The prospect of auditioning for a roomful of strangers is, for most people, pretty daunting.

Now imagine that that “room” is a computer screen filled with music directors scattered across the region—far away, sure, but also right there in your home. Set that against the backdrop of a global pandemic, add in the pressure of possible college scholarship money, and the typical audition experience becomes uniquely nerve-wracking. 

Over the past year, we’ve all learned to get comfortable with change. But no one has navigated these turbulent times better than Memphis’ young people, who have been forced to live their lives—including school, extracurriculars, and social life—almost entirely online.

As they say, the show must go on. 

Last month, Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), in partnership with six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), hosted a day of virtual music auditions for musically gifted high school students from 12 school music programs across Memphis. Over the course of one day, band and choral directors representing Rust College, Jackson State University, Tennessee State University, Fisk University, LeMoyne-Owen College, and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff heard vocal and instrumental performances from 24 student musicians from schools across the city.

And Memphis’ young people brought their A-game; all 24 students received scholarship offers (partial or full) that weekend, with more offers likely to come as institutions continue their scholarship decision-making process. Seven of those students auditioned with instrumental pieces; 17 auditioned with vocal performances. And we couldn’t be prouder—or more excited—for these students who are the next generation of Memphis music. 

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The decision to partner with regional HBCUs was an easy one.

HBCUs have played a key role in the shaping of Black life, identity, and economic progress—not to mention, proved fertile ground for social justice movements throughout history. They have also been vital in creating a space for Black art, creativity, and cultural expression to thrive. HBCU marching bands, for instance, claim a unique place in America’s music and performance history. They’re an essential tenet of HBCU pride, representing the culture and style of each individual college or university. 

As Victor Sawyer, our Senior Fellowship Coach, recently told High Ground News, “In a world that frequently says, ‘This isn’t for you,’ going to an HBCU may be the first time where a young POC finds themselves in an environment rich with a multitude of Black and brown experiences.”

As plans developed to host auditions, our music engagement Fellows, who are world-class musicians in their own right, tirelessly advocated for and encouraged students to dream big and hone their crafts—not only in preparation for this event, but throughout the school year and in the midst of a pandemic. Of course, the day belonged to the students, who showed up, showed out, and demonstrated once again what makes Memphis music highly sought-after across the country. 

So, how do you prepare for an audition that’s going to be virtual? With hard work, adaptability, and lots of practice. 

Gwendolyn Brown, assistant professor of music, voice and opera at Fisk University, said that in a vocal audition, she’s looking for a few key qualities, including “a pleasing voice and some good sense of technique, musicality, and discipline—a student who truly wants to study in music and is really looking forward to that time of growth.” 

Jackson State alumnus and Fellow Marico Ray, who works with band students at Memphis Business Academy, said that leading up to the audition day, students hit the scales hard. “What they’re looking for is for students to know at least 12 major scales. They want them to have a prepared piece, and, usually, they want them to be able to sight-read. Well, since we’re virtual, the sight reading question was kind of moot, so scales became even more important.” 

Over at Ridgeway High School, MMI Fellow Marcus King said that prepping his vocal students for the audition was a rewarding experience, but one that required plenty of one-on-one coaching. “I would meet with each student each week for 30-minute sessions, sometimes twice a week,” he said. “I had to convince some to audition due to pandemic fatigue and a sense of hopelessness. Fortunately they agreed to see this through to the end. We worked on diction, breath support, musicianship and artistry.” 

“Auditions for colleges are so important to the Memphis Jazz Workshop mission,” said organization founder and MMI Fellow Stephen Lee. “It teaches so many life skills like preparation, discipline, motivation, and time management, to name a few. At the Memphis Jazz Workshop we start teaching this skill on day one. All students have to audition for combo and private lessons placements. So by time our students are ready to audition for college they have practiced this routine for two to three years with us.”

Kennedy M., a senior at Soulsville Charter School who plays trumpet with Stax Music Academy, said that when she heard about the auditions from her MMI music fellow, she was excited. She’d been preparing for Stax’s juries—moderated performances at the end of each semester that test students’ performance acumen and their theoretical grasp of music—and had even done a virtual audition before. In fact, she said, “the virtual auditions are a little easier, because I’m less anxious.” 

Of course, prepping for an audition and performing in one are two very different things. 

MMI’s In-School Project Coordinator Chastity Blair, who helped plan the event, acknowledged that some students weren’t confident they’d stand out. “We had one student who told us that because there was so much competition, he didn’t feel like he was going to do well. Well lo and behold, he came out of the audition with rave reviews and a scholarship offer on the spot.” 

And he wasn’t the only student to get some positive and immediate feedback. Kennedy told MMI that although she had put in the work practicing and perfecting her audition pieces, she was still “pretty shocked” by how things turned out—namely, that she received a full ride offer immediately following her audition. “The other schools I auditioned for, I got scholarships for as well,” she said. In fact, on the day of the auditions, she received offers from three of the six HBCUs present. 

Likewise, Elise G., a student at Cordova High School, raked in offers from vocal instructors. “At least two of the professors that were on the call told me right then and there, ‘We’re going to contact you with a scholarship offer,” said Elise. “You really impressed us.” She credits her choir director, Mr. Maclin, who prioritizes helping students pursue higher education, and MMI Fellow Marcus King, who “gave me a piece that really showed off my range,” with helping her nail the audition. 

“There is some real talent in Memphis,” said Fisk’s Brown, who is a native Memphian and graduate of Carver High School (‘83). “It’s good to see that the Memphis tradition of vocal music in our high schools is still amazing.”

But some students got more out of the experience than scholarship money alone. Ridgeway High School vocal student Travis R., who has only been singing for a short time after a sports injury put his athletic career on hold, said that the audition process boosted his confidence. “It showed me I can persevere even after having a concussion from sports. It showed me a path that I can go down that I am very passionate about.”

Angel S., who is also a vocal student from Ridgeway High School, said that participating in the audition instilled a little more bravery in her than she had before. “When I first joined the call they made me feel welcome and told me to do my best. I felt like that was a great experience for me to get over my fear of singing in front of people.”

The audition was, by all accounts, a huge success, and a big win at a time when so much arts programming has been halted. But, as Blair pointed out, the world has adapted remarkably to Covid conditions, and it’s pushed us all to get creative with the opportunities offered to young people. “If it wasn’t for the pandemic,” she said, “students would have had to go to individual colleges to audition, or send in a video. They wouldn’t have had this opportunity to audition for multiple schools at the same time. And it was totally free to students—no registration fee, no application fee, and no one had to travel and pay for a hotel. It was truly a blessing in disguise.”  

In hosting this event, MMI was thrilled to connect the artistic genius of our young Memphians to the world of opportunities represented by our HBCU partners. 

“What makes HBCU music programs special is what makes HBCUs special as a whole,” said Fisk’s Brown. “We are able to give individualized attention to the students…We are closer to the students as a family and were able to get to know the students so much better in this environment. It is the family care of an HBCU that is so special.”

Many of Memphis’ talented young people attend storied HBCUs across the country, where they are honing their academic and creative skills in a space that allows their cultural identity to flourish—all while bringing with them their unique perspective as Memphians.

“HBCUs have been a critical highway to economic success, personal growth, artistic development, and knowledge building with our young people,” said Amber Hamilton, Executive Director, MMI. “And Memphis has a long tradition of providing the soulful soundtrack to the nation.”

Elise G. plans to continue that legacy.I would really love to get into composing and learning not only how to sing better, but to be a better performer. If I don’t end up going into music education, where I would end up being a choir director, I would really like to learn how to compose so that I can make my own music after college. And I would love to learn how to produce.” 

Kennedy M., meanwhile, plans to pursue a career in medicine as an obstetrician gynecologist. But that doesn’t mean she’s planning to put away the trumpet anytime soon. “I want to play trumpet in school for sure,” she said. “And I’ll definitely keep playing after I graduate.” 

Today, more than 228,000 students are enrolled at 107 HBCUs across the country—plus, now, a few new Memphis musicians.