For more on my thoughts about music schools (and what it really means to pursue a career in music these days), check out my book Road Warrior Without an Expense Account.
Applying to music school? Think about the following points during the application process–they’re in order of most important to least important (in my opinion, at least):
1. Teacher – For music performance students, it’s all about the studio teacher you’re planning on studying with. Find the best possible teacher for you. If they teach at Eastman, work like crazy to get into Eastman. If they teach at a tiny school in rural Georgia, pack your shorts and head for Georgia.
A top-notch teacher will make the difference between a successful performing career and an unsuccessful one. Do your research and don’t pick a convenient teacher or school just because it’s the path of least resistance. Ask several trusted sources (your private teacher, school orchestra conductor, and youth orchestra director) who the best teachers are for your instrument, then make a list and start applying.
It’s also a good idea to find out how often a teacher you’re interested in studying with will be out of town or on tour. Many top-notch university instrumental professors spend a great deal of time on tour or doing clinics abroad. The best source for this information is from students currently in that teacher’s studio. When checking out a school, indicate (either to the administration or the actual teacher) that you would like to speak with or exchange e-mails with a current student. Any reputable school will happily put you in touch with someone. If they don’t, beware! They probably have something to hide if they won’t hook you up with a current student.
2. Cost – You want to study with the #1 best teacher for you…..but at what cost? What if your second choice offers you a full scholarhip but your first choice wants to stiff you for $30,000 a year? Where’s the dividing line?
Everyone will have a different limit for these kinds of choices, but be practical. Could you go to the school with the better offer for your undergraduate degree and then study with your “first choice” teacher as a graduate student.
Keep in mind that music is a low-paying profession. Your non-musician friends may have a considerably easier time paying off student debt in the professional world than you will in a low-salary orchestra (or–even worse–as a freelancer!). Being saddled with high loan balances really reduces your options, making you less likely to take risks in life necessary to make it as a musician. Going to study in Vienna or Paris is tough if you’ve got to make money to pay huge school loan bills, and even if you’re one of the 5% who do land full-time music performance employment, your salary is likely to be, er…….well, not stellar. A $200,000 undergraduate degree repayment (a pretty common price tag for four years at many private schools) is going to have an unpleasant and restrictive effect on your life for decades.
3. Quality of Studio – You learn as much, if not more, from your fellow studio members in music school as you will from your primary teacher. The friendly competition that comes from being around determined and motivated studio colleagues is invaluable, elevating your standards and pushing you to achieve more.
How big is an ideal studio size? There’s certainly no single answer. Some studios can have 40 students and still feel close-knit. While small studios can work out as well, if you’re a performance major you don’t want to be a big fish in a small pond. This is likely to make you complacent and unprepared for the “real world” when you leave school.
I’d be concerned if a school I’m interested in had less than eight bass majors, and I probably wouldn’t apply if there were less than five. These low numbers mean that you’ll constantly be hounded to play bass in every ensemble, sucking away all your practice time, and will make it difficult to get that collegial learning experience I’m describing.
Are there schools where a tiny studio setup works? Absolutely. Once again, having candid talks with current and former students is the best approach. Find out what’s up with the school from the actual students, not an administrator, recruiter, or someone with a vested interest in you attending their school.
4. Location – This is fourth on the list and not higher for good reason. Location will factor into many life decisions, but it really shouldn’t be your number one consideration. If you’re paired with an awesome teacher in a killer studio, it doesn’t matter if it’s in New York or New Brunswick–you’ve got a good setup.
Given that, there are still a few reasons why you might want to consider location as well. Is there a major orchestra you’ll have easy access to while in school? Regularly attnending concerts with a world-class orchestra can teach you almost as much as lessons can. Will you have some cool opportunities for non-school playing?
What about after you graduate? What if [gasp!] you don’t get a full-time gig right out of college? Will you be able to make a living as a musician in that area? This shouldn’t be the number one priority in your list, but it is certainly worth consideration.
5. Facilities – Facilities? Are you kidding, Heath? Who cares about facilities? Are you really that shallow?
Once you’ve spent time in a school with dirty, old, overcrowded, outdated facilities, you’ll know exactly why this is on my list. At my alma mater, all the practice rooms were gobbled up by 8 am and remained booked until 10 pm. At any given moment, a dozen (or more) musicians were trolling the hallways looking for an open room.
Even if you did manage to snag a room, you were constantly being interrupted by people opening the door to see if someone really was in the room. Do you think this makes for effective, focused practice? Nope!
Look, folks–you’ve simply got to find out what the practice room situation is like for the schools for which you’re applying. Don’t necessarily believe what administrators and faculty tell you–ask current students what the situation is really like, and make sure to walk around yourself and see how the situation looks.
Schools with horrible practice facilities often tell incoming students that all music schools have overcrowded facilities. That’s a lie. Sure, there may be a period for a few hours (usually directly before a large ensemble rehearsal) where space is tight. That’s fine. But if it’s an all-day phenomenon, you’ve got a problem. You’ve got to be able to practice, and you’ve got to be able to have a space to practice. It’s a requirement.
Some schools are enough of a draw that they don’t have to care if students have space to practice. That’s a crappy attitude, but it’s one that many schools
(consciously or unconsciously) take. If you’re planning on attending a school with that attitude, and if that school has the studio teacher that you’re really looking for, then that’s just the way I works. You’ll find a way. Ideally, however, you’ll want to have enough rooms for practicing (duh!).
There are a ton of other facilities considerations–far too many to go into here–but they include the following:
-locker and instrument storage situation
-proximity of music buildings to each other
-proximity of music buildings to other university facilities
-accessibility to public transit
In my overactive imagination, I picture one of these schools with bad facilities in some kind of group therapy session:
“You’re not a horrible school…..you just have a horrible facility!”
6. School Reputation – I put this near the bottom of the list on purpose. If you’ve found the right school for you, who cares about the reputation? While it shouldn’t matter if you went to Biloxi College or Yale there is a certain caché in being able to say you went to Juilliard or the Cleveland Institute. Most performers don’t give a rip where you went to school–they just care if you can play. Other areas in your life may be affected by the reputation of the school you chose, however, and the mere mention of being a Curtis or New England Conservatory graduate may open some doors. Not a huge consideration, and a pretty superficial one, but keep it in mind nevertheless.
7. Hidden Opportunities – There are all sorts of little reasons why one school is a better deal over another–far too many to get into here. Is the music library awesome? Is the main orchestra conductor a dynamo? Can you get a sweet deal if you take a TA position (grad students)? Is there financial merit aid being offered? Is there some special benefit attached to this particular institution?
Keep your eyes open during the school selection process, and remember to be smart. The following may sound cynical, but it’s advice that may help you to make a more informed decision:
Contrary to what you may think, universites are not looking out for your best interests. They are looking out for their best interests, which may or may not coincide with yours. Music schools choose certain students to bolster their own programs. Their primary concern is to have high quality performing ensembles, which theoretically enhance the reputation of the school. They are performance driven in this regard, with the educational value of this process taking a back seat to having a quality band, chorus, or orchestra.
University studio teachers are looking for the best quality students to fill their studios. The quality of their students affects the reputation of the teacher and affects his or her overall job satisfaction.
This is neither a good nor bad situation–it just is what it is. Simply keep in mind that what is in their (university and teacher) best interest is not necessarily in your best interest. Maybe it’s not in your interest to play in three jazz ensembles and two school orchestras….but it is for the school. Maybe training to become the next Paganini (or worse–the next Bottesini) isn’t in your best interest……but it is for your teacher. Only you and your unbaised and trusted mentors can make this decision. Take some time and really think it through, and you’ll be happier for it.