So you’ve decided to major in music — congratulations on making such a huge life decision!
(If you’re still unsure and want to read some more on being a music major and a music professional, we’ve got an informative livestream for you here.)
Once you’ve made the big decision to pursue music professionally, you’ll want to weigh your countless options on where to earn your music degree(s). Choosing where to audition (and, hopefully, attend) for your music degree is a huge decision, and not one to be made overnight after a brief search on the internet.
Please note that this article applies to music majors of all kinds, but especially those looking to pursue a degree in music performance with the aspiration of becoming a professional performing musician.
Your undergraduate degree will be the initial foundation of your professional life and career in music. You will spend four years (up to that point in your life, a good 15%+ of your existence!) discovering who you are, creating habits (good and bad), building relationships, and, of course, crafting your own musicianship and technique.
You will work with and learn from dozens of professors over the course of your degree, but — in most cases — you will study with only ONE professor on your instrument. You will play music with people that will become lifelong friends and colleagues. You will learn (or not — it’s up to you) how to balance your education/career workload with your personal life.
College is a thrilling, rewarding journey if you approach it with the right mindset and happen to find yourself in a place where you feel a sense of belonging!
Below I’ve listed some important questions to take into account for each school you consider putting on your audition list…
- Who will be your applied lesson professor?
This is the person who plays the same instrument as you and with whom you will spend hundreds of hours throughout your degree. Students normally take weekly hourlong lessons with this teacher in addition to 2-3 hours a week in studio class and/or like-instrument choir rehearsals. This person often becomes one of the most important mentors in a music student’s life.
Not only should this person play and teach the instrument in a way that speaks to you, but they should also be a human being you look up to and want to emulate. A great professor will know how to determine appropriate musical goals for each student, how to most effectively teach musicianship and technique, how to coach and mentor students through important career events, and how to impact students in a meaningful way beyond simply teaching the music.
It can’t be overstated how important this person is in your decision to study at a particular music school. Be sure to do your research: find and listen to recordings of them playing; read their bio (What ensembles have they played with? Do they regularly perform recitals or in professional ensembles? Where and with whom did they study? What is their reputation in the music world?); look for articles or videos on their teaching and music philosophies.
A well-respected professor with a proven track record of student success is perhaps the most important aspect in deciding where to study.
To get an idea and find your own opinion on a teacher, you will need to take one lesson or several. This is the only true way to discern what they are like and whether you want to study with them.
This is rarely said out loud, but auditioning for music school is really a two-way street. You as the student must, of course, audition to get in; but music schools also must win you over!
- What is the school’s success rate or reputation for graduates securing and keeping successful careers in music (at least on your instrument)?
This is where it pays off to ask your lesson teacher and band director and do a little research. (Keep in mind that these people you are asking all attended a music school and they will probably promote their alma mater. There’s nothing wrong with this; just keep in mind that they likely have a biased opinion towards their school.)
One way to conduct this research is to search for the studio (the group of students who play your instrument and major in it in college) website or social media page(s) and look at their recent student and alumni successes. Most studios today maintain a social media presence for this exact reason. They want to recruit prospective students: you!
- What is the school’s proximity to performing arts organizations?
If you are planning on becoming a professional musician, you need to listen to professional musicians at work on a regular basis. This means attending live concerts as frequently as possible. In order to attend live concerts (ideally GREAT live concerts by world-class musicians), you need to live close to music venues. This is where attending a university or conservatory that’s located in or close to a large city can be highly consequential to your music education.
Keep in mind that when you go to college, your learning environment can and should extend beyond the classroom, practice room, or rehearsal hall. As a musician, you should listen to as much music as possible, but also go to art museums, go to plays, go to the ballet, go to the opera house — try to become a well-studied, cultured, consummate artist.
- What is the level or reputation of the performing ensembles?
You will be spending a number of years developing your ensemble skills wherever you attend music school. Your colleagues can serve as a source of inspiration and motivation in a place where the student body is strong across the board. Also, esteemed and highly effective conductors can be just as important in your music education as your private lesson teacher.
Ensembles are where you put into effect what you’ve learned in your lessons and personal practice time. You’ll want to attend a school that has great ensembles and great conductors. Certain schools are known for having an exceptional orchestra, others for their outstanding wind ensemble. This factor could come into play depending on whether you’re planning on pursuing an orchestral career or a band/band director career.
- What is the culture/vibe/atmosphere in the eyes of current and recent students?
This fluctuates from year to year based on current students, current professors, and so on, but it is another highly important trait of a music school.
Some schools have a reputation for being cut-throat, high energy, and competitive while others are known for being more collegial, relaxed, and supportive. Some smaller or newer schools might have a less-defined culture or reputation of culture.
The best way to gauge a school’s (emotional) atmosphere is to ask current students and recent former students. If you ask an alum who attended school 10 years ago or even 5 years ago, you likely won’t get an accurate idea of the current situation. Any working or educational environment is a direct reflection of the people there who are actively creating the interactions and experiences. As professors go through their own lives and careers, their personalities can change. Student bodies and studio members create different vibes from year to year — one year you might have several highly driven, dedicated students, followed by a period of less enthusiasm.
Try to ask around on social media. Again, follow studio social media pages and reach out to students you see in the posts. They might be who you end up spending a number of years with in school and/or a lifetime with as colleagues and friends!
- How much will it cost to attend the school and what are the prospects of winning scholarships/financial aid?
College is notoriously expensive in today’s United States. State school tuition is usually quite a bit less than that of a private school. The good news is that just about every school has scholarship money available for students who perform at a high level at their audition.
However, certain schools are known to have smaller scholarship budgets, which may make attending them more prohibitive. Also keep in mind that scholarship budgets can fluctuate from year to year. How much money a particular studio will have available for a particular year is often unknown even to studio professors until after auditions have taken place.
Some schools such as The Curtis Institute, Colburn School of Music, and Rice University offer full tuition scholarships to every music student that is accepted. These schools are, of course, among the most selective.
The better you audition, the higher chance you have of receiving more merit-based financial aid. There is also usually need-based financial aid which is based on parental income.
In summary, choosing where to audition for a music degree should not be a quick, easy choice. Since it is such an important life decision, you should base it on plenty of research, listening, asking for opinions of teachers, and, most importantly, first-hand experience.
The only true way to gauge a school and a professor to see if it is a fit for you is to make a visit and take (at least) one lesson. Attend studio class, large ensemble rehearsal, and chamber music rehearsal, and try to hang out with current students. Take notes if you are traveling to multiple schools so you can keep your pros and cons straight from school to school. Remember that this decision goes both ways — you must audition for the school in order to attend, but the school is also auditioning for you!
So get to work reading, listening, writing emails, conducting your social media reconnaissance, and practicing. Good luck in your journey!