How Realistic Is the Berklee Audition Scene in CODA?

Damien Bracken, dean of admissions, talks about Apple's Oscar-nominated film and what it really takes to get into Berklee.

March 23, 2022

Berklee Now's Keyed In series features Berklee artists and experts making news and sounding off on the latest news and trends from the music world and beyond.

Damien Bracken, Berklee's dean of admissions, has worked at Berklee for 36 years and has held his current title for the last 18. He's traveled the world meeting with prospective students and has conducted more than 100,000 auditions and interviews, including those with Charlie Puth B.M ’13, Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker B.M. ’12, and recent American Idol finalist Grace Kinstler.

With the Academy Awards less than a week away, all eyes are on Apple's Oscar-nominated film CODA, which tells the story of a Massachusetts high school senior, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), who is the only hearing member of a deaf family. She dreams of attending Berklee but must audition to gain admission and a scholarship.

CODA also features musical contributions from students and alumni. Bracken was consulted by the producers of the movie during filming. We caught up with him in between his travels. 

In CODA there's a scene where the main character is auditioning at Berklee’s campus. How realistic was that scene?

The funniest part of the movie to me is the audition. It’s hysterical. Our auditions are nothing like that! In fact, I designed the audition to be almost the opposite. We want the student in this really high-pressured kind of moment to feel relaxed and able to focus on their music as much as they possibly can. We do things like play along with the student. We improvise, and if the student is a songwriter, we’ll say, “let’s write a song,” right here and then. The whole idea is to remove all the intimidation factors and make it as warm and engaging as we can for the student. My challenge for staff is to have all of our applicants walk away with a smile on their face thinking about what a wonderful experience they just had. Rather than the Hollywood version where the person breaks into tears because they were so intimidated.

Damien Bracken

Damien Bracken, Berklee's director of admissions

The pandemic forced us all to pivot in the way we conduct business. What has it been like conducting auditions during COVID?

We were really lucky because we had, for a number of years, been doing online auditions and interviews. So we have some expertise already in how to deliver our audition and interview experience online, and we basically took that model and exploded it to fit our massive applicant pool. In 2020, 100 percent of our auditions and interviews were done online. We recruited the full class of 2021 online. We realized the benefits of doing things remotely. In a calendar year we will do 8,000 auditions and interviews, both online and in person. 

Social media can turn people into stars literally overnight. Has its prevalence made it harder to attract talented students?

Just the opposite. I see all these young musicians doing incredible things. It’s not common for us, but on occasion I will reach out to someone on social media and just say, "Hey, this is my gig, I’m really interested in what you are doing. If you want to talk to me, talk to me." I’ve even thought about making that part of the work that my staff does, researching the internet and reaching out to young people with promise.

Do you think CODA will have an impact on Berklee admissions and the way people view the school?

I hope it will drive more people that previously didn’t know about Berklee to investigate who we are. There are so many ways that you can engage with Berklee now: You can take pre-courses through massive open online courses (MOOCs), you can come to a summer program, or you can participate in a Berklee on the Road program. We travel all around the world and teach, and you can of course take a Berklee Online course. 

What is your advice to anyone who dreams about attending Berklee?

Be your authentic self. Do not be who you think we want you to be. You know who you are and your artistic self; double down on that and focus on your strengths. When we look at students for admission, we deliberately use a strength-based focus, so we’re looking for what you will bring to this community and what your artistic contribution might be. So don’t second guess yourself. Work hard on your craft. Do not wait to improve your artistic self. That is something to work on every day and for the rest of your life, not just while at Berklee.