Applying to get into some high schools these days is like applying for college. As an acting coach here in New York and part of the faculty of a small arts conservatory, I was flabbergasted at the process of getting into high school here, especially performing arts schools.
Here in New York in the first few months of the 8th-grade school year, there are weeks of competitive auditions at various arts schools across multiple disciplines such as drama/acting, vocal, or musical theater (note: while I am focusing on the student actor/singer, much of this applies to the dance, instrumental, fine arts, and film/television students). Some schools in other states begin the process with online applications after which audition appointments are granted. But regardless of where you live, you need to deal with applications, audition preparation, rehearsal, and lots of time visiting campuses for open houses and sample showcases to meet students and staff before the actual auditions. It’s a pressure-filled several months that can lead to big smiles or lots of tears when you get that all-important decision letter. But how can you prepare your child – and yourself — for this process?
Listen to Your Kid
If your kids are like most tweens, they might not be the most forthcoming in stating or even knowing what they want to do right now – even those who are already gravitating toward the performing arts. They might not realize that these magical, artistic school options even exist near them. Your youngsters may not feel like they are good enough or understand that they could actually go to high school to learn to act or sing operatically at this age. They might feel that you wouldn’t want them to do it. If you hear the subtle, or not-so-subtle hints, like an obsession with the Broadway Cast Recording of Wicked or Hamilton or anything written by Stephen Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown, talk to them about their dreams.
Now, maybe you don’t want your youngster to go into the arts; it’s a tough business and making a living is not easy, but attending an arts school doesn’t mean they must pursue it in the future – this is just high school after all, and they will be studying English, science, math, foreign languages, etc. Many performing arts schools have excellent academic records, and there are many other careers where an arts study is great training. Companies these days are always on the lookout for creative thinkers –and seriously, an acting background would come in handy for a lawyer or anyone who needs to speak in front of crowds, right?
Start Preparing for Auditions Early
Performing arts schools don’t necessarily want stars; they want kids with promise, a glimmer of something special, and a hint of talent with room to grow. They want a kid who will help fill out an existing troupe of characters in the Drama or Musical Theater departments or those who will round out a vocal ensemble, filling in the Alto or Tenor gaps that will be left by graduating seniors. Realistically, they want kids with good grades and who have good attendance records –7th grade is not the year to oversleep or miss class as those are the records that will be pulled for the 8th grade auditions. So watch for the signs that you may have a talented or driven kid and start preparing for these auditions in 6th or 7th grade; don’t wait until only five or six weeks before the auditions. Unless your child is extremely gifted, you’re very likely too late at this point. There are songs and scales to be memorized and polished, cold reading and a capella singing skills to be honed; kids need to be taught how to talk to an accompanist and even how to clearly introduce themselves. It’s possible, but difficult, and who needs that added pressure? START. EARLY.
Talk to Others Who Have Been Through the Process
If you are on the path with your child to pursue performing arts high school auditions, find other parents to talk to about the process. It isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in New York. Talk to your middle school counselor; they are often responsible for helping with audition appointments. If you already have your child in private voice or acting lessons or dance classes, the instructors could advise you on the appropriate preparation and put you in touch with students and families who will be willing to chat with you. And start planning as soon as you even think it might a possibility, because even if you’re not quite sure, you have a lot of research to do on schools. And know that while it may seem to be a terrifying project to tackle, once you have begun, the process will become clearer, especially with other folks to talk to.
Hope for the Best, but Prepare for the
Every year thousands of kids compete for a limited number of spots at these specialized schools. The odds are not great. And not getting in can feel like the end of the world to a kid. It isn’t. It’s not a crushing of dreams and, although it stings, it’s just the odds. This isn’t anyone saying, “You’ll never be a serious actress,” as Diana Morales is informed in A Chorus Line; it’s just not now, not here. And it’s nothing personal – this is the hardest thing to learn, even for adults. Plus, if your kid truly wants to go into the performing arts, they will hear “No” far more often than “Yes” and will need to learn how to handle rejection now. Your job is to support and encourage your dreamers, but with caution and guidance about the possibility that it won’t work out every time. There are still many, many training and performing opportunities to come in another high school, private lessons, or college programs.
And the even harder reality is that regardless of dreams and desires and drive, the timing may just not be right for your child. Maybe their voices are just not agile enough right now or their acting skills need time and maturity to develop. Talk frankly with your child’s various coaches and teachers—without your youngster present—for their honest assessment and advice on attending auditions.
So start listening, talking, researching, and preparing now for the not-so-far-off day when you drop your youngster at a strange school teeming with hundreds of kids, give them a hug, tell them you believe in them no matter what, and call out “break a leg” as they are enveloped into the auditioning throng of kids.