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How to Choose a Music School

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You’ve practiced, performed, and have a great audition prepared. Honor band, check. Solo and ensemble, check. Indoor, maybe drum corps? Check. Private lessons, check. You’re ready for the next step in your musical journey–here are the steps that will help choose a music school!

Your first step is to determine the type of school you want to attend.

Remember that all types have benefits and weaknesses, but that it matters more whether a school fits you.. In general, you can study music Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges/Universities, Conservatories, and through some online outlets.

Large Universities tend to have the largest class sizes, and Liberal Arts Schools the smallest. Conservatories run the gamut, but tend to have more focused study in music, and fewer general education/liberal arts courses. The choice here tends to be–whatever the school bills itself as, do I want a small school or large school, and do I want that in an urban environment, or a rural environment?

Smaller schools are nice, because they offer more individual attention, and everything is taught by actual professors, not graduate assistants. Larger schools, though offer a larger network of fellow students, which can be an asset. Urban schools offer the advantage of a happening music scene that you can join during school, while rural schools tend to have fewer distractions, allowing you to really focus on your playing, and finding your passion.

Online outlets, such as Berklee online, can be valuable if you’re tied to your location, and live far from a school, or have limited time to take classes. More and more institutions are finding ways to offer online education, and they can even be great to supplement another school–I had a music minor student that missed a course offering due to a conflict with a major course, and took an online class that was able to transfer in as credit.

Once you’ve determined the type of school you think you’d like to attend, it’s time to take these steps:

1.) Visit several schools of that type.

Get a feel for what the school offers. Make sure you speak with current students, as well as attend a class/rehearsal.

2.) Listen.

Learn what the specialties of the private lesson teacher at your top 10 schools are, and go listen to their music. Listen to the music of the alumni of that school. If you find that you really dig what you hear, move that music school to your top 5. If you don’t, drop it from the list. For instance, if you’re interested in attending MSJ, where I teach, please take a listen to my music!

3.) Take a lesson!

Learn who your primary private lesson teacher will be. At smaller schools, this is typically a single individual, while at larger schools, there may be more than one. It is VITAL that you find a mentor teacher that will guide you, that you can learn from, and that you won’t be fighting with everyday of your undergrad. Generally, music majors spend an incredible amount of time with their private lesson teachers, and a positive relationship can turn into a lifelong friendship. The opposite can easily happen, as well, so be choosy when you’re considering how your lesson went, but do remember that you want someone that will push you, and will expect you to improve.


What kind of opportunities does the school you’re considering offer? If you want to perform, does it offer regular performances in the idiom of your choice? For instance, if you want to win an audition as a principle timpanist at a major orchestra, it would make very little sense to attend a school with no orchestra program. It can be done, but it’s not the most logical path. Do you want to compose, record, teach, engage in music therapy, or lead a church ensemble? Make sure you can find programs that engage in the activities that speak to your passion.

When you’ve spent some time on those 4 items, it’s time to choose.

You probably have a list of 3-5 music schools that really speak to you, that you really get a great vibe from the professor, and that you’re blown away by their offerings. At this point, the major differences usually come down to these two items:

1.) Cost.

Pick any 5 music schools in the country, and you will have a list of costs that are completely unique. You need to be realistic with this, especially in relation to your field of choice. In other words, can you attend the schools you’re looking at, and graduate with little to no student loan debt? It’s one thing for a doctor to graduate with a bunch of student loan debt, but the average musician does not make as much as the average doctor. I know, you’ll beat the odds, and become a household name. Most of the people that do, do that without massive student loans. Research the real cost, and research enough scholarships to pay for your program. There’s another aspect to cost and debt–be wary, because if you take loans to pay for school, but for instance, never finish school…you still have to pay those loans back, and we all hope that it’s not an unbearable burden, most especially at that point.

2.) Distance

There are those of us who want to pack a carry on, fly to southeast Asia, and spend 4 years getting a degree. Others feel better closer to home. Distance is a major factor for many of us. Face it, if you want your family to come to a concert, next door is easier than a world away. If family attendance and living situations aren’t a consideration, then packing your bags for some of the tuition free universities in Europe might be the right thing to do, but really think about that before you sign on the dotted line.

One more tip to remember–there are many fish in the sea. If you have only looked at one school, you’re doing yourself a disservice. There are thousands of opportunities, each with their own characteristics, and schools are hungry to get you in the door–it is to your benefit to speak to multiple schools, especially when we include cost, scholarships, and financial aid in the conversation.

Let me know your thoughts below, and make sure you join me on Facebook, YouTube, and Noteflight!

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