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Music teacher or rockstar: the audition

For Nathan Fistric when it comes to choosing a career path "it has to be music" and now his year 12 exams are over all his focus is on getting accepted into a music degree course

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A little after an hour into the audition, the strain begins to show. Patches of light-coloured Lycra turn dark with sweat, and a slippery sheen settles on several foreheads.

By now, each of the 23 dancers has sized up the competition. They have a rough idea of where they sit on a talent spectrum that ranges all the way from fumbling to fluid.

A fair indication of their standing came earlier, during the warm-up, when the applicants were asked to do stretches and splits and a ''bridge'' - a dancer's test of flexibility and core strength. Those that were able to hold the pose looked like little crabs in Lululemon - literally bending over backwards to please.

Students audition for a place at the VCA.

Students audition for a place at the VCA. Photo: Jason South

Now, as they try (and sometimes fail) to keep up with the dizzying choreography, there are plenty of big brave smiles, but also looks of pained consternation and overt panic. They know the truth.

This late-afternoon group-dance audition, held mostly for school leavers but open to all, is one of many trials necessary to gain entrance to the relatively new and highly competitive bachelor of fine arts (music theatre) at the Victorian College of the Arts.

The applicants have been here all day, singing songs (up-tempo tunes and ballads) and delivering monologues (classical and contemporary), and some have already been marked hard for poor tonal range or inelegant elocution.

Two judges have been scrutinising it all from the corner of this upstairs studio on St Kilda Road, lowering their eyes occasionally to read from dossiers spread out on the grand piano, detailing the biographies of Ruby and Grace and Hugo and all the other names stuck to the chests of these willing young thespians.

''We're not expecting all people to be strong in all areas,'' whispers Margot Fenley, the course co-ordinator and a lecturer in acting, ''but they do need to be able to be trained to an elite level in all three areas, or they can't get in.''

Soon the music is thumping. Shine bright like a diamond. Come feel the sweet melody. A little party never killed nobody. They do a Gatsby-inspired charleston - flirty for the girls and suave for the boys.

Both the lithe and the lumbering try to follow the steps set by dance teacher Natalya Bobenko, who pirouettes and jetes while calling the shots with a microphone strapped to her chin.

''Behind-side-front! Snap it up! Easy, right?'' she jokes. ''Now look like Baryshnikov while you're doing it!''

Between sequences they suck down bottled water and lean on horizontal bars, their pixie fringes and Bieber bobs now an unruly wet mess in the wall of mirrors. There is no escape.

As the choreography grows more complex, their ability to follow and replicate falters. Many are caught looking at the floor, watching their own feet. ''Just a quick note of the day,'' offers Bobenko. ''There are no answers down there.''

VCE exams ended weeks ago, and 82,886 students breathed easy. But for aspiring performing artists across Australia, the stress levels only increased. This is audition season.

For more than a month, the finest dramatic incubators in the country have been holding their annual try- outs. These days the schools send staff to every major city for weeks on end. International applicants began flying in for assessments in August, and by October the domestic students were falling over themselves to enrol in ''audition workshops'' and ''master classes'' - a rare chance to better understand what the judges, selectors and assessors are looking for.

The margin for error is thin. The bachelor of music theatre at VCA has auditioned more than 500 applicants for 20 places. The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts will stage-test 750 wannabe actors and select just nine girls and nine boys. Staff at the National Institute of Dramatic Art will be forced to choose 24 prodigious talents from a field of more than 2000.

Most of the wheat has been cut from the chaff by now. Shortlists have been drawn. Second auditions are almost over. The lucky few will know their fate this week or next. The all or nothing moment is approaching.

''It's a very confronting process,'' says Andrew Lewis, co-ordinator of performance at WAAPA. ''Very tough.'' The Perth school softens the formality of the system with a brief interview, intended to develop a rapport and create some comfort. Current students act as ushers to allay apprehension. But the fear can be overwhelming.

''Their breathing is very shallow and their shoulders get tense. They cry,'' Lewis says. ''But we try to make it as amiable and affable as possible - a smile goes a long way. I hope we're not terrifying ogres.''

Fenley well remembers her own auditions many years ago. She tried out for each of WAAPA, NIDA and the VCA - twice - before finding success. In one audition she completely forgot her lines. ''And the interesting thing that most applicants don't understand is that nobody is expecting anybody to be perfect in an audition,'' she says. ''Forgetting a line, missing a note or skipping a turn is not what will cause you to miss out.''

Selection panels are trained to see through the nerves, because high school students have no training yet to deal with stress and pressure. What they get wrong is far less important than what they get right.

''In a way, they tell us what we're looking for,'' Lewis says. ''But I suppose if anything we're looking for a head-to-heart connection. We're not looking for a fully finished product. We're looking for potential - body, mind, spirit - and curiosity. Are they trainable? How do they respond to direction? And can they connect to the imagination?''

Steven Burns, head of recruitment at the Sydney Conservatorium, notes that its intake also has to fit an ''instrument profile''. (That is, it can't admit 100 guitarists and only one saxophonist.) As part of its process, it requires musicians to play pieces from a set list.

''Having the same repertoire means everyone is on the same page with the same benchmarks,'' he says. ''And it means you've got to be able to channel those nerves.''

For actors trying to get into NIDA, however, there is much greater freedom to choose a monologue. In fact, students are judged by their choices.

''We ask why they chose that monologue,'' says Jeff Janisheski, head of acting at NIDA. ''The intelligence in how they answer that - or the passion with which they speak about the play - might make us want to take them.''

The second audition, known as a call back or recall, raises the bar even higher. Applicants are often required to submit to workshops, improvisation and lengthy interviews. If someone has an abundance of thespian flair, the panel may want to see restraint. If someone is a tightly wound ball of control, a demonstration of theatrics may be required.

''We work them harder, in much more detail,'' Janisheski says. ''We really push, provoke and prod them in terms of where they can go and how malleable they are. Can they take risks?''

Don Immel, head of brass at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, says he looks for ''emotional intelligence''.

Range development and technical proficiency are important, but Immel wants to know whether they are feeling and interpreting a phrase - or simply hitting the right notes like a sequence of Morse code.

''Gauging their interest in sitting alone in a practice room for five hours a day is also way more important to us than how many notes they've cracked,'' Immel says. ''It has very little to do with talent, and more to do with drive and internal motivation.''

Right now, departments are meeting and reviewing candidates, poring over notes and watching videos recorded throughout the process. Debate over candidates can be passionate and at times heated, but selecting the winners and delivering the good news is a favourite part of the job.

''We're planting the seed of that next generation, and we get to see it blossom,'' Janisheski says. ''It's pretty exciting and it's a bit of a gamble. We choose them, but they have to choose the commitment and the path. Are they going to come up to the plate and be as rigorous as we demand? Not everyone makes it.''

Not everyone gets the chance, either. Some schools will let students know that if they haven't heard anything by a certain date, they have missed out. Others make personal calls. Fenley distinctly recalls going home from her NIDA audition in a flood of tears - and she now has the unfortunate job of breaking bad news.

She tries to be quick and clean with what can be a crushing blow. She thanks them fully for their preparation and effort. She tells them the VCA would love to see them again next year - and they would. Unlike most potential employers, a theatre troupe keeps your record on file, keeps you in mind, and does hope to see you again. Performers often go away, train hard, come back and surprise.

''I often say to the students, if anybody could think of a better way to look for talent, we'd do it, because it's an awful process and it doesn't mimic what happens in a show,'' Fenley says. ''But in another way, this is the first step in a life of uncertainty. A performer's life is a life of auditioning.''

These schools are preparing students for the real world. The intake numbers are so low not because the academies crave exclusivity, but because there is no point in churning out performers who won't find any work. Immel is acutely aware of this in selecting music students, where substantial weight is given to ATARs and other academic indicators.

''Australia might graduate 20 trombonists each year, but there might only be one trombonist job available,'' he says. ''In a way, it's harder to be a trombonist than an NFL quarterback.''

The school's goal is to produce highly skilled thinkers. Music has the advantage of being a virtual second language that requires physical mastery, emotional and artistic commitment, and deep collaboration.

''So many areas of the brain are firing, and if you're studying music you get those benefits,'' Immel says. ''We tend to produce very smart and very high-functioning people. That's how I sleep at night.''

Back in the dance studio at the VCA, the group audition is at an end. The kids seem happy, full of exercise-induced dopamine and hope.

''Be stoked with today,'' offers Bobenko. ''I hope it inspires you to do more and more and more and more and more. And more!''

And then Fenley is standing in front of them - 23 kids holding their breath.

''It's been a big, big day,'' she says, smiling. ''Thank you.''

She thanks them for their effort, for the endless nights of preparation. She explains that she can't give feedback to those who miss out - it would mean giving feedback to all 500 who apply.

She tells them to go away, focus on areas of weakness and come back stronger. The work they do will demonstrate dedication, and the improvement they make will prove they are trainable.

''If I call your name out for a call back, I'd just like you to stay behind for a moment. Otherwise you're free to go, thank you very much for your work, we wish you all the best for the rest of your auditions. So the people I'd grab for a moment are …''

Three names are read out, and just like that, 20 hopes and dreams are temporarily snuffed. Alisha Lawrie, 18, is one of the unlucky ones, so she shuffles out of the room and begins her warm-down routine.

Alisha missed out last year, too, so she moved from country South Australia to bayside Melbourne in February. She took private acting and singing and dance lessons all year long. It wasn't enough this time, but she hopes it will be one day.

''You deal with it. Once your heart is set on this industry, you learn pretty quickly that you've got to deal with rejection, take away what went wrong, and work like hell,'' she says, sitting on the carpet and stretching the tension out of each muscle group. ''It is hell. It's brutal. But it's the business.''

Konrad Marshall is a senior writer.