiencies, which probably effect everything they do?
This is what immediately sprang to mind when I saw the guidelines, but of course, auditioning high schoolers on orchestral excerpts has been the norm for some time at the top conservatories. On that level, it shouldn't be the least bit surprising that the universitories are beginning to follow suit. It is notable, however, that excerpts are not required for any other instruments. This would seem to indicate that this came down not from Room 200, but rather from the low brass faculty, who are all excellent and all have their heads on straight. This leads me to believe that things have changed quite a bit at my alma mater, since I can recall encountering only one freshman low brass player in my four years there who showed up on day one with a solid grasp of excerpt playing. The fact that several other players not included in that statement have gone on to great things sums up my reservations about such a requirement pretty well, but I don't run the school.
Without delving into just how great the things I myself have gone on to may or may not be, it is stating the obvious at this point to say that I was not that person either, and hence my gut reaction was distress, since I myself most likely would have been deterred from applying altogether had this requirement been in place when I was in high school. On the other hand, though, while I in no way regret choosing music as a career, it has been clear to me for some time that I would have been a much happier undergraduate if I'd chosen a degree program that afforded me more electives than a performance degree does. Lo and behold, the excerpts are not required for B.A. in Music applicants, leaving me to wonder if this requirement which on the surface would seem to have been designed to keep people like me out of performance programs might actually have saved me from myself and all but forced me into a more balanced undergraduate experience. We'll never know.
I also maintain a certain amount of trepidation about labeling some degree programs so generally ("Performance") and others more specifically ("Jazz Studies") when in fact they are often equally specialized. Many of the conservatories which have led the way in escalating these admission requirements also have much more specific nomenclature in place to indicate that a degree program specifically emphasizes orchestral performance. On the other hand, the more general labels function quite well at the more aesthetically pluralistic music schools, acknowledging that students must ultimately find their own way. Perhaps one day I'll earn a graduate degree in 20th and 21st Century Quasi-Atonal Jazz-Influenced Performance, Composition, Arranging, Transcription and Literature. Not likely, but there's a better chance it will be called that than "Orchestral Studies."