By Steve Lipman, former Director of Admissions at Berklee College of Music & Founder of Inside Music Schools
Choosing the right music school, college music department, or university music program, can be a daunting task for the uninitiated. Even for professionals in the music education field, it’s not always a slam-dunk advising a student as to which school would best serve his/her educational and career goals.
In my 25 years as a director of admissions, and later as assistant vice president for student affairs at a major music college, I always advised students and their families that overall “fit” was the key to a successful college experience. Contrary to popular belief, fit is not just about, “who will my private teacher be?” or, “what ensembles will I be placed in?” or even, “ what are my chances of getting into that major?” It’s about all of those things and much, much more. In fact, and this may surprise you, those factors may not even be the most important criteria in making your college years rewarding, fun, and the launching pad to a successful career in the music industry.
Well, there are many. In no particular order or priority they include:
Size of school, location, setting, facilities, curriculum, faculty, educational philosophy, majors available, performance opportunities, minors available, academic rigor, diversity and attitude of students attending, school-wide culture, extra-curricular activities, student clubs, financial aid, scholarships, and career advising.
Criteria often not thought about, but I consider important enough to at least take into consideration are: Leave of absence policy, so students can accept occasional short professional gigs, musician-directed wellness programs, and even the goals and objectives of the president of the institution.
You may notice I left out such obvious things as dorm life, dining hall food, and a few others that some of you might be concerned about. I have a personal philosophy about such things. And that is: if all, or at least most of, the other things listed above are chart-toppers and working to your advantage, you won’t even notice that the food may be bland, or that the dorm mattress is way too soft for your liking. If you’re excited about going to class, practicing, jamming with friends, writing music, playing gigs, engineering sessions, networking for the future, and sitting in on clinics with world-class musicians, then the other stuff is small potatoes as they say.
Each of the components of “fit” listed above, as well as a few others, could take up a whole blog by itself. So, in future blog posts, I will focus on one, or a few at a time, and discuss each in more depth. I hope you will return to MajoringInMusic.com regularly to learn about orchestrating the right fit as you search for the school from which to launch your career in music.
Earlier I introduced the concept of overall fit as being the single most important aspect of selecting a college or university to attend. That is, no one component should be the sole reason for attending an institution of higher learning. Attending college is a series of interactions and experiences spread over four or five years. By conservative estimates you will attend somewhere in the vicinity of 1450 hours of classes over eight semesters. When you account for outside activities — social as well as educational — you might spend perhaps 20,000 hours of your life in college. That’s a lot of time spent. It better feel right. It should be rewarding and comfortable. It should bring you closer to who you are, who you want to be — as a musician, as a person, as a citizen of the world.
Each of the components of “fit” described in the first installment, as well as a few others, could take up a whole blog by itself. So lets just tackle a few in brief — some obvious, some less obvious — just so you get the idea of how to approach this undertaking.
You no doubt have come across the phrase, “one size fits all”. Well, when it comes to attending college this phrase couldn’t be farther from the truth. The most well-known and respected music schools in the country range in students from just a few hundred to many thousands. And, if you choose to attend a school of music that is part of a large university, the number of students at that university may easily be in the tens of thousands. I bring this up because the “feel” of attending a conservatory with 400 students is quite different from that of attending a university with perhaps 40,000 students. Both offer different educational opportunities, as well as different social environments. Only you can decide which setting feels right to you.
Going to college in a small town in Vermont, or Ohio, or Colorado, is a whole lot different than attending school in Boston, New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. The energy, crowds, and intensity of the urban setting that may be perfectly suitable for one student is another student’s nightmare. Even if you think you know which setting turns on your creative juices, you owe it to yourself to visit one of the opposite settings. You just might surprise yourself and expand your world and horizons.
Admittedly, this is one of my personal pet peeves. Yes, I understand the attraction of choosing an institution with the opportunity to study privately with a renown artist/performer/teacher. They often have a lot to offer and at times can serve as a conduit to the professional world you so longingly wish to enter. But take into consideration the limited number of times and the limited hours spent under the tutelage of your private instructor. Consider how many weeks a semester might they be on the road, fulfilling professional obligations. Now take into account the number of classes and time spent in harmony class, ear training or sightsinging, ensemble, counterpoint and composition, English literature, even in the listening lab and practice rooms. Your education and capabilities will eventually be an accumulation, an amalgamation, of all these learned skills. Don’t pay them short shrift. Evaluate those classes and the faculty who teach them. They are important and may mean the difference between a well-rounded versus a narrowly educated musician, or one with a limited focus and skill set.
No doubt another phrase you are familiar with is: “You are judged by the company you keep”. Well, this one IS true. In the music business, networking is everything. Who you know, who you’ve played with (or written for, or engineered for, or subbed for), and who knows YOU, may be the key that opens the door to your career. Choose a school that attracts like-minded students. Your college buddies often form the foundation of your adult (and professional) life. I’ve repeated many times that the most important thing to leave school with is that proverbial “little black book” (nowadays your PDA or iPhone). Come Monday morning following graduation, it will become your closest friend.
Fraternities, sororities, school newspaper, inter-mural sports, homecoming, student government, mock-trial, debating team, semester study abroad, internships, student clubs, etc. How important are these college experiences to you? Be aware not all schools or colleges have all of them; and some music/arts institutions may have none of them. Check them out. Weigh the pros and the cons of attending a school that has them or doesn’t have them. Only you can ultimately make that decision.
As you can see, choosing the music school, college, or university that fits your needs — educationally, professionally, socially — is serious business. Just like the college experience itself, you’ll get out of it only what you put into it. Consult your parents, your teachers, your friends. But in the end, in the final analysis, remember it’s YOUR four years; not your parents’; not your friends’, not your bandmates’. Just yours. Choose wisely. They just may be the most important four years of your life.