Top, middle or bottom of the skill spectrum?

March 18, 2021, 7:56 PM · Greetings,

I am 17 years old and will be starting the next chapter of my life as a violin performance major in the Fall. I am trying to figure out which university offer to accept. Luckily I've had trial lesson with all my perspective violin professors and have done lot's of research about what the various programs offer, but in all likelihood money will be the biggest factor.

One question I asked each violin professor during my trail lessons was were I would fit in among the overall skill level compared to the other violinists the program. At some schools I was told I'd be among the top, others in the middle, and while others at the bottom.

My grandfather, who is an amazing mariachi musician, has always told me to try seek opportunities to play with musicians who are better than myself. I've done so many times and it defiantly pushes me to give my best.

However trying to complete a college degree, I could see being at the bottom end of the spectrum could be extra stressful. I don't think of myself as particularly jealous, but I can get anxious and stressed out.

I'm inclined to think the middle may be the best place to be ( at least for me, in a college setting) but I'm trying to embrace the idea of just being at peace with myself, striving to get better at my craft regardless of the skills/talent of those around me.


Replies (21)

March 18, 2021, 8:09 PM · I think it depends on what you're looking for in opportunities, and the overall quality of playing and teaching at the school. You want a school where there are better players than you, but not necessarily LOTS of players better than you -- if you're hoping to, say, win the concerto competition, or sit section principal, or the like.

But teaching quality matters too. If being at the bottom still means that you'll get access to the very best teachers, that's fine -- but if being at the bottom means that you get a not-great teacher at a great school, that's not a good situation. Similarly, if the great school has an awesome top orchestra that you won't get to join because you're not good enough, that doesn't do you much good.

And of course it depends on your match to individual violin teachers who are right for you.

March 18, 2021, 8:19 PM · Good points Ms. Leong, those are all things I'll consider. Thank you!
Edited: March 19, 2021, 10:43 AM · Schools that offer you a lot of money may be schools who do not get enough musicians of your skill level, hence the extra enticement. But you probably wouldn’t want to be at the top of the heap from the outset - after all, you’re going to conservatory to learn and grow - unless it were the only option that is financially feasible.

I’d give the hardest look at schools that offer you a lot of money without having told you you’re at the top of the class. It might be because they consider you a perfect fit and that’s probably where you.want to be.

Edited: March 19, 2021, 11:12 AM · Like Lydia says - the worse you are, the better the school, and the better the teachers are likely to be. Your self-esteem may take a hit, but if you have the strength of character to work like hell and not be put off, then it will be a good experience. I don't know how much fees will vary though. And how being in the middle may affect your anxiety is difficult for me to guess. I would assume if you are prone to anxiety, then being in the middle may not help much (you may fear sliding downwards - this will motivate some people and demotivate others). These are all things for you to decide.
March 19, 2021, 11:24 AM · Odds are that if you're at the bottom of a reasonably-sized program, you won't be playing in the top ensembles with the best players to begin with anyway, if that's your primary consideration. I'd look at quality of instruction (including second and third choice teachers because once again, the top instructor will tend to grab the most advanced students), quality and reputation of the rest of the school, and external playing opportunities (easier to find gigs in the large coastal cities than in a small liberal arts school in the country).
March 19, 2021, 1:25 PM · I think Lydia has nailed the trade-offs. You want to find a place that will take you seriously and not just take your check to fill out the class.

But they have to offer you something worth time on. That means teachers that are good for you, and opportunity for growth. Part of that means not being the best student.

Edited: March 20, 2021, 12:32 AM · Marie;-- One strategy is to go with the best private teacher for you personally.
Being at a major music school is a large city will give you a more realistic view of your potential place in the music business.
And something you did not expect: your grandfather is "an amazing Mariachi musician".-- So you probably are aware that; at equal technical levels the mariachi violinist makes more money than the classical violinist. If you are also a vocal soloist (in Spanish of course) that opens the door to the major bands. The gender barrier, at least in the USA, has been broken long ago. The technical quality of the working violinists has been improving, which you can hear on recordings from M. Vargas and M. Sol de Mexico. More university music departments have a ethnomusicology section --jq (ex-M. Los Camperos)
March 20, 2021, 5:21 AM · I think this is an interesting question which could be applied to many other fields in life. My opinion is that being the best will leave you bored and uninspired, while being at the bottom can be stressful and mentally tiring. Of course we would all like to think that we can all be egoless and can handle being at the bottom but I think very few, if not none of us could realistically handle that.

I don't anyone here can give an answer to your specific situation, but my beliefs are pretty in line with a famous clinical psychologist (who shall remain unnamed). They broadly suggest that the ideal ranking in the workplace hierarchy would be closer to the top, but not at the very top, so maybe kind of like Lydia's first paragraph.

March 20, 2021, 6:04 AM · If you are at the top, the people around you will lower your standards, I was once told by a violist friend who had no ego.
March 20, 2021, 7:35 AM · I was pretty close to the bottom when I started at Oberlin and it was the best possible situation I could have found myself in. Great teacher, a more realistic appraisal of my level as a pre-professional than my youth orchestra had provided, and loads of incentive to work very hard. The important thing is not where I stood as a first year student; it is where I stood when I graduated.
March 20, 2021, 9:34 AM · Gordon, that's usually true in most workplaces too. The nail that's sticking up...
Edited: March 20, 2021, 9:43 AM · But it means that if you are in the middle, which may be the best place to be, you should avoid those worse than you.
Edited: March 20, 2021, 11:24 AM · Joel wrote, "One strategy is to go with the best private teacher for you personally." Having a teacher or mentor who genuinely cares about YOU and thinks that YOU are worth the investment of special attention and effort is very important. Mary Ellen wrote, "The important thing is not where I stood as a first year student; it is where I stood when I graduated." Leapfrogging the competition depends on your grit -- and your intelligence. You cannot do it only by working harder. You have to organize and plan your work so that it's more efficient too, and you need a teacher who is on board with your plan.

So what I'm reading is that if you're in the middle, you should strive to study with those better than you, and avoid studying with those worse than you. I'm seeing a real disconnect there. How does the inferior student study with better students if the better students avoid the inferior ones? I understand we're trying to give practical advice here, but can we also model at least some standards of ethics, morality, and fairness while we're at it?

March 20, 2021, 12:11 PM · Well, the honest answer is that some of the better students will enjoy playing with students who aren't as good as they are. And that there will be some activities where the students are not strictly aligned around who is "better". Not to mention that "better" in music is subjective, anyway. You may find students that are technically inferior to you that are better chamber-music partners, more musically creative, more expressive, more analytical / good with theory, etc.
March 20, 2021, 12:29 PM · To a large degree, I would think that many of the associations will be involuntary. That is, you audition for orchestras, and get placed.

As for chamber music, etc., you may have more latitude on the contours of your schedule, but I suspect that once you've signed up for a course, you might get placed in groups. In any case, as Lydia says, once you're in a room playing Beethoven or Schumann, your best partner is not necessarily going to be the one who is being groomed for the recording contract. As long as everyone is good enough to play the parts, there is a lot that all can learn. When you're hoping to start the next Juilliard or Guarneri Quartet, of course, you want as many really good people around as possible. But getting to where this is a valid choice for you may be a snaky path.

The real trick in much of this is to find a constructive culture, which seems to be what Mary Ellen found at Oberlin. You hear about lots of people who get burned out (and trashed) from various top schools, and there are probably plenty of other places elsewhere on the spectrum where your needs will be at the end of a very long list of priorities.

March 20, 2021, 1:28 PM · I imagine that the savviest students don't place too much stock in their temporary place in some artificial hierarchy, learn from as many of their fellow students as they can learn from, take as many diverse opportunities to play as they can balance with their other responsibilities, find a teacher that they really believe in, and work closely with the teacher to personalize their own learning.

Basically, the more open you can be, the more flexible, the more aware of your emotions, and the more focused on the bigger picture, the better you will be able to thrive in whatever circumstance.

March 20, 2021, 1:39 PM · Marie,

The real question you have to ask yourself is: "Can you see yourself in any profession other than making music for a living?"

If music is your "Calling" you will not even contemplate any alternate. If you can envision something else with music as a sideline/hobby then you really need to think about your future.

As I look back at my over 70 years I can see a lot of missed opportunities, doors not opened, paths not followed, as well as the discovery that I was really good at planning, scheduling, administrating, and landed me in what is called Supply Chain Management. I was one of the top professionals in that field, recruited by Bell Labs no less. Music was my hobby and now, in retirement, it is the mainstay of my daily life.

If music is your calling, then you can step up to the challenges required to face those challenges and stay the course. No profession is easy, there are challenges regardless of what you do.

March 20, 2021, 5:42 PM · Thank you so much for this discussion. I don't really have much to add, but it has given me a lot to think about as my son is just beginning to navigate the college application process (he's a sophomore).

One thing I wonder about -- when you asked them about levels, are they comparing you to ALL the students, or just the admitted freshmen? I think it is very important that when you enter as a freshman, you are near the bottom compared to the older and grad students. I don't think it would be terrible to be near the top of the freshman, as long as the older students are a higher level. But a lot can change in four years, so starting near the bottom isn't necessarily a bad thing either.

March 20, 2021, 11:24 PM · George wrote: "If music is your "Calling" you will not even contemplate any alternate. If you can envision something else with music as a sideline/hobby then you really need to think about your future."

I know this is often said but I think this is a dangerous line of thinking. Sometimes circumstances beyond your control intervene. In particular, musicians can suffer career-ending injuries. I have an acquaintance whose inexplicable auto-immune disorder left her deaf in her early 20s. I have several past chamber-music partners who suffered, during their college music studies, injuries which left them unable to play at a professional level. And the pandemic is driving many musicians to ponder what alternative careers exist. There should always be Plan B.

I do think that anyone who wants to seriously pursue musical education at the collegiate level should have a clear idea of the career struggles that are likely to lie ahead, and to have a clear idea of what the alternatives would be, so they can choose music clear-eyed. But keep in mind that a music degree is also fine for any other job that just requires a 4-year college degree.

Edited: March 21, 2021, 9:27 AM · wow, such amazing thoughts and advice from everyone! I wish I had time to address everyone comments, but I truly appreciate everyone's thoughts on this.

Susan Agrawal, I wish your son well, and it's great he is looking ahead, as you will not believe how fast time goes by! I started researching colleges around the same time as your son and I feel like I still need more time, and I already wish that I applied to some other schools not on my list and there schools that applied to that I probably shouldn't have. I found it hard to narrow down my list , but I wish I had. But thankfully I have lots of really good choices thanks to the research I did.

In regards to my question to the violin teachers about my skills level in relation to their program, I was thinking
about how I would fit in into the overall program, but I should have been more specific. And now, after much, it doesn't really matter to me that much! But regardless, when your son takes a trial lesson he should have audition level material ready to play ( I learned the hard way) and also have some question about the programs formulated in his mind or even written down. One professor spent at least an hour talking with me, asking me questions and encouraging me to ask questions. and it was very embarrassing, as I couldn't think of anything. I was kind overwhelmed and couldn't think of ANYTHING! Of course as soon as I left his studio, I thought at least 100 hundred things!

You probably all know this, but each schools audition requirements can vary quite a bit, as well as academic requirements of course. Also keep in mind COVID has changed everything! Maybe things will be back to normal when he applies, but things were constantly changing during the application process. It was crazy!

If I were to start again, I would have made a spread sheet of each perspective schools requirements ( auditions requirements, repertoire, essay prompts, test scores, GPA, application and prescreening deadlines- some were as early as October) There's a lot to keep up with!

I applied to 10 schools and 3 of them were probably "reach schools" the rest were more or less were "match" and "safety" schools. I got into all but one school, but I'm happy at least I made it past all prescreening.

And to George Wells, I see your point, but respectfully disagree. I am forming a Plan B. I think being a women posses certain challenges which I need to be ready for. I have a lot to say about this topic (being a women/Plan B) but I'll leave it at that for now. Again no disrespect to you, I absolutely see you point, and perhaps if I were a man, I wouldn't feel a need for a Plan B.

I think Christian Lesniak summed it up best as to being on top, middle of bottom of the skill spectrum:

"I imagine that the savviest students don't place too much stock in their temporary place in some artificial hierarchy, learn from as many of their fellow students as they can learn from, take as many diverse opportunities to play as they can balance with their other responsibilities, find a teacher that they really believe in, and work closely with the teacher to personalize their own learning.
Basically, the more open you can be, the more flexible, the more aware of your emotions, and the more focused on the bigger picture, the better you will be able to thrive in whatever circumstance."

March 21, 2021, 2:30 PM · Congratulations on your audition success. The prof that kindly took extra time to talk to you would probably be happy to answer your questions in email, and would probably be pleased if you contacted them!

I would also consider the location of the school itself and its community. Will there be opportunities to gig, or other part-time job opportunities? Is there enough diversity (whether economic or racial or whatever) that you won't feel out of place? Are the academics solid, with good profs, so that the non-music classes you take will be good? Are there other extracurriculars that will suit your interests? What's the social life like, and will that be compatible with your musical education?

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