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Rebecca Darnall

Advice for high school students applying to music colleges

February 25, 2013 at 6:18 PM

This handout will hopefully serve as a guide for those pursuing a music degree, as there are so many students who are applying for music colleges and are left with no clue how to proceed. Let it be known that these are my opinions, and everyone has a right to make the choices in the way he/she deems fit.


Some of you know I have been doing research on the topic of violinists pursuing the orchestral degree. Part of this research was looking at 100 music schools across the nation, specifically in regards to orchestral training for the violinist. However, as I have gone about my research, I realized that in a much more general sense students are not always aware of the important aspects to look for in a college, questions to ask, and what to be assertive about, regardless of their instrument.


Some teachers who teach in the studio setting are not up-to-date with what is going on around them in regards to music colleges unless they live in a metro area (ie Chicago) and/or live next to prominent music schools (ie Jacob School of Music in the middle of nowhere). And why would they be? They are focused on their studio, and sometimes get side-tracked with what they are doing, forgetting to guide their advancing (and almost out-the-door) student into their musical career in college. We also live in an age of technology, and many people my age have had lessons with those who did not have computers, and therefore do not know how to help their students research schools. My teacher pre-college fits this description; she would be the first to admit it, but she does not know how to get around the computer. Back when she applied for colleges, everyone had to fend for themselves and figure it out on their own. There was no internet, and not many printed resources on the matter; it was difficult to do the research. However, we have the blessed advantage of information immediately at our fingertips thanks to technology and authors writing about these topics.


Sounds simple, then. So if we have the internet and other resources, students will get all the information they need, right? No. Having the information out there is a completely different matter than knowing what information is needed. As a student I had internet, but I did not ask myself pertinent questions. I did not have a music student in college giving me advice about how to proceed, and I really didn't know anything about music school other than I would learn music there.


So~let's start off with me assuming a few things. Students, I'm going to assume that you:

a) have been taking lessons for quite sometime
b) have decided you definitely are applying for music school
c) you are going from high school to your undergraduate


There are universities and there are conservatories. Conservatories are (sometimes) smaller, and more like a trade-school (although academics are becoming a larger and larger emphasis, whereas some years ago it was a much lower priority). Universities can range in size, of course. Know that any college can have a "School of Music", so don't give it more credence until you look into it. Conservatories tend to be "hard-core", to put it in colloquial terms, but so can universities. Make no assumptions about a college until you've thoroughly researched it.


So, let's start with priorities. When you are looking into a school (and please don't wait until the last quarter of your senior year in high school), what should your priorities be?


1) TEACHER. Sounds obvious enough. But what about the teacher? Here are my criteria.

~a) Nice. Some people have this incredibly stupid notion that if you are fabulous at "x" instrument, you have the right to be a jerk. Uhm...no. You can learn a lot from a nice teacher. Really. I promise. So why waste your time in tears in the practice room? If this person cannot respect you as a person, forget it. Sure nice teachers might put stress on you from time to time, stretch you to your limits, and get frustrated at you on an occasion. They are also human, after all. I'm not telling you to take lessons from Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But make sure this is a person who is not going to make you vomit in your mouth when you walk into their studio, no matter how famous they are.

~b) Personality. Yes, this is different than being nice. There are plenty of nice people out there who you may or may not click with. Important: visit the teacher in question months ahead of the audition. Is this expensive? Yes. Is it a risk? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes. If this part makes you feel sick to your stomach, reconsider your choice of career, because you will do this the rest of your life. I have to pay for my flight to audition? Yes. Is it a risk? Yes. Is it worth it? Of course! Experience is always worth it. Make sure the teacher will click with you. Within a lesson or two (so stay awhile to get in as much teacher time as you can), you will probably know. Take notes. Pay attention. This is your hard earned time and, yes, lesson money. However, most teachers will give the first lesson for free if you are considering their schools (this might not be the case in big name schools, however, so be prepared to pay just in case).

~c) Availability. Ok they're nice. They have the personality. Are they around? Don't let yourself be one of those students whose teacher is always on the go and never there for your lessons. There are those who are so busy with orchestral jobs, other schools, etc. that they do not have the time for you, sadly. They might wish to have all the time in the world with you, but in my opinion, they are over-committed. Make sure you are not abandoned by a teacher. On that same note, if your private teacher is leaving the school, talk to your teacher (and hopefully he or she will talk to you) and talk about possibilities of following him or her if you feel that is the best option, or explore other options. Just be aware: this does happen. I've seen it in both my degrees. Instructors come and go. This should not limit you. Yes this is difficult to go through, but once that instructor has made a choice, you have a choice to make too.

~d) Studio size. A large studio seems nice, right? Well, maybe. What might end up happening is if you are an undergraduate you will be studying with a graduate student. Now, that is not completely bad...but be aware that could happen. Many graduate students care; many don't. They aren't getting paid enough to care (unfortunately). A smaller sized studio indicates the teacher has more one-on-one time for you, and will make you more of a priority. Professors have so much on their plate I don't even know where to start, so make sure they have the time and individual attention for you. However, if the studio is really small, that also could be a red flag (recruitment is low, teacher isn't great, etc). These are also things you want to find out as you do your research.

~e) Credentials. I cannot stress this enough. Students, I'd like you to stop here and ask yourself a few questions:

1) Where do I see myself in my music in 5 years? 10 years?
2) What is my passion in music? Performing? Teaching? Business? Recording? Jamming? You get the idea.
3) Do I want to continue on after my Bachelors degree for a Masters? Perhaps a Doctorate?

If you cannot answer these questions right now, that's ok, but do give these questions serious thought before applying to colleges. It will make researching for colleges a lot easier. The answers to these questions can/will greatly determine where you end up.

Credentials...very important. Many teachers have them, obviously...but what do they specialize in? Most schools will have biographies for the faculty members, and you should scour them...take advantage and research them. Google their name--I dare you. You want to be an orchestral musician? Study with someone who is an excellent orchestral musician. You want to study pedagogy? Study with someone who is a masterful pedagogue. Some schools have classes, degrees, and teachers with emphases, so do yourself a favor and do your homework. When you do have that lesson with them, don't forget you are interviewing them as much as they are you, so don't be afraid to ask them questions. Figure out what they are like, what they've done musically, what they eat for breakfast...ok just kidding...maybe not the breakfast part, but certainly the rest. Not every teacher is going to be able to teach you what you want to learn, and no teacher can teach you everything. Period.

The teacher is by far the most important, primary priority. If you are miserable with your teacher, you aren't going to care that you have the fanciest gym in the world on campus, or that the food is A+. You are not.going.to.care. I promise.

2) School ensembles. Are they going to challenge you? If you have a great teacher and all the ensembles are poor, you may want to reconsider that school. Ensemble playing, large or small, is incredibly important to your growth as a blooming professional musician. Sometimes the ensembles will let you sit in with them when you visit, as I did at Central Washington University when they were rehearsing Stravinsky's Firebird Suite. I was completely in over my head, and that sealed the deal. I said to myself "Here is an ensemble I can grow in", and I did.

3) Music School reputation. When (not if) you visit these schools well ahead of time, talk to the students about the teachers and about the school in general. Usually they will be honest. The offices in the music departments should be able to hook you up with a few students.

4) Overall school size, location, weather, food, dorms...these things are important, but perhaps not as important as the priorities above. If you need sunshine, consider the schools where the sun shines. Seriously. If you are overwhelmed in a large school, don't overwhelm yourself and apply to large schools. If the food is green when it isn't supposed to be, you might consider your health.

5) Cost. "But Rebecca, why is cost at the bottom?" I'm so glad you asked. This priority is a moveable priority, depending on the situation. If you are like me, you do not have your pick of any school to go to. If you do, more power to you. Otherwise, please do not throw out the possibilities of scholarships. You know those relationships you formed over your junior and senior years with the teachers in question? Those relationships often equal in scholarships, so form them. Make the teacher want you. Present yourself professionally in all ways when you go in for trial lessons. It can carry you far...farther than the audition in some cases. I have no debt because of the scholarship help I received from Central Washington University. So, until you know a school is completely out of the financial range, do not discredit it. Talk to the School of Music office. See what scholarships the department offers.

**I would like to note that I do not believe going thousands upon thousands of dollars into debt is ever a smart thing. I will never advise a student to ball and chain themselves to their piece of paper, namely the degree. Small amounts that you know you can manage over time is fine, but I refuse to believe those who say it's worth it when they will never be able to pay off their debt. Sorry, it's not worth it in my opinion. I probably have a lot of colleagues who will disagree with me. But in the end, you are a musician, and unless you plan on being in the top 5 orchestras, you can forget about paying off the debt.


"So, Rebecca, what music degree should I get?"

Well, again that depends on what you want to do. Many colleges have a performance degree, an education degree (to work in the schools, not a studio situation), business degree, and/or a pedagogy degree (studio teaching). Expect any music degree to be between 4-6 years, especially the education degree which has a tremendous amount of classes. Even some summer study might be necessary. If you go the performance route, you will probably get a small smattering of pedagogy and performance. Whatever you do, make sure the degree will offer classes that will train you to do what you want to do. Want to know how to take auditions? Make sure there is an orchestral repertoire class. Want to be a fabulous teacher? Make sure there are plenty of pedagogy classes. Visit these classes if you can. How do you find this information out? Most will have class catalogues online, or you could get one when you visit the school (notice a pattern regarding visiting schools...that might be slightly important).

If you get there and want to switch music degrees (ie performance to education), that usually is doable. In fact, if you go into college still not knowing exactly what you want from the music, a great teacher should be a good advisor and be able to help you with that. If they don't know how to help you, they should point you in a direction where you can get help. It's ok to not know all the answers, but make sure you'll have access to them as best as possible when you need them.


"After my undergraduate degree, should I get a Masters and/or Doctorate?"

Listen to me carefully...the number of degrees you have is NOT what is important. What IS important is the QUALITY of training you are receiving. Do you want to teach in college? Ok, you have to get a Masters and Doctorate, so go knock yourself out. Do you have to get those degrees to be in a professional symphony orchestra? No. Do you have to get those degrees to be a fabulous teacher? No. I have many colleagues and friends who are great examples of this. However, I am not suggesting you throw college or any degree out the window. College teaches you many valuable things. BUT, the degree is not the end all be all. If you receive years of private instruction on becoming an orchestral musician, guess what? Your tuition is your lesson fee. You are paying for, and receiving, that training in lessons. Colleges sometimes provide this for you, but not always. In or out of college, your education is your education. Get what you need to do the job you want to do to the best of your ability. Please remember this if you remember anything from this guide.


"Ok Rebecca, I get the point, but how do I go about this?"

1) Get online. Look up schools. Spend hours researching them. Look at teachers bibliographies, who they studied with, their emphases, etc. Look up school location, size, cost, audition information, etc. Talk to your private teacher about the audition material and the teacher in question. The private teacher always needs to be involved.

2) Email the teachers in question. Be professional in the email. State who you are, your interest in studying with them at the college, ask if a trial lesson is an option. Say just enough, but not more. And don't do what I did: Do NOT email more than one teacher at a time, if the school has more than one teacher in your instrument. Sound obvious to you? It sure wasn't to me. I learned the hard way. Teachers can be VERY sensitive about you wanting them. They don't want students just looking for handouts. They want to know you want to study with THEM, not just anyone who is available (in hindsight, this makes perfect sense). If you are at a school with more than one professor in that instrument (this is particularly the case for violinists, pianists, and cellists), tread carefully. Perhaps they all have a good working dynamic, maybe they don't (sadly, this is more often the situation). In any case, when in doubt, assume the teachers are possessive of their students, especially big name school professors.

3) Do the calling and emailing and any other form of contact yourself. Schools will remember the young, inquisitive student that called up asking for information. Trust me--I worked in a music department school office and can verify this.

4) Create a profile for each school. Get a binder and dividers at the Dollar Tree, and make a section for each school you apply to. The audition info, the teacher, etc. Be organized and on top of it, because...well...that's the way you will be successful in life anyway, regardless of your career.

5) Apply to at least five schools. And unless you are completely confident in your ability to get in wherever you want, have A list schools and B list schools. Have a fallback. Don't apply to the "top 5" in the nation with no other option ahead of you. Safety schools are a must. I applied to 8. Got in all of them, none of them were the top, and one school offered me scholarships.

6) Get your resume' in order, as well as your essays, etc. Don't know how to build a resume'? If you didn't cover it or won't be covering it in high school, ask a trusted teacher or guidance counselor to help you, or your parents, whichever is the most viable option. My parents are pretty smart, as are my high school teachers. Hopefully you will have the same options. Have these people read over your essays and check for grammar, spelling, syntax and sentence structure, etc. Bad writing=turn off for a *great* school. The end.

7) Apply early. Don't procrastinate. This should be obvious enough, but if you want to be a successful music major the grass will grow under your feet quickly if you don't get on top of it. You don't have two years of gen ed classes to sit around until your major begins.

8) Get that audition material ready way in advanced. Most auditions, by the way, are a lot less scary than they sound. I know that seems trivial coming from someone who's already been through it twice, but those teachers want to help you succeed, not tear you down (and if they do, why are you auditioning for them?). They will usually be friendly and welcoming, and will help put your mind at ease. They know this is a fragile time for students; they went through it themselves at one time. Be confident, and know your hard work will pay off. Even with nerves, it will come through...I promise.


In the end, whatever your decision, be confident knowing you did your research and your practice. So many times students get the practice part, but not the research. Visit the school in its entirety and get a feel for the place; is this somewhere you can live for a handful of years?

The internet, mentors, and teachers are your most important assets when applying to music schools. Make the most of it. Printed resources are also available. You should take advantage of these. I highly recommend these resources:

Zoya, Leybin, Carmine Leo, Don Greene, Dr. Louise Montello, Barry Green,
Kathrin Kucharski, Virginia Houser, Wayne Markworth, Mary Gray,
Jim Eppolito, Rebecca Ramsey, ROber King, Steven M. Alper,
Andy Chase, and Tina Ward. Selected Audition Masterclasses:
Lessons You Can Use Today to Win Musical Auditions Tomorrow.
Malibu, CA: Windplayer Publications, 2004.

(This has a few specific articles I recommend, including but not limited to "Music Schools and Conservatories" by Mary Gray and "Student Musicians-Rising to the Top" by Wayne Markworth.)

Green, Barry, and W. Timothy Gallwey. The Inner Game of Music.
New York: Anchor Press, 1986.

Davis, Richard. Becoming an Orchestral Musician: A Guide for Aspiring
Professionals. London: Giles de la Mare Publishers, 2004.

(This is on orchestral matters, of course, and is written with the UK in mind, but still a fabulous book and I believe one of the best on this topic.)

Greene, Don. Audition Success: An Olympic Sports Psychologist Teaches
Performing Artists How to Win. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Last, but not least~best of luck and break a leg! ;)


From Kathryn Martin
Posted on February 25, 2013 at 8:48 PM
Thank you so much.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 26, 2013 at 2:54 PM
This should be very helpful to students out there. The one thing I would add as a parent is that it is important to think a bit about Plan B as you are considering schools. Suppose you figure out midway through your undergraduate training that you maybe don't want to be a music professional for one reason or another, or you want something you could fall back on. Does the school offer other alternatives? Most universities do; you simply switch majors or double major. Does a conservatory, if that is where you are interested in going? While you may be convinced at the time you are applying that you are willing to starve if that's what it takes to become a professional, you may feel differently a couple of years into your undergraduate studies.
From Rebecca Darnall
Posted on February 26, 2013 at 4:52 PM
Hi Tom,
Yes--those are definitely valid points you bring up! Thanks for your insight!

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