Advice for a parent?

April 3, 2021, 11:14 AM · It's college decision time! My daughter has been accepted to Jacobs, UMichigan and Oberlin (violin performance at each) and I'm really excited for her, as I don't think she can go wrong with any of those options. My ask the audience question is, do you have any tips for a parent during this process? She's a super sharp kid and is doing all the homework about studios and who fits for her. But COVID meant we never got to visit any of these places in-person. I'm pretty hands off about this stuff (with the exception of opening the checkbook to pay). I just figured I'd ask the group if they have any suggestions for me from the parent's perspective.

Replies (34)

April 3, 2021, 11:23 AM · Maybe this would help your question: Is there something in particular that she is really concerned or anxious about? Is there some part of the process she isn't understanding or wants to know more about?
April 3, 2021, 11:38 AM · my personal viewpoint is to find a good balance of giving her the benefit of your experience, wisdom, and judgment in terms of making life decisions for valid reasons, but avoid micromanaging and substituting your opinions for hers. Sounds like you don't have issues with the latter, so just try to keep informed and have good conversations with her about the pros and cons of each institution for her, and say something if you're concerned about the logic or long-term effects of her logic, or compliment her if it all sounds beneficial and well-thought out. Writing the check gives you a major right to know what you're writing it for!
April 3, 2021, 12:46 PM · My advice is: Listen to everything Mary Ellen has to say about this if she replies!
Edited: April 3, 2021, 12:55 PM · I think Mary Ellen is the one who had seen the inside of this.

In a general way, I'd note that you have listed three excellent music schools that are also linked to good academic institutions. If that was a deliberate sorting, you might want to think about how that will play out.

Many universities make it difficult to jump between divisions for elective courses or additional degrees. [Harvard, for example.] Others, like Yale, encourage it. The differences are often more starkly laid out when you're going between professional schools and academic departments.

If none of that matters, than it is more about the music degree structure, the studio, and-- perhaps-- how realistic each place is about enhancing career opportunities that are relevant to your daughter's interests and talents. I suspect everyone will be offering a different analysis and solution to that last problem.


Edited: April 3, 2021, 2:53 PM · Since I have been summoned......LOL

The obvious first question is if there is a financial difference among the institutions. For many students that is where the decision is made, full stop.

If the differences in cost are negligible or irrelevant, then I have some questions in no particular order. The order of importance is to be determined by the student, not by anybody else.

Which teacher do I feel will best suit me? (if she hasn’t been able to take any sample lessons, she might Google each teacher’s name and see what sorts of comments there are though those should be taken with a grain of salt as always)

Which appeals more, a large public university or a small college? If the latter, then the choice is obvious.

How important are non-music academics? I think Oberlin has the edge here, since all classes are professor taught and large lecture classes are rare. There is also the double degree program at Oberlin. Jacobs school does have a degree option that allows for a non-music field of study in addition, but it is not quite the same as the double degree. I don’t know very much about the University of Michigan, sorry.

The Jacobs school has a fabulous opera program and the orchestras take it in turn to play for the opera, and also the annual Nutcracker. The orchestra at Oberlin is excellent but there is less variety, though they do opera there as well.

In order of prestige, these are all very very good schools, but I would rank them Jacobs, Oberlin, Michigan.....but they are so close together that there is little to choose from.

Hopefully Michigan takes better care of their female students than they did not so long ago, when they were still protecting Stephen Shipps. He’s gone now. And honestly I don’t think there is any top music school with completely clean hands if you go far enough into the past.

At the end of the day, I think your daughter should ask herself these questions and then follow her heart. Best wishes to her!

April 3, 2021, 3:44 PM · Greetings,
one of the points Mary Ellen made tends to get less attention, but the actual building and environment can be a huge factor in making this decisions.
April 3, 2021, 4:22 PM · Thank you all for taking the time to respond and for sharing your wisdom! You have helped ease the mind of an anxious dad who feels like he's about to cosign for a very expensive car we've never driven.
April 3, 2021, 4:46 PM · I don't know much about music college, but it seems to me that it's important not only to get an education as a violinist, but also as a musician. So the other courses need to be taught well too. But I wouldn't have any idea how to gauge that among the three programs.
April 3, 2021, 5:59 PM · David,
your point is well taken but the place is still a major ffactor. I had to choose between RCM and guildhall many years ago. Whereas the latter was modern high tech and cold, at RCM I could spend lunchtime sitting in Hyde park having a picnic or go to a concert in the Albert Hall. It makes a big difference.
April 3, 2021, 5:59 PM · David,
your point is well taken but the place is still a major ffactor. I had to choose between RCM and guildhall many years ago. Whereas the latter was modern high tech and cold, at RCM I could spend lunchtime sitting in Hyde park having a picnic or go to a concert in the Albert Hall. It makes a big difference.
Edited: April 3, 2021, 6:28 PM · Mood regulation can be important for learning. If you hate being in the main building, not much else will matter for those four years.
Edited: April 3, 2021, 8:29 PM · Take Mary Ellen's advice.

The feel of the town and the campus makes a big difference, but this is hard to tell without visiting. All three schools are Midwestern-ish, in terms of weather, but the layout of the campus can make a difference in terms of how much freedom one has in winter. The location of campus housing, the availability of convenient practice rooms, the safety of the campus late at night, and the quality of the food can all make a difference in the day to day aspects of the college experience.

In terms of academics, the clear ranking would be Oberlin > Michigan > Indiana -- but Michigan has the huge advantage in engineering and in undergrad business. Even if there's little interest in the academic side, it's important as a possible backup plan -- for instance, in the event of an unexpected major injury.

April 4, 2021, 12:38 AM · I worked for a an M.D. Pathologist. His BA was in music at Oberlin, with the pre-med. courses added on. such things are possible.
Edited: April 4, 2021, 4:04 AM · I can’t speak to the musical aspect, but I imagine there’s a huge difference between student life at a small town LAC where the two populations, the conservatory students and very intellectual/liberal students, together dominate the small campus, and large flagship Us in larger college towns where the music school students are just a small part of the whole and the population runs the gamut from intellectual/liberal towards the more conservative/preppy/fratty type (realising those are large generalisations and no students fit neatly into this imagined dichotomy).

At Oberlin, you need to fit with the predominant vibe to feel happy. At UMich and Jacobs, you have options. I‘d have her choose between Oberlin and flagship U first, and if it’s flagship U, I’m sure there must be appreciable differences between music schools to help choose.

Edited: April 4, 2021, 7:29 AM · For what it’s worth, the Oberlin conservatory vibe is distinct from that of the College. I fit pretty well into the former, not very well at all into the latter, when I was there. But it does have a distinct flavor and it is not for everyone.

Indiana academics are solid. The business school is ranked very high nationally.

April 4, 2021, 9:03 AM · I'm two years behind you on this journey, so I can't really share expertise. However, I've been to all three places at various times and have a good sense of kind of how they feel, and my son has worked with a number of the teachers in either summer programs or masterclasses.

Assuming you are in an equal financial position to attend any of the three schools, I would next focus on which studio your daughter has been invited to. At Indiana there are several good ones; at the other two schools I would say there are only one or two really top studios. My son has worked with a number of the teachers; if you want to contact me privately I can give you his feedback.

The three schools definitely feel very different. Indiana is larger and feels large. There are more students and studios, which often means more opportunities, but it also means that there are more students clamoring for the better opportunities. Overall, Oberlin and Michigan feel much smaller and have a more communal nurturing vibe. (Michigan is actually huge but the music school feels small.) Oberlin doesn't have grad students, which can be a really good thing since undergrads get leadership opportunities, but it also means that you don't have more advanced students to look up to. My son has done the summer program at Michigan and I can assure you there are no longer any issues with predatory teachers -- everything is extremely tightly regulated in that regard. They've made a huge effort to improve it.

Edited: April 4, 2021, 1:19 PM · Lydia wrote (about Oberlin) "Even if there's little interest in the academic side, it's important as a possible backup plan -- for instance, in the event of an unexpected major injury."

I agree, but I would add that if you are in that situation, particularly early on in your degree program, then everything should be on the table including a transfer to the flagship public university in your own state, where your academic needs can likely be met at a small fraction of the cost. If you move from the conservatoire to the college at Oberlin and join a different program, you're going to be making mostly new friends anyway.

Edit to say that I thought Susan's comments about Michigan vs Indiana were interesting -- not what I would have guessed based on general knowledge of the two schools. I grew up about 45 minutes' drive from University of Michigan and I took jazz piano lessons in Ann Arbor for a couple of years. Everyone in the area talks about the music school there, so I assumed it would be enormous.

April 4, 2021, 4:14 PM · At the Jacobs School, performance majors take their lessons from the faculty members. Any instruction from the graduate assistants is in addition to, not instead of, faculty instruction.

At Oberlin also, all lessons are with faculty. There are no graduate assistants.

April 5, 2021, 1:15 AM · Sounds like Michigan is the can’t go wrong option.

Intimate music school for when you need that. The big U all around so you can never feel stifled, excellent academics and instant name recognition in all walks of life (just in case music doesn’t remain hers). Everyone seems to love the town (I’ve never been).

No if it were instate, too, that would be a no brainer...

April 5, 2021, 10:37 AM · With respect, only the OP’s daughter is qualified to determine which school feels right to her. No school is the right school for everybody.
April 5, 2021, 10:55 AM · One more x factor to consider: how did the three schools handle COVID-19, and what might that indicate about potential future issues? We're probably going to be in much better shape next year but it's still a bit of a race between the new variants and vaccine availability/acceptance. If I were paying an institution $$$$ to take care of my kid, I'd want to know what their contingency plans were around housing etc., and I'd look to see how the leadership handled things over the past two years. Were they flexible? adaptive? did they incorporate new information (e.g. about aerosol transmission) into their planning, or are they still stuck on early pandemic hygiene theater? Did the leadership have their priorities straight? What percentage of their faculty/students/surrounding area have been vaccinated at this point? How good/accessible are student health care services? Etc.

(Granted, this is secondary or even tertiary to the points Mary Ellen and others have made. But if you're still on the fence, this is where I'd look.)

Edited: April 5, 2021, 11:14 AM · One thing that I think bears emphasizing is that Oberlin doesn't have grad students - in my opinion, that's positive because it means that all the faculty will be focused on teaching at a level appropriate to undergrads (i.e. improving musical and technical skills) rather than grad students (i.e. getting a job). That said, probably the single most important factor is going to be how well your daughter works with her teacher - can she have trial lessons with them, even over zoom? I also second asking the teacher to put her in touch with some of their current students - she can learn a lot about the atmosphere of the school, how serious people are, etc from that. A lot of it is really about fit, and she may have an idea on a subconscious level - a gut feel - that might differ from the best choice "on paper" - I'd go with the gut.

I just wanted to address this really quickly: "My son has done the summer program at Michigan and I can assure you there are no longer any issues with predatory teachers -- everything is extremely tightly regulated in that regard."

This strikes me as fairly naive - there is no guarantee that anyone will or won't have problems at any of these schools - sexual harassment and assault can happen anywhere. I doubt Michigan's regulations are as airtight during the semester as they are during a summer program for underaged kids, either, and I highly doubt they've gotten rid of all predatory teachers. That said, I honestly don't think one or the other of these schools is going to be better or worse in that regard - I think the most important, or maybe only thing any parent can do is instill a sense in their child of what behavior is and is not okay and give them the tools, support, courage to let someone know when those lines are crossed. (also, record your lessons! and watch them back later! yes it could provide the sense of there being a witness but also it's an incredibly powerful learning tool - you don't have to waste time in lessons writing down what the teacher is asking for and also you can hear for yourself what they're responding to)

April 5, 2021, 11:24 AM · While I have never been a student at either Oberlin or U of M, I have done some guest teaching at Oberlin, and also happen to live in the town where the U Of M main campus is located.

If it should matter to either you or your daughter, one can walk to just about any place on the Oberlin campus in about five minutes. U of M, not even close.

The current Oberlin College teaching contract is also very strict about teachers and students having relationships which are anything other than strictly professional. I have never taught at U of M, so I don't know what their current standards are, but I reckon that these would be available online.

April 5, 2021, 11:32 AM · To Irene's point: Protecting children is in large part a matter of physical environment -- trying to ensure that children are not in a position to be molested, and that children feel safe reporting any such behavior.

But protecting undergrads (or grad students) is not so much a matter of preventing undetected unwanted touching. It's about dealing with seemingly fully consensual relationships between adults that are nevertheless tainted by a power differential.

Pandemic handling can, in a way, be used as a proxy for the quality of a school's administration.

April 5, 2021, 1:04 PM · I can't speak to Michigan at all, but both Oberlin and Indiana have been exemplary in their pandemic handling.
Edited: April 5, 2021, 1:39 PM · David's point about community size is not trivial, along with Mary Ellen's reminder about personal preferences being hard to predict. My daughter looked at Oberlin for the college, and while there is a town of sorts, it is tiny. Cleveland is not too far away by car, but it is not everyone's first choice of fun undergraduate city. She did apply to other small, non-urban places, but Oberlin really jumped out as a place that did not feel right for her.

On the other hand, Michigan and Indiana (and other places their size) were never really on the agenda. More for the scale of the undergraduate classes than the actual cities they were in.

April 5, 2021, 3:08 PM · I wouldn't expect Oberlin to be a first choice for a kid whose first priority is wild partying, since in Oberlin, even the car bumpers stop rusting after midnight.

In some ways, Oberlin has the advantages of Interlochen, being out in the middle of nowhere, so a kid doesn't need to make the difficult choice between going to a stripper bar, and practicing.

Edited: April 5, 2021, 3:29 PM · “Even the car bumpers stop rusting after midnight “ LOL very true.

Someone mentioned Cleveland as the closest nearby city to Oberlin; that is true, but it might as well be New York City for all the good it does Oberlin students. Oberlin makes it very difficult for students to have cars, and impossible for first year students to do so. There is a strong culture of students having bicycles however.

While Indiana University as a whole has a social life heavily influenced by Greek organizations and full of parties, the Jacobs School has its own social atmosphere which is much less party-oriented. I would expect Michigan to be similar.

Edited: April 5, 2021, 3:51 PM · I agree with David. I went to a small college in Michigan for my undergraduate degree (Hope College) and it was VERY nice to NOT be spending a lot of time just getting around, and to never really need a car. (Holland, Michigan is not exactly Las Vegas, either. Holland is where Betsy DeVos is from, so that should tell you something about the general atmosphere.)

When I was a postdoc at Northwestern the grad students were always recruited heavily on the idea that Chicago is just a train ride away and there's so much to do. Like you're going to have time or money for any of it.

In a big college town like Ann Arbor or Bloomington, there will be kids going to wild parties, and there will be kids doing other more wholesome stuff together. It's not really about the town, it's about who you are as a student. You can buy liquor and weed anywhere.

April 5, 2021, 6:22 PM · What does your daughter have to say about this? Does she have one she'd like to attend? Splitting hairs about schools is more he-said-she-said than anything else. Is there one school she feels most excited about attending? If so, that's the one. Her life, her choice.
April 5, 2021, 10:21 PM · Lot of valuable insight from folks with first-hand knowledge. Thank you! Update: Looks like she’ll have a chance to visit after all. We are both fully vaccinated now and decided we will make the road trip to see Michigan and Oberlin, walk around a little, kick the tires and try to get a sense of the vibe. She won’t be able to tour the actual spaces but can at least get a sense of the campuses. It has come down to those two for many of the reasons discussed: best fit and feel for the teachers (even if it has been only virtual), music and academic opportunities and the total size of the programs. I think she's leaning toward Michigan. I guess the allure of the big university college town for an 18-year old is a thing. Who knew? Though she says Oberlin is still very much in the running, which makes her practical dad pretty happy.
April 6, 2021, 2:31 PM · So many wonderful ideas have already been shared. Here are my "two-cents" as a parent who has gone through this twice in the past four years.

My daughter is graduating from Oberlin in clarinet performance next month. She has had an amazing experience. She truly knows her professors as they are mentors for her. Before the pandemic, she would often go to Cleveland to hear the symphony. There are many students who make this trek. Even though she does not have a car, there was always a ride and often a school sponsored bus. For her, getting to hear a world-class orchestra on a routine basis was one of the great advantages of Oberlin.

My son is a violin performance major at NEC.

We ultimately allowed our kids to make the best decision for them. We encouraged, but they ultimately chose the school for them. The only non negotiable items were:

1. Don't go into debt. In our opinion (both parents are musicians), you should never go into debt for a performance degree. As harsh as this sounds, if you don't play well enough for a major scholarship, your chance for a performance job is very small.
2. Don't be the top player at your school. This is less likely to be the case at a school where there are graduate students. You need someone to look up to and challenge you.
3. Dream about what you want to do next (grad school, audition for orchestra jobs, etc). Be bold and ask your potential studio teacher what his/her track record is in placing students in strong grad schools and/or orchestras. While there are always outliers, where students go after four years of undergrad is important in their development.

All the best to your family. This is an exciting time.

Edited: April 6, 2021, 7:12 PM · "She won’t be able to tour the actual spaces." I'd be surprised if the building doors are locked on weekdays. Performance spaces are likely kept locked when not in use, though, so you'd need a tour guide to get into those. I teach chemistry at Virginia Tech. During tour season it's not uncommon to see a parent and teenager in the lobby of my building just having a look-see. I usually ask where they're from, and if there's something special they want to see.

Regarding Oberlin's proximity to Cleveland: The University of Michigan is just as proximate to Orchestra Hall in midtown Detroit (about a 45-minute drive). The Art Institute is right there too, just up a few blocks. That's one nice thing about Detroit is all that stuff is basically in one place.

Also if you go to University of Michigan, get a US Passport. That way you can go to Canada, which is less than an hour away also. The tunnel to Canada is about 10 minutes from Orchestra Hall. Windsor, Ontario has a lovely Chinatown.

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