Doing an exchange program as a musician

November 16, 2021, 1:52 PM · Hi everyone,

I was wondering if anyone had ever done or sent their child as an exchange student to europe (in highschool) and if so, how it would work being a musician and practicing during the time there, getting a teacher for a year, etc... If anyone has any information on how to do this or if its possible thanks.

Replies (9)

November 16, 2021, 4:41 PM · I did!

I spent a year living in Dresden with a host family when I was 16. I was sponsored by the Congress-Bundestag program, and the agency was YFU.

To be honest, it did probably slow my musical development, but since I wasn't on the conservatory track, the cost to my progress as a musician didn't outweigh the benefits to me as a person.

Musical pros (for me): I got to attend amazing performances; I got to learn music in a different language; I got to play with a youth orchestra that practiced in a palace! Also–because being an exchange student is so hard (you feel like an idiot, especially if you're a rank beginner in the language), it was nice to have a demonstrable skill and way of connecting that didn't depend on linguistic fluency.

Non-musical pros: profound, too many to enumerate.

Musical cons: You have zero control over where within a country you'll get to go, and some places have better access to music schools than others. Having to start with a new teacher and then return to the old teacher (if they'll have you) is obviously disruptive and if your kid is conservatory bound, that's a huge gamble. You'll miss out on music festivals for two summers in a row (because typically the year starts and ends in summer).

Some things to consider:
–how serious is your child about studying music? being an exchange student is such a life-altering experience and colleges LOVE it. So if your kid is a good student, serious about music but not conservatory-bound, it's probably a net positive.

Is your kid's current teaching set-up optimal? I had mostly given up the idea of majoring in music by the time I went to Germany, but I had also just started working with a great teacher who was in the middle of rehabilitating my technique. I wish I hadn't missed a year of study with her, and adapting to the new German teacher (very formal/strict/not super encouraging) took a while. If, on the other hand, I'd been at a point where I needed to change teachers anyway, it wouldn't have been so disruptive.

–would your child go as a junior (like me), a senior, or in a post-high school gap year? The first option disrupts study with an existing teacher; the latter two merely shorten the study with the teacher (assuming that your kid is going to college/conservatory and would therefore have switched teachers anyway).

–location matters, and it's a total gamble. Of course, depending on which exchange org and country you choose, they tend to *try* to match you with a host family that will accommodate/encourage your interests. I got so lucky: I was sent to a city with a rich musical heritage and had a piano in my bedroom. My host mother quickly found a local music school and got me enrolled, and she also figured out a local youth orchestra for me. But I knew other musicians in my program who got sent to much smaller towns without those sorts of abundant resources. And you don't typically get matched until after you've committed, so you can't easily evaluate how much you like your host family/location and then change your mind (without losing $$).

In general, a lot of European countries are great for classical music. Sweden has an amazing choral tradition. Germany and Austria are temples to the myriad legendary composers and take their arts spending very seriously. It seemed more normative for the average German family to appreciate classical music, even if they weren't themselves musicians. I'm sure there are locations where the opportunities wouldn't be as easy to find but you do get to choose your country destination.

Finally, if you're really keen to control more aspects of the experience, you might be able to arrange your own exchange year with a family you already know, or with friends of friends. We did this for a couple of girls from my Dresden year–they'd never have afforded the AFS or YFU experience in the US, but my mother was our high school German teacher so she handily found host families from among her students and organized the experience. Of course there are downsides to this–it doesn't come with insurance; you don't get as much support if they experience goes sour; etc. But if your kid is really serious about music and really wants to study in, say, Berlin (as opposed to a nice village an hour outside of Stuttgart), this might be an approach to consider.

Edited: November 16, 2021, 5:35 PM · +1 to Katie. Wow, amazing reply. I would only add that if music is THE central part of the child's life and if they are keen on focusing on music as a vocation, then stuff like private teacher, orchestra opportunity, etc., should be lined up before deciding where to go -- if that is even possible. Or it should be pretty darn clear that many realistic options exist where the student will land.
November 16, 2021, 6:59 PM · @Paul, in my case, lining anything up ahead of time would've been impossible, as I wasn't even assigned a permanent host family until I'd already been in Germany for several weeks. (They may have changed this in the multi-decade interim.)

I forgot to address the question about practice. This one is easier to manage–you just need to make it crystal clear as part of your profile that having private space for daily practice is essential. This might rule out families in very small shared living spaces, perhaps, or families who don't like hearing scales. In my case, I practiced in the attic of our 6-story apartment building (because I shared a bedroom with my host sister and didn't want to disrupt her homework). It was cold at times. :-) But it worked.

November 17, 2021, 8:35 AM · A friend of mine did an exchange as part of her degree. She thoroughly enjoyed it, although her gripe was that the university she attended for a year in Germany didn't foxus on performance so much, so just be wary of that if going through a school or something
Edited: November 17, 2021, 11:47 AM · Nice idea.
Obvs language students do an exchange year. It would be great for musicians to do one too. And in addition some music courses might require a second language.
November 17, 2021, 12:41 PM · Thanks Katie for the detailed reply! It seems like it would be very difficult if wanting to stay on the conservatory track which is what I want to do. If I do manage to make it possible, do you have any countries that you would recommend besides Germany?
November 19, 2021, 11:07 AM · Hi Lizaveta, I wish I could help with your question about countries other than Germany but I don't know enough. My husband went to Sweden and had an amazing experience there as well–but he wasn't as focused on music as I was.

Honestly, choosing an exchange year is a tradeoff for any high school student who is on a super-serious extracurricular path (e.g. playing soccer at the D1/D2 college recruitment level). German students who come to the US are typically required to do an extra year of high school when they return, so it just delays college for a year. That's one possibility you could explore. Also I really doubt you'd be placed in a situation where you couldn't get *any* instruction or reliably be able to practice. A whole bunch of teachers also learned how to teach online this year, and even while that's suboptimal, distance is no longer the barrier it once was.

That said...(editorializing for a moment)

If you're a super advanced violinist already competitive for top conservatories, it's hard to imagine that being a bit sidetracked for one year could seriously derail you. But if you're on the knife's edge of making it into conservatory–such that a year of uncertain availability of a really good teacher might be a problem––then a healthy dose of perspective and the learning afforded by such a year would probably be a *good* thing.

(I say this because I've just seen a Colburn graduate–one who landed their dream job–hustling for babysitting jobs on Facebook to make ends meet. From the outside, starting a career in classical music looks like a tough row to hoe even for the truly outstanding.)


I also want to push back on the notion that doing an exchange year during college is the same thing. It's not. You may gain language skills, may even (if you live with a host family, but I'm not sure how typical that would be) get a good sense of the culture––but you'd probably be living among students, many of them expats. You might even be taking courses in English.

The comparative lack of control over your daily life as a high school exchange student is precisely what makes the experience so profound: you are welcomed into a family and expected to adapt (even as they also learn from and adapt to you). You are welcomed into a school and expected to take the same classes that everyone else is taking, even if your language skills are rudimentary. (That one was brutal for me, because I was used to being an excellent student who particularly excelled in humanities and, well, that didn't happen in Germany. Suddenly MATH was my best subject!)

On the flip side, depending on where you go and where you're from, you also might get a lot of freedoms that are atypical for American teens (at least the ones that don't grow up in major coastal cities). For example, I used streetcars to get everywhere. I got to travel via overnight bus to Paris for New Year's Eve with my boyfriend (and no chaperone, which would have NEVER flown with my parents in North Carolina). We also went to Prague on an overnight train trip, during which we had most of our money stolen. Figuring out how to navigate around the city and find lodging and food and buy return tickets for our remaining 25 DM or whatever it was that we had was...priceless.

I should also add that if I'd been laser-focused on music in Germany, I probably would have improved more. But I wasn't. In my boring hometown, music was all-consuming, and I assumed it would always be so. But in Dresden there were so many interesting opportunities, and only so much time in a day. I'm glad I figured that out when I did.

November 20, 2021, 10:45 AM · Hi, I did it the other way round: Coming from Germany, spending a high school year in Portland, OR, almost 30 years, ago.

My parents knew someone from there, and he contacted the local youth orchestra for me to play in. They also found a host family, there, the daughter being member of the orchestra, too.
This private search was only one part of the process, though. We then went to the exchange organization AFS, in order to take care of all the legal stuff. As a result, I was a “normal” exchange student with all options to go to AFS in case of any problems (which didn’t occur), but without the surprise factor of not knowing where to go.

Once there, my host family had already looked for some recommendations for private violin and piano teachers. I tried them out and chose the ones I liked most.

I don’t see why this shouldn’t work the other way round, and some decades, later.

The main issue is to find a good teacher. There are music schools, in Germany, but in most cases, lessons aren’t as good as with private teachers. There are many professional orchestras, in Germany, and lots of the players teach. Besides that, there are the music universities (“Musikhochschulen”). Some of the professors teach high school students, too, on a private level.
They also offer a program for very gifted younger ones to enter these professional schools, officially, but you would probably have to audition, and it might be hard to be there, on audition day, if this in early summer, and your plan would be to start in late summer. The key word here is “Jungstudent”. You can browse any “Musikhochschule”, and look for the current conditions for “Jungstudent”.

Normally, it should be possible to somehow organize this, and then look for these exchange programs to help you organize the rest.

My cousin, BTW, spend a high school year in the US, too. He did it the normal way and was placed somewhere rural, hundreds of miles away from any town. As far as I know, this basically meant taking a break from ambitious violin lessons. Later, he still became a professional orchestra player.
The experience had such a great impact on me that I regard it as one of the most important things I ever did, in my life. I would recommend this to everyone, even if it means a lower priority for the instrument. It is always possible to get back on the fast track, later.

Anyway, the good thing about Germany is that there is no place from where it wouldn’t be possible to go to a nearby town, on a frequent level, to take lessons. If you have the option to say you need a larger town close to your family, in order to take lessons, this should solve all of your concerns. Once you know where you go, you look for the local orchestra and/or Musikhochschule, in order to look for further advice.

November 21, 2021, 9:32 PM · thanks katie and Emily for all your helpful input!


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