THE REGISTRATION period for applicants to the Baltimore School for the Arts closed last week, and from now until the third week in February, when auditions are held, some 500 kids and their parents will give themselves over to an agony of anticipation. The auditions will decide which lucky youngsters are admitted to the school, which draws students from across the city and beyond.
The arts school admits only about 90 freshmen each year. Though the faculty maintains a lookout for promising talents virtually year-round, the majority of kids who end up attending the school are auditioned in February.
Experience has taught the faculty that in three years it will graduate about 68 of those admitted next September. A number kids will be dismissed for various reasons -- for example, loss of interest or disruptiveness. Still, the school's dropout rate is virtually zero. So administrators know that by accepting 100 kids they'll likely fill the 90 places available, allowing for students who will change their minds between March and September.
In its early years, the School for the Arts could accept virtually everyone who showed signs of talent. It could afford to be unconcerned with numbers because the total enrollment was below 300 students -- less than one-tenth the size of the city's largest high schools.
In recent years, however, enrollment has climbed past 300, which is about the maximum the building and faculty can comfortably handle. So the school's four arts departments -- dance, music, theater and visual arts -- have become more selective during audition week.
For the hopeful youngsters who apply, auditions are an ordeal of uncertainty and frayed nerves. For the school staff, who must squeeze the process into a single week of frantic activity, auditions are a complicated balancing act. The staff knows that the hopes of hundreds of kids are riding on the decisions it makes, and no effort is spared to ensure fairness and accuracy in the judging.
Like other citywide schools, the arts school receives applications through the Baltimore City public schools placement office. It also receives applications from students in the counties, and from students in independent and parochial schools.
Some kids apply to more than one department -- theater and dance, for example, or dance and music. Each must be assigned an audition date and time; notices must be sent out, along with precise instructions regarding the audition requirements for each department.
By the time audition week arrives, school officials already have a pretty good idea of how many kids each department will accept.
The largest department is music, which has programs for both vocalists and instrumentalists. Many vocalists come without any prior musical training, so boys who can sing tenor, along with string players of every sort, are much in demand.
Next come the theater and dance departments -- both nationally recognized training grounds for young Thespians and terpsichoreans. The theater department has grown larger in recent years because, in addition to its acting program, it also trains production majors. The dance department traditionally has been large because the school maintains its own ballet corps.
The remaining openings are allotted to the visual arts department.
On the appointed day, auditions begin early in the morning. All classes shut down during audition week to allow the faculty to devote its attention to the applicants. Every available space is crammed with would-be painters, actors, dancers, singers, musicians -- and their parents.
The audition committees for each department struggle to keep on schedule, and inevitably fall behind as the day wears on. Some kids are nervous, anxious, spaced-out by the stress; others manage an amazing aplomb in spite of botched lines, wrong notes and the stony countenances of the faculty jurors.
In this controlled chaos, the jurors rely on their years of experience as teachers and performers to make instant judgments regarding an applicant's talent. The staff knows what it's looking for. In the dance department, for example, jurors look for flexibility, coordination, presentation and musicality. Above all, they look for a certain energy -- a "fire in the eye," they call it -- that shows the dancer's motivation and commitment.
In the theater department, applicants are required to memorize a monologue, then do a workshop in which they demonstrate skills in improvisation, visualization and movement. Art department hopefuls bring portfolios of their work to discuss with faculty, then are assigned a design project to complete the audition.
Finally, aspiring music majors appear before the jury in the school's recital hall. Singers are asked to vocalize and sing pitches chosen by the jurors to test their innate musicality. Instrumentalists sight-read orchestral excerpts, sing back pitches and perform a prepared solo, with or without accompaniment.
All applicants are evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score. By Monday of the next week the staff has made its decisions and forwarded the results to the school department's central headquarters; about three weeks later, the school department notifies applicants whether they havebeen accepted or rejected.
For the lucky ones who get in, the notices often are the culmination of a lifelong dream. For those who don't, they can seem like death warrants. Often parents are more devastated than their children when the school says no. After the anguish of audition week, notice week is a time of cheers and tears, agony and ecstasy -- so much so that sometimes even the kids and their families themselves can hardly tell the difference between the two.