Most high school seniors worry about their SATs at this time of the year. But a group of teen-agers in Baltimore this week are more concerned about their Es, Fs and Gs -- as well as B-flats and A minors.
Those would be the 1,000 or so young musicians who are traipsing the halls of the Peabody Institute, carrying their flutes and oboes and guitars -- even lugging their double basses -- waiting for a 15- or 20-minute recital that could determine their academic and professional futures.
It is audition week at Peabody, during which the Mount Vernon conservatory shuts down its classes and opens its doors to those hoping to play or sing their way into the freshman class in the fall.
The school's admissions office considers grades, SATs and other academic factors.
"We are aware of the academic performance of our students," says admissions director David Lane, a Peabody graduate in clarinet. "If you can't get through music theory, you can't get a degree."
Mainly, though, the music teachers don't want trouble in liberal arts classes interfering with their students' practice time. Peabody is about music, and proficiency on an instrument is the key to admission.
"The coin of the realm is performance ability," says Lane. "You have no idea how hard it can be to get into this joint."
This week's auditions are the chance these students get to show their abilities.
"It certainly is a more dramatic way than some to get into college," says Julian Gray, a member of the guitar faculty, as he waits for another performance of scales and arpeggios.
It would appear to be a scenario designed for frayed nerves and tearful breakdowns. But for the most part, there are few signs of tension among the students awaiting their auditions. A bit anxious, perhaps tense, clearly focused, but not really nervous.
"You have to remember, as musicians this is what we do, play for people," explains Jennifer Warnke, 22. A graduate of the University of Illinois, Warnke is warming up her French horn, awaiting an audition for the master's program.
If there are signs of nerves, it is among the parents. "I think it is a lot harder being a spectator," says Emilie Feddeck, down from Eastchester, N. Y., with her son, James, who is auditioning in oboe, piano and organ.
For his part, James Feddeck, 17, seems calm and collected. Which is not surprising when you consider that in addition to carrying a full load at school, James runs two church music programs and practices his instruments at the level expected at a place like Peabody.
"I've wanted to do this since I was born," he says.
His mother says neither she nor her husband has a musical background. "I saved all his older brother's toys, all the trucks and planes," she says. "But he never wanted to play with them. He only wanted musical instruments."
Nancy Reyas and her 17-year-old daughter, a trumpeter also named Nancy, flew up from Laredo, Texas.
"It's a lot of pressure," the mother says while her daughter takes a brief ear-training test. "I just stand outside the door and listen and hope all goes well."
She is relieved when her daughter emerges with a smile.
"That was easier than I thought," the younger Nancy says.
For the most part, just getting to the audition stage means you are the star pupil of your piano teacher or the best trumpet player in your high school orchestra or the top violist in a state competition. About half of those who audition -- either in person or on tape -- will be accepted, and more than 40 percent of those end up going to Baltimore.
Lane says that the admissions materials make clear the level of proficiency that is expected.
Which helps explain why this is such an impressive group of 17- and 18-year-olds, not given to the monosyllabic mutterings of many of their peers. They are focused at their young ages on what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and they are used to getting up in front of people and doing it.
To the untrained ear, the level of musical ability is astounding and judging among them seems nearly impossible.
It is not so grueling for some such as Phillip Kolker, who, as head of the woodwind department, can spend a day listening to clarinets but needs only a couple of hours with the fewer auditions in his specialty -- the bassoon.
For the piano faculty, it is a marathon -- all day, all week, listening to one pianist after another, a veritable assembly line of powerful young fingers pounding out Beethoven, traipsing through Liszt, finessing Mozart, exploring Chopin.
"I don't see how they do it," says Kolker.
The voice faculty faces a similarly heavy schedule. Female singers have the toughest time getting into Peabody -- one out of three is accepted.